ToP of the BoPs

Over the past four decades the global economy has largely experienced prolonged imbalances, with countries running large current account deficits in symbiotic relationships with those running large surpluses. In our recent HindeSight Investor Letter – Top of the BoPs we revisit our long held belief that the current monetary order as defined by a constellation of exchange rate arrangements between the major global currencies, and which maintained these imbalances artificially, has led to excessive global liquidity and credit creation. This in turn drove a litany of asset price bubbles.

The bursting of these asset bubbles has continued in a series these past two decades, each one’s demise leading to more disruptive policy responses which have only succeeded in igniting yet more bubbles, only for those too to fail.

Finally in 2008 we witnessed the finale of decades of credit creation, rising in what appeared to be a crescendo of credit excess and widespread asset booms. We saw this event as the death throes of an unstable monetary regime, only then to see an unprecedented global reaction by policymakers in a coordinated fashion to keep the global system alive. For a moment here today, there are those who dare to believe they have succeeded, with rising equity markets a testimony to a reviving global economy. Nothing could be further from reality.

We stand by our assessment that the disproportionate reaction of central bankers and policymakers alike has merely succeeded in compounding and exacerbating the error of this highly imbalanced monetary system. Recent events in emerging countries are a manifestation of the continuing unravelling of our monetary order.

In another recent HindeSight letter we described how the world is faced with a binary situation of global deflation or hyperinflation. We believe the odds have tilted firmly towards deflation. It would appear the unwinding of the global imbalances that led to the 2008 crisis is continuing unabashed, irrespective of the recent monetary excess used to abate them.

Large current account deficits led to unsustainable debt creation and as a consequence the trade deficit countries were the first to experience a severe financial crisis, but now on the other side of the equation the surplus countries are experiencing their reaction to the crisis. For balance of payments have two components to the equation both the financiers and the borrowers, so by definition changes in savings and investments in one such country has a profound impact on those of another.

The recent instability in emerging market economies and especially China is a direct consequence of these global imbalances which became stymied briefly by global bail-outs only to have been left in a more vulnerable economic position. The deleveraging process which began in 2008 has been a slow burner but is likely now in full swing. The deflationary risks are very high.

Top of the Pops was a legendary British music chart television show which began weekly broadcasts on the BBC in 1964, and finally wound down its music decks in July 2006. The show comprised performances from leading selling music artists and always culminated with an airing of the number one best selling single of the week, after a rundown of the top 30 singles. So popular was the show that it became a major UK export franchise, with its iconic logo emblazoned over TV screens globally.

Like all great cultural institutions the music was both a representation and manifestation of its ages, shaping popular culture and generations alike. No more emblematic of its age were the Punk rock bands of the 70s, both here in the UK and the US; the ‘Sex Pistols’ and ‘The Clash’, the UK vanguard, and across the Atlantic the ‘Television’ and the ‘Ramones’. Hard-edged, shouted vocals amongst a cacophony of relentless drumming, heavy bass and repetitive electric guitar chords, they bore witness to an anti-establishment movement seemingly disenfranchised with the economic misery of the time.

‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ by the Ramones exemplified the mood of the era, its title inspiration coming from the German World War II tactic, blitzkrieg, which literally means ‘lightning war’. Drawing our own inspiration from Blitzkrieg Bop we echo their rally cry – ‘Hey! Ho! Let’s go’ as we re-delve into the area of global imbalances which seems to have taken a back-seat in the debate on the continuing crisis these past few years. We will observe those countries with vulnerable balance of payments in our very own version of Top of the Pops, Top of the BoPs (Balance of Payments) if you will, to see which are exhibiting financial and trade stresses.

We have found balance of payment imbalances to be a superb leading indicator of economic stress, both in the emerging and developed markets, by which we could make investment and trading decisions. They are the thermometer by which we can first observe the very real signs of a monetary system in turmoil. In keeping with our musical theme, we wanted to make reference to another iconic UK show, but this time that of BBC radio and not TV; it’s called Desert Island Discs.

Desert Island Discs marginally pre-dates the auspicious events of the Bretton Woods conference of 1944, when allied nations gathered in New Hampshire to formulate the terms of an agreement on how to regulate the international monetary system, after the likely conclusion of World War II. The show began in 1942 and endures today, each week inviting a distinguished guest to envisage that they are a castaway on a desert island; who having chosen eight pieces of music, a book and a luxury item to take with them to the island are then asked to review their life in reference to excerpts of these choices. 

Although not quite existing as long as the show (according to the Telegraph it’s the longest running radio show in the UK), if we at Hinde Capital were to be castaway on a desert island, in our own version of the game Desert Island Economic Discs* – the ten macroeconomic ‘records’ we would take with us as an excerpt to a life, in this case a country, would be: 

1. Current account balance as a % of GDP (and commensurate capital account)
2. Debt as % of GDP (Debt composition as % of GDP)
3. Current account balance as a % of Investment
4. Real Effective Exchange Rate
5. Stock Prices
6. Exports
7. M2/ reserves/ Domestic Credit
8. Output
9. Short-term capital inflows/GDP
10. Real interest rate on bank deposits

The countries which make our Top of the BoPs, are mainly those of the Emerging Markets. These countries are all exhibiting the hallmarks of a classic balance of payments (BoPs) crisis which have built up over many decades.

 

These large and persistent trade imbalances have been caused by distortions in financial, industrial, and trade policies. These distortions have prevented adjustments for many years, but large imbalances ultimately are unsustainable because the capital flows that finance the trade imbalances can be reversed only with a reversal of trade imbalances. Eventually these imbalances will adjust in spite of policy and institutional constraints, but in this case the adjustment is often violent and can come in the form of a financial crisis.

A country that appears peaceful and stable may encounter unexpected crises. There are structural problems in China’s economy which cause unsteady, unbalanced and uncoordinated and unsustainable development

Premier Wen Jiabao (2007) 

The global crisis is a financial crisis driven primarily by global trade and capital imbalances. This is the macro theme we have pursued these past 7 years. We believe the global crisis is in full swing again and asset prices are in danger of falling globally. Money is less effective at catching the falling knife. 

Emerging market countries are exhibiting the signs of crisis-like price action associated with deteriorating balance of payment balances, even though many have built up significant foreign exchange reserves.

Investors and policymakers do not believe this is the beginning of a major EM contagion crisis. They are lulling themselves into a false sense of security. They see the EM market tremors, and do not fear a re-run of the EM crises of old. They are right. This is not (just) going to be an EM crisis. Recent events portend a far more serious crisis is at hand; the unravelling of our global monetary system.

The crux – the EM tremors are really signifying the demise of the credit bubble that began bursting in 2008. This is not the start of the EM crisis. It is the beginning of the end of a credit bubble collapse that began in 2008.

We have witnessed unprecedented global fiscal and monetary stimulus (QE) which was used to arrest a global credit deflation. This led to the development of a truly global bond bubble. As debt levels rose in the developed countries and monetary stimulus was exported (de facto QE) to EM countries it underpinned growth with excess credit. 

Since 2003 EM countries have seen US$7 trillion of inflows into their countries and a commensurate appreciation in their currencies; ones that they have struggled to control. These are not just strong flows rather they are astronomical in size and have been achieved by this excessively loose and unconventional monetary policy.

The paradox of such inflows strengthening currency rates is that they have succeeded in stultifying EM export-led growth, despite this supply of credit. The commodity exporters amongst them have been left doubly reeling by the confluence of higher exchange rates and lower demand from a stagnating global economy and in particular China. They have all seen their commodity revenues fall precipitously. 

In a re-run of the 1990s the appreciation of the dollar against a rapidly depreciating yen has begun to drag USD Asia higher. This was the trigger for the Asian Tiger currency crisis in 1997. This has been a final nail in the coffin of Sino imperialism, as their export competitiveness is lost too.

In the 1980s it was a hike by the US Fed that triggered the LatAm crisis. Today, the mere whisper of tighter monetary conditions in the US, vis-a-vis a tapering of QE has led to higher bond rates globally. Note tapering is not the same as hiking interest rates.

The consequences of multiple rounds of QE have heightened global risks as it has both exacerbated ‘currency competition’ and hot capital flows into countries seeking desperately for a return both from income and capital growth. This has created major distortions in term rates, equity and bond values, driving them artificially high in price.

These distortions have created risks far greater than the fragilities of EM countries of yesterday years. The system of credit creation has produced unstable growth underpinned with collateral which is both mobile and suspect in its integrity.

Investors have nowhere to turn, emerging market countries growth is faltering in response to export disadvantages brought about by rampant G10 currency devaluations. China is finally succumbing to its side of the global imbalance excesses. First it was the deficit nations now it’s the turn of the creditor nations to falter, primarily China.

Trade flow reversals are leading to massive capital outflows out of EMs and the question remains: will the central banks of these countries sell their FX reserves, UST- bonds and euro government bonds (bunds) to finance this surge in outflows?

It is not clear that renewed global central bank liquidity provision will even stabilise a situation we see as growing dire by the day. China is the driver. All eyes on China.

1 Comment

  • Paul Marks says:

    Yes – all eyes on China.

    If China does run into serious trouble then the last hope of the global credit bubble economy is gone.

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