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Economics

“We hate you guys but there is nothing much we can do”

“Except for US Treasuries, what can you hold ? US Treasuries are the safe haven. For everyone, including China, it is the only option.. Once you [Americans] start issuing $1 trillion – $2 trillion.. we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys but there is nothing much we can do.”

–       Luo Ping, official at the China Banking Regulatory Commission, addressing an audience in New York in early 2009.
“This is a big change and it cannot happen too quickly, but we want to use our reserves more constructively by investing in development projects around the world rather than just reflexively buying US Treasuries. In any case, we usually lose money on Treasuries, so we need to find ways to improve our return on investment.”

–       Unnamed senior Chinese official, cited in an FT article, ‘Turning away from the dollar’, 10th December 2014.

 

The Commentary will shortly be off for its winter break. We wish all clients and readers a merry Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year. See you in 2015.

“Mutually assured destruction” was a doctrine that rose to prominence during the Cold War, when the US and the USSR faced each other with nuclear arsenals so populous that they ensured that any nuclear exchange between the two great military powers would quickly lead to mutual overkill in the most literal sense. Notwithstanding the newly dismal relations between the US and Russia, “mutually assured destruction” now best describes the uneasy stand-off between an increasingly indebted US government and an increasingly monetarily frustrated China, with several trillion dollars’ worth of foreign exchange reserves looking, it would now appear, for a more productive home than US Treasury bonds of questionable inherent value. Until now, the Chinese have had little choice where to park their trillions, because only markets like the US Treasury market (and to a certain extent, gold) have been deep and liquid enough to accommodate their reserves.

The FT article, by James Kynge and Josh Noble, points to three related policy developments on the part of the Chinese authorities:

1)    China’s appetite for US Treasury bonds is on the wane;

2)    China is ramping up its overseas development programme for both financial and geopolitical reasons;

3)    The promotion of the renminbi as a global currency “is gradually liberating Beijing from the dollar zone”.

The US has long enjoyed what Giscard d’Estaing called the “exorbitant privilege” of issuing a currency that happens to be the global reserve currency. The FT article would seem to suggest that the days of exorbitant privilege may be coming to an end – to be replaced, in time, with a bi-polar reserve currency world incorporating both the US dollar and the renminbi. (The euro might be involved, if that demonstrably dysfunctional currency bloc lasts long enough.) Here’s a quiz we often wheel out for prospective clients:

1)    Which country is the world’s largest sovereign miner of gold ?

2)    Which country doesn’t allow an ounce of that gold to be exported ?

3)    Which country has advised its citizenry to purchase gold ?

Three questions. One answer. In each case: China. Is it plausible that, at some point yet to be determined, a (largely gold-backed) renminbi will either dethrone the US dollar or co-exist alongside it in a new global currency regime ? We think the answer is yes, on both counts.

Meanwhile the US appears to be doing everything in its power to hasten the relative decline of its own currency. There is a new ‘big figure’ to account for the size of the US national debt, which now stands at some $18 trillion. That only accounts for the on-balance sheet stuff. Factor in the off-balance sheet liabilities of the US administration and pretty soon you get to a figure (un)comfortably north of $100 trillion. It will never be paid back, of course. It never can be. The only question is which poison extinguishes it: formal repudiation, or informal inflation. Perhaps we, or future generations, get both.

So the direction of travel of two colossal ‘macro’ themes is clear (the insolvency of the US administration, and its replacement on the geopolitical / currency stage by that of the Chinese). The one question neither we, nor anybody else, can answer precisely is: when ?

There are other statements that beg the response: when Government bond yields have already entered a ‘twilight zone’ of practical irrelevance to rational and unconstrained investors. But when do they go into reverse ? When will the world’s most frustrating trade (‘the widow-maker’, i.e. shorting the Japanese government bond market) start finally to work ? When will investors be able to enter or re-enter stock markets without having to worry about the malign impact of central bank price support mechanisms (a polite way of describing asset price boosterism and state-sanctioned inflationism) ?

Here’s another statement that begs the response: when ? The US stock market is already heavily overvalued by any objective historical measure. When is Jack Bogle, the founder of the world’s largest index-tracking business, Vanguard, going to acknowledge that advocating 100% market exposure to one of the world’s most expensive markets, at its all-time high, might amount to something akin to “overly concentrated investment risk” ? Barron’s Magazine asks broadly the same question.

Lots of questions, and not many definitive answers. Some suggestions, though:

  • At the asset class level, diversification – by geography, and underlying asset type – makes more sense than ever, unless you strongly believe you can anticipate the actions and intentions of central banking bureaucrats throughout the world. Warren Buffett once said that wide diversification was only required when investors do not understand what they are doing. We would revise that statement to take into account the unusual risks at play in the global macro-economic arena today: wide diversification is precisely required when central bankers do not understand what they are doing. 
  • Expanding on the diversification theme, explicit value (“cheapness”) today only exists meaningfully in the analytically less charted territories of the world. @RobustCap highlights the discrepancy between valuations in the US stock market versus those of Russia, China and emerging Europe. There are clearly ‘fundamental’ and corporate governance reasons that account for some of this discrepancy, but in our view certainly not the entirety of it. Some examples:

Country                                         C.A.P.E.                       P/E                              P/B

North America                                23.8                             20.2                             2.7x

Russia                                            5.2                               6.8                               0.7x

China                                             17.2                             6.9                               1.1x

Austria                                           6.8                               43.4                             0.9x

In emerging and ‘challenged’ markets, there are always reasons not to invest. Nevertheless, price is what you pay and value is what you get.

  • Some form of renminbi exposure makes total sense as part of a diversified currency portfolio.
  • US equities should be selected, if at all, with extreme care; ditto the shares of global mega-cap consumer brands, where valuations point strongly to the triumph of the herd.
  • And whatever their direction of travel in the short to medium term, US Treasuries at current levels make no sense whatsoever to the discerning investor. The same holds for Gilts, Bunds, JGBs, OATs.. Arguments about Treasury yields reverting to a much lower longer term mean completely ignore a) the overwhelming current and future oversupply, and b) the utter lack of endorsement from one of their largest foreign holders. Foreign holders of US Treasuries, you have been warned. The irony is that many of you are completely price-insensitive so you will not care.
  • There are other reasons to be fearful of stock market valuations, notably in pricey western markets, over and above concerns over the debt burden. As Russell Napier points out in his latest ‘The Solid Ground’ piece,

“In 1919-1921, 1929-1932, 2000-2003, 2007-2009 it was not a resurgence in wages, Fed-controlled interest rates or corporate taxes which produced a collapse in corporate profits and a bear market in equities. On those four occasions equity investors suffered losses of 32%, 85%, 41% and 51% respectively despite the continued dormancy of labour, creditors and the state. It was deflation, or the fear of deflation, which cost equity investors so much. There is a simple reason why deflation has always been so damaging to corporate profits and equity valuations: it brings a credit crisis..

“Investors forget at their peril what can happen to the credit system in a highly leveraged world when cash-flows, whether of the corporate, the household or the state variety, decline. In a deflationary world credit is much more difficult to access, economic activity slows and often one very large institution or country fails and creates a systemic risk to the whole system. The collapse in commodity prices and Emerging Market currencies in conjunction with the general rise of the US$ suggests another credit crisis cannot be far away. With nominal interest rates already so low, monetary remedies to a credit seizure today would be much less effective. Such a shock, after five and a half years of QE, might suggest that the patient does not respond to this type of medicine.”

  • And since Christmas fast approaches, we can’t speak to the merits of frankincense and myrrh, but gold, that famous “6,000 year old bubble”, has always been popular, but rarely more relevant to the investor seeking a true safe haven from forced currency depreciation and an ever vaster mountain of unrepayable debt.

Happy holidays.

Economics

We seem to have miscalculated

“What will futurity make of the Ph.D. standard ? Likely, it will be even more baffled than we are. Imagine trying to explain the present-day arrangements to your 20-something grandchild a couple of decades hence – after the Crash of, say, 2016, that wiped out the youngster’s inheritance and provoked a central bank response so heavy-handed as to shatter the confidence even of Wall Street in the Federal Reserve’s methods.

“I expect you’ll wind up saying something like this: “My generation gave former tenured economics professors discretionary authority to fabricate money and to fix interest rates. We put the cart of asset prices before the horse of enterprise. We entertained the fantasy that high asset prices made for prosperity, rather than the other way around. We actually worked to foster inflation, which we called ‘price stability’ (this was on the eve of the hyperinflation of 2017). We seem to have miscalculated.”

– Excerpt from James Grant’s November 2014 Cato speech. Hat-tip to Alex Stanczyk.

You can be for gold, or you can be for paper, but you cannot possibly be for both. It may soon be time to take a stand. The arguments in favour of gold are well known, and just as widely ignored by the paperbugs, who have a belief system at least as curious because its end product is destined to fail – we just do not know precisely when. The price of gold is weakly correlated to other prices in financial markets, as the last three years have clearly demonstrated. Indeed gold may be the only asset whose price is being suppressed by the monetary authorities, as opposed to those sundry instruments whose prices are being just as artificially inflated to offer the illusion of health in the financial system (stocks and bonds being the primary financial victims). Beware appearances in an unhinged financial system, because they can be dangerously deceptive. It is quite easy to manipulate the paper price of gold on a financial futures exchange if you never have to make delivery of the physical asset and are content to play games with paper. At some point that will change. Contrary to popular belief, gold is supremely liquid, though its supply is not inexhaustible. It is no-one’s liability – this aspect may be one of the most crucial in the months to come, as and when investors learn to start fearing counterparty risk all over again. Gold offers a degree of protection against uncertainty. And unlike paper money, there are fundamental and finite limits to its creation and supply.

What protection ? There is, of course, one argument against gold that seems to trump all others and blares loudly to sceptical ears. Its price in US dollars has recently fallen. Not in rubles, and not perhaps in yen, of course, but certainly in US dollars. Perhaps gold is really a currency, then, as opposed to a tiresome commodity ? But the belief system of the paperbug dies hard.

The curious might ask why so many central banks are busily repatriating their gold ? Or why so many Asian central banks are busily accumulating it ? It is surely not just, in Ben Bernanke’s weasel words, tradition ?

If you plot the assets of central banks against the gold price, you see a more or less perfect fit going back at least to 2002. It is almost as if gold were linked in some way to money. That correlative trend for some reason broke down in 2012 and has yet to re-emerge. We think it will return, because 6,000 years of human history weigh heavily in its favour.

Or you can put your faith in paper. History, however, would not recommend it. Fiat money has a 100% failure rate.

Please note that we are not advocating gold to the exclusion of all else within the context of a balanced investment portfolio. There is a role for objectively creditworthy debt, especially if deflation really does take hold – it’s just that the provision of objectively creditworthy bonds in a global debt bubble is now vanishingly small. There is a role for listed businesses run by principled, decent management, where the market’s assessment of value for those businesses sits comfortably below those businesses’ intrinsic worth. But you need to look far and wide for such opportunities, because six years of central and commercial banks playing games with paper have made many stock markets thoroughly unattractive to the discerning value investor. We suggest looking in Asia. There is a role for price momentum strategies which, having disappointed for several years, though not catastrophically so, now appear to be getting a second wind, from the likes of deflating oil prices, periphery currencies, and so on.

As investors we are all trapped within a horrifying bubble. We must play the hand we’ve been dealt, however bad it is. But there are now growing signs of end-of-bubble instability. The system does not appear remotely sound. Since political vision in Europe, in particular, is clearly absent, the field has been left to central bankers to run amok. The only question we cannot answer is: precisely when does the centre fail ? The correct response is to recall the words of the famed value investor Peter Cundill, when he confided in his diary:

“The most important attribute for success in value investing is patience, patience, and more patience. THE MAJORITY OF INVESTORS DO NOT POSSESS THIS CHARACTERISTIC.”

But the absence of patience by the majority of investors is fine, because it leaves more money on the table for the rest of us. The only question remaining is: in what exact form should we hold that money ?

Be patient, and do please set aside thirty minutes to listen to James Grant’s quietly passionate and wonderfully articulate Cato Institute speech. It will be time well spent.

Money

Striking gold

“Sir, Martin Wolf in his article “Radical cures for unusual economic ills” suggests an abandonment of free market capitalism, as it has been practised these past couple of hundred years, and instead wants some kind of witch-doctoring economic quackery to take its place. Savings are the capital that forms the basis of capitalism. You can’t have capitalism without capital. And without interest rates pegged at levels that encourage savings, you won’t generate the quantities of savings necessary to sustain a capitalist economy.

“We need to stop the insanity. For example, savings rates in the US fluctuate around zero per cent along with interest rates set by the Fed. To hide this stab in the back to savers, the Federal Reserve simulates savings with ersatz monetary hokum like quantitative easing designed to create the illusion of a solvent economy that can run fine without actually having any savings.

“Despite the evidence proving the failure of this approach, Mr Wolf continues to recommend attacking savers, including the so-called “savings glut” held by countries in the east that hold large cash reserves as protection against the reckless policies like those suggested by Mr Wolf, who appears ignorant of the history of why these reserves exist in the first place: to protect these countries and currencies from the unorthodox (read “failed”) policy suggestions of pundits and academics who would do us all a great favour by simply admitting that their prescriptions for global growth have completely, unequivocally, failed.”

–       Letter to the Financial Times from Mr Max Keiser, London W1, 28 November 2014.

 

 

So the Swiss have decided not to force their central bank into underpinning its reserves with harder assets than increasingly worthless euros. At least they had the chance to vote. But in the bigger picture, the rejection of the “Save Our Swiss Gold” initiative flies in the face of a broader trend towards repatriation and consolidation of sovereign bullion holdings – following on the heels of similar attempts by the Bundesbank, the Dutch central bank, for example, recently announced that it had moved a fifth of its total gold reserves from New York to Amsterdam. And the physical metal continues its inexorable exodus eastwards, into stronger hands that are unlikely to relinquish it any time soon.

The Swiss vote was preceded by some fairly extraordinary black propaganda, most notoriously by Willem Buiter of the banking organisation that now styles itself ‘Citi’. Once again we were treated to the intriguing claim that gold is nothing more than “a six thousand year-old bubble”, and a “fiat commodity currency” (whatever that might mean) that has “insignificant intrinsic value”. Izabella Kaminska for the FT’s Alphaville republished much of Buiter’s ‘research’; the resultant to-and-fro between FT readers on the paper’s website makes for a fascinating scrap between goldbugs and paperbugs. Among the highlights was Vlady, who wrote:

“When a social construct (gold as money) survives for 6,000 years I would expect curious people to inquire as to whether it is tied to some immutable underlying law, or otherwise investigate if there is something more here than meets the eye.  Not so curiously inclined, our court economists prefer to write this off as a 6,000 year old delusion. That says a lot about the sorry state of the economics discipline today.”

Another was the artfully named ‘Financially Repressed by Central Banks’, who wrote:

“I think that the reason bankers and governments dislike gold backed hard currencies is that it limits their ability to devalue their fiat currency and redistribute wealth in order to stay in power.

The governmental solution to all the debt in the world is to try to inflate it away and slowly take money away from the people via currency depreciation and manipulating interest rates such savers and forced owners of government debt (such as pension schemes) make a negative return.

I think this is robbery – Pure and simple.   The market is not free, it is controlled.

A move away from fiat currency and back to using gold backed currency would remove the ability of governments to print money and this in turn would remove their ability constantly try to avoid facing the consequences of building up huge debts, which in term means they would have to face the music and actually have a plan to repay it.

It is the central banks and private banks who are complicit in this government sponsored process of stealing and their rewards are their ability themselves big bonuses and the occasional tax payer funded rescue..

Mr  Buiter works for a bank.  What a surprise that he dislikes Gold and is presumably very concerned when a central bank (Switzerland) looks like it might do something silly like buying some gold.  Don’t they realize that in acknowledging the concerns of holders of fiat currency (the people of Switzerland) that their actions might encourage others to think that maybe just maybe fiat currency is not quite as useful as gold?

/ rant on / I am not a gold bug, but I am a hard working tax payer who is getting pretty fed up with having my savings earning no interest and possibly being devalued (see Japan) and of not being able to find any sensible place to invest my hard earned due to central bank policies making it impossible to make any return anywhere without taking crazy risks. / rant off /” [Emphasis ours.]

The financial markets feel increasingly unhinged. All-time low bond yields co-exist with all-time high stock markets. Oil has collapsed along with much of the commodities complex. Emerging market currencies have been hit for six. China threatens the West with another strong deflationary impulse. Speaking of matters Chinese, Doug Nolandwrites:

“With global “hot money” now on the move in major fashion, it’s time to start paying close attention to happenings in China. It’s also time for U.S. equities bulls to wake up from their dream world. There are trillions of problematic debts in the world, including some in the U.S. energy patch. There are surely trillions more engaged in leveraged securities speculation. Our markets are not immune to a full-fledged global “risk off” dynamic. And this week saw fragility at the global bubble’s periphery attain some significant momentum. Global currency and commodities markets are dislocating, portending global instability in prices, financial flows, credit and economies.”

Gold is difficult to value at the best of times, in large part because it’s not a productive asset, and partly because it’s conventionally priced in a currency (the dollar) that, like all others, is destined to lose its purchasing power over time. Viewed purely through the prism of price, gold increasingly feels like something close to a ‘value’ investment, given that ‘value’ investing is essentially about picking up dollar bills for something closer to fifty cents. We’re currently reading Christopher Risso-Gill’s biography of the legendary ‘value’ investor Peter Cundill, and some of Cundill’s diary entries seem to be peculiarly relevant to this strange, dysfunctional environment in which we are all trapped. One in particular stands out, which Cundill himself wrote in upper case to make his point:

“THE MOST IMPORTANT ATTRIBUTE FOR SUCCESS IN VALUE INVESTING IS PATIENCE, PATIENCE, AND MORE PATIENCE. THE MAJORITY OF INVESTORS DO NOT POSSESS THIS CHARACTERISTIC.”

And there’s another, originally from Horace, that was also used by the godfather of ‘value’ investing, Ben Graham himself:

“Many shall be restored that now are fallen, and many shall fall that are now held in honour.”

Economics

“Smacking a skunk with a tennis racket”

“Finally, as expectations of rapid inflation evaporate, I want to contribute to the debate about the November 15, 2010 letter signed by 23 US academics, economists and money managers warning on the Fed’s QE strategy. Bloomberg News did what I would call a hatchet job on the signatories essentially saying how wrong they have been and seeking their current views. It certainly made for an entertaining read. Needless to say, shortly afterwards Paul Krugman waded in with his typically understated style to twist the knife in still deeper. Cliff Asness, one of the signatories of the original letter, despite observing that “responding to Krugman is as productive as smacking a skunk with a tennis racket. But, sometimes, like many unpleasant tasks, it’s necessary”, penned a rather wittyresponse. Do read these articles at your leisure. But having been one of the few to accurately predict the deflation quagmire into which we have now sunk, I believe I am more entitled than many to have a view on this subject. Had I been asked I would certainly have signed the letter and would still sign it now. The unfolding deflationary quagmire into which we are sinking will get worse and there will be more Fed QE. But do I think QE will solve our problems? I certainly do not. I think ultimately it will make things far, far worse.”

 

–       SocGen’s Albert Edwards, ‘Is the next (and last) phase of the Ice Age now upon us ?’ (20 November 2014)

 

 

On Monday 15th November 2010, the following open letter to Ben Bernanke was published:

“We believe the Federal Reserve’s large-scale asset purchase plan (so-called “quantitative easing”) should be reconsidered and discontinued.  We do not believe such a plan is necessary or advisable under current circumstances.  The planned asset purchases risk currency debasement and inflation, and we do not think they will achieve the Fed’s objective of promoting employment.

“We subscribe to your statement in the Washington Post on November 4 that “the Federal Reserve cannot solve all the economy’s problems on its own.”  In this case, we think improvements in tax, spending and regulatory policies must take precedence in a national growth program, not further monetary stimulus.

“We disagree with the view that inflation needs to be pushed higher, and worry that another round of asset purchases, with interest rates still near zero over a year into the recovery, will distort financial markets and greatly complicate future Fed efforts to normalize monetary policy.

“The Fed’s purchase program has also met broad opposition from other central banks and we share their concerns that quantitative easing by the Fed is neither warranted nor helpful in addressing either U.S. or global economic problems.”

Among the 23 signatories to the letter were Cliff Asness of AQR Capital, Jim Chanos of Kynikos Associates, Niall Ferguson of Harvard University, James Grant of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, and Seth Klarman of Baupost Group.

Words matter. Their meanings matter. Since we have a high degree of respect for the so-called Austrian economic school, we will use Mises’ own definition of inflation:

“..an increase in the quantity of money.. that is not offset by a corresponding increase in the need for money.”

In other words, inflation has already occurred, inasmuch as the Federal Reserve has increased the US monetary base from roughly $800 billion, pre-Lehman Crisis, to roughly $3.9 trillion today.

What the signatories likely meant when they referred to inflation in their original open letter to Bernanke was the popular interpretation of the word – that second-order rise in the prices of goods and services that typically follows aggressive base money inflation. Note, as many of them observed when prodded by Bloomberg’s yellow journalists, that their original warning carried no specific date on which their inflation might arise. To put it in terms which Ben Bernanke himself might struggle to understand, just because something has not happened during the course of four years does not mean it will never happen. We say this advisedly, given that the former central bank governor himself made the following observation in response to a question about the US housing market in July 2005:

“INTERVIEWER: Tell me, what is the worst-case scenario? Sir, we have so many economists coming on our air and saying, “Oh, this is a bubble, and it’s going to burst, and this is going to be a real issue for the economy.” Some say it could even cause a recession at some point. What is the worst-case scenario, if in fact we were to see prices come down substantially across the country?

“BERNANKE: Well, I guess I don’t buy your premise. It’s a pretty unlikely possibility. We’ve never had a decline in house prices on a nationwide basis. So what I think is more likely is that house prices will slow, maybe stabilize: might slow consumption spending a bit. I don’t think it’s going to drive the economy too far from its full employment path, though.” [Emphasis ours.]

To paraphrase Ben Bernanke, “We’ve never had a decline in house prices on a nationwide basis – therefore we never will.”

One more quote from Mises is relevant here, when he warns about the essential characteristic of inflation being its creation by the State:

“The most important thing to remember is that inflation is not an act of God, that inflation is not a catastrophe of the elements or a disease that comes like the plague.Inflation is a policy.”

Many observers of today’s financial situation are scouring the markets for evidence of second-order inflation (specifically, CPI inflation) whilst either losing sight of, or not even being aware of, the primary inflation, per the Austrian school definition.

James Grant, responding to Bloomberg, commented:

“People say, you guys are all wrong because you predicted inflation and it hasn’t happened. I think there’s plenty of inflation – not at the checkout counter, necessarily, but on Wall Street.”

“The S&P 500 might be covering its fixed charges better, it might be earning more Ebitda, but that’s at the expense of other things, including the people who saved all their lives and are now earning nothing on their savings.”

“That to me is the principal distortion, is the distortion of the credit markets. The central bankers have in deeds, if not exactly in words – although I think there have been some words as well – have prodded people into riskier assets than they would have had to purchase in the absence of these great gusts of credit creation from the central banks. It’s the question of suitability.”

And from the vantage point of November 2014, only an academic could deny that the signatories were wholly correct to warn of the financial market distortion that ensues from aggressive money printing.

Ever since Lehman Brothers failed and the Second Great Depression began, like every other investor on the planet we have wrestled with the arguments over inflation (as commonly understood) versus deflation. Now some of the fog has lifted from the battlefield. Despite the creation of trillions of dollars (and pounds and yen) in base money, the forces of deflation – a.k.a. the financial markets – are in the ascendancy, testimony to the scale of private sector deleveraging that has occurred even as government money and debt issuance have gone into overdrive. And Albert Edwards is surely right that as the forces of deflation worsen, they will be met with ever more aggressive QE from the Fed and from representatives of other heavily indebted governments. This is not a recipe for stability. This is the precursor to absolute financial chaos.

Because the price of every tradeable financial asset is now subject to the whim and caprice of government, rational macro-economic analysis (i.e. top-down investing and asset allocation) has become impossible. Only bottom-up analysis now offers any real potential for adding value at the portfolio level. We discount the relevance of debt instruments almost entirely, but we continue to see merit in listed businesses run by principled and shareholder-friendly management, where the shares of those businesses trade at a significant discount to any fair assessment of their underlying intrinsic value. A word of caution is warranted – these sort of value opportunities are vanishingly scarce in the US markets, precisely because of the distorting market effects of which the signatories to the November 2010 letter warned; today, value investors must venture much further afield. The safe havens may be all gone, but we still believe that pockets of inherent value are out there for those with the tenacity, conviction and patience to seek them out.

Economics

Brave new world

“Sir, Adair Turner suggests some version of monetary financing is the only way to break Japan’s deflation and deal with the debt overhang (“Print money to fund the deficit – that is the fastest way to raise rates”, Comment, November 11). This was precisely how Korekiyo Takahashi, Japanese finance minister from 1931 to 1936, broke the deflation of the 1930s. The policy was discredited because of the hyperinflation that followed.”

–       Letter to the Financial Times, 11th November 2014. Emphasis ours. Name withheld to protect the innocent.

 

 

“Don’t need to read the book – here is the premise. Business dreams are nothing more than greed. And you greedy business people should pay for those who are not cut out to take risk. You did not build your business – you owe everyone for your opportunity – you may have worked harder, taken more risk and even failed and picked yourself up at great personal risk and injury     (yes we often lose relationships and loved ones fall out along the way). However, none the less you are not entitled to what you make. Forget the fact that the real reason we have massive wealth today is we can now reach the global consumers – not just local – so the numbers are larger. Nonetheless the fact is that is not fair – and fair is something life now guarantees – social engineers demand that you suspend the laws of nature and reward all things equally. 2 plus 2 = 5 so does 3 plus 3 = 5; everything is now levelled by social engineers.  We need to be responsible for those who choose not to take risk, want a 9 to 5 job and health benefits and vacation. The world is entitled to that – it is only right – so you must be taxed to make up for those who are too lazy to compete, simply don’t try, or fail. In short the rich must mop up the gap for the also ran’s. Everyone gets a ribbon. There are exceptions – if you are Google, BAIDU, Apple or someone so cool or cute or a liberal who will tell people they should pay more taxes – you aren’t to be held to the same standard as everyone else.”

–       ‘cg12348’ responds to the FT’s announcement that Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital’ has won the FT / McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, 11th November 2014.
“@cg12348, I think you succeeded in discrediting yourself comprehensively. You didn’t read the book. You do not in fact know what is in it. But you just “know” what is in it. One can only hope that you do a little more work in your business ventures.”

–       Martin Wolf responds to ‘cg12348’.

“Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it..”

 

“Since this is an era when many people are concerned about ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice,’ what is your ‘fair share’ of what someone else has worked for?”

 

–       Thomas Sowell.

 

 

Forbes recently published an article suggesting that Google might be poised to enter the fund management sector. The article in question linked to an earlier FT piece by Madison Marriage (‘Google study heightens fund industry fears’, 28.9.2014) reporting that the company had, two years ago, commissioned a specialist research firm for advice about initiating an asset management offering. An unnamed US fund house reportedly told FTfm that Google entering the market was its “biggest fear”. An executive from Schroders was reported to be “concerned” and senior executives at Barclays Wealth & Investment Management were reported to perceive the arrival of the likes of Google and Facebook on their turf as a “real threat”. Campbell Fleming of Threadneedle was quoted in the FT piece as saying,

“Google would find the fund management market more difficult than it thinks. There are significant barriers to entry and it’s not something you could get into overnight.”

Bluntly, faced with backing Google or a large fund management incumbent, we’d be inclined to back Google. Perhaps most surprising, though, were the remarks by Catherine Tillotson of Scorpio Partnership, who said,

“There probably is a subsection of investors who would have confidence in Google, but I think the vast majority of investors want a relationship with an entity which can supply them with high quality information, market knowledge and a view on that market. I think it is unlikely they would turn to Google for those qualities.”

We happen to think that many investors would turn precisely to Google for those qualities – assuming they found those qualities remotely relevant to their objective in the first place. So what, precisely, do we think investors really want from their fund manager ? All things equal, it’s quite likely that investment performance consistent with an agreed mandate is likely to be high on the list; “high quality information, market knowledge and a view on that market” are, to our way of thinking, almost entirely subjective attributes and largely irrelevant compared to the fundamental premise of delivering decent investment returns.

After roughly 20 years of the Internet slowly achieving almost complete penetration of the investor market across the developed world, fund management feels destined to get ‘Internetted’ (or disintermediated) in the same way that the music and journalism industries have been. The time is ripe, in other words, for a fresh approach; the pickings for incumbents have been easy for far too long, and investors are surely open to the prospect of dealing with new entrants with a fundamentally different approach.

Another thing prospective digital entrants into the fund management marketplace have going for them is that they haven’t spent the last several years routinely cheating their clients, be it in the form of the subprime mortgage debacle, payment protection insurance mis-selling, Libor rigging, foreign exchange rigging, precious metals rigging.. Virtually no subsidiary of a full service banking organisation can say the same.

Sean Park, founder of Anthemis, suggests (quite fairly, in our view) that the demand for a fresh approach to financial services has never been stronger. In part, this is because

“..the global wealth management and asset allocation paradigm is fundamentally broken.  Or rather it’s a model that is past its sell-by date and is increasingly failing its ultimate customers. The “conventional wisdom” has disconnected from its “source code” meaning that the industry has forgotten the original reasons why things were initially done in a certain way and these practices have simply taken on quasi-mystical status, above questioning.. which means that the system is unable and unwilling to adapt to fundamentally changed conditions (technological, economic, financial, cultural, demographic..)

“And so opportunities (to take a step back and do things differently) abound..

“Coming back to the.. “broken asset allocation paradigm” – the constraints (real, i.e. regulatory and imagined, i.e. convention) and processes around traditional asset management and allocation (across the spectrum of asset classes) now mean that it is almost impossible to do anything but offer mediocre products and returns if operating from within the mainstream framework. (Indeed the rise and rise of low cost ETF / passive products is testimony to this – if you can’t do anything clever, at least minimise the costs as much as possible..)  The real opportunities arise when you have an unconstrained approach – when the only thing driving investment decisions is, well, analysis of investment opportunities – irrespective of what they may be, how they may be structured, and how many boxes in some cover-my-ass due diligence list they may tick (or not)..”

As we have written extensively of late, one of those practices that have taken on “quasi-mystical status” is benchmarking, especially with reference to the bond market. This is an accident waiting to happen given that we coexist with the world’s biggest bond market bubble.

Another problem is that low cost tracking products are fine provided that they’re not flying off the shelf with various asset markets at their all-time highs. But they are, and they are.

We have a great deal of sympathy with the view that the fundamental nature of business became transformed with the widespread adoption of the worldwide web. There is no reason why fund management should be exempt from this trend. What was previously an almost entirely adversarial competition between a limited number of gigantic firms has now become a more collaborational competition between a much more diverse array of boutique managers who also happen to be fighting gigantic incumbents. Here is just one example. Last week we came across a tweet from @FritzValue (blog:http://fritzinvestments.wordpress.com/) that touched on the theme of ‘discipline in an investment process’. With his approval we republish it here:

“Daily checklist:

8am – 10am: Read trade journals and regional newspapers for ideas on companies with 1) new products, 2) new regulation, 3) restructurings, 4) expansions, 5) context for investment ideas

10am – 6pm: Find new ideas. Read 1) company announcements.. 2) annual reports from A-Z or 3) annual reports of companies screened for buybacks / insider buying / dividend omission, etc.

7pm – 10pm: Read books to understand the world / improve forecasts / fine tune investment process

Before each investment:

1)    What do you think will happen to the company and by consequence the stock price ?

2)    Go through a personal investment checklist

3)    Use someone else or yourself as a devil’s advocate to disprove your own investment theses

4)    Have we reached “peak negativity” / has narrative played out ?

5)    Are fundamentals improving ?

6)    Why is it cheap ? Especially if it screens well in the eyes of other investors – i.e. exciting story, other investors, low P/E, etc.

7)    Decide what will be needed for you to admit defeat / sell the position

If you lose focus, sell all the positions, take a break and start again.

Only expose yourself to serious and intelligent people on Twitter / investor letters / media and avoid the noise that other investors expose themselves to.”

Fabulous advice, that has the additional advantage of being completely free. While we spend quite a bit of time agonising over the State’s ever more desperate attempts to keep a debt-fuelled Ponzi scheme on the road, we take heart from the fact that – through social media – an alternative community exists that doesn’t just know what’s going on but is perfectly happy to share its informed opinions with that community at no cost to users whatsoever. O brave new world, that has such people in it !

Economics

Road to nowhere

Spring 2010: A gradual recovery
Autumn 2010: A gradual and uneven recovery
Spring 2011: European recovery maintains momentum amid new risks
Autumn 2011: A recovery in distress
Spring 2012: Towards a slow recovery
Autumn 2012: Sailing through rough waters
Winter 2012: Gradually overcoming headwinds
Spring 2013: Adjustment continues
Autumn 2013: Gradual recovery, external risks
Winter 2013: Recovery gaining ground
Spring 2014: Growth becoming broader-based
Autumn 2014: Slow recovery with very low inflation.. ”

European Commission economic headlines, as highlighted by Jason Karaian of Quartz, in ‘How to talk about a European recovery that never arrives’.

“Well we know where we’re going
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowing
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
We’re on a road to nowhere..”

‘Road to nowhere’ by Talking Heads.

In 1975, Charles Ellis, the founder of Greenwich Associates, wrote one of the most powerful and memorable metaphors in the history of finance. Simon Ramo had previously studied the strategy of one particular sport in ‘Extraordinary tennis for the ordinary tennis player’. Ellis went on to adapt Ramo’s study to describe the practical business of investing. His essay is titled ‘The loser’s game’, which in his view is what the ‘sport’ of investing had become by the time he wrote it. His thesis runs as follows. Whereas the game of tennis is won by professionals, the game of investing is ‘lost’ by professionals and amateurs alike. Whereas professional sportspeople win their matches through natural talent honed by long practice, investors tend to lose (in relative, if not necessarily absolute terms) through unforced errors. Success in investing, in other words, comes not from over-reach, in straining to make the winning shot, but simply through the avoidance of easy errors.
Ellis was making another point. As far back as the 1970s, investment managers were not beating the market; rather, the market was beating them. This was a mathematical inevitability given the over-crowded nature of the institutional fund marketplace, the fact that every buyer requires a seller, and the impact of management fees on returns from an index. Ben W. Heineman, Jr. and Stephen Davis for the Yale School of Management asked in their report of October 2011, ‘Are institutional investors part of the problem or part of the solution ?’ By their analysis, in 1987, some 12 years after Ellis’ earlier piece, institutional investors accounted for the ownership of 46.6% of the top 1000 listed companies in the US. By 2009 that figure had risen to 73%. That percentage is itself likely understated because it takes no account of the role of hedge funds. Also by 2009 the US institutional landscape contained more than 700,000 pension funds; 8,600 mutual funds (almost all of whom were not mutual funds in the strict sense of the term, but rather for-profit entities); 7,900 insurance companies; and 6,800 hedge funds.

Perhaps the most pernicious characteristic of active fund management is the tendency towards benchmarking (whether closet or overt). Being assessed relative to the performance of an equity or bond benchmark effectively guarantees (post the impact of fees) the institutional manager’s inability to outperform that benchmark – but does ensure that in bear markets, index-benchmarked funds are more or less guaranteed to lose money for their investors. In equity fund management the malign impact of benchmarking is bad enough; in bond fund management the malign impact of ‘market capitalisation’ benchmarking is disastrous from the get-go. Since a capitalisation benchmark assigns the heaviest weightings in a bond index to the largest bond markets by asset size, and since the largest bond markets by asset size represent the most heavily indebted issuers – whether sovereign or corporate – a bond-indexed manager is compelled to have the highest exposure to the most heavily indebted issuers. All things equal, therefore, it is likely that the bond index-tracking manager is by definition heavily exposed to objectively poor quality (because most heavily indebted) credits.

There is now a grave risk that an overzealous commitment to benchmarking is about to lead hundreds of billions of dollars of invested capital off a cliff. Why ? To begin with, trillions of dollars’ worth of equities and bonds now sport prices that can no longer be trusted in any way, having been roundly boosted, squeezed, coaxed and manipulated for the dubious ends of quantitative easing. The most important characteristic of any investment is the price at which it is bought, which will ultimately determine whether that investment falls into the camp of ‘success’ or ‘failure’. At some point, enough elephantine funds will come to appreciate that the assets they have been so blithely accumulating may end up being vulnerable to the last bid – or lack thereof – on an exchange. When a sufficient number of elephants start charging inelegantly towards the door, not all of them will make it through unscathed. Corporate bonds, in particular, thanks to heightened regulatory oversight, are not so much a wonderland of infinite liquidity, but an accident in the secondary market waiting to happen. We recall words we last heard in the dark days of 2008:

“When you’re a distressed seller of an illiquid asset in a market panic, it’s not even like being in a crowded theatre that’s on fire. It’s like being in a crowded theatre that’s on fire and the only way you can get out is by persuading somebody outside to swap places with you.”

The second reason we may soon see a true bonfire of inanities is that benchmarked government bond investors have chosen collectively to lose their minds (or the capital of their end investors). They have stampeded into an asset class historically and euphemistically referred to as “risk free” which is actually fraught with rising credit risk and systemic inflation risk – inflation, perversely, being the only solution to the debt mountain that will enable the debt culture to persist in any form. (Sufficient economic growth for ongoing debt service we now consider impossible, certainly within the context of the euro zone; any major act of default or debt repudiation, in a debt-based monetary system, is the equivalent of Armageddon.) As Japan has just demonstrated, whatever deflationary tendencies are experienced in the indebted western economies will be met with ever greater inflationary impulses. The beatings will continue until morale improves – and until bondholders have been largely destroyed. When will the elephants start thinking about banking profits and shuffling nervously towards the door ?

Meanwhile, central bankers continue to waltz effetely in the policy vacuum left by politicians. As Paul Singer of Elliott Management recently wrote,

“Either out of ideology or incompetence, all major developed governments have given up (did they ever really try?) attempting to use solid, fundamental policies to create sustainable, strong growth in output, incomes, innovation, entrepreneurship and good jobs. The policies that are needed (in the areas of tax, regulatory, labour, education and training, energy, rule of law, and trade) are not unknown, nor are they too complicated for even the most simple-minded politician to understand. But in most developed countries, there is and has been complete policy paralysis on the growth-generation side, as elected officials have delegated the entirety of the task to central bankers.”

And as Singer fairly points out, whether as workers, consumers or investors, we inhabit a world of “fake growth, fake money, fake jobs, fake stability, fake inflation numbers”.

Top down macro-economic analysis is all well and good, but in an investment world beset by such profound fakery, only bottom-up analysis can offer anything approaching tangible value. In the words of one Asian fund manager,

“The owner of a[n Asian] biscuit company doesn’t sit fretting about Portuguese debt but worries about selling more biscuits than the guy down the road.”

So there is hope of a sort for the survival of true capitalism, albeit from Asian biscuit makers. Perhaps even from the shares of biscuit makers in Europe – at the right price.

Economics

Into the unknown

“Sir, Your headline “Fed’s grand experiment draws to a close” (FT.com, October 29) combines ignorance of what quantitative easing is with insouciance as to its potential effects – both of these mistakes being perennial features of FT coverage of QE. The “experiment”, as you call it, is not at an end; it is, with the purchases now ending, at its height. Only when the Fed starts selling the securities it has purchased back into the market will the US’s QE begin its withdrawal from that height; only when the last purchased security has been sold back into the market, or allowed to expire with consequent permanent expansion of the money supply, will the “grand experiment” (I would prefer that you called it “reckless gamble”) be at its end.

“Only at that point will we even start to see the results – on interest rates, on securities prices, on the economy. The outcome, as has so often been the case with such Keynesian experiments, is unlikely to be pretty.”

  • Letter to the FT from Jon Moynihan, London SW3.

The other potential cause of a sell-off in markets is through a central bank mistake. Some think the liquidity created by QE will eventually leak into higher inflation, but there is no sign of this as yet. More likely is a decline into deflation which would lead to financial distress as debts become more difficult to repay.

“If that does show signs of happening, then we may indeed get to see QE4 rolled out. Daddy might have let go of the market’s hand for the moment but he’s still close by.”

Strange things are happening in the bond market. Few of them are stranger than the reports that a French fund management colleague of Bill Gross (formerly of Pimco) took such exception to public excoriation from his stamp-collecting associate that he quit the business to sell croques monsieur from a food truck. According to the Wall Street Journal, Gross told Jeremie Banet in front of Pimco’s entire investment committee that, “I never understand what you’re saying. Ever.” With those credentials, M. Banet is clearly supremely qualified to become the next chairman of the Federal Reserve. As it is, he elected to return to his job managing an inflation-linked bond portfolio.

He has his work cut out. Consider the sort of volatility that the 10 year US Treasury bond – the closest thing the financial world has to a “risk-free rate” – experienced on 15th October (below).

Intra-day yield, 10 year US Treasury bond, 15th October 2014

10 day Treasury Bond Yield

Source: Bloomberg LLP

Having begun the day sporting a 2.2% yield, the 10 year note during the trading session experienced an extraordinary surge in price that took its yield down briefly towards 1.85%. Later in the same session the buying abated, and the bond closed with a yield of roughly 2.14%. During the same trading session, equity markets sold off aggressively (the UK’s FTSE 100 index, for example, closed down almost 3% on the day). What accounts for such melodrama ?

Analyst Russell Napier takes up the story:

“There it was — a real market come and gone in half an hour, like a pregnant panda at Edinburgh zoo. What did it mean and what should you do? You should pay attention to what happens to the direction of prices when volumes surge and markets work. When the veil is lifted, pay attention to what you see beneath. Last Wednesday, in the space of half an hour of active trading, the Treasury market had one of its most rapid rises ever recorded and equities fell sharply.

“There is a very simple lesson that when the markets finally break through the manipulation they move to price in deflation and not inflation. This is key because it means financial repression has failed. Such repression requires the artificial depression of interest rates but, crucially, it must be paired with boosting inflation above such rates. On October 15th 2014, if only for a few short minutes, market forces broke out and the failure of central bankers was briefly evident.”

These days, you don’t tend to hear the words ‘failure’ and ‘central bankers’ in the same sentence (unless the topic happens to be Zimbabwe). But perhaps the omniscience and omnipotence of central bankers is somewhat overstated. On October 29th, the US Federal Reserve followed a long-rehearsed script and announced that it had “decided to conclude its asset purchase program [also known as QE] this month.”

So now stock and bond markets will have to look after themselves, so to speak. The Economist’s Buttonwood columnist described it as “Letting go of Daddy’s hand”. That coinage nicely speaks to the juvenilisation to which markets have been reduced during six long years of financial repression, unprecedented central bank asset purchases, and the official manipulation of interest rates. Only the asset purchases have abated (for now): the financial repression, one way or another, will go on.

Whether the asset purchases have really disappeared, or merely been suspended, will be a function of how risk markets behave over the coming months and years. We would not be in the least surprised to see petulant markets rewarded with yet more infusions of sweets.

Yet some still associate QE with success. The Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, or his sub-editor, reckon that central bankers deserve a medal for saving society. He dismisses any scepticism as “hard money bluster”. Economist David Howden, on the other hand, can see somewhat further than the end of his own nose:

“One of the true marks of a great economist is an ability to see past the obvious outcomes and into the veiled results of policies. Friedrich Bastiat’s great essay on “that which is seen, and that which is not seen” provides a cautionary parable that disastrous analyses result when people don’t bother looking further than the immediate results of an action.

“Nowhere is this lesson more instructive than with the Fed’s QE policies of the past 6 years.

“Consider the Austrian business cycle theory. The nub of the theory is that changes in the money market have broader results on the greater economy. In its most succinct form, when a central bank pushes interest rates lower than they should be (by buying assets, for example), the greater economy gets distorted. Some of these distortions are immediately apparent, as consumers buy more goods and everyone takes on more debt as a result of lower interest rates. Some of the distortions are not immediately apparent. The investment decision of firms gets skewed as interest rates no longer reflect savings preferences, and the whole economy becomes fragile over time as erroneous investments add up (what Mises coined “malinvestments”).

“When a financial crisis or economic recession hits, it’s almost never because of some event that apparently happened at the same time. The crisis of 2008 did not occur because of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It happened because the whole financial system and greater economy were fragile following years of cheap credit at the hands of the Greenspan Fed. If anything, Lehman was a result of this and a great (if unfortunate) example of the type of bad business decisions firms are lured into by loose money. It wasn’t the cause of the troubles but a result of them. And if Lehman didn’t go under to spark the credit crunch, some other fragile financial institution would have.

“The Great Depression is a similar case in point. It wasn’t the stock market crash in 1929 that “created” the Great Depression. It was a decade of loose money policies by the Fed that created a shaky economy. Again, if anything the stock market crash was the result of stock prices being too buoyant and in need of a repricing to reflect economic fundamentals. Just like today, stocks rose to such storied heights as a result of cheap credit, not because of the seemingly “great” investments funded by it.

“The Fed has lowered interest rates since July 2006. We have just come off the period with the most rapid and extreme increase in the money supply ever recorded in American history. The seeds of the next Austrian business cycle have been sown. In fact, they are probably especially fertile seeds when one considers that the monetary policy has been so loose by historical standards. Just as cheap credit of the 1920s beget the Great Depression, that of the 1990s beget the dot-com bust and that of the mid-2000s beget the crisis of 2008, this most recent period will also give birth to a financial crisis.”

Although our crystal ball is no more polished than anyone else’s, our fundamental views are clear. Bonds are already grotesquely expensive, yet may get more so (we’re not investing in “the usual suspects” so we don’t much care). Most stock markets are pricey – but in a world beset by QE (and prospects for more, in Europe and Asia) which prices can we really trust ? By a process of logic, elimination and deduction, out of the major asset classes, only quality listed businesses trading at or ideally well below a fair assessment of their intrinsic worth offer any semblance of value or attractiveness. Pretty much everything else amounts to nothing more than paper, prone to arbitrary gusts from some very powerful, and very windy, bureaucrats. We note also that former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, no doubt looking to polish his legacy, managed to front-run the Fed’s QE announcement by pointing to the merits of gold within a government-controlled, fiat currency system. Strange days indeed.

Economics

Like treating cancer with aspirin

“Sir, Your editorial “A Nobel award for work of true economic value” (October 15) cites the witty and memorable line of JM Keynes about wishing that economists could be “humble, competent people, on a level with dentists”, which concludes his provocative 1930 essay on the economic future. You fail to convey, however, the irony and condescension of the original text of the arrogant, intellectual elitist Keynes, who, while superlatively competent, was assuredly not humble. With the passage of 84 years, the irony has changed directions, for modern dentistry is based on real science, and has made huge advances in scientific knowledge, applied technology and practice, to the great benefit of mankind. It is obviously far ahead of economics in these respects, and it is indeed unlikely that economics will ever be able to rise to the level of dentistry.”

  • Letter to the FT from Alex J. Pollock of the American Enterprise Institute, 20th October 2014.

Changing people’s minds, apparently, has very little to do with winning the argument. Since people tend to make decisions emotionally, ‘evidence’ is a secondary issue. We are attempting to argue that the policy of QE, quantitative easing, is not just pointless but expensively pointless. Apparently, instead of using cold logic, we will have to reframe our argument as follows:

  1. Agree with our argumentative opponents;

  2. Reframe the problem;

  3. Introduce a new solution;

  4. Provide a way to “save face”.

In terms of argumentative opponents, they don’t come much bigger than the former Fed chairman himself, Ben Bernanke. And it was Bernanke himself who rather pompously declared, shortly before leaving the Fed this year, that

“The problem with QE is it works in practice, but it doesn’t work in theory.”

There is, of course, no counter-factual. We will never know what might have happened if, say, the world’s central banks had elected not to throw trillions of dollars at the world’s largest banks and instead let the free market work its magic on an overleveraged financial system. But to suggest credibly that QE has worked, we first have to agree on a definition of what “work” means, and on what problem QE was meant to solve. If the objective of QE was to drive down longer term interest rates, given that short term rates were already at zero, then we would have to concede that in this somewhat narrow context, QE has “worked”. But we doubt whether that objective was front and centre for those people – we could variously call them “savers”, “investors”, “the unemployed” or “honest workers” – who are doubtless wondering when the economy will emerge from its current state of depression. As James Grant recently observed in the FT (“Low rates are jamming the economy’s vital signals”), it’s quite remarkable how, thus far, savers in particular have largely suffered in silence.

So yes, QE has “succeeded” in driving down interest rates. But we should probably reframe the problem. The problem isn’t that interest rates were or are too high. Quite the reverse: interest rates are clearly already too low – at least for savers, and for that matter investors in the euro zone and elsewhere. All the way out to 3 year maturities, investors in German government bonds, for example, are now faced with negative interest rates, and still they’re buying. This isn’t monetary policy success; this is madness. We think the QE debate should be reframed: has QE done anything to reform an economic and monetary system urgently in need of restructuring ? We think the answer, self-evidently, is “No”. The answer is also “No” to the question: “Can you solve a crisis of too much indebtedness by a) adding more debt to the pile and simultaneously b) suppressing interest rates ?” The toxic combination of more credit creation and global financial repression will merely make the ultimate Minsky moment that much more spectacular.

What accentuates the problem is market noise. @Robustcap fairly points out that there are (at least) four groups at play in the markets – and that at least three of them aren’t adding to the sum of human wisdom:

Group 1 comprises newsletter writers, and other dogmatic “End of the world newsletter salesmen” using every outlet to say “I told you so…” (even though some of them have been saying so for the last 1000 S&P handles..).

Group 2 comprises Perma-Bulls and other Wall Street product salesmen, offering “This is a buying opportunity” and other standard from-the-hip statements whenever the Vix index reaches 30 and the market trades 10% off from its high, at any time.

Group 3 includes “any moron with a $1500 E-trade account, twitter, Facebook etc…”, summing to roughly 99% nonsense and noise.

Group 4, however, comprises “True investors and traders” asking questions such as, “Is this a good price ?”; “Is this a good level ?”; “What is my risk stepping in here, on either side ?”; “Am I getting better value than I am paying for ?”; “What is the downside / upside ?” etc.

“With the “magnification” of noise by social media and the internet in general, one must shut off the first three groups and try to engage, find, follow, communicate with the fourth group only, those looking at FACTS, none dogmatic, understand value, risk, technicals and fundamentals and most importantly those who have no agenda and nothing to sell.”

To Jim Rickards, simply printing money and gifting it to the banks through the somewhat magical money creation process of QE is like treating cancer with aspirin: the supposed “solution” does nothing to address the root cause of the problem. The West is trapped in a secular depression and “normal” cyclical solutions, such as monetary policy measures, are not just inappropriate, but damnably expensive for the rest of us. Only widespread economic restructuring will do. And that involves hard decisions on the part of politicians. Thus far, politicians have shown themselves predictably not up to the task. Or in the words of Jean-Claude Juncker,

“We all know what to do; we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”

And let’s not forget that other notable Junckerism,

“When it becomes serious, you have to lie.”

No cheers for democracy, then.

So, back to the debate:

  1. Yes, QE has driven down long term interest rates.

  2. But the problem wasn’t the cost of capital. The problem was, and remains, an oversupply of debt, insufficient economic growth, and the risk, now fast becoming realised, of widespread debt deflation. To put it another way, the world appears to be turning Japanese after all, despite the best efforts of central bankers and despite the non-efforts of politicians.

  3. The solution is fundamental economic restructuring along with measures that can sustainedly boost economic growth rather than just enriching the already rich through artificial financial asset price boosterism. Government spending cuts will not be optional, although tax cuts might be. The expansion of credit must end – or it will end in an entirely involuntary market-driven process that will be extraordinarily messy.

  4. How to “save face” ?

This is where we start to view the world, once again, through the prism of investments – not least since we’re not policy makers. For those wondering why a) markets have become that much more volatile recently (and not just stocks – see the recent wild trading in the US 10 year government bond) and b) inflation (other than in financial asset prices) seems weirdly quiescent – the answer has been best expressed by both Jim Rickards and by the good folk at Incrementum. The pertinent metaphor is that of the tug of war. The image below (source: Incrementum) states the case.

Inflation vs Deflation

The blue team represents the markets. The markets want deflation, and they want the world’s unsustainable debt pile to be reduced. There are three ways to reduce the debt pile. One is to engineer sufficient economic growth (no longer feasible, in our view) to service the debt. The second is to default (which, in a debt-based monetary system, amounts to Armageddon). The third brings us over to the red team: explicit, state-sanctioned inflationism, and financial repression. The reason why markets have become so volatile is that from day to day, the blue and red teams of deflationary and inflationary forces are duking it out, and neither side has yet been convincingly victorious. Who ultimately wins ? We think we know the answer, but the outcome will likely be a function of politics as much as investment forces (“markets”). While we wait for the outcome, we believe the most prudent and pragmatic course of action is to seek shelter in the least overpriced corners of the market. For us, that means explicit, compelling value and deep value equity. Nothing else, and certainly nothing by way of traditional government or corporate debt investments, or any form of equity or bond market index-tracking, makes any sense at all.

Economics

Ten problems, or just one?

“Sir, The next financial apocalypse is imminent. I know this to be true because the House & Home section in FT Weekend is now assuming the epic proportions last seen before the great crash. Twenty-four pages chock full of adverts for mansions and wicker tea-trays for $1,000. You’re all mad.

 

Sell everything and run for your lives.”

 

  • Letter to the FT from Matt Long, Seilh, France, 3rd October 2014.

 

“Investors unfortunately face enormous pressure—both real pressure from their anxious clients and their consultants and imagined pressure emanating from their own adrenaline, ego and fear—to deliver strong near-term results. Even though this pressure greatly distracts investors from a long-term orientation and may, in fact, be anathema to good long-term performance, there is no easy way to reduce it. Human nature involves the extremes of investor emotion—both greed and fear—in the moment; it is hard for most people to overcome and act in opposition to their emotions. Also, most investors tend to project near-term trends—both favourable and adverse—indefinitely into the future. Ironically, it is this very short-term pressure to produce—this gun to the head of everyone—that encourages excessive risk taking which manifests itself in several ways: a fully invested posture at all times; for many, the use of significant and even extreme leverage; and a market-centric orientation that makes it difficult to stand apart from the crowd and take a long-term perspective.”

 

  • Seth Klarman, Presentation to MIT, October 2007.

 

 

“At first, the pendulum was swinging towards infinite interest, threatening the dollar with hyperinflation. Right now the pendulum is swinging to the other extreme, to zero interest, spelling hyper-deflation. This is just as damaging to producers as the swing towards infinite interest was in the early 1980’s. It is impossible to predict whether one or the other extreme in the swinging of the wrecking ball will bring about the world economy’s collapse. Hyperinflation and hyper-deflation are just two different forms of the same phenomenon: credit collapse. Arguing which of the two forms will dominate is futile: it blurs the focus of inquiry and frustrates efforts to avoid disaster.”

 

  • Professor Antal Fekete, ‘Monetary Economics 101: The real bills doctrine of Adam Smith. Lecture 10: The Revolt of Quality’.

 

“Low interest rate policy has the following grave consequences:

 

  • Normally conservative investors are increasingly under duress and due to the outlook for interest rates remaining low for a long time, are taking on excessive risk. This leads to capital misallocation and the formation of bubbles.
  • The sweet poison of low interest rates and easy money therefore leads to massive asset price inflation (stocks, art, real estate).
  • Through carry trades, interest rates that are structurally too low in the industrialized nations lead to asset bubbles and contagion effects in emerging markets.
  • A structural weakening of financial markets, as reckless behaviour of market participants is fostered (moral hazard).
  • A change in human behaviour patterns, due to continually declining purchasing power. While thrift is slowly but surely transmogrified into a relic of the past, taking on debt becomes rational.
  • The acquisition of personal wealth becomes gradually more difficult.
  • The importance of money as a medium of exchange and a unit of account increases in importance relative to its role as a store of value.
  • Incentives for fiscal probity decline. Central banks have bought time for governments. Large deficits appear less problematic, there is no incentive to implement reform, resp. consolidate public finances in a sustainable manner.
  • The emergence of zombie-banks and zombie-companies. Very low interest rates prevent the healthy process of creative destruction. Zero interest rate policy makes it possible for companies with low profitability to survive, similar to Japan in the 1990s. Banks are enabled to nigh endlessly roll over potentially delinquent loans and consequently lower their write-offs.
  • Unjust redistribution (Cantillon effect): the effect describes the fact that newly created money is neither uniformly nor simultaneously distributed in the population. Monetary expansion is therefore never neutral. There is a permanent transfer of wealth from later to earlier receivers of new money.”
  • Ronald-Peter Stöferle, from ‘In Gold We Trust 2014 – Extended Version’, Incrementum AG.

 

 

The commentary will have its next outing on Monday 27th October.

 

 

“When sorrows come,” wrote Shakespeare, “they come not single spies, but in battalions.” Jeremy Warner for the Daily Telegraph identifies ten of them. His ‘ten biggest threats to the global economy’ comprise:

  • Geopolitical risk;
  • The threat of oil and gas price spikes;
  • A hard landing in China;
  • Normalisation of monetary policy in the Anglo-Saxon economies;
  • Euro zone deflation;
  • ‘Secular stagnation’;
  • The size of the debt overhang;
  • Complacent markets;
  • House price bubbles;
  • Ageing populations.

Other than making the fair observation that stock markets (for example) are not entirely correlated to economic performance – an observation for which euro zone equity investors must surely be hugely grateful – we offer the following response.

  • Geopolitical risk, like the poor, will always be with us.
  • Yes, the prices for oil and natural gas could spike, but as things stand WTI crude futures have fallen by over 15% from their June highs, in spite of the clear geopolitical problems. And the US fracking revolution, in combination with fast-improving fundamentals for solar power, may turn out to be a secular (and disinflationary) game-changer for energy prices.
  • China, however, is tougher to dismiss. If we had any meaningful exposure to Chinese equity or debt we would be more concerned. But we don’t, so we aren’t.
  • Five of Jeremy Warner’s ‘threats’ are inextricably linked. The pending normalisation of monetary policy in the UK and US clearly threatens the integrity of the credit markets. It’s worth asking whether either central bank could possibly afford to let interest rates rise. This begets a follow-on question: could the markets afford to let the central banks off the hook ? Could we, in other words, finally see the return of the long absent and much desired bond market vigilantes ? That monetary policy rates are so low is a function of the growing prospect of euro zone deflation (less of a threat to solvent consumers, but deadly for heavily indebted governments). Absent a capitulation by the Bundesbank to Draghi’s hopes or intentions for full-blown QE, it’s difficult to see how the policy log-jam gets resolved. But since all German government paper out to three years now offers a negative yield, it’s difficult to see why any euro zone debt is worth buying today for risk-conscious investors. Cash is probably preferable and gives optionality into the bargain. ‘Secular stagnation’ is now a fair definition of the euro zone’s economic prospects. But all things lead back to Warner’s point 7: the size of the debt overhang. Since this was never addressed in the immediate aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, it’s hardly a surprise to see its poison continue to drip onto all things financial. And since the policy response has been to slash rates and keep them at multi-century lows, it’s hardly a surprise to see property prices in the ascendant.
  • Complacent markets ? Check. But stocks have lost a lot of their nerve over the last week. Not before time.
  • Ageing populations ? Yes, but this problem has been widely discussed in the investment community over the past two decades – it simply isn’t new news.

We saw one particularly eye-catching chart last week, via Grant Williams, comparing the leverage ratios of major US financial institutions over recent years (shown below).

Leverage Ratios

 

Source: Grant Williams, ‘Things that make you go Hmmm…’

 

The Fed’s leverage ratio (total assets to capital) now stands at just under 80x. That compares with Lehman Brothers’ leverage ratio, just before it went bankrupt, of just under 30x. Sometimes a picture really does paint a thousand words. And this, again, brings us back to the defining problem of our time, as we see it: too much debt in the system, and simply not enough ideas about how to bring it down – other than through inflationism, and even that doesn’t seem to be working quite yet.

 

In a recent interview with Jim Grant, Sprott Global questioned the famed interest rate observer about the likely outlook for bonds:

 

What would a bear market in bonds look like? Would it be accompanied by a bear market in the stocks?

“Well, we have a pretty good historical record of what a bear market in bonds would look like. We had one in modern history, from 1946 to 1981. We had 25 years’ worth of persistently – if not steadily – rising interest rates, and falling bond prices. It began with only around a quarter of a percent on long-dates US Treasuries, and ended with about 15% on long-dated US Treasuries. That’s one historical beacon. I think that the difference today might be that the movement up in yield, and down in price, might be more violent than it was during the first ten years of the bear market beginning in about 1946. Then, it took about ten years for yields to advance even 100 basis points, if I remember correctly. One difference today is the nature of the bond market. It is increasingly illiquid and it is a market in which investors – many investors – have the right to enter a sales ticket, and to expect their money within a day. So I’m not sure what a bear market would look like, but I think that it would be characterized at first by a lot of people rushing through a very narrow gate. I think problems with illiquidity would surface in the corporate debt markets. One of the unintended consequences of the financial reforms that followed the sorrows of 2007 to 2009 is that dealers who used to hold a lot of corporate debt in inventories no longer do so. If interest rates began to rise and people wanted out, I think that the corporate debt market would encounter a lot of ‘air pockets’ and a lot of very discontinuous action to the downside.”

We like that phrase “a lot of very discontinuous action to the downside”. Grant was also asked if it was possible for the Fed to lose control of the bond market:

 

“Absolutely, it could. The Fed does not control events for the most part. Events certainly will end up controlling the Fed. To answer your question – yeah. I think the Fed can and will lose control of the bond market.”

 

As we have written on innumerable prior occasions, we wholeheartedly agree. Geopolitics, energy prices, demographics – all interesting ‘what if’ parlour games. But what will drive pretty much all asset markets over the near, medium and longer term is almost entirely down to how credit markets behave. The fundamentals, clearly, are utterly shocking. The implications for investors are, in our view, clear. And as a wise investor once observed, if you’re going to panic, panic early.

 

Economics

Market failure

There are two ways of learning how to ride a fractious horse; one is to get on him and learn by actual practice how each motion and trick may be best met; the other is to sit on a fence and watch the beast a while, and then retire to the house and at leisure figure out the best way of overcoming his jumps and kicks. The latter system is the safest; but the former, on the whole, turns out the larger proportion of good riders. It is very much the same in learning to ride a flying machine; if you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds, but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.”

  • Wilbur Wright, quoted by James Tobin in ‘To Conquer the Air’.

So, too, for the stock market. It is easy to study stock tables in solitude from the comfort of your office and declare the market efficient. Or you can be a full-time investor for a number of years and, if your eyes are open, learn that it is not. As with the Wrights, the burden of proof is somehow made to fall on the practitioner to demonstrate that he or she has accomplished something the so-called experts said could not be done (and even he may find himself explained away as aberrational). Almost none of the burden seems to fall on the armchair academics, who cling to their theories even in the face of strong evidence that they are wrong.”

  • Seth Klarman, in ‘A Response to Lowenstein’s Searching for Rational Investors In a Perfect Storm’.

Days of miracle and wonder in the bond markets.. but not necessarily in any good way. Last week we highlighted the seeming anomaly that even as there has never been so much debt in the history of the world, it has also never been so expensive. Between 2000 and 2013, the value of outstanding tradeable debt rose from $33 trillion to $100 trillion, according to research from Incrementum AG. (Over the same period, total equity market capitalisation rose “merely” from $49 trillion to $66 trillion.) Although we would suggest there is now no semblance of traditional value in conventional government debt whatsoever, it could yet get more expensive still.

Albert Edwards of SocGen deserves some credit for maintaining his ‘Ice Age’ thesis over a sustained period of widespread scepticism from other market participants. He summarises it as follows:

“First, that the West would drift ever closer to outright deflation, following Japan’s template a decade earlier. And second, financial markets would adjust in the same way as in Japan. Government bonds would re-rate in absolute and relative terms compared to equities, which would also de-rate in absolute terms..

“Another associated element of the Ice Age we also saw in Japan is that with each cyclical upturn, equity investors have assumed with child-like innocence that central banks have somehow ‘fixed’ the problem and we were back in a self-sustaining recovery. These hopes would only be crushed as the next cyclical downturn took inflation, bond yields and equity valuations to new destructive lows. In the Ice Age, hope is the biggest enemy..

“Investors are beginning to see how impotent the Fed and ECB’s efforts are to prevent deflation. And as the scales lift from their eyes, equity, credit and other risk assets trading at extraordinarily high valuations will take their next Ice Age stride towards the final denouement.”

It is certainly staggering that even after expanding its balance sheet by $3.5 trillion, the Fed has been unable to trigger visible price inflation in anything other than financial assets. One dreads to contemplate the scale of the altogether less visible private sector deleveraging that has cancelled it out. One notes that while bonds are behaving precisely in line with the Ice Age thesis, stock markets – by and large – are not quite following the plot. But there were signs last week that they may finally have got a copy of the script.

The tragedy of our times, unfolding slowly but surely via ever-lower bond yields, is that there is a vacuum at the heart of the political process where bold action – not least to grasp the debt nettle – should reside. Since nature abhors the vacuum, central bankers have filled it. They say that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a central banker facing the prospect of outright deflation, the answer to everything is the printing of ex nihilo money and the manipulation of financial asset prices. The by-product of these malign trends is that it makes rational investment and asset allocation, indeed more narrowly the pursuit of real capital preservation, impossible.

Since the integrity of the debt (and currency) markets is clearly at risk, we have long sought alternatives that offer much diminished credit and counterparty risk. The time-honoured alternative has been gold. As the chart below (via Nick Laird) shows, between 2000 and 2011, gold

US Debt Limit vs Gold

tracked the expansion in US debt pretty handily. In 2008 and then in 2011/2012 gold became overextended relative to US debt. Beginning in 2013 gold then decoupled in the opposite direction. As things stand today, if one expects that relationship to resume – and we do – then gold looks anomalously cheap relative to the gross level of US debt, which clearly is not going to contract any time soon.

A second rationale for holding gold takes into account the balance sheet expansion of the broader universe of central banks:

Central Bank Balance Sheet

If one accepts that gold is not merely an industrial commodity but an alternative form of money (and central banks clearly do, or they would not be holding it in the form of reserves), than it clearly makes sense to favour a money whose supply is growing at 1.5% per annum over monies whose supply is growing at between 8% and 20% per annum. It then merely comes down to biding one’s time and waiting for Albert Edwards’ “final denouement” (or simply the next phase of the global financial crisis that never really went away).

Two recent tweets from George Cooper on the topic of bond investing are also worthy of republication here:

“The combination of indexing / rating agencies and syndication means that collectively the investment industry does not provide effective discipline to borrowers.”

This is a clear example of market failure brought about by institutional fund managers and the consultants that “guide” their institutional investor clients. There is simply no punishment for ill-disciplined government borrowers (i.e., all of them). To put it another way, where have the bond vigilantes gone ? And,

“The best thing the ECB could do here is state clearly that it has reached the limit of monetary policy and the rest is up to politicians.”

It is not as if politicians asleep at the wheel have gone entirely unnoticed. Two high-profile reports have been published this year drawing attention to the debt problems gnawing away at the economic vitality of the West. Perhaps the most damning response to date has come from the euro zone’s pre-eminent political cynic, Jean-Claude Juncker:

“We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”

No discussion of the bond market could possibly be complete without a brief mention of the defenestration of the so-called ‘Bond King’, Bill Gross, from Pimco. For the benefit of anyone living under a rock these past weeks, the manager of the world’s largest bond fund jumped ship before he could be shoved overboard. Pimco’s owners, Allianz, must surely regret having allowed so much power to be centralised in the form of one single ‘star’ manager. In a messy transfer that nobody came out of well, Janus Capital announced that Bill Gross would be joining to run a start-up bond fund, before he had even announced his resignation from Pimco (but then Janus was a two-faced god). This was deliriously tacky behaviour from within a normally staid backwater of the financial markets. Some financial media reported this as a ‘David vs Goliath’ story; in reality it is anything but. The story can be more accurately summarised as ‘Bond fund manager leaves gigantic asset gatherer for other gigantic asset gatherer’ (Janus Capital’s $178 billion in client capital being hardly small potatoes). This is barely about asset management in the truest, aspirational sense of the phrase. This writer recalls the giddy marketing of a particularly new economy-oriented growth vehicle called the ‘Janus Twenty’ fund in the UK back in 2000. Between March 2000 and September 2001, that particular growth vehicle lost 63% of its value. Faddish opportunism is clearly still alive and well. This gross behaviour may mark a market top for bonds, but probably not. But it’s difficult to shake off the suspicion that navigating the bond markets profitably over the coming months will require almost supernatural powers in second-guessing both central banks and one’s peers – especially if doing so on an indexed basis. For what it’s worth this is a game we won’t even bother playing. Our pursuit of the rational alternative – compelling deep value in equity markets – continues.