Authors

Economics

On Money And Society: An Exclusive Interview With Steve Baker MP

A former RAF aviation engineer and software engineer in the financial sector, Steve Baker has been the Conservative MP for Wycombe, Buckinghamshire since 2010. Recently he was elected by his colleagues to the Treasury Select Committee, where he has put questions to Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, and he has also sponsored a Parliamentary debate on ‘Money Creation and Society’. He is an outspoken follower of the Austrian Economic School, and is an advocate of ‘free banking’ and the de-nationalisation of money. In this interview, Steve shares his views on money, banking and economics generally; why he chose to enter into politics; his plans for the next Parliament; and the prospects for sound money and banking in the UK and around the world.

BY WAY OF BACKGROUND…

Steve Baker has been fascinated by machines since his youth growing up in Cornwall. He studied Aerospace Engineering at Southampton University through a University Cadetship programme, entering the RAF on graduation, and served his country in multiple international locations for 10 years.

Also fascinated by information technology, on leaving the RAF in 1999 he studied towards a degree in Computer Science at St Cross College, Oxford. He then worked in a number of IT roles, including at Lehman Brothers in 2006-08, leading into the global financial crisis. His personal website (here) makes plain that, “My work at Lehman Brothers particularly informs my present work on reforming the financial system.” He decided to enter politics in 2007 and was elected to Parliament on his first attempt in 2010.

Steve is hardly the only sitting MP to focus on financial and banking issues. But he is the only Conservative MP to openly advocate for fundamental reform of not just banking, but of money itself. This is due to his outspoken belief in the key tenets of the Austrian Economic School, which teaches that activist monetary and fiscal policies undermine long-term economic health. To begin our discussion, we explore how Steve experienced the 2008 financial crisis and the impression it made.

JB: Steve, you had been working at Lehman Brothers for about two years when the financial crisis hit in 2008. Did you ever have a sense that the firm was dangerously exposed to a potential crisis? That the firm’s high leverage and a reliance on short-term financing could bring it down? That the financial system in general was as fragile as it demonstrably was?

SB: Back when Lehman was posting record quarter after record quarter, I was focussed on delivering value through software and I still believed our masters understood the institutional superstructure of the economy. It was only when the bust came that I realised the Austrian School had crucial insights to offer which were missing from the mainstream.

JB: How exactly did you come to believe that the Austrian Economic School provided the best explanation for the 2008 financial crisis and also for understanding economics more generally? Was this a gradual process or rather something more like a sudden epiphany?

SB: It was a long process. I first read Mises’ The Causes of the Economic Crisis and Hayek’s Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle in 2000 during my MSc in Computer Science. I was planning to make my fortune in software, but then the dot-com bust happened. I wanted an explanation and found it in these books. However, my priority was business and I didn’t have the confidence to start telling economists where they were going wrong. It was only after working for banks and their regulators that I realised key insights about epistemology and method were absent from mainstream economics in important ways. That caused me to read more deeply, co-found The Cobden Centre with Toby Baxendale and then use my Parliamentary position to promote better economic policies.

JB: Please describe what it is you mean by free banking and money. Most people just take national fiat money and heavily-regulated banking for granted. Of course this was not always the case. But then have free banking and money really ever been the norm? Why is this topic of such importance to you?

SB: By ‘free-banking’ I mean money and a banking system produced by the spontaneous co-operation of free individuals in markets. It is what Hayek proposed in his Denationalisation of Money and HM Treasury briefly worked in that direction as an alternative to the euro. Usually, free banking means gold (or silver) as the base money and banking conducted under the ordinary commercial law, usually with unlimited strict liability. Canada and Scotland historically came closest to free banking. In a future free-banking system, cryptocurrencies or blockchain technologies of some sort are likely to have a role. Sound money is crucial to the justice of social processes.

JB: When and how did it occur to you that, by entering politics, you could contribute to changing the terms of debate around money and banking, when neither major UK party seemed to have any interest in doing so?

SB: Originally, it was the scandal of the Lisbon Treaty – the mangled EU Constitution – which prompted me to seek election to deliver an in/out referendum. It seems I may have played my part in reaching that objective but that decision was reached in 2007, before the crash. Once the crash came, when I had no realistic expectation of being elected, I decided to establish an Austrian School think tank. My surprise selection for a Conservative-held seat and election to Parliament changed everything.

JB: Please describe your experience in Parliament to date. What is it like to be something of a ‘maverick’ MP on the issues of money and banking? Is it encouraging? Discouraging?

SB: It’s hugely encouraging but hard work and I always appreciate support. As far as I am aware, I have no original ideas in this field and, being wary of the fringes of debate, I keep close to established literature. As a result, I seem to be attracting colleagues to at least consider the possibility that the Austrian School has a better answer to the question—famously asked by HM the Queen—of how the financial crisis could have happened. People know I am unorthodox but they also know I am grounded in credible literature. They also recognise the call for lower taxes, balanced budgets and sound money as distinctively Conservative. I suppose the difference is I really mean it; I don’t just say such things in hope of being elected.

JB: You recently sponsored a Parliamentary debate on ‘Money Creation and Society’? What was the purpose of the debate and do you believe that it achieved your objectives?

SB: Prominent Constitutional fiat money advocates Positive Money were agitating for a debate and they have strong national support. Despite disagreeing on many things, I am one of their best contacts in Parliament. The timing of the debate corresponded with their campaigning activity. However, of course I have spoken many times in the same vein, beginning with my maiden speech. Positive Money had created sufficient support for a debate in the main chamber to be possible and I was glad to lead it. We meant to move the debate forward and we did: I have received messages of support from around the world.

JB: Having recently achieved selection to the Treasury Select Committee, you have now had the opportunity to engage with Bank of England governor Mark Carney on multiple occasions. While he is obliged to answer your questions, do you find his answers satisfactory? Or evasive? Does it seem to you that the Bank of England is properly accountable to Parliament? Or is it able more or less to set policy on its own? If you could change anything about the existing governance of the Bank of England—other than abolishing it—what would that be?

SB: It is always a huge pleasure and privilege to ask questions of the Governor, who also chairs the G20 Financial Stability Board. Mark Carney is undoubtedly the central banker of his generation, full of talent and statesmanship. He knows where I stand. Perhaps our good-natured jousting can sometimes be seen in the sessions. His answers are mainstream and remember he has a dreadful power to shift markets with every word. He is sometimes breathtakingly honest—for example in relation to the shortcomings of mathematical models—but it is right that he has regard to the potential for his words to reverberate through markets. This factor has no place in a free society, of course, but we are where we are. The Bank is accountable to Parliament and the officials evidently take this seriously. The Bank operates within its mandate and that means it reaches policy decisions independently of politicians.

Given that, like Walter Bagehot [ed. note- Bagehot was Editor-in-Chief of The Economist from 1860 to 1877 and wrote extensively on fundamental economic and financial issues], I think the ideal system would not include central banks, your last question is hard to answer. I would have the Bank produce research that questions their groupthink and they are doing so. It will be a long time yet before we win the argument but having the Bank itself challenge orthodoxy may be an important breakthrough.

JB: Assuming that you and the Conservatives are re-elected in the coming months, what plans do you have for the next Parliament? What goals are realistic? And if you’re optimistic, what might be achieved over the next five years?

SB: Nationally, we must balance the budget. In all the circumstances, this will remain a tough problem. Personally, I would like to be re-elected by my colleagues to the Treasury Committee so I can continue to work on changing the terms of debate.

JB: How do you feel about the growing UK independence movement? Do you believe that the UK is more likely to fundamentally reform money and banking inside or outside the EU?

SB: People across the political spectrum are awakening to the reality that state power has escaped democratic control and that awakening is a good thing. The challenge is to hold politics together while a coalition for democracy and liberty is built, especially bearing in mind that it is the classical liberal and conservative family that is awakening first. A further fragmentation of the centre-right would be bad news for democrats and advocates of liberty.

Realistically, monetary reform is likely to come from either spontaneous market action or global reform of the post Bretton-Woods system. I don’t think the UK is likely to reform sterling unilaterally but this could happen provided we retain our own currency. I imagine Switzerland is culturally better-placed to reform independently, especially now they have decoupled from the euro. Maybe Russia will dramatically disrupt geopolitics with the reform you describe in your book. [Ed. note- I have suggested that Russia might respond to escalating international tensions by backing the rouble with gold. See here.]

JB: Do you regard the government’s ‘austerity’ policies to have been a success? How would you define ‘success’?

SB: Success would be a balanced budget. More work is required and the longer I spend in politics, the clearer it becomes that turning around a democracy is not like turning around a private company. The Chancellor has been more successful than most other finance ministers. I will continue to support him in so far as I can.

JB: To expand on the above, you are more aware than most about the deteriorating state of UK public finances and of the large imbalances in the economy more generally, such as the excessive reliance on property and financial services, and the chronic trade deficit with the rest of the world. Is it hard to be optimistic for the future when history suggests that the UK economy is going to remain weak for many years even in a relatively benign, non-crisis scenario in which these imbalances and excesses are worked off?

SB: In truth, it is often hard to be optimistic when you have “taken the red pill” of Austrian School economics. On the one hand, I am glad so many more people are now in private sector employment but on the other, as I have explained many times, the trajectory of debt and the continuing abuse of currencies is of grave concern. The future of our civilisation may be at stake.

JB: You co-founded the Cobden Centre, the leading sound money and banking think-tank in the UK. What do you see as the CC’s core mission? How exactly do you see the CC making a difference in future? Through education? Practical policy recommendations?

SB: The Cobden Centre’s core mission is to promote classical liberalism and specifically the Austrian School, that is, social progress through honest money, free trade and peace. It does not do politics but ideas and education. There is much more to do. Those interested in learning more can visit the website at www.cobdencentre.org and potential donors are welcome to send an email to staff@cobdencentre.org!

JB: Thanks so much for your time Steve. Before we conclude, are there any other thoughts you would like to share with our readers, many of whom work in the financial industry and would be profoundly affected by the sort of money and banking policies you advocate. What sort of impression would you hope they would take away from our discussion today?

SB: I hope readers will read your reports and your book, The Golden Revolution, and Detlev Schlichter’s complimentary work Paper Money Collapse. I hope they will read Mises and Hayek. If financial professionals cease opposing honest money and banking will we achieve the greatest institutional reform of our age: money and banking subject to competition and free of ruinous state control.

JB: Thank you so much Steve for your time.

POST-SCRIPT: REAL REFORMS REQUIRE

REAL LEADERSHIP

The value of Steve’s prominent role in promoting sound money and banking cannot be overstated. His leadership is an inspiration to all who would seek a better economic future. The best hope for real reform is to pressure the system both from within and from without. I encourage all readers to support Steve in his efforts in Parliament; through the educational resources of the Cobden Centre; and through their own private initiatives, whatever they might be.

Care to comment on this Report? Please contact me at john.butler@amphora-alpha.com.

Follow me on twitter! @butlergoldrevo

Economics

Swiss National Bank abandons franc’s cap against the euro

On January 15th 2015 the Swiss National Bank (SNB) has announced an end to its three year old cap of 1.20 franc per euro. (The SNB introduced the cap in September 2011). The SNB has also reduced its policy interest rate to minus 0.75% from minus 0.25%. The Swiss franc appreciated as much as 41% to 0.8517 per euro following the announcement, the strongest level on record – it settled during the day at around 0.98 per euro.

EuroCHF
We suggest that the key factor in determining a currency rate of exchange is relative monetary pumping. Over time, if the rate of growth of money supply in country A exceeds the rate of growth of money supply in country B then that country’s currency rate of exchange will come under pressure versus the currency of B, all other things being equal.
Whilst other variables such as the interest rate differential or economic activity also drive the currency rate of exchange, they are of a transitory and not of a fundamental nature. Their influence sets in motion an arbitrage that brings the rate of exchange in line with the influence of the money growth differential.
We hold that until now the rise in the money growth differential between Switzerland and the EMU during July 2011 and April 2012 was dominating the currency rate of exchange scene. (It was pushing the franc down versus the euro).The setting of a cap of 1.20 to the euro to supposedly defend exports was an unnecessary move since the franc was in any case going to weaken. The introduction of the cap however prevented the arbitrage to properly manifest itself thereby setting in motions various distortions. (Note again the money growth differential was weakening the franc versus the euro).
A fall in the money growth differential between April 2012 and April 2013 is starting to dominate the currency scene at present i.e. it strengthens the franc against the euro. So from this perspective it is valid to remove the cap and allow the arbitrage to establish the “true” value of the franc. (This reduces the need to pump domestic money in order to defend the cap of 1.20). Observe that as opposed to 2011, this time around, by allowing the franc to find its “correct” level the SNB it would appear has decided to trust the free market.
Note that since April 2013 the money growth differential has been rising – working towards the weakening of the franc versus the euro – and this raises the likelihood that the SNB might decide again some time in the future on a new shock treatment.

 

AMSSwissVsEuroGrowth

We hold that by tampering with the foreign exchange market the SNB sets in motion fluctuations in the growth momentum of money supply (AMS) and this in turn generates the menace of the boom/bust cycles. (Note the close correlation between the fluctuations in the growth momentum of foreign exchange reserves, the SNB’s balance sheet and AMS).

 

SNBAssetsVsForeignReserves

Also, observe that by introducing the cap and then removing it the SNB, contrary to its own intentions, has severely shocked various activities such as exports. Note that the SNB is supposedly meant to generate a stable economic environment.

Economics

Should a Bank in Difficulties Receive Assistance?

This was the question put to me by Treasury Committee Chairman Andrew Tyrie MP when I appeared before the Committee on January 6th to give evidence on the Bank of England’s latest Financial Stability Report.

This is a question to which many of us on our side have given much thought and I believe it to be the single most important question in the whole field of bank regulatory policy.

I was nonetheless caught off-guard when Mr. Tyrie asked it at the beginning of the session – I was expecting questions on the Bank’s latest nonsense, the results of its new stress tests – and my initial response was less than it should have been. But no excuse: it was a perfectly reasonable and entirely foreseeable question – the obvious question, even – and I still didn’t see it coming. Reminds me of the blunders I would occasionally make when I played competitive chess: I obviously haven’t improved much.

Thankfully, he asked me the same question again at the close of the session, and his doing so allowed me to give the correct answer clearly, an emphatic ‘No’. However, by this point there was no time to elaborate on the reasons why a bank in difficulties should be denied assistance.

These reasons go straight to the whole can of worms and my follow-up letter to Mr. Tyrie should, I hope, help to set the record straight.

My message to other advocates of free markets is that leaving aside the usual bailouts-are-bad stuff, we really should give more thought to what an Armageddon Plan B might look like: Yes, no bailouts would be best, even in our intervention-infested system, but in that case why do we humour lender-of-last-resort and, more to the point, if the government is even considering intervention in what it (rightly or wrongly) sees as an emergency in which something-really-ought-to-be-done-NOW, then what should we advise it to do – other than ‘Don’t’?

Mark my words: if we don’t give the government constructive advice, it will do what it always does when a crisis breaks out: it will panic and the chances of any sensible policy response will be zero.

So here is the text of the letter, dated January 12th:

“Dear Mr. Tyrie,

I would like to thank you for the opportunity to give evidence to the Treasury Committee at its meeting on January 6th.

At that meeting you asked me if the authorities should assist a bank that gets into difficulties.

My answer is ‘No’ but I should like to elaborate.

Consider first a free or laissez-faire banking system in which there is no central bank, no financial regulation and no other state interventions such as deposit insurance. In such a system, competitive pressures would force the banks to be financially strong; bankers who ran down their banks’ capital ratios or took excessive risks would eventually lose their depositors’ confidence and be run out of business, so losing their market share to more conservative and better-run competitors. Bankers themselves would have serious skin in the game and therefore have strong incentives to keep their banks sound: for them, bank failure would be personally costly. Banks would then be tightly governed and conservatively risk-managed, and the banking system as a whole would be highly stable.

There would still be occasional failures due to the incompetence of individual bankers, but these would be few and far between, and not pose systemic threats.

These claims from free-banking theory are broadly confirmed by the historical experiences of the many free or loosely regulated banking systems of the past, most notably the experiences of Scotland pre-1845 and 19th century Canada.

In such a system, there is no good case for official assistance to any bank in difficulties. A bank failure would be painful to those involved, but the possibility of bankruptcy is unavoidable in any industry in a healthy capitalist economy, and this includes the banking industry. Letting a badly run bank fail also sends out the right signals – it encourages other bankers to avoid the same mistakes, it encourages depositors to be careful with the banks they choose and it avoids the moral hazards inevitably created by any policy of assistance.

Modern banking systems differ from these systems because of the presence of extensive systems of state intervention, including a central bank, a central bank lender of last resort function, deposit insurance, capital adequacy regulation and other forms of financial regulation. In different ways, each of these interventions makes the banking system less stable: central banks through erratic and usually loose monetary policies, which create inflation and fuel asset price cycles, and generally destabilise the macroeconomy; the lender of last resort and deposit insurance by creating moral hazards that lead to excessive risk-taking by bankers; capital regulation by creating short-termist incentives for banks to reduce their capital (e.g., by playing games with risk models and risk weights); and financial regulation generally by its large compliance costs and its stifling of innovation. Over time, these interventions have made the banking system weaker and weaker, even though their usual stated intention was to strengthen the banking system rather than to weaken it.

However, even with the banking system already seriously weakened by a long history of misguided government interventions, the best policy response is still to refuse assistance to banks in difficulties. I say this for two main reasons:

  • the systemic effects of bank difficulties tend to be exaggerated even in a systemic crisis, sometimes grossly so; and

  • interventionist policy responses tend to make matters even worse.

The ideal response by policymakers is to refuse assistance point-blank – and to announce such a policy in advance so the bankers know where they stand.

Policymakers should follow the advice of Lord Liverpool, who was PM at the time of the last systemic banking crisis pre-2007, that of December 1825. In May that year, he foresaw the looming crisis and warned the House of Lords about the “general spirit of speculation, which was going beyond all bounds and was likely to bring about the greatest mischief on numerous individuals.” He wished it to be “clearly understood” that those involved “entered on their speculations at their own peril and risk” and he thought it his duty to declare that he would “never advise the introduction of any bill for their relief; on the contrary, if any such measure were proposed, he would oppose it” and he hoped Parliament would reject it.

In our current system such a response would require political leadership with uncommon vision and nerves of steel. When the next crisis occurs, it will explode unexpectedly, taking policymakers off guard. They will be under extreme pressure to respond quickly – probably within hours – on the basis of inadequate information, whilst bankers lobby intensely for immediate assistance: if we don’t get bailed out, the world will end, etc., the usual scare mongering. Under such circumstances, it would be extremely difficult for even the best political leadership to avoid being dragged into making the same mistakes made repeatedly in previous crises.

These mistakes include:

  • panicky rescues, which are later shown to be unnecessary, ill-judged and in some cases illegal;

  • the abandonment of previous ‘commitments’ to let badly run institutions fail;

  • bankers being rewarded for their failures by being made personally better off than they would have been had their banks been allowed to fail; and

  • more regulation or regulatory reshuffles accompanied by the usual empty promises that ‘it’ won’t happen again, made by the very people who had no idea what they were doing when they were in charge the last time round.

So how can we avert such outcomes? A good start would be an Act to prohibit future assistance: as much as possible within the confines of our constitution, we should seek to tie the government to the mast. “Much as I would like to help you”, the PM can say, “my hands are tied.”

But even with this Act in place, there is still the difficult question: if the government does respond to the next crisis, then what should it do?

To that question I would propose a publicly disclosed Plan B, whose main features would include:

  • a programme to keep the banking system as a whole operating at a basic level to prevent widespread economic collapse;

  • fast-track bankruptcy processes to resolve problem banks and, where possible, return them to operation as quickly as possible;

  • a prohibition of cronyist sweetheart deals for individual banks or bankers;

  • provisions to ensure that senior managers of any failed banks are made strictly liable to severe personal financial penalties;

  • a holding-to-account of senior bankers, regulators and policymakers, including the opening of criminal investigations into the activities of any banks that fail;

  • the establishment of a legal regime that imposes high standards of personal liability on senior bankers;

  • the restoration of sound accountancy standards; and

  • a radical programme to deregulate the banking industry.

This programme would include the abolition of the current regulatory structure including the PRA and FCA, the ending of deposit insurance, the UK’s withdrawal from the Basel system of capital regulation, and the reform (and preferably, abolition) of the Bank of England. These reforms would rein-in the out-of-control moral hazards that permeate our current banking system and restore the personal responsibility, tight governance and conservative risk-taking that are the keys to a sound banking system.

Contingency planning for the next crisis should also provide for only two possible responses by the authorities: either Plan A (i.e., do nothing) or Plan B as just set out. Any intermediate response should be prohibited, as that would merely open the door to the usual mistakes that the authorities are prone to make in such circumstances.

In short, in response to your question about whether a bank should receive assistance, my answer would be ‘No’, but if we are to avoid another bungled policy response when the next crisis occurs it would be wise to have a credible Plan B in place to address upfront the Armegeddon scenario of a possible systemic collapse. And if it does intervene, the government should use the opportunity to clean up banksterism once and for all and restore a sound banking system based on the principles of personal responsibility and laissez-faire.

Yours Sincerely

Kevin Dowd,

Durham University/Cobden Partners [etc.]”

There is a lot more to say on this subject, but one of the points that emerges most clearly for me is the pressing need for free-market narratives of the financial crisis, blow-by-blow accounts of how it should and might have been. In this context – and off the top of my head – I would particularly recommend the following (with apologies to those whose work I have overlooked):

John A. Allison, The Financial Crisis and the Free Market Cure, McGraw-Hill 2013, esp. chapters 14-17.

Richard Kovacevich, “The Financial Crisis: Why the Conventional Wisdom has it All Wrong”, Cato Journal Vol. 34, No. 3 (Fall 2014): 541-556.

Vern McKinley, “Run, Run, Run: Was the Financial Crisis Panic over Institution Runs Justified?Cato Policy Analysis 747, April 10, 2014

George A. Selgin, “Operation Twist-the-Truth: How the Federal Reserve Misrepresents its History and Performance”, Cato Journal Vol. 34, No. 2 (Spring/Summer 2014): 229-263.

These are all US-oriented of course and we badly need to work on similar narratives for the UK, Ireland and Europe.

But going back to the Treasury Committee, most of the discussion was on the regulatory risk models – or more precisely, on what is wrong with regulatory risk modelling and in particular, the Bank’s stress tests. I have to say, too, that I was greatly heartened to see the skepticism of the MPs towards the models and their openness towards our ideas, much of which is obviously down to the pathbreaking work that Steve Baker is doing on the Committee. But let me come to all that in another posting.

Economics

Greece, Germany and the ECB: and what it means for Bonds, Stocks and the Euro

Greece is back in the spotlight amid renewed fears of a break-up of the Euro as the Syriza party show a 3.1% lead over the incumbent New Democracy in the latest Rass opinion poll – 4thJanuary. The average of the last 20 polls – dating back to 15th December shows Syriza with a lead of 4.74% capturing 31.9% of the vote.

These election concerns have become elevated since the publication of an article in Der Spiegel Grexit Grumblings: Germany Open to Possible Greek Euro Zone Exit -suggesting that German Chancellor Merkel is now of the opinion that the Eurozone (EZ) can survive without Greece. Whilst Steffen Seibert – Merkle’s press spokesman – has since stated that the “political leadership” isn’t working on blueprints for a Greek exit, the idea that Greece might be “let go” has captured the imagination of the markets.

A very different view, of the potential damage a Greek exit might cause to the EZ, is expressed by Market Watch – Greek euro exit would be ‘Lehman Brothers squared’: economistquoting Barry Eichengreen, speaking at the American Economic Association conference, who described a Greek exit from the Euro:-

In the short run, it would be Lehman Brothers squared.

Writing at the end of last month the Economist – The euro’s next crisis described the expectation of a Syriza win in the forthcoming elections:-

In its policies Syriza represents, at best, uncertainty and contradiction and at worst reckless populism. On the one hand Mr Tsipras has recanted from his one-time hostility to Greece’s euro membership and toned down his more extravagant promises. Yet, on the other, he still thinks he can tear up the conditions imposed by Greece’s creditors in exchange for two successive bail-outs. His reasoning is partly that the economy is at last recovering and Greece is now running a primary budget surplus (ie, before interest payments); and partly that the rest of the euro zone will simply give in as they have before. On both counts he is being reckless.

In theory a growing economy and a primary surplus may help a country repudiate its debts because it is no longer dependent on capital inflows.

The complexity of the political situation in Greece is such that the outcome of the election, scheduled for 25th January, will, almost certainly, be a coalition. Syriza might form an alliance with the ultra-right wing Golden Dawn who have polled an average of 6.49% in the last 20 opinion polls, who are also anti-Austerity, but they would be uncomfortable bedfellows in most other respects. Another option might be the Communist Party of Greece who have polled 5.8% during the same period. I believe the more important development for the financial markets during the last week has been the change of tone in Germany.

The European bond markets have taken heed, marking down Greek bonds whilst other peripheral countries have seen record low 10 year yields. 10 year Bunds have also marched inexorably upwards. European stock markets, by contrast, have been somewhat rattled by the Euro Break-up spectre’s return to the feast. It may be argued that they are also reacting to concerns about collapsing oil prices, the geo-political stand-off with Russia, the continued slow-down in China and other emerging markets and general expectations of lower global growth. In the last few sessions many stock markets have rallied strongly, mainly on hopes of aggressive ECB intervention.

Unlike the Economist, who are concerned about EZ contagion, Brookings – A Greek Crisis but not a Euro Crisis sees a Euro break-up as a low probability:-

A couple of years ago the prospect of a Syriza-led government caused serious tremors in European markets because of the fear that an extremely bad outcome in Greece was possible, such as its exit from the Euro system, and that this would create contagion effects in Portugal and other weaker nations. Fortunately, Europe is in a much better situation now to withstand problems in Greece and to avoid serious ramifications for other struggling member states. The worst of the crisis is over in the weak nations and the system as a whole is better geared to support those countries if another wave of market fears arise.

It is quite unlikely that Greece will end up falling out of the Euro system and no other outcome would have much of a contagion effect within Europe. Even if Greece did exit the Euro, there is now a strong possibility that the damage could be confined largely to Greece, since no other nation now appears likely to exit, even in a crisis.

Neither Syriza nor the Greek public (according to every poll) wants to pull out of the Euro system and they have massive economic incentives to avoid such an outcome, since the transition would almost certainly plunge Greece back into severe recession, if not outright depression. So, a withdrawal would have to be the result of a series of major miscalculations by Syriza and its European partners. This is not out of the question, but the probability is very low, since there would be multiple decision points at which the two sides could walk back from an impending exit.

I think The Guardian – Angela Merkel issues New Year’s warning over rightwing Pegida group – provides an insight into the subtle change in Germany’s stance:-

German chancellor Angela Merkel in a New Year’s address deplored the rise of a rightwing populist movement, saying its leaders have “prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts”.

In her strongest comments yet on the so-called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida), she spoke of demonstrators shouting “we are the people”, co-opting a slogan from the rallies that led up to the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago.

“But what they really mean is: you are not one of us, because of your skin colour or your religion,” Merkel said, according to a pre-released copy of a televised speech she was to due to deliver to the nation on Wednesday evening.

“So I say to all those who go to such demonstrations: do not follow those who have called the rallies. Because all too often they have prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts.”

Concern about domestic politics in Germany and rising support for the ultra right-wing Pegida party makes the prospect of allowing Greece to leave the Euro look like the lesser of two evils. Yet a Greek exit and default on its Euro denominated obligations would destabilise the European banking system leading to a spate of deleveraging across the continent. In order to avert this outcome, German law makers have already begun to soften their “hard-line” approach, extending the olive branch of a potential renegotiation of the terms and maturity of outstanding Greek debt with whoever wins the forthcoming election. I envisage a combination of debt forgiveness, maturity extension and restructuring of interest payments – perish the thought that there be a sovereign default.

Carry Concern

Last month the BIS – Financial stability risks: old and new caused alarm when it estimated non-domestic US$ denominated debt of non-banks to be in the region of $9trln:-

Total outstanding US dollar-denominated debt of non-banks located outside the United States now stands at more than $9 trillion, having grown from $6 trillion at the beginning of 2010. The largest increase has been in corporate bonds issued by emerging market firms responding to the surge in demand by yield-hungry fixed income investors.

Within the EZ the quest for yield has been no less rabid, added to which, risk models assume zero currency risk for EZ financial institutions that hold obligations issued in Euro’s. The preferred trade for many European banks has been to purchase their domestic sovereign bonds because of the low capital requirements under Basel II. Allowing banks to borrow short and lend long has been tacit government policy for alleviating bank balance sheet shortfalls, globally, in every crisis since the great moderation, if not before. The recent rise in Greek bond yields is therefore a concern.

An additional concern is that the Greek government bond yield curve has inverted dramatically in the past month. The three year yields have risen most precipitously. This is a problem for banks which borrowed in the medium maturity range in order to lend longer. Fortunately most banks borrow at very much shorter maturity, nonetheless the curve inversion represents a red flag : –

Date 3yr 10yr Yield curve
14-Oct 4.31 7.05 2.74
29-Dec 10.14 8.48 -1.66
06-Jan 13.81 9.7 -4.11

 

Source: Investing.com

Over the same period Portuguese government bonds have, so far, experienced little contagion:-

Date 3yr 10yr Yield curve
14-Oct 1.03 2.56 1.53
29-Dec 1.06 2.75 1.69
06-Jan 0.92 2.56 1.64

 

Source: Investing.com

EZ Contagion

Greece received Euro 245bln in bail-outs from the Troika; if they should default, the remaining EZ 17 governments will have to pick up the cost. Here is the breakdown of state guarantees under the European Financial Stability Facility:-

 

Country Guarantee Commitments Eur Mlns Percentage
Austria 21,639.19 2.78%
Belgium 27,031.99 3.47%
Cyprus 1,525.68 0.20%
Estonia 1,994.86 0.26%
Finland 13,974.03 1.79%
France 158,487.53 20.32%
Germany 211,045.90 27.06%
Greece 21,897.74 2.81%
Ireland 12,378.15 1.59%
Italy 139,267.81 17.86%
Luxembourg 1,946.94 0.25%
Malta 704.33 0.09%
Netherlands 44,446.32 5.70%
Portugal 19,507.26 2.50%
Slovakia 7,727.57 0.99%
Slovenia 3,664.30 0.47%
Spain 92,543.56 11.87%
EZ 17 779,783.14 100%

Assuming the worst case scenario of a complete default – which seems unlikely even given the par less state of Greek finances – this would put Italy on the hook for Eur 43bln, Spain for Eur 28.5bln, Portugal for Eur 6bln and Ireland for Eur 3.8bln.

The major European Financial Institutions may have learned their lesson, about over-investing in the highest yielding sovereign bonds, during the 2010/2011 crisis – according to an FTinterview with JP Morgan Cazenove, exposure is “limited” – but domestic Greek banks are exposed. The interconnectedness of European bank exposures are still difficult to gauge due to the lack of a full “Banking Union”. Added to which, where will these cash-strapped governments find the money needed to meet this magnitude of shortfall?

The ECBs response

ECB Balance Sheet - Bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg

In an interview with Handelsblatt last week, ECB president Mario Draghi reiterated the bank’s commitment to expand their balance sheet from Eur2 trln to Eur3 trln if conditions require it. Given that Eurostat published a flash estimate of Euro area inflation for December this week at -0.2% vs +0.3% in November, I expect the ECB to find conditions requiring a balance sheet expansion sooner rather than later. Reuters – ECB considering three approaches to QE – quotes the Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagbad expecting one of three actions:-

…one option officials are considering is to pump liquidity into the financial system by having the ECB itself buy government bonds in a quantity proportionate to the given member state’s shareholding in the central bank.

A second option is for the ECB to buy only triple-A rated government bonds, driving their yields down to zero or into negative territory. The hope is that this would push investors into buying riskier sovereign and corporate debt.

The third option is similar to the first, but national central banks would do the buying, meaning that the risk would “in principle” remain with the country in question, the paper said.

The issue of “monetary financing” – forbidden under Article 123 of the Lisbon Treaty – has still to be resolved, so Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) in respect of EZ government bonds are still not a viable policy option. That leaves Covered bonds – a market of Eur 2.6trln of which only around Eur 600bln are eligible for the ECB to purchase – and Asset Backed Securities (ABS) with around Eur 400bln of eligible securities. These markets are simply not sufficiently liquid for the ECB to expand its balance sheet by Eur 1trln. In 2009 they managed to purchase Eur 60bln of Covered bonds but only succeeded in purchasing Eur 16.9bln of the second tranche – the bank had committed to purchase up to Eur 40bln.

Since its inception in July 2009 the ECB have purchased just shy of Eur 108bln of Covered bonds and ABS: –

Security Primary Secondary Total Eur Mlns Inception Date
ABS N/A N/A 1,744 21/11/2014
Covered Bonds 1 N/A N/A 28,817 02/07/2009 *
Covered Bonds 2 6015 10375 16,390 03/11/2011
Covered Bonds 3 5245 24387 29,632 20/10/2014
Total 76,583
* Original purchase Eur 60bln

Source: ECB

These amounts are a drop in the ocean. If the ECB is not permitted to purchase government bonds what other options does it have? I believe the alternative is to follow the lead set by the Bank of Japan (BoJ) in purchasing corporate bonds and common stocks. To date the BoJ has only indulged in relatively minor “qualitative” easing; the ECB has an opportunity to by-pass the fragmented European banking system and provide finance and permanent capital directly to the European corporate sector.

Over the past year German stocks has been relatively stable whilst Greek equities, since the end of Q2, have declined. Assuming Greece does not vote to leave the Euro, Greek and other peripheral European stocks will benefit if the ECB should embark on its own brand of Qualitative and Quantitative Easing (QQE):-

Athens_vs_DAX_one_year bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg               Note:      Blue = Athens SE Composite               Purple = DAX

It is important to make a caveat at this juncture. The qualitative component of the BoJ QQE programme has been derisory in comparison to their buying of JGBs; added to which, whilst the socialisation of the European corporate sector is hardly political anathema to many European politicians it is a long way from “lending at a penal rate in exchange for good collateral” – the traditional function of a central bank in times of crisis.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

European Government Bonds

Whilst the most likely political outcome is a relaxation of Article 123 of the Lisbon Treaty, allowing the ECB, or the national Central Bank’s to purchase EZ sovereign bonds, much of the favourable impact on government bond yields is already reflected in the price. 10 year JGBs – after decades of BoJ buying – yield 30bp, German Bunds – without the support of the ECB – yield 46bp. Aside from Greek bonds, peripheral members of the EZ have seen their bond yields decline over the past month. If the ECB announce OMT I believe the bond rally will be short-lived.

European Stocks

Given the high correlation between stocks markets in general and developed country stock markets in particular, it is dangerous to view Europe in isolation. The US market is struggling with a rising US$ and collapsing oil price. These factors have undermined confidence in the short-term. The US market is also looking to the Europe, since a further slowdown in Europe, combined with weakness in emerging markets act as a drag on US growth prospects. On a relative value basis European stocks are moderately expensive. The driver of performance, as it has been since 2008, will be central bank policy. A 50% increase in the size of the ECB balance sheet will be supportive for European stocks, as I have mentioned in previous posts, Ireland is my preferred investment, with a bias towards the real-estate sector.

The Euro

Whilst the EUR/USD rate continues to decline the Nominal Effective Exchange Rate as calculated by the ECB, currently at 98, is around the middle of its range (81 – 114) since the inception of the currency and still some way above the recent lows seen in July 2012 when it reached 94. The October 2000 low of 81 is far away.

If a currency war is about to break-out between the major trading nations, the Euro doesn’t look like the principal culprit. I expect the Euro to continue to decline, except, perhaps against the JPY. Against the GBP a short EUR exposure will be less volatile but it will exhibit a more political dimension since the UK is a natural safe haven when an EZ crisis is brewing.

Economics

Crisis? What Crisis?

[The following is a shortened version of an original which first appeared on the author’s website, www.truesinews.com ]

As Britain fast approaches what is arguably the most intriguingly unpredictable election of the modern era, the question must be also asked, how well situated is the country – economically speaking – to endure such a vigorous test of its political institutions?

To this observer, the answer would be ‘not very well, at all.’ Britain, you see, is rapidly sliding back into its bad old ways of spending too much, saving too little, and all the while allowing the state to loom far too large in people’s affairs, bolstered by the fact that far too many members of the populace are loth to give up their long-accustomed habit of trying to live at their neighbours’ expense and of borrowing from abroad whatever dole transfers the state cannot raise in taxes at home.

Let us start with the latest economic round to see what we mean. Though hours worked in the UK, along with both overall and private sector GDP, are each enviably some 3-5% above the pre-Crash peak – a constellation of which many Eurozone countries can still only dream – this has come about only through a 7-year reduction in real wages of a cumulative 11%.

Pricing people back into jobs this way is one thing – if decidedly more unfair on all the other innocent victims of the Bank of England’s inflationism than would have been a simple pay cut – but it is also significant that, having trended up at around 2.3% per annum for almost four decades, real GDP per hour worked has shown no improvement whatsoever since Northern Rock closed its doors, seven long years ago. If we add in the fact that the UK has officially seen net inward migration of 1.5 million people in that same period, we can perhaps see how much of that growth has been achieved – through the blunt instrument of adding a big slug of low wage, low output, imported labour to the mix.

Sadly, in its policies of determined monetary laxity, Fred Karney’s army have added two malign side-effects to the short term boost to growth for which they are so widely praised. Firstly, the combination of Gilt-enacted QE with near zero interest rates has loosened the constraints on a state sector which still routinely spends a sum equivalent to almost one half of private GDP, with around a sixth of that being borrowed, even now amid a recovery vigorous enough to elicit a full measure of George Osborne’s headline-hogging boastfulness. Alarmingly, too, the punishment of savers and the encouragement of borrowers has reached a point where households have become net debtors at the aggregate level for the first time since the GFC while, simultaneously, non-financial corporates have collectively swung into the red for the first time since they were borrowing to relieve Culpability Brown of his pricey mobile phone airwave licences, back at the height of the Tech Bubble.

Mortgage debt is rising by £20 billion a year, consumer credit by £10 billion (the most since late ’08), student loans by £7 billion. Disposable income grew £29 billion in that same time which means debt:income may be swelling once more, from a point still north of 130%.

As a result, while state prodigality has diminished from its peak deficit of 10.7% of GDP (seen between QI-09 and QI-10) to today’s 5.9%, the non-financial private sector has gone from a point where it was saving 8.8% (and so funding four-fifths of Leviathan’s excesses) to a point where it, too, is now looking for 0.5% of GDP for its own consumptive purposes (all figures 4Q moving averages).

No wonder then that the current account deficit has blown up to a six decade high of 6.0% of GDP, despite the co-existence of a record surplus of 5.1% on the service account (the arithmetically astute will quickly infer that this must entail a similarly swingeing deficit on visible trade – a shortfall which in fact stretches to a hefty 7.1%). For comparison, when Chancellor Dennis Healey suffered the ignominy of appealing to the IMF for help in 1976, the balance of payments was only 1.5% in the red (though the tally had briefly hit 4.3% a year or two before, in the immediate aftermath of the first oil shock).

In fact, if we only look at the latest reported data – those for QIII – there is a chance that the BOP number may be revised to yet a deeper nadir since, in the three months to September, the ONS presently estimates that the public deficit was 5.1% of GDP, while households borrowed a six-year high balance of 2.6% of GDP and corporates took up a 14-year high credit of 2.2%, making for an aggregate shortfall of no less than 9.9%. Subtracting a net positive contribution of 0.2% from the domestic financial sector, that still leaves 9.7% to be financed, in theory, from foreigners and thereby to determine the scale of the current account deficit.

Performing the calculation in a different manner, the UK government has borrowed £109 billion ($167 billion) in the twelve months to September, an overspend which has leaked almost entirely abroad and has thus required a £98 billion ($150 billion) contribution in goods sold on credit from the world beyond Albion’s shining seas.

So, let us forget for a moment the controversy over the gaping hole which persists in the government’s finances and the laughably misnamed policy of ‘austerity’ which the regime has adopted to try to deal with this. Instead, let us lift our eyes to a horizon beyond our shores and we can surely agree that the sum of £130 a month per capita is not at all an unimpressive pace at which to be adding to a net external deficit of £450 billion (25% of GDP) or to an ex-FDI gross liability of £8,840 billion (490% of GDP), against which mountain of potentially nervy obligations the Treasury disposes of a defence against a classic ‘sudden stop’ of a paltry £63 billion in FX reserves (equal to around two months’ worth of goods imports).

Thus, not only is a full-employment Britain a country which must run an unsustainably large external deficit (since it is already setting records with 6% of the workforce still out of a job), but it has again been seduced into being one where all sectors are borrowing, not saving, largely in order to finance present consumption, meaning it is prey to a rather nasty, Hayekian ‘intertemporal’ disequilibrium – the cardinal economic sin of enjoying overmuch jam today at the cost of jam foregone tomorrow.

One day the piper to whose shrill accompaniment we are now dancing our merry jig (our Chuck Prince Charleston?) will present us with a bill which we are unlikely to be able to meet absent a great deal of sacrifice and possibly not without suffering a veritable collapse in the value of the currency to boot.

Since this is the time of year when we pundits traditionally have to set out scenarios containing an element of surprise, allow us to posit a very pleasant one, amid all the foreboding outlined above. Imagine if you will that, shortly after the election is held, our migrant cuckoo of a central bank governor will be fluttering off and away, back to his native Canada to ready his own political promotion – either by reinforcing the governing team if Junior Trudeau’s Liberals triumph there in October or perhaps by taking over the leadership should the latter’s bid ends in failure. One thing of which we can be fairly sure is that Moralising Mark will not hang around long to see a political melt-down in Britain mutate into a full blown sterling crisis and so add a few unsightly blots to his heretofore Teflon-coated escutcheon.

Economics

Beyond satire

Je ne suis pas Charlie. I am not Charlie, I am not brave enough.

“Across the world, and certainly across Twitter, people are showing solidarity with the murdered journalists of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, proclaiming in black and white that they too share the values that got the cartoonists killed. Emotionally and morally I am entirely with that collective display — but actually I and almost all those declaring their solidarity are not Charlie because we simply do not have their courage.

“Charlie Hebdo’s leaders were much, much braver than most of us; maddeningly, preposterously and — in the light of their barbarous end — recklessly brave. The kind of impossibly courageous people who actually change the world. As George Bernard Shaw noted, the “reasonable man adapts himself to the world while the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself”, and therefore “all progress depends upon the unreasonable man”. Charlie Hebdo was the unreasonable man. It joined the battle that has largely been left to the police and security services..

“It is an easy thing to proclaim solidarity after their murder and it is heart-warming to see such a collective response. But in the end — like so many other examples of hashtag activism, like the #bringbackourgirls campaign over kidnapped Nigerian schoolchildren — it will not make a difference, except to make us feel better. Some took to the streets but most of those declaring themselves to be Charlie did so from the safety of a social media account. I don’t criticise them for wanting to do this; I just don’t think most of us have earned the right.”

“But the rest of us, like me, who sit safely in an office in western Europe — or all those in other professions who would never contemplate taking the kind of risks those French journalists took daily — we are not Charlie. We are just glad that someone had the courage to be.”

–       Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times, 8 January 2015.

 

“Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”

–       Zechariah Chafee , Jr.

 

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

–       Voltaire.

 

On All Saint’s Day, 1st November 1755, an earthquake measuring roughly 9 on the Richter scale struck the Portuguese capital, Lisbon. At least 30,000 people are estimated to have perished. A little over half an hour after the original quake, a tsunami engulfed the lower half of the city. Those not affected by the quake or the tsunami were then beset by a succession of fires, which burned for five days. 85% of Lisbon’s buildings were destroyed. Ripples from the earthquake were felt far afield. Finland and North Africa felt aftershocks; a smaller tsunami made landfall in Cornwall.

 

Such destruction had a follow-on impact, in both philosophical and theological terms. In June 1756, the Inquisition responded with an auto-da-fé – a witch-hunt, effectively, for heretics.

 

One, much-loved, novel happens to cover both of these events, along with a third, from March 1757, when the British Admiral John Byng was executed for cowardice in the face of the French enemy at the battle of Minorca. This inspired the famous line, “Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres”: “In this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.”

 

That novel was written by a Frenchman, François-Marie Arouet, in 1758. We know him better today by his nom de plume: Voltaire. And his satirical magnum opus that catalogued these various disasters was called ‘Candide’.

 

‘Candide’ is a triumph of the style of novel best described as ‘picaresque’. It’s crammed with eminently quotable lines – the ‘Pulp Fiction’ of its day, if you will. Candide himself is a naïf who wanders with wide-eyed innocence through a savage and corrupt world. But in its Professor Pangloss it offers us the perfect encapsulation of today’s rogue economist, the unworldly and confused academic whose misguided practice of a false science has dreadful implications for the rest of us. A good modern-day example would be Martin Wolf, the FT’s chief economics correspondent, who on Friday complained about the UK’s property planning regime being “Stalinist”. Mr Wolf should try looking in the mirror more often – he is an ardent supporter of Stalinist monetary policy, for example.

 

As investors we are all now the subjects of a grotesque monetary experiment. This experiment has never been tried before, and its outcome remains uncertain. The unproven thesis, however, runs something like this: six years into a second Great Depression, the only “solution” is for central banks to print ever greater amounts of money. Somehow, gifting free money to the banks that helped precipitate the crisis will lead to a ‘trickle down’ wealth effect. Instead of impoverishing those with savings, inflation will be some kind of miraculous curative, and it must be encouraged at all costs.

 

It bears repeating: we are in an extraordinary financial environment. In the words of the fund managers at Incrementum AG,

 

“We are currently on a journey to the outer reaches of the monetary universe.”

 

On January 25th, Greece goes to the polls. Greek voters face the unedifying choice of re-electing the buffoons who got the country into its current mess or electing rival buffoons issuing comparably ridiculous economic promises that cannot possibly be fulfilled. Voltaire would be in his element. But Greece is hardly alone. Just about every government in the euro zone fiddled its figures to qualify for membership of this not particularly exclusive club, and now the electorate of the euro zone is paying the price. Not that any of this is new news; the euro zone has been in crisis more or less since its inception. If it hadn’t been for sterling’s inglorious ethnic cleansing from the exchange rate mechanism in September 1992, the UK might be in the same boat. Happily, for once, the market was allowed to prevail. The market triumphed over the cloudy vision of bewildered politicians, and the British chancellor ended up singing in the bath. (That he had been a keen advocate of EMU and the single currency need not concern us – consistency or principles are not necessarily required amongst politicians.)

But the market – a quaint concept of a bygone age – has largely disappeared. It has been replaced throughout the West by bureaucratic manipulation of prices, in part known as QE but better described as financial repression. Anyone who thinks the bureaucrats are going to succeed in whatever Panglossian vision they’re pursuing would be well advised to read Schuettinger and Butler’s ‘Forty centuries of wage and price controls’. The clueless bureaucrat has a lot of history behind him. In each case it is a history of failure, but history is clearly not much taught – and certainly not respected – in bureaucratic circles these days. The Mises bookstore describes the book as a “popular guide to ridiculous economic policy from the ancient world to modern times. This outstanding history illustrates the utter futility of fighting the market process through legislation. It always uses despotic measures to yield socially catastrophic results.”

The subtitle of Schuettinger and Butler’s book is ‘How not to fight inflation’. But inflation isn’t the thing that our clueless bureaucrats are fighting. The war has shifted to one against deflation – because consumers clearly have to be protected from everyday lower prices.

Among the coverage of last week’s dreadful events in Paris, there has been surprisingly little discussion about the belief systems of religions other than Islam. We think that Stephen Roberts spoke a good deal of sense when he remarked to a person of faith:

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

There is altogether too much worship of false gods in our economy and what remains of our market system. Some hubris amongst our technocratic “leaders” would be most welcome. Until we get it, the requirement to concentrate on only the most explicit examples of value remains the only thing in investment that makes any sense at all.

 

Economics

2015: the year of the slump?

2014 ended with two ominous developments: the strength of the US dollar and a collapse in key commodity prices.

It is tempting to view both events as one, but the continuing fall in oil prices through December reveals they are sequential: first there was a greater preference for dollars compared with other currencies and this still persists, followed by a developing preference for all but the weakest currencies at the expense of raw materials and energy. These are two steps on a path that should logically lead to a global slump.

Dollar strength was the first warning that things were amiss, leading to higher interest rates in many of the emerging economies as their central banks sought to control investment outflows. Since this followed a prolonged period of credit expansion these countries appear to be entering the bust phase of the credit-driven boom-and-bust cycle; so for them, 2015 at a minimum will see a slump in economic activity as the accumulated malinvestments from the past are unwound. According to the IMF database, emerging market and developing economies at current prices account for total GDP of over $30 trillion, compared with advanced economies’ GDP totalling $47 trillion. It is clear that a slump in the former will have serious repercussions for the latter.

As the reserve currency the dollar is central to the exchange value of all other currencies. This is despite attempts by China and Russia to trade without it. Furthermore and because of this dependency, the global economy has become more geared to the dollar over the years because it has expanded relative to the US. In 2000, the US was one-third of global GDP; today it is about one-fifth.

The second development, falling energy and commodity prices, while initially driven by the same factors as dollar strength, confirms the growing likelihood of a global slump. If falling prices were entirely due to increased supply of the commodities involved, we could rejoice. However, while there has been some increase in energy and commodity supply the message is clear, and that is demand at current prices has unexpectedly declined, and prices are now trying to find a new equilibrium. And because we are considering world demand, this development is being missed or misread by economists who lack a global perspective.

The price of oil has approximately halved in the last six months. The fall has been attributed variously to the west trying to bankrupt Russia, or to Saudi Arabia driving American shale production out of business. This misses the bigger picture: according to BP’s Statistical Review 2014, at the beginning of last year world oil consumption comfortably exceeded supply, 91.3million barrels per day compared with 86.8. This indicates that something fundamental changed in 2014 to collapse the price, and that something can only be a sudden fall in demand in the second half.

Iron ore prices have also halved over the last six months, but other key commodities, such as copper which fell by only 11% over the period, appear to have not yet adjusted to the emerging markets slump. This complies with business cycle theory, because in the early stages of a slump businesses remain committed to their capital investment plans in the vain hope that conditions will improve. This being the case, the collapse in demand for energy can be expected to deepen and spread to other industrial raw materials as manufacturers throw in the towel and their investment plans are finally abandoned.

Therefore the economic background to the financial outlook for the global economy is not encouraging. Nor was it at the beginning of 2014, when it was obviously going to be a difficult year. The difference a year on is that the concerns about the future are more crystallised. This time last year I wrote that we were heading towards a second (to Lehman) and unexpected financial and currency crisis that could happen at any time. I only modify that to say the crisis has indeed begun and it has much further to go this year. This is the background against which we must briefly consider some of the other major currencies, and precious metals.

Japan and the yen

The complacency about Japan in the economic and investment communities is astonishing. Japan is committed to a scale of monetary inflation that if continued can only end up destroying the yen. The Bank of Japan is now financing the equivalent of twice the government deficit (¥41 trillion) by issuing new currency, some of which is being used to buy Japanese equity ETFs and property REITs. By these means pricing in bond, equity and commercial property markets has become irrelevant. “Abenomics” is about financing the government and managing the markets under the Keynesian cover of stimulating both the economy and animal spirits. In fact, with over ¥1.2 quadrillion of public sector debt the government is caught in a debt trap from which it sees no escape other than bluff. And since Abenomics was first embarked upon two years ago, the yen has fallen from 75 to the US dollar to 120, or 37%.

Instead of learning the lessons of previous hyperinflations, mainstream economists fall for the official line and ignore the facts. The facts are simple: Japan is a welfare state with an increasing and unsustainable ratio of retirees to tax-paying workers. She is the leading advanced nation on a debt path the other welfare nations are closely following. Consensus forecasts that the Japanese economy will be stimulated into recovery in 2015 are wide of the mark: instead she is destroying her currency and private sector wealth with it.

Eurozone and the euro

In the short-term the Eurozone is being revisited by its Greek problem. Whether or not the next Greek government backs off from confronting the other Eurozone members and the ECB remains to be seen. The problems for the Eurozone lie considerably deeper than Greece, made worse by politicians who have been reluctant to use the time bought by the ECB to address the structural difficulties of the 19 Eurozone members. The result is the stronger northern bloc (Germany, Netherlands, Finland and Luxembourg) is being crippled by the burden of the Mediterranean states plus Portugal plus France. And Germany and Finland have suffered the further blow of losing valuable export business from Russia.

In the coming months the Eurozone will likely face gas shortages from Russia through the trans-Ukrainian pipeline, and price deflation driven by energy and other commodity prices. Price deflation spurs two further points to consider, one false and the other true: lower prices are deemed to be recessionary (false), and falling prices increase the burden of real debt (true). The consequence is that the ECB will seek ways to expand money supply aggressively to stop the Eurozone from drifting into an economic crisis. In short, the Eurozone will likely develop its own version of Abenomics, the principal difference being the Eurozone’s timeline is behind Japan’s.

US and UK

Japan and the Eurozone account for total GDP of $18.3 trillion, slightly more than the US and added to the emerging and developing economies, gives a total of $48 trillion, or 62% of global GDP for nations leading the world into a slump. So when we consider the prospects for the US and the UK, together producing $20.4 trillion or 26% of the world’s GDP, their prospects are not good either. The UK as a trading nation exposed to the Eurozone has immediate risk, while the US which is not so dependent on international trade, less so.

Precious metals

The foregoing analysis is of the primary economic drivers for 2015 upon which all else will ultimately depend. The risk of a global slump can be called a first order event, while the possibility of a banking crisis, derivatives default or other market dislocation brought on by a slump could be termed a second order event. There is no point in speculating about the possibility and timing of second order events occurring in 2015, because they ultimately depend on the performance of the global economy.

However, when it becomes clear to investors that the global economy is indeed entering a slump, financial and systemic risks are certain to escalate. Judging this escalation by monitoring markets will be difficult because central banks, exchange stability funds and sovereign wealth funds routinely intervene in markets, rendering them misleading as price signals.

Precious metals are the only assets beyond the long-term control of governments. They can distort precious metal markets in the short term by expanding the quantity of derivatives, and there is a body of evidence that these methods have been employed in recent years. But most price distortion today appears to have come from bullion and investment banks who are fully committed to partying in bonds, equities and derivatives, and for which gold is a spoiler. This complacency is bound to be undermined at some point, and a global economic slump is the likely catalyst.

The dangers of ever-inflating currencies are clearly illustrated by the Fiat Money Quantity, which has continued to expand at an alarming rate as shown in the chart below.

FMQ 09012015

FMQ measures the amount of fiat currency issued as a replacement for gold as money, so is a measure of unbacked monetary expansion. At $13.52 trillion last November it is $5.68 trillion above the long-established pre-Lehman crisis growth path, stark evidence of a depreciating currency in monetary terms. Adjusting the price of gold for this depreciation gives a price today the equivalent of $490 in dollars at that time and quantity, so gold has roughly halved in real currency terms since the Lehman crisis.

Conclusion

There is compelling evidence that 2015 will see a global slump in economic activity. This being the case, financial and systemic risks will increase as evidence of the slump accumulates. It can be expected to undermine global equities, property and finally bond markets, which are currently all priced for economic stability. Even though these markets are increasingly controlled by central bank intervention, it is dangerous to assume this will continue to be the case as financial and systemic risks accumulate.

Precious metals are ultimately free from price management by the state. Furthermore, they are the only asset class notably under-priced today, given the enormous increase in the quantity of fiat money since the Lehman crisis.

In short, 2015 is shaping up to be very bad for fiat currencies and very good for gold and silver.

Economics

Time Horizons And Time Preference

Recent dollar strength has been a surprise to many but a strong dollar was also a key component of the Asian currency crises of 1997-98. These contributed to sharply lower oil prices, which in turn helped to trigger the 1998 Russian debt default, European bond spread de-convergence and spectacular blowup of hedge-fund Long Term Capital Management (LTCM). It is worth recalling that, when LTCM failed, the dollar abruptly gave up a full year of gains. While history rhymes rather than repeats, I suspect something comparable is likely in 2015, although with US total economy debt much higher, the potential for a sharp decline in the dollar is that much greater.

Back when I managed macro strategy teams at investment banks, I had a simple set of guidelines that I required junior strategists to follow when making investment recommendations, that is, in addition to those required by the firm or the regulators. These included:

  • Recommendations must be supported by a broad range of fact-checked evidence, rather than one or two ‘cherry-picked’ pieces;
  • Recommendations must be ‘actionable’ in a practical way by the target clients and one or more of these must be specified;
  • Recommendations must not only provide a specific price (or return) target, but also an estimate of risk (or volatility) and reference to a specific time horizon;
  • Recommendations must include one or more conditions under which the particular investment would no longer be as attractive, if at all.

In practice, most analysts managed in their initial draft recommendations to follow the first two but struggled when it came to the third and fourth. The reason for this is most probably the inclination that many if not all quantitative-analytical types have for expecting that financial assets be priced ‘correctly’, according to whatever analytical framework is applied. If something is out of line, so the thinking goes, it should start correcting as soon as the analysis in question is complete and should completely correct over the short-to-medium term time horizon of primary importance to the bulk of those active in the investment management industry.

While that might seem reasonable, the problem is that, notwithstanding claims to the contrary, investors are not rational. Indeed, I would hold that no economic actors are rational in any meaningful, measurable way. This is due in part to my view of human nature and modern psychology seems to uncover new ways in which our minds are biased and irrational with each passing day. But if all investment opinions are biased and irrational to some degree, the sum of all such opinions—the financial markets—is most probably also biased and irrational.

So-called ‘behavioural investing’ tries to address these biases in a systematic way in order generate excess investment returns over time with acceptably low risk. However, the problem with any such ‘fight the irrational herd’ approach is, to paraphrase Keynes, “The herd can remain irrational longer than the rational investor can remain solvent.” On top of this there is the added complexity of the so-called ‘beauty contest’, also mentioned by Keynes, in which investors constantly try to out-guess each others’ intentions, irrational, behavioural or otherwise, so what in fact is ultimately decisive in price determination at any point in time arguably has little if anything to do with any underlying, fundamental, rational investment process.

Having been an active investor for many years, I have experienced a number of profit and loss events across a broad range of assets and strategies. In the end, while idea generation, however rudimentary, is necessary to active trading or investing, it is ultimately some aspect of risk management, of knowing when NOT to trade or invest, that often tips the balance between success and failure. Sure, anyone can be ‘smart’ or ‘lucky’ for a time but the irrational herd is far more dangerous to the unusually smart than to the lucky, even though many in the latter category no doubt consider themselves also (or perhaps exclusively) in the former camp.

The fight against irrationality, if one wishes to call it that, is thus one that is overwhelming more likely to be won in the longer-term, over which most investors have only little or no interest. In the economic jargon, investors have high ‘time preference’ to front-load investment returns, by implication taking irrationally large longer-term risks. For institutional investors managing other peoples’ money, it is often a losing business proposition to fight the herd so aggressively as to risk losing clients, even if the investment views implemented ultimately work out longer-term. Holding on to client money month after month, quarter after quarter, year after year, when an apparently irrational market chooses to become ever more irrational is a potentially career-limiting move in the extreme. Thus herd-following, rather than fighting, becomes the industry norm, and those who rise to the top of large asset management organisations do so not because they are great investors but because they are skilled at retaining client assets regardless of the direction in which the irrational herd is travelling.

This natural (if irrational) herding tendency is further exaggerated when economic or monetary officials intervene in order to ‘stabilise’ asset markets, which at least since 1987 has meant to prevent them from correcting violently to the downside. 1. When the herd believes that officials have their backs, they tend to ignore the risks closing in on their backsides for far longer than they ought to. And so the inevitable bubbles that form can continue to grow and grow, yet concern about them fades and fades, as normalcy bias and policy goals converge in a world of ever-rising or at least not falling asset prices.

In this world, biased by policy towards steadily rising asset prices, returns beget leverage, and leveraged returns beget greater leverage. Regulators pretend as if they can manage this and its probable future effects on the financial system and economy, but 2008 and many other manias, panics and crashes that have come and gone before inform us otherwise. Sure, a new regulatory effort is rolled out now and again, to much fanfare: Note the central bankers’ ‘macroprudential’ PR campaign over the past two years. The ivory-tower academic folk who originally propose such measures—or so they claim—applaud on the sidelines while taking implied, self-serving credit. (These academics are equally quick to blame the ‘private sector’ whenever anything goes wrong, as their ideas can’t possibly be at fault.)

I’ve been around long enough to see this dynamic play out on multiple occasions. I also witnessed first-hand the spectacular events of 1997-98, a period with strong parallels to today. Back then, the dollar rose on the false view that the US could decouple from crises abroad. When events abruptly proved otherwise, the dollar gave up a full year’s gains in just two weeks. The same could happen in 2015.

POOR-QUALITY GROWTH, RISING IMBALANCES

Following six years of zero interest rates and QE, the US economy has still failed to resume healthy, sustainable growth. Yes, the economy is growing at present and there have been some pockets of deleveraging. But this amounts to ‘cherry picking’ the range of available evidence and thus fails to adhere to even the first of my guidelines for investment recommendations. Looking behind the numbers in more detail, as I prefer to do, one sees an unbalanced economy that is re-leveraging amid the growth of yet another asset bubble.

Now my mainstream economic critics will scoff at this, pointing to the recently-released Q3 GDP report, for example, as demonstrating that healthy US growth has resumed. But when you look behind the numbers at the composition, the quality of the growth, it remains poor. One way to do this is to strip out the volatile inventory cycle and see what remains of ‘core’ GDP growth, referred to as ‘real final sales’. US real final sales growth has been positive over the past few years but, notwithstanding massive policy stimulus, has barely managed to rise above 2% year-over-year. Past recoveries have seen rates two to three times higher.

CORE’ GDP GROWTH STUCK AROUND 2% Y/Y

Core GDP

If you go one step further and strip out population growth, what remains is a per-capita core growth rate of little more than zero. And what has it taken to achieve this near zero rate of per-capita growth? Why, huge government deficits which have not been spent on long-term infrastructure investment but rather programmes designed to promote current consumption. Moreover, households have been re-leveraging following a period of sharp retrenchment in 2008-9. The savings rate, averaging about 4.5% over the past few years, is only marginally higher than it was in the bubble years of 2004-7.

HOUSEHOLD LEVERAGE HAS SOARED AGAIN…

Household Leverage

…AS THE SAVINGS RATE HAS DECLINED ANEW

Savings Rate

There was some material deleveraging of corporate balance sheets in 2009-12 but that has now given way to re-leveraging. Much of this is occurring via share buy-backs, which were all the rage in 2014, perhaps because without them, earnings per share would not have risen by much, if at all, given now-negative US corporate profit growth.

Now this may be the first you have heard about ‘negative’ US corporate profit growth. But if you look at profits not in the ‘pro-forma’ way that corporations present them to shareholders but in how they actually report them for official pourposes according to the methodology used in the national accounts, this is precisely what you see.

CORPORATE PROFIT GROWTH NOW NEGATIVE

Corporate Profit Growth

This is not to say that the huge monetary and fiscal stimulus in the wake of the GFC had no effect. No, it had a huge effect. But that effect was primarily to bring future consumption artificially forward and thereby to reduce the savings available to provide for investment and future consumption. Eminent Austrian Economist Ludwig von Mises famously claimed that this was akin to “burning the furniture to heat the home.” (The pernicious effects of capital consumption are discussed in greater detail here.)

The fact is that the US is not saving enough to provide for current much less future consumption and thus must continue to borrow from the rest of the world. While the US trade deficit is not as large today as it was back in the bubble years of 2004-7—in large part due to increased domestic energy production—it remains sizeable in a historical comparison and, of course, adds to the enormous cumulative deficit that already exists.

US STILL DEPENDENT ON FOREIGN CAPITAL

Foreign capital

So not only is US growth not on a sustainable path; to the extent there is growth, much of it is being financed with US-issued IOUs (ie dollars). The dollar may be strong at present due to flows out of various underperforming emerging markets. But this should not disguise the fact that the US economy cannot possibly decouple from the rest of the world when it is in fact highly dependent on the rest of the world as a source of financing.

DECLINING OIL PRICES ARE A KEY MECHANISM OF AN INEVITABLE RECOUPLING

Much us external financing is in the form of recycled ‘petrodollars’ from the larger oil-exporting countries such as Saudi Arabia, who take oil revenues and invest them in US assets such as Treasury bonds. This has two inter-related effects, supporting demand for the US dollar and helping to hold down US interest rates. As oil prices decline, however, so do oil revenues, in particular if global demand is declining, as it appears to be doing. This implies less recycling of petrodollars.

While in theory declining oil prices are supportive of growth, this is true only to the point that the financial system is not leveraged to oil revenues. Russia’s 1998 default on its external debt is a classic case in point. All of a sudden what appeared a benign development for the US economy was anything but, as through various financial linkages, the US financial system was in fact exposed to a sharp decline in global oil revenues.

Global liquidity, sloshing as it does from place to place, is much like the tides of the oceans. Local observers in different locations might not notice or care that a high tide in one place implies a low tide in another. But the global observer knows better: An extreme high tide in one part of the world will correspond to an extreme low tide elsewhere. But these need not occur simultaneously, as the flow from high to low between locations can take time.

Collapsing oil revenues were the proximate trigger for Russia’s 1998 decision to default on its external debt. European banks were among Russia’s primary creditors and thus they had to liquidate holdings of peripheral EU debt in order to raise capital. This pushed peripheral bond spreads sharply wider, reversing the trend in leveraged euro ‘convergence trades’ in the run-up to European monetary union. LTCM was one of the largest, most highly-leveraged followers of this strategy and found it suddenly faced huge losses potentially exceeding its capital. LTCMs creditors—primarily bulge-bracket Wall Street banks—demanded additional collateral be posted immediately. But there wasn’t enough high-quality collateral to go around and so the price of the highest-quality collateral—US Treasury bonds—soared to records in the scramble.

The Fed soon realised the scale of the potential danger: A default cascading through the heart of Wall Street. It thus placed pressure on all LTCM’s creditors to agree to a plan to ease off on collateral calls, allowing for an orderly unwind of positions. In return, the Fed would lower interest rates, to the benefit of all participants.

While these actions succeeded in containing the damage, they signalled to the world that the US financial system was in fact highly leveraged to the international financial markets and thus exposed indirectly to the serial crises elsewhere. Moreover, the Fed was willing to lower interest rates as required to bail out the US financial system. Hence the dollar was not the safe-haven it was previously thought to be and suddenly plunged in value, wiping out an entire year’s gains in a violent, two-week selloff.

A YEAR’S DOLLAR GAINS ERASED IN WEEKS

Dollar gains erased

The US stock market also took notice, falling sharply as the re-coupling of the US to global reality set in. It was not until the Fed announced the LTCM bail out and rate cuts that the stock market began to recover.

Over the next two years, it did more than merely recover. With Fed policy actions having stimulated aggressive herd buying of equities, the NASDAQ crack-up boom took place, followed by the inevitable bust of 2001-03.

…AND A MAJOR STOCK MARKET CORRECTION

Wiltshire total market cap

DE-CONVERGENCE HAS RUN A LONG WAY; RE-CONVERGENCE COULD OCCUR AT ANY TIME

The parallels with 1997-98 are increasingly clear. Currencies, asset markets and growth have slumped across Asia and Europe, yet US financial markets have been largely unaffected, happily continuing to climb. The dollar has strengthened steadily. Yet in the sharp decline in oil and other commodity prices we see a mechanism in motion that, in some way yet unseen, will eventually choke off the flow of liquidity into US financial markets. While I don’t anticipate that Russia will default this time round—Russia’s external government debt is tiny—there are a number of other countries out there highly dependent on commodity exports for external debt service.

Indonesia and Malaysia are two cases in point, the former being a relatively large emerging market economy. Sharp weakness in these countries’ currencies of late is an indication of growing stress eerily similar to 1997. Either or both of these countries could soon find they are unable to prevent large withdrawals of foreign capital. But devaluing a currency to deal with a balance-of-payments crisis doesn’t work as the problem is external debt denominated in a foreign currency, in this case dollars. The International Monetary Fund might try to come to the rescue, as it did in 1997-98, but the scale of the problem is far larger this time round.

Also worth mentioning here is something rather closer to home. The US shale industry is hugely dependent on leveraged financing from the US banking and shadow banking systems. (The latter uses structured financing vehicles of various kinds. By some estimates as much as a quarter of the entire US high yield debt market is related to the shale industry in some way.) With crude oil prices now plunging below $50/bbl, a huge portion of shale oil production has become unprofitable. Yet with debt to service, producers have no choice but to continue producing as much oil as they can. This will help to keep a lid on prices but will also bleed the most poorly financed producers to the point of insolvency and default, with potentially grave implications for the US financial system. (Some readers may recall the Texas oil, property and savings and loan collapse of the late 1980s, a key contributor to the eventual federal bail out of the entire US savings and loan industry.)

There are thus several ways in which today’s commodity price bust could turn into a more general financial crisis, as in 1997-98. It is impossible to know. But in my opinion, unless commodity prices soon recover, it is only a matter of time before a wave of balance-of-payment crises and/or corporate insolvences begin to dissolve the pillars of sand on which the strong dollar currently stands.

STRATEGIES FOR A DOLLAR REVERSAL

Those investors who agree that dollar strength is likely to reverse, perhaps abruptly, in 2015, should consider now those strategies that will perform well in that sort of environment.

There are various ways to speculate on a weaker dollar, the most straightforward of which is to short the dollar against other currencies in the foreign exchange markets. The difficultly with this, however, is that investors then need to take a view regarding which currencies are most likely to re-strengthen versus the dollar. Given that many countries would oppose currency strength at present, investors should take care. A diversified approach is probably best, and there are various vehicles that exist for this purpose, including the Merk currency funds. (Disclosure: Axel Merk is a personal friend I have known for many years. However I have no financial interest in his funds, nor do I receive commissions or compensation of any sort for recommending them.)

However, given that many countries might resist currency strength, the case can be made that gold has more upside potential in a dollar reversal. Moreover, if the environment turns decidedly risk-averse, as it did in 1998 for example, gold can benefit two-fold. Last year, Axel Merk launched the Merk Gold Trust (NYSE: OUNZ), a vehicle that allows for investors to take physical delivery of their gold, if desired, without this qualifying as a taxable event.

Gold’s poor sister silver is arguably better value at present, although in a risk-off environment it would be normal for gold to outperform silver. A simple diversification compromise would be to allocate 2/3 to gold and 1/3 to silver. This is because silver is normally about twice as volatile as gold. From a risk perspective, this implies an equal risk weighting in each of these two monetary metals. There are ETFs available that can be rebalanced periodically to keep holdings from drifting too far from the target 2/3 and 1/3 allocations.

Finally, a quick word on oil. While I have written above about the potentially negative financial market consequences of the recent, sharp decline in oil prices, there is of course much underlying demand for oil that is not particularly cyclical in nature but will occur even in a weak or zero-growth environment. Here I note that, even in the depths of the 2008 crisis, the oil price (WTI) found support around $40/bbl before recovering. At just under $50/bbl at time of writing, that is still a 20% decline from here, but the eventual upside recovery potential is probably far greater than 20%. For investors willing to take a risk amid what admittedly appears to be a ‘blood on the streets’ environment for oil at present, I’d recommend building a position here, either through an ETF or just by buying shares of upstream oil producers.

In relative terms, oil looks even better value, for example relative to industrial metals such as copper or aluminium. Yes, the latter have also seen prices come off but not to anywhere near the same extent. Platinum group metals may be precious but they are used overwhelmingly in industrial applications, in particular autocatalysts, and in the event that automobile demand should slow, there is much potential for these to decline relative to the price of oil. Palladium is considerably more exposed than platinum to this scenario and is thus the better short.

The really brave might even take a look at the debt of distressed shale producers, although I have no particular expertise in that area. A distressed industry is one that will likely be restructured in some way, such as by private equity firms swooping in, taking viable companies private, and restructuring them for the longer-term, out of the public spotlight.

1. There is in fact a far longer history of such interventions. In the US these include the devaluation of the US dollar by executive fiat in 1934 and abrogation of Bretton-Woods treaty obligations in 1971.

Economics

An odd, non-linear world

“Sir, John Authers, in Loser’s Game (The Big Read, December 22), could have delved deeply into the flaws in the asset management business as it has evolved in recent decades, rather than accepting the industry’s own terms or focusing on tweaks to “active” management that might improve results..

“Mr Authers could also have challenged the bureaucratic thinking and methods asset management has adopted in the course of chasing its “bogeys”, starting with the Big Ideas.. Then there are the model portfolios, relative-weightings, “style drift”, investment committees, the requirement to be fully invested and so on — all bog down decision-making and most have nothing to do with genuine investing. In adopting these practices the fund management business has created a recipe for mediocrity.

“In investing, it is never a good idea to do what everyone else is doing. Piling into passive index funds during a year of decidedly poor relative results for active managers, and especially after a long period of rising security prices is likely to lead to future disappointment, just as it did in 1999. This leads us to another line of inquiry for Mr Authers: even assuming “beating” an index is worthwhile, why must we do it all of the time? It is a paradox of investment that in order to do well in the long run, you sometimes have to do “poorly” in the short run. You have to accept the fact that often you will not “beat” an index; sometimes you don’t even want to — think of the Nasdaq in 1999, for example..”

–       Letter to the FT from Mr. Dennis Butler, December 30, 2014.

 

 

A happy new year to all readers.

For historians, there are primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are the original documents that point to the raw history, like the original Magna Carta, for example. Secondary sources are effectively historical derivatives – they incorporate interpretation and analysis. In financial markets, the equivalent of primary sources are prices – the only raw data that speak unequivocally of what occurred by way of financial exchange between buyer and seller. Everything else amounts to interpretation and analysis, and must by definition be regarded as subjective. So-called fundamentals, therefore, are subjective. There is the price – and everything else is essentially chatter.

 

It says much for the quality and depth of our mainstream media that one of the most insightful and thought-provoking pieces of social and cultural analysis of the last year came in the form of a 5 minute essay within a satirical news review of 2014. The piece in question was by the cult documentary maker Adam Curtis and you can watch it here. The following extracts are taken directly from the film:

 

“So much of the news this year has been hopeless, depressing, and above all, confusing. To which the only response is to say, “oh dear.”
“What this film is going to suggest is that that defeatist response has become a central part of a new system of political control. And to understand how this is happening, you have to look to Russia, to a man called Vladislav Surkov, who is a hero of our time.
“Surkov is one of President Putin’s advisers, and has helped him maintain his power for 15 years, but he has done it in a very new way.
“He came originally from the avant-garde art world, and those who have studied his career, say that what Surkov has done, is to import ideas from conceptual art into the very heart of politics.

“His aim is to undermine people’s perceptions of the world, so they never know what is really happening.

“Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theatre. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin.
“But the key thing was, that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing, which meant that no-one was sure what was real or fake. As one journalist put it: “It is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused.”
“A ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it is undefinable..
“But maybe, we have something similar emerging here in Britain. Everything we’re told by journalists and politicians is confusing and contradictory. Of course, there is no Mr. Surkov in charge, but it is an odd, non-linear world that plays into the hands of those in power.

“British troops have come home from Afghanistan, but nobody seems to know whether it was a victory or whether it was a defeat.
“Ageing disk jockeys are prosecuted for crimes they committed decades ago, while practically no one in the City of London is prosecuted for the endless financial crimes that have been revealed there..

“..the real epicentre of this non-linear world is the economy, and the closest we have to our own shape-shifting post-modern politician is [U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer] George Osborne.

“He tells us proudly that the economy is growing, but at the same time, wages are going down.

“He says he is reducing the deficit, but then it is revealed that the deficit is going up.

“But the dark heart of this shape-shifting world is Quantitative Easing. The government is insisting on taking billions of Pounds out of the economy through its austerity programme, yet at the very same time it is pumping billions of Pounds into the economy through Quantitative Easing, the equivalent of 24,000 Pounds for every family in Britain.
“But it gets even more confusing, because the Bank of England has admitted that those billions of Pounds are not going where they are supposed to. A vast majority of that money has actually found its way into the hands of the wealthiest five percent in Britain. It has been described as the biggest transfer of wealth to the rich in recent documented history.
“It could be a huge scandal, comparable to the greedy oligarchs in Russia. A ruthless elite, siphoning off billions in public money. But nobody seems to know.
“It sums up the strange mood of our time, where nothing really makes any coherent sense. We live with a constant vaudeville of contradictory stories that makes it impossible for any real opposition to emerge, because they can’t counter it with any coherent narrative of their own.

“And it means that we as individuals become ever more powerless, unable to challenge anything, because we live in a state of confusion and uncertainty. To which the response is: Oh dear. But that is what they want you to say.”

 

The start of the New Year is traditionally a time for issuing financial forecasts. But there seems little point in doing so given the impact of widespread financial repression on the price mechanism itself. Are prices real, or fake ? The cornerstone of the market structure is the price of money itself – the interest rate. But interest rates aren’t being set by a free market. Policy rates are being kept artificially low by central banks, while the term structure of interest rates has been hopelessly distorted by monetary policy conducted by those same central banks. Inasmuch as ‘real’ investors are participating in the bond market at all, those institutional investors have no personal skin in the game – they are economic agents with no real accountability for their actions. Other institutional players can be confidently assumed simply to be chasing price momentum – they likely have no ‘view’ on valuation, per se. The world’s bond markets have become a giant Potemkin village – nobody actually lives there.

 

So of the four asset classes to which we allocate, three of them offer at least some protection against the material depradations and endless price distortions of the State. ‘Value’ listed equities give us exposure to the source of all fundamental wealth – the actions of the honest entrepreneur. Systematic trend-following funds are the closest thing we can find to truly uncorrelated investments – and we note how 2014 saw a welcome return to form. The monetary metals, gold and silver, give us Stateless money that cannot be printed on demand by the debt-addicted. We are slowly coming to appreciate the counsel of a friend who suggested that the merit of gold lies not in its price so much as in its ownership. What matters is that you own it. (It also matters why.) Which leaves debt. Objectively high quality debt – a small market and getting smaller by the day.

 

The practice of sensible investment becomes difficult when our secondary information sources (“fundamentals”) are inherently subjective. It becomes almost impossible when our primary information sources (prices) can’t be trusted because they have politicians’ paw-prints all over them. “Nothing really makes any coherent sense.. We live with a constant vaudeville of contradictory stories.. We live in a state of confusion and uncertainty.” If the pursuit of certainty is absurd, the only rational conclusion is to acknowledge the doubt, and invest accordingly.

Economics

The Japanese Deflation Myth and the Yen’s Slump

[Editor’s Note: this piece, by Brendan Brown, first appeared at mises.org last year]

 

The slide of the yen since late summer has brought it to a level some 40 percent lower against the euro and US dollar than just two years go. Yet still Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his central bank chief Haruhiko Kuroda warn that they have not won the battle against deflation. That caution is absurd — all the more so in view of the fact that there was no deflation in the first place.

Some cynics suggest that Abe’s and Haruhiko’s battle cry against this phoney phantom is simply a ruse to gain Washington’s acquiescence in a big devaluation. But whatever the truth about their real intent, Japan’s monetary chaos is deepening.

Japanese Prices Have Been Stable

The CPI in Japan at the peak of the last cycle in 2007 was virtually at the same level as at the trough of the post-bubble recession in 1992, and up a few percentage points from the 1989 cycle peak. Hence, Japan alone has enjoyed the sort of price stability as might be enjoyed in a gold-standard world. Prices have fallen during recessions or during periods of especially-rapid terms-of-tradeimprovement or productivity growth. They have risen during cyclical booms or at times of big increases in the price of oil.

If price-indices in Japan were adjusted fully to take account of quality improvements they would have been falling slightly throughout, but that would also have been the case under the gold standard and was fully consistent with economic prosperity.

Such swings in prices are wholly benign. For example, lower prices during recession coupled with expectation of higher prices in expansion induce businesses and households to spend more. A valid criticism of the Japanese price experience of the past two decades has been that these swings have lacked vigour due to various rigidities. Particularly valid is the claim that price falls should have been larger during the post-bubble recession of 1990-93 and subsequent potential for recovery would have been correspondingly larger.

Prices in Japan did fall steeply during the Great Recession (2008-10) but the perceived potential for recovery was squeezed by the Obama Monetary Experiment (the Fed’s QE) which meant an immediate slide of the US dollar. It was in response to the related spike of the yen that Prime Minister Abe prepared his counter-stroke. This involved importing the same deflation-phobic inflation-targeting policies that the Obama Federal Reserve was pursuing. Washington could hardly criticize Tokyo for imitating its own monetary experiment.

Deflation and “The Lost Decade”

The architects of the Obama Monetary Experiment have cited as justification Japan’s “lost decade” and the supposed source in deflation. In fact, though, the only period during which the Japanese economy underperformed other advanced economies (as measured by the growth of GDP per capita) was from 1992-97. The underperformance of that period had everything to do with insufficient price and wage flexibility downward, the Clinton currency war, and the vast malinvestment wrought by the prior asset price inflation, coupled with a risk-appetite in Japan shrunken by the recent experience of bust.

Moreover, as time went on, from the early 1990s, huge investment into the Tokyo equity market from abroad compensated for ailing domestic risk appetites. Yes, Japan’s economy could haveperformed better than the average of its OECD peers if progress had been made in de-regulation, and if Japan had had a better-designed framework of monetary stability to insulate itself from the Greenspan-Bernanke asset price inflation virus of the years 2002-07. (The Greenspan-Bernanke inflation caused speculative temperatures in the yen carry trade to reach crazy heights.) But deflation was never an actual or potential restraint on Japanese prosperity during those years.

True, there was a monetary malaise. Japan’s price stability was based on chance, habit, and economic sclerosis rather than the wisdom of its monetary policy. It had been the huge appreciation of the yen during the Clinton currency war that had snuffed out inflation. Then the surge of cheap imports from China had worked to convince the Japanese public that inflation had indeed come to an end. Lack of economic reform meant that the neutral rates of interest remained at a very low level and so the Bank of Japan’s intermittent zero rate policies did not stimulate monetary growth.

The monetary system in Japan had no secure pivot in the form of high and stable demand for non-interest bearing high-powered money. In Japan the reserve component of the monetary base is virtually indistinguishable from a whole range of close substitutes and banks had no reason to hold large amounts of this (given deposit insurance and the virtual assurance of too-big-to-fail help in need). Monetary policy-making in Japan meant highly discretionary manipulation of short-term interest rates in the pursuance of fine-tuning the business cycle rather than following a set of rules for monetary base expansion.

The Yen After Abenomics

When Prime Minister Abe effected his coup against the old guard at the Bank of Japan there was no monetary constitution to flout. Massive purchases of long-dated Japanese government bonds by the Bank of Japan are lowering the proportion of outstanding government debt held by the public in fixed-rate form. But this is all a slow-developing threat given a gross government debt to GDP ratio of around 230 percent and a current fiscal deficit of 6 percent of GDP. Bank of Japan bond-buying has strengthened irrational forces driving 10-year yields down to almost 0.5 percent despite underlying inflation having risen to 1 percent per annum.

It is doubtless the possibility of an eventual monetization of government debt has been one factor in the slump of the yen. More generally, as the neutral level of interest rates in Japan rises in line with demographic pressures (lower private savings, increased social expenditure) one might fear that BoJ manipulation of rates will eventually set off inflation. Part of the yen’s slump, though, is due to a tendency for that currency to fall when asset price inflation is virulent in the global economy. This stems from the huge carry trade in the yen.

The yen could indeed leap when the global asset price-inflation disease — with its origins in Fed QE — moves to its next phase of steep speculative temperature fall. The yen is now in real effective exchange rate terms at the record low point of the Japan banking crisis in 1997 or the global asset inflation peak of 2007. So, the challenge for investors is to decide when the Abe yen has become so cheap in real terms that its hedge properties make it a worthwhile portfolio component.