Recent evidence points increasingly towards global economic contraction.
Parts of the Eurozone are in great difficulty, and only last weekend S&P the rating agency warned that Greece will default on its debts “at some point in the next fifteen months”. Japan is collapsing under the wealth-destruction of Abenomics. China is juggling with a debt bubble that threatens to implode. The US tells us through government statistics that their outlook is promising, but the reality is very different with one-third of employable adults not working; furthermore the GDP deflator is significantly greater than officially admitted. And the UK is financially over-geared and over-dependent on a failing Eurozone.
This is hardly surprising, because the monetary inflation of recent years has transferred wealth from the majority of the saving and working population to a financial minority. A stealth tax through monetary inflation has been imposed on the majority of people trying to earn an honest living on a fixed salary. It has been under-recorded in consumer price statistics but has occurred nonetheless. Six years of this wealth transfer may have enriched Wall Street, but it has also impoverished Main Street.
The developed world is now in deep financial trouble. This is a situation which may be coming to a debt-laden conclusion. Those in charge of our money know that monetary expansion has failed to stimulate recovery. They also know that their management of financial markets, always with the objective of fostering confidence, has left them with market distortions that now threaten to derail bonds, equities and derivatives.
Today, central banking’s greatest worry is falling prices. The early signs are now upon us, reflected in dollar strength, as well as falling commodity and energy prices. In an economic contraction exposure to foreign currencies is the primary risk faced by international businesses and investors. The world’s financial system is based on the dollar as reserve currency for all the others: it is the back-to-base option for international exposure. The trouble is that leverage between foreign currencies and the US dollar has grown to highly dangerous levels, as shown below.
Plainly, there is great potential for currency instability, compounded by over-priced bond markets. Greece, facing another default, borrows ten-year money in euros at about 6.5%, while Spain and Italy at 2.1% and 2.3% respectively. Investors accepting these low returns should be asking themselves what will be the marginal cost of financing a large increase in government deficits brought on by an economic slump.
A slump will obviously escalate risk for owners of government bonds. The principal holders are banks whose asset-to-equity ratios can be as much as 40-50 times excluding goodwill, particularly when derivative exposure is taken into account. The stark reality is that banks risk failure not because of Irving Fisher’s debt-deflation theory, but because they are exposed to a government debt bubble that will inevitably burst: only a two per cent rise in Eurozone bond yields may be sufficient to trigger a global banking crisis. Fisher’s nightmare of bad debts from failing businesses and falling loan collateral values will merely be an additional burden.
Macro-economists refer to a slump as deflation, but we face something far more complex worth taking the trouble to understand.
The weakness of modern macro-economics is it is not based on a credible theory of prices. Instead of a mechanical relationship between changes in the quantity of money and prices, the purchasing power of a fiat currency is mainly dependent on the confidence its users have in it. This is expressed in preferences for money compared with goods, and these preferences can change for any number of reasons.
When an indebted individual is unable to access further credit, he may be forced to raise cash by selling marketable assets and by reducing consumption. In a normal economy, there are always some people doing this, but when they are outnumbered by others in a happier position, overall the economy progresses. A slump occurs when those that need or want to reduce their financial commitments outnumber those that don’t. There arises an overall shift in preferences in favour of cash, so all other things being equal prices fall.
Shifts in these preferences are almost always the result of past and anticipated state intervention, which replaces the randomness of a free market with a behavioural bias. But this is just one factor that sets price relationships: confidence in the purchasing power of government-issued currency must also be considered and will be uppermost in the minds of those not facing financial difficulties. This is reflected by markets reacting, among other things, to the changing outlook for the issuing government’s finances. If it appears to enough people that the issuing government’s finances are likely to deteriorate significantly, there will be a run against the currency, usually in favour of the dollar upon which all currencies are based. And those holding dollars and aware of the increasing risk to the dollar’s own future purchasing power can only turn to gold and subsequently those goods that represent the necessities of life. And when that happens we have a crack-up boom and the final destruction of the dollar as money.
So the idea that the outlook is for either deflation or inflation is incorrect, and betrays a superficial analysis founded on the misconceptions of macro-economics. Nor does one lead to the other: what really happens is the overall preference between money and goods shifts, influenced not only by current events but by anticipated ones as well.
Recently a rising dollar has led to a falling gold price. This raises the question as to whether further dollar strength against other currencies will continue to undermine the gold price.
Let us assume that the central banks will at some time in the future try to prevent a financial crisis triggered by an economic slump. Their natural response is to expand money and credit. However, this policy-route will be closed off for non-dollar currencies already weakened by a flight into the dollar, leaving us with the bulk of the world’s monetary reflation the responsibility of the Fed.
With this background to the gold price, Asians in their domestic markets are likely to continue to accumulate physical gold, perhaps accelerating their purchases to reflect a renewed bout of scepticism over the local currency. Wealthy investors in Europe will also buy gold, partly through bullion banks, but on the margin demand for delivered physical seems likely to increase. Investment managers and hedge funds in North America will likely close their paper-gold shorts and go long when their computers (which do most of the trading) detect a change in trend.
It seems likely that a change in trend for the gold price in western capital markets will be a component part of a wider reset for all financial markets, because it will signal a change in perceptions of risk for bonds and currencies. With a growing realisation that the great welfare economies are all sliding into a slump, the moment for this reset has moved an important step closer.
The U.S. financial system faces a major, growing, and much under-appreciated threat from the Federal Reserve’s risk modeling agenda—the “Fed stress tests.” These were intended to make the financial system safe but instead create the potential for a new systemic financial crisis.
The principal purpose of these models is to determine banks’ regulatory capital requirements—the capital “buffers” to be set aside so banks can withstand adverse events and remain solvent.
Risk models are subject to a number of major weaknesses. They are usually based on poor assumptions and inadequate data, are vulnerable to gaming and often blind to major risks. They have difficulty handling market instability and tend to generate risk forecasts that fall as true risks build up. Most of all, they are based on the naïve belief that markets are mathematizable. The Fed’s regulatory stress tests are subject to all these problems and more. They:
- ignore well-established weaknesses in risk modeling and violate the core principles of good stress testing;
- are overly prescriptive and suppress innovation and diversity in bank risk management; in so doing, they expose the whole financial system to the weaknesses in the Fed’s models and greatly increase systemic risk;
- impose a huge and growing regulatory burden;
- are undermined by political factors;
- fail to address major risks identified by independent experts; and
- fail to embody lessons to be learned from the failures of other regulatory stress tests.
The solution to these problems is legislation to prohibit risk modeling by financial regulators and establish a simple, conservative capital standard for banks based on reliable capital ratios instead of unreliable models. The idea that the Fed, with no credible track record at forecasting, can be entrusted with the task of telling banks how to forecast their own financial risks, displacing banks’ own risk systems in the process, is the ultimate in fatal conceits. Unless Congress intervenes, the United States is heading for a new systemic banking crisis.
[Editor's Note: the full document published by the Cato Institute can be found here]
“Sir, So Ed Miliband “forgot” to mention the deficit. This from a man who was a key member of the team that ran up a massive structural debt pile when the UK should have been enjoying a cyclical surplus. He was part of a Labour administration that took the UK economy to the brink of effective bankruptcy. Yet less than five years on, as we still struggle to deal with the toxic mess that he and his colleagues left behind, he “forgot” to mention it. This surely ranks alongside “the dog ate my homework” for feeble and unbelievable excuses for non-performance of basic required tasks.”
“Politicians and diapers have one thing in common. They should both be changed regularly, and for the same reason.”
It should be striking that government bonds, in nominal terms, have never been this expensive in history, even as there have never been so many of them. The laws of supply and demand would seem to have been repealed. How could this state of affairs have come about ? We think the answer is three-fold:
The bond market is clearly not perfectly efficient.
Bond yields are being manipulated by central banks through a deliberate policy of financial repression (and QE, of course).
Many bond fund managers may be unaware, or unconcerned, that the benchmarks against which they choose to be assessed are illogical and irrational.
What might substantiate our third claim ? It would be the festering intellectual plague that bedevils the fund management world known as indexation. Bond indices allocate their largest weights to the most indebted issuers. This is the precise opposite of what any rational bond investor would do – namely, to overweight their portfolio according to those issuers with the highest credit quality (or perhaps, all things being equal, with the highest yields). But bond indices do exactly the opposite. They force any manager witless enough to have fallen victim to them to load up on the most heavily indebted issuers, which currently also happen to offer amongst the puniest nominal yields. As evidence for the prosecution we cite the US Treasury bond market, the world’s largest. The US national debt currently stands at $17.7 trillion. With a ‘T’. Benchmark 10 year Treasuries currently offer a yield to maturity of 2.5%. US consumer price inflation currently stands at 1.7%. (We offer no opinion as to whether US CPI is a fair reflection of US inflation.) On the basis that US “inflation” doesn’t change meaningfully over the next 10 years, US bond investors are going to earn an annualised return just a smidgen above zero percent.
How do US Treasury yields stack up against the longer term trend in interest rates ? The following data are from @Macro_Tourist:
10 year US Treasury yields since 1791
The chart shows the direction of travel for US market rates since independence, given that the Continental Congress defaulted on its debts.
Now it may well be that US Treasury yields have further to fall. As SocGen’s Albert Edwards puts it,
“Our ‘Ice Age’ thesis has long called for sub-1% bond yields and I see this extending to the US and UK in due course.”
As things stand, the trend is with the polar bears. The German bond market has already broken down through the 1% level (10 year Bunds at the time of writing currently trade at 0.98%).
Deutsche Bank Research – specifically Jim Reid, Nick Burns and Seb Barker – recently published an extensive examination of global debt markets (“Bonds: the final bubble frontier ?” – hat tip to Arnaud Gandon of Heptagon Capital). Deutsche’s strategists ask whether bonds constitute the culminating financial bubble after almost two decades of them:
“After the Asian / Russian / LTCM crises of the late 1990s we entered a supercycle of very aggressive policy responses to major global problems. In turn this helped encourage the 2000 equity bubble, the 2007 housing / financial / debt bubble, the 2010-2012 Euro Sovereign crisis and arguably some recent signs of a China credit bubble (a theme we discussed in our 2014 Default Study). At no point have the imbalances been allowed a full free market conclusion. Aggressive intervention has merely pushed the bubble elsewhere. With no obvious areas left to inflate in the private sector, these bubbles have now arguably moved into government and central bank balance sheets with unparalleled intervention and low growth allowing it to coincide with ultra-low bond yields.” [Emphasis ours.]
The French statesman George Clemenceau once commented that war is too important to be left to generals. At this stage in the game one might be tempted to add that monetary policy is far too important to be left to politicians and central bankers. We get by with free markets in all other walks of economic and financial life – why let the price of money itself be dictated by a handful of State-appointed bureaucrats ? We were once told by a fund manager (a Japanese equity manager, to be precise – rare breed that that is now), around the turn of the millennium, that Japan would be the dress rehearsal, and that the rest of the world would be the main event. Again, the volume of the mood music is rising in SocGen’s favour.
We nurse no particular view in relation to how the government bond bubble (for it surely is) plays out – whether yields grind relentlessly lower for some time yet, or whether they burst spectacularly on the back of the overdue return of bond market vigilantes or some other mystical manifestation of long-delayed economic common sense. But Warren Buffett himself once said that,
“If you’ve been playing poker for half an hour and you still don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.”
The central bank bond market poker game has been in train for a good deal longer than half an hour, and the stakes have never been higher. Sometimes, if you simply can’t fathom the new rules of the game, it’s surely better not to play. So we’re not in the business of chasing US Treasury yields, or Gilt yields, or Bund yields, ever lower – we’ll keep our bond exposure limited to only the highest quality credits yielding the highest possible return. Even then, if Fed tapering does finally dissipate in favour of Fed hiking – stranger things have happened, though we can’t think of any off the top of our head – it will make sense at the appropriate time to eliminate conventional debt instruments from client portfolios almost entirely.
But indexation madness is not limited to the world of bonds. Its malign, unthinking mental slavery has fixed itself upon the equity markets, too. Equity indices, as is widely acknowledged, allocate their largest weights to the largest and most expensive stocks. What’s extraordinary is that even as stock markets have powered ahead, index trackers have enjoyed their highest ever inflows. The latest IMA data show that more UK retail money was put into tracker funds in July than in any other month since records began. We accept the ‘low cost’ aspect of tracker funds and ETFs; we take serious issue with the idea of buying stock markets close to or at their all-time high and being in for any downside ride on a 1:1 basis.
But there is a middle way between the Scylla of bonds at all-time low yields and the Charybdis of stocks at all-time high prices. Value. Seth Klarman of the Baupost Group once wrote as follows:
“Stock market efficiency is an elegant hypothesis that bears quite limited resemblance to the real world. For over half a century, disciples of Benjamin Graham, the intellectual father of value investing, have prospered buying bargains that efficient market theory says should not exist. They take advantage of the short-term, relative performance orientation of other investors. They employ an absolute (not relative) valuation compass, patiently exploiting mispricings while avoiding overpaying for what is popular and trendy. Many are willing to concentrate their exposures, knowing that their few best ideas are better than their hundredth best, and confident in their ability to tell which is which.
“Value investors thrive not by incurring high risk (as financial theory would suggest), but by deliberately avoiding or hedging the risks they identify. While efficient market theorists tell you to calculate the beta of a stock to determine its riskiness, most value investors have never calculated a beta. Efficient market theory advocates moving a portfolio of holdings closer to the efficient frontier. Most value investors have no idea what this is or how they might accomplish such a move. This is because financial market theory may be elegant, but it is not particularly useful in formulating a successful investment strategy.
“If academics espousing the efficient market theory had no influence, their flawed views would make little difference. But, in fact, their thinking is mainstream and millions of investors make their decisions based on the supposition that owning stocks, regardless of valuation and analysis, is safe and reasonable. Academics train hundreds of thousands of students each year, many of whom go to Wall Street and corporate suites espousing these beliefs. Because so many have been taught that outperforming the market is impossible and that stocks are always fairly and efficiently priced, investors have increasingly adopted strategies that eventually will prove both riskier and far less rewarding than they are currently able to comprehend.”
That sounds about right to us. Conventional investing, both in stocks and bonds on an indexed or benchmarked basis, “will prove both riskier and far less rewarding” than many investors are currently able to comprehend.
The US Federal Reserve can keep stimulating the US economy because inflation is posing little threat, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Kocherlakota said. “I am expecting an inflation rate to run below 2% for the next four years, through 2018”, he said. “That means there is more room for monetary policy to be helpful in terms of … boosting demand without running up against generating too much inflation”.
The yearly rate of growth of the consumer price index (CPI) stood at 1.7% in August against 2% in July and the official target of 2%. According to our estimate the yearly rate of growth of the CPI could close at 1.4% by December. By December next year we forecast the yearly rate of growth of 0.6%.
It seems that the Minneapolis Fed President holds that by boosting the demand for goods and services by means of an additional monetary pumping it is possible to strengthen the economic growth. He believes that by means of strengthening the demand for goods and services the production of goods and services will follow suit. But why should it be so?
If by means of monetary pumping one could strengthen the economic growth then it would imply that by means of monetary pumping it is possible to create real wealth and generate an everlasting economic prosperity.
This would also mean that world wide poverty should have been erased a long time ago, after all most countries today have central banks that possess the skills of how to pump money. Yet world poverty remains intact.
Despite the massive monetary pumping since 2008 and the policy interest rate of around zero Fed policy makers seem to be unhappy with the so-called economic recovery. Note that the Fed’s balance sheet, which stood at $0.86 trillion in January 2007 jumped to $4.4 trillion by September this year – a monetary pumping of almost $4 trillion.
We suggest that there is no such thing as an independent category called demand. Before an individual can exercise demand for goods and services he/she must produce some other useful goods and services. Once these goods and services are produced individuals can exercise their demand for the goods they desire. This is achieved by exchanging things that were produced for money, which in turn can be exchanged for goods that are desired. Note that money serves here as the medium of the exchange – it produces absolutely nothing. It permits the exchange of something for something. Any policy that results in monetary pumping leads to an exchange of nothing for something. This amounts to a weakening of the pool of real wealth – and hence to reduced prospects for the expansion of this pool.
What is required to boost the economic growth – the production of real wealth – is to remove all the factors that undermine the wealth generation process. One of the major negative factors that undermine the real wealth generation is loose monetary policy of the central bank, which boosts demand without the prior production of wealth. (Once the loopholes for the money creation out of “thin air” are closed off the diversion of wealth from wealth generators towards non-productive bubble activities is arrested. This leaves more real funding in the hands of wealth generators – permitting them to strengthen the process of wealth generation i.e. permitting them to grow the economy).
Now, the artificial boosting of the demand by means of monetary pumping leads to the depletion of the pool of real wealth. It amounts to adding more individuals that take from the pool of real wealth without adding anything in return –an economic impoverishment.
The longer the reckless loose policy of the Fed stays in force the harder it gets for wealth generators to generate real wealth and prevent the pool of real wealth from shrinking.
Finally, the fact that the yearly rate of growth of the CPI is declining doesn’t mean that the Fed’s monetary pumping is going to be harmless. Regardless of price inflation monetary pumping results in an exchange of nothing for something i.e. an economic impoverishment.
[Editor's Note: This article, by Mateusz Machaj, first appeared at mises.org]
Various criticisms have been raised against the Fed, not only from the side favoring the abolition of central banking, but also from the side of those who argue that the Federal Reserve is indispensable for stability. One of those arguments came from respected economist John Taylor, who is the author of the often mentioned “Taylor Rule” on how to conduct monetary policy, with two House Republicans recently proposing to impose this “rule” on the Fed .
Like Taylor, politicians who advocate for such a rule blame huge credit expansion for the Great Recession. Unfortunately such policymakers are usually not convinced by the Austrian arguments in favor of abolition of the Federal Reserve. Instead they are convinced by John Taylor’s statistical demonstrations. According to Taylor, the Fed set the interest rates too low in the beginning of this century, which led to an unsustainable real estate boom. He adds nonetheless: if only the central bank followed his rule of proper interest rate levels, then monetary policy would work very well.
For Taylor, the Federal Funds rate in recent years should have looked something like this:
The first thing to note about the Taylor Rule is that, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as one universal Taylor Rule. There are many possible Taylor Rules, depending on a variety of factors, on which there is no agreement. Any version of the rule crucially depends on the usage of mathematical variables and their coefficients in the used equation, which is used for calculating the “right” level of interest rates set by the central bank. Those main variables are price inflation and the so called “output gap,” a difference between “actual output” and “potential output.”
Depending on which variables we exactly pick and how we use them, we can have different rules, and therefore different interest rate policy recommendations. It is all well documented in the mainstream literature. Economists disagree how to measure “potential output” (should we use trends, econometric models, or “production function models”?) and there is no agreement how much importance should be assigned to it. There are discussions about the nature of the data that is being used — should it be the one registered currently, or real-time data, or should it be somehow adjusted, since every data set will sooner or later become revised data? Or perhaps since monetary policy takes time we should focus more on the predicted data, rather than just look at the immediate past? We can add to this the Austrian flavor: there are problems with proper price inflation measurements (various indices can differ significantly), and even the actual output measurements can be questioned as proper indicators of economic activity.
It is in fact the case that one can come up with several versions of the Taylor Rule. For example, we could come up with one that would recommend lower interest rates than what we had at the beginning of this century or we could come up with a version of the rule that would recommendhigher interest rates. Or we could come up with one that suggests no change. Research does not give us any clear answer which version of the rule should be chosen.
One particular version which John Taylor is using for his criticism of Alan Greenspan, for example, serves as an ex post demonstration that interest rates should have been higher. Yet there is nothing really that special about this inference. After the fact, anyone can come up with an alternate version of any rule to demonstrate that interest rates should have been higher.
The crucial question to be answered is the following: can reliance on one particular version of the Taylor Rule pave the way for a bubble-proof economy? As described above, a Taylor Rule in any of its versions can at best target the balance between a chosen index for “price inflation” and a chosen way of measuring the invented concept of aggregate “potential output.”
The problem is that targeting either of those macroeconomic variables is not a recipe forintertemporal coordination understood in the Hayekian sense: as coordination between successive stages of production. In his major works Hayek proved that targeting one selected variable, such as price inflation, is not a proper formula for macroeconomic stability. Actually, stabilizing the index may ultimately cause macroeconomic destabilization. It is the same case with Taylor Rules, although in the rule the concept of “potential output” is hidden. Yet this potential output describes production in the aggregate, so it cannot capture the notion of intertemporal coordination among many acting individuals in countless industries.
Malinvestment bubbles are still possible when the central bank follows Taylor Rules, because by targeting potential output and price inflation the central bank triggers artificial credit expansions. For an example, we need only look to the dot-com bubble which happened even though the federal funds rates were actually significantly higher in the nineties than the most-used version of the Taylor Rule would recommend at that time.
The answer to the Taylor Rule is the Hayek Rule, which is the rule of balancing savings with investments in truly free financial markets. Meanwhile, we must endure the current situation of a market stimulated by the central bank with its pretense of knowledge about the “right” price for money and credit.
Deposit insurance is one of the most misunderstood – and also most dangerous – forms of government intervention into the financial system.
Let’s start with the common misconception that deposit insurance is an industry-operated affair independent of the government.
In the UK, deposit insurance is provided by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS). To quote from its website:
“The FSCS is the UK’s statutory fund of last resort for customers of financial services firms. This means that FSCS can pay compensation to consumers if a financial services firm is unable, or likely to be unable, to pay claims against it. The FSCS is an independent body, set up under the Financial Services & Markets Act 2000 (FSMA).”
It also explains that the FSCS is funded by levies on firms authorised to operate by either of the Prudential Regulation Authority or the Financial Conduct Authority.
So the FSCS is notionally independent and the guarantees are financed by levies on participating firms.
However, this does not mean that deposit insurance is in any way a free-market phenomenon: it is explicitly the creature of legislation and participating firms are compelled not just to join, but to join on dictated terms. This is rather like having a system of compulsory car insurance and, moreover, a compulsory system that mandates the exact terms (including the pricing) of the car insurance itself – compulsory one-size-fits-all.
This should set off alarm bells that there might be something wrong with it.
And how do we know that its designers designed it properly? We don’t.
In fact, we know that they couldn’t possibly have designed it properly, as any rational insurance system would tailor the charges to the riskiness of clients, include co-insurance features and other incentives to moderate risk-taking, have charges that would evolve over time in response to changing market conditions, and so forth. This is insurance 101.
This is not how deposit insurance works, however.
Most of all, any rational system would have the product delivered by the market, not by some jerry-built contraption dreamt up by committees of legislators and regulators who have neither the knowledge nor the incentive to get it right. One also might add few if any of these people have any experience in or understanding of the industry they are meddling with, but let’s move on.
It then occurred to me that perhaps my kids are right and I am too cynical – maybe Father Christmas and the fairies do exist: one should keep an open mind – so I checked out the FSCS website to have a closer look at their system. What I found was a masterpiece of gobbledegook that I highly recommend to other connoisseurs of regulatory gibberish:
Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind. My favourite bit is the explanation of the levy calculation that does not explain how the levy is actually calculated.
All this said, the banks rather like deposit insurance because it gives them a great marketing tool: bank with us and your money is safe because we are members of the deposit guarantee scheme, and you will get your money back even if we happen to fail.
They also like it because they can game the system – taking extra risks and offering higher deposit rates than they would otherwise be able to get away with – in effect, exploiting the risk-taking subsidy created by deposit insurance and passing the extra risks to the fund itself.
But surely, if the banks like the system, they would create one themselves if the government didn’t create it for them? No. Were this true, the banks would have done exactly that many years ago, and there would have been no ‘need’ for the state to have intervened to do it for them. The fact is that they didn’t.
The reason they didn’t is because the service that deposit insurance provides to the retail customer – reassurance or confidence – is better provided in other ways, most notably, by pursuing conservative lending policies and maintaining high levels of capital. And the reason for this is simply that deposit insurance introduces an additional layer of moral hazard and governance headaches that can be avoided if the banks self-insure via moderate risk-taking and high levels of capital.
This should come as no surprise. True confidence does not come from “you can trust us if we screw up because someone else will bail you out” but from “you can trust us because it is demonstrably in our interest to make sure we don’t screw up”. Deposit insurance is an inferior confidence product – one might even say, a confidence trick.
We can also look at this another way. Suppose that a group of banks attempted to set up a scheme similar to the current one, of their own free will and with no government intervention. They would soon realise that the scheme was not viable – no bank would want to be liable for the risks the others were taking, with no means of controlling those risks. So it would never get off the ground – and the current system only got off the ground because the state imposed it.
In short, deposit insurance is not a creature of the market but a creature of the state, and a decidedly inferior one at that. It is, indeed, a classic instance of that regulatory Gresham’s Law by which state intervention causes the bad to drive out the good. Where have we seen that before?
What is Super Mario up to?
First, he gave an unexpectedly dovish speech at the Jackson Hole conference, rather ungallantly upstaging the host, Ms Yellen, who was widely anticipated to be the most noteworthy speaker at the gathering (talking about the labor market, her favorite subject). Having thus single-handedly and without apparent provocation raised expectations for more “stimulus” at last week’s ECB meeting, he then even exceeded those expectations with another round of rate-cuts and confirmation of QE in form of central bank purchases of asset-backed securities.
These events are significant not because they are going to finally kick-start the Eurozone economy (they won’t) but because 1) they look rushed, and panicky, and 2) they must clearly alienate the Germans. The ideological rift that runs through the European Union is wide and deep, and increasingly rips the central bank apart. And the Germans are losing that battle.
As to 1), it was just three months ago that the ECB cut rates and made headlines by being the first major central bank to take a policy rate below zero. Whatever your view is on the unfolding new Eurozone recession and the apparent need for more action (more about this in a minute), the additional 0.1 percent rate reduction will hardly make a massive difference. Yet, implementing such minor rate cuts in fairly short succession looks nervous and anxious, or even headless. This hardly instils confidence.
And regarding the “unconventional” measures so vehemently requested by the economic commentariat, well, the “targeted liquidity injections” that are supposed to direct freshly printed ECB-money to cash-starved corporations, and that were announced in June as well, have not even been implemented yet. Apparently, and not entirely unreasonably, the ECB wanted to wait for the outcome of their “bank asset quality review”. So now, before these measures are even started, let alone their impact could even be assessed, additional measures are being announced. The asset purchases do not come as a complete surprise either. It was known that asset management giant BlackRock had already been hired to help the ECB prepare such a program. Maybe the process has now been accelerated.
This is Eurozone QE
This is, of course, quantitative easing (QE). Many commentators stated that the ECB shied away from full-fledged QE. This view implies that only buying sovereign debt can properly be called QE. This does not make sense. The Fed, as part of its first round of QE in 2008, also bought mortgage-backed securities only. There were no sovereign bonds in its first QE program, and everybody still called it QE. Mortgage-backed securities are, of course, a form of asset-backed security, and the ECB announced purchases of asset-backed securities at the meeting. This is QE, period. The simple fact is that the ECB expands its balance sheet by purchasing selected assets and creating additional bank reserves (for which banks will now pay the ECB a 0.2 percent p.a. “fee”).
As to 2), not only will the ECB decisions have upset the Germans (the Bundesbank’s Mr. Weidmann duly objected but was outvoted) but so will have Mr. Draghi’s new rhetoric. In Jackson Hole he used the F-word, as in “flexibility”, meaning fiscal flexibility, or more fiscal leeway for the big deficit countries. By doing so he adopted the language of the Italian and French governments, whenever they demand to be given more time for structural reform and fiscal consolidation. The German government does not like to hear this (apparently, Merkel and Schäuble both phoned Draghi after Jackson Hole and complained.)
The German strategy has been to keep the pressure on reform-resistant deficit-countries, and on France and Italy in particular, and to not allow them to shift the burden of adjustment to the ECB. Draghi has now undermined the German strategy.
The Germans fear, not quite unjustifiably, that some countries always want more time and will never implement reform. In contrast to those countries that had their backs to the wall in the crisis and had little choice but to change course in some respect, such as Greece, Ireland, and Spain, France and Italy have so far done zilch on the structural reform front. France’s competitiveness has declined ever since it adopted the 35-hour workweek in 2000 but the policy remains pretty much untouchable. In Italy, Renzi wants to loosen the country’s notoriously strict labour regulations but faces stiff opposition from the trade unions and the Left, not least in his own party. He now wants to give his government three years to implement reform, as he announced last week.
Draghi turns away from the Germans
German influence on the ECB is waning. It was this influence that kept alive the prospect of a somewhat different approach to economic challenges than the one adopted in the US, the UK and, interestingly, Japan. Of course, the differences should not be overstated. In the Eurozone, like elsewhere, we observed interest rate suppression, asset price manipulations, and massive liquidity-injections, and worse, even capital controls and arbitrary bans on short-selling. But we also saw a greater willingness to rely on restructuring, belt-tightening, liquidation, and, yes, even default, to rid the system of the deformations and imbalances that are the ultimate root causes of recessions and the impediments to healthy, sustainable growth. In the Eurozone it was not all about “stimulus” and “boosting aggregate demand”. But increasingly, the ECB looks like any other major central bank with a mandate to keep asset prices up, government borrowing costs down, and a generous stream of liquidity flowing to cover the cracks in the system, to sustain a mirage of solvency and sustainability, and to generate some artificial and short-lived headline growth. QE will not only come to the Eurozone, it will become a conventional tool, just like elsewhere.
I believe it is these two points, Draghi’s sudden hyperactivity (1) and his clear rift with the Germans and his departure from the German strategy (2) that may explain why the euro is finally weakening, and why the minor announcements of last Thursday had a more meaningful impact on markets than the similarly minor announcements in June. With German influence on the ECB waning, trashing your currency becomes official strategy more easily, and this is already official policy in Japan and in the US.
Is Draghi scared by the weak growth numbers and the prospect of deflation?
Maybe, but things should be put in perspective.
Europe has a structural growth problem as mentioned above. If the structural impediments to growth are not removed, Europe won’t grow, and no amount of central bank pump priming can fix it.
Nobody should be surprised if parts of Europe fall into technical recessions every now and then. If “no growth” is your default mode then experiencing “negative growth” occasionally, or even regularly, should not surprise anyone. Excited talk about Italy’s shocking “triple-dip” recession is hyperbole. It is simply what one should expect. Having said this, I do suspect that we are already in another broader cyclical downturn, not only in Europe but also in Asia (China, Japan) and the UK.
The deflation debate in the newspapers is bordering on the ridiculous. Here, the impression is conveyed that a drop in official inflation readings from 0.5 to 0.3 has substantial information content, and that if we drop below zero we would suddenly be caught in some dreadful deflation-death-trap, from which we may not escape for many years. This is complete hogwash. There is nothing in economic theory or in economic history that would support this. And, no, this is not what happened in Japan.
The margin of error around these numbers is substantial. For all we know, we may already have a -1 percent inflation rate in the Eurozone. Or still plus 1 percent. Either way, for any real-life economy this is broadly price-stability. To assume that modest reductions in any given price average suddenly mean economic disaster is simply a fairy tale. Many economies have experienced extended periods of deflation (moderately rising purchasing power of money on trend) in excess of what Japan has experienced over the past 20 years and have grown nicely, thank you very much.
As former Bank of Japan governor Masaaki Shirakawa has explained recently, Japan’s deflation has been “very mild” indeed, and may have had many positive effects as well. In a rapidly aging society with many savers and with slow headline growth it helped maintain consumer purchasing power and thus living standards. Japan has an official unemployment rate of below 4 percent. Japan has many problems but deflation may not be one of them.
Furthermore, the absence of inflation in the Eurozone is no surprise either. There has been no money and credit growth in aggregate in recent years as banks are still repairing their balance sheets, as the “asset quality review” is pending, and as other regulations kick in. Banks are reluctant to lend, and the private sector is careful to borrow, and neither are acting unreasonably.
Expecting Eurozone inflation to clock in at the arbitrarily chosen 2 percent is simply unrealistic.
Draghi’s new activism moves the ECB more in the direction of the US Fed and the Bank of Japan. This alienates the Germans and marginally strengthens the position of the Eurozone’s Southern periphery. This monetary policy will not reinvigorate European growth. Only proper structural reform can do this but much of Europe appears unable to reform, at least without another major crisis. Fiscal deficits will grow.
Monetary policy is not about “stimulus” but about maintaining the status quo. Super-low interest rates are meant to sustain structures that would otherwise be revealed to be obsolete, and that would, in a proper free market, be replaced. The European establishment is interested in maintaining the status quo at all cost, and ultra-easy monetary policy and QE are essentially doing just that.
Under the new scheme of buying asset-backed securities, the ECB’s balance sheet will become a dumping ground for unwanted bank assets (the Eurozone’s new “bad” bank). Like almost everything about the Euro-project, this is about shifting responsibility, obscuring accountability, and socializing the costs of bad decisions. Monetary socialism is coming. The market gets corrupted further.
The following is a commentary I wrote for The Forum section of London business-paper City A.M. The link is here.
It is now six years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and considering that the US economy has officially been in recovery for the past five years, that equity indexes have put in new all-time highs, and that credit markets are once again ebullient to the point of carelessness, it is worth contemplating that monetary policy remains stuck in pedal-to-the-floor stimulus mode. Granted, quantitative easing is (once again) scheduled to end, and the first rates hikes are now expected for next year, but the present policy stance certainly remains highly accommodative. A full ‘exit’ by the Fed is still merely a prospect.
Expectations appear to be for the US economy to finally emerge from its long stay in monetary intensive care healthier and fit for self-sustained, if modest, growth. I think this is unlikely. The lengthy period of monetary stimulus will have saddled the economy with new dislocations. And if central bank intervention did indeed manage to arrest the forces of liquidation that the crisis had unleashed, then some old imbalances will also still hang around.
“Easy money” is – contrary to how it is frequently portrayed – not some tonic that simply lifts the general mood and boosts all economic activity proportionally. Monetary stimulus is always a form of market intervention. It changes relative prices (as distinguished from the ‘price level’ that most economists obsess about); it alters the allocation of scarce resources and the direction of economic activity. Monetary policy always affects the structure of the economy – otherwise no impact on real activity could be generated. It is a drug with considerable side effects.
The latest crisis should provide a warning. As David Stockman pointed out, it did not arrive on a meteor from space, but had its origin in distortions in the housing market in the US – and the UK, Spain and Ireland – and in related credit markets, and therefore ultimately in the “easy money” policies of the early 2000s. Administratively suppressing short rates down to 1 percent for a prolonged period was then the “unconventional” policy du jour, and it was a success of sorts. A credit crunch and deleveraging were indeed avoided, which were then feared as a consequence of WorldCom and Enron defaulting and the dot.com-bubble bursting, but only at the price of blowing an even bigger bubble elsewhere.
This is the problem with our modern fiat money system. With the supply of money no longer constrained by a nature-given, scarce commodity (gold or silver), but now fully elastic, essentially unlimited, and under the control of a lender of last resort central bank, the parameters of risk-taking are forever altered.
Allegedly, we can now stop bank-runs and ignite short-term growth spurts, or keep the overall “price level” advancing on some arbitrarily chosen path of 2 percent. But we can achieve all of this only through monetary manipulations that must create imbalances in the economy. And as the overwhelming temptation is now to use “easy money” to avoid or shorten any period of liquidation, to go for all growth and no correction, distortions will accumulate over time.
As we move from cycle to cycle, the imbalances get bigger, asset valuations become more stretched, the debt load rises, and central banks take policy to new extremes to arrest the market’s growing desire for a much needed cleansing. That policy rates around the world have converged on zero is not a cyclical but a structural phenomenon.
Central bank stimulus is not leading to virtuous circles but to vicious ones. How can we get out? – Only by changing our attitudes to monetary interventions fundamentally. Only if we accept that interest rates are market prices, not policy levers. Only if we accept that the growth we generate through cheap credit and interest-rate suppression is always fleeting, and always comes at the price of new capital misallocations.
The prospect for such a change looks dim at present. Last year’s feverish excitement about Abenomics and this year’s urgent demands for Eurozone QE show that the belief in central bank activism is unbroken, and I remain sceptical as to whether the Fed and the Bank of England can achieve a proper and lasting “exit” from ultra-loose policy in this environment. The near-term outlook is for more heavy-handed interventions everywhere, and the endgame is probably inflation. This will end badly.
“When Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz was asked in Germany this week if the country and its neighbours would suffer a lost decade, his response was unequivocal. “Is Europe going the same way as Japan ? Yes,” Mr Stiglitz said in Lindau at a meeting for Nobel laureates and economics students. “The only way to describe what is going on in some European countries is depression.”
‘Spectre of Japan-style lost decade looms over eurozone’, Claire Jones, The Financial Times, August 22, 2014.
Few films have managed to convey the feeling of approaching menace more effectively than Jeff Nichols’ 2011 drama, ‘Take Shelter’. Its blue collar protagonist, Curtis LaForche, played by the lantern-jawed Michael Shannon – whose sepulchral bass tones make his every utterance sound like someone slowly dragging a coffin over a cello – begins to suffer terrifying dreams and visions; he responds by building a storm shelter in his back yard. It transpires that his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a similar stage in her own life. Are these simply hallucinations ? Or are they portents of darker things to come ?
Nichols, the film’s writer and director, has gone on record as stating that at least part of the film owes something to the financial crisis:
“I think I was a bit ahead of the curve, since I wrote it in 2008, which was also an anxious time, for sure, but, yeah, now it feels even more so. This film deals with two kinds of anxiety. There’s this free-floating anxiety that we generally experience: you wake in bed and maybe worry about what’s happening to the planet, to the state of the economy, to things you have no control over. In 2008, I was particularly struck with this during the beginning of the financial meltdown. Then there’s a personal anxiety. You need to keep your life on track—your health, your finances, your family..”
There’s a degree of pretention in claiming to have a reliable read on the psychology of the marketplace – too many participants, too much intangibility, too much subjectivity. But taking market price index levels at face value, especially in stock markets, there seems to be a general sense that since the near-collapse of the financial system six years ago, the worst has passed. The S&P 500 stock index, for example, has just reached a new all-time high, leaving plenty of financial media commentators to breathlessly anticipate its goal of 2,000 index points. But look at it from an objective perspective, rather than one of simple-minded cheerleading: the market is more expensive than ever – the only people who should be celebrating are those considering selling.
There are at least two other storm clouds massing on the horizon (we ignore the worsening geopolitical outlook altogether). One is the ‘health’ of the bond markets. Bloomberg’s Mark Gilbert points out that Germany has just issued €4 billion of two year notes that pay no interest whatsoever until they mature in 2016. The second is the explicitly declining health of the euro zone economy, which is threatening to slide into recession (again), and to which zero interest rates in Germany broadly allude. The reality, which is not a hallucination, is that years of Zero Interest Rate Policy everywhere and trillions of dollars, pounds, euros and yen pumped into a moribund banking system have created a ‘Potemkin village’ market offering the illusion of stability. In their June 2014 letter, Elliott Management wrote as follows:
“..Stock markets around the world are at or near all-time nominal highs, while global interest rates hover near record lows. A flood of newly-printed money has combined with zero percent interest rates to keep all the balls suspended in the air. Nonetheless, growth in the developed world (US, Europe and Japan) has been significantly subpar for the 5 ½ years following the financial crisis. Businesses have been reluctant to invest and hire. The consumer is still “tapped out,” and there are significant suppressive forces from poor policy, including taxes and increased regulation. Governments (which are actually responsible for the feeble growth) are blaming the shortfall on “secular stagnation,” purportedly a long-term trend, which enables them to deny responsibility..
“The orchestra conductors for this remarkable epoch are the central bankers in the US, UK, Europe and Japan. The cost of debt of all maturities issued by every country, corporation and individual in the world (except outliers like Argentina) is in the process of converging at remarkably low rates. In Greece (for goodness sake), long-term government debt is trading with a yield just north of 5%. In France, 10 year bonds are trading at a yield of 1.67%.
“..Sadly, financial market conditions are not the result of the advancement of human knowledge in these matters. Rather, they are the result of policymaker groupthink and a mass delusion. By reducing interest rates to zero and having central banks purchase most of the debt issued by their governments, they think that inflation can be encouraged (but without any risk that it will spin out of control) and that economic activity consequently can be supported and enhanced. We are 5 ½ years into this global experiment, which has never been tried in its current breadth and scope at any other time in history.. the bald fact is that the entire developed world is growing at a sluggish pace, if at all. But governments, media, politicians, central bankers and academics are unwilling to state the obvious conclusion that their policies have failed and need to be revised. Instead, they uniformly state, with the kind of confidence only present among the truly clueless, that in the absence of their current policies, things would be much worse.”
Regardless of the context, stock markets at or near all-time highs are things to be sceptical of, rather than to be embraced with both hands. Value investors prefer to buy at the low than at the high. The same holds for bonds, especially when they offer the certainty of a loss in real terms if held to maturity. But as Elliott point out, the job of asset managers is to manage money, and not to “hold up our arms and order the tide to roll back”. (We have written previously about those who seem to believe they can control the tides.) So by a process of logic, selectivity and elimination, we believe the only things remotely worth buying today are high quality stocks trading at levels well below their intrinsic value.
We recently wrote about the sort of metrics to assess stocks that can be reliably used over the long run to generate superior returns. Among them, low price / book is a stand-out characteristic of value stocks that has generated impressive, market-beating returns over any medium term time frame. So which markets currently enjoy some of the most attractive price / book ratios ?
The four tables below, courtesy of Greg Fisher and Samarang Capital, show the relative attractiveness of the Japanese, US, Vietnamese and UK markets, as expressed by the distributions of their price / book ratios. Over 40% of the Japanese market, for example, trades on a price / book of between 0.5 and 1. We would humbly submit that this makes the Japanese market objectively cheap. The comparative percentage for the US market is around 15%.
Various stock markets as expressed in price / book ratios
Source: Bloomberg LLP
Even more strikingly, nearly 60% of the Vietnamese stock market trades on a price / book of between 0.5 and 1. The comparative figure for the UK market is approximately 20%.
Conversely, nearly 60% of the US market trades on a price / book of above 2 times. We would humbly submit that this makes the US market look expensive. There is clearly a world of difference between a frontier market like Vietnam which is limited by way of capital controls, and a developed market like that of the US which isn’t. But the price / book ratio is a comparison of apples with apples, and US stock market apples simply cost more than those in Japan or Vietnam. We’d rather buy cheap apples.
As clients and longstanding readers will appreciate, we split the investible universe into four asset classes: high quality credit; value equity; uncorrelated funds; and real assets, notably precious metals. As a result of the extraordinary monetary accommodation of the past six years or so, both credit markets and stocks have been boosted to probably unsustainable levels, at least in the West. Uncorrelated funds (specifically, trend-following funds) and gold and silver have recently lagged more traditional assets, though we contend that they still offer potential for portfolio insurance when the long-awaited storm of reality (financial gravity) finally strikes. But on any objective analysis, we think the merits of genuine value stocks are now compelling when set against any other type of investment, both on a relative and absolute basis. Increasingly desperate central banks have destroyed the concept of safe havens. There is now only relative safety by way of financial assets. The mood music of the markets is becoming increasingly discordant as investors (outside the euro zone at least) start to prepare for a turn in the interest rate cycle. There is a stark choice when it comes to investment aesthetics. Those favouring value and deep value investments are, we believe, more likely to end up wearing diamonds. Those favouring growth and momentum investments are, we believe, more likely to end up wearing the Emperor’s new clothes. We do not intend to end up as fashion victims as and when the storm finally hits.
“I say to all those who bet against Greece and against Europe: You lost and Greece won. You lost and Europe won.” –Jean-Claude Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg and president of the Eurogroup of EU Finance Ministers, 2014
“We have indeed at the moment little cause for pride: As a profession we have made a mess of things.” –Friedrich Hayek, Nobel Laureate in Economic Science, 1974
Jean-Claude Juncker is a prominent exception to the recent trend of economic and monetary officials openly expressing doubt that their interventionist policies are producing the desired results. In recent months, central bankers, the International Monetary Fund, the Bank for International Settlements, and a number of prestigious academic economists have expressed serious concern that their policies are not working and that, if anything, the risks of another 2008-esque global financial crisis are building. Thus we have arrived at a ‘Crisis of Interventionism’ as the consequences of unprecedented monetary and fiscal stimulus become evident, fuelling a surge in economic nationalism around the world, threatening the end of globalisation and the outbreak of trade wars. Indeed, a tech trade war may already have started. This is is perhaps the least appreciated risk to financial markets at present. How should investors prepare?
THE FATAL CONCEIT
Friedrich Hayek was the first Austrian School economist to win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science. Yet Hayek took issue with the characterisation of modern economics as a ‘science’ in the conventional sense. This is because the scientific method requires theories to be falsifiable and repeatable under stable conditions. Hayek knew this to be impossible in the real world in which dynamic, spontaneous human action takes place in response to an incalculable number of exogenous and endogenous variables.
Moreover, Hayek believed that, due to the complexity of a modern economy, the very idea that someone can possibly understand how it works to the point of justifying trying to influence or distort prices is nonsensical in theory and dangerous in practise. Thus he termed such hubris in economic theory ‘The Pretence of Knowledge’ and, in economic policy, ‘The Fatal Conceit’.
History provides much evidence that Hayek was correct. Interventionism has consistently failed either to produce the desired results or has caused new, unanticipated problems, such as in the 1920s and 1930s, for example, an age of particularly active economic policy activism in most of the world. Indeed, as Hayek wrote in his most famous work, The Road to Serfdom, economic officials tend to respond to the unintended consequences of their failed interventions with ever more interventionism, eventually leading to severe restrictions of economic liberty, such as those observed under socialist or communist regimes.
Hayek thus took advantage of his Nobel award to warn the economics profession that, by embracing a flawed, ‘pseudo-scientific method’ to justify interventionism, it was doing itself and society at large a great disservice:
The conflict between what in its present mood the public expects science to achieve in satisfaction of popular hopes and what is really in its power is a serious matter because, even if the true scientists should all recognize the limitations of what they can do in the field of human affairs, so long as the public expects more there will always be some who will pretend, and perhaps honestly believe, that they can do more to meet popular demands than is really in their power. It is often difficult enough for the expert, and certainly in many instances impossible for the layman, to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate claims advanced in the name of science…
If we are to safeguard the reputation of economic science, and to prevent the arrogation of knowledge based on a superficial similarity of procedure with that of the physical sciences, much effort will have to be directed toward debunking such arrogations, some of which have by now become the vested interests of established university departments.
Hayek made these comments in 1974. If only the economics profession had listened. Instead, it continued with the pseudo-science, full-steam ahead. That said, by 1974 a backlash against traditional Keynesian-style intervention had already begun, led by, among others, Milton Friedman. But Friedman too, brilliant as he no doubt was, was seduced also by the culture of pseudo-science and, in his monetary theories, for which he won his Nobel prize in 1976, he replaced a Keynesian set of unscientific, non-falsifiable, intervention-justifying equations with a Monetarist set instead.
Economic interventionism did, however, fall out of intellectual favour following the disastrous late-1970s stagflation and subsequent deep recession of the early 1980s—in the US, the worst since WWII. It never really fell out of policy, however. The US Federal Reserve, for example, facilitated one bubble after another in US stock and/or property prices in the period 1987-2007 by employing an increasingly activist monetary policy. As we know, this culminated in the spectacular events of 2008, which unleased a global wave of intervention unparalleled in modern economic history.
THE KEYNESIANS’ NEW CLOTHES
Long out of fashion, Keynesian theory and practice returned to the fore as the 2008 crisis unfolded. Some boldly claimed at the time that “we are all Keynesians now.” Activist economic interventionism became the norm across most developed and developing economies. In some countries, this has taken a more fiscal policy form; in others the emphasis has been more on monetary policy. Now six years on, with most countries still running historically large fiscal deficits and with interest rates almost universally at or near record lows, it is entirely understandable that the economics profession is beginning to ask itself whether the interventions it recommended are working as expected or desired.
While there have always been disputes around the margins of post-2008 interventionist policies, beginning in 2012 these became considerably more significant and frequent. In a previous report, THE KEYNESIANS’ NEW CLOTHES, I focused on precisely this development:
In its most recent World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) surveys the evidence of austerity in practice and does not like what it finds. In particular, the IMF notes that the multiplier associated with fiscal tightening seems to be rather larger than they had previously assumed. That is, for each unit of fiscal tightening, there is a greater economic contraction than anticipated. This results in a larger shrinkage of the economy and has the unfortunate result of pushing up the government debt/GDP ratio, the exact opposite of what was expected and desired.
While the IMF might not prefer to use the term, what I have just described above is a ‘debt trap’. Beyond a certain point an economy has simply accumulated more debt than it can pay back without resort to currency devaluation. (In the event that a country has borrowed in a foreign currency, even devaluation won’t work and some form of restructuring or default will be required to liquidate the debt.)
The IMF is thus tacitly admitting that those economies in the euro-area struggling, and so far failing, to implement austerity are in debt traps. Austerity, as previously recommended by the IMF, is just not going to work. The question that naturally follows is, what will work?
Well, the IMF isn’t exactly sure. The paper does not draw such conclusions. But no matter. If austerity doesn’t work because the negative fiscal multiplier is larger than previously assumed, well then for now, just ease off austerity while policymakers consider other options. In other words, buy time. Kick the can. And hope that the bond markets don’t notice.
Now, nearly two years later, the IMF has been joined in its doubts by a chorus of economic officials and academics from all over the world increasingly concerned that their interventions are failing and, in some cases, putting forth proposals of what should be done.
Let’s start with the Bank of England. Arguably the most activist central bank post-2008, as measured by the expansion of its balance sheet, several members of the Banks’ Monetary Policy Committee have expressed concern about the risks to financial stability posed by soaring UK property prices, a lack of household savings and a financial sector that remains highly leveraged. In a recent speech, BoE Chief Economist Charlie Bean stated that:
[T]he experience of the past few years does appear to suggest that monetary policy ought to take greater account of financial stability concerns. Ahead of the crisis, Bill White and colleagues at the Bank for International Settlements consistently argued that when leverage was becoming excessive and/or asset prices misaligned, central bankers ought to ‘lean against the wind’ by keeping interest rates higher than necessary to meet the price stability objective in the short run. Just as central banks are willing to accept temporary deviations from their inflation targets to limit output volatility, so they should also be willing to accept temporary deviations to attenuate the credit cycle. Essentially it is worth accepting a little more volatility in output and inflation in the short run if one can thereby reduce the size or frequency of asset-price busts and credit crunches.
In other words, perhaps central bank policy should change focus from inflation targeting, which demonstrably failed to prevent 2008, and instead to focus on money and credit growth. This is clearly an anti-Kenyesian view in principle, although one wonders how it might actually work in practice. In closing, he offered these thoughts:
I opened my remarks tonight by observing that my time at the Bank has neatly fallen into two halves. Seven years of unparalleled macroeconomic stability have been followed by seven years characterised by financial instability and a deep recession. It was a salutary lesson for those, like me, who thought we had successfully cracked the problem of steering the economy, and highlighted the need to put in place an effective prudential framework to complement monetary policy. Policy making today consequently looks a much more complex problem than it did fourteen years ago.
Indeed. Policy making does look increasingly complex. And not only to the staff of the IMF and to Mr Bean, but also to the staff at the Bank for International Settlements, to which Mr Bean referred in his comments. In a recent speech, General Manager of the BIS, Jaime Caruana, taking a global view, expressed fresh concern that:
There is considerable evidence that, for the world as a whole, policy interest rates have been persistently below traditional benchmarks, fostering unbalanced expansions. Policy rates are comparatively low regardless of the benchmarks – be these trend growth rates or more refined ones that capture the influence of output and inflation… Moreover, there is clear evidence that US monetary policy helps explain these deviations, especially for small open and emerging market economies. This, together with the large accumulation of foreign exchange reserves, is consistent with the view that these countries find it hard, economically or politically, to operate with rates that are considerably higher than those in core advanced economies. And, alongside such low rates, several of these economies, including some large ones, have been exhibiting signs of a build-up of financial imbalances worryingly reminiscent of that observed in the economies that were later hit by the crisis. Importantly, some of the financial imbalances have been building up in current account surplus countries, such as China, which can ill afford to use traditional policies to boost domestic demand further. This is by no means new: historically, some of the most disruptive financial booms have occurred in current account surplus countries. The United States in the 1920s and Japan in the 1980s immediately spring to mind.
The above might not sound terribly controversial from a common-sense perspective but to those familiar with the core precepts of the neo-Keynesian mainstream, this borders on economic heresy. Mr Caruana is implying that the Great Depression was not caused primarily by the policy failures of the early 1930s but by the boom preceeding it and that the stagnation of Japan in recent decades also has its roots in an unsustainable investment boom. In both cases, these booms were the product of economic interventions in the form of inappropriately easy monetary policy. And whence does current inappropriate policy originate? Why, from the US Federal Reserve! Mr Caruana is placing the blame for the renewed, dangerous buildup of substantial global imbalances and associated asset bubbles specifically on the Fed!
Yet Mr Caruana doesn’t stop there. He concludes by noting that:
[T]he implication is that there has been too much emphasis since the crisis on stimulating demand and not enough on balance sheet repair and structural reforms to boost productivity. Looking forward, policy frameworks need to ensure that policies are more symmetrical over the financial cycle, so as to avoid the risks of entrenching instability and eventually running out of policy ammunition.
So now we have had the IMF observing that traditional policies aren’t working as expected; BoE Chief Economist Bean noting how policy-making has become ‘complex’; and BIS GM Caruana implying this is primarily due to the boom/bust policies of the US Federal Reserve. So what of the Fed itself? What have Fed officials had to say of late?
Arguably the most outspoken recent dissent of the policy mainstream from within the Fed is that from Jeffrey Lacker, President of the regional Richmond branch. In a recent speech, he voiced his clear opposition to growing central bank interventionism:
There are some who praise the Fed’s credit market interventions and advocate an expansive role for the Fed in promoting financial stability and mitigating financial system disruptions. They construe the founders of the Federal Reserve System as motivated by a broad desire to minimize and prevent financial panics, even beyond simply satisfying increased demand for currency. My own view, which I must note may not be shared by all my colleagues in the Federal Reserve System, favors a narrower and more restrained role, focused on the critical core function of managing the monetary liabilities of the central bank. Ambitious use of a central bank’s balance sheet to channel credit to particular economic sectors or entities threatens to entangle the central bank in distributional politics and place the bank’s independence at risk. Moreover, the use of central bank credit to rescue creditors boosts moral hazard and encourages vulnerability to financial shocks.
By explicitly referencing moral hazard, Mr Lacker is taking on the current leadership of the Federal Reserve, now headed by Janet Yellen, which denies that easy money policies have had anything to do with fostering financial instability. But as discussed earlier in this report, the historical evidence is clear that Fed activism is behind the escalating boom-bust cycles of recent decades. And as Mr Caruana further suggests, this has been a global phenomenon, with the Fed at the de facto helm of the international monetary system due to the dollar’s global reserve currency role.
EURO ‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’? UH, NO
As quoted at the start of this report, Jean-Claude Juncker, prominent Eurocrat and politician, recently claimed victory in the euro-crisis. “Greece and Europe won.” And who lost? Why, those who bet against them in the financial markets by selling their debt and other associated assets.
But is it really ‘mission accomplished’ in Europe? No, and not by a long shot. Yes, so-called ‘austerity’ was absolutely necessary. Finances in many EU countries were clearly on an unsustainable course. But other than to have bought time through lower borrowing costs, have EU or ECB officials actually achieved anything of note with respect to restoring economic competitiveness?
There is some evidence to this effect, for example in Ireland, Portugal and Spain, comprising some 15% of the euro-area economy. However, there is also evidence to the contrary, most clearly seen in France, comprising some 20% of the euro-area. So while those countries under the most pressure from the crisis have made perhaps some progress, the second-largest euro member country is slipping at an accelerating rate into the uncompetitive abyss. Italy, for many years a relative economic underperformer, is not necessarily doing worse than before, but it is hard to argue it is doing better. (Indeed, Italy’s recent decision to distort its GDP data by including estimates for non-taxable black-market activities smacks of a desperate campaign to trick investors into believing its public debt burden is more manageable than it really is.)
There is also a surge in economic nationalism throughout the EU, as demonstrated by the remarkable surge in support for anti-EU politicians and parties. It is thus far too early for Mr Juncker to claim victory, although politicians are naturally given to such rhetoric. The crisis of interventionism in the euro-area may is not dissipating; rather, it is crossing borders, where it will re-escalate before long.
THE SHORT HONEYMOON OF ‘ABENOMICS’
Turning to developments in Japan, so-called ‘Abenomics’, the unabashedly interventionist economic policy set implemented by Prime Minister Abe following his election in late 2012, has already resulted in tremendous disappointment. Yes, the yen plummeted in late 2012 and early 2013, something that supposedly would restore economic competitiveness. But something happened on the way, namely a surge in import prices, including energy. Now Japan is facing not just economic stagnation but rising inflation, a nasty cocktail of ‘stagflation’. Not that this should be any surprise: Devaluing your way to prosperity has never worked, regardless of when or where tried, yet doing so in the face of structural economic headwinds is guaranteed to produce rising price inflation, just as it did in the US and UK during the 1970s.
With reality now having arrived, it will be interesting to see what Mr Abe does next. Will he go ‘all-in’ with even more aggressive yen devaluation? Or will he consider focusing on structural reform instead? Although I am hardly a Japan expert, I have travelled to the country regularly since the late 1990s and my sense is that the country is likely to slip right back into the ‘muddle through’ that characterised the economy during most of the past decade. Of course, in the event that another major global financial crisis unfolds, as I regard as inevitable in some form, Japan will be unable to avoid it, highly integrated as it is.
THE BUCK STOPS HERE: A ‘BRIC’ WALL
In my book, THE GOLDEN REVOLUTION, I document how the BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, now joined by South Africa to make the BRICS) have been working together for years to try and reorient themselves away from mercantilist, dollar-centric, export-led economic development, in favour of a more balanced approach. Certainly they have good reasons to do so, as I described in a 2012 report, THE BUCK STOPS HERE: A BRIC WALL:
[T]he BRICS are laying the appropriate groundwork for their own monetary system: Bilateral currency arrangements and their own IMF/World Bank. The latter could, in principle, form the basis for a common currency and monetary policy. At a minimum it will allow them to buy much global influence, by extending some portion of their massive cumulative savings to other aspiring developing economies or, intriguingly, to ‘advanced’ economies in need of a helping hand and willing to return the favour in some way.
In my new book, I posit the possibility that the BRICS, amid growing global monetary instability, might choose to back their currencies with gold. While that might seem far-fetched to some, consider that, were the BRICS to reduce their dependence on the dollar without sufficient domestic currency credibility, they would merely replace one source of instability with another. Gold provides a tried, tested, off-the-shelf solution for any country or group of countries seeking greater monetary credibility and the implied stability it provides.
Now consider the foreign policy angle: The Delhi Declaration makes clear that the BRICS are not at all pleased with the new wave of interventionism in Syria and Iran. While the BRICS may be unable to pose an effective military opposition to combined US and NATO military power in either of those two countries, they could nevertheless make it much more difficult for the US and NATO to finance themselves going forward. To challenge the dollar is to challenge the Fed to raise interest rates in response. If the Fed refuses to raise rates, the dollar will plummet. If the Fed does raise interest rates, it will choke off growth and tax revenue. In either case, the US will find it suddenly much more expensive, perhaps prohibitively so, to carry out further military adventures in the Middle East or elsewhere.
While the ongoing US confrontations with Iran and Syria have been of concern to the BRICS for some time, of acute concern to member Russia of late has been the escalating crisis in Ukraine. The recent ‘Maidan’ coup, clearly supported by the US and possibly some EU countries, is regarded with grave concern by Russia, which has already taken action to protect its naval base and other military assets in the Crimea. Now several other Russian-majority Ukrainian regions are seeking either autonomy or independence. The street fighting has been intense at times. The election this past weekend confirming what Russia regards as an illegitimate, NATO-puppet government changes and solves nothing; it merely renders the dipute more intractable and a further escalation appears likely. (Russia is pressing Kiev as I write to allow it to begin providing humanitarian assistance to the rebellious regions, something likely to be denied.)
US economic sanctions on Russia have no doubt helped to catalyse the most recent BRICS initiative, in this case one specific to Russia and China, who have agreed a landmark 30-year gas deal while, at the same time, preparing the groundwork for the Russian banking system to handle non-dollar (eg yuan) payments for Russian gas exports. This is a specific but nevertheless essential step towards a more general de-dollarisation of intra-BRICS trade, which continues to grow rapidly.
The dollar’s international role had been in slow but steady decline for years, with 2008 serving to accelerate the process. The BRICS are now increasingly pro-active in reducing their dollar dependence. Russia has been dumping US dollar reserves all year and China is no longer accumulating them. India has recently eased restrictions on gold imports, something that is likely to reduce Indian demand for US Treasuries. (Strangely enough, and fodder for conspiracy theorists, tiny Belgium has stepped in to fill the gap, purchasing huge amounts of US Treasuries in recent months, equivalent to some $20,000 per household! Clearly that is not actually Belgian buying at all, but custodial buying on behalf of someone else. But on behalf of whom? And why?)
As I wrote in my book, amid global economic weakness, the so-called ‘currency wars’ naturally escalate. Competitive devaluations thus have continued periodically, such as the Abenomics yen devaluation of 2012-13 and the more recent devaluation of the Chinese yuan. As I have warned in previous reports, however, history strongly suggests that protracted currency wars lead to trade wars, which can be potentially disastrous in their effects, including on corporate profits and valuations.
THE END OF GLOBALISATION?
Trade wars are rarely labelled as such, at least not at first. Some other reason is normally given for erecting trade barriers. A popular such reason in recent decades has been either environmental or health concerns. For example, the EU and China, among other countries, have banned the import of certain genetically modified foods and seeds.
Rather than erect formal barriers, governments can also seek ways to subsidise domestic producers or exporters. While the World Trade Organisation (WTO) aims to prevent and police such barriers and subsidies, in practice it can take it years to effectively enforce such actions.
Well, there is now a new excuse for trade barriers, one specific to the huge global tech and telecommunications industry: Espionage. As it emerges that US-built and patented devices in widespread use around the world contain various types of ‘backdoors’ allowing the US National Security Agency to eavesdrop, countries are evaluating whether they should ban their use. Cisco’s CEO recently complained of losing market share to rivals due to such concerns. Somewhat ominously, China announced over the past week that it would prohibit public entities from using Microsoft Windows version 8 and would require banks to migrate away from IBM computer servers.
There has also been talk amongst the BRICS that they should build a parallel internet infrastructure to avoid routing information via the US, where it is now assumed to be automatically and systematically compromised. Given these concerns, it is possible that a general tech trade war is now breaking out under an espionage pretext. What a convenient excuse for protecting jobs: Protecting secrets! What do you think the WTO will have to say about that?
Imagine what a tech trade war would do to corporate profits. Name one major tech firm that does not have widely dispersed global supply chains, manufacturing operations and an international customer base. Amid rising trade barriers, tech firms will struggle to keep costs down. Beyond a certain point they will need to pass rising costs on to their customers. The general deflation of tech in recent decades will go into reverse. Imagine what that will do to consumer price inflation around the world.
Yes, a tech trade war would be devastating. Household, ‘blue-chip’ tech names might struggle to survive, much less remain highly profitable. And the surge in price inflation may limit the ability of central banks to continue with ultra-loose monetary policies, to the detriment also of non-tech corporate profits and financial health. This could lead into a vicious circle of reactionary protectionism in other industries, a historical echo of the ‘tit-for-tat’ trade wars of the 1930s that were part and parcel of what made the Great Depression such a disaster.
Given these facts, it is difficult to imagine that the outbreak of a global tech trade war would not result in a major equity market crash. Current valuations are high in a historical comparison and imply continued high profitability. Major stock markets, including the US, could easily lose half their value, even more if a general price inflation led central banks to tighten monetary conditions by more than financial markets currently expect. Of all the ‘black swans’ out there, a tech trade war is not only taking flight; it is also potentially one of the largest, short of a shooting war.
A SILVER LINING TO THE GLOOM AND DOOM
With equity valuations stretched and complacency rampant—the VIX volatility index dipped below 12 this week, a rare event indeed—now is the time to proceed with extreme caution. The possible outbreak of a tech trade war only adds to the danger. Buying the VIX (say, via an ETF) is perhaps the most straightforward way to insure an equity portfolio, but there are various ways to get defensive, as I discussed in my last report.
Where there is risk, however, there is opportunity, and right now there is a silver lining: With a couple of exceptions, metals prices are extremely depressed relative to stock market valuations. Arguably the most depressed is silver. Having slipped below $20/oz, silver has given up all of its previous, relative outperformance vs other metals from 2010-11. It thus appears cheap vs both precious and industrial metals, with silver being something of a hybrid between the two. Marginal production capacity that was brought on line following the 2010-11 price surge is now uneconomic and is shutting down. But the long slide in prices has now attracted considerable speculative short interest. If for any reason silver finds a reason to recover, the move is likely to be highly asymmetric.
Investors seeing an opportunity in silver can, of course, buy silver mining shares, either individually or through an ETF. A more aggressive play would be to combine a defensive equity market stance—say buying the VIX—with a long position in the miners or in the metal itself. My view is that such a position is likely to perform well in the coming months. (Please note that volatility of the silver price is normally roughly double that of the S&P500 index, so a market-neutral, non-directional spread trade would require shorting roughly twice as much of the S&P500 as the purchasing of silver. Also note, however, that correlations are unstable and thus must be dynamically risk-managed.)
As famed distressed-debt investor Howard Marks says, investing is about capturing asymmetry. Here at Amphora we aim to do precisely that. At present, there appears no better way to go about it than to buy silver, either outright or combined with a stock market short/underweight. From the current starting point, this could well be one of the biggest trades of 2014.