Economics

Markets and reality disconnected

The behaviour of financial markets these days is frankly divorced from reality, with value-investing banished.

Markets have become distorted by Rumsfeld-knowns such as interest rate policy and “market guidance”, and Rumsfeld-unknowns such as undeclared market intervention by the authorities. On top of these distortions there is remote investing by computers programmed with algorithms and high-frequency traders, unable to make human value-assessments.

Take just one instance of possible “market guidance” that occurred this week. On Thursday 16th October, James Dullard of the St Louis Fed hinted that QE might be extended. In the ensuing four trading sessions the Dow rallied over 5%. Was this comment sparked by signs of slowing economic growth, or by a desire to buoy up sliding equity markets? Then there is the vested interest of keeping government funding costs low, which raises the question whether or not exceptionally low bond yields, particularly in the Eurozone, are by design or accidental.

Those who support the theory that it is all an evil plot will also note that governments and their central banks through exchange stability funds (set up with the explicit purpose of market intervention), wealth funds and state pension funds have some $30 trillion to direct as they see fit. The reality is that there is intervention across a range of markets; but most of the mispricing is in the hands of private, not government investors. For evidence look no further than the record level of brokers’ loans to buyers of equities, who with greed worthy of a latter-day South-Sea Bubble seek to gear up their speculative profits.

These are not markets with widespread public participation, buying dot-coms and the like. Instead ordinary people have given their savings and pension funds to professionals who speculate on their behalf. It is the professionals who talk about the Yellen put, meaning the Fed simply won’t let prices fall significantly. We can fret about who is actually responsible for market distortions, instead we should ask who benefits.

Governments: in the past they have covered their debts through a process dubbed financial repression, when artificially low interest rates and bond yields were the principal mechanism whereby wealth is transferred from savers to the government. This process still goes on today. Forget government inflation figures: when did a bank deposit net of taxes last give a positive return after your cost of living increases?

Zero interest rate policy lays the process bare, and turns savers into borrowers. Mr Average has replaced savings with mortgages and car loans. And while the elderly and other passive savers are still defenceless against financial repression, the process has taken on a new twist. The transfer of wealth to governments now targets investment managers.

Investment and hedge funds we invest with together with the banks which take our deposits speculate on our behalf. They think that with a Yellen or Draghi put underwriting markets a ten-year government bond with a two per cent yield is an attractive investment. In doing so they are transferring financial resources to governments in a variation on old-fashioned financial repression.

Our dysfunctional markets have become little more than the essential prerequisite, as Louis XIV’s finance minister Colbert might have said, to plucking the goose for the largest amount of feathers with the minimum of hissing.

Economics

A market reset due

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.

Total World Money 2013

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.

Prices

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.

Gold

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.

Economics

Math Gone Mad: Regulatory Risk Modeling by the Federal Reserve

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]

Economics

A black mark for benchmarks

“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.”

  • Letter to the FT from Mr Max Irwin of Kew, Surrey, UK.

Politicians and diapers have one thing in common. They should both be changed regularly, and for the same reason.”

  • Anonymous.

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:

  1. The bond market is clearly not perfectly efficient.

  2. Bond yields are being manipulated by central banks through a deliberate policy of financial repression (and QE, of course).

  3. 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

10 Year US Treasury Yields Since 1971

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.

Money

Does low US price inflation provide room for a more aggressive Fed?

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%.

Shostak CPI

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.

Shostak Fed Balance Sheet

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.

Money

The Taylor Rule Won’t Save Us

[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.

Law

Understanding Deposit Insurance (I): Deposit Insurance is a Creature of the State

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:

 

http://www.fscs.org.uk/industry/funding/levy-information/

 

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?

Economics

As Germany loses battle for ECB, QE goes global

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.

Conclusions

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.

Economics

Our obsession with monetary stimulus will end in disaster

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.

Economics

Storm warning

“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

PriceBookRatios

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.