There is a significant risk that the financial effects of the collapse in the oil price could spread through the financial system. Already there must have been significant transfers of value through OTC derivative markets, whose gross notional value is about $700 trillion. Roughly $300 trillion of this is with the top US banks as counterparty. A minority of this is with credit default swaps, but if there is problem here, it could easily spread to other derivative categories through counterparty risk.
Remember that the US economy is $17 trillion, so we are talking figures of a far greater magnitude than that.
We have had these scares in the past, notably with AIG, and the Lehman crisis, and also with the Eurozone crisis when Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy were insolvent together. We could be on the verge of another such crisis, this time triggered by the collapse in the price of crude oil.
For me one event we cannot ignore is a clause slipped into the omnibus finance bill passed by Congress last week, whereby the FDIC, which insures small bank deposits in the event of a bank failure, will also take on responsibility for derivative contracts. The only possible reason this has been slipped in must be because the Wall Street banks are worried about counterparty risk for derivatives, which is totally beyond any individual bank’s control.
The fact that this is the subject of urgent legislation (the wording was put together by Citi and adopted word for word) instead of a more considered approach confirms to me that we have a real problem on our hands.
Parliamentary committees are not especially noted for entertainment, but the November Treasury Select Committee hearing on the Bank of England’s Inflation Report is a refreshing exception. The fun starts on p. 30 of the transcript of the hearings with Steve Baker MP and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney light-heartedly jousting with each other.
Steve begins by asking Dr. Carney if the Bank is all model-driven. To quote from the transcript:
Dr Carney: No. If we were all model driven, then you would not need an MPC.
Q81 Steve Baker: All right. But we do have plenty of models floating around.
Dr Carney: I presume you feel we do need an MPC, Mr Baker?
Steve Baker: I think you know I think we don’t.
Dr Carney: I just thought we would get that read into the record.
[KD: First goal to Dr. Carney, but looks to me like it went into the wrong net.]
Steve Baker: I want to turn to a criticism by Chris Giles in The Financial Times of the model for labour market slack, which called it a nonsense. If I may I will just share a couple of quotes with you. He said that, according to a chart in the inflation report, the average-hours gap hit a standard deviation of -6, and this is something we would expect to happen once in 254 million years. He also said that the Bank of England is again implying the recent recession, as far as labour market participation is concerned, was worse than any moment in 800 times the period in which homo sapiens have walked on the earth. How will the Bank reply to a criticism as strident as this one?
[KD: The article referred to is Chris Giles, “Money Supply: Why the BoE is talking nonsense”, Nov 17 2014: http://ftalphaville.ft.com/2014/11/17/2045002/moneysupply-why-the-boe-is-talking-nonsense/#]
Dr Carney: Since you asked, let me reply objectively. Calculations such as that presume that there is a normal distribution around the equilibrium rate. Let me make it clear. First off, what is the point of the chart? The chart is to show a deviation relative to historic averages. It is an illustrative chart that serves the purpose of showing where the slack is relative to average equilibrium rates, just to give a sense of relative degrees of slack. That is the first point. The second point is that the calculation erroneously, perhaps on purpose to make the point but erroneously, assumes that there is a normal distribution around that equilibrium rate. So in other words to say that there is a normal distribution of unemployment outcomes around a medium-term equilibrium rate of 5.5%. So it is just as likely that something would be down in the twos as it would be up in the eights. Well, who really believes that? Certainly not the MPC and I suspect not the author of that article. It also ignores that the period of time was during the great moderation for all of these variables as well, so it is a relatively short period. These are not normal distributions. You would not expect them. You would expect a skew with quite a fat tail. So using normal calculations to extrapolate from a chart that is there for illustrative purposes is—I will not apply an adjective to it—misleading and I am not sure it is a productive use of our time.
Q82 Steve Baker: That is a fantastic answer. I am much encouraged by it, because it does seem to me it has been known for a long time that it is not reasonable to use normal distributions to model market events and yet so much mathematical economics is based on it.
[KD: Carney’s is an excellent answer: one should not “read in” a normal distribution to this chart, and the Bank explicitly rejects normality in this context.
Slight issue, however: didn’t the Bank’s economists use the normality assumption to represent the noise processes in the models they used to generate the chart? I am sure they did. One wonders how the charts would look if they used more suitable noise processes instead? And just how robust is the chart to the modelling assumptions on which it is based?]
Dr Carney: People do it because it is simple—it is the one thing they understand—and then they apply it without thinking, which is not what the MPC does.
Steve Baker: That is great. I can move on quickly. But I will just say congratulations to the Bank on deciding to commission anti-orthodox research because I think this is going to be critical to drilling into some of these problems.
Dr Carney: Thank you.
[KD: Incredulous chair then intervenes.]
Q83 Chair: To be clear, the conclusion that we should draw from this is that we should look at all economic models with a very high degree of scepticism indeed.
Dr Carney: Absolutely.
[KD: So you heard it from the horse’s mouth: don’t trust those any of those damn models. Still incredulous, the chair then intervenes again to seek confirmation of what he has just heard.]
Chair: Can I just add that it is an astonishing conclusion? I do not want to cut into Steve Baker’s questions, but is that the right conclusion?
Dr Carney: Absolutely. Models are tools. You should use multiple ones. You have to have judgment, you have to understand how the models work and particularly, if I may underscore, dynamic stochastic general equilibrium forecasting models, which are the workhorse models of central banks. What they are useful for is looking at the dynamics around shocks in the short term. What they are not useful for is the dynamics further out where—
[KD: Dr. Carney reiterates the point so there can be no confusion about it. So let me pull his points together: (1) He “absolutely” agrees that “we should look at all economic models with a very high degree of scepticism.” (2) He suggests “You should use multiple [models]”, presumably to safeguard against model risk, i.e., the risks that any individual model might be wrong. (3) He endorses one particular – and controversial – class of models, Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (DSGE) models as the “workhorse models” of central banks, whilst acknowledging that they are of no use for longer-term forecasting or policy projections.
I certainly agree that none of the models is of any longer-term term use, but what I don’t understand is how (1), (2) and (3) fit together. In particular, if we are to be skeptical of all models, then why should we rely on one particular and highly controversial, if fashionable, class of models, never mind – and perhaps I should say, especially – when that class of models is regarded as the central banks’ workhorse. After all, the models’ forecast performance hasn’t been very good, has it?
The discussion then goes from the ridiculous to the sublime:]
Chair: I am just thinking about all those economists out there whose jobs have been put at risk.
Dr Carney: No, we have enhanced their jobs to further improve DSG models.
Steve Baker: We are all Austrians now.
[A little later, Steve asks Sir Jon Cunliffe about the risk models used by banks.]
Q84 Steve Baker: Sir Jon, before I move too much further down this path, can I ask you what would be the implications for financial stability and bank capital if risk modelling moved away from using normal distributions?
Sir Jon Cunliffe: Maybe I will answer the question another way. It is because of some of the risks around modelling, the risk-weighted approach within bank capital, that we brought forward our proposals on the leverage ratio. So you have to look at bank capital through a number of lenses. One way of doing is to have a standardised risk model for everyone and there is a standardised approach and it works on, if you like, data for everybody that does not suit any particular institution and the bigger institutions run their own models, which tend to have these risks in them. Then you have a leverage ratio that is not risk-weighted, and therefore takes no account of these models, and that forms a check. So with banks, the best way to look at their capital is through a number of different lenses.
[KD: Sir Humphrey is clearly a very good civil servant: he responds to the question by offering to answer it in a different way, but does not actually answer it. The answer is that we do not use a non-normal distribution because doing so would lead to higher capital requirements but that would never do as the banks would not be happy with it: they would then lobby like crazy and we can’t have that. Instead, he evades the question and says that there are different approaches with pros and cons etc. etc. – straight out of “Yes, Minister”.
However, notwithstanding that Sir Jon didn’t answer the question on the dangers of the normal distribution, I would also ask him a number of other (im)pertinent questions relating to bad practices in bank risk management and bank risk regulation:
1. Why does the Bank continue to allow banks to use the discredited Value-at-Risk (or VaR) risk measure to help determine their regulatory capital requirements, a measure which is known to grossly under-estimate banks true risk exposures?
The answer, of course, is obvious: the banks are allowed to use the VaR risk measure because it grossly under-estimates their exposures and no-one in the regulatory system is willing to stand up to the banks on this issue.
2. Given the abundant evidence – much of it published by the Bank itself – that complex risk-models have much worse forecast performance than simple models (such as those based on leverage ratios), then why does the Bank continue to allow banks to use complex and effectively useless risk models to determine their regulatory capital requirements?
I would put it to him that the answer is the same as the answer to the previous question.
3. Why does the Bank continue to rely on regulatory stress tests in view of their record of repeated failure to identify the build-up of subsequently important stress events? Or, put it differently, can the Bank identify even a single instance where a regulatory stress test correctly identified a subsequent major problem?
Answer: The Northern Rock ‘war game’. But even that stress test turned out to be of no use at all, because none of the UK regulatory authorities did anything to act on it.
In the meantime, perhaps I can interest readers in my Cato Institute Policy Analysis “Math Gone Mad”, which provides a deeper – if not exactly exhaustive but certainly exhausting – analysis of these issues:
“What will futurity make of the Ph.D. standard ? Likely, it will be even more baffled than we are. Imagine trying to explain the present-day arrangements to your 20-something grandchild a couple of decades hence – after the Crash of, say, 2016, that wiped out the youngster’s inheritance and provoked a central bank response so heavy-handed as to shatter the confidence even of Wall Street in the Federal Reserve’s methods.
“I expect you’ll wind up saying something like this: “My generation gave former tenured economics professors discretionary authority to fabricate money and to fix interest rates. We put the cart of asset prices before the horse of enterprise. We entertained the fantasy that high asset prices made for prosperity, rather than the other way around. We actually worked to foster inflation, which we called ‘price stability’ (this was on the eve of the hyperinflation of 2017). We seem to have miscalculated.”
– Excerpt from James Grant’s November 2014 Cato speech. Hat-tip to Alex Stanczyk.
You can be for gold, or you can be for paper, but you cannot possibly be for both. It may soon be time to take a stand. The arguments in favour of gold are well known, and just as widely ignored by the paperbugs, who have a belief system at least as curious because its end product is destined to fail – we just do not know precisely when. The price of gold is weakly correlated to other prices in financial markets, as the last three years have clearly demonstrated. Indeed gold may be the only asset whose price is being suppressed by the monetary authorities, as opposed to those sundry instruments whose prices are being just as artificially inflated to offer the illusion of health in the financial system (stocks and bonds being the primary financial victims). Beware appearances in an unhinged financial system, because they can be dangerously deceptive. It is quite easy to manipulate the paper price of gold on a financial futures exchange if you never have to make delivery of the physical asset and are content to play games with paper. At some point that will change. Contrary to popular belief, gold is supremely liquid, though its supply is not inexhaustible. It is no-one’s liability – this aspect may be one of the most crucial in the months to come, as and when investors learn to start fearing counterparty risk all over again. Gold offers a degree of protection against uncertainty. And unlike paper money, there are fundamental and finite limits to its creation and supply.
What protection ? There is, of course, one argument against gold that seems to trump all others and blares loudly to sceptical ears. Its price in US dollars has recently fallen. Not in rubles, and not perhaps in yen, of course, but certainly in US dollars. Perhaps gold is really a currency, then, as opposed to a tiresome commodity ? But the belief system of the paperbug dies hard.
The curious might ask why so many central banks are busily repatriating their gold ? Or why so many Asian central banks are busily accumulating it ? It is surely not just, in Ben Bernanke’s weasel words, tradition ?
If you plot the assets of central banks against the gold price, you see a more or less perfect fit going back at least to 2002. It is almost as if gold were linked in some way to money. That correlative trend for some reason broke down in 2012 and has yet to re-emerge. We think it will return, because 6,000 years of human history weigh heavily in its favour.
Or you can put your faith in paper. History, however, would not recommend it. Fiat money has a 100% failure rate.
Please note that we are not advocating gold to the exclusion of all else within the context of a balanced investment portfolio. There is a role for objectively creditworthy debt, especially if deflation really does take hold – it’s just that the provision of objectively creditworthy bonds in a global debt bubble is now vanishingly small. There is a role for listed businesses run by principled, decent management, where the market’s assessment of value for those businesses sits comfortably below those businesses’ intrinsic worth. But you need to look far and wide for such opportunities, because six years of central and commercial banks playing games with paper have made many stock markets thoroughly unattractive to the discerning value investor. We suggest looking in Asia. There is a role for price momentum strategies which, having disappointed for several years, though not catastrophically so, now appear to be getting a second wind, from the likes of deflating oil prices, periphery currencies, and so on.
As investors we are all trapped within a horrifying bubble. We must play the hand we’ve been dealt, however bad it is. But there are now growing signs of end-of-bubble instability. The system does not appear remotely sound. Since political vision in Europe, in particular, is clearly absent, the field has been left to central bankers to run amok. The only question we cannot answer is: precisely when does the centre fail ? The correct response is to recall the words of the famed value investor Peter Cundill, when he confided in his diary:
“The most important attribute for success in value investing is patience, patience, and more patience. THE MAJORITY OF INVESTORS DO NOT POSSESS THIS CHARACTERISTIC.”
But the absence of patience by the majority of investors is fine, because it leaves more money on the table for the rest of us. The only question remaining is: in what exact form should we hold that money ?
Be patient, and do please set aside thirty minutes to listen to James Grant’s quietly passionate and wonderfully articulate Cato Institute speech. It will be time well spent.
[Editor’s Note: this piece, by John Cochrane, first appeared here http://johnhcochrane.blogspot.ie/2014/11/segregated-cash-accounts.html]
An important little item from the just released minutes of the October Federal Open Market Committee meeting will be interesting to people who follow monetary policy and financial reform issues.
Finally, the manager reported on potential arrangements that would allow depository institutions to pledge funds held in a segregated account at the Federal Reserve as collateral in borrowing transactions with private creditors and would provide an additional supplementary tool during policy normalization; the manager noted possible next steps that the staff could potentially undertake to investigate the issues related to such arrangements.
A slide presentation by the New York Fed’s Jamie McAndrews explains it.
The simple version, as I understand it, seems like great news. Basically, a company can deposit money at a bank, and the bank turns around and invests that money in interest-paying reserves at the Fed. Unlike regular deposits, which you lose if the bank goes under, (these deposits are much bigger than the insured limit) the depositor has a collateral claim to the reserves at the Fed.
This is then exactly 100% reserve, bankruptcy-remote, “narrow banking” deposits. I argued for these in “toward a run-free financial system” as a substitute for all the run-prone shadow-banking that fell apart in the financial crisis. (No, this isn’t going to siphon money away from bank lending, as the Fed buys Treasuries to issue reserves. The volume of bank lending stays the same.)
A second function of such deposits is that, like the new repo facility, it’s going to help the Fed to raise rates. When the Fed wants to raise rates it will pay more interest on reserves. The question is, will banks pass that interest on to depositors? If they were competitive they would, but that’s not so obvious. If large depostitors can access interest-bearing reserves through the repo program, or now through this narrow-banking program, it’s likely to more quickly transmit the interest on reserves to the wider economy.
“Finally, as expectations of rapid inflation evaporate, I want to contribute to the debate about the November 15, 2010 letter signed by 23 US academics, economists and money managers warning on the Fed’s QE strategy. Bloomberg News did what I would call a hatchet job on the signatories essentially saying how wrong they have been and seeking their current views. It certainly made for an entertaining read. Needless to say, shortly afterwards Paul Krugman waded in with his typically understated style to twist the knife in still deeper. Cliff Asness, one of the signatories of the original letter, despite observing that “responding to Krugman is as productive as smacking a skunk with a tennis racket. But, sometimes, like many unpleasant tasks, it’s necessary”, penned a rather wittyresponse. Do read these articles at your leisure. But having been one of the few to accurately predict the deflation quagmire into which we have now sunk, I believe I am more entitled than many to have a view on this subject. Had I been asked I would certainly have signed the letter and would still sign it now. The unfolding deflationary quagmire into which we are sinking will get worse and there will be more Fed QE. But do I think QE will solve our problems? I certainly do not. I think ultimately it will make things far, far worse.”
– SocGen’s Albert Edwards, ‘Is the next (and last) phase of the Ice Age now upon us ?’ (20 November 2014)
On Monday 15th November 2010, the following open letter to Ben Bernanke was published:
“We believe the Federal Reserve’s large-scale asset purchase plan (so-called “quantitative easing”) should be reconsidered and discontinued. We do not believe such a plan is necessary or advisable under current circumstances. The planned asset purchases risk currency debasement and inflation, and we do not think they will achieve the Fed’s objective of promoting employment.
“We subscribe to your statement in the Washington Post on November 4 that “the Federal Reserve cannot solve all the economy’s problems on its own.” In this case, we think improvements in tax, spending and regulatory policies must take precedence in a national growth program, not further monetary stimulus.
“We disagree with the view that inflation needs to be pushed higher, and worry that another round of asset purchases, with interest rates still near zero over a year into the recovery, will distort financial markets and greatly complicate future Fed efforts to normalize monetary policy.
“The Fed’s purchase program has also met broad opposition from other central banks and we share their concerns that quantitative easing by the Fed is neither warranted nor helpful in addressing either U.S. or global economic problems.”
Among the 23 signatories to the letter were Cliff Asness of AQR Capital, Jim Chanos of Kynikos Associates, Niall Ferguson of Harvard University, James Grant of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, and Seth Klarman of Baupost Group.
Words matter. Their meanings matter. Since we have a high degree of respect for the so-called Austrian economic school, we will use Mises’ own definition of inflation:
“..an increase in the quantity of money.. that is not offset by a corresponding increase in the need for money.”
In other words, inflation has already occurred, inasmuch as the Federal Reserve has increased the US monetary base from roughly $800 billion, pre-Lehman Crisis, to roughly $3.9 trillion today.
What the signatories likely meant when they referred to inflation in their original open letter to Bernanke was the popular interpretation of the word – that second-order rise in the prices of goods and services that typically follows aggressive base money inflation. Note, as many of them observed when prodded by Bloomberg’s yellow journalists, that their original warning carried no specific date on which their inflation might arise. To put it in terms which Ben Bernanke himself might struggle to understand, just because something has not happened during the course of four years does not mean it will never happen. We say this advisedly, given that the former central bank governor himself made the following observation in response to a question about the US housing market in July 2005:
“INTERVIEWER: Tell me, what is the worst-case scenario? Sir, we have so many economists coming on our air and saying, “Oh, this is a bubble, and it’s going to burst, and this is going to be a real issue for the economy.” Some say it could even cause a recession at some point. What is the worst-case scenario, if in fact we were to see prices come down substantially across the country?
“BERNANKE: Well, I guess I don’t buy your premise. It’s a pretty unlikely possibility. We’ve never had a decline in house prices on a nationwide basis. So what I think is more likely is that house prices will slow, maybe stabilize: might slow consumption spending a bit. I don’t think it’s going to drive the economy too far from its full employment path, though.” [Emphasis ours.]
To paraphrase Ben Bernanke, “We’ve never had a decline in house prices on a nationwide basis – therefore we never will.”
One more quote from Mises is relevant here, when he warns about the essential characteristic of inflation being its creation by the State:
“The most important thing to remember is that inflation is not an act of God, that inflation is not a catastrophe of the elements or a disease that comes like the plague.Inflation is a policy.”
Many observers of today’s financial situation are scouring the markets for evidence of second-order inflation (specifically, CPI inflation) whilst either losing sight of, or not even being aware of, the primary inflation, per the Austrian school definition.
James Grant, responding to Bloomberg, commented:
“People say, you guys are all wrong because you predicted inflation and it hasn’t happened. I think there’s plenty of inflation – not at the checkout counter, necessarily, but on Wall Street.”
“The S&P 500 might be covering its fixed charges better, it might be earning more Ebitda, but that’s at the expense of other things, including the people who saved all their lives and are now earning nothing on their savings.”
“That to me is the principal distortion, is the distortion of the credit markets. The central bankers have in deeds, if not exactly in words – although I think there have been some words as well – have prodded people into riskier assets than they would have had to purchase in the absence of these great gusts of credit creation from the central banks. It’s the question of suitability.”
And from the vantage point of November 2014, only an academic could deny that the signatories were wholly correct to warn of the financial market distortion that ensues from aggressive money printing.
Ever since Lehman Brothers failed and the Second Great Depression began, like every other investor on the planet we have wrestled with the arguments over inflation (as commonly understood) versus deflation. Now some of the fog has lifted from the battlefield. Despite the creation of trillions of dollars (and pounds and yen) in base money, the forces of deflation – a.k.a. the financial markets – are in the ascendancy, testimony to the scale of private sector deleveraging that has occurred even as government money and debt issuance have gone into overdrive. And Albert Edwards is surely right that as the forces of deflation worsen, they will be met with ever more aggressive QE from the Fed and from representatives of other heavily indebted governments. This is not a recipe for stability. This is the precursor to absolute financial chaos.
Because the price of every tradeable financial asset is now subject to the whim and caprice of government, rational macro-economic analysis (i.e. top-down investing and asset allocation) has become impossible. Only bottom-up analysis now offers any real potential for adding value at the portfolio level. We discount the relevance of debt instruments almost entirely, but we continue to see merit in listed businesses run by principled and shareholder-friendly management, where the shares of those businesses trade at a significant discount to any fair assessment of their underlying intrinsic value. A word of caution is warranted – these sort of value opportunities are vanishingly scarce in the US markets, precisely because of the distorting market effects of which the signatories to the November 2010 letter warned; today, value investors must venture much further afield. The safe havens may be all gone, but we still believe that pockets of inherent value are out there for those with the tenacity, conviction and patience to seek them out.
According to the ECB’s Bank Lending Survey for October banks eased their credit standards in the last quarter, while their risk perceptions increased.
This apparent contradiction suggests that the 137 banks surveyed were at the margin competing for lower-quality business, hardly the sign of a healthy lending market. Furthermore, the detail showed enterprises were cutting borrowing for fixed investment sharply and required more working capital instead to finance inventories and perhaps to cover trading losses.
This survey follows bank lending statistics since the banking crisis to mid-2014, which are shown in the chart below (Source: ECB).
It is likely that some of the contraction in bank lending has been replaced with bond finance by the larger credit-worthy corporations, and Eurozone banks have also preferred buying sovereign bonds. Meanwhile, the Eurozone economy obviously faces a deepening crisis.
There are some global systemically important banks (G-SIBs) based in the Eurozone, and this week the Financial Stability Board (FSB) published a consultation document on G-SIBs’ capital ratios in connection with the bail-in procedures to be considered at the G20 meeting this weekend. The timing is not helpful for the ECB, because the FSB’s principle recommendation is that G-SIBs’ Tier 1 and 2 capital should as a minimum be double the Basel III level. This gives operational leverage of between 5 and 6.25 times risk-weighted assets, compared with up to 12.5 times under Basel III.
The FSB expects the required capital increase to be satisfied mostly by the issue of qualifying debt instruments, so the G-SIBs will not have to tap equity markets. However, since Eurozone G-SIBs are faced with issuing bonds at higher interest rates than the returns on sovereign debt, they will be tempted to scale back their balance sheets instead. Meanwhile bank depositors should note they are no longer at the head of the creditors’ queue when their bank goes bust, which could affect the non-G-SIB banks with higher capital ratios.
If G-SIBs can be de-geared without triggering a bank lending crisis the world of finance should eventually be a safer place: that’s the intention. Unfortunately, a bail-in of a large bank is unlikely to work in practice, because if an important bank does go to the wall, without the limitless government backing of a bail-out, money-markets will almost certainly fail to function in its wake and the crisis could rapidly become systemic.
Meanwhile, it might appear that the ECB is a powerless bystander watching a train-wreck in the making. Businesses in the Eurozone appear to only want to borrow to survive, as we can see from the October Bank Lending Survey. Key banks are now being told to halve their balance sheet gearing, encouraging a further reduction in bank credit. Normally a central bank would respond by increasing the quantity of narrow money, which the ECB is trying to do despite the legal hurdles in its founding constitution.
However, it is becoming apparent that the ECB’s intention to increase its balance sheet by up to €1 trillion may not be nearly enough, given that the FSB’s proposals look like giving an added spin to contraction of bank credit in the Eurozone.
Spring 2010: A gradual recovery
Autumn 2010: A gradual and uneven recovery
Spring 2011: European recovery maintains momentum amid new risks
Autumn 2011: A recovery in distress
Spring 2012: Towards a slow recovery
Autumn 2012: Sailing through rough waters
Winter 2012: Gradually overcoming headwinds
Spring 2013: Adjustment continues
Autumn 2013: Gradual recovery, external risks
Winter 2013: Recovery gaining ground
Spring 2014: Growth becoming broader-based
Autumn 2014: Slow recovery with very low inflation.. ”
European Commission economic headlines, as highlighted by Jason Karaian of Quartz, in ‘How to talk about a European recovery that never arrives’.
“Well we know where we’re going
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowing
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
We’re on a road to nowhere..”
‘Road to nowhere’ by Talking Heads.
In 1975, Charles Ellis, the founder of Greenwich Associates, wrote one of the most powerful and memorable metaphors in the history of finance. Simon Ramo had previously studied the strategy of one particular sport in ‘Extraordinary tennis for the ordinary tennis player’. Ellis went on to adapt Ramo’s study to describe the practical business of investing. His essay is titled ‘The loser’s game’, which in his view is what the ‘sport’ of investing had become by the time he wrote it. His thesis runs as follows. Whereas the game of tennis is won by professionals, the game of investing is ‘lost’ by professionals and amateurs alike. Whereas professional sportspeople win their matches through natural talent honed by long practice, investors tend to lose (in relative, if not necessarily absolute terms) through unforced errors. Success in investing, in other words, comes not from over-reach, in straining to make the winning shot, but simply through the avoidance of easy errors.
Ellis was making another point. As far back as the 1970s, investment managers were not beating the market; rather, the market was beating them. This was a mathematical inevitability given the over-crowded nature of the institutional fund marketplace, the fact that every buyer requires a seller, and the impact of management fees on returns from an index. Ben W. Heineman, Jr. and Stephen Davis for the Yale School of Management asked in their report of October 2011, ‘Are institutional investors part of the problem or part of the solution ?’ By their analysis, in 1987, some 12 years after Ellis’ earlier piece, institutional investors accounted for the ownership of 46.6% of the top 1000 listed companies in the US. By 2009 that figure had risen to 73%. That percentage is itself likely understated because it takes no account of the role of hedge funds. Also by 2009 the US institutional landscape contained more than 700,000 pension funds; 8,600 mutual funds (almost all of whom were not mutual funds in the strict sense of the term, but rather for-profit entities); 7,900 insurance companies; and 6,800 hedge funds.
Perhaps the most pernicious characteristic of active fund management is the tendency towards benchmarking (whether closet or overt). Being assessed relative to the performance of an equity or bond benchmark effectively guarantees (post the impact of fees) the institutional manager’s inability to outperform that benchmark – but does ensure that in bear markets, index-benchmarked funds are more or less guaranteed to lose money for their investors. In equity fund management the malign impact of benchmarking is bad enough; in bond fund management the malign impact of ‘market capitalisation’ benchmarking is disastrous from the get-go. Since a capitalisation benchmark assigns the heaviest weightings in a bond index to the largest bond markets by asset size, and since the largest bond markets by asset size represent the most heavily indebted issuers – whether sovereign or corporate – a bond-indexed manager is compelled to have the highest exposure to the most heavily indebted issuers. All things equal, therefore, it is likely that the bond index-tracking manager is by definition heavily exposed to objectively poor quality (because most heavily indebted) credits.
There is now a grave risk that an overzealous commitment to benchmarking is about to lead hundreds of billions of dollars of invested capital off a cliff. Why ? To begin with, trillions of dollars’ worth of equities and bonds now sport prices that can no longer be trusted in any way, having been roundly boosted, squeezed, coaxed and manipulated for the dubious ends of quantitative easing. The most important characteristic of any investment is the price at which it is bought, which will ultimately determine whether that investment falls into the camp of ‘success’ or ‘failure’. At some point, enough elephantine funds will come to appreciate that the assets they have been so blithely accumulating may end up being vulnerable to the last bid – or lack thereof – on an exchange. When a sufficient number of elephants start charging inelegantly towards the door, not all of them will make it through unscathed. Corporate bonds, in particular, thanks to heightened regulatory oversight, are not so much a wonderland of infinite liquidity, but an accident in the secondary market waiting to happen. We recall words we last heard in the dark days of 2008:
“When you’re a distressed seller of an illiquid asset in a market panic, it’s not even like being in a crowded theatre that’s on fire. It’s like being in a crowded theatre that’s on fire and the only way you can get out is by persuading somebody outside to swap places with you.”
The second reason we may soon see a true bonfire of inanities is that benchmarked government bond investors have chosen collectively to lose their minds (or the capital of their end investors). They have stampeded into an asset class historically and euphemistically referred to as “risk free” which is actually fraught with rising credit risk and systemic inflation risk – inflation, perversely, being the only solution to the debt mountain that will enable the debt culture to persist in any form. (Sufficient economic growth for ongoing debt service we now consider impossible, certainly within the context of the euro zone; any major act of default or debt repudiation, in a debt-based monetary system, is the equivalent of Armageddon.) As Japan has just demonstrated, whatever deflationary tendencies are experienced in the indebted western economies will be met with ever greater inflationary impulses. The beatings will continue until morale improves – and until bondholders have been largely destroyed. When will the elephants start thinking about banking profits and shuffling nervously towards the door ?
Meanwhile, central bankers continue to waltz effetely in the policy vacuum left by politicians. As Paul Singer of Elliott Management recently wrote,
“Either out of ideology or incompetence, all major developed governments have given up (did they ever really try?) attempting to use solid, fundamental policies to create sustainable, strong growth in output, incomes, innovation, entrepreneurship and good jobs. The policies that are needed (in the areas of tax, regulatory, labour, education and training, energy, rule of law, and trade) are not unknown, nor are they too complicated for even the most simple-minded politician to understand. But in most developed countries, there is and has been complete policy paralysis on the growth-generation side, as elected officials have delegated the entirety of the task to central bankers.”
And as Singer fairly points out, whether as workers, consumers or investors, we inhabit a world of “fake growth, fake money, fake jobs, fake stability, fake inflation numbers”.
Top down macro-economic analysis is all well and good, but in an investment world beset by such profound fakery, only bottom-up analysis can offer anything approaching tangible value. In the words of one Asian fund manager,
“The owner of a[n Asian] biscuit company doesn’t sit fretting about Portuguese debt but worries about selling more biscuits than the guy down the road.”
So there is hope of a sort for the survival of true capitalism, albeit from Asian biscuit makers. Perhaps even from the shares of biscuit makers in Europe – at the right price.
“Sir, Your headline “Fed’s grand experiment draws to a close” (FT.com, October 29) combines ignorance of what quantitative easing is with insouciance as to its potential effects – both of these mistakes being perennial features of FT coverage of QE. The “experiment”, as you call it, is not at an end; it is, with the purchases now ending, at its height. Only when the Fed starts selling the securities it has purchased back into the market will the US’s QE begin its withdrawal from that height; only when the last purchased security has been sold back into the market, or allowed to expire with consequent permanent expansion of the money supply, will the “grand experiment” (I would prefer that you called it “reckless gamble”) be at its end.
“Only at that point will we even start to see the results – on interest rates, on securities prices, on the economy. The outcome, as has so often been the case with such Keynesian experiments, is unlikely to be pretty.”
The other potential cause of a sell-off in markets is through a central bank mistake. Some think the liquidity created by QE will eventually leak into higher inflation, but there is no sign of this as yet. More likely is a decline into deflation which would lead to financial distress as debts become more difficult to repay.
“If that does show signs of happening, then we may indeed get to see QE4 rolled out. Daddy might have let go of the market’s hand for the moment but he’s still close by.”
Strange things are happening in the bond market. Few of them are stranger than the reports that a French fund management colleague of Bill Gross (formerly of Pimco) took such exception to public excoriation from his stamp-collecting associate that he quit the business to sell croques monsieur from a food truck. According to the Wall Street Journal, Gross told Jeremie Banet in front of Pimco’s entire investment committee that, “I never understand what you’re saying. Ever.” With those credentials, M. Banet is clearly supremely qualified to become the next chairman of the Federal Reserve. As it is, he elected to return to his job managing an inflation-linked bond portfolio.
He has his work cut out. Consider the sort of volatility that the 10 year US Treasury bond – the closest thing the financial world has to a “risk-free rate” – experienced on 15th October (below).
Intra-day yield, 10 year US Treasury bond, 15th October 2014
Source: Bloomberg LLP
Having begun the day sporting a 2.2% yield, the 10 year note during the trading session experienced an extraordinary surge in price that took its yield down briefly towards 1.85%. Later in the same session the buying abated, and the bond closed with a yield of roughly 2.14%. During the same trading session, equity markets sold off aggressively (the UK’s FTSE 100 index, for example, closed down almost 3% on the day). What accounts for such melodrama ?
Analyst Russell Napier takes up the story:
“There it was — a real market come and gone in half an hour, like a pregnant panda at Edinburgh zoo. What did it mean and what should you do? You should pay attention to what happens to the direction of prices when volumes surge and markets work. When the veil is lifted, pay attention to what you see beneath. Last Wednesday, in the space of half an hour of active trading, the Treasury market had one of its most rapid rises ever recorded and equities fell sharply.
“There is a very simple lesson that when the markets finally break through the manipulation they move to price in deflation and not inflation. This is key because it means financial repression has failed. Such repression requires the artificial depression of interest rates but, crucially, it must be paired with boosting inflation above such rates. On October 15th 2014, if only for a few short minutes, market forces broke out and the failure of central bankers was briefly evident.”
These days, you don’t tend to hear the words ‘failure’ and ‘central bankers’ in the same sentence (unless the topic happens to be Zimbabwe). But perhaps the omniscience and omnipotence of central bankers is somewhat overstated. On October 29th, the US Federal Reserve followed a long-rehearsed script and announced that it had “decided to conclude its asset purchase program [also known as QE] this month.”
So now stock and bond markets will have to look after themselves, so to speak. The Economist’s Buttonwood columnist described it as “Letting go of Daddy’s hand”. That coinage nicely speaks to the juvenilisation to which markets have been reduced during six long years of financial repression, unprecedented central bank asset purchases, and the official manipulation of interest rates. Only the asset purchases have abated (for now): the financial repression, one way or another, will go on.
Whether the asset purchases have really disappeared, or merely been suspended, will be a function of how risk markets behave over the coming months and years. We would not be in the least surprised to see petulant markets rewarded with yet more infusions of sweets.
Yet some still associate QE with success. The Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, or his sub-editor, reckon that central bankers deserve a medal for saving society. He dismisses any scepticism as “hard money bluster”. Economist David Howden, on the other hand, can see somewhat further than the end of his own nose:
“One of the true marks of a great economist is an ability to see past the obvious outcomes and into the veiled results of policies. Friedrich Bastiat’s great essay on “that which is seen, and that which is not seen” provides a cautionary parable that disastrous analyses result when people don’t bother looking further than the immediate results of an action.
“Nowhere is this lesson more instructive than with the Fed’s QE policies of the past 6 years.
“Consider the Austrian business cycle theory. The nub of the theory is that changes in the money market have broader results on the greater economy. In its most succinct form, when a central bank pushes interest rates lower than they should be (by buying assets, for example), the greater economy gets distorted. Some of these distortions are immediately apparent, as consumers buy more goods and everyone takes on more debt as a result of lower interest rates. Some of the distortions are not immediately apparent. The investment decision of firms gets skewed as interest rates no longer reflect savings preferences, and the whole economy becomes fragile over time as erroneous investments add up (what Mises coined “malinvestments”).
“When a financial crisis or economic recession hits, it’s almost never because of some event that apparently happened at the same time. The crisis of 2008 did not occur because of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It happened because the whole financial system and greater economy were fragile following years of cheap credit at the hands of the Greenspan Fed. If anything, Lehman was a result of this and a great (if unfortunate) example of the type of bad business decisions firms are lured into by loose money. It wasn’t the cause of the troubles but a result of them. And if Lehman didn’t go under to spark the credit crunch, some other fragile financial institution would have.
“The Great Depression is a similar case in point. It wasn’t the stock market crash in 1929 that “created” the Great Depression. It was a decade of loose money policies by the Fed that created a shaky economy. Again, if anything the stock market crash was the result of stock prices being too buoyant and in need of a repricing to reflect economic fundamentals. Just like today, stocks rose to such storied heights as a result of cheap credit, not because of the seemingly “great” investments funded by it.
“The Fed has lowered interest rates since July 2006. We have just come off the period with the most rapid and extreme increase in the money supply ever recorded in American history. The seeds of the next Austrian business cycle have been sown. In fact, they are probably especially fertile seeds when one considers that the monetary policy has been so loose by historical standards. Just as cheap credit of the 1920s beget the Great Depression, that of the 1990s beget the dot-com bust and that of the mid-2000s beget the crisis of 2008, this most recent period will also give birth to a financial crisis.”
Although our crystal ball is no more polished than anyone else’s, our fundamental views are clear. Bonds are already grotesquely expensive, yet may get more so (we’re not investing in “the usual suspects” so we don’t much care). Most stock markets are pricey – but in a world beset by QE (and prospects for more, in Europe and Asia) which prices can we really trust ? By a process of logic, elimination and deduction, out of the major asset classes, only quality listed businesses trading at or ideally well below a fair assessment of their intrinsic worth offer any semblance of value or attractiveness. Pretty much everything else amounts to nothing more than paper, prone to arbitrary gusts from some very powerful, and very windy, bureaucrats. We note also that former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, no doubt looking to polish his legacy, managed to front-run the Fed’s QE announcement by pointing to the merits of gold within a government-controlled, fiat currency system. Strange days indeed.
“Sir, The next financial apocalypse is imminent. I know this to be true because the House & Home section in FT Weekend is now assuming the epic proportions last seen before the great crash. Twenty-four pages chock full of adverts for mansions and wicker tea-trays for $1,000. You’re all mad.
Sell everything and run for your lives.”
- Letter to the FT from Matt Long, Seilh, France, 3rd October 2014.
“Investors unfortunately face enormous pressure—both real pressure from their anxious clients and their consultants and imagined pressure emanating from their own adrenaline, ego and fear—to deliver strong near-term results. Even though this pressure greatly distracts investors from a long-term orientation and may, in fact, be anathema to good long-term performance, there is no easy way to reduce it. Human nature involves the extremes of investor emotion—both greed and fear—in the moment; it is hard for most people to overcome and act in opposition to their emotions. Also, most investors tend to project near-term trends—both favourable and adverse—indefinitely into the future. Ironically, it is this very short-term pressure to produce—this gun to the head of everyone—that encourages excessive risk taking which manifests itself in several ways: a fully invested posture at all times; for many, the use of significant and even extreme leverage; and a market-centric orientation that makes it difficult to stand apart from the crowd and take a long-term perspective.”
- Seth Klarman, Presentation to MIT, October 2007.
“At first, the pendulum was swinging towards infinite interest, threatening the dollar with hyperinflation. Right now the pendulum is swinging to the other extreme, to zero interest, spelling hyper-deflation. This is just as damaging to producers as the swing towards infinite interest was in the early 1980’s. It is impossible to predict whether one or the other extreme in the swinging of the wrecking ball will bring about the world economy’s collapse. Hyperinflation and hyper-deflation are just two different forms of the same phenomenon: credit collapse. Arguing which of the two forms will dominate is futile: it blurs the focus of inquiry and frustrates efforts to avoid disaster.”
- Professor Antal Fekete, ‘Monetary Economics 101: The real bills doctrine of Adam Smith. Lecture 10: The Revolt of Quality’.
“Low interest rate policy has the following grave consequences:
- Normally conservative investors are increasingly under duress and due to the outlook for interest rates remaining low for a long time, are taking on excessive risk. This leads to capital misallocation and the formation of bubbles.
- The sweet poison of low interest rates and easy money therefore leads to massive asset price inflation (stocks, art, real estate).
- Through carry trades, interest rates that are structurally too low in the industrialized nations lead to asset bubbles and contagion effects in emerging markets.
- A structural weakening of financial markets, as reckless behaviour of market participants is fostered (moral hazard).
- A change in human behaviour patterns, due to continually declining purchasing power. While thrift is slowly but surely transmogrified into a relic of the past, taking on debt becomes rational.
- The acquisition of personal wealth becomes gradually more difficult.
- The importance of money as a medium of exchange and a unit of account increases in importance relative to its role as a store of value.
- Incentives for fiscal probity decline. Central banks have bought time for governments. Large deficits appear less problematic, there is no incentive to implement reform, resp. consolidate public finances in a sustainable manner.
- The emergence of zombie-banks and zombie-companies. Very low interest rates prevent the healthy process of creative destruction. Zero interest rate policy makes it possible for companies with low profitability to survive, similar to Japan in the 1990s. Banks are enabled to nigh endlessly roll over potentially delinquent loans and consequently lower their write-offs.
- Unjust redistribution (Cantillon effect): the effect describes the fact that newly created money is neither uniformly nor simultaneously distributed in the population. Monetary expansion is therefore never neutral. There is a permanent transfer of wealth from later to earlier receivers of new money.”
- Ronald-Peter Stöferle, from ‘In Gold We Trust 2014 – Extended Version’, Incrementum AG.
The commentary will have its next outing on Monday 27th October.
“When sorrows come,” wrote Shakespeare, “they come not single spies, but in battalions.” Jeremy Warner for the Daily Telegraph identifies ten of them. His ‘ten biggest threats to the global economy’ comprise:
- Geopolitical risk;
- The threat of oil and gas price spikes;
- A hard landing in China;
- Normalisation of monetary policy in the Anglo-Saxon economies;
- Euro zone deflation;
- ‘Secular stagnation’;
- The size of the debt overhang;
- Complacent markets;
- House price bubbles;
- Ageing populations.
Other than making the fair observation that stock markets (for example) are not entirely correlated to economic performance – an observation for which euro zone equity investors must surely be hugely grateful – we offer the following response.
- Geopolitical risk, like the poor, will always be with us.
- Yes, the prices for oil and natural gas could spike, but as things stand WTI crude futures have fallen by over 15% from their June highs, in spite of the clear geopolitical problems. And the US fracking revolution, in combination with fast-improving fundamentals for solar power, may turn out to be a secular (and disinflationary) game-changer for energy prices.
- China, however, is tougher to dismiss. If we had any meaningful exposure to Chinese equity or debt we would be more concerned. But we don’t, so we aren’t.
- Five of Jeremy Warner’s ‘threats’ are inextricably linked. The pending normalisation of monetary policy in the UK and US clearly threatens the integrity of the credit markets. It’s worth asking whether either central bank could possibly afford to let interest rates rise. This begets a follow-on question: could the markets afford to let the central banks off the hook ? Could we, in other words, finally see the return of the long absent and much desired bond market vigilantes ? That monetary policy rates are so low is a function of the growing prospect of euro zone deflation (less of a threat to solvent consumers, but deadly for heavily indebted governments). Absent a capitulation by the Bundesbank to Draghi’s hopes or intentions for full-blown QE, it’s difficult to see how the policy log-jam gets resolved. But since all German government paper out to three years now offers a negative yield, it’s difficult to see why any euro zone debt is worth buying today for risk-conscious investors. Cash is probably preferable and gives optionality into the bargain. ‘Secular stagnation’ is now a fair definition of the euro zone’s economic prospects. But all things lead back to Warner’s point 7: the size of the debt overhang. Since this was never addressed in the immediate aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, it’s hardly a surprise to see its poison continue to drip onto all things financial. And since the policy response has been to slash rates and keep them at multi-century lows, it’s hardly a surprise to see property prices in the ascendant.
- Complacent markets ? Check. But stocks have lost a lot of their nerve over the last week. Not before time.
- Ageing populations ? Yes, but this problem has been widely discussed in the investment community over the past two decades – it simply isn’t new news.
We saw one particularly eye-catching chart last week, via Grant Williams, comparing the leverage ratios of major US financial institutions over recent years (shown below).
Source: Grant Williams, ‘Things that make you go Hmmm…’
The Fed’s leverage ratio (total assets to capital) now stands at just under 80x. That compares with Lehman Brothers’ leverage ratio, just before it went bankrupt, of just under 30x. Sometimes a picture really does paint a thousand words. And this, again, brings us back to the defining problem of our time, as we see it: too much debt in the system, and simply not enough ideas about how to bring it down – other than through inflationism, and even that doesn’t seem to be working quite yet.
In a recent interview with Jim Grant, Sprott Global questioned the famed interest rate observer about the likely outlook for bonds:
“What would a bear market in bonds look like? Would it be accompanied by a bear market in the stocks?
“Well, we have a pretty good historical record of what a bear market in bonds would look like. We had one in modern history, from 1946 to 1981. We had 25 years’ worth of persistently – if not steadily – rising interest rates, and falling bond prices. It began with only around a quarter of a percent on long-dates US Treasuries, and ended with about 15% on long-dated US Treasuries. That’s one historical beacon. I think that the difference today might be that the movement up in yield, and down in price, might be more violent than it was during the first ten years of the bear market beginning in about 1946. Then, it took about ten years for yields to advance even 100 basis points, if I remember correctly. One difference today is the nature of the bond market. It is increasingly illiquid and it is a market in which investors – many investors – have the right to enter a sales ticket, and to expect their money within a day. So I’m not sure what a bear market would look like, but I think that it would be characterized at first by a lot of people rushing through a very narrow gate. I think problems with illiquidity would surface in the corporate debt markets. One of the unintended consequences of the financial reforms that followed the sorrows of 2007 to 2009 is that dealers who used to hold a lot of corporate debt in inventories no longer do so. If interest rates began to rise and people wanted out, I think that the corporate debt market would encounter a lot of ‘air pockets’ and a lot of very discontinuous action to the downside.”
We like that phrase “a lot of very discontinuous action to the downside”. Grant was also asked if it was possible for the Fed to lose control of the bond market:
“Absolutely, it could. The Fed does not control events for the most part. Events certainly will end up controlling the Fed. To answer your question – yeah. I think the Fed can and will lose control of the bond market.”
As we have written on innumerable prior occasions, we wholeheartedly agree. Geopolitics, energy prices, demographics – all interesting ‘what if’ parlour games. But what will drive pretty much all asset markets over the near, medium and longer term is almost entirely down to how credit markets behave. The fundamentals, clearly, are utterly shocking. The implications for investors are, in our view, clear. And as a wise investor once observed, if you’re going to panic, panic early.
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]