“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]
“Sir, So Ed Miliband “forgot” to mention the deficit. This from a man who was a key member of the team that ran up a massive structural debt pile when the UK should have been enjoying a cyclical surplus. He was part of a Labour administration that took the UK economy to the brink of effective bankruptcy. Yet less than five years on, as we still struggle to deal with the toxic mess that he and his colleagues left behind, he “forgot” to mention it. This surely ranks alongside “the dog ate my homework” for feeble and unbelievable excuses for non-performance of basic required tasks.”
“Politicians and diapers have one thing in common. They should both be changed regularly, and for the same reason.”
It should be striking that government bonds, in nominal terms, have never been this expensive in history, even as there have never been so many of them. The laws of supply and demand would seem to have been repealed. How could this state of affairs have come about ? We think the answer is three-fold:
The bond market is clearly not perfectly efficient.
Bond yields are being manipulated by central banks through a deliberate policy of financial repression (and QE, of course).
Many bond fund managers may be unaware, or unconcerned, that the benchmarks against which they choose to be assessed are illogical and irrational.
What might substantiate our third claim ? It would be the festering intellectual plague that bedevils the fund management world known as indexation. Bond indices allocate their largest weights to the most indebted issuers. This is the precise opposite of what any rational bond investor would do – namely, to overweight their portfolio according to those issuers with the highest credit quality (or perhaps, all things being equal, with the highest yields). But bond indices do exactly the opposite. They force any manager witless enough to have fallen victim to them to load up on the most heavily indebted issuers, which currently also happen to offer amongst the puniest nominal yields. As evidence for the prosecution we cite the US Treasury bond market, the world’s largest. The US national debt currently stands at $17.7 trillion. With a ‘T’. Benchmark 10 year Treasuries currently offer a yield to maturity of 2.5%. US consumer price inflation currently stands at 1.7%. (We offer no opinion as to whether US CPI is a fair reflection of US inflation.) On the basis that US “inflation” doesn’t change meaningfully over the next 10 years, US bond investors are going to earn an annualised return just a smidgen above zero percent.
How do US Treasury yields stack up against the longer term trend in interest rates ? The following data are from @Macro_Tourist:
10 year US Treasury yields since 1791
The chart shows the direction of travel for US market rates since independence, given that the Continental Congress defaulted on its debts.
Now it may well be that US Treasury yields have further to fall. As SocGen’s Albert Edwards puts it,
“Our ‘Ice Age’ thesis has long called for sub-1% bond yields and I see this extending to the US and UK in due course.”
As things stand, the trend is with the polar bears. The German bond market has already broken down through the 1% level (10 year Bunds at the time of writing currently trade at 0.98%).
Deutsche Bank Research – specifically Jim Reid, Nick Burns and Seb Barker – recently published an extensive examination of global debt markets (“Bonds: the final bubble frontier ?” – hat tip to Arnaud Gandon of Heptagon Capital). Deutsche’s strategists ask whether bonds constitute the culminating financial bubble after almost two decades of them:
“After the Asian / Russian / LTCM crises of the late 1990s we entered a supercycle of very aggressive policy responses to major global problems. In turn this helped encourage the 2000 equity bubble, the 2007 housing / financial / debt bubble, the 2010-2012 Euro Sovereign crisis and arguably some recent signs of a China credit bubble (a theme we discussed in our 2014 Default Study). At no point have the imbalances been allowed a full free market conclusion. Aggressive intervention has merely pushed the bubble elsewhere. With no obvious areas left to inflate in the private sector, these bubbles have now arguably moved into government and central bank balance sheets with unparalleled intervention and low growth allowing it to coincide with ultra-low bond yields.” [Emphasis ours.]
The French statesman George Clemenceau once commented that war is too important to be left to generals. At this stage in the game one might be tempted to add that monetary policy is far too important to be left to politicians and central bankers. We get by with free markets in all other walks of economic and financial life – why let the price of money itself be dictated by a handful of State-appointed bureaucrats ? We were once told by a fund manager (a Japanese equity manager, to be precise – rare breed that that is now), around the turn of the millennium, that Japan would be the dress rehearsal, and that the rest of the world would be the main event. Again, the volume of the mood music is rising in SocGen’s favour.
We nurse no particular view in relation to how the government bond bubble (for it surely is) plays out – whether yields grind relentlessly lower for some time yet, or whether they burst spectacularly on the back of the overdue return of bond market vigilantes or some other mystical manifestation of long-delayed economic common sense. But Warren Buffett himself once said that,
“If you’ve been playing poker for half an hour and you still don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.”
The central bank bond market poker game has been in train for a good deal longer than half an hour, and the stakes have never been higher. Sometimes, if you simply can’t fathom the new rules of the game, it’s surely better not to play. So we’re not in the business of chasing US Treasury yields, or Gilt yields, or Bund yields, ever lower – we’ll keep our bond exposure limited to only the highest quality credits yielding the highest possible return. Even then, if Fed tapering does finally dissipate in favour of Fed hiking – stranger things have happened, though we can’t think of any off the top of our head – it will make sense at the appropriate time to eliminate conventional debt instruments from client portfolios almost entirely.
But indexation madness is not limited to the world of bonds. Its malign, unthinking mental slavery has fixed itself upon the equity markets, too. Equity indices, as is widely acknowledged, allocate their largest weights to the largest and most expensive stocks. What’s extraordinary is that even as stock markets have powered ahead, index trackers have enjoyed their highest ever inflows. The latest IMA data show that more UK retail money was put into tracker funds in July than in any other month since records began. We accept the ‘low cost’ aspect of tracker funds and ETFs; we take serious issue with the idea of buying stock markets close to or at their all-time high and being in for any downside ride on a 1:1 basis.
But there is a middle way between the Scylla of bonds at all-time low yields and the Charybdis of stocks at all-time high prices. Value. Seth Klarman of the Baupost Group once wrote as follows:
“Stock market efficiency is an elegant hypothesis that bears quite limited resemblance to the real world. For over half a century, disciples of Benjamin Graham, the intellectual father of value investing, have prospered buying bargains that efficient market theory says should not exist. They take advantage of the short-term, relative performance orientation of other investors. They employ an absolute (not relative) valuation compass, patiently exploiting mispricings while avoiding overpaying for what is popular and trendy. Many are willing to concentrate their exposures, knowing that their few best ideas are better than their hundredth best, and confident in their ability to tell which is which.
“Value investors thrive not by incurring high risk (as financial theory would suggest), but by deliberately avoiding or hedging the risks they identify. While efficient market theorists tell you to calculate the beta of a stock to determine its riskiness, most value investors have never calculated a beta. Efficient market theory advocates moving a portfolio of holdings closer to the efficient frontier. Most value investors have no idea what this is or how they might accomplish such a move. This is because financial market theory may be elegant, but it is not particularly useful in formulating a successful investment strategy.
“If academics espousing the efficient market theory had no influence, their flawed views would make little difference. But, in fact, their thinking is mainstream and millions of investors make their decisions based on the supposition that owning stocks, regardless of valuation and analysis, is safe and reasonable. Academics train hundreds of thousands of students each year, many of whom go to Wall Street and corporate suites espousing these beliefs. Because so many have been taught that outperforming the market is impossible and that stocks are always fairly and efficiently priced, investors have increasingly adopted strategies that eventually will prove both riskier and far less rewarding than they are currently able to comprehend.”
That sounds about right to us. Conventional investing, both in stocks and bonds on an indexed or benchmarked basis, “will prove both riskier and far less rewarding” than many investors are currently able to comprehend.
Deposit insurance is one of the most misunderstood – and also most dangerous – forms of government intervention into the financial system.
Let’s start with the common misconception that deposit insurance is an industry-operated affair independent of the government.
In the UK, deposit insurance is provided by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS). To quote from its website:
“The FSCS is the UK’s statutory fund of last resort for customers of financial services firms. This means that FSCS can pay compensation to consumers if a financial services firm is unable, or likely to be unable, to pay claims against it. The FSCS is an independent body, set up under the Financial Services & Markets Act 2000 (FSMA).”
It also explains that the FSCS is funded by levies on firms authorised to operate by either of the Prudential Regulation Authority or the Financial Conduct Authority.
So the FSCS is notionally independent and the guarantees are financed by levies on participating firms.
However, this does not mean that deposit insurance is in any way a free-market phenomenon: it is explicitly the creature of legislation and participating firms are compelled not just to join, but to join on dictated terms. This is rather like having a system of compulsory car insurance and, moreover, a compulsory system that mandates the exact terms (including the pricing) of the car insurance itself – compulsory one-size-fits-all.
This should set off alarm bells that there might be something wrong with it.
And how do we know that its designers designed it properly? We don’t.
In fact, we know that they couldn’t possibly have designed it properly, as any rational insurance system would tailor the charges to the riskiness of clients, include co-insurance features and other incentives to moderate risk-taking, have charges that would evolve over time in response to changing market conditions, and so forth. This is insurance 101.
This is not how deposit insurance works, however.
Most of all, any rational system would have the product delivered by the market, not by some jerry-built contraption dreamt up by committees of legislators and regulators who have neither the knowledge nor the incentive to get it right. One also might add few if any of these people have any experience in or understanding of the industry they are meddling with, but let’s move on.
It then occurred to me that perhaps my kids are right and I am too cynical – maybe Father Christmas and the fairies do exist: one should keep an open mind – so I checked out the FSCS website to have a closer look at their system. What I found was a masterpiece of gobbledegook that I highly recommend to other connoisseurs of regulatory gibberish:
Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind. My favourite bit is the explanation of the levy calculation that does not explain how the levy is actually calculated.
All this said, the banks rather like deposit insurance because it gives them a great marketing tool: bank with us and your money is safe because we are members of the deposit guarantee scheme, and you will get your money back even if we happen to fail.
They also like it because they can game the system – taking extra risks and offering higher deposit rates than they would otherwise be able to get away with – in effect, exploiting the risk-taking subsidy created by deposit insurance and passing the extra risks to the fund itself.
But surely, if the banks like the system, they would create one themselves if the government didn’t create it for them? No. Were this true, the banks would have done exactly that many years ago, and there would have been no ‘need’ for the state to have intervened to do it for them. The fact is that they didn’t.
The reason they didn’t is because the service that deposit insurance provides to the retail customer – reassurance or confidence – is better provided in other ways, most notably, by pursuing conservative lending policies and maintaining high levels of capital. And the reason for this is simply that deposit insurance introduces an additional layer of moral hazard and governance headaches that can be avoided if the banks self-insure via moderate risk-taking and high levels of capital.
This should come as no surprise. True confidence does not come from “you can trust us if we screw up because someone else will bail you out” but from “you can trust us because it is demonstrably in our interest to make sure we don’t screw up”. Deposit insurance is an inferior confidence product – one might even say, a confidence trick.
We can also look at this another way. Suppose that a group of banks attempted to set up a scheme similar to the current one, of their own free will and with no government intervention. They would soon realise that the scheme was not viable – no bank would want to be liable for the risks the others were taking, with no means of controlling those risks. So it would never get off the ground – and the current system only got off the ground because the state imposed it.
In short, deposit insurance is not a creature of the market but a creature of the state, and a decidedly inferior one at that. It is, indeed, a classic instance of that regulatory Gresham’s Law by which state intervention causes the bad to drive out the good. Where have we seen that before?
So far in August the differential between the yield on the 10-year Treasury note and the yield on the 3-month Treasury bill stood at 2.38% against 2.95% in December 2013.
Historically the yield differential on average has led the yearly rate of growth of industrial production by fourteen months. This raises the likelihood that the growth momentum of industrial production will ease in the months ahead, all other things being equal.
It is generally held that the shape of the yield curve is set by investors’ expectations. According to this way of thinking – also labeled as the expectation theory (ET) – the key to the shape of the yield curve is the notion that long-term interest rates are the average of expected future short-term rates.
If today’s one-year rate is 4% and next year’s one-year rate is expected to be 5%, the two-year rate today should be (4%+5%)/2 = 4.5%.
It follows that expectations for increases in short-term rates will make the yield curve upward sloping, since long-term rates will be higher than short-term rates.
Conversely, expectations for a decline in short-term rates will result in a downward sloping yield curve. If today’s one-year rate is 5% and next year’s one – year rate is expected to be 4%, the two-year rate today (4%+5%)/2 = 4.5% is lower than today’s one year rate of 5% – i.e. downward sloping yield curve.
But is it possible to have a sustained downward sloping yield curve on account of expectations? One can show that in a risk-free environment, neither an upward nor a downward sloping yield curve can be sustainable.
An upward sloping curve would provoke an arbitrage movement from short maturities to long maturities. This will lift short-term interest rates and lower long-term interest rates, i.e., leading towards a uniform interest rate throughout the term structure.
Arbitrage will also prevent the sustainability of an inverted yield curve by shifting funds from long maturities to short maturities thereby flattening the curve.
It must be appreciated that in a free unhampered market economy the tendency towards the uniformity of rates will only take place on a risk-adjusted basis. Consequently, a yield curve that includes the risk factor is likely to have a gentle positive slope.
It is difficult to envisage a downward sloping curve in a free unhampered market economy – since this would imply that investors are assigning a higher risk to short-term maturities than long-term maturities, which doesn’t make sense.
The Fed and the shape of the yield curve
Even if one were to accept the rationale of the ET for the changes in the shape of the yield curve, these changes are likely to be of a very short duration on account of arbitrage. Individuals will always try to make money regardless of the state of the economy.
Yet historically either an upward sloping or a downward sloping yield curve has held for quite prolonged periods of time.
We suggest an upward or a downward sloping yield curve develops on account of the Fed’s interest rate policies (there is an inverse correlation between the yield curve and the fed funds rate).
While the Fed can exercise a certain level of control over short-term interest rates via the federal funds rate, it has less control over long-term interest rates.
For instance, the artificial lowering of short-term interest rates gives rise to an upward sloping yield curve. To prevent the flattening of the curve the Fed must persist with the easy interest rate stance. Should the Fed slow down on its monetary pumping the shape of the yield curve will tend to flatten. Whenever the Fed tightens its interest rate stance this leads to the flattening or an inversion of the yield curve. In order to sustain the new shape of the curve the Fed must maintain its tighter stance. Should the Fed abandon the tighter stance the tendency for rates equalisation will arrest the narrowing or the inversion in the yield curve.
The shape of the yield curve reflects the monetary stance of the Fed. Investors’ expectations can only reinforce the shape of the curve. For instance, relentless monetary expansion that keeps the upward slope of the curve intact ultimately fuels inflationary expectations, which tend to push long-term rates higher thereby reinforcing the positive slope of the yield curve.
Conversely, an emerging recession on account of a tighter stance lowers inflationary expectations and reinforces the inverted yield curve.
A loose Fed monetary policy i.e. a positive sloping curve, sets in motion a false economic boom – it gives rise to various false activities. A tighter monetary policy, which manifests through an inversion of the yield curve, sets in motion the process of the liquidation of false activities i.e. an economic bust is ensued.
A situation could emerge however where the federal funds rate is around zero, as it is now, and then the shape of the yield curve will vary in response to the fluctuations in the long-term rate. (The fed funds rate has been around zero since December 2008).
Once the Fed keeps the fed funds rate at close to zero level over a prolonged period of time it sets in motion a severe misallocation of resources – a severe consumption of capital.
An emergence of subdued economic activity puts downward pressure on long-term rates. On the basis of a near zero fed funds rate this starts to invert the shape of the yield curve.
At present, we hold the downward slopping yield curve has emerged on account of a decline in long term rates whilst short-term interest rate policy remains intact.
We suggest this may be indicative of a severe weakening in the wealth generation process and points to stagnant economic growth ahead.
Note again the downward sloping curve is on account of the Fed’s near zero interest rate policy that has weakened the process of wealth formation.
“When Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz was asked in Germany this week if the country and its neighbours would suffer a lost decade, his response was unequivocal. “Is Europe going the same way as Japan ? Yes,” Mr Stiglitz said in Lindau at a meeting for Nobel laureates and economics students. “The only way to describe what is going on in some European countries is depression.”
‘Spectre of Japan-style lost decade looms over eurozone’, Claire Jones, The Financial Times, August 22, 2014.
Few films have managed to convey the feeling of approaching menace more effectively than Jeff Nichols’ 2011 drama, ‘Take Shelter’. Its blue collar protagonist, Curtis LaForche, played by the lantern-jawed Michael Shannon – whose sepulchral bass tones make his every utterance sound like someone slowly dragging a coffin over a cello – begins to suffer terrifying dreams and visions; he responds by building a storm shelter in his back yard. It transpires that his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a similar stage in her own life. Are these simply hallucinations ? Or are they portents of darker things to come ?
Nichols, the film’s writer and director, has gone on record as stating that at least part of the film owes something to the financial crisis:
“I think I was a bit ahead of the curve, since I wrote it in 2008, which was also an anxious time, for sure, but, yeah, now it feels even more so. This film deals with two kinds of anxiety. There’s this free-floating anxiety that we generally experience: you wake in bed and maybe worry about what’s happening to the planet, to the state of the economy, to things you have no control over. In 2008, I was particularly struck with this during the beginning of the financial meltdown. Then there’s a personal anxiety. You need to keep your life on track—your health, your finances, your family..”
There’s a degree of pretention in claiming to have a reliable read on the psychology of the marketplace – too many participants, too much intangibility, too much subjectivity. But taking market price index levels at face value, especially in stock markets, there seems to be a general sense that since the near-collapse of the financial system six years ago, the worst has passed. The S&P 500 stock index, for example, has just reached a new all-time high, leaving plenty of financial media commentators to breathlessly anticipate its goal of 2,000 index points. But look at it from an objective perspective, rather than one of simple-minded cheerleading: the market is more expensive than ever – the only people who should be celebrating are those considering selling.
There are at least two other storm clouds massing on the horizon (we ignore the worsening geopolitical outlook altogether). One is the ‘health’ of the bond markets. Bloomberg’s Mark Gilbert points out that Germany has just issued €4 billion of two year notes that pay no interest whatsoever until they mature in 2016. The second is the explicitly declining health of the euro zone economy, which is threatening to slide into recession (again), and to which zero interest rates in Germany broadly allude. The reality, which is not a hallucination, is that years of Zero Interest Rate Policy everywhere and trillions of dollars, pounds, euros and yen pumped into a moribund banking system have created a ‘Potemkin village’ market offering the illusion of stability. In their June 2014 letter, Elliott Management wrote as follows:
“..Stock markets around the world are at or near all-time nominal highs, while global interest rates hover near record lows. A flood of newly-printed money has combined with zero percent interest rates to keep all the balls suspended in the air. Nonetheless, growth in the developed world (US, Europe and Japan) has been significantly subpar for the 5 ½ years following the financial crisis. Businesses have been reluctant to invest and hire. The consumer is still “tapped out,” and there are significant suppressive forces from poor policy, including taxes and increased regulation. Governments (which are actually responsible for the feeble growth) are blaming the shortfall on “secular stagnation,” purportedly a long-term trend, which enables them to deny responsibility..
“The orchestra conductors for this remarkable epoch are the central bankers in the US, UK, Europe and Japan. The cost of debt of all maturities issued by every country, corporation and individual in the world (except outliers like Argentina) is in the process of converging at remarkably low rates. In Greece (for goodness sake), long-term government debt is trading with a yield just north of 5%. In France, 10 year bonds are trading at a yield of 1.67%.
“..Sadly, financial market conditions are not the result of the advancement of human knowledge in these matters. Rather, they are the result of policymaker groupthink and a mass delusion. By reducing interest rates to zero and having central banks purchase most of the debt issued by their governments, they think that inflation can be encouraged (but without any risk that it will spin out of control) and that economic activity consequently can be supported and enhanced. We are 5 ½ years into this global experiment, which has never been tried in its current breadth and scope at any other time in history.. the bald fact is that the entire developed world is growing at a sluggish pace, if at all. But governments, media, politicians, central bankers and academics are unwilling to state the obvious conclusion that their policies have failed and need to be revised. Instead, they uniformly state, with the kind of confidence only present among the truly clueless, that in the absence of their current policies, things would be much worse.”
Regardless of the context, stock markets at or near all-time highs are things to be sceptical of, rather than to be embraced with both hands. Value investors prefer to buy at the low than at the high. The same holds for bonds, especially when they offer the certainty of a loss in real terms if held to maturity. But as Elliott point out, the job of asset managers is to manage money, and not to “hold up our arms and order the tide to roll back”. (We have written previously about those who seem to believe they can control the tides.) So by a process of logic, selectivity and elimination, we believe the only things remotely worth buying today are high quality stocks trading at levels well below their intrinsic value.
We recently wrote about the sort of metrics to assess stocks that can be reliably used over the long run to generate superior returns. Among them, low price / book is a stand-out characteristic of value stocks that has generated impressive, market-beating returns over any medium term time frame. So which markets currently enjoy some of the most attractive price / book ratios ?
The four tables below, courtesy of Greg Fisher and Samarang Capital, show the relative attractiveness of the Japanese, US, Vietnamese and UK markets, as expressed by the distributions of their price / book ratios. Over 40% of the Japanese market, for example, trades on a price / book of between 0.5 and 1. We would humbly submit that this makes the Japanese market objectively cheap. The comparative percentage for the US market is around 15%.
Various stock markets as expressed in price / book ratios
Source: Bloomberg LLP
Even more strikingly, nearly 60% of the Vietnamese stock market trades on a price / book of between 0.5 and 1. The comparative figure for the UK market is approximately 20%.
Conversely, nearly 60% of the US market trades on a price / book of above 2 times. We would humbly submit that this makes the US market look expensive. There is clearly a world of difference between a frontier market like Vietnam which is limited by way of capital controls, and a developed market like that of the US which isn’t. But the price / book ratio is a comparison of apples with apples, and US stock market apples simply cost more than those in Japan or Vietnam. We’d rather buy cheap apples.
As clients and longstanding readers will appreciate, we split the investible universe into four asset classes: high quality credit; value equity; uncorrelated funds; and real assets, notably precious metals. As a result of the extraordinary monetary accommodation of the past six years or so, both credit markets and stocks have been boosted to probably unsustainable levels, at least in the West. Uncorrelated funds (specifically, trend-following funds) and gold and silver have recently lagged more traditional assets, though we contend that they still offer potential for portfolio insurance when the long-awaited storm of reality (financial gravity) finally strikes. But on any objective analysis, we think the merits of genuine value stocks are now compelling when set against any other type of investment, both on a relative and absolute basis. Increasingly desperate central banks have destroyed the concept of safe havens. There is now only relative safety by way of financial assets. The mood music of the markets is becoming increasingly discordant as investors (outside the euro zone at least) start to prepare for a turn in the interest rate cycle. There is a stark choice when it comes to investment aesthetics. Those favouring value and deep value investments are, we believe, more likely to end up wearing diamonds. Those favouring growth and momentum investments are, we believe, more likely to end up wearing the Emperor’s new clothes. We do not intend to end up as fashion victims as and when the storm finally hits.