“I say to all those who bet against Greece and against Europe: You lost and Greece won. You lost and Europe won.” –Jean-Claude Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg and president of the Eurogroup of EU Finance Ministers, 2014
“We have indeed at the moment little cause for pride: As a profession we have made a mess of things.” –Friedrich Hayek, Nobel Laureate in Economic Science, 1974
Jean-Claude Juncker is a prominent exception to the recent trend of economic and monetary officials openly expressing doubt that their interventionist policies are producing the desired results. In recent months, central bankers, the International Monetary Fund, the Bank for International Settlements, and a number of prestigious academic economists have expressed serious concern that their policies are not working and that, if anything, the risks of another 2008-esque global financial crisis are building. Thus we have arrived at a ‘Crisis of Interventionism’ as the consequences of unprecedented monetary and fiscal stimulus become evident, fuelling a surge in economic nationalism around the world, threatening the end of globalisation and the outbreak of trade wars. Indeed, a tech trade war may already have started. This is is perhaps the least appreciated risk to financial markets at present. How should investors prepare?
THE FATAL CONCEIT
Friedrich Hayek was the first Austrian School economist to win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science. Yet Hayek took issue with the characterisation of modern economics as a ‘science’ in the conventional sense. This is because the scientific method requires theories to be falsifiable and repeatable under stable conditions. Hayek knew this to be impossible in the real world in which dynamic, spontaneous human action takes place in response to an incalculable number of exogenous and endogenous variables.
Moreover, Hayek believed that, due to the complexity of a modern economy, the very idea that someone can possibly understand how it works to the point of justifying trying to influence or distort prices is nonsensical in theory and dangerous in practise. Thus he termed such hubris in economic theory ‘The Pretence of Knowledge’ and, in economic policy, ‘The Fatal Conceit’.
History provides much evidence that Hayek was correct. Interventionism has consistently failed either to produce the desired results or has caused new, unanticipated problems, such as in the 1920s and 1930s, for example, an age of particularly active economic policy activism in most of the world. Indeed, as Hayek wrote in his most famous work, The Road to Serfdom, economic officials tend to respond to the unintended consequences of their failed interventions with ever more interventionism, eventually leading to severe restrictions of economic liberty, such as those observed under socialist or communist regimes.
Hayek thus took advantage of his Nobel award to warn the economics profession that, by embracing a flawed, ‘pseudo-scientific method’ to justify interventionism, it was doing itself and society at large a great disservice:
The conflict between what in its present mood the public expects science to achieve in satisfaction of popular hopes and what is really in its power is a serious matter because, even if the true scientists should all recognize the limitations of what they can do in the field of human affairs, so long as the public expects more there will always be some who will pretend, and perhaps honestly believe, that they can do more to meet popular demands than is really in their power. It is often difficult enough for the expert, and certainly in many instances impossible for the layman, to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate claims advanced in the name of science…
If we are to safeguard the reputation of economic science, and to prevent the arrogation of knowledge based on a superficial similarity of procedure with that of the physical sciences, much effort will have to be directed toward debunking such arrogations, some of which have by now become the vested interests of established university departments.
Hayek made these comments in 1974. If only the economics profession had listened. Instead, it continued with the pseudo-science, full-steam ahead. That said, by 1974 a backlash against traditional Keynesian-style intervention had already begun, led by, among others, Milton Friedman. But Friedman too, brilliant as he no doubt was, was seduced also by the culture of pseudo-science and, in his monetary theories, for which he won his Nobel prize in 1976, he replaced a Keynesian set of unscientific, non-falsifiable, intervention-justifying equations with a Monetarist set instead.
Economic interventionism did, however, fall out of intellectual favour following the disastrous late-1970s stagflation and subsequent deep recession of the early 1980s—in the US, the worst since WWII. It never really fell out of policy, however. The US Federal Reserve, for example, facilitated one bubble after another in US stock and/or property prices in the period 1987-2007 by employing an increasingly activist monetary policy. As we know, this culminated in the spectacular events of 2008, which unleased a global wave of intervention unparalleled in modern economic history.
THE KEYNESIANS’ NEW CLOTHES
Long out of fashion, Keynesian theory and practice returned to the fore as the 2008 crisis unfolded. Some boldly claimed at the time that “we are all Keynesians now.” Activist economic interventionism became the norm across most developed and developing economies. In some countries, this has taken a more fiscal policy form; in others the emphasis has been more on monetary policy. Now six years on, with most countries still running historically large fiscal deficits and with interest rates almost universally at or near record lows, it is entirely understandable that the economics profession is beginning to ask itself whether the interventions it recommended are working as expected or desired.
While there have always been disputes around the margins of post-2008 interventionist policies, beginning in 2012 these became considerably more significant and frequent. In a previous report, THE KEYNESIANS’ NEW CLOTHES, I focused on precisely this development:
In its most recent World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) surveys the evidence of austerity in practice and does not like what it finds. In particular, the IMF notes that the multiplier associated with fiscal tightening seems to be rather larger than they had previously assumed. That is, for each unit of fiscal tightening, there is a greater economic contraction than anticipated. This results in a larger shrinkage of the economy and has the unfortunate result of pushing up the government debt/GDP ratio, the exact opposite of what was expected and desired.
While the IMF might not prefer to use the term, what I have just described above is a ‘debt trap’. Beyond a certain point an economy has simply accumulated more debt than it can pay back without resort to currency devaluation. (In the event that a country has borrowed in a foreign currency, even devaluation won’t work and some form of restructuring or default will be required to liquidate the debt.)
The IMF is thus tacitly admitting that those economies in the euro-area struggling, and so far failing, to implement austerity are in debt traps. Austerity, as previously recommended by the IMF, is just not going to work. The question that naturally follows is, what will work?
Well, the IMF isn’t exactly sure. The paper does not draw such conclusions. But no matter. If austerity doesn’t work because the negative fiscal multiplier is larger than previously assumed, well then for now, just ease off austerity while policymakers consider other options. In other words, buy time. Kick the can. And hope that the bond markets don’t notice.
Now, nearly two years later, the IMF has been joined in its doubts by a chorus of economic officials and academics from all over the world increasingly concerned that their interventions are failing and, in some cases, putting forth proposals of what should be done.
Let’s start with the Bank of England. Arguably the most activist central bank post-2008, as measured by the expansion of its balance sheet, several members of the Banks’ Monetary Policy Committee have expressed concern about the risks to financial stability posed by soaring UK property prices, a lack of household savings and a financial sector that remains highly leveraged. In a recent speech, BoE Chief Economist Charlie Bean stated that:
[T]he experience of the past few years does appear to suggest that monetary policy ought to take greater account of financial stability concerns. Ahead of the crisis, Bill White and colleagues at the Bank for International Settlements consistently argued that when leverage was becoming excessive and/or asset prices misaligned, central bankers ought to ‘lean against the wind’ by keeping interest rates higher than necessary to meet the price stability objective in the short run. Just as central banks are willing to accept temporary deviations from their inflation targets to limit output volatility, so they should also be willing to accept temporary deviations to attenuate the credit cycle. Essentially it is worth accepting a little more volatility in output and inflation in the short run if one can thereby reduce the size or frequency of asset-price busts and credit crunches.
In other words, perhaps central bank policy should change focus from inflation targeting, which demonstrably failed to prevent 2008, and instead to focus on money and credit growth. This is clearly an anti-Kenyesian view in principle, although one wonders how it might actually work in practice. In closing, he offered these thoughts:
I opened my remarks tonight by observing that my time at the Bank has neatly fallen into two halves. Seven years of unparalleled macroeconomic stability have been followed by seven years characterised by financial instability and a deep recession. It was a salutary lesson for those, like me, who thought we had successfully cracked the problem of steering the economy, and highlighted the need to put in place an effective prudential framework to complement monetary policy. Policy making today consequently looks a much more complex problem than it did fourteen years ago.
Indeed. Policy making does look increasingly complex. And not only to the staff of the IMF and to Mr Bean, but also to the staff at the Bank for International Settlements, to which Mr Bean referred in his comments. In a recent speech, General Manager of the BIS, Jaime Caruana, taking a global view, expressed fresh concern that:
There is considerable evidence that, for the world as a whole, policy interest rates have been persistently below traditional benchmarks, fostering unbalanced expansions. Policy rates are comparatively low regardless of the benchmarks – be these trend growth rates or more refined ones that capture the influence of output and inflation… Moreover, there is clear evidence that US monetary policy helps explain these deviations, especially for small open and emerging market economies. This, together with the large accumulation of foreign exchange reserves, is consistent with the view that these countries find it hard, economically or politically, to operate with rates that are considerably higher than those in core advanced economies. And, alongside such low rates, several of these economies, including some large ones, have been exhibiting signs of a build-up of financial imbalances worryingly reminiscent of that observed in the economies that were later hit by the crisis. Importantly, some of the financial imbalances have been building up in current account surplus countries, such as China, which can ill afford to use traditional policies to boost domestic demand further. This is by no means new: historically, some of the most disruptive financial booms have occurred in current account surplus countries. The United States in the 1920s and Japan in the 1980s immediately spring to mind.
The above might not sound terribly controversial from a common-sense perspective but to those familiar with the core precepts of the neo-Keynesian mainstream, this borders on economic heresy. Mr Caruana is implying that the Great Depression was not caused primarily by the policy failures of the early 1930s but by the boom preceeding it and that the stagnation of Japan in recent decades also has its roots in an unsustainable investment boom. In both cases, these booms were the product of economic interventions in the form of inappropriately easy monetary policy. And whence does current inappropriate policy originate? Why, from the US Federal Reserve! Mr Caruana is placing the blame for the renewed, dangerous buildup of substantial global imbalances and associated asset bubbles specifically on the Fed!
Yet Mr Caruana doesn’t stop there. He concludes by noting that:
[T]he implication is that there has been too much emphasis since the crisis on stimulating demand and not enough on balance sheet repair and structural reforms to boost productivity. Looking forward, policy frameworks need to ensure that policies are more symmetrical over the financial cycle, so as to avoid the risks of entrenching instability and eventually running out of policy ammunition.
So now we have had the IMF observing that traditional policies aren’t working as expected; BoE Chief Economist Bean noting how policy-making has become ‘complex’; and BIS GM Caruana implying this is primarily due to the boom/bust policies of the US Federal Reserve. So what of the Fed itself? What have Fed officials had to say of late?
Arguably the most outspoken recent dissent of the policy mainstream from within the Fed is that from Jeffrey Lacker, President of the regional Richmond branch. In a recent speech, he voiced his clear opposition to growing central bank interventionism:
There are some who praise the Fed’s credit market interventions and advocate an expansive role for the Fed in promoting financial stability and mitigating financial system disruptions. They construe the founders of the Federal Reserve System as motivated by a broad desire to minimize and prevent financial panics, even beyond simply satisfying increased demand for currency. My own view, which I must note may not be shared by all my colleagues in the Federal Reserve System, favors a narrower and more restrained role, focused on the critical core function of managing the monetary liabilities of the central bank. Ambitious use of a central bank’s balance sheet to channel credit to particular economic sectors or entities threatens to entangle the central bank in distributional politics and place the bank’s independence at risk. Moreover, the use of central bank credit to rescue creditors boosts moral hazard and encourages vulnerability to financial shocks.
By explicitly referencing moral hazard, Mr Lacker is taking on the current leadership of the Federal Reserve, now headed by Janet Yellen, which denies that easy money policies have had anything to do with fostering financial instability. But as discussed earlier in this report, the historical evidence is clear that Fed activism is behind the escalating boom-bust cycles of recent decades. And as Mr Caruana further suggests, this has been a global phenomenon, with the Fed at the de facto helm of the international monetary system due to the dollar’s global reserve currency role.
EURO ‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’? UH, NO
As quoted at the start of this report, Jean-Claude Juncker, prominent Eurocrat and politician, recently claimed victory in the euro-crisis. “Greece and Europe won.” And who lost? Why, those who bet against them in the financial markets by selling their debt and other associated assets.
But is it really ‘mission accomplished’ in Europe? No, and not by a long shot. Yes, so-called ‘austerity’ was absolutely necessary. Finances in many EU countries were clearly on an unsustainable course. But other than to have bought time through lower borrowing costs, have EU or ECB officials actually achieved anything of note with respect to restoring economic competitiveness?
There is some evidence to this effect, for example in Ireland, Portugal and Spain, comprising some 15% of the euro-area economy. However, there is also evidence to the contrary, most clearly seen in France, comprising some 20% of the euro-area. So while those countries under the most pressure from the crisis have made perhaps some progress, the second-largest euro member country is slipping at an accelerating rate into the uncompetitive abyss. Italy, for many years a relative economic underperformer, is not necessarily doing worse than before, but it is hard to argue it is doing better. (Indeed, Italy’s recent decision to distort its GDP data by including estimates for non-taxable black-market activities smacks of a desperate campaign to trick investors into believing its public debt burden is more manageable than it really is.)
There is also a surge in economic nationalism throughout the EU, as demonstrated by the remarkable surge in support for anti-EU politicians and parties. It is thus far too early for Mr Juncker to claim victory, although politicians are naturally given to such rhetoric. The crisis of interventionism in the euro-area may is not dissipating; rather, it is crossing borders, where it will re-escalate before long.
THE SHORT HONEYMOON OF ‘ABENOMICS’
Turning to developments in Japan, so-called ‘Abenomics’, the unabashedly interventionist economic policy set implemented by Prime Minister Abe following his election in late 2012, has already resulted in tremendous disappointment. Yes, the yen plummeted in late 2012 and early 2013, something that supposedly would restore economic competitiveness. But something happened on the way, namely a surge in import prices, including energy. Now Japan is facing not just economic stagnation but rising inflation, a nasty cocktail of ‘stagflation’. Not that this should be any surprise: Devaluing your way to prosperity has never worked, regardless of when or where tried, yet doing so in the face of structural economic headwinds is guaranteed to produce rising price inflation, just as it did in the US and UK during the 1970s.
With reality now having arrived, it will be interesting to see what Mr Abe does next. Will he go ‘all-in’ with even more aggressive yen devaluation? Or will he consider focusing on structural reform instead? Although I am hardly a Japan expert, I have travelled to the country regularly since the late 1990s and my sense is that the country is likely to slip right back into the ‘muddle through’ that characterised the economy during most of the past decade. Of course, in the event that another major global financial crisis unfolds, as I regard as inevitable in some form, Japan will be unable to avoid it, highly integrated as it is.
THE BUCK STOPS HERE: A ‘BRIC’ WALL
In my book, THE GOLDEN REVOLUTION, I document how the BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, now joined by South Africa to make the BRICS) have been working together for years to try and reorient themselves away from mercantilist, dollar-centric, export-led economic development, in favour of a more balanced approach. Certainly they have good reasons to do so, as I described in a 2012 report, THE BUCK STOPS HERE: A BRIC WALL:
[T]he BRICS are laying the appropriate groundwork for their own monetary system: Bilateral currency arrangements and their own IMF/World Bank. The latter could, in principle, form the basis for a common currency and monetary policy. At a minimum it will allow them to buy much global influence, by extending some portion of their massive cumulative savings to other aspiring developing economies or, intriguingly, to ‘advanced’ economies in need of a helping hand and willing to return the favour in some way.
In my new book, I posit the possibility that the BRICS, amid growing global monetary instability, might choose to back their currencies with gold. While that might seem far-fetched to some, consider that, were the BRICS to reduce their dependence on the dollar without sufficient domestic currency credibility, they would merely replace one source of instability with another. Gold provides a tried, tested, off-the-shelf solution for any country or group of countries seeking greater monetary credibility and the implied stability it provides.
Now consider the foreign policy angle: The Delhi Declaration makes clear that the BRICS are not at all pleased with the new wave of interventionism in Syria and Iran. While the BRICS may be unable to pose an effective military opposition to combined US and NATO military power in either of those two countries, they could nevertheless make it much more difficult for the US and NATO to finance themselves going forward. To challenge the dollar is to challenge the Fed to raise interest rates in response. If the Fed refuses to raise rates, the dollar will plummet. If the Fed does raise interest rates, it will choke off growth and tax revenue. In either case, the US will find it suddenly much more expensive, perhaps prohibitively so, to carry out further military adventures in the Middle East or elsewhere.
While the ongoing US confrontations with Iran and Syria have been of concern to the BRICS for some time, of acute concern to member Russia of late has been the escalating crisis in Ukraine. The recent ‘Maidan’ coup, clearly supported by the US and possibly some EU countries, is regarded with grave concern by Russia, which has already taken action to protect its naval base and other military assets in the Crimea. Now several other Russian-majority Ukrainian regions are seeking either autonomy or independence. The street fighting has been intense at times. The election this past weekend confirming what Russia regards as an illegitimate, NATO-puppet government changes and solves nothing; it merely renders the dipute more intractable and a further escalation appears likely. (Russia is pressing Kiev as I write to allow it to begin providing humanitarian assistance to the rebellious regions, something likely to be denied.)
US economic sanctions on Russia have no doubt helped to catalyse the most recent BRICS initiative, in this case one specific to Russia and China, who have agreed a landmark 30-year gas deal while, at the same time, preparing the groundwork for the Russian banking system to handle non-dollar (eg yuan) payments for Russian gas exports. This is a specific but nevertheless essential step towards a more general de-dollarisation of intra-BRICS trade, which continues to grow rapidly.
The dollar’s international role had been in slow but steady decline for years, with 2008 serving to accelerate the process. The BRICS are now increasingly pro-active in reducing their dollar dependence. Russia has been dumping US dollar reserves all year and China is no longer accumulating them. India has recently eased restrictions on gold imports, something that is likely to reduce Indian demand for US Treasuries. (Strangely enough, and fodder for conspiracy theorists, tiny Belgium has stepped in to fill the gap, purchasing huge amounts of US Treasuries in recent months, equivalent to some $20,000 per household! Clearly that is not actually Belgian buying at all, but custodial buying on behalf of someone else. But on behalf of whom? And why?)
As I wrote in my book, amid global economic weakness, the so-called ‘currency wars’ naturally escalate. Competitive devaluations thus have continued periodically, such as the Abenomics yen devaluation of 2012-13 and the more recent devaluation of the Chinese yuan. As I have warned in previous reports, however, history strongly suggests that protracted currency wars lead to trade wars, which can be potentially disastrous in their effects, including on corporate profits and valuations.
THE END OF GLOBALISATION?
Trade wars are rarely labelled as such, at least not at first. Some other reason is normally given for erecting trade barriers. A popular such reason in recent decades has been either environmental or health concerns. For example, the EU and China, among other countries, have banned the import of certain genetically modified foods and seeds.
Rather than erect formal barriers, governments can also seek ways to subsidise domestic producers or exporters. While the World Trade Organisation (WTO) aims to prevent and police such barriers and subsidies, in practice it can take it years to effectively enforce such actions.
Well, there is now a new excuse for trade barriers, one specific to the huge global tech and telecommunications industry: Espionage. As it emerges that US-built and patented devices in widespread use around the world contain various types of ‘backdoors’ allowing the US National Security Agency to eavesdrop, countries are evaluating whether they should ban their use. Cisco’s CEO recently complained of losing market share to rivals due to such concerns. Somewhat ominously, China announced over the past week that it would prohibit public entities from using Microsoft Windows version 8 and would require banks to migrate away from IBM computer servers.
There has also been talk amongst the BRICS that they should build a parallel internet infrastructure to avoid routing information via the US, where it is now assumed to be automatically and systematically compromised. Given these concerns, it is possible that a general tech trade war is now breaking out under an espionage pretext. What a convenient excuse for protecting jobs: Protecting secrets! What do you think the WTO will have to say about that?
Imagine what a tech trade war would do to corporate profits. Name one major tech firm that does not have widely dispersed global supply chains, manufacturing operations and an international customer base. Amid rising trade barriers, tech firms will struggle to keep costs down. Beyond a certain point they will need to pass rising costs on to their customers. The general deflation of tech in recent decades will go into reverse. Imagine what that will do to consumer price inflation around the world.
Yes, a tech trade war would be devastating. Household, ‘blue-chip’ tech names might struggle to survive, much less remain highly profitable. And the surge in price inflation may limit the ability of central banks to continue with ultra-loose monetary policies, to the detriment also of non-tech corporate profits and financial health. This could lead into a vicious circle of reactionary protectionism in other industries, a historical echo of the ‘tit-for-tat’ trade wars of the 1930s that were part and parcel of what made the Great Depression such a disaster.
Given these facts, it is difficult to imagine that the outbreak of a global tech trade war would not result in a major equity market crash. Current valuations are high in a historical comparison and imply continued high profitability. Major stock markets, including the US, could easily lose half their value, even more if a general price inflation led central banks to tighten monetary conditions by more than financial markets currently expect. Of all the ‘black swans’ out there, a tech trade war is not only taking flight; it is also potentially one of the largest, short of a shooting war.
A SILVER LINING TO THE GLOOM AND DOOM
With equity valuations stretched and complacency rampant—the VIX volatility index dipped below 12 this week, a rare event indeed—now is the time to proceed with extreme caution. The possible outbreak of a tech trade war only adds to the danger. Buying the VIX (say, via an ETF) is perhaps the most straightforward way to insure an equity portfolio, but there are various ways to get defensive, as I discussed in my last report.
Where there is risk, however, there is opportunity, and right now there is a silver lining: With a couple of exceptions, metals prices are extremely depressed relative to stock market valuations. Arguably the most depressed is silver. Having slipped below $20/oz, silver has given up all of its previous, relative outperformance vs other metals from 2010-11. It thus appears cheap vs both precious and industrial metals, with silver being something of a hybrid between the two. Marginal production capacity that was brought on line following the 2010-11 price surge is now uneconomic and is shutting down. But the long slide in prices has now attracted considerable speculative short interest. If for any reason silver finds a reason to recover, the move is likely to be highly asymmetric.
Investors seeing an opportunity in silver can, of course, buy silver mining shares, either individually or through an ETF. A more aggressive play would be to combine a defensive equity market stance—say buying the VIX—with a long position in the miners or in the metal itself. My view is that such a position is likely to perform well in the coming months. (Please note that volatility of the silver price is normally roughly double that of the S&P500 index, so a market-neutral, non-directional spread trade would require shorting roughly twice as much of the S&P500 as the purchasing of silver. Also note, however, that correlations are unstable and thus must be dynamically risk-managed.)
As famed distressed-debt investor Howard Marks says, investing is about capturing asymmetry. Here at Amphora we aim to do precisely that. At present, there appears no better way to go about it than to buy silver, either outright or combined with a stock market short/underweight. From the current starting point, this could well be one of the biggest trades of 2014.