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Submitted by Ben Hunt of Epsilon Theory
It Was Barzini All Along
Tattaglia is a pimp. He never could have outfought Santino. But I didn’t know until this day that it was Barzini all along.
— Don Vito Corleone
Like many in the investments business, I am a big fan of the Godfather movies, or at least those that don’t have Sofia Coppola in a supporting role. The strategic crux of the first movie is the realization by Don Corleone at a peace-making meeting of the Five Families that the garden variety gangland war he thought he was fighting with the Tattaglia Family was actually part of an existential war being waged by the nominal head of the Families, Don Barzini. Vito warns his son Michael, who becomes the new head of the Corleone Family, and the two of them plot a strategy of revenge and survival to be put into motion after Vito’s death. The movie concludes with Michael successfully murdering Barzini and his various supporters, a plot arc that depends entirely on Vito’s earlier recognition of the underlying cause of the Tattaglia conflict. Once Vito understood WHY Philip Tattaglia was coming after him, that he was just a stooge for Emilio Barzini, everything changed for the Corleone Family’s strategy.
Now imagine that Don Corleone wasn’t a gangster at all, but was a macro fund portfolio manager or, really, any investor or allocator who views the label of “Emerging Market” as a useful differentiation … maybe not as a separate asset class per se, but as a meaningful way of thinking about one broad set of securities versus another. With the expansion of investment options and liquid securities that reflect this differentiation — from Emerging Market ETF’s to Emerging Market mutual funds — anyone can be a macro investor today, and most of us are to some extent.
You might think that the ease with which anyone can be an Emerging Markets investor today would make the investment behavior around these securities more complex from a game theory perspective as more and more players enter the game, but actually just the opposite is true. The old Emerging Markets investment game had very high informational and institutional barriers to entry, which meant that the players relied heavily on their private information and relatively little on public signals and Common Knowledge. There may be far more players in the new Emerging Markets investment game, but they are essentially one type of player with a very heavy reliance on Common Knowledge and public Narratives. Also, these new players are not (necessarily) retail investors, but are (mostly) institutional investors that see Emerging Markets or sub-classifications of Emerging Markets as an asset class with certain attractive characteristics as part of a broad portfolio. Because these institutional investors have so much money that must be put to work and because their portfolio preference functions are so uniform, there is a very powerful and very predictable game dynamic in play here.
Since the 2008 Crisis the Corleone Family has had a pretty good run with their Emerging Markets investments, and even more importantly Vito believes that he understands WHY those investments have worked. In the words of Olivier Blanchard, Chief Economist for the IMF:
In emerging market countries by contrast, the crisis has not left lasting wounds. Their fiscal and financial positions were typically stronger to start, and adverse effects of the crisis have been more muted. High underlying growth and low interest rates are making fiscal adjustment much easier. Exports have largely recovered, and whatever shortfall in external demand they experienced has typically been made up through an increase in domestic demand. Capital outflows have turned into capital inflows, due to both better growth prospects and higher interest rates than in advanced countries. … The challenge for most emerging countries is quite different from that of advanced countries, namely how to avoid overheating in the face of closing output gaps and higher capital flows. — April 11, 2011
As late as January 23rd of this year, Blanchard wrote that “we forecast that both emerging market and developing economies will sustain strong growth“.
Now we all know what actually happened in 2013. Growth has been disappointing around the world, particularly in Emerging Markets, and most of these local stock and bond markets have been hit really hard. But if you’re Vito Corleone, macro investor extraordinaire, that’s not necessarily a terrible thing. Sure, you don’t like to see any of your investments go down, but Emerging Markets are notably volatile and maybe this is a great buying opportunity across the board. In fact, so long as the core growth STORY is intact, it almost certainly is a buying opportunity.
But then you wake up on July 9th to read in the WSJ that Olivier Blanchard has changed his tune. He now says “It’s clear that these countries [China, Russia, India, Brazil, South Africa] are not going to grow at the same rate as they did before the crisis.” Huh? Or rather, WTF? How did the Chief Economist of the IMF go from predicting “strong growth” to declaring that the party is over and the story has fundamentally changed in six months?
It’s important to point out that Blanchard is not some inconsequential opinion leader, but is one of the most influential economists in the world today. His position at the IMF is a temporary gig from his permanent position as the Robert M. Solow Professor of Economics at MIT, where he has taught since 1983. He also received his Ph.D. in economics from MIT (1977), where his fellow graduate students were Ben Bernanke (1979), Mario Draghi (1976), and Paul Krugman (1977), among other modern-day luminaries; Stanley Fischer, current Governor of the Bank of Israel, was the dissertation advisor for both Blanchard and Bernanke; Mervyn King and Larry Summers (and many, many more) were Blanchard’s contemporaries or colleagues at MIT at one point or another. The centrality of MIT to the core orthodoxy of modern economic theory in general and monetary policy in particular has been well documented by Jon Hilsenrath and others and it’s not a stretch to say that MIT provided a personal bond and a formative intellectual experience for a group of people that by and large rule the world today. Suffice it to say that Blanchard is smack in the middle of that orthodoxy and that group. I’m not saying that anything Blanchard says is amazingly influential in and of itself, certainly not to the degree of a Bernanke or a Draghi (or even a Krugman), but I believe it is highly representative of the shared beliefs and opinions that exist among these enormously influential policy makers and policy advisors. Two years ago the global economic intelligentsia believed that Emerging Markets had emerged from the 2008 crisis essentially unscathed, but today they believe that EM growth rates are permanently diminished from pre-crisis levels. That’s a big deal, and anyone who invests or allocates to “Emerging Markets” as a differentiated group of securities had better take notice.
Here’s what I think happened.
First, an error pattern has emerged over the past few years from global growth data and IMF prediction models that forced a re-evaluation of those models and the prevailing Narrative of “unscathed” Emerging Markets. Below is a chart showing actual Emerging Market growth rates for each year listed, as well as the IMF prediction at the mid-year mark within that year and the mid-year mark within the prior year (generating an 18-month forward estimate).
Pre-crisis the IMF systematically under-estimated growth in Emerging Markets. Post-crisis the IMF has systematically over-estimated growth in Emerging Markets. Now to be sure, this IMF over-estimation of growth exists for Developed Markets, too, but between the EuroZone sovereign debt crisis and the US fiscal cliff drama there’s a “reason” for the unexpected weakness in Developed Markets. There’s no obvious reason for the persistent Emerging Market weakness given the party line that “whatever shortfall in external demand they experienced has typically been made up through an increase in domestic demand.” Trust me, IMF economists know full well that their models under-estimated EM growth pre-crisis and have now flipped their bias to over-estimate growth today. Nothing freaks out a statistician more than this sort of flipped sign. It means that a set of historical correlations has “gone perverse” by remaining predictive, but in the opposite manner that it used to be predictive. This should never happen if your underlying theory of how the world works is correct. So now the IMF (and every other mainstream macroeconomic analysis effort in the world) has a big problem. They know that their models are perversely over-estimating growth, which given the current projections means that we’re probably looking at three straight years of sub-5% growth in Emerging Markets (!!) more than three years after the 2008 crisis ended, and — worse — they have no plausible explanation for what’s going on.
Fortunately for all concerned, a Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence has emerged over the past nine months, where it has become Common Knowledge that US monetary policy is responsible for everything that happens in global markets, for good and for ill (see “How Gold Lost Its Luster”). This Narrative is incredibly useful to the Olivier Blanchard’s of the world, as it provides a STORY for why their prediction models have collapsed. And maybe it really does rescue their models. I have no idea. All I’m saying is that whether the Narrative is “true” or not, it will be adopted and proselytized by those whose interests — bureaucratic, economic, political, etc. — are served by that Narrative. That’s not evil, it’s just human nature.
Nor is the usefulness of the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence limited to IMF economists. To listen to Emerging Market central bankers at Jackson Hole two weeks ago or to Emerging Market politicians at the G-20 meeting last week you would think that a great revelation had been delivered from on high. Agustin Carstens, Mexico’s equivalent to Ben Bernanke, gave a speech on the “massive carry trade strategies” caused by ZIRP and pleaded for more Fed sensitivity to their capital flow risks. Interesting how the Fed is to blame now that the cash is flowing out, but it was Mexico’s wonderful growth profile to credit when the cash was flowing in. South Africa’s finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, gave an interview to the FT from Jackson Hole where he bemoaned the “inability to find coherent and cohesive responses across the globe to ensure that we reduce the volatility in currencies in particular, but also in sentiment” now that the Fed is talking about a Taper. Christine Lagarde got into the act, of course, calling on the world to build “further lines of defense” even as she noted that the IMF would (gulp) have to stand in the breach as the Fed left the field. To paraphrase Job: the Fed gave, and the Fed hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Fed.
The problem, though, is that once you embrace the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence to “explain” recent events, you can’t compartmentalize it there. If the pattern of post-crisis Emerging Market growth rates is largely explained by US monetary accommodation or lack thereof … well, the same must be true for pre-crisis Emerging Market growth rates. The inexorable conclusion is that Emerging Market growth rates are a function of Developed Market central bank liquidity measures and monetary policy, and that all Emerging Markets are, to one degree or another, Greece-like in their creation of unsustainable growth rates on the back of 20 years of The Great Moderation (as Bernanke referred to the decline in macroeconomic volatility from accommodative monetary policy) and the last 4 years of ZIRP. It was Barzini all along!
This shift in the Narrative around Emerging Markets — that the Fed is the “true” engine of global growth — is a new thing. As evidence of its novelty, I would point you to another bastion of modern economic orthodoxy, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), in particular their repository of working papers. Pretty much every US economist of note in the past 40 years has published an NBER working paper, and I only say “pretty much every” because I want to be careful; my real estimate is that there are zero mainstream US economists who don’t have a working paper here.
If you search the NBER working paper database for “emerging market crises”, you see 16 papers. Again, the author list reads like a who’s who of famous economists: Martin Feldstein, Jeffrey Sachs, Rudi Dornbusch, Fredric Mishkin, Barry Eichengreen, Nouriel Roubini, etc. Of these 16 papers, only 2 — Frankel and Roubini (2001) and Arellano and Mendoza (2002) — even mention the words “Federal Reserve” in the context of an analysis of these crises, and in both cases the primary point is that some Emerging Market crises, like the 1998 Russian default, force the Fed to cut interest rates. They see a causal relationship here, but in the opposite direction of today’s Narrative! Now to be fair, several of the papers point to rising Developed Market interest rates as a “shock” or contributing factor to Emerging Market crises, and Eichengreen and Rose (1998) make this their central claim. But even here the argument is that “a one percent increase in Northern interest rates is associated with an increase in the probability of Southern banking crises of around three percent” … not exactly an earth-shattering causal relationship. More fundamentally, none of these authors ever raise the possibility that low Developed Market interest rates are the core engine of Emerging Market growth rates. It’s just not even contemplated as an explanation.
Today, though, this new Narrative is everywhere. It pervades both the popular media and the academic “media”, such as the prominent Jackson Hole paper by Helene Rey of the London Business School, where the nutshell argument is that global financial cycles are creatures of Fed policy … period, end of story. Not only is every other country just along for the ride, but Emerging Markets are kidding themselves if they think that their plight matters one whit to the US and the Fed.
Market participants today see Barzini/Bernanke everywhere, behind every news announcement and every market tick. They may be right. They may be reading the situation as smartly as Vito Corleone did. I doubt it, but it really doesn’t matter. Whether or not I privately believe that Barzini/Bernanke is behind everything that happens in the world, I am constantly told that this is WHY market events happen the way they do. And because I know that everyone else is seeing the same media explanations of WHY that I am seeing … because I know that everyone else is going through the same tortured decision process that I’m going through … because I know that everyone else is thinking about me in the same way that I am thinking about them … because I know that if everyone else acts as if he or she believes the Narrative then I should act as if I believe the Narrative … then the only rational conclusion is that I should act as if I believe it. That’s the Common Knowledge game in action. This is what people mean when they say that a market behavior of any sort “takes on a life of its own.”
For the short term, at least, the smart play is probably just to go along with the Barzini/Bernanke Narrative, just like the Corleone family went along with the idea that Barzini was running them out of New York (and yes, I understand that at this point I’m probably taking this Godfather analogy too far). By going along I mean thinking of the current market dynamic in terms of risk management, understanding that the overall information structure of this market is remarkably unstable. Risk-On / Risk-Off behavior is likely to increase significantly in the months ahead, and there’s really no predicting when Bernanke will open his mouth or what he’ll say, or who will be appointed to take his place, or what he or she will say. It’s hard to justify any large exposure to public securities in this environment, long or short, because all public securities will be dominated by this Narrative so long as everyone thinks that everyone thinks they will be dominated. This the sort of game can go on for a long time, particularly when the Narrative serves the interests of incredibly powerful institutions around the world.
But what ultimately saved the Corleone family wasn’t just the observation of Barzini’s underlying causal influence, it was the strategy that adjusted to the new reality of WHY. What’s necessary here is not just a gnashing of teeth or tsk-tsk’ing about how awful it is that monetary policy has achieved such behavioral dominance over markets, but a recognition that it IS, that there are investment opportunities created by its existence, and that the greatest danger is to continue on as if nothing has changed.
I believe that there are two important investment implications that stem from this sea change in the Narrative around Emerging Markets, which I’ll introduce today and develop at length in subsequent notes.
First, I think it’s necessary for active investors to recalibrate their analysis towards individual securities that happen to be found in Emerging Markets, not aggregations of securities with an “Emerging Markets” label. I say this because in the aggregate, Emerging Market securities (ETF’s, broad-based funds, etc.) are now the equivalent of a growth stock with a broken story, and that’s a very difficult row to hoe. Take note, though, the language you will have to speak in this analytic recalibration of Emerging Market securities is Value, not Growth, and the critical attribute of a successful investment will have little to do with the security’s inherent qualities (particularly growth qualities) but a great deal to do with whether a critical mass of Value-speaking investors take an interest in the security.
Second, there’s a Big Trade here related to the predictable behaviors and preference functions of the giant institutional investors or advisors that — by size and by strategy — are locked into a perception of Emerging Market meaning that can only be expressed through aggregations of securities or related fungible asset classes (foreign exchange and commodities). These mega-allocators do not “see” Emerging Markets as an opportunity set of individual securities, but as an asset class with useful diversification qualities within an overall portfolio. So long as market behaviors around Emerging Markets in the aggregate are driven by the Barzini/Bernanke Narrative, that diversification quality will decline, as the same Fed-speak engine is driving behaviors in both Emerging Markets and Developed Markets. Mega-allocators care more about diversification and correlations than they do about price, which means that the selling pressure will continue/increase so long as the old models aren’t working and the Barzini/Bernanke Narrative diminishes what made Emerging Markets as an asset class useful to these institutions in the first place. But when that selling pressure dissipates — either because the Barzini/Bernanke Narrative wanes or the mega-portfolios are balanced for the new correlation models that take the Barzini/Bernanke market effect into account — that’s when Emerging Market securities in the aggregate will work again. You will never identify that turning point in Emerging Market security prices by staring at a price chart. To use a poker analogy you must play the player — in this case the mega-allocators who care a lot about correlation and little about price — not the cards in order to know when to place a big bet.
In future weeks I’ll be expanding on each of these investment themes, as well as taking them into the realm of foreign exchange and commodities. Also, there’s a lot still to be said about Fed communication policy and the Frankenstein’s Monster it has become. I hope you will join me for the journey, and if you’d like to be on the direct distribution list for these free weekly notes please sign up at Follow Epsilon Theory.
“A Funny Old World” – The EM Carry Trade Collapse ‘Deja Vu, All Over Again’ From Citigroup | Zero Hedge
Spot the similarities.
From CitiFX Technicals: It’s a funny old World
- 1989-1991: Housing and savings and loan crisis: Fed eases aggressively as economy enters deep recession
- 1992-1994: Existing financial architecture in Europe (ERM) blows apart
- 1995-1998: European convergence trade in both FX and Bond spreads keeps European currencies relatively stable vis a vis the USD with a good rally in 1998.By 1996 BUBA has lowered the discount rate to 2.5% while US rates remain well below the pre-crisis highs of 9.75% in 1989.
- The carry trade and capital flow into emerging markets (Asia in particular) is center stage
- March 1997: In a seemingly “innocuous” move the Fed “tinkers” by raising rates 25 basis points.
- April 1997: Japan raises its consumption tax as USDJPY has rallied from a post Kobe Earthquake low of 79.7 to 127.50 . USDJPY collapse to 111 by June
- June 1997-Jan 1998: Severe reaction in Asian currencies as “hot money flees”
- August-October 1998: Russia defaults, Long term capital folds and the Fed eases aggressively as the Equity market drops 22% (S&P)
History may not repeat…..but it sure RHYMES
Marc Faber Warns “Insiders Are Selling Like Crazy… Short US Stocks, Buy Treasuries & Gold” | Zero Hedge
Beginning by disavowing Mario Gabelli of any belief that rising stock prices help ‘most’ people (“Fed data suggests half the US population has seen a 40% drop in wealth since 2007“), Marc Faber discusses his increasingly imminent fears of the markets in this recent Barron’s interview.
Quoting Hussman as a caveat, “The problem with bubbles is that they force one to decide whether to look like an idiot before the peak, or an idiot after the peak. There’s no calling the top,” Faber warns there are a lot of questions about the quality of earnings (from buybacks to unfunded pensions) but “statistics show that company insiders are selling their shares like crazy.”
His first recommendation – short the Russell 2000, buy 10-year US Treasuries (“there will be no magnificent US recovery”), and miners and adds “own physical gold because the old system will implode. Those who own paper assets are doomed.”
Faber: This morning, I said most people don’t benefit from rising stock prices. This handsome young man on my left said I was incorrect. [Gabelli starts preening.] Yet, here are some statistics from Gallup’s annual economy and personal-finance survey on the percentage of U.S. adults invested in the market. The survey, whose results were published in May, asks whether respondents personally or jointly with a spouse have any money invested in the market, either in individual stock accounts, stock mutual funds, self-directed 401(k) retirement accounts, or individual retirement accounts.Only 52% responded positively.
Gabelli: They didn’t ask about company-sponsored 401(k)s, so it is a faulty question.
Faber: An analysis of Federal Reserve data suggests that half the U.S. population has seen a 40% decrease in wealth since 2007.
In Reminiscences of a Stock Operator [a fictionalized account of the trader Jesse Livermore that has become a Wall Street classic], Livermore said, “It never was my thinking that made the big money for me. It was always my sitting. Got that? My sitting tight.” Here’s another thought from John Hussmann of the Hussmann Funds: “The problem with bubbles is that they force one to decide whether to look like an idiot before the peak, or an idiot after the peak. There’s no calling the top, and most of the signals that have been most historically useful for that purpose have been blaring red since late 2011.”
I am negative about U.S. stocks, and the Russell 2000 in particular. Regarding Abby’s energy recommendation, this is one of the few sectors with insider buying. In other sectors, statistics show that company insiders are selling their shares like crazy, and companies are buying like crazy.
Zulauf: These are the same people.
Faber: Precisely. Looking at 10-year annualized returns for U.S. stocks, the Value Line arithmetic index has risen 11% a year. The Standard & Poor’s 600 and the Nasdaq 100 have each risen 9.4% a year. In other words, the market hasn’t done badly. Sentiment figures are extremely bullish, and valuations are on the high side.
But there are a lot of questions about earnings, both because of stock buybacks and unfunded pension liabilities. How can companies have rising earnings, yet not provision sufficiently for their pension funds?
Good question. Where are you leading us with your musings?
Faber: What I recommend to clients and what I do with my own portfolio aren’t always the same. That said, my first recommendation is to short the Russell 2000. You can use the iShares Russell 2000 exchange-traded fund [IWM]. Small stocks have outperformed large stocks significantly in the past few years.
Next, I would buy 10-year Treasury notes, because I don’t believe in this magnificent U.S. economic recovery. The U.S. is going to turn down, and bond yields are going to fall. Abby just gave me a good idea. She is long the iShares MSCI Mexico Capped ETF, so I will go short.
What are you doing with your own money?
Faber: I have a lot of cash, and I bought Treasury bonds.
Faber: I have no faith in paper money, period. Next, insider buying is also high in gold shares. Gold has massively underperformed relative to the S&P 500 and the Russell 2000. Maybe the price will go down some from here, but individual investors and my fellow panelists and Barron’s editors ought to own some gold. About 20% of my net worth is in gold. I don’t even value it in my portfolio. What goes down, I don’t value.
Which stocks are you recommending?
Faber: I recommend the Market Vectors Junior Gold Miners ETF [GDXJ], although I don’t own it. I own physical gold because the old system will implode. Those who own paper assets are doomed.
Zulauf: Can you put the time frame on the implosion?
Faber: Let’s enjoy dinner tonight. Maybe it will happen tomorrow.
There is a colossal bubble in assets. When central banks print money, all assets go up. When they pull back, we could see deflation in asset prices but a pickup in consumer prices and the cost of living. Still, you have to own some assets. Hutchison Port Holdings Trust yields about 7%. It owns several ports in Hong Kong and China, which isn’t a good business right now. When the economy slows, the dividend might be cut to 5% or so. Many Singapore real-estate investment trusts have corrected meaningfully, and now yield 5% to 6%. They aren’t terrific investments because property prices could fall. But if you have a negative view of the world, and you think trade will contract, property prices will fall, and the yield on the 10-year Treasury will drop, a REIT like Hutchison is a relatively attractive investment.
Faber: The outlook for property in Asia isn’t bad because a lot of Europeans realize they will need to leave Europe for tax reasons. They can live in Singapore and be taxed at a much lower rate. Even if China grows by only 3% or 4%, it is better than Europe. People are moving up the economic ladder in Asia and into the middle class.
Are you bullish on India?
Faber: I am on the board of the oldest India fund [the India Capital fund]. The macroeconomic outlook for India isn’t good, but an election is coming, and the market always rallies into elections.The leading candidate is pro-business. He is speaking before huge crowds.
In dollar terms, the Indian market is still down about 40% from the peak, because the currency has weakened. In the 1970s, stock market indexes performed poorly and stock-picking came to the fore. Asia could be like that now. It is a huge region, and you have to invest by company. Some Indian companies will do well, and others poorly. Some people made 40% on their investments in China last year, but the benchmark index did poorly.
I like Vietnam. The economy has had its troubles, and the market has seen a big decline. I want you to visualize Vietnam. [Stands up, walks to a nearby wall, and begins to draw a map of Vietnam with his hands.] Here’s Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, the border with China, and the Mekong River. And here in the middle, on the coast, is Da Nang.
Faber: I recommend shorting the Turkish lira. I had an experience in Turkey that led me to believe that some families are above the law. When I see that in an emerging economy, it makes me careful about investing.
Wondering who will take over the mantle of Treasury bond buyer now that the Fed is stepping away? Curious of the government’s next steps towards repression and control of wealth? Wait no longer. As the AP reports, President Obama will unveil a new retirement savings plan tonight that allows first-time savers to buy US Treasury bonds tax-deferred for retirement. Of course, this is not the mandatory IRA that remains somewhat inevitable (as the muddle-through fails) but is certainly a step in the direction we alerted readers to a year ago by which the government generously offers to help manage your retirement savings. Two words spring to mind… remember Poland.
Eager not to be limited by legislative gridlock, Obama is also expected to announce executive actions on job training, retirement security and help for the long-term unemployed in finding work.
Among those actions is a new retirement savings plan geared toward workers whose employers don’t currently offer such plans.
The program would allow first-time savers to start building up savings in Treasury bonds that eventually could be converted into a traditional IRAs, according to two people who have discussed the proposal with the administration. Those people weren’t authorized to discuss it ahead of the announcement and insisted on anonymity.
Of course, this is not what the CFPB suggested a year ago… We’re sure the government is just trying to protect your retirement account from terrorists. From Bloomberg:
The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is weighing whether it should take on a role in helping Americans manage the $19.4 trillion they have put into retirement savings, a move that would be the agency’s first foray into consumer investments.
That’s one of the things we’ve been exploring and are interested in in terms of whether and what authority we have,” bureau director Richard Cordray said in an interview. He didn’t provide additional details.
The bureau’s core concern is that many Americans, notably those from the retiring Baby Boom generation, may fall prey to financial scams, according to three people briefed on the CFPB’s deliberations who asked not to be named because the matter is still under discussion.
But it’s getting close.
In what is sure to be met with cries of derision across the European Union, in line with what the IMF had previously recommended (and we had previously warned as inevitable), the Bundesbank said on Monday that countries about to go bankrupt should draw on the private wealth of their citizens through a one-off capital levy before asking other states for help. As Reuters reports, the Bundesbank states, “(A capital levy) corresponds to the principle of national responsibility, according to which tax payers are responsible for their government’s obligations before solidarity of other states is required.” However, they note that they will not support an implementation of a recurrent wealth tax in Germany, saying it would harm growth. We await the refutation (or Draghi’s jawbone solution to this line in the sand.)
Germany’s Bundesbank said on Monday that countries about to go bankrupt should draw on the private wealth of their citizens through a one-off capital levy before asking other states for help.
The Bundesbank’s tough stance comes after years of euro zone crisis that saw five government bailouts. There have also bond market interventions by the European Central Bank in, for example, Italy where households’ average net wealth is higher than in Germany.
“(A capital levy) corresponds to the principle of national responsibility, according to which tax payers are responsible for their government’s obligations before solidarity of other states is required,” the Bundesbank said in its monthly report.
It warned that such a levy carried significant risks and its implementation would not be easy, adding it should only be considered in absolute exceptional cases, for example to avert a looming sovereign insolvency.
The German Institute for Economic Research calculated in 2012 that in Germany a 10-percent levy on a tax base derived from a personal allowance of 250,000 euros would add up to around 230 billion euros. It did not give a figure for crisis countries due to lack of sufficient data.
Greece has been granted bailout funds of 240 billion euros from the euro area, its national central banks and IMF to protect it from a chaotic default and possible exit from the euro zone. Not all funds have been paid out yet.
In Germany, however, the Bundesbank said it would not support an implementation of a recurrent wealth tax, saying it would harm growth.
“It is not the purpose of European monetary policy to ensure solvency of national banking systems or governments and it cannot replace necessary economic adjustments or bank balance sheet clean ups,” the Bundesbank said.
In considering some of the potential measures likely to be required, the reader may be struck by the essential problem facing politicians: there may be only painful ways out of the crisis.
There is one thing we would like to bring to our readers’ attention because we are confident, that one way or another, sooner or later, it will be implemented. Namely a one-time wealth tax: in other words, instead of stealth inflation, the government will be forced to proceed with over transfer of wealth. According to BCG, the amount of developed world debt between household, corporate and government that needs to be eliminated is just over $21 trillion. Which unfortunately means that there is an equity shortfall that will have to be funded with incremental cash which will have to come from somewhere. That somewhere is tax of the middle and upper classes, which are in possession of $74 trillion in financial assets, which in turn will have to be taxed at a blended rate of 28.7%.
The programs BCG (and the Bundesbank) described would be drastic. They would not be popular, and they would require broad political coordinate and leadership – something that politicians have replaced up til now with playing for time, in spite of a deteriorating outlook. Acknowledgment of the facts may be the biggest hurdle. Politicians and central bankers still do not agree on the full scale of the crisis and are therefore placing too much hope on easy solutions. We need to understand that balance sheet recessions are very different from normal recessions. The longer the politicians and bankers wait, the more necessary will be the response outlined in this paper. Unfortunately, reaching consensus on such tough action might requiring an environment last seen in the 1930s
Last week we were the first to raise the very real and imminent threat of a default for a Chinese wealth management product (WMP) default – specifically China Credit Trust’s Credit Equals Gold #1 (CEQ1) – and its potential contagion concerns. It seems BofAML is now beginning to get concerned, noting that over 60% of market participants expects repo rates to rise if a trust product defaults and based on the analysis below, they think there is a high probability for CEQ1 to default on 31 January, i.e. no full redemption of principal and back-coupon on the day. Crucially, with the stratospheric leverage ratios now engaged in such products, BofAML warns trust companies must answer some serious questions: will they stand back behind every trust investment or will they have to default on some or potentially many of them? BofAML believes the question needs an answer because investors and Trusts can’t have their cake and eat it too. The potential first default, even if it’s not CEQ1 on 1/31, would be important based on the experience of what happened to the US and Europe; the market has tended to underestimate the initial event.
For those who have forgotten, below is a quick schematic of what a WMP looks like:
And as we previously noted,
…borrowers are facing rising pressures for loan repayments in an environment of overcapacity and unprofitable investments. Unable to generate cash to service their loans, they have to turn to the shadow-banking sector for credit and avoid default. The result is an explosive growth of the size of the shadow-banking sector (now conservatively estimated to account for 20-30 percent of GDP).
Understandably, the PBOC does not look upon the shadow banking sector favorably. Since shadow-banking sector gets its short-term liquidity mainly through interbanking loans, the PBOC thought that it could put a painful squeeze on this sector through reducing liquidity. Apparently, the PBOC underestimated the effects of its measure. Largely because Chinese borrowers tend to cross-guarantee each other’s debt, squeezing even a relatively small number of borrowers could produce a cascade of default. The reaction in the credit market was thus almost instant and frightening. Borrowers facing imminent default are willing to borrow at any rate while banks with money are unwilling to loan it out no matter how attractive the terms are.
Should this situation continue, China’s real economy would suffer a nasty shock. Chain default would produce a paralyzing effect on economic activities even though there is no run on the banks. Clearly, this is not a prospect the CCP’s top leadership relishes.
So the PBOC’s efforts are merely exacerbating the situation for the worst companies… and as BofAML notes below, this is a major problem…
The 3bn CNY Beast Knocking
via BofAML’s Bin Gao
CNY stands for the currency, and also a beast
CNY represents China’s official currency. It also stands for Chinese New Year, the biggest holiday for the country and the occasion for family reunions and celebration. But less familiar for many, however, the Year (?) itself actually stood for a beast which comes out every 365 days and eats everything along the way from bugs to humans. The holiday tradition started as a way for people to fend off the beast by getting together and lighting up the firecrackers.
At the same time, custom dictated that people also to paid their due to avoid becoming the beast’s target. In particular, it has been a tradition to settle all debt before the New Year. From the perspective of such folk culture, the trust product Credit Equals Gold #1, referred as CEQ1 hereafter, by China Credit Trust planned poorly for having the maturing date on the New Year, leaving a 3bn CNY beast running wild.
High probability for the trust product to default
Though the term default is used quite frequently, there are actually confusions on what constitutes a default in this case when talking to investors and especially onshore investment professionals. To simplify the issue, we define a default as failing to pay the promised contractual amount on time.
The product, CEQ1, is straightforward. It is CNY3.03bn financing with senior tranches of CNY3bn and junior tranche of CNY30mn. In principle, the senior tranches are also equity investment, but the junior tranche holder pledged assets for repurchasing senior investment at a premium. The promised rate was indexed to PBoC’s deposit rate with a floor for three classes of senior tranches at 9.5%, 10% and 11%, paid annually (detailed structure is illustrated below).
In a sense, the product is in technical default already. The last coupon payment in December, with nearly all the money (CNY80mn) left in the trust account, came in at only 2.7%, falling far short of the promised yield. The bigger trouble is the CNY3bn principal payment, along with the delinquent coupon, on 31 January.
We see high probability of default on 31 January
Political or economic consideration: ultimately, given the government’s strong grip on financial institutions, default may be a political decision as much as an economic decision. From that perspective, CEQ1 would be a good candidate for default. The minimum investment in CEQ1 is CNY3mn, much more than the typical amount required for other trust investment and 75 times of per capita GDP in China. If defaults were to be used to send a warning signal to shadow banking investors, this group of rich investors may have been a good target because the government does not need to worry too much of them demonstrating in front of government offices.
Timing: there is never a good timing for deleverage because of risks involved. But the current job market situation provides a solid buffer should defaults and subsequent credit contraction slow down the economy growth. The government planned 9mn jobs last year; instead it has created more than 12mn by November. So the system could withstand a potential shock.
Financial capability: China Credit Trust has a bit over CNY10bn net assets, which some analysts cite as evidence of the trust company’s capability to fully redeem the product first and recover from the collateral asset later. However, the assets might not be liquid enough, so the net asset is not the best measure. Based on its 2012 annual report, the company has liquid asset of CNY3bn and short-term liability of CNY1.35bn, leaving liquid accessible fund of CNY1.65bn at most. ICBC for certain has much deeper pocket, but it has declared that it won’t be taking major responsibility.
Career concern: To certain extent, the timing was unfavorable for another reason, the ongoing anti-corruption campaign. It is reported that there are around 700 investors involved. On CNY3bn senior tranche investment, it averages CNY4.3mn per investor. We do not know the exact identity but with CNY3mn entry point, we know no one is a small-scale investor. Legally unjustified, if either China Credit Trust or ICBC decided to pay 100% with their capital, the decision maker would have to ensure that he does not have any business deals with any of the 700. Because if he does, his career or even his freedom could be in jeopardy in the current environment of ongoing anti-corruption campaign and strict scrutiny of shady deals/personal favors.
Questionable asset quality and uncertain contingent claim: There are cases in the past of near default, but most of them involved collateral of real estate assets, which have at least appreciated over the years. The appreciation of collateral assets makes it easier for the third party to step in by paying back investors and taking over the collateral assets. This particular product involves coal-mining assets whose value has been decreasing over the last couple of years. Moreover, there have been multiple claimants on these assets, as exemplified by the sale of Yangjiagu coal mine. Although the mine was 51% pledged through two levels of ownership structure, only 20% of the sales proceed accrued to trust investors (Exhibit 1 above). Such a low percentage would be a deterrence and concern to whoever contemplating a takeover of the collateral assets.
Other cases less relevant: In the past, one way to deal with the issue was for banks to lend to shareholders of the existing collateral asset owners for them to payback investors, with explicit or implicit local government guarantees. Shangdong Hailong’s potential default on bond was avoided this way last year. However, in the current case, the owner has been arrested for illegal fund raising, making the past precedence less applicable.
Putting all the above reasons together, we think there is a high probability for CEQ1 to default on 31 January, i.e. no full redemption of principal and backcoupon on the day.
Immediate impact would be for China rates curve to flatten
The case has been widely covered in the media. However, many still believe one way or the other the involved parties will find a last minute solution to fully redeem the maturing debt. So if the trust is not paid, we believe it will be a big shock to the market.
China rates market reaction, however, might not be straightforward. On the one hand, default would likely lead to risk-averse behavior, arguing for lower rates. On the other hand, market players would likely hoard cash in such an event, leading to tighter liquidity condition and pushing money rates higher.
We think that both movements are likely to ensue initially, meaning higher repo/SHIBOR rates and lower CGB yield if default were to realize. We suggest positioning likewise by paying 1y IRS and long 5y CGB. On the swap curve itself, we think the immediate reflection will be a bear flattening move.
Interestingly, an informal survey conducted on WeChat among finance professionals suggests the same kind of repo rate reaction (Chart 1). We think this survey is important because we believe these investment professionals will likely behave accordingly because the default event is not priced in and hard to hedge a priori.
Trust company can’t have their cake and eat it too
Of course, we can’t rule out that the involved parties do find a solution to avoid default. However, with a case as clear cut to us as this one favoring default, we believe such outcome would send a strong signal to investors that the best investment is to buy the worst credit.
Thus, we believe the near term market reaction with no default would be for the AA credit to shine brightly since this segment has been under pressure for quite some time. Trust investment would be met with enthusiasm and trust assets would likely expand further.
However, we see a fundamental problem in the industry; the leverage ratio has gone to a level which requires investors and trust companies to answer some serious questions: will trust company stand back behind every trust investment or will trust company have to default on some or potentially many of them? We believe the question needs an answer because the trust companies can’t have their cake and eat it too.
For the industry, the AUM/equity ratio has nearly doubled from 23 to 43 in less than three years during the period of 4Q2010 to 3Q2013 (Chart 2). Some in the industry has argued that one should only count the collective trusts since other trusts are originated by non-trust players like banks. Thus, trust companies have no responsibility for paying investors other than collective trusts.
We see two problems.
Even if we accept the trust companies’ argument, it is still questionable whether trust companies would be able to pay even a reasonable amount of default. The growth of leverage on collective trusts was much more aggressive. Collective trust AUM/equity ratio was 2.7 in 1Q2010 and 4.7 in 4Q2010 (Chart 2). It rose to 10 by 3Q2013, more than doubled in less than three years and more than tripled in less than four years. Along the way, the average provision has dropped from 84bp to 34bp when measured against collective AUM.
As the case of CEQ1 illustrates, as long as full redemption is on the table, no involved party could walk away totally clean. CEQ1 is a case of collective trust, but the ICBC still faces the pressure to pay. If the bank is being pressured to pay in the case of collective trust default, trust companies will likely be pressured to pay as well should some non-collective trusts get into trouble. If trust companies are on the line for the total AUM, their financial condition is even shakier, with average provision covering barely 7bp of total AUM as of 3Q2013.
On longer term market trend
Based on the analysis in the above section, we see a possibility for trust companies to have to let some trust products default with such high leverage and so few provisions. This is especially likely the case given that there will be more and more trust redemption this year and next year as a result of the fast expansion of this industry over the last couple of years and short duration of such products.
The heaviest redemption in collective trusts this year will arrive in the 2Q (Chart 3). Given that the financial system is stretched thin and there were more cases of near defaults on smaller amount of redemption last year (three cases in December alone), we believe some form of default is almost inevitable in the near term.
The potential first default, even if it’s not CEQ1 on 31 JANUARY, would be important based on the experience of what happened to the US and Europe; the market has tended to underestimate the initial event. Over the last year, China appeared to be mirroring what happened in the US during 2007, the spike of money rate (much higher repo/SHIBOR), the steepening of money curve (14d money much more expensive than overnight and 7d), and small accidents here and there (junior tranches of a few wealth management products offered by Haitong Securities losing more than 60%, a few small trusts and now CEQ1’s redemption difficulty).
Theoretically, China’s risk is best expressed using a China related instrument, but we also think the more liquid expression of China goes through the south pacific. The following points list our longer views on China and Australia rates.
- We have liked using Australia rates lower as a way to express our China concern and we continue recommending doing so as a theme.
- We recommend long CGB and underweight credit product. The risk for such positioning in the near term is no CEQ1 default. But we believe any pain suffered due to overt market manipulation to avoid default will be short lived since it has become much harder to keep the debt-heavy system in balance and the credit spread is bound to widen.
- After a brief flattening on CEQ1 default, we see swap curve steepening as being more likely on more default threatening growth leading to easy monetary policy and more issuance going to the bond market.
- We look for higher CCS rates due to the fact that the currency forward will more likely start expressing the risk.
“There is an unresolved self-contradiction in China’s current policies: restarting the furnaces also reignites exponential debt growth, which cannot be sustained for much longer than a couple of years.”
The “eerie resemblances” – as Soros previously noted – to the US in 2008 have profound consequences for China and the world – nowhere is that more dangerously exposed (just as in the US) than in the Chinese shadow banking sector.
From Russ Certo, head of rates at Brean Capital
Two Roads Diverged
As we know, it has been a suspect week with a variety of earnings misses. Although I have been constructive on risk asset markets generally, equities anecdotally, as figured year end push for alpha desires could let it run into year end. New year and ball game can change quickly. Just wondering if a larger rotation is in order.
There is an overall considerable theme of what you may find when a liquidity tide recedes as most major crises or risk pullbacks have been precipitated by either combination of tighter monetary or fiscal policy. Some with a considerable lag like a year after Greenspan departed from Fed helm, or many other examples. I’m not suggesting NOW is a time for a compression in risk but am aware of the possibility, especially when Fed Chairs take victory laps, Bernanke this week. Symbolic if nothing more. Cover of TIME magazine?
I happen to think that 2014 is a VERY different year than 2013 from a variety of viewpoints. First, there appears to be a dispersion of opinion about markets, valuations, policy frameworks and more. This is a healthy departure from YEARS of artificiality. Artificiality in valuations, artificiality in market and policy mechanics and essentially artificiality in EVERY financial, and real, relationship on the planet based on central bank(s) balance sheet expansion and other measures intended to be a stop-gap resolution to tightening financial conditions, adverse expectations of economic activity, and the great rollover….of both financial and non-financial debt financing. Boy, what a week in the IG issuance space with over $100 billion month to date, maybe $35 billion on the week. Debt rollover on steroids.
Beneath the veneer of market aesthetics, I already see fundamental (and technical) relevance. This could be construed as an optimist pursuit or reality that markets are incrementally transcending reliance and/or dependence on the wings of central bank policy prerogatives. The market bird is trying to fly on its own with inklings of a return to FUNDAMENTAL analysis. A good thing, conceptually, and gradualist development of passing the valuation baton back to market runners. A likely major pillar objective of policy despite more than a few critics worried about seemingly dormant lurking imbalances created by immeasurable policy and monetary and fundamentally skewed risk asset relationships globally.
This exercise of summarization of ebb and flow and comings and goings of markets and policy naturally funnels a discussion to what stature of central bank policy currently or accurately exists? Current events. What is the accurate stage of policy?
I actually think this is a more delicate nuance than I perceive viewed in overall market sentiment. Granted, we have taken a major step for mankind, which is the topical engagement of some level of scope or reduction of liquidity provisioning,” not tightening.” Tip of the iceberg communique with markets to INTRODUCE the concept of stepping off the gas but not hitting the break. Reeks of fragility to me but narrative headed in right direction to stop medicating the patient, the global economy.
Some markets have logically responded in kind. The highest beta markets as either beneficiaries or vulnerable to monetary policy changes, the emerging markets, have reflected at least the optics of change with policy. More auditory than optics in hearing a PROSPECTIVE change in garbled Fedspeak. The high flyer currencies which capture the nominal flighty hot money flows globally affirmed the Fed message.
In literally the simplest of terms, the G7 industrialized, not peripheral; interest rate complex has simply moved the needle in form of +110 basis point higher moves in nominal sovereign interest rates. And there are a bevy of other expressions which played nicely and rightly conformed to the messages coming out of the central bank sandbox. But there are ALSO notable dichotomies, which send a different or even the opposite message.
I perceive a deviation in perception of message as some markets or market participants appear to be betting on taper or a return to normalcy in global growth or U.S. growth outcomes??? OR no taper, or conversely QE4 or whatever. Sovereign spreads have moved materially tighter vs. industrial and supposed risk free rates (Tsys, Gilts, Bunds) both last year and in the first three weeks of 2014. Something a new leg of QE would represent, not a taper. A different year!!!
There have been VERY reliable risk asset market beta correlations over the last 5 years and sovereign or peripheral spreads have been AS volatile and correlated as any asset class. These things trade like dancing with a rattle-snake. Greece, Spain, France etc. They can bite you with fangs. They have been meaningfully more correlated to high yield spreads and yields and to central bank balance sheet expansion as nearly any asset class. So, the infusion of central bank liquidity into markets has seen “relief” rallies in peripherals and one would think the converse would be true as well. The valuations have represented the flavor and direction of risk on/risk off or liquidity on/liquidity off reliably for many months/years.
But I THOUGHT markets were deliberating tapering views and expressions as validated by some good soldier markets BUT that is not necessarily what the rally in riskiest of sovereign “credits” is suggesting. The complex seems to be decoupling with Fed balance sheet correlation and message. Some are OVER 100 standard deviations from the mean! They are rich and could/should be sold. Especially if one was to follow the obvious correlation with the direction of central bank as stated.
But look to other arena’s like TIPS breakevens which also have been correlated with liquidity and risk on/off and central bank balance sheet expansion. Correlated to NASDAQ, HY, peripherals and the like. BUT this complex COUNTERS what peripherals are doing. They haven’t shown up to the punch bowl party yet. Not invited. This is a departure of markets that have largely and generally been in synch from a liquidity and performance correlation view.
Like gold and silver which got tattooed vis a vis down 35%+ performance last year MOSTLY, but not exclusively, due to perceptions of winds of central bank change. BUT even within a contrary, the fact that rallies in Spain, France, Greece, and Italy reflect more of central bank easing notions, the opposite of taper. In essence, the complex has gone batty uber-appreciation this year. Sure, many eyeball the Launchpad physical metals marginal stabilization no longer falling on a knife but the miner bonds and the mining stocks are string like bull with significant appreciation. This decidedly isn’t the stuff of taper which had the bond daddy’s romancing notions of 3% 10yr breaks, 40 basis point Green Eurodollar sell-offs, emerging market rinse, and upticks in volatility amongst other things.
Equity bourses appear to be changing hands between investors with oscillating rotations which mark the first prospective 3 week consecutive sell-off in a while. New year. This is taper light. Somewhere in between and further blurs the correlation metrics.
So, which is it? Are we tapering or not and why are merely a few global asset classed pointed out here, why are they deviating or arguably pricing in different central bank prospects or scenarios or outcomes?
I’m not afraid but I am intrigued as to the fact that there may some strong opinions within markets and I perceive a widely received comfortability with taper or tightening notions, negative leanings on interest rate forecasts, a complacency of Fed call if you will. And all of these hingings occur without intimate knowledge of the most critical variable of all, what Janet Yellen thinks? She has been awfully quiet as of late and there are many foregone conclusions or assumptions in market psyche without having heard a peep from the new MAESTRO.
Moreover, looking in the REAR view mirror within a week where multiple (two) Fed Governor proclamations, communicated and implicated notions which arguably would be considered radical in ANY other policy period of a hundred years. How to conduct “monetary policy at a ZERO lower bound (Williams) ” and “doing something as surprising and drastic as cutting interest on excess reserves BELOW zero (Kocherlakota).”
This doesn’t sound like no stinking taper? A tale of two markets. To be or not to be. To taper or not to taper. Two roads diverged and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. Robert Frost.
Which is it? Different markets pricing different things. Right or wrong, the market always has a message; listen critically.
Terrifying Technicals: This Chartist Predicts An Anti-Fed Revulsion, And A Plunge In The S&P To 450 | Zero Hedge
“Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”
– Robert Louis Stevenson
1. History is written as much by the unforeseen consequences of key events as by the events themselves. We prefer not to think in these terms, but history clearly reveals that the adverse consequences of well intended efforts often have a much more dramatic and lasting impact than the original efforts themselves.
2. In fact history suggests a law of adverse consequences where the more insistent and forceful the well intended effort, the more dramatic, powerful and harmful the blowback. In simple terms,attempts to force the world to improve have always ended badly.
3. This law of adverse consequences is a very common phenomena in medicine and is known by the euphemism of ‘side effects’. Adverse drug reactions to prescribed medications are the fourth leading killer in America, right after heart disease, cancer, and stroke. However this expression of the law of unintended consequences gets even less press than its expressions in human history. Neither is a popular topic.
4. One could easily write several volumes of history focused exclusively on the unwelcome repercussions from otherwise well-intended efforts. However as this is a subject that we would all rather avoid I suspect it would be a very difficult book to market.
5. Instead of a book I have opted for two pages of examples. The present situation strongly suggests that the high risk of unexpected blowback from current economic policies are much more deserving of our full attention than the past history of unwelcome consequences.
6. QE has already created what is arguably the most bullish market sentiment in history. And that extreme bullish sentiment has already driven most stock indices to new all time highs. So now would be a good time for some sober reflections on what could go wrong.
7. One sector that seems dangerously poised to go badly wrong are the junk and emerging bond markets. What will happen when Treasuries start yielding the same rates as previously issued junk debt? A massive exodus will happen. Junk bonds and emerging market debt will become a disaster area.
8. We already know how wildly successful Fed stimulus has been at creating speculative bubbles. Fed inflated bubbles that have already burst include a Dot-Com bubble, a credit bubble, a real estate bubble, and a commodity market bubble. The biggest bubble of them all is still inflating. That would be this stock market bubble.
9. There are now fewer banks than ever before in modern history. And the biggest banks are larger than ever before in history. The war against ‘too big to fail’ was lost before it began. Fewer, bigger banks means a more fragile financial system.
10. The worst of the bullish sentiment extremes of previous major stock market peaks have all returned. Analysts are positively gushing with ebullience. There is a competition to see who can come up with the highest targets for the various stock indices. No one sees any downside risk. All are confident that the Fed can and will fix anything. This is a situation ripe for adverse consequences. This is a market where blowback will be synonymous with blind-sided. No one will prepare for what they cannot see coming.
Comparing Costs: Major US Wars versus Quantitative Easing
The chart above suggests that the magnitude of the Federal Reserve economic stimulus program is only comparable to previous major war efforts. The dollar costs plotted here bears that out.
All of the war costs on the previous page were taken from one report dated 29 June 2010. That report was prepared by Stephen Dagget at the Congressional Research Service. I adjusted his numbers to 2013 dollars. You can find his report in PDF format on-line. However some further comments may be useful here.
The Civil War number combines the Northern or Union costs and the Southern or Confederate costs. In 2011 dollars the price of waging the war for the Union was $59.6 billion dollars and $20.1 billion for the Confederacy. I simply added these two numbers and then converted to 2013 dollars.
Post 9/11 Wars
Here I combined the costs of the Persian Gulf war, and Iraq war, and the war in Afghanistan into one category and then adjusted to 2013 dollars.
Sending a Man to the Moon
I thought it would be interesting to compare the costs of sending a man to the moon to the costs of QE. Most references to the cost of putting a man on the Moon only cite the Apollo project. But of course that is very wrong. Apollo arose from Gemini which grew out of Mercury. So for the true cost of sending a man to the Moon I included all costs for the Mercury missions, the Gemini program, the Lunar probes, the Apollo capsules, the Saturn V rockets, and the Lunar Modules. I relied on numbers gathered from NASA by the Artemis Project. I then converted those costs to 2013 dollars.
World War II versus Quantitative Easing
World War II transformed the United States from a sleepy agricultural enterprise into the world’s dominant economic super-power, and defeated both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan at the same time. It may seem entirely callous to calculate US Dollar costs for a war that claimed 15,000,000 battle deaths, 25,000,000 battle wounded, and civilian deaths that exceeded 45,000,000 but there is a point to this exercise.
The second world war defeated the strategy of geographical conquest through militarism as a national policy. Of course WW II had it’s own undesirable blowback as anything on this gigantic a scale would. However it seems pretty clear that replacing fascism and militarism with democracy was a step of progress for mankind.
WW II and QE
Since the 1950’s many have argued that it took World War II to pull the world out of the Great Depression. As a life-long student of the Great Depression Bernanke must be aware of this debate. In terms of the dollar amounts involved, World War Two is the only project comparable in size to QE. So it seems reasonable to assume that Bernanke’s goal here is to have QE fulfill the economic role of a World War Three; a war-free method of pulling the world out of the Great Recession. However human history suggests that the sheer magnitude and forced nature of the QE program all but ensures serious, unexpected and adverse consequences.
Learning from History
I am not bearish on the human race. When I read history I see things getting better. When I read history I find the slow replacement of brutality with compassion. When I read history I find the long term trend to be the replacement of centralized authority with local self-determination. And I find that every single effort to fight these long term trends has failed. And as history continues to unfold the efforts to fight these trends tends to fail more quickly, more dramatically, and more decisively.
There is an ancient Chinese proverb that states “Plan too far ahead and nature will seem to resist.” That aphorism definitely resonates with my experience and observations. If there is something inherent in the flow of time that unfolds an improvement in the human condition, then there is also something in the nature of things that resists the application of force, whether well intended or not.
If all of the above is an accurate accounting of things, then the key issue for policy makers is finding the fine line that separates supporting the natural flow of human evolution from attempting to force change. The former will help while the later will end badly. The question today has to do with Quantitative Easing. Is QE a gentle nurturing of economic evolution or is it the next doomed attempt to force things to get better? The QE program is so enormous, and relentless, and insistent, that I fear it is the later. And if QE is a huge attempt to force the economy to improve, than we had better start bracing for the blowback.
QE: the blowback to come
What kind of blowback should we prepare for? The lesson of history is that trying to force things to get better does not merely create unwelcome repercussions. It does not merely slow the pace of natural evolution. Attempts to enforce a certain outcome always appears to create the opposite effect. We do not find a law of adverse consequences. We find a law of opposite impacts.
Let us review the sample examples from the previous charts. Every effort to jam an ideology or a plan down the throat of the world only creates the opposite of the intended effect. I would maintain that this is one of the few lessons from history that can be relied on.
If the Federal Reserve is trying to force feed us prosperity then the inevitable blowback will be adversity. If the Fed is trying to compel the most dramatic economic recovery in history, then the blowback may well be the deepest depression in history. If the Fed is trying to enforce confidence and optimism then the blowback will be fear and despair. If the Fed is trying to force consumers to spend then the blowback will be a collapse in consumer confidence.
I sincerely hope that I am completely wrong here, that I am missing something, that there is a flaw in my logic. However until I can locate such a flaw I must trust the technical case for treating this Fed force-fed rally in the stock market as something that will end badly.
Here’s how it plays out…
The last few days have seen significant shifts in the term structure of US Treasury bonds; auctions have not gone well and despite the world’s expectations for ‘taper’ to lead to a surge in rates, the long-end of the bond-market has rallied. While Goldman might believe the ‘bond bubble’ is starting to pop, the following 223 years of Treasury yields (through free-markets and centrally-planned) sheds some light on what the ‘new normal’ level of rates really represents because, as we noted previously, the world is so levered now that any ‘reversion’ in rates is simply unthinkable.
Notice any difference pre- and post-Fed?
Chart: Goldman Sachs
Medieval thinkers were tempted to believe that if you throw a rock it flies straight until it runs out of force, and then it falls straight down. Economists are tempted to think of prices as a linear function of the “money supply”, and interest rates to be based on “inflation expectations”, which is to say expectations of rising prices.
The medieval thinkers, and the economists are “not even wrong”, to borrow a phrase often attributed to physicist Wolfgang Pauli. Science has to begin by going out to reality and observing what happens. Anyone can see that in reality, these tempting assumptions do not fit what occurs.
In my series of essays on interest rates and prices, I argued that the system has positive feedback and resonance, and cannot be understood in terms of a linear model. When I began this series of papers, the rate of interest was still falling to hit a new all-time low. Then on May 5,2013, it began to shoot up. It rose 83% over a period of exactly four months. That may or may not have been the peak (it has subsided a little since then).
Several readers asked me if I thought this was the beginning of a new rising cycle, or if I thought this was the End (of the dollar). As I expressed in Part VI, the End will be driven by the withdrawal of the gold bid on the dollar. Since early August, gold has become more and more abundant in the market. I think it is safe to say that this is not the end of the dollar, just yet. The hyperinflationists’ stopped clock will have to remain wrong a while longer. I said that the rising rate was a correction.
I am quite confident of this prediction, for all the reasons I presented in the discussion of the falling cycle in Part V. But let’s look at the question from a different perspective, to see if we end up with the same conclusion.
In the gold standard, the rate of interest is the spread between the gold coin and the gold bond. If the rate is higher, that is equivalent to saying that the spread is wider. If the rate is lower, then this spread is narrower.
A wider spread offers more incentive for people to straddle it, an act that I define as arbitrage. Another way of saying this is that a higher rate offers more incentive for people to dishoard gold and lend it. If the rate falls, which is the same as saying if the spread narrows, then there is less incentive and people will revert to hoarding to avoid the risks and capital lock-up of lending. Savers who take the bid on the interest rate (which is equivalent to taking the ask on the bond) press the rate lower, which compresses the spread.
It goes almost without saying, that the spread could never be compressed to zero (by the way, this is true for all arbitrage in all free markets). There are forces tending to compress the spread, such as the desire to earn interest by savers. But the lower the rate of interest, the stronger the forces tending to widen the spread become. These include entrepreneurial demand for credit, and most importantly the time preference of the saver—his reluctance to delay gratification. There is no lending at zero interest and nearly zero lending at near-zero interest.
I emphasize that interest is a spread to put the focus on a universal principle of free markets. As I stated in my dissertation:
“All actions of all men in the markets are various forms of arbitrage.”
Arbitrage compresses the spread that is being straddled. It lifts up the price of the long leg, and pushes down the price of the short leg. If one buys eggs in the farm town, then the price of eggs there will rise. If one sells eggs in the city center, then the price there will fall.
In the gold standard, hoarding tends to lift the value of the gold coin and depress the value of the bond. Lending tends to depress the value of the coin and lift the value of the bond. The value of gold itself is the closest thing to constant in the market, so in effect these two arbitrages move the value of the bond. How is the value of the bond measured—against what is it compared? Gold is the unit of account, the numeraire.
The value of the bond can move much farther than the value of gold. But in this context it is important to be aware that gold is not fixed, like some kind of intrinsic value. An analogy would be that if you jump up, you push the Earth in the opposite direction. Its mass is so heavy that in most contexts you can safely ignore the fact that the Earth experiences an equal but opposite force. But this is not the same thing as saying the Earth is fixed in position in its orbit.
The regime of irredeemable money behaves quite differently than the gold standard (notwithstanding frivolous assertions by some economists that the euro “works like” the gold standard). The interest rate is still a spread. But what is it a spread between? Does arbitrage act on this spread? Is there an essential difference between this and the arbitrage in gold?
Analogous to gold, the rate of interest in paper currency is the spread between the dollar and the bond. There are a number of differences from gold. Most notably, there is little reason to hold the dollar in preference to the government bond. Think about that.
In the gold standard, if you don’t like the risk or interest of a bond, you can happily hold gold coins. But in irredeemable paper currency, the dollar is itself a credit instrument backed by said government bond. The dollar is the liability side of the Fed’s balance sheet, with the bond being the asset. Why would anyone hold a zero-yield paper credit instrument in preference to a non-zero-yield paper credit instrument (except as speculation—see below)? And that leads to the key identification.
The Fed is the arbitrager of this spread!
The Fed is buying bonds, which lifts up the value of the bond and pushes down the interest rate. Against these new assets, the Fed is issuing more dollars. This tends to depress the value of the dollar. The dollar has a lot of inertia, like gold. It has extremely high stocks to flows, like gold. But unlike gold, the dollar’s value does fall with its quantity (if not in the way that the quantity theory of money predicts). Whatever one might say about the marginal utility of gold, the dollar’s marginal utility certainly falls.
The Fed is involved in another arbitrage with the bond and the dollar. The Fed lends dollars to banks, so that they can buy the government bond (and other bonds). This lifts the value of the bond, just like the Fed’s own bond purchases.
Astute readers will note that when the Fed lends to banks to buy bonds, this is equivalent to stating that banks borrow from the Fed to buy bonds. The banks are borrowing short to lend long, also called duration mismatch.
This is not precisely an arbitrage between the dollar and the bond. It is an arbitrage between the short-term lending and long-term bond market. It is the spread between short- and long-term interest rates that is compressed in this trade.
One difference between gold and paper is that, in paper, there is a central planner who sets the short-term rate by diktat. Since 2008, Fed policy has pegged it to practically zero.
This makes for a lopsided “arbitrage”, which is not really an arbitrage. One side is not free to move, even the slight amount of a massive object. It is fixed by law, which is to say, force. The economy ought to allow free movement of all prices, and now one point is bolted down. All sorts of distortions will occur around it as tension builds.
I put “arbitrage” in scare quotes because it is not really arbitrage. The Fed uses force to hand money to those cronies who have access to this privilege. It is not arbitrage in the same way that a fence who sells stolen goods is not a trader.
In any case, the rate on the short end of the yield curve is fixed near zero today, while there is a pull on the long bond closer to it. Is there any wonder that the rate on the long bond has a propensity to fall?
Under the gold standard, borrowing short to lend long is certainly not necessary  However, in our paper system, it is an integral part of the system, by its very design.
The government offers antiseptic terms for egregious acts. For example, they use the pseudo-academic term “quantitative easing” to refer to the dishonest practice of monetizing the debt. Similarly, they use the dry euphemism “maturity transformation” to refer to borrowing short to lend long, i.e. duration mismatch. Perhaps the term “transmogrification” would be more appropriate, as this is nothing short of magic.
The saver is the owner of the money being lent out. It is his preference that the bank must respect, and it is for his benefit that the bank lends. When the saver says he may want his money back on demand, and the bank presumes to lend it for 30 years, the bank is not “transforming” anything except its fiduciary duty, its integrity, and its own soundness. Depositors would not entrust their savings to such reckless banks, without the soporific of deposit insurance to protect them from the consequences.
Under the gold standard, this irrational practice would exist on the fringe on the line between what is legal and what is not (except for the yield curve specialist, a topic I will treat in another paper), a get-rich-quick scheme—if it existed at all (our jobs as monetary economists are to bellow from the rooftops that this practice is destructive).
Today, duration mismatch is part of the official means of executing the Fed’s monetary policy.
I have already covered how duration mismatch misallocates the savers’ capital and when savers eventually pull it back, the result is that the bank fails. I want to focus here on another facet. Pseudo-arbitrage between short and long bonds destabilizes the yield curve.
By its very nature, borrowing short to lend long is a brittle business model. One is committed to a long-term investment, but this is at the mercy of the short-term funding market. If short-term rates rise, or if borrowing is temporarily not possible, then the practitioner of this financial voodoo may be forced to sell the long bond.
The original act of borrowing short to lend long causes the interest rate on the long bond to fall. If the Fed wants to tighten (not their policy post-2008!) and forces the short-term rate higher, then players of the duration mismatch game may get caught off guard. They may be reluctant to sell their long bonds at a loss, and hold on for a while. Or for any number of other proximate causes, the yield curve can become inverted.
Side note: an inverted yield curve is widely considered a harbinger of recession. The simple explanation is that the marginal source of credit in the economy is suddenly more expensive. This causes investment in everything to slow.
At times there is selling of the short bond, at times aggressive buying. Sometimes there is a steady buying ramp of the long bond. Sometimes there is a slow selling slide that turns into an avalanche. The yield curve moves and changes shape. As with the rate of interest, the economy does best when the curve is stable. Sudden balance sheet stress, selloffs, and volatility may benefit the speculators of the world, but of course, it can only hurt productive businesses that are financing factories, farms, mines, and hotels with credit.
Earlier, I referred to the only reason why someone would choose to own the Fed’s liability—the dollar—in preference to its asset. Unlike with gold, hoarding paper dollar bills serves no real purpose and incurs needless risk of loss by theft. The holder of dollars is no safer. He avoids no credit risk; he is exposed to the same risk as is the bondholder is exposed. The sole reason to prefer the dollar is speculation.
As I described in Theory of Interest and Prices in Paper Currency, the Fed destabilizes the rate of interest by its very existence, its very nature, and its purpose. Per the above discussion, the Fed and the speculators induce volatility in the yield curve, which can easily feed back into volatility in the underlying rate of interest.
The reason to sell the bond is to avoid losses if interest rates will rise. Speculators seek to front-run the Fed, duration mismatchers, and other speculators. If the Fed will “taper” its purchase of bonds, then that might lead to higher interest rates. Or at least, it might make other speculators sell. Every speculator wants to sell first.
Consider the case of large banks borrowing short to lend long. Let’s say that you have some information that their short-term funding is either going to become much harder to obtain, or at least significantly more expensive. What do you do?
You sell the bond. You, and many other speculators. Everyone sells the bond.
Or, what if you have information that you think will cause other speculators to sell bonds? It may not even be a legitimate factor, either because the rumor is untrue (e.g. “the world is selling Treasury bonds”) or because there is no valid economic reason to sell bonds based on it.
You sell the bond before they do, or you all try to sell first.
I have been documenting numerous cases in the gold market where traders use leverage to buy gold futures based on an announcement or non-announcement by the Fed. These moves reverse themselves quickly. But no one, especially if they are using leverage, wants to be on the wrong side of a $50 move in gold. You sell ahead of the crowd, and you buy ahead of the crowd. And they try to do it to you.
I think it is likely that one of these phenomena, or something similar, has driven the rate on the 10-year Treasury up by 80%.
I would like to leave you with one take-away from this paper and one from my series on the theory of interest and prices. In this paper, I want everyone to think about the difference between the following two statements:
- The dollar is falling in value
- The rate of interest in dollars must rise
It is tempting to assume that they are equivalent, but the rate of interest is purely internal to the “closed loop” dollar system. Unlike a free market, it does not operate under the forces of arbitrage. It operates by government diktats, and hordes of speculators feed on the spoils that fall like rotten food to the floor.
From my entire series, I would like the reader to check and challenge the sacred-cow premises of macroeconomics, the aggregates, the assumptions, the equations, and above all else, the linear thinking. I encourage you to think about what incentives are offered under each scenario to the market participants. No one even knows the true value of the monetary aggregate and there is endless debate even among economists. The shopkeeper, miner, farmer, warehouseman, manufacturer, or banker is not impelled to act based on such abstractions.
They react to the incentives of profit and loss. Even the consumer reacts to prices being lower in one particular store, or apples being cheaper than pears. If you can think through how a particular market event or change in government policy will remove old incentives and offer new incentives, then you can understand the likely first-order effects in the market. Of course each of these effects changes still other incentives.
It is not easy, but this is the approach that makes economics a proper science.
P.S. As I do my final edits on this paper (October 4, 2013), there is a selloff in short US T-Bills, leading to an inversion at the short end of the yield curve. This is due, of course, to the possible effect of the partial government shutdown. The government is not going to default. If this danger were real, then there would be much greater turmoil in every market (and much more buying of gold as the only way to avoid catastrophic losses). The selloff has two drivers. First, some holders of T-Bills need the cash on the maturity date. They would prefer to liquidate now and hold “cash” rather than incur the risk that they will not be paid on the maturity date. Second, of course speculators want to front-run this trade. I put “cash” in scare quotes because dollars in a bank account are the bank’s liability. The bank will not be able to honor this liability if its asset—the US Treasury bond—defaults. The “cash” will be worthless in the very scenario that bond sellers are hoping to avoid by their very sales. When the scare and the shutdown end, then the 30-day T-Bill will snap back to its typical rate near zero. Some clever speculators will make a killing on this move.
 See the Monetary Metals Supply and Demand Report
 I argue that it always fails in the end in Duration Mismatch Always Fails
- Theory of Interest and Prices in Paper Currency Part VI (The End) (keithweinereconomics.com)