woensdag 10 juli 2019 - 03:04
Broken Markets and Fragile Currencies
Never in all recorded history have financial markets been so distorted everywhere. In our lifetimes we have seen the USSR and also China under Mao attempt to do without markets altogether and fail, having starved and slaughtered millions of their citizens in the process. The Romans started a long period of currency debasement, lasting from Nero to Diocletian, who wrote prices in stone (the origin of the phrase) in a vain attempt to control them. While the Roman Empire was the known world at the time, it was essentially restricted to the Mediterranean and Europe. Subsequently, there have been over fifty instances recorded of complete monetary collapse, the vast majority in the last hundred years, which have led to the breakdown of every society involved.[i]And now we could be facing a global totality, the grand-daddy of them all.
We have become inured to cycles of credit expansion, driven by fractional reserve banking at least since the Bank Charter Act of 1844, which legalised fractional reserve banking. Extra impetus was given by central banks from the 1920s onwards. We have become so used to it that we now expect central banks to issue and control our money and only get really worried when we think they might lose control. In their efforts to satisfy the mandate they have assumed for themselves central banks intervene more and more with every credit cycle.
Our complacency extends to prices, especially regarding the exchange and valuation of capital assets. There are now about $13 trillion of bonds in issue with negative yields. We rarely think in any depth about this strangeness, but negative yields are never the consequence of market pricing free from monopolistic distortions. The ECB, the Bank of Japan and the Swiss National Bank all impose negative interest rates, as well as Sweden’s Riksbank and Denmark’s Nationalbank. The ECB commands the currency and finances of the largest economic area in the world and the BoJ the third largest national economy. In Denmark, mortgage lenders are even offering negative-yield mortgages: in other words, Danes are being paid to take out loans with negative interest rates.[ii] Ten-year government bonds issued by Germany, Japan, Sweden and even by France have negative yields. All Danish government bonds have negative yields.
Negative yields stand time-preference on its head. Time-preference refers to the fact that we prefer current possession to future possession, for obvious reasons. So, when we part with our money we always do so at a discount to expected repayment, which is reflected in a positive rate of interest. The idea that anyone parts with money to get less back at a future date is simply nuts.
It gets even more bizarre. The French government has debts roughly equal to France’s GDP and by any analysis is not a very good credit risk, but it is now being paid by lenders to borrow. Only forty per cent of her economy is the productive tax base for a spendthrift, business-emasculating government. An independent observer evaluating French government debt would be hard put to classify it as investment grade in the proper meaning of the term. But not according to bond markets, and not according to the rating agencies which today’s investors slavishly follow.
There are a number of explanations for this madness. Besides complacency and misplaced investor psychology, the most obvious distortion is regulation. Investors, particularly pension funds and insurance companies are forced by their regulators to invest nearly all their funds in regulated investments. Their compliance officers, who are effectively state-sponsored bureaucrats, control the investment decision process. Portfolio managers have become patsies, managing capital with little option but to comply.
Additionally, with their highly-geared balance sheets state-licenced banks complying with Basel II and III are also corralled into “riskless” assets, which according to the regulators are government debt. The rating agencies play along with the fiction. For example, Moody’s rates France as Aa2, high quality and subject to very low credit risk. This is for a country without its own currency to inflate to repay debt. Low enough for negative yields? Low enough to be paid to borrow?
In Japan, the country’s government debt to GDP ratio is now over 250%. The Bank of Japan maintains a target rate of minus 0.1%, and the 10-year government bond yield is minus 0.16%, making the yield curve negative even in negative territory. It doesn’t stop there, with the Bank of Japan having bought 5.6 trillion yen ($52bn) of equity ETFs last year. This takes its total equity investment to 29 trillion yen ($271bn), representing 5% of the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s First Section. Last year’s purchases absorbed all foreign selling of Japanese equities, so they were clearly aimed at rigging the equity market, rather than some sort of monetary manoeuvre.
It’s not only the Bank of Japan, but the National Bank of Switzerland has been at it as well. According to its Annual Report and Accounts, at end-2018 it held CHF156bn in equities worldwide ($159bn), being 21% of its foreign reserves. We can see the direction central bank reserve policy is now heading and should not be surprised to see equity purchases become a wide-spread means of rigging stockmarkets and expanding base money.
Sovereign wealth funds, which are government funds that owe their origin to monetary inflation through the foreign exchanges, have invested a cumulative total of nearly $2 trillion dollars in listed equities.[iii] While this is only 2.5% of total market capitalisation of listed securities world-wide, they are a significant element in marginal pricing, more so in some markets than others.
Between them, central banks and sovereign wealth funds that are buying equities in increasing quantities further the scope of quantitative easing. The precedent is now there. Economists in the central banking community now have a basis for drafting erudite neo-Keynesian papers on the subject, giving cover for policy makers to take even more radical steps to pursue their interventions.
By all these methods, state control of regulated public and private sector funds coupled with the expansion of bank credit has cheapened government borrowing, and it would appear that governments are now enabled to issue limitless quantities of zero or negative-yielding debt. So long as enough money and credit is fed into one end of the sausage machine, it emerges as costless finance from the other. Never mind the destruction wreaked on key private sector investors, such as pension funds, whose actuarial deficits are already in crisis: that is a problem for later. Never mind the destruction of insurance fund finances, where premiums are normally supplemented by healthy bond portfolio returns. Just blame the insurance companies for charging higher premiums.
This is now the key question: are we entering a new phase of low-inflation managed capitalism, or are we tipping into a mega-crisis, possibly systemically destructive?
If the latter, there’s a lot to go horribly wrong. The Bank for International Settlements, the central banks’ central bank, is certainly worried. Only this week, it released its annual economic report, in which it said, “monetary policy can no longer be the main engine for economic growth.” Clearly whistling to keep our spirits up, it calls for structural reforms to boost government spending on infrastructure. Translated, the BIS is saying little more can be achieved by easing monetary policy, so Presidents and Prime Ministers, it’s over to you. You can create savings by making government more efficient and you can spend more on infrastructure.
While the BIS washes it hands of the problem, history and reason tell us increased state involvement in economic outcomes will only make things worse. It is in the nature of government bureaucracy to be economically wasteful, because its primary purpose is not the efficient use of capital resources. And while the outcome, be it a new high-speed railway or a bridge to nowhere may be a visible result, it fails to account for the true cost to the economy of diverting economic resources from what is actually demanded.