Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The End Of The World Of Finance As We Know It

I’ve said before, and quite a while ago too, – more than once-, that the world of investing as we’ve come to know it is over. It’s still as true as it was then, and I can only hope that more people today understand why it is true, and why I said it in the past. The basic underlying argument then and now is that financial markets have been distorted to such an extent by the activities, the interventions, of central banks – and governments -, that they can no longer function, period.
What we’ve seen since 2008 – not that things were fine and rosy before that – is that all ‘private’ losses were taken over by the public sector, just so the private sector didn’t have to fess up to what it lost, and the appearance of a functioning market system could be upheld. And those who organized this charade were dead on in thinking that as long as Dow and S&P numbers would look good, and they said ‘recovery’ in the media often enough, people would believe there still was a functioning financial marketplace. And they did. But those days are over. Or at least, they soon will be.
What I mean by that is that the functioning marketplace is long gone, and only now people’s beliefs, too, about it are changing, being forced to change, and soon quite radically. The entire idea that ruled the world of finance and kept it -seemingly – standing upright is crumbling fast. And we’re going to have to find a way to deal with that. As of today, we have none, we come up zero. The overriding narrative – which overrides every other thought – is that we’re on our way back to recovery. And then we’ll get back to becoming ever richer, live in ever bigger homes and drive ever bigger, smarter and faster cars. Or something in that vein.
The downfall of finance can be traced back to all sorts of points in history. Think Nixon the gold standard in 1971, for example. But the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1998, under Bill Clinton, is undoubtedly one of the major ones. Once deposit-taking banks were -again – allowed to use those deposits to ‘invest’ – read: gamble with -, it was only a matter of time before the train went off the tracks in spectacular fashion.
It now seems to stupid to be true, but Alan Greenspan, Bob Rubin and Larry Summers, the guys who had pushed so hard for the repeal – and got it -, were once featured on the cover of TIME as The Men Who Saved The World. While what they did was the exact opposite: they threw the world into a financial abyss. It took a while, sure, but then, 16-17 years is not all that long. Plus, it took just 2 years for the dotcom bubble to burst, and 6-7 more for Bear Stearns, AIG and Lehman to be whack-a-moled.
The rest would have followed, but then the central banks stepped in. And now, 6 years and $50 trillion later, their omnipotence is being exposed as impotence. Which means there’s nothing left to keep up appearances. We’ll all have to leave the theater of dreams and step out into the blinding cold faint light of another morning. No choice. And we’ll figure out at some point that we’ve paid all we had just to watch the show.
No. 1) The Swiss National Bank this week threw in the towel, bankrupted a lot of foreign exchange brokers and investors and destroyed a few hundred thousand Swiss jobs in the process. And that was not the first sign that the game was up, the oil price collapse started it. Or, to be precise, made the collapse visible for the first time to most – even if they didn’t recognize it for what it was-. Central banks are pushing on a string, a concept long predicted: they have become powerless to stop financial markets events from taking their natural course of boom and bust.
No. 2) The Bank of Japan. From Asian Nikkei:
Some in the Bank of Japan are growing anxious about continuing its massive purchases of government bonds, confronted with the program’s negative side effects. [..] The BOJ’s buying of huge amounts of Japanese government bonds has pushed long-term interest rates to unprecedented lows. This has made it impossible for insurance companies to generate sufficient returns on JGB investments to pay benefits to policyholders.

The longer ultralow interest rates continue, the more likely other insurers are to take similar steps. Household finances would suffer. Money reserve funds, used for parking individual stock investors’ unused funds, are another financial product hit by ultralow interest rates. MRFs put money into short-term government bonds and other safe investments. Generating positive returns on the bonds is becoming nearly a lost cause [..]

The BOJ has discussed these costs at its policy board. When the board took up additional easing measures in a late-October meeting, some members raised the specter of hurting earnings at financial institutions and giving the impression that the bond-purchasing program is actually a scheme to enable deficit spending. The board decided to step up the program anyway, judging the benefits to outweigh the costs.

“Since nominal interest rates are already at historically low levels, the marginal impact of more easing aimed at putting upward pressure on consumer prices is not strong,” policy board member Takehiro Sato said in a speech last month, explaining why he opposed additional easing in October. “We have caused tremendous trouble for the financial industry,” a BOJ official says. “I hope we will be able to scale back monetary easing soon by achieving the price stability target as projected.”
All the BOJ can do by now, all that’s left to do, is get out of the way. As it should have done right off the bat, before it started intervening 20 years ago. All central banks should have gotten, and stayed, out of the way. Butt out. They have no role to play in financial markets, and should never have been allowed to assume one. They can only do harm. Free markets may not be ideal, but central bank intervention is a certified lot worse.
No. 3) The Fed:
Janet Yellen is leaving the Greenspan “put” behind as she charts the first interest-rate increase since 2006 amid growing financial-market volatility. The Federal Reserve chair has signaled she wants to place the economic outlook at the center of policy making, while looking past short-term market fluctuations. To succeed, she must wean investors from the notion, which gained currency under predecessor Alan Greenspan, that the Fed will bail them out if their bets go bad – just as a put option protects against a drop in stock prices.
“The succession of Fed puts over the years has led to a wide range of distortions in financial markets ,” said Lawrence Goodman, president of the Center for Financial Stability. “There have been swollen asset values followed by sharp declines. This is a very good time for the Fed to move away.”

“Let me be clear, there is no Fed equity market put,” William C. Dudley, president of the New York Fed, the central bank’s watchdog on financial markets, said in a Dec. 1 speech in New York. “Because financial-market conditions affect economic activity only slowly over time, this suggests that we should look through short-term volatility.”

The concept of a Fed put took hold under Greenspan, who in 1998 cut the benchmark federal funds rate three times in response to market stress arising from a Russian bond default and the failure of hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management. The economy expanded 5% that year and 4.7% in 1999, and critics say the rate cuts helped extend a bubble in technology stocks. The Nasdaq rose 40% in 1998 and 86% in 1999 before plunging almost 40% in 2000. Greenspan said in an interview that he regarded the notion of a Fed put as a “joke.”

Bernanke told Fed officials in an Aug. 16, 2007, conference call as they prepared to cut the discount rate, according to transcripts. Bernanke recommended resisting a cut in the fed funds rate “until it is really very clear from economic data and other information that it is needed. I’d really prefer to avoid giving any impression of a bailout or a put, if we can.”

“The put is there – it is just further out of the money,” said Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Barclays. As the central bank raises rates, “there could be more volatility and the Fed could be OK with it.”
No. 4) The ECB. Which is supposed to come with a $1 trillion or so QE package this week. Which has long been priced in by the markets and will have no other effect than to bring down the euro further. QE everywhere is always only a game that shifts wealth from the public to the private sector, which is another way of saying from the poor to the rich. But then you end up with the poor getting so much poorer, you don’t have a functioning real economy anymore, and therefore no functioning financial markets either.
The problem today is not one of lending, but of borrowing. Banks, even if they would want to, cannot lend to people too poor to borrow. Or spend, for that matter. And if people in the real economy, which accounts for 60-70% of GDP in developed nations, don’t spend, because they simply either don’t have the money or have no expectations of getting any, deflation sets in and central bankers are revealed as the impotent old farts they are.
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But that will by no means conclude the story. The effects of the ill-fated megalomaniac central bank policies will reverberate through our societies for decades, if only because $50 trillion is a lot of money. Much of it may have gone somewhere, in some zero sum game, but most of it just went up in the thin air of wagers like the ones the forex trade is made of. People keep asking where did the money go, well, nowhere, or rather it went back to the virtual state it came from.
The difference between the past 6 years and today is that central banks can and will no longer prop up the illusionary world of finance. And that will cause an earthquake, a tsunami and a meteorite hit all in one. If oil can go down the way it has, and copper too, and iron ore, then so can stocks, and your pensions, and everything else.
Perhaps Yellen et al are not all that crazy for cutting QE, and soon raising interest rates. Perhaps that’s the only sane thing left to do, as sane as the Swiss cutting their euro-peg. That doesn’t mean the Fed understands what’s going to happen to the US economy because of it, but it may just mean they have an inkling of the lack of alternatives.
Japan is gone, it’s borrowed itself into oblivion. China’s ‘miracle’ was debt-financed to a much larger degree than anyone wishes to admit. Europe will end up seeing its union falling apart, because it could only ever be held up in times of plenty, and those times are gone. And the US won’t make it too long either on people making a ‘living’ flipping their neighbor’s burgers.
But the central bank bills will still come due all over. That’s the bummer about deflation: your wealth evaporates, but your debt does not.