A Financial Crisis Is Coming?

A provocative article in USNWR. We’ve been warning about unsustainable asset prices built on unsustainable debt leverage for the past 8 years (which only means we were waaaaay too early, but not necessarily wrong!) For all this time we’ve been focused on growing total debt to GDP ratios, which means we’re not getting much bang for all that cheap credit, trying to borrow and spend our way to prosperity.

The PE ratios of equities and housing reflect a disconnect with fundamental values based on decades of market data. For example, one cannot really pay 8-10x income on residential housing for long, or pay near to 50% of income on rents, as many are doing in our most pricey cities.

Nose-bleed asset prices on everything from yachts to vacation homes to art and collectibles to technology stocks and cryptocurrencies are indicative of excessive global liquidity. Soaking up that liquidity to return to long-term trend lines will be a long, jarring process. Nobody really knows whence comes the reckoning since we have perfected a particularly successful strategy of kicking the can down the road.

A Crisis Is Coming

All the ingredients are in place for a catastrophic economic and financial market crisis.

By Desmond Lachman Opinion Contributor USNWR, Feb. 14, 2018, at 7:00 a.m.

MY LONG CAREER AS A macro-economist both at the IMF and on Wall Street has taught me that it is very well to make bold macroeconomic calls as long as you do not specify a time period within which those calls will occur. However, there are occasions, such as today, when the overwhelming evidence suggests that a major economic event will occur within a relatively short time period. On those occasions, it is very difficult to resist making a time-sensitive bold economic call.

 

So here goes. By this time next year, we will have had another 2008-2009 style global economic and financial market crisis. And we will do so despite Janet Yellen’s recent reassurances that we would not have another such crisis within her lifetime.

 

There are two basic reasons to fear another full-blown global economic crisis soon: The first is that we have in place all the ingredients for such a crisis. The second is that due to major economic policy mistakes by both the Federal Reserve and the U.S. administration, the U.S. economy is in danger of soon overheating, which will bring inflation in its wake. That in turn is all too likely to lead to rising interest rates, which could very well be the trigger that bursts the all too many asset price bubbles around the world.

A key ingredient for a global economic crisis is asset price bubbles and credit risk mispricing. On that score, today’s financial market situation would appear to be very much more concerning than that on the eve of the September 2008 Lehman-bankruptcy. Whereas then, asset price bubbles were largely confined to the U.S. housing and credit markets, today, asset price bubbles are more pervasive being all too much in evidence around the globe.

 

It is not simply that global equity valuations today are at lofty levels experienced only three times in the last one hundred years. It is also that we have a global government bond market bubble, the serious mispricing of credit risk in the world’s high yield and emerging market corporate-bond markets and troublesome housing bubbles in major economies like Canada, China, and the United Kingdom.

 

Another key ingredient for a global economic crisis is a very high debt level. Here too today’s situation has to be very concerning. According to IMF estimates, today the global debt-to-GDP level is significantly higher than it was in 2008. Particularly concerning has to be the fact that far from declining, over the past few years Italy’s public debt has risen now to 135 percent of GDP. That has to raise the real risk that we could have yet another round of the Eurozone debt crisis in the event that we were to have another global economic recession.

 

Today’s asset price bubbles have been created by many years of unusually easy global monetary policy. The persistence of those bubbles can only be rationalized on the assumption that interest rates will remain indefinitely at their currently very low levels. Sadly, there is every reason to believe that at least in the United States, the period of low interest rates is about to end abruptly due to an overheated economy.

The reason for fearing that the U.S. economy will soon overheat is not simply that it is currently at or very close to full employment and growing at a healthy clip. It is rather that it is also now getting an extraordinary degree of monetary and fiscal policy stimulus at this very late stage of the cycle.

Today, U.S. financial conditions are at their most expansionary levels in the past 40 years due to the combination of very low interest rates, inflated equity prices and a weak dollar. Compounding matters is the fact that the U.S. economy is now receiving a significant pro-cyclical boost from the unfunded Trump tax cut and from last week’s two-year congressional spending pact aimed at boosting military and disaster-relief spending.

 

Today, in the face of an overheated U.S. economy, the Federal Reserve has an unenviable choice. It can either raise its interest rate and risk bursting the global asset price bubble, or it can delay its interests rate decision and risk incurring the wrath of the bond vigilantes who might sense that the Federal Reserve is not serious about inflation risk. In that event, interest rates are apt to rise in a disorderly fashion, which could lead to the more abrupt deflating of the global asset bubble.

 

This time next year, it could very well turn out that today’s asset price bubbles will not have burst and we will not have been thrown into another global economic recession. In which event, I will admit that I was wrong in having been too pessimistic about the global economic outlook. However, I will fall back on the defense that all of the clues were pointing in the opposite direction.

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Welcome to the Fed’s Casino

WallStreetCasino1

“What Happens in the Fed’s Vegas …Spreads Everywhere.”

The article below focuses on the role of traders as the middle men between buyers and sellers of financial securities and the inefficiencies they generate from excessive churning. But trading volatility occurs in the context of a much larger issue of winners and losers in capital markets and society at large. Not only is trading excessive, but the swings in asset prices are creating massive winners and losers with arbitrary outcomes while enriching a winner-take-all circle of financial wealth that can buy up and shape our politics and regulatory policy.

These are the kinds of things that raise hackles among average Americans, but if we wish to fix the problem the more important question is how and why this has happened. It is a direct result of the Fed’s monetary policy and our governments’ fiscal policies in the face of a changing global economy. As I have explained in a previous post, Banking Vegas-Style, the focus of all macroeconomic policy on stabilizing headline statistics such as GDP growth, unemployment, and inflation has led to much greater price volatility in asset markets.

Economists refer to the past 35 years as The Great Moderation, denoting the reduction in the volatility of business cycle fluctuations starting in the mid-1980s. But to stabilize GDP growth with monetary liquidity means that excess liquidity must lead to productive investment. This is predominantly what happened with technology investment during the 1990s. But eventually excess credit leads to malinvestment and the misallocation of resources (Pets.com?). This is reflected in the volatility of asset prices, as we saw reflected in currency crises, the dotcom crash,  commodity and housing bubbles during this same period we refer to as The Great Moderation. Others mark this time as the transition to the Bubble Economy.

The  data that most reveals what has happened has been the explosion in trading and the transformation of capital markets into asset price casinos dominated by hedge funds, private equity, and big banking conglomerates. In other words, our policies created the hedge fund industry with currency volatility, credit bubbles and crunches, housing bubbles and crashes, commodity bubbles and crashes, and Too Big to Fail banks.

Think about it. If prices don’t move in wild gyrations, there is almost no money to be made from constant trading. Instead we’ve turned such markets into casino gambling dens.

So, should this all be a surprise to our policymakers?

Legendary Fund Manager John Bogle Calls Wall Street’s Number—–99% Of Trading ($32 Trillion/Year) Is A Waste

by MITCH TUCHMAN @  • July 30, 2015

An astonishing $32 trillion in securities changes hands every year with no net positive impact for investors, charges Vanguard Group Founder John Bogle.

Meanwhile, corporate finance — the reason Wall Street exists — is just a tiny slice of the total business. The nation’s big investment banks probably could work for less than a week and take the rest of the year off with no real effect on the economy.

The job of finance is to provide capital to companies. We do it to the tune of $250 billion a year in IPOs and secondary offerings,” Bogle told Time in an interview. “What else do we do? We encourage investors to trade about $32 trillion a year. So the way I calculate it, 99% of what we do in this industry is people trading with one another, with a gain only to the middleman. It’s a waste of resources.”

Rent seekers

It’s a lot of money, $32 trillion. Nearly double the entire U.S. economy moving from one pocket to another, with a toll-taker in the middle. Most people refer to them as “stock brokers,” but let’s call them what they are — toll-takers and rent-seekers.

Rent-seeking as an occupation is as old as the hills. In exchange for working to build up credentials and relative fluency in the arcane rules of an industry, one gets to stand back from actual work and just collect money.

Ostensibly, the job of a financial adviser is to provide advice. Do you actually get that from your broker? It is worth anything?

Research shows, over and over, that stock brokers can’t do much of anything demonstrably valuable. They don’t know which stocks will go up or down and when. They don’t know which asset classes will outperform this year or next.

Nobody knows. That’s the point. If you’re among that small cadre of extremely high-level traders who can throw loads of cash at a short-term fluke, fantastic. If you have a mind for numbers like Warren Buffett that allows you to buy companies on the cheap and hold them forever, excellent.

If you’re a normal retirement investor trying to get from A to B and retire on time, well, you have a really big problem to face: The toll-taker wants your money.

Dead weight

So he needs you to trade — a lot. Because that’s how stock brokers make money. Not by doling out retirement advice, but by ensuring that your account is active and churning commissions on behalf of them and their employers.

What’s a highway with no traffic on it? If you’re a toll-taker, it’s a money loser. So Wall Street’s rent-seekers need traffic in the form of regular trading. An account that sits invested for months at a time with no trades is dead weight to them.

Nevertheless, as Bogle maintains, doing nothing is the key. “Don’t do something, just stand there!” he has often said.

A portfolio indexing approach to investing codifies Bogle’s time-tested and effective way of investing for retirement — without lining the pockets of toll-taking stock brokers along the way.