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.

Advertisements

Piqued by Piketty?

“Money makes money. And the money that money makes makes more money.”

– Benjamin Franklin

bankers2

Over the past 18 months there’s been a gushing and gnashing over the book by French economist Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-first Century. I have to admit I’m a bit late to the party and am just getting around to reading (perusing?) it. (I have a good excuse – an 18 mo. old baby.)

Seems most of the feedback has been delineated by political ideology – the left embraces Piketty’s work and the right dismisses it. Perhaps we can pursue a non-ideological tack to dissect Piketty’s take on capitalism.

Piketty has been rightly praised for the work he has led on the collection of historical wealth and income data, and he generously offers this data to the world for future study. Most of the controversy involves his particular interpretation of these historical statistics, claiming that inequalities have reached the same levels as the roaring ’20s a century earlier. Depending on one’s measures and comparisons, that might be argued as true. The devil is in the details.

Piketty makes broad claims that inequality is inherent to the internal dynamics of capitalist markets and that the interim period – 1930s-1970s – was a reversal due to the wealth destruction of the Great Depression and WWII. Then he explicates his “law” of capital that the rate of return on capital (r) will always exceed the rate of economic growth (g), leading to ever narrower concentrations of wealth among the owners of capital. But this is too broad a brush.

We need to unbundle the capitalist wealth creating process and the dynamics of distribution in order to understand why the data looks the way it does. How, when and why does r exceed g and what are the distributional consequences? Piketty so far has not provided satisfying answers.

First, he defines capital as the stock of all assets held by private individuals, corporations and governments that can be traded in the market no matter whether these assets are being productive or not. This includes land, real estate and intellectual property rights as well as collectibles such as art and jewelry. Thus, there is no distinction made between financial or physical capital or non-productive real assets and thus no explanation for why different asset classes might experience varying growth rates and what that means for wealth and incomes. The return on capital does not always exceed the growth rate and will often drop precipitously over the business or trade cycle, as well as due to the falling marginal rate of return on existing investment. (Certainly r was negative for a considerable period of time during the Great Depression, the 70s stagnation and our recent Great Recession.) With his broad brush, Piketty ignores these insightful details.

Financial assets, as claims on real assets (a form of derivative really), often fluctuate more widely than real assets. Real asset classes that are illiquid, such as art and real estate, often don’t trade, thus making true value difficult to ascertain. Let us explain why this matters (see Figure I.1 below from Piketty’s dataset): The two periods that Piketty claims represent his conclusion on inequality (red circles) were both marked by financial asset bubbles fomented by easy credit bubbles (green squares). In both cases, when the credit crunch inevitably came, these asset prices adjusted quite drastically and quickly, erasing much of the wealth accumulated during the bubble (look at the wealth shares of the 1% over time – it’s quite a roller coaster ride). The difference today is that we have harnessed public credit to maintain these inflated asset prices. Let me make the difference plain: in the panic of 1929 and the early ’30s stock brokers jumped out of windows to their untimely deaths; after the panic of Lehman’s collapse, they jumped out with Federal Reserve-issued parachutes and landed safely on their yachts and vineyards.

Income-USA-1910-2010Piketty’s graph does highlight a concern here. The massive crash in asset prices and capital incomes after 1940 was surely due to the destruction of WWII when high property values in Europe became worthless. The central banks of the world have done their utmost to prevent such a crash after 2008, but one can still manage a price correction to reassert pre-bubble values. Admittedly, this is difficult to do with debt and requires a lot of bankruptcy that needs to be managed. But instead we’ve reflated the bubble asset prices at the high end, and with them the high incomes derived from capital. Life is good when you’re the king (or the Fed chairperson).

Second, we should understand that housing is playing an outsized role in our recent widening of wealth inequality. Housing policy rewarded real estate investments over other investments during the long credit bubble that accompanied the maturation of the baby boom generation (green square on right). This gave the housing sector a double stimulus: rising demand plus a generous tax preference. When housing wealth is stripped from the current distribution of capital, wealth inequality appears much flatter (see Rognlie).

So, rather than some immutable law of capitalism, perhaps Piketty has identified an artifact of short-sighted policy, especially by central banks and government housing policy. In our recent financial market “correction,” these asset prices have not really corrected, as de-leveraging of private credit (mostly in the FIRE sector) has merely been assumed by public credits. The Fed has expanded its balance sheet by about $4.5 trillion and the Treasury has increased the total debt by almost $8 trillion. With all that liquidity sloshing around, the rich have gotten richer because of their ownership of capital assets, both real and financial, while economic growth and employment have stagnated because of de-leveraging and the uncertainty of price distortions keyed off a deliberately depressed interest rate. These monetary and fiscal policies have greatly aggravated inequality and created the more serious problem of allowing those with inflated financial assets to trade them for more permanent real assets, thus narrowing the control over these real asset classes. In the distant past this was called feudalism and we risk recreating such class distinctions.

Nevertheless, Piketty hits on some key truths about the workings of capitalism, none of which are really new but are worth reiterating. First, we call it CAPITAL-ism for a reason – it depends on the accumulation and productive deployment of capital in order to create wealth. To quote Ben Franklin: “Money makes money. And the money that money makes makes more money.”

For the same reason we don’t call it LABOR-ism, because capitalism is about successful risk-taking and our property rights legal system assigns risks and returns to a priori ownership claims. For too long we’ve understood the distributional mechanism of capitalism to be wage incomes, when an increasing share of that distribution is remitted through capital ownership claims on profits. Technology and globalization has only amplified this trend. In addition, a mature capitalist society with an aging demographic depends on an increasing share of rents earned by accumulated capital.

The growing disparity of wage incomes can be largely traced to incomes associated with financial capital, such as in the FIRE sector, and by winner-take-all, or superstar, markets in many professions such as entertainment and sports, but also among corporate managerial elites. In a free and just society this inequality needs to be addressed, but turning back to a laborist model of economic development would mean turning back the tides of trade and freedom.

Rather, we need to promote capital accumulation across the broadest stretch of the population. This simple graph of the relationship between physical capital per worker and income shows the symbiosis between these two factors of production – we merely need to cease dividing them into their antagonistic corners through misguided tax policy.

capital-income – from David Weil, Economic Growth.

In addition, we need policies that promote long-term risk-taking and risk management and de-emphasize short-term asset trading. A return to saving and prudent investment will require disciplinary constraints on credit policy, something we’ve lost with too much central bank discretion over monetary policy. The question is how will we attain that discipline with a fiat monetary regime that allows credit creation according to the policy whims of the central bank and the Treasury?

The answers to inequality are not simple and certainly more complex than Piketty’s retrograde and admittedly unworkable proposal of taxing capital for redistribution by the state. The leftist appeal of this argument readily embraces the idea that wealth in private hands is somehow more easily abused than wealth in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats. Tell that to the victims of statism across former Soviet societies. Instead, wealth should be enjoyed by the widest possible swath of the citizenry to be earned by the sweat of their brows and the liberated ingenuity of their imaginations. As I presented in an earlier post, Billie Holiday makes the most insightful observation when it comes to our capitalist society: “God Bless the Child that’s got his own.”

Why We Can’t Believe the Fed

The headline says it all. So, what exactly is Ben up to? The point of this shell game is to make sure we never know. Sorry, but who elected Ben Bernanke anyway?

The bank’s predictions of its own behavior are only as good as its predictions of the economy. It has a poor track record.

By BENN STEIL

The Federal Reserve’s interest rate-setting Open Market Committee recently broke new ground in Chairman Ben Bernanke’s transparency campaign by proffering predictions of its own behavior over the next three years. This is a huge innovation for the Fed, which has never predicted economic data it directly controls.

The idea was first to anchor market expectations that short-term rates will stay at historic lows, thereby encouraging investors and companies to move more aggressively into longer-term, riskier assets with higher expected returns—which the Fed hopes will fuel economic growth. But the Fed also set for itself a formal, long-run inflation target of 2%.

Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation is currently running at 2.9%; so-called core inflation, excluding energy and food prices, at 2.3%. The 2% target was meant to reassure the market that the Fed’s expectation of continued low rates does not imply a reduced commitment to price stability.

If the Fed has a good handle on where the economy is heading over the next several years, then its pledges of extended low rates and a 2% inflation target imply little risk of its needing to change course and jar the markets. But how good is the Fed’s actual track record on predicting the economy?

The Fed studied its own staff’s forecasting performance over the period 1986 to 2006. It found that the average root mean squared error—or the deviation from the actual result—for the staff’s next-year gross domestic product (GDP) forecasts was 1.34, compared with 1.29 by what the Fed describes as a “large group” of private forecasters. That is, the Fed’s predicting performance was worse than that of market-watchers outside the Fed. For next-year CPI forecasts, the error term was 1.03 for Fed staff, and only 0.93 for private forecasters. The Fed’s conclusion? In its own words, its “historical forecast errors are large in economic terms.”

How about the Fed’s longer-term predictions? The Fed started publishing the Board of Governors’ and Reserve Banks’ three-year forecasts in October 2007. At that time, the GDP growth forecasts among this group of 17 ranged from 2.2% to 2.7%. Actual 2010 GDP growth was 3%, outside the Fed’s range.

The Fed forecasters told us that unemployment in 2010 would be in a range between 4.6% and 5%. In fact, it averaged about twice that, or 9.6%. The forecasters further predicted that both Personal Consumption Expenditures inflation (PCE, similar to CPI) and core PCE inflation would be in a range from 1.5% and 2%. The former came in at 1.3% and the latter at 1%, again outside the Fed’s range. The Fed’s scorecard on its 2007 three-year forecasts: 0 for 4.

In short, the Fed’s premise that it can speak with authority about the future is flawed. During the two decades to 2006, its own experts were worse than outside ones in predicting one-year economic data. Since the start of the crisis in 2007, its three-year predictions have been worthless.

This means Mr. Bernanke’s new transparency campaign actually injects significant new risks into the business of Fed-watching. Earlier Open Market Committee statements carried a warning that “future policy adjustments will depend on the evolution of the outlook for both inflation and economic growth, as implied by incoming information.” The Fed is now saying something entirely different: that it is confident that incoming information will not materially change the Fed’s current expectations—which justifies keeping policy constant over the next three years.

Yet since history flatly contradicts the notion that the Fed can safely pledge interest rates three years out, there is a significant likelihood that the credibility of the Fed’s new inflation target will crumble, as it keeps interest rates down despite rising prices, or that its effort to persuade the market that rates will stay near zero will end in shambles.

Lurking uncomfortably in the background is the fact that six of the 17 Fed officials whom the Fed asked for predictions actually think that interest rates will need to rise by 2013, and three of those six believe the rise should actually come this year. Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank President Charles Plosser drew attention to the growing split in the committee on Jan. 30 by insisting that the Open Market Committee rate statement was “not a commitment” and was “contingent on the evolution of the economy”—which is precisely the old Fed mantra.

There is a sense that what Mr. Bernanke is calling transparency is in fact an ill-conceived effort to bind dissidents on the committee closer to his own views. I suspect the result of the effort will be very different: to increase the level of distrust in the markets surrounding official Fed targets and expectations.