Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Could the markets have got it wrong?

It is a dangerous game to say that the markets are wrong. As JM Keynes noted: The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.

Nevertheless, there are some elements of the developments in the last week that are worth a comment.

We have heard US Secretary of the Treasury Geithner tell us that Europe is acting too slowly and that we have to act in order to avoid a disaster. We have read tons of analyses of the Eurozone debt problem, built on dubious assumptions. And we have seen economists who 3 short months ago trumpeted a return to strong growth re-brand themselves as doomsday prophets. 

The underlying economic situation is serious, but not because of the issues that are now driving the crescendo. The Western World has over the past years built a mountain of debt which is clearly unsustainable. The main culprits are the private households who in line with falling interest rates have leveraged themselves harder and harder, mainly in the property market.

Public sectors have “taken over” some of the debt during the first phase of the Great Contraction in 2009 and 2010. Countries with a weak budget discipline have been pushed in the direction of something quite unsustainable. This affects primarily the US and in second line, the UK.

The historically high Debt/GDP ratio will slowly be reduced in the coming decade. As the banks are the pivot in the debt explosion – no banks, no loans – a deleveraging will automatic lead to a shrinking of the banks’ balances. This process is progressing, but is slipping under the radar of the financial markets.

Instead, the markets are busy with something as relatively unimportant as Greece. Government after government has been lying about the real economic situation, and Greece now faces a default. It appears that the Eurozone is about to arrive at a solution that will allow an orderly default, assuming a 50-66% haircut.

This would imply a loss for (European) banks up to €130bn. A large amount, but not impossible to handle. The data released in relation to the European “stress” test showed that a default of this magnitude is possible to control.

Then we have Portugal and Ireland, which at this moment in time do not finance themselves in the open markets. They work to reduce their government deficits. Ireland has progressed nicely and is ready to try a fresh bond issue some time in 2012. There are no reason to expect that these two countries should default on their loans.

Spain is frequently mentioned, even if the country has a relatively low government debt, and a government deficit lower than those of the USA and the UK.

Italy has a government debt of some 120% of GDP, the same as 10 years ago. Reforms have been introduced that will reduce the government deficit to acceptable levels over the coming two years. There will be a significant surplus on the primary budget balance, ie. before interest payments on the existing debt.

There is hardly any reason to believe that Spain or Italy should default on their debt. However, the panic in the financial markets has reached levels that probably requires that EU provides sufficient credit facilities that both countries for a while could cover their financing needs without tapping the markets. This is not a situation based on facts, but on panic.

Then there is the interbank market. The diffuse fears of losses in the European banks have led to a freeze in the interbank market. Central banks have reacted correctly and provide liquidity in order to avoid a replay of the Lehman collapse. A further deterioration of the situation  will not come from this source.

All in all it is a complicated situation where several stories are playing out on different levels. Stock and commodities markets have reacted with a huge increase in risk averseness. A quite understandable reaction, but not particularly logical, given the facts.

But what will happen once Greece has defaulted and the European credit facilities have been increased X-fold?

Then we can return to the really ugly story, namely that OECD needs to bring the debt situation under control. As I have written before, this will imply an extended period of sub-par growth and shrinking bank balances. This problem is not isolated to Europe.

The good news is that even in such a situation, it will be possible to have well functioning markets. The bank sector, however, will see no solution to its problems with the capital base as well as with bad loans.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Fed Almighty? Erh, no...

Interestingly enough, at yesterday’s meeting, US Federal Reserve at the same time declared that significant risks threaten the economic situation AND decided not to introduce a new programme for monetising the Federal deficit. If things are bad, then why not try to do something about it?

The only logical explanation is that Fed does not find that there is a lot that a further QE-programme could really do about the economic situation in the short term. We are still in a Keynesian liquidity trap, where zero interest rates have no effect on the demand for credit, and hence does not contribute to increase the economic activity. Fed Chairman Bernanke was clear about such issues at the Jackson Hole conference in late August: “economic policies that support robust economic growth in the long run are outside the province of the central bank”.

Instead he, and with him a number of other high profiled officials have lately been very clear that cleaning up the mess is a responsibility of the elected governments. IMF Chief Lagarde, World Bank Chief Zoellick, and several other central bankers from across the globe have issued statements that closely match Bernanke’s explanation at the same meeting:

To allow the economy to grow at its full potential, policymakers must work to promote macroeconomic and financial stability; adopt effective tax, trade, and regulatory policies; foster the development of a skilled workforce; encourage productive investment, both private and public; and provide appropriate support for research and development and for the adoption of new technologies (...)  Although the issue of fiscal sustainability must urgently be addressed, fiscal policymakers should not, as a consequence, disregard the fragility of the current economic recovery. Fortunately, the two goals of achieving fiscal sustainability--which is the result of responsible policies set in place for the longer term--and avoiding the creation of fiscal headwinds for the current recovery are not incompatible. Acting now to put in place a credible plan for reducing future deficits over the longer term, while being attentive to the implications of fiscal choices for the recovery in the near term, can help serve both objectives”.

And there is more: “Finally, and perhaps most challenging, the country would be well served by a better process for making fiscal decisions”.

There you have it: Fed does not feel that it can do an awful lot more. It is up to US lawmakers to pull up their socks and act in order to bring the economy back on an even keel.

However, the European sovereign crisis, the increase in the price of credit risk and the fear of having government debt downgraded have led to a resurgence in fiscal conservatism at the wrong moment. Simple recklessness on the part of US Republican lawmakers does not make it better. Just a few months ago, governments in the entire OECD area seemed bent on making things worse by introducing austerity programs. Since then, the sharp deceleration in economic growth and renewed market turmoil has led policy makers to ease the foot away from the brake, sort of.

It is perhaps symptomatic that the markets have lost confidence in politicians to a degree that central bankers’ statements are studied more closely than anything else. But Fed’s lack of action clearly indicates that there is not an awful lot more central bankers can do.

What next, then? With politicians constantly on the verge of committing major policy errors and central banks with only little dry powder left, what will create the growth the world so badly needs? It has been said before and I repeat: A period of sub-par growth while fiscal balances are redressed. 

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

A word of reason

Beginning in 2008, I have several times pointed out that banks would come out of this recession downsized and with dramatically lower profitability than has been the case in the past two decades.

For a while it appeared that panic-stricken politicians had given banks yet another opportunity to consolidate and get even bigger – and even more unlikely to be allowed to fail.

Now, it appears that the UK is leading the way in how to get out of the mess. The Independent Banking Commission delivered its proposal for a bank reform yesterday, and it makes a lot of sense.
Instead of breaking up the banks, the Commission suggests to consider banks as two different businesses. 

One, the sexy one, is investment banking, securities trading, and all that. The other is the boring part of banking: savings, lending, payments services. We could call it a utility.

The utility part of banking is the services that are absolutely indispensable to a society, and the banking commission suggests that this part of the banking sector is “ring fenced” by higher capital requirements and in essence kept separate from the investment banking activities.

That would turn the utility banking into a dull, but safe economic activity. It would prevent the banks from using the capital base from utility banking for funding of investment banking activities. It makes a lot of sense – and it harks back to the US Glass-Steagall act from the ‘30s, which even legally separated the two kinds of activities. The introduction of that act marked the beginning of the longest period of the US without banking failures.

The recommendations from the UK banking commission make an awful lot of sense. It recognises that the society needs banks, but not all activities currently categorised as banking. It makes it clear that the profitability of the utility banking will be (much) lower – just like that of water supplies, telephone services, electricity etc. It makes it clear that the banking industry finally will have to pay the price for two decades of foolish greed.

For a second – in 2009 – I had started to have my doubts as bonuses in the banking sector again took off into the stratosphere.

Predictably, the UK banking sector is already lobbying heavily to avoid the “disaster”. But I am afraid that the lobbying will not work any longer. One of the members of the Commission, Martin Wolf, Economics editor of Financial Times is quoted for saying:  If you live in a world in which the real rate of interest on safe government bonds, bonds that the world regards as safe, is about half a percent or less, you might wonder whether you can reasonably expect a reasonably safe return of 15 percent on equity in a bank.

An equally simple word of reason from a man who cannot in any way be accused of left-leaning tendencies, UK Chancellor George Osborne: We should not confuse the interest of bank shareholders with those of British taxpayers.

So right. In America, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, made a rant against the proposed Basel III capital requirements, qualifying them as “anti-American”. His concern is that the Basel rules will force the banks towards deleveraging and lower profitability. Obviously, US banking lobbyists are not as successful in Basel as they are in Washington DC, so Dimon suggests that the USA withdraws from Basel-based BIS altogether to avoid such disasters.

In Europe, the banks are in no position to tell the politicians what to do. With an impending bankruptcy in Greece and still carrying huge losses forward, many European banks are or will be de facto insolvent. They will depend on government support going forward. It might be that the Eurozone governments let themselves be inspired by the UK thinking.

Utility banking may be the right solution, as well as a healthy way of thinking. Contrary to what the banks have tried to make us believe, it will not be the end of the world as we see it if the banks are forced to downsize. Unfortunately, the banking lobby is still strong enough that it can persuade politicians to wait and postpone, which only delays the necessary.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Will it ever get better?

So the economic slowdown is upon us. Everybody is busy revising estimates for economic growth and company earnings downwards. And the talk of the town is: will we end in a recession? That question is probably misleading. There is not a huge difference between a growth rate of 0.1% and one of -0.1%. Neither will feel good and neither will generate jobs or an investment boom.

The financial markets have (finally) adjusted. As far back as in mid-July, the stock markets were still humming along, convinced that company earnings could only continue to grow linearly. Bond markets were as usual negative and yields had reached new low levels that were only compatible with – recession. Corporate bonds were firmly in the camp of the stock markets.

Now, six weeks later, the bond market again proved right. Stocks and corporate bonds have fallen off a cliff, and nobody can apparently find any good news that will turn the market mood around. It will probably take some weeks before this can happen, and weeks are an eternity in market time.

It is my conviction that markets react stronger to surprises than to anything else. Most market participants feel good about being part of the great big market consensus, and it is only when this consensus is disturbed that something has to change.

Forecasts are coming down, and in all experience it will mean that we will soon have a situation where market consensus undershoots the economic development. My guess is that by mid-September this process will have run its course. The markets will by then be ready to be taken by positive surprises.

In the current gloomy mood, nobody can see what would create growth. However, there are several elements that could turn positive. First, we have negative real interest rates. Former chairman of the US Council of Economic Advisors, Christina Romer, in academic works showed how low interest rates eventually end up by supporting the housing market. Negative real interest rates also push capital out of cash and short-term bonds, lowering the price of capital for companies. Consumers who have postponed purchases of cars and other durable goods will have a pent-up demand. Similarly, companies will have a greater need for investment after a long period of no investments. Inventories will have been brought down or written off.

And finally, austerity measures will be if not postponed, then at least delayed. Reality is finally about to win over ideological arguments that deficits will have to be cut dramatically here and now. It is slowly becoming clear that austerity will hamper growth.

So if – and that is still a BIG if – nothing goes wrong in the European banking sector, we are setting the scene for the stock markets to be positively surprised, even if economic growth will remain weak for a while.

At Origo, our work with market risk indicators has led us to precisely track the gap between economic downturn and unfounded optimism in the stock markets. We will report back here when the opposite scenario begins to unfold.