Published on March 29th 2013
..Far from being a unique situation, the fragile exposure of unsecured depositors across the Euro zone is the norm…
Please, click here to read this article in pdf format: March 29 2013
At the end of my last letter, I anticipated I would devote the next one to explain why, in my view, the European Central Bank is hypocritical on the Cyprus situation and why the rest of the periphery has to expect the same fate than Cyprus. Fortunately for me, Mr. Joeren Dijsselbloem who is both Dutch Finance Minister as well as the leader of the Eurogroup of Finance Ministers, confirmed my second point in a press conference 24 hours later, making my work easier…
A quick view of a bank’s capital structure
There are multiple issues on the Cyprus event. Perhaps the most relevant is the fact that unsecured depositors were sacrificed because their banks did not have enough subordinated debt to bail in. For this reason, the official story goes, Cyprus is a special case. Let me explain this point. In the figure below, I show the stylized version of the capital structure of a bank. From top to bottom, every portion of it is subordinated to the one immediately above it. It is clear that the least subordinated should be the deposits that finance a bank.
What is clear to us was not clear to leaders of the European Union. At closed doors, they first decided that deposits above EUR100M would arbitrarily lose 9% (in spite of existing subordinated debt to bail in) and put the matter to vote….only to revise this figure a week later up to 40% and without voting. It was hardly an ordinary bankruptcy proceeding; banks did not go through an ordinary liquidation and nobody could see an actual market appraisal of recovery values across the capital structure. The portion of such structure, which was supposed to be the most protected, saw its recovery value fluctuate between 9% and 40% within days because folks who live far away from this drama decided so over a weekend. On the other hand, those who held deposits of amounts below EUR100M are only entitled to them nominally. Effectively, they cannot withdraw their monies, let alone send them outside Cyprus. If they hold demand deposits believing that they can serve as medium of indirect exchange and they cannot use them precisely for that function, their property was affected, regardless of what the official story says.
Let’s return then to the thesis that Cyprus is a special case because the subordinated debt of its banks did not provide with enough cushion in the liquidation. As you can see from the figure above, the thicker the subordinated debt tranche is they lower the likelihood that unsecured senior debt and depositors will be affected. If Cyprus is a special case and it is not a template for the rest of the Euro zone banks, then it must be true that the rest of the Euro zone banks have stronger tranches below that of depositors. The sections below will show that during the last year (since March 2012):
a) The same Euro zone authorities that imposed the loss on unsecured depositors were the ones who enabled a cash-out of subordinated debt holders, leaving depositors exposed to the firing squad,
b) The Fed has been the ultimate enabler of this situation, and
c) The fate of the US dollar is indirectly coupled with the fate of the Euro zone = There is no place to hide.
How the ECB financed the exit of subordinated debt holders
In December of 2011 and February 2012, the European Central Bank (ECB) extended longer-term refinancing operations to provide liquidity to euro zone banks. The liquidity, in euros and at a below market price, was against sovereign debt held by the banks, as collateral. Part of this liquidity was used for what is called “liability management” exercises, where the banks changed the composition of their liabilities: They borrowed from the ECB to repay their subordinated debt holders. This is the reason why Cyprus should actually be a template for the rest of the Euro zone. Because across the Euro zone, subordinated debt was reduced, leaving unsecured depositors exposed….again, across the Euro zone. The figure below, with the aggregate balance sheets of the main players, should help visualize what happened during the last twelve months:
In step 1, we see the focused balance sheet of the Euro zone banks and their subordinated investors (i.e. holders of subordinated debt), with regards to the subordinated debt. The same is a liability to the banks and an asset to the investors.
In step 2, we see the aggregate change caused by the extension of the LTRO Loans (i.e. loans issued under longer-term refinancing operations, by the ECB). These loans are an asset of the ECB and a liability to the banks.
Against these loans, the ECB issued Euros, which are an asset of the banks and a liability to the ECB.
In step 3, we see the transaction that I hold responsible for allowing unsecured depositors to be fair game across the Euro zone. With the Euros loaned by the ECB, banks bought out subordinated investors. Unfortunately, I have not had the time to quantify the exact impact of this transfer to date. However, reviewing past research notes released at that time (March 2012), my point will be clarified. (ADDENDUM: I HAVE BEEN GENEROUSLY FORWARDED TO THIS LINK, WHERE ZEROHEDGE.COM DID THE MATH ON THIS POINT, PROVIDING AN UPDATED STATUS ON THE ISSUE)
On March 28th, 2012, Barclays’ Credit Research team had published a report titled “European Banks: Liability management shrinks the bank capital market”. In it, it was estimated that at the end of March (only one month after the second LTRO), about 20% of the subordinated debt (equivalent to EUR97BN) had been targeted for exchange. The average exchange ratio of the transactions had been calculated at 82% of par (74% for Tier 1 and 89% for Lower Tier 2). The reductions were split as follows: Close to 35% of cash out in the Tier 1 market (EUR54BN), 12% reduction of the Lower-Tier 2 (EUR37BN), and 18% reduction in Upper-Tier 2 (EUR6BN).
According to Barclays too, all the transactions had been bondholder-friendly, with an average 7pt (i.e. 7%) premium to secondary market across all issues (9pts for Tier 1, 5pts for Lower Tier 2). The main motivation behind all the transactions was capital optimization. They created capital gains to the banks. Except for two transactions in which the subordinated debt was exchanged for common stock or new Lower Tier 2, the rest were all tenders for cash. Greek banks in particular (i.e. National Bank of Greece, EFG Eurobank and Piraeus Bank) also participated in this liability management exercise; in some cases (i.e. Piraeus’s Prefs at 37 and LT2 floater at 50, announced on Mar 7/12) at premiums ranging 10 to 17pts.
In other words, both banks and subordinated debt holders enjoyed great capital gains, leaving unsecured depositors exposed to higher risk. This played out in the context of a virtuous cycle, where the cheaper funding improved the risk profile of the financial institutions and attracted capital back to the Euro zone. In the process, both the Euro appreciated and the EURUSD basis tightened, which further strengthened the equity of the financial system. The depositors of course, continued to receive mere basis points for their trust. On May 29th and later on June 25th, I had warned about the danger of this outcome.
But the story did not end here. In steps 4 and 5 of the figure above, I show the impact the Fed had in all this with its quantitative easing policy. By literally printing money in US Treasuries purchases, it added fuel to the fire, because Euro zone banks took advantage of the situation to borrow cheap US dollars, helping them repay their LTRO loans. Zerohedge.com has explained this with more detail than I can provide in this note, (in chronological order) here, here and here. I recommend that you read these articles in detail, if you want to understand how the game is going to end.
Step 6 seeks to show the status quo after the party. If the Cyprus situation is contained (which I doubt), going forward we should see the reduction in both assets (i.e. LTRO loans) and liabilities (i.e. Euros) at the balance sheet of the ECB and the banks, with banks replacing LTRO repaid loans with unsecured USD funding.
The Fed as the ultimate enabler tied the fate of the USD to the Euro
If you noticed, I circled the US Dollars held at the balance sheet of the Euro banks in step 6 of the figure above, as an asset. I did this because I want to emphasize a point I have been making for a long, long time: The collapse of the Yankee bond market (i.e. the market for bonds denominated in US dollars, where the borrowers are non-US resident corporations), caused by corporate defaults in the Euro zone will unmask the exposure that the Fed has to the fate of the Euro zone. The dollars that end up with the Euro zone banks get recycled in multiple ways and one of them is via the Yankee market (another one is of course the USD loan market).
It should be clear therefore that this whole transfer of wealth will ultimately (and irresponsibly by the Fed) end up exponentially (through leverage) affecting those holding their savings in US dollars.
I am confident that the story above shows that far from being a unique situation, the fragile exposure of unsecured depositors across the Euro zone is the norm; and that their fragility was further increased in the last twelve months thanks to policies created by the same authorities who now refuse to honor their promise of a banking union, and instead impose capital controls, which have effectively destroyed any credibility on the safety of capital in the Euro zone.
One last word of caution: I think it would be wrong to interpret from the process depicted above that there was a premeditated conspiracy on the part of policy makers to weaken the position of depositors. This outcome, I believe, was simply an unintended consequence in their efforts to sustain the Euro zone. However, even if one accepts my view, the unintended outcome begs the following question: Why was there cheap money available for subordinated debt holders to cash out, but there is none now to protect the savings of depositors? Nobody can answer that question but with speculation, and as such, intellectual honesty demands that I keep mine to myself, because as Mark Antony said in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”: “…You are not wood, you are not stones, but men; and being men, it will inflame you, it will make you mad”.
Published on February 10th 2013
“…The two pillars of the current global financial system are therefore (a) the illusion of the existence of a risk-free asset and (b) the repression of that market which demonstrates that the risk-free asset and its derivatives (stocks, bonds, the Euro, all bred in the repo market) are an illusion….”
Please, click here to read this article in pdf format: February 10 2013
During the past weeks I have been on the sidelines, waiting for a relevant event to take place but fully aware that I was wrong. I just wanted to hope. Sometimes, it feels good to hope. But since last September, nothing has really changed. At least not fundamentally and that which seems new, is simply the result of the tectonic shift we had back at the end of the summer (of 2012).
It is vox populi that the rise of Spanish and Italian sovereign yields was triggered by corruption scandals that may be of political consequence. They were not alone, as the Libor affair is still making news. I don’t think scandals by themselves bring consequences, but before I go further, let me discuss the topic of corruption itself, for as I will explain, the ongoing policies will bring nothing else but more corruption.
Corruption in government is simple arbitrage. Whenever governments intervene in a market either by restricting supply or demand, capping or flooring prices, the affected goods will have two prices: The government fixed price and the market price. And because prices are nothing else but critical signals for the process of social cooperation (also known as “market”) to work, markets get confused by two different signals from the same good.
If there is restricted supply of a good, or if the price of a good is capped, the market will be willing to bid more than the current price for that good. That bid will be noticeable and the only economic agent capable of acting on the signalled gap will be someone in power: a government official or a politician. This person’s responsibility will be to allocate scarce resources where they are most needed. The public will call him corrupt, but he will just be an arbitrageur. He will offer an additional quantity of that good which is restricted at a higher price, including his fees (also called “bribes”), of course. He will be simply taking over a function that a repressed market cannot perform at that time.
Government corruption is nothing else but the reflection of a repressed market. The immorality lies not in the act of corruption (i.e. arbitrage), but in the market repression that enables it. And as we all know by now, the repression in the financial markets has only grown exponentially in the past years. This may only mean that more corruption is underway. Above all, the two repressed markets we should all be very familiar with are the ones for US Treasuries and gold.
The US Treasuries market is not really a market. As I understand, about 75% of the issuance expected for February will be purchased by the Fed, whose SOMA account already represents about a third of the stock of Treasuries outstanding, across the curve. How an asset that requires that 3/4ths of its flow be purchased by a central bank to maintain its price can be deemed to have 0% risk and be used as collateral is beyond me! As well, I am completely amazed that we still have analysts from the main banks publishing research notes where they try to assess implied future rates…Implied??? By whom?
This brings me to the gold market. As I mentioned in past letters, Keynesians give a lot of weight to the role of expectations. If they manage expectations to make the public believe that the purchasing power of their salaries has not decreased in real terms, they believe they may get an economic system from recession back to growth. In the same fashion, if they already have a benchmark for real value, say gold, all they need is to suppress the price of this benchmark, to control their expectations. They need not lower the value of the benchmark. Making it volatile enough to discourage any inclination to have that asset used as a store of value is enough. Hence, the endless take down in the price of gold triggered by leveraged sales during thin trading. It has coincidentally taken place ever since the rating on the US Treasuries was challenged by those martyrs at S&P. Below, I show the interventions during the last month (source: Bloomberg).
The two pillars of the current global financial system are therefore (a) the illusion of the existence of a risk-free asset and (b) the repression of that market which demonstrates that the risk-free asset and its derivatives (stocks, bonds, the Euro, all bred in the repo market) are an illusion.
On the subject of a risk-free asset, back on September 16th, I suggested that “… for all practical purposes (…) the European Central Bank would set the value of the world’s risk-free rate…”. The assumption behind this conclusion was that, thanks to Draghi’s offer to establish Open Monetary Transactions, “…the market (would) arbitrage between the rates of core Europe and its periphery, converging into a single Euro zone target yield…”. The two charts below (source: Bloomberg) help us visualize the status of the predicted convergence, as well as the relative stability in the long-term German sovereign debt vis-à-vis that of the United States.
With obvious “noise”, the underlying convergence (shown above left) is clear. On the right, we can appreciate how the yield in the 30-yr Treasuries is on the rise, thanks to in spite of billions being bought by the Federal Reserve, while the yield on the German bunds remains within range. We also still have the usual flags I have been calling collective attention to for the past year, and they are all related to repressed markets. The zero-interest rate policies were going to encourage share buybacks, dividend payments and any method to allow the extraction of whatever real value is still available to extract from corporations/businesses by their owners. This meant leverage was going to increase, unemployment would remain high, capital expenditures were going to decrease and the risk of defaults was to going to rise.
A year later, all these symptoms are starting to surface. One more reason to avoid stocks and be long gold. But in my view, it will take longer than many believe, for these imbalances to burst. This is the point I made at the start of 2013, when I wrote that “…during 2013, I expect imbalances to grow…”. Those who hold a view more bearish than mine point to inconsistencies, gaps between valuations expressed by different asset classes. But how can we point to such dislocations and at the same time sustain that markets are being repressed? We must be consistent: If the signals prices send to us are detached from fundamentals, we cannot at the same time call upon them to make our case! That would only be appropriate in a world where markets are not repressed. So… If I am not that bearish but still believe that imbalances in the long term will burst, what will make them burst? On this point, I stick to what I said at the start of 2012:
“…As long as the people of the EU put up with this situation and the EU Council (…) effectively kills democracy at the national level AND as long as the Fed continues to extend US dollar swaps, this status quo will remain…(…)…Whenever the political sustainability of the EU is challenged, we will see a run for liquidity…(…)…The trend is for asset inflation, and will last as long as the people of the EU and the US do not challenge the political status quo…” . Unemployment and the tolerance of those unemployed will tell us when the time has come. If it is not that, it will be the wave of defaults the same unemployment produces. There will still be corrections in between, but they will be just that: corrections. That tolerance, of course, is always tested by corruption cases made public. And as I explained above, the more repressed markets become, the higher the number of corruption cases we will learn from.
corruption,defaults,EU,Euro,expectations,gold,imbalances,LIBOR,risk-free asset,unemployment,US Treasuries
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Published on January 21st 2013
All this means that, as of January 30th, there will be a demand in the Euro funding market that was absent during 2012.
Click the link to read this article in pdf format: January 21 2013
In our last letter, I wrote that: “…The case of Wells Fargo and the temporary pause in the flight of deposits from the periphery of the European Union suggest that the process towards a meltdown, if any (and I believe there will be one) will be a long agony. Furthermore, in the short term, at the end of January, European banks have the option to repay the money lent by the European Central Bank in the Long-Term Refinancing Operations from a year ago, on a weekly basis. I expect them to repay enough to cause more pain to those still long of gold (including me, of course)…”
Today, I want discuss the implication of the repayment of loans made under the Long-Term Refinancing Operations. These loans were extended at the end of 2011 and at the beginning of 2012. The first thing that comes to mind, of course, is the irony that last Friday (i.e. January 18th), a $200 million 7-day repo operation by the Federal Reserve pushed the price of gold up $10/oz, while a EUR529.5 billion 3-yr collateralized loan from the European Central Bank (also known as the 2nd LTRO) made on February 29th, 2012 triggered a $100/oz sell-off. Should we expect the price of gold to rise upon the first repayment on January 30th? J
A Long-Term Refinancing Operation consists in the European Central Bank loaning funds (with a 3-yr maturity) to a bank, against collateral. Banks have the option to begin repaying loans taken under the first LTRO (made for EUR489 billion, at 1%) on January 30th, and on every week thereafter. The figure below (on the first LTRO only) should help visualize the above:
It is clear that an LTRO is a collateralized lending transaction. Why then is a repayment all of a sudden relevant? Because thanks to the backstop of Open Monetary Transactions, jump-to-default risk on the collateral used in the LTRO is perceived as non-existent. This suggests that the repayments will therefore not affect the assets purchased with the loans from the ECB. In other words, if the assets (i.e. Euro sovereign debt) that the banks had pledged as collateral are now backstopped, upon repayment of the loans, the banks will not feel the urge to get rid of them. Banks will simply have the option to fund their investments elsewhere, if appropriate. And lately, deposits in the periphery of the Euro zone seem to have ceased to flee.
All this means that, as of January 30th, there will be a demand in the Euro funding market that was absent during 2012. A bank that wants to ensure access to funds at reasonable prices may fall prey to the concept of certainty equivalence. To such bank, guaranteed funding today may seem more valuable than probably cheaper funding tomorrow, as sourcing funds in the fragile Euro market is nothing short of a non-cooperative game. But this means that in the absence of further interventions by the Central Bank, time has value (again)!!! In a world of zero-interest rate policy, such an achievement may have a relevance that goes beyond a steepener curve in the EUR funds market or the new dynamic between the EONIA and Refi rate. At the moment, one can only intuit that it will be supportive of risk and hence the Euro.
Initially, it may very well confuse the market, representing an opportunity to buy risk, including (physical) precious metals for the long term. But as I proposed earlier, in 2013 I expect imbalances to grow, and the most important gauge of these imbalances will be the value of the Euro. The higher it gets, the more difficult it will become for the Euro zone periphery to repay its debt. And I will have more to say about this in coming letters.
Published on January 15th 2013
In one sentence, during 2013, I expect imbalances to grow…
Click here to read this article in pdf format: January 15 2013
In the same fashion that I proposed an analytic framework for 2012, I want to lay out today what I think will be the big themes of 2013. Their drivers were established in September 2012, and I sought to give a thorough description of them here, here and here.
An analytic framework for 2013
In one sentence, during 2013, I expect imbalances to grow. These imbalances are theUS fiscal and trade deficits, the fiscal deficits of the members of the European Monetary Union (EMU) and the unemployment rate of the EMU thanks to a stronger Euro. A stronger Euro is the consequence of capital inflows driven by the elimination of jump-to-default risk in EMU sovereign debt. Below is a drawing I made to help visualize these concepts:
The drawing shows a circular dynamic playing out: The threat of the European Central Bank to purchase the debt of sovereigns (that submit to a fiscal adjustment program) eliminates the jump-to-default risk of this asset class. As explained and forecasted in September, this threat also forces a convergence in sovereign yields within the EMU, to lower levels. As long as the market perceives that the solvency of Germany is not affected, the Bund yields will not rise to that convergence level. So far, the market seems not to see that (Possunt quia posse uidentur). But the resulting appreciation of the Euro will eventually address that illusion.
This convergence, in my view, is behind the recent weakness in Treasuries. I proposed this thesis last September. However, the ongoing weakness in Treasuries does not mean I was right. In fact, I fear I may have been right for the wrong reasons. The negotiations on the US fiscal deficit and the latest announcement of the Fed with regards to debt monetization quantitative easing to infinity may also be behind this move. But until proven wrong, I will cautiously hold to my thesis.
The above factors drove capital inflows back to the European Monetary Union and strengthened the Euro. I believe this strength will last longer than many can endure. The circularity of this all resides in that the strength of the Euro will make unemployment and fiscal deficits a structural feature of the EMU, forcing the ECB to keep the threat of and eventually implementing the Open Monetary Transactions. The alternative is a social uprising and that will not be tolerated by the Euro kleptocracy.
All this -and particularly the strength of the Euro- is not sustainable. Ad infinitum, it would create a Euro so strong that the periphery would drag coreEuropein its bankruptcy. But while it lasts, the compression in sovereign yield will mask the increasing default risks in Euro corporate debt, specially the one denominated in US dollars. Both have been fuelling the rise in the value of equities globally.
The unsustainable framework rests upon the shoulders of the Federal Reserve, which thanks to the established USD swaps and unlimited Quantitative Easing, has completely coupled its balance sheet to that of the European Central Bank. In the end, as this new set of relative prices between asset classes sets in, it will be more difficult for the European Central Bank to sterilize the Open Monetary Transactions.
History provides an example of the current growth in imbalances
By now, it should be clear that the rally in equities is not the reflection of upcoming economic growth. Paraphrasing Shakespeare, economic growth “should be made of sterner stuff”.
Under the current framework, the European Central Bank can afford to engage in the purchase of sovereign debt because the Fed is indirectly financing the European private sector. The Fed does so with the backstop of USD swaps and tangible quantitative easing, which provides cheap USD funding to European banks and thus avoids a credit contraction of the sorts we began to see at the end of 2011.
This same structure was in place between the Federal Reserve and the central banks of France and England in 1927, 1928 and 1929 and, as a witness declared, “(it) transformed the depression of 1929 into the Great Depression of 1931”. Something tells me that this time however it will be different. It will be worse. That little something is the determination of the new Japanese government to devalue its currency via purchases of European sovereign debt (ESM debt).
How fragile is this Entente?
Most analysts I have read/heard, focus on the political fragility of the framework. And they are right. The uncertainty over theUSdebt ceiling negotiations and the fact that prices today do not reflect anything else but the probability of a bid or lack thereof by a central bank makes politics relevant. Should the European Central Bank finally engage in Open Monetary Transactions, the importance of politics would be fully visible.
However, unemployment is “the” fundamental underlying factor in this story and I do not think it will fall. In the long term, financial repression, including zero-interest rate policies, simply hurt investment demand and productivity. I do not see unemployment dictating the rhythm in 2013, indirectly through defaults. Furthermore, in the meantime, the picture may look different, because “…we should not be surprised if, under zero-interest-rate policies in the developed world, we witness a growing trend in corporate leverage, with vertical integration, share buybacks and private equity funds taking public companies private…”. This is obviously supportive of risk.
No systemic meltdown in 2013?
From earlier letters, you know that I believe quasi-fiscal deficits (i.e. deficits from a central bank) are a necessary condition for a meltdown to occur, and that these usually appear when deposits begin to seriously evaporate. So far, capital is leaving main street (via leveraged share buybacks and dividends), but at the same time, it is being parked at banks in the form of deposits. The case of Wells Fargo and the temporary pause in the flight of deposits from the periphery of the European Union suggest that the process towards a meltdown, if any (and I believe there will be one), will be a long agony. Furthermore, in the short term, at the end of January, European banks have the option to repay the money lent by the European Central Bank in the Long-Term Refinancing Operations from a year ago, on a weekly basis. I expect them to repay enough to cause more pain to those still long of gold (including me, of course).
2013,currency swaps,debt monetization,deposits,ECB,equity,Euro,European Central Bank,Fed,framework,gold,Great Depression,imbalances,long-term refinancing operation,LTRO,meltdown,OMT,Open Monetary Transactions,periphery,QE,Quantitative Easing,share buybacks,unemployment,US Treasuries,USD,Wells Fargo,zero-interest rate policy
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Published on August 6th 2012
Click here to read this article in pdf format: August 6 2012 Today is a holiday in Canada and our letter is published later than usual. We will make a few comments on what we believe were the most relevant events impacting capital markets (do these still exist, by the way?) last week: No news [...]
Click here to read this article in pdf format: August 6 2012
Today is a holiday in Canada and our letter is published later than usual. We will make a few comments on what we believe were the most relevant events impacting capital markets (do these still exist, by the way?) last week:
No news on monetary policy
During the past week, both the Fed and the European Central Bank had the opportunity to execute on new policies, be it price or volume driven. As we anticipated in our last letter, these banks decided to past on such an opportunity. There is really nothing else they can effectively do, except explicitly monetize sovereign debt. If they opt for unconventional policies, the medicine will have a worse effect than the sickness, although we want to make this clear: Monetizing sovereign debt is also not the solution. However, it buys time and is the less distorting of all available measures. Having said this, if we are right, the rally we saw in the Euro was only short-covering and soon, we will have to enter a new downward leg.
Relevering of corporate balance sheets: Rich shareholders, poor corporations
A few months ago, we warned that: “…in the past 10 years, you have seen the S&P500 index fluctuate, nominally, without making any “improvement”. This has huge ramifications and one of them is that businessmen who would want to monetize the fruit of their labour would not be able to do so, on average, because if they are lucky, they only break even when they sell their businesses. If you were one of them, what would you do in the face of the recent monetary expansion?
I for one would leverage my company with cheap credit lines and distribute (or increase the distribution of) dividends, to cash out. And this is precisely what we are seeing and will continue to see: Leverage seems to have bottomed and now is reverting in corporates. This is not positive for growth and hence, we don’t want to own shares. We don’t want to own mining companies. We understand that the recent rally was fully driven by the expansion of the Fed (via swaps) and the European Central Bank (via Long-Term Refinancing Operations). We are simple investors and are humble enough to know that we will not be able to call the exact day in which the reversal in stocks takes place…”
This trend is increasingly becoming more evident, as new multi-billion shares-buyback programs and dividend raises are announced every week. Who’s financing this? Banks mostly and they will be sorry for it by the time interest rates (i.e. real interest rates go up). In the meantime, let’s enjoy the party!
Reconsidering our last comments on the repo market: Why we may be proven wrong
At the end of our letter on June 25th, we brought up what we thought was a sharp comment from Murray Rothbard, in his book “America’s Great Depression”. In its Chapter 12, under the section titled: “The attack on property rights: The final currency failure”, Rothbard told us that: “…despite the gigantic efforts of the Fed, during early 1933, to inflate the money supply, the people took matters into their own hands, and insisted upon a rigorous deflation (gauged by the increase of money in circulation)— and a rigorous testing of the country’s banking system in which they had placed their trust…”
We concluded therefore that this crisis has to end with a rigorous deflation or liquidation of liabilities, which must be expressed in terms of a new standard. In the ‘30s, the US dollar was still backed by gold and gold was the Fed’s asset. Today, the US dollar is backed by US Treasuries. Therefore, we concluded, “to insist upon a rigorous deflation” is to repudiate the US Treasury notes. On July 2nd, we made the case that such a repudiation was going to take the form of lower volumes in the repo market. By that, we meant illiquidity in the repo market. The same was going to make harder to short commodities naked, brining eventually one net short position in the futures markets to bankruptcy. In the process, counterparty risk would rise exponentially endangering the respective clearinghouse and forcing the Fed to intervene. The key conclusion here was that from that point on, spot prices of commodities were no longer going to be manipulated, given the broken futures markets, opening the door to high inflation.
As the title of this paragraph suggests, we may be wrong in this analysis. What makes us think so? New information: Namely, the potential massive use of floating rate notes (FRNs) by the US Treasury, starting 2013. We want clarify this: The introduction of FRNs will not suppress the process described above. It will only delay it and make the fall even more catastrophic.
The new information came to us upon reflection, based on a series of anonymous articles published on Zerohedge.com, regarding the upcoming change in the funding policy of the US Treasury. Please, find the links to these articles below. Give yourselves some time to read them carefully. They are worth it. We present them in chronological order:
Floating Rate Notes are variable rate notes. If you hold them and rates increase, for instance, you don’t suffer a capital loss. Since the beginning of the crisis, the US Treasury has basically issued fixed rate debt. The long term portion of it, courtesy of Operation Twist, is being massively bought by the Fed. The short end, is accumulating in the balance sheets of the primary dealers. If interest rates were to rise, these dealers would suffer untold capital losses, and it would be politically difficult to bail them out. Therefore, the same dealers are pushing the US Treasury to slowly start refinancing this short-term fixed rate notes in their inventory with floating rate notes. That way, by the time interest rates rise, the problem will have already been transferred to the US taxpayer, who will be in a deeper hole.
What does all this have to do with our previous analysis of the repo market? Well, if floating rate notes are issued, they will have a strong bid from money market funds and liquidity will be enhanced in the repo market, which would continue funding the commodity futures markets.
However, with the US Treasury facing a higher fiscal cliff, the Fed would be forced to intervene buying not only the long-term, but the also short-term debt, to ensure that inflation transforms these higher nominal short-term rates into lower “real” rates. The Fed would not do this only to save the US Treasury, but also the private sector. Why? As short-term liquidity shifts from commercial paper to government-issued floating rate notes, levered companies (and we just said companies are pushing leverage) would have a hard time finding short-term working capital funding. Potentially, and only years ahead, this could well end in situations seen in Latin America, where banks offered weekly or weekend guaranteed investment certificates at high rates. Gold, again, would end up being “the” store of value. But this, this is years ahead and in the making.
The consequences of high frequency trading and the myth that it is needed to bring liquidity to markets
High frequency trading was brought back to light in the past week, after the tremendous losses suffered by the Knight Capital Group. We don’t have much time but want to simply say this: The whole idea that high frequency trading brings liquidity to markets is born out of a misconception of liquidity. And here, we go with the Austrian school: Liquidity is not and should never be intrinsic to an asset, but is the result of preference by acting men.
Secondly, High frequency trading does not even provide liquidity. It just plays the operational weaknesses of markets. In a casino, when the croupier says “rien ne va plus”, all the real bids are locked. In a stock exchange, it appears that this doesn’t happen, allowing high frequency traders to introduce false signals to trigger stop losses or profit taking. If that is liquidity, our markets are broken. It is another Ponzi scheme, with no real cash at the end, played within mili-seconds.
But the underlying point here is that we should not force liquidity into all stocks. If some are not liquid, it is for a reason and providing fake demand via high-frequency trading is an expensive mistake. If the world allows high frequency trading to continue, it will end, paradoxically, in illiquid markets. The real money will leave markets and flow to real assets, because if liquidity means being exposed to the manipulation of high frequency trading….why pay a premium to be liquid?
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