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 December 18th 2012
What causes hyperinflations? The answer is: Quasi-fiscal deficits! Why have we not seen hyperinflation yet? Because we have not had quasi-fiscal deficits!
Please, click here to read this article in pdf format: December 18 2012
As anticipated in my previous letter, today I want to discuss the topic of high or hyperinflation: What triggers it? Is there a common feature in hyperinflations that would allow us to see one when it’s coming? If so, can we make an educated guess as to when to expect it? The analysis will be inductive (breaking with the Austrian method) and in the process, I will seek to help Peter Schiff find an easy answer to give the media whenever he’s questioned about hyperinflation. If my thesis is correct, three additional conclusions should hold: a) High inflation and high nominal interest rates are not incompatible but go together: There cannot be hyperinflation without high nominal interest rates, b) The folks at the Gold Anti-Trust Action Committee will eventually be out of a job, and c) Jim Rogers will have been proved wrong on his recommendation to buy farmland.
(Before we deal with these questions, a quick note related to my last letter: A friend pointed me to this article in Zerohedge.com, where the problem on liquidity being diverted back to shareholders in the form of share buybacks and dividends was exposed, before I would bring it up, on my letter of March 4th. )
A forensic analysis on dead currencies
When I think of hyperinflation, I think of dead currencies. They are the best evidence. There is a common pattern to be found in every one of them and no, I am not talking of six-to-eight-figure denomination bills or shortages of goods. These are just symptoms. Behind the death of every currency in modern times, there has been a quasi-fiscal deficit causing it. Thus, briefly, when someone asks: What causes hyperinflations? The answer is: Quasi-fiscal deficits! Why have we not seen hyperinflation yet? Because we have not had quasi-fiscal deficits!
What is a quasi-fiscal deficit?
A quasi-fiscal deficit is the deficit of a central bank. From Germany to Argentina to Zimbabwe, the hyper or high inflationary processes have always been fueled by such deficits. Monetized fiscal deficits produce inflation. Quasi-fiscal deficits (by definition, they are monetized) produce hyperinflation. Remember that capital losses due to the mark down of assets do not affect central banks: They simply don’t need to mark to market. They mark to model.
The only losses that can meaningfully affect central banks stem from flows (i.e. deficits), like net interest losses. These losses result from paying a higher interest on their (i.e. central banks’) liabilities than what they receive from their assets. These losses leave central banks no alternative but to monetize them, in a deadly feedback loop. They are like black holes: Once trapped into them, there is no way out, because (fiscal) spending cuts are no longer relevant, unless they produce a surplus material enough to offset the quasi-fiscal deficits. And that, by definition, is impossible.
This raises questions like: Why would a central bank need to pay interest on its liabilities? Why would the monetization of the losses necessarily lead to a spiralling process?
Why would a central bank need to pay interest on its liabilities?
This is a key point to understand inflation. According to mainstream economists, inflation is a process that pops once the potential output gap of a currency zone is eliminated. Inflation is the consequence of reaching full employment of resources, they say, and place the situation within the context of “hydraulics”. In the figure below, I illustrate this context, showing two glasses: One is not full, and therefore, there should not be inflationary pressures.
Please, do not laugh at the figure. It also contains a citation from a speech given by Fed’s Governor Jeremy C. Stein a few months ago, that uses this same metaphor to illustrate how the Fed thinks about their policies. If it wasn’t so sad, it would be comic. And it is sad because there is absolutely no historical evidence of a nation sustainably living under inflation that would have reached full employment. In fact, it is quite the opposite: Inflation breeds unemployment, which breeds shortages and further inflation. This is why this whole situation is so sad. Millions of lives have been and will continue to be ruined because of this error.
The truth is however that inflation and financial repression are inseparable. They are different faces of the same coin, and as inflation develops, financial repression morphs into plain confiscation. As at December 2012, we have only had increasing financial repression, mostly in the form of price manipulation. Some of this manipulation is open, as with interest rates, and some of it is covered, as with gold, the consumer price index or the unemployment rate. But as the US fiscal deficits grows, the manipulation will be increasingly open and the fear of confiscation will be very tangible. Yes, the manipulation will be so open that even the GATA (Gold Anti-Trust Action Committee) will completely lose its raison d’être. It will be worthless to expose what will be public.
With regards to the fear of confiscation, there is a good example in the drop in deposits from the banks in the periphery of the Euro zone. Any rational investor could see that his bank was being coerced into purchasing the worthless debt of its sovereign and that the likelihood of being caught in a bank run was exponentially rising. Policy makers in the Euro zone chose not to confiscate. It was too early to do so, in the presence of other alternatives. But deposits dropped nevertheless, and to restore them, the European Central Bank will have to pay higher interest rates on its sterilized purchases, when it finally engages in Open Monetary Transactions (i.e. purchase of sovereign debt with maturity under three years). I explained this in September: Since the backstop of the ECB removes jump-to-default risk from the front end (i.e. 1 to 3 years, in sovereign debt), selling the sovereign debt to the central bank for cash will be a losing proposition for banks. The Euro zone banks will demand that the purchases be sterilized, to receive central bank debt in exchange and at an acceptable interest rate. This rate will have to be higher than it currently is. This is why, in my opinion, we are seeing a stronger Euro and weaker Treasuries.
Why would a government want to maintain a certain level of deposits?
Governments need bank deposits to fund the bonds they force their banks to buy. The regulations, the pressure on the bankers, the open threats are all part of the same means to coerce bankers to fund their debts with your savings. Is this what was behind the failed moves in 2012 to destroy the US money market funds?
Essentially, hyperinflation is the ultimate and most expensive bailout of a broken banking system, which every holder of the currency is forced to pay for in a losing proposition, for it inevitably ends in its final destruction. Hyperinflation is the vomit of economic systems: Just like any other vomit, it’s a very good thing, because we can all finally feel better. We have puked the rotten stuff out of the system.
Why would depositors not want to renew deposits?
Whenever the weight of deficits passes a certain milestone, people begin to flee en masse from the system. They not only take their savings from the system, but they generate income outside it too. This has happened since times immemorial. Below is a picture of buried coins, found in Hertfordshire. They are presumed to have been hoarded in 4th century during the final years of Roman rule.
Then and now, the tax pressure ended breaking capital markets and trade. In the early stages, everyone seeks to stop investing and collect by any means whatever capital that can be recovered. Nobody should be surprised if, with these low interest rates, the wave of share buybacks and dividend payments increases. The shrinkage of the system exacerbates the fall in tax revenue and the intervention of central banks, leading to the self fulfilling outcome of quasi-fiscal deficits. Production falls and the shortage of goods, together with the increase in the circulation of money, triggers high inflation. Price controls follow. If this is correct, Jim Rogers is wrong and you should not buy farmland. Farming will not be profitable. The increase in food prices would not be a signal to encourage farming, but the reflection of the fact that farming is not profitable because it is easy to tax. Hence, the food shortages. The same applies to real estate in general, as the rule of the mob spreads and the rights of debtors and tenants are favoured over those of creditors and landlords. Hyperinflation therefore is not just a run from a currency, but from the economic system entirely. Thousands of years of Diaspora are screaming to us in the face that the advantage of gold as an easy-to-transport and store asset is not to be underestimated.
Why have we not seen a quasi-fiscal deficit yet and how close are we to see one?
I think that at this point one can easily see how high nominal interest rates (to attract deposits) and hyperinflation go together. The loss of confidence in the system pushes nominal rates higher, which causes even more pain to produce, unleashing shortages of goods and higher prices. Von Mises, for instance, remembered that in the case of the German hyperinflation, “…With a (my note: nominal) 900 per cent interest rate in September 1923 the Reichsbank was practically giving money away…” (Chapter 7, in “Money, Method, and the Market Process”).
Frankly, I do not have a definitive answer to the question of why we have not seen a quasi-fiscal deficit yet. But I can intuit that we are still far from seeing one. There are many factors at play. The existence of coercive pension plans (i.e. monies coercively taken from salaries to fund collective distributions) could be playing an important role. These funds are “other peoples’ monies” to their managers and they will not risk their careers to protect them from governments that force them to assign a zero risk weight to US Treasury holdings. It is conceivable that as funds are burdened with losses, the contributors wake up to them and decide that at a certain point, one is better off working outside the system than in it, to avoid this hidden tax. Just like Romans left the city, millions of workers in the developed world may decide to become self-employed and leave the system. This is a typical characteristic of under-developed economies.
So far, the Federal Reserve does not even need to sterilize what it prints. The European Central Bank did have to sterilize but the market does not demand an interest rate on its liabilities, higher than that of the sovereign debt it purchases. Not yet…Perhaps because the market somehow still believes that institutional structure of the European Monetary Union is fixable. Further downgrades in the risk rating of core Europe, the concurrent rise in the yields ofGermany’s sovereign debt and corporate defaults in USD denominated bonds will eventually wipe this belief. For now, the European Central Bank has been successful in not even having to pay interest on deposits.
If I have to think of a main and most likely trigger of quasi-fiscal deficits, I have to name the future bailout of the next wave in corporate defaults, particularly from the Euro zone.
bunds,confiscation,ECB,European Central Bank,Fed,financial repression,gold,hyperinflation,Jim Rogers,money,Peter Schiff,quasi-fiscal deficits,share buybacks
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Published on December 9th 2012
“…If you tax a nation to death, destroy its capital markets, nourish its unemployment, condemn it to an expensive currency and give its corporations liquidity at stupidly low costs you can only expect one outcome: Defaults….”
Click here to read this article in pdf format: December 9 2012
Today, I want to summarize what we covered over the year. During 2012, I sought to address both theory and market developments. Under an Austrian approach, I discussed many macroeconomic topics: the effect of zero interest rates, the myth of decoupling (between the US and the Euro zone), collateralized monetary systems (as imposed by the European Central Bank), the technical (but not realistic) possibility of a smooth exit from the Euro zone, the destruction of the capital markets by financial repression, the link between the futures, repo and gold markets and consumer prices (I don’t like the word “consumer prices”, but it is better than speaking of a “price level”), insider trading, circular reasoning in mainstream economics, high-frequency trading, what can precipitate the end game to this crisis, the technicalities of a transition to a gold standard, the conditions for a successful implementation of the gold standard, and the flawed logic behind the Chicago plan, as proposed by Benes & Kumhof.
Let’s now briefly follow up on each of the market themes I covered in 2012:
1.-There has been no decoupling: The Euro zone is coupled to the US dollar zone
At the end of 2011, when the collapse of the banking system in the Euro zone (courtesy of M. Trichet) was dragging the rest of the world, the Swiss National Bank established a peg on the Franc to the Euro and the Federal Reserve extended and cheapened its currency swaps with the European Central Bank. These two measures –indirectly- coupled the fate of the assets in the balance sheets of the Euro zone banks to the balance sheets of the central banks of Switzerland and the US.
As in any other Ponzi scheme, when the weakest link breaks, the chain breaks. The risk of such a break-up, applied to economics, is known as systemic risk or “correlation going to 1”. As the weakest link (i.e. the Euro zone) was coupled to the chain of the Fed, global systemic risk (or correlation) dropped. Apparently, those managing a correlation trade in IG9 (i.e. investment grade credit index series 9) for a well-known global bank did not understand this. But it would be misguided to conclude that the concept has now been understood, because there are too many analysts and fund managers who still interpret this coupling as a success at eliminating or decreasing tail risk. No such thing could be farther from the truth. What they call tail risk, namely the break-up of the Euro zone is not a “tail” risk. It is the logical consequence of the institutional structure of the European Monetary Union, which lacks fiscal union and a common balance sheet. I am not in favour of such, but in its absence, to think that the break-up is a tail risk is to hide one’s head in the sand. And to think that because corporations and banks in the Euro zone now have access to cheap US dollar funding, the recession will not bring defaults, will be a very costly mistake. Those potential defaults are not a tail risk either: If you tax a nation to death, destroy its capital markets, nourish its unemployment, condemn it to an expensive currency and give its corporations liquidity at stupidly low costs you can only expect one outcome: Defaults. The fact that they shall be addressed with even more US dollars coming from the Fed in no way justifies complacency.
In January of 2012, I laid out an analytic framework to visualize the dynamics between these two currency zones. I reproduce the figure below without comment, as it is self explanatory:
In February, I anticipated that the European Central Bank was eventually going to need to floor the value of sovereign debt. It took about seven more painful months to see this take place, with the announcement of the Open Monetary Transactions. With this in mind, I suggested not to chase the stock rally and warned that shorting the euro would be a painful trade.
2.- Manipulation in the gold market
From my years at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, I always remember professors J. M. Fanelli and Daniel Heymann, because they used to and still think that policy makers (in Argentina) had no choice but to “manage” the price of the US dollar (vs. the peso) to fight inflation. The value of the US dollar, in pesos, was a signal that shaped inflation expectations, according to them. In the same fashion, I am convinced that those at the helm of the G7 central banks believe that to shape inflation expectations and avoid the burst of the bond bubble, they need to manage the price of gold. And that is exactly what they have been doing (via swaps, leases from their deposits at below market rates), since Standard & Poor’s downgraded the sovereign risk rating of the US. They are wrong of course and in time, it will prove to have been an expensive decision. The proof? Movements like the $100/oz drop upon the announcement of the second Long-term Refinancing Operation at the end of February. Nobody who lives marked to market would ever dump so much gold in seconds in a market, let alone do so sustainably and predictably, as it often happens, between 10am and 11am ET. I am convinced that had it not been for this manipulation, gold would have had a stellar performance this year. But how serious can I sound debating a counter-factual statement?
3.-Liquidity will not fund capital expenditures but share buybacks, dividends
In March, we were perhaps the first to suggest that the US dollar liquidity enabled by the Fed via swaps was going to be used to buy back shares and distribute dividends, rather than finance capital expenditures (I say “perhaps” because a few days later David Rosenberg expressed the same view). This is a typical outcome of financial repression. Nations under financial repression generate bankrupt companies owned by wealthy owners. Time will tell but so far, numerous articles have been suggesting that this trend is taking place (Eric Beinstein, from JP Morgan, shows evidence to the contrary, in his latest Credit Markets Outlook report). Because of this, I proposed that as a trading theme, one should buy the product, rather than the producers, which is a winning trade in inflationary environments. Therefore, the suggestion was to buy gold, rather than gold miners.
4.-To defend their currency, the Euro zone destroyed its capital markets
(At this stage, I think no comments are needed on this point, which I made in March.)
5.- Sovereign debt owned by other sovereigns is a concern
In March too, I noticed that the situation in 2012 resembles that of 1931, as Greece and increasingly other peripheral EU countries owe to other governments, the IMF and the European Central Bank. Private investors have been wiped out and just like in 1931 (when France, for political reasons, allowed the KreditAnstalt to go bankrupt), when the next bailout is due, political conditions will be demanded that no private and rational investor would demand.
6.-Canada’s story will be different
In April, I proposed that the Canadian context was different and that rather than expect contagion from the banking system to the government, in Canada, we should expect contagion from the government to the banking system. I still expect this deterioration to be triggered by an exogenous development (i.e. outside Canada) and the reaction of the Canadian dollar to the revised unemployment rate on December 7th may be telling us that this view has merit.
7.- September marked a tectonic shift
I will not elaborate on the points below. I wrote extensively about them in September (see here, here and here), but I need to mention them because they are very relevant for the next year. These points, I must clarify, are my best case scenario, because the necessary condition for their validity is that Spain and any other peripheral country in need of a bailout asks for one and receives the support of the European Central Bank (ECB) in exchange :
-The market will arbitrage the rates of core Europe and its periphery, converging into a single Euro zone target yield (with higher German rates).
-We will no longer be able to talk about “the” risk-free rate of interest, when we refer to the US sovereign yield. Inflation expectations will pick up
-The Canadian dollar should not rise significantly above the US dollar (i.e. above $1.04 per 1 CAD).
-The ECB backstop (i.e. purchase of sovereign debt) generates capital gains for the banks of the Euro zone and transforms risky sovereign debt into a carry product (i.e. an asset whose price is mostly driven by the interest it pays, rather than its risk of default, because this risk has been removed by the central bank)
This implies that in the future, sterilization at low rates or the suggested negative deposit rates at the European Central Bank, under Open Monetary Transactions, will not be feasible. Banks will demand high rates in exchange, if they are to sell the debt to the central bank.
In my next letter, and likely the last one of the year, I will address the topic of why we have not yet seen high or hyper inflation and what is necessary, in general, to see this phenomenon take place.
The letter will go dedicated to Peter Schiff. In it, I will seek to show that unlike Keynesian economists believe, not only are high nominal interest rates compatible with high inflation, but in fact they are a necessary condition for high inflation to exist and morph into hyperinflation. This is a paradox to mainstream economics…and, coming from Argentina, I love paradoxes.
A final observation, on method
As my approach is within the Austrian school, you may have noticed that I use praxeology. ( “a theorem of a praxeological science provides information that has been derived by sheer reasoning; it is the product of pure logic without the assistance of any empirical observation”, I. Kirzner). Hence, you find almost no statistics in my articles. My aversion to them is due to my view that the national accounting system used to date is simply a barbaric relic of mercantilist doctrine. But that’s a story for another time… I walk through problems using simple axioms and test their logic with identities (i.e. balance sheets). Mainstream economists, on the other hand, use equations. Hence, they need to “torture” their stats to prove their propositions, because they are inductive. I use deduction.
Austrian school,Benes,Canada,capital markets,Chicago Plan,circular reasoning,collateralized monetary systems,decoupling,defaults,dividends,End game,Euro-zone,European Central Bank,Fed,Federal Reserve,financial repression,futures market,gold market,gold standard,HFT,high frequency trading,insider trading,Kumhof,mainstream economics,Open Monetary Transactions,praxeology,repo market,share buybacks,zero interest rates,ZIRP
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Published on November 22nd 2012
“…We cannot arbitrage fiat money, but we can repudiate the sovereign debt that backs it! And that repudiation will be the defining moment of this crisis…”
(click here to read this article in pdf format: November 22 2012)
About a month ago, in the third-quarter report of a Canadian global macro fund, its strategist made the interesting observation that “…Four ideas in particular have caught the fancy of economic policy makers and have been successfully sold to the public…” One of these ideas “…that has taken root, at least among the political and intellectual classes, is that one need not fear fiscal deficits and debt provided one has monetary sovereignty…”. This idea is currently growing, particularly after Obama’s re-election. But it was only after writing our last letter, on the revival of the Chicago Plan (as proposed in an IMF’ working paper), that we realized that the idea is morphing into another one among Keynesians: That because there cannot be a gold-to-US dollar arbitrage like in 1933, governments do indeed have the monetary sovereignty.
Is this true? Today’s letter will seek to show why it is not, and in the process, it will also describe the endgame for the current crisis. Without further ado…
After the fall of the KreditAnstalt in 1931, with the world living under the gold-exchange standard, depositors first in central Europe, and later in France and England, began to withdraw their deposits and buy gold, challenging the reserves of their respective central banks. The leverage that linked the balance sheet of each central bank had been provided by currency swaps, a novelty at the time, which had openly been denounced by Jacques Rueff. One by one, central banks were forced to leave the gold standard (i.e. devalue) until in 1933, it was the Fed’s turn. The story is well known and the reason this process was called an “arbitrage” is simply that there can never be one asset with two prices. In this case, gold had an “official”, government guaranteed price and a market price, in terms of fiat money (i.e. schillings, pounds, francs, US dollars). The consolidated balance sheets of the central bank, financial institutions and non-financial sector looked like this before the run:
And like this after the run:
Indeed, those who claim that today is different and make the dangerous case that “…one need not fear fiscal deficits and debt provided one has monetary sovereignty…” refer to this crucial difference in the balance sheet of the central banks then (i.e. in the ‘30s) and now:
And they are right: There cannot be any arbitrage, because there is no real asset to exchange fiat currency against. Only fiat vs. fiat (i.e. currency vs. government debt). But does this mean that the governments have monetary sovereignty? Does this mean there will not be an end game? I don’t think so. We cannot arbitrage fiat money, but we can repudiate the sovereign debt that backs it! And that repudiation will be the defining moment of this crisis. The key to understand how this will occur lies in focusing in the shadow banking system, rather than the banking system. In the universe of shadow banking we do not back fiat currency with real assets, but we provide sovereign debt as collateral to obtain the fiat currency necessary to establish positions in the commodities markets.
Some preliminary details
Our first assumption is therefore that the debt of the sovereign that issues the world’s reserve currency is repudiated. We can think of many events that would trigger that reaction: A monetary policy of the Fed that continues to enable fiscal deficits (something that already Jacques Rueff explained in the ‘30s) or the coming burst of the European Yankee market bubble (i.e. US dollar denominated debt issued by European corporations). Whatever the reason, the repudiation will have an impact in the repo market, which finances positions in the commodities markets.
Consider a trader in the commodities futures market. To finance his trading activity, he pledges collateral in the repo market, and receives cash. The collateral is often US sovereign debt and those supplying the cash in exchange for it are money market funds, under repurchase agreements. This secured financing entails the actual exchange of ownership, title on the collateral, which is “warehoused” in the balance sheet of the “lender”.
With the funds, the trader enters into a futures contract in the commodities market, but facing a central counterparty (clearinghouse). The trader has to post an initial and a maintenance margin. While the futures contract is in place, the trader (and his counterparty, the clearinghouse) will have an unrealized gain or a loss. As long as the contract is on, the trader will have to adjust the margin according to the gains or losses. At maturity of the contract, the trader can settle in cash or by delivery. At a consolidated level, however, there has to be a delivery of the commodity, at an auction, for the market (usually not higher than 1% of contract settlements). In the end, the trader must repurchase the collateral it had given to the money market funds, at a price equivalent to the principal plus accrued interest (i.e. repo rate). Below we show these steps in a chart, with real samples of how a hedge fund would show these transactions in its financial statements:
The End Game
Now that we are familiar with the steps above, think what would happen, if the US sovereign debt began to be repudiated, just like the debt of Italy or Spain. At the beginning, the repo rate (i.e. the interest rate charged by the money market funds) to lend to the commodity markets players would increase, making trading in commodities futures more onerous. Immediately after, however, liquidity would disappear as those investing in money market funds seek only short-term exposure with minimum risk. As well, given that most central banks hold US sovereign debt as reserves, one would expect an increase in global concern and a flight to safety in real assets.
With the rise in the cost of funding (i.e. repo rate) and the rise in commodity prices, it is to be expected that one trader short of a futures contract may suffer substantial losses. The increase in counterparty risk or the increase of a failure by a central counterparty (i.e. clearinghouse) would jump. And I think the jump would be so significant that even the delivery of physical commodities at auctions would be at risk.
The failure of a central counterparty is not new. In 1974, the Caisse de Liquidation failed on margin calls defaults associated with sugar futures contracts. In 1983, the Kuala Lumpur Commodities Clearinghouse crashed on palm oil futures and in 1987, the Hong Kong Futures Exchange clearinghouse failed also due to futures contracts, in equities.
Should a scenario like the above unfold, the Fed would likely be forced to intervene, inter-mediating between the money market funds and the commodities futures market. It could do so by issuing its own debt to money market funds (or any lender in the repo market) and using the proceeds to enter into repurchase agreements with traders in the commodities markets. The chart below illustrates this scenario:
Let’s take a close look at the balance sheet of the Fed, once it enters the repo market. A few observations are relevant:
a) The Fed would now fund positions in the commodities markets
b) Operationally, the Fed would probably mark the repoed Treasuries to model, not to market. Like the European Central Bank does today with Greek or Spanish bonds.
c) The Fed would not “print” money. They would simply raise funds from the shadow banking system by issuing its own debt. Therefore, they would have to pay an interest rate high enough to entice money market funds to buy it.
d) The Fed would not be able to “refuse” US Treasuries repoed. It would have to buy all the US Treasuries offered in repurchase agreements at their “marked-to-model” rate. But the money market funds could refuse to lend to the Fed, if a market rate is not offered.
And here is the catch, because in order to raise US dollars from the shadow banking system, the Fed would have to pay a higher rate than it would charge for its repurchase agreements. Otherwise, there would be no need to intervene the broken repo market, to start with!
And what would traders in the commodities markets do with the “cheap” financing provided by the Fed? Why, buy gold among other real assets!
This would constitute a much worse scenario, than the laughed at arbitrage that Keynesians so proudly say today is not possible, from fiat currency to gold.
Under this scenario, the rest of the world would get their hands on the reserves of central banks (i.e. US Treasuries) to dump them in the Fed’s balance sheet via the repo market and recycle the US dollars it obtains with money market funds, to receive Fed debt! (See chart below). In the process, the rate the Fed would have to pay to raise US dollars from the shadow banking system would have to spiral, sending a wave of bankruptcies across the US dollar zone, including the Yankee market. The Fed would be forced to increase its currency swaps and at the same time continue doing unlimited quantitative easing. The currency swaps would be extended to delay the inevitable defaults in global US dollar denominated bonds and the quantitative easing would be necessary because, given the high interest rates and defaults, even with austerirty, the fiscal deficits would continue, as tax revenues fall driven by the collapse of activity.
And now, the cherry on the top: How would the Fed cover its net interest losses, between its debt and the US Treasuries it would repo? By issuing currency!! This quasi fiscal deficit would lead us to double-digit inflation and if left unaddressed, would end in hyperinflation. The process would end when the US dollar loses its status as a global reserve currency, a status that the Fed would seek to defend at all costs, repoing Treasuries in the commodities futures markets.
For the sake of intellectual honesty, I want to end this exercise laying out the main assumptions:
The first and foremost critical assumption is that there will be a repudiation of US sovereign debt. The second assumption is that this repudiation will break the repo market enhancing counterparty risk in those markets where the funding is sourced from the repo market. I think these two assumptions are reasonable and the spike in the price of gold to $1,900/oz was in my view triggered first by the speculation and later by the confirmation of the downgrade to AA+ of the US credit rating by Standard & Poor’s. It has also seemed very curious to me that since that moment, and in a very strange way, the gold market became more volatile, with violent triggered sales, on no relevant news (But this is pure speculation, only proper to myself, of course).
The third assumption is that the Fed would intervene in the way I suggest. And this, indeed, is more debatable. It is certainly not the only way the Fed could act. There are other “versions”, but this is the more likely in my opinion and others have led to the same results, in other countries at other times (refer for instance, the “Cuenta de Regulación Monetaria” implemented by Argentina in 1978, where the central bank paid a subsidy on interest-bearing deposits and cashed a penalty on chequing accounts). Also, bear in mind that if this scenario unfolded, nobody would want to take the other leg of the long futures contracts on commodities (for instance, by 1981, the central bank of Argentina had to absorb and finance a loss $5.1BN in foreign exchange swaps from failed counterparties, refer Communication “A” 31 (May 6th, 1981). At the end of 1982, this loss was estimated at $10BN), converting the markets into a one-way ticket to high inflation: The link between forward rates, commodity prices and inflation expectations would be lethal!
Finally, the fact that US policymakers have been busy lately trying to regulate money market funds is to me an indication that I am not alone with these concerns. After a failed attempt by SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro to regulate money funds, on November 13th, the Financial Stability Oversight Council put forth new recommendations to regulate the industry. Of course, some of these recommendations (see “minimum balance at risk”, on page 6 of the document) do not apply to Treasury money market funds, because US sovereign debt is not risky, right?
arbitrage,bank run,central bank,central counterparty,Chicago Plan,clearinghouse,commodities market,cuenta de regulación monetaria,default,End game,European Central Bank,Fed,futures contracts,gold,gold standard,Jacques Rueff,monetary sovereignty,money market funds,quasi fiscal deficit,repo market,repudiation,systemic risk,US Treasuries
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Published on October 14th 2012
As long as fx swaps (USD backstop) remain in place, we will be long gold. The top for the gold market will be reached the day this backstop is eliminated either voluntarily or forced upon the Fed by the market.
Please, click here to read this article in pdf format: October 14 2012
Today, we were supposed to follow up on our last topic (how to shift to a commodity-based standard, with a 100% reserve requirement). However, we will have to leave that for quieter times. Right now, we have to address a few points that we have been making since 2009:
There’s a truly “must-read” book, for anyone who is really interested in understanding how central banks have run the show since the 1920’s: “The monetary sin of the West”, by Jacques Rueff. In his memoirs, M. Rueff makes it clear that the rally that ended in October 1929 was fueled by what we call today currency swaps. Indeed, in 1931 (Robert Triffin was still a student) M. Rueff was writing:
“…There is one innovation which has materially contributed to the difficulties that are besetting the world…(…)… Under this system, central banks are authorized to include in their reserves not only gold and claims denominated in the national currency, but also foreign exchange. The latter, although entered as assets of the central bank which owns it, naturally remains deposited in the country of origin. The use of such a mechanism has the considerable drawback of damping the effects of international capital movements in the financial markets that they affect. For example, funds flowing out of the United States into a country that applies the gold-exchange standard increase by a corresponding amount the money supply in the receiving market, without reducing in any way the money supply in their market of origin. The bank of issue to which they accrue, and which enters them in its reserves, leaves them on deposit in the New York market. There they can, as previously, provide backing for the granting of credit.” Letter to Pierre-Étienne Flandin, October 1st, 1931.
The innovation M. Rueff referred to 81 years ago was what Keynesian economists of the 21st century very mistakenly call “decoupling”; a term that was used precisely to characterize the impact that the reduction in the price (to 50bps) of USD currency swaps had on the funding market, in December of last year. Today, this impact is best reflected in the cost of funding of the world’s carry currency, the US dollar, in terms of Euros. That price is called the Eurodollar swap basis. From the chart below (3-month basis, source: Bloomberg), we see how it has performed since 2008, as a result of interventions. Every time the cost spiraled up (basis down), the Fed intervened with the swaps (i.e. US dollar liquidity lines).
On December 12th, 2011, we explained the mechanics of these swaps, and in January 2012, tired of reading the idiotic claim that policy makers had decoupled the US from the Euro zone, we wrote in a note titled “There is no decoupling” that : “…The big mistake is to call this a decoupling, because it is precisely the opposite: The problems of the Euro zone are now really coupled to the Fed’s balance sheet! A decoupling would consist actually in letting the Euro zone banks collapse, together with the ECB, without any swaps …”
Why did we say (and still maintain) that “The problems of the Euro zone are now really coupled to the Fed’s balance sheet”? The same economists who view these swaps as decoupling the Euro zone from the USD zone also believe that the swaps effectively removed “tail risk”. As we warned on March 4th, the FX swaps would allow credit Euro zone corporations to raise debt in US dollars, opening the door for the European Central Bank to monetize sovereign debt and crowd out, in Euros, the non-financial private sector. In US dollars, this crowding out was not going to happen (and it did not happen), courtesy of the Fed.
However, if the Euro zone was going to survive, we wrote that: “…eventually, we shall see a wave of EU corporations defaulting: Compared to US corporations, EU companies are exposed to higher taxes, an overvalued currency, institutional uncertainty and the benchmark rate ( i.e. sovereign spreads) is higher than that for US companies (i.e. US Treasuries)…. but, if that wave of defaults occurred…who would be bailing out the US institutions that financed the EU corporations? Yes, you guessed right: The Fed! No, Bernanke did not mention QE3 last Wednesday, but we don’t need him printing monetary base to create the next bubble. All we need is a good currency swap, cheap Euro rates, a zombie EU financial system and the commitment to keep USD real rates in negative territory until at least 2014.” We offered the chart below:
Which brings us back to the core of today’s article…What has happened since we wrote about these issues?
First, last week Dennis Gartman, in his homonymous letter said that he was concerned about the fact that the adjusted monetary base has been falling, rather than rising, taking away the bullish case for gold on the topic of “money printing”. One must therefore remind those with this concern that the credit expansion caused by the backstop of the Fed alone is enough to inflate asset prices. This is consistent with the case we made in our last letter, that a commodity based standard is not as relevant as having a 100% reserve requirement. By the same token, if the reserve requirement is below 100%, it is not that relevant to see the expansion of the monetary base! The “printing of money” will eventually come, when EU corporations begin to default and the Fed has to “ensure there is enough US dollar liquidity”. It happened in 1931-33, in spite of the fact that the adjusted monetary base had been contracting since 1929: The US dollar was devalued from approx. $20.65/oz to approx. $34.70oz and gold was confiscated. If you don’t believe this, here’s the video showing the bailout of Germany from USD debt, announced by President Hoover in 1931:
And here’s the announcement of the confiscation of gold:
It can happen in the future, because the same Ponzi scheme is being played out before our eyes. We are not alone with this concern. Congressman Ron Paul has publicly expressed this view, as this video shows:
We will repeat ourselves: AS LONG AS THESE FX SWAPS (USD BACKSTOP) REMAIN IN PLACE, WE WILL BE LONG GOLD. THE TOP FOR THE GOLD MARKET WILL BE REACHED THE DAY THIS BACKSTOP IS ELIMINATED EITHER VOLUNTARILY OR FORCED UPON THE FED BY THE MARKET AND NOT ONE MINUTE EARLIER.
But, how do we know this is a problem? Is it true that EU corporations have already embarked in US dollar borrowing which can have consequences in the future? On October 5th, BNP Paribas’ US Credit team published a review of the state of the Yankee market. Compared to a decade ago, the Yankee market represents now 20% of the US dollar corporate bond market (from 10%), but the strongest growth occurred since 2011/12. The same publication notes that industrials (i.e. non-financial issuers) have grown in importance and now constitute 58% of all Yankees (bonds) (Curiously, the authors of the publication see this positively, because –apparently-, thanks to this growth in US dollar borrowing by non-US issuers, the market (both demand and supply) gains in diversification. I hope someone reminds these people to check what level the cross-asset correlation reaches, when the next liquidity crunch comes. Our bet is that it probably reaches 1!)
Can we see this “coupling” of the Fed’s balance sheet with the rest of the world causing other distortions? The Credit Derivatives team of Morgan Stanley, in its Credit Derivatives Insights publication of October 9th, noticed that less than 5% of the bonds in USD non-financials (in the iBoxx) are trading below par. And in the high-yield space, 70% of the non-financials are above par. What’s even worse, 24% of high-yield non-financials is even above their call prices!
In this context, hedging with credit default swaps is not efficient, because under the respective contracts, protection on default is covered only up to 100% of the price of the bond, and these bonds are trading above 100%. This means that, in some cases, even if one bought a bond and hedged it with a credit default swap, at default, one would suffer a significant loss. In other words, this shows a probability of default that is under priced, underestimated. And guess what…it makes sense!! Yes, with Bernanke at the helm of the Fed, you have to underestimate the probability of default, because he is telling in our faces that he will print dollars as long as US dollar liquidity is needed! But, but….should we really fear defaults? Well, there is always the ongoing concern that the Euro zone may break, sending shock waves everywhere. But also, in corporations, leverage is once again building up, and this time, more because EBITDA is deteriorating than the debt increasing.
This brings us to our final point: Will interest rates increase? We have observed a discrepancy of views in US Treasury rates forecasts this week too. If you read our last letters, you will know by now that we expect, if the ECB engages in its Outright Monetary Transactions, a convergence of short-term sovereign yields within the Euro zone. And, in the end, we expect both the short-term Euro zone yield and the USD yield to converge too, courtesy of the Fed’s coupling via the backstop entailed in the FX swaps. But the path towards that convergence is what has been taking our attention lately. We think that in the beginning, US yields should increase until a maximum tolerable level is achieved, after which, the Fed intervenes via purchases to keep yields within an implicit target. Until we get there, we will have to first see the bailout of Spain and some concrete steps towards an EU banking union. That will surely be the topic of future articles. But right now, obviously, we’re not seeing the materialization of these steps.
Once that level in USD rates is reached, the Fed will have to regularly purchase US Treasuries, to keep yields within their acceptable range. The assumption is that both the US fiscal deficit and the Outright Monetary Transactions continue. This would devalue the USD, making Yankee issuance even more palatable! This will be the bailout of the Fed, to the EU corporate sector and it can only last as long as the appreciation of the Euro does not hurt the Euro zone periphery. But it will…
crdit default swaps,currency swaps,defaults,Dennis Gartman,ECB,European Central Bank,Fed,Federal Reserve,fiscal deficits,gold,iBoxx,Jacques Rueff,Outright Monetary Transactions,Ron Paul,yankee market
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