Friday, 28 November 2008

What We Value Is What We Save In a Crisis

“When a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most. It is a perfectly overpowering impulse, and I have more than once taken advantage of it. . . . A married woman grabs at her baby; an unmarried one reaches for her jewel-box.”

-- Sherlock Holmes from A Scandal in Bohemia, by Arthur Conan Doyle

When a central bank thinks its house is on fire, it too will rush to save the thing valued most. In the United States, the central bank has rushed to save the bonuses and dividends of its Wall Street clientele by hiding away the bad assets that can no longer be foisted on gullible investors. In Europe too the response of central banks has been to save the wholesale banking and securities industry rather than the consumers and businesses underlying the real economy’s longer term productive strength.

For a comparative of what is valued elsewhere, it is worthwhile to look at what is being saved. I received in my inbox yesterday documents outlining the efforts being taken by the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities to address the liquidity crisis in their respective jurisdictions. They are available online here (Hong Kong) and here (PRC). The contrasts with the West are striking, and humbling.

Hong Kong is swiftly introducing a scheme to guarantee credit to SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and exporters. China is introducing controls to limit bank credit to over-extended speculative sectors, accelerate rebuilding in the regions affected by the earthquake earlier this year, and promote improvements in local infrastructure, education and economic adjustment.

Holmes would have been disgusted by a married woman who grabbed her jewel-box in preference to her baby. In the same way, I am disgusted by the central banks preserving the privileges of the financial elite in preference to the jobs, incomes and businesses powering the real economy. The US and UK authorities may criticise the banks for their inaction in freeing up lending to commercial businesses constrained by the credit crunch. The Hong Kong and Chinese authorities are implementing guarantee schemes and innovating initiatives to rapidly address the problem.

As Holmes would have considered a child’s life worth more than jewels, I consider the workers and businesses in the real economy as meriting greater protection than the financial elite. It is not merely that I think the financial elite little better than criminals for their irresponsible excesses of recent years, but that I fear long term harm and political instability will come from neglecting the needs of the real economy.

Shortsightedness is a peculiar affliction of the Western economies. We cannot seem to project the consequences of our actions beyond the next quarterly report, fiscal year or - at most - election cycle. Eastern policy makers have a capacity for longer vision – and longer memory – which makes them appreciate sooner the potential consequences of bad policy. Perhaps this is a consequence of the longer term dedication required to gain political ascendancy in their less cyclical heirarchy.

That China's leadership is concerned with the implications for the real economy – and political stability – was confirmed this morning in an unusually blunt public statement by the chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission. From the Financial Times:

The downturn in the Chinese economy accelerated over the past month and could lead to high unemployment and social unrest, the country’s top economic planner warned on Thursday.

Zhang Ping, chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, said the government needed to take “forceful” measures to limit the slowdown in the economy, which included Wednesday’s large cut in interest rates and a sharp increase in fiscal spending. The rate cut was the fourth since September.

“The global financial crisis has not bottomed out yet. The impact is spreading globally and deepening in China. Some domestic economic indicators point to an accelerated slowdown in November,” Mr Zhang said on Thursday at a rare news conference.

Mr Zhang’s warning about the potential for social unrest as a result of factory closures underlined the mounting concern in Beijing about the fallout from the global financial crisis.

“Excessive production cuts and closures of businesses will cause massive unemployment, which will lead to instability,” Mr Zhang said.

As Jim Rohm observed, “Failure is not a single, cataclysmic event. You don't fail overnight. Instead, failure is a few errors in judgement, repeated every day.”

The crisis in debt markets has been rolling since the sub-prime collapse of August 2007. The increasing illiquidity of commercial paper, trade credit, municipal finance and other debt markets was foreseeable and inevitable. And yet the central banks and treasury authorities of the Western nations have done nothing to shield these essential sectors from the ill effects of the financial sector implosion while giving virtually unlimited funds to the banks authoring the collapse.

Any discussion of China always invites criticism of its anti-democratic governance. It is worth remembering that the philisophical defense of democracy lies in the proposition that it is more likely over time to serve the interests of the electorate than a system which disenfranchises the people from the determination of their leadership. If the democratically elected governments - through their appointed executives and central bankers - are free over an extended timespan to ignore the interests of the people, then how is a Western democracy superior to a Chinese bureaucracy? From looking at the policies and practices of the past year, the merits of Western democracy are not immediately apparent in ensuring that policy responses to the financial crisis are aligned with the interests of the people. Even over the past decade, it is not clear that the policies of the democratic Western governments have aimed to strengthen and broaden the economy to benefit of the electorate rather than a narrow, self-serving elite.

According to Brad Setser, the World Bank is projecting increases to China’s trade surplus in 2009 as falling commodity prices lower production costs. Those unelected bureaucrats are doing something right.

If China and Hong Kong recover sooner, prosper more, and gain global political and economic authority in consequence, it will be because they made fewer mistakes and made them less persistently than their Western counterparts. If the promoters of democracy want to strengthen their case, they might best do so by ensuring that their leadership adheres to policies which promote the longer term health and well being of the economy as a whole rather than the short term enrichment of an undemocratic elite.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Dollar Strength Sustainability

Coincident with the passage of the Paulson Plan in early October, the top prime brokers (MS, GS, JPM) issued margin calls on hedge funds which raised the average margin required from about 15 percent to about 35 percent. At a time of fragility in global markets and global confidence, this was equivalent to the sudden contraction of global market liquidity by a trillion dollars or so. A huge sell off in quality assets followed as hedge fund managers struggled to meet the margin calls.

Because hedge funds are unregulated, and prime brokerage credit isn’t well reported for aggregation, there is no obvious way to compile exact data. Nonetheless, it would be rational to assume that simultaneous global margin calls on a vast cross-section of hedge funds would have a dramatic effect on global markets. Hedge funds accounted for well over half of all market transactions in 2007, so are a huge driver of maket trading and liquidity.

Trillions of dollars of value were wiped off the balance sheets of the world’s investors over the next few weeks as forced selling forced prices lower and lower. Adding to the selling pressure, many hedge funds were simultaneously raising cash for redemption demands of investors also squeezed by margin calls by their creditors.

I’m sure none of this was intentional (wink, wink). I’m sure there was no coordination among the prime brokers (nudge, nudge). I’m sure it would never occur to anyone in the Wall Street prime brokerage banks that manipulation of leverage could create profitable trading opportunities (cough, cough).

The result was a collapse in global prices for equities, debt and commodities. FIRE SALE! Everything must go!

As the margin calls got met, the dollar strengthened. It strengthened hugely against the pound. From $2 to the pound earlier this year, Sterling has slid to below $1.50. This is likely because there are such a lot of hedge funds and private equity funds here in London, all struggling to meet their margin calls in New York.

At the same time, we observed a huge expansion in the monetary base as the Fed doubled its balance sheet and Paulson doled out taxpayer largesse to Wall Street. The banks began to accumulate massive reserves and Treasury yields crashed lower, especially at the short end. Treasuries gained value as the prime brokers parked the incoming margin cash in the safest, most liquid asset - the primary collateral for all interbank obligations too. These reserves and Treasuries are just sitting in the Fed and not contributing one iota to the stimulation of the economy.

All of this is interesting recent history. Now what happens when some of these trends reverse?

What happens to the global markets when the deleveraging stops? What happens when there are no more global margin calls on the surviving hedge funds? Will anyone want to buy dollars when they don’t need them to repay dollar debt?

Will there still be inflows to US Treasuries when few need a place to park cash for short term liquidity? What will prop up demand for the Treasuries then?

What happens when banks begin to use reserves to lend or speculate in the now crashed assets available globally at fire sale prices?

With most of the growth still projected to occur outside the USA, will some of those Treasuries be sold to take advantage of the many equity investment deals on offer? How will that affect the dollar?

We are observing huge swings in asset markets. We are observing huge swings in foreign exchange markets.

I’m not going to make any recommendations, but I predict we haven’t seen the end of volatility. The rapid rise of the dollar, the massive demand for Treasuries, are hugely convenient for the US Treasury as it finances the expansion of the Fed balance sheet and the giveaways to the corporate welfare queens on Wall Street and elsewhere in the last days of the Bush administration. It seems unlikely, however, that the conditions can be long sustained.

When they reverse, we may see a fair sized bounce in global equity markets, a loosening of credit conditions in global debt markets, a revaluation of commodities, and a revaluation of the mighty dollar. Many will call the bottom and pile back in.

I wonder how long that will last . . .

Hat tip to FTAlphaVille where the team gives me much to think about every day and the analysis of trends is superb. Picks for this week include:

M3, where are thou?

Fill your boots!

Dollar *danger* ahead

Friday, 14 November 2008

Systemic Risk, Contagion and Trade Finance - Back to the Bad Old Days

Back in the old days (pre-1980s), the term systemic risk did not refer to contagion of illiquidity within the financial sector alone. Back then, when the real economy was much more important than low margin, unglamorous banking, it was understood that the really scary systemic risk was the risk of contagion of illiquidity from the financial sector to the real economy of trade in real goods and real services.

If you think of it, every single non-cash commercial transaction requires the intermediation of banks on behalf of – at the very least – the buyer and the seller. If you lengthen the supply chain to producers, exporters and importers and allow for agents along the way, the chain of banks involved becomes quite long and complex.

When central bankers back in the old days argued that banks were “special” – and therefore demanded higher capital, strict limits on leverage, tight constraints on business activity, and superior integrity of management – it was because they appreciated the harm that a bank failure would have in undermining the supply chain for business in the real economy for real people causing real joblessness and real hunger if any bank along the chain should be unable to perform.

As the “specialness” of banks eroded with the decline of the real economy (and the migration globally of many of those real jobs making real goods and providing real added-value services to real people), the nature of systemic risk was adjusted to become self-referencing to the financial elite. Central bankers of the current generation only understand systemic risk as referring to contagion of illiquidity among financial institutions.

They and we all are about to learn the lessons of the past anew.

We are now starting to see the contagion effects of the current liquidity crisis feed through to the real economy. We are about to go back to the bad old days. Whether the zombie banks are kept on life support by the central banks and taxpayers of the world is highly relevant to whether the zombie bank executives pay themselves outsize bonuses and their zombie shareholders outsize dividends with taxpayer money. It appears sadly irrelevant to whether the banks perform their function of intermediating credit and commercial transactions in the real economy along the supply chain. The bailout cash and executive and shareholder priorities do not seem to reach so far.

The recent 93 percent collapse of the obscure Baltic Dry Index – an index of the cost of chartering bulk cargo vessels for goods like ore, cotton, grain or similar dry tonnage – has caused a bit of a stir among the financial cognoscenti. What is less discussed amidst the alarm is the reason for the collapse of the index – the collapse of trade credit based on the venerable letter of credit.

Letters of credit have financed trade for over 400 years. They are considered one of the more stable and secure means of finance as the cargo is secures the credit extended to import it. The letter of credit irrevocably advises an exporter and his bank that payment will be made by the importer's issuing bank if the proper documentation confirming a shipment is presented. This was seen as low risk as the issuing bank could seize and sell the cargo if its client defaulted after payment was made. Like so much else in this topsy turvy financial crisis, however, the verities of the ages have been discarded in favour of new and unpleasant realities.

The combination of the global interbank lending freeze with the collapse of the speculative, leveraged commodity price bubble have undermined both the confidence of banks in the ability of a far-flung peer bank to pay an obligation when due and confidence in the value of the dry cargo as security for the credit if liquidated on default. The result is that those with goods to export and those with goods to import, no matter how worthy and well capitalised, are left standing quayside without bank finance for trade.

Adding to the difficulties, letters of credit are so short term that they become an easy target for scaling back credit as liquidity tightens around bank operations globally. Longer term “assets” – like mortgage-back securities, CDOs and CDSs – can’t be easily renegotiated, and banks are loathe to default to one another on them because of cross-default provisions. Short term credit like trade finance can be cut with the flick of an executive wrist.

Further adding to the difficulties, many bulk cargoes are financed in dollars. Non-US banks have been progressively starved of dollar credit because US banks hoarded it as the funding crisis intensified. Recent currency swaps between central banks should be seen in this light, noting the allocation of Federal Reserve dollar liquidity to key trading partners Brazil, Mexico, South Korea and Singapore in particular.

Fixing this problem shouldn't be left to the Fed. They aren't going to make it a priority. Indeed, their determination to accelerate the payment of interest on reserves and then to raise that rate to match the Fed Funds target rate indicates that the Fed are more likely to constrain trade finance liquidity rather than improve it. Furthermore, the Fed may be highly selective in its allocation of dollar liquidity abroad, prejudicing the economic prospects of a large part of the world that is either indifferent or hostile to the continuation of American dollar hegemony.

If cargo trade stops, a whole lot of supply chain disruption starts. If the ore doesn’t go to the refinery, there is no plate steel. If the plate steel doesn’t get shipped, there is nothing to fabricate into components. If there are no components, there is nothing to assemble in the factory. If the factory closes the assembly line, there are no finished goods. If there are no finished goods, there is nothing to restock the shelves of the shops. If there is nothing in the shops, the consumers don’t buy. If the consumers don’t buy, there is no Christmas.

Everyone along the supply chain should worry about their jobs. Many will lose their jobs sooner rather than later.

If cargo trade stops, the wheat doesn’t get exported. If the wheat doesn’t get exported, the mill has nothing to grind into flour. If there is no flour, the bakeries and food processors can’t produce bread and pasta and other foods. If there are no foods shipped from the bakeries and factories, there are no foods in the shops. If there are no foods in the shops, people go hungry. If people go hungry their children go hungry. When children go hungry, people riot and governments fall.

Everyone along the supply chain should worry about their children going hungry.

When that happens, everyone in governments should worry about the riots.

Controlling access to trade finance determines who loses their jobs, whose children go hungry, who riots, which governments fall. Without dedicated focus on the issue of trade finance and liquidity from those in the emerging world most interested in sustaining the growth of recent years, little progress can be expected.Trade finance is rapidly communicating the stress on bank liquidity to the real economy. It presents a systemic risk much more frightening than the collapsing value of bits of paper traded electronically in London and New York. It could collapse the employment, the well being and the political stability of most of the world’s population.

The World Trade Organisation hosted a meeting on trade credit in Washington Wednesday to highlight the rapid and accelerating deterioration in trade finance as an urgent priority for public policy.

I look at the precipitous collapse of the Baltic Dry Index and I wish them Godspeed.

Further reading:

WTP warns of trade finance ‘deteriorating’ amid financial crisis

Cost of some trade finance deals up sixfold – WTO

Shipping holed beneath the water line

Shipowners idle 20 percent of bulk vessels as rates collapse

Friday, 7 November 2008

The Fed doubles its balance sheet - above $2 trillion in just 5 weeks

Think about that. If any commercial or investment bank had been seen to do that, it would become an instant leper in the credit markets. It is a truism that banks go bust by writing business that wiser banks rejected, and so grow their balance sheets faster. As a young bank supervisor I was told that the surest way to spot a potential bank failure was to look for outliers in asset growth.

Had anyone at the Fed or FSA been brought up in the old school, they would have seen Countrywide and Northern Rock coming a mile off. Perhaps they did, but in the new Friedmanite culture of forbearance and free markets, and Basle II risk models, they decided to let capitalism run its disastrous course rather than take unpopular decisions about constraining the prerogatives of over-compensated executives and shareholders.

And now we have the Fed doubling its balance sheet in just five weeks. It is exactly by taking on the assets of the banking sector that are otherwise unmarketable that the Fed has grown its balance sheet. And it is by doing this while indulging the banks in continued oversized dividends and executive bonuses that leads me to believe the policy must ultimately fail to either correct the problems in the US banking sector or sustain the credibility of the Federal Reseve as a prudential supervisor and lender of last resort.

Dallas Fed President Richard W. Fisher has speculated that the balance sheet could expand to $3 trillion by January:

“You can see the size and breadth of the Fed’s efforts to counter the collapse of the credit mechanism in our balance sheet. At the beginning of this year, the assets on the books of the Fed totaled $960 billion. Today, our assets exceed $1.9 trillion. I would not be surprised to see them aggregate to $3 trillion—roughly 20 percent of GDP—by the time we ring in the New Year.”

At the same time the Fed has equalised the interest it pays on reserves deposited in the Fed and the Fed Funds target rate. That undermines any incentive to interbank lending, virtually ensuring that banks will prefer to hold their cash as reserves at the Fed rather than as lending exposures to one another. On the other hand, according to a Fed research note from August, it allows the Fed to supply greater liquidity for market needs without the risk of pushing lending rates below target rates.
In contemplating the anomalies of this policy, it occurred to me that it might be aimed at reinforcing the dollar by drawing reserve balances to the Fed in preference to other central banks as they follow the Fed by cutting rates this week. Perhaps the Fed is pre-emptively combating dollar capital flight, or perhaps it is a further extension of the "ring fence" tactic of drawing assets to the US in contemplation of future insolvencies to secure advantage for US creditors over global peers.

As Sam Jones at FTAlphaVille commented yesterday:

There’s a big danger here for the Fed: that it is trying to catch a falling knife. The Fed is risking things it’s never risked before. That’s not to say we’re in apocalyptic territory at all; consider the firepower the Fed has behind it. It is though, to use a hackneyed, but apt phrase, paradigm shifting.

In Japan, where quantitative easing failed, the central bank’s balance sheet swelled to a size equivalent to 30 per cent of GDP. The Fed’s balance sheet is currently equivalent to 12 per cent of GDP.

This is uncharted territory for a central bank of a reserve currency. I suspect, however, that these moves play into the strategy of the Paulson Plan survivor bias. As someone reminded me recently, Mr Paulson's primary objective at Goldman Sachs was to outperform peers in both good times and bad times. If profits were to be made, he wanted Goldman to have more of them. If losses must be booked, he wanted Goldman to have less of them. He seems to have taken the peer outperformance strategy global with the Paulson Plan.

Hat tip to FTAlphaVille for posting relevant Fed insights yesterday and today:

The mother of all balance sheets

Fed capitulates: the central bank is broken

Change I can't quite believe in

I wanted Obama to win. I really, really, really wanted Obama to win. McCain/Palin gave me nightmares. Just about the whole world held it’s collective breath willing Obama to win on Tuesday.

Obama’s election is powerful confirmation that America remains a land of opportunity, a democracy where power is allocated at the ballot box. It reassured the world that despite the lawlessness and arrogance of the past eight years, Americans are capable of enlightened, rational self-determination. It restores hope in much of the world that America can reorient itself toward tolerance and dialogue.

For all of that, I haven’t been happy since watching Obama’s acceptance speech live Wednesday morning on the BBC.

I have a bad feeling that America has just elected its Tony Blair. The package of Change the voters ordered isn’t what is being delivered to the White House.

The appointment of Rahm Emanuel as White House chief of staff didn’t ease my mind. Like Mr Blair’s close advisors Lord Goldsmith and Baron Levy, Mr Emanuel may inflame the suspicions in the Middle East that the agenda for the region under Obama will be no different than under Bush. The credibility of the United States as an honest broker and agent for peace will be further eroded if Obama’s gatekeeper is viewed as pre-disposed to more of the same policies which have fuelled hostilities. I hope it is not anti-Semitic to make the point that objectivity and fair dealing will be suspect with a chief of staff who is the son of an militant Israeli, who served as a civilian volunteer for the Israeli Army, and who has used his public positions in American politics – except for a brief stint at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein – to promote Israel’s interests.

Those who know Mr Emanuel suggest that because his devotion to Israel is unquestionable, he will be able to push Israelis toward moderation. Perhaps the combination of a Kenyan goat herder's son with an Irgun terrorist's son will be a winning combination for crafting a durable peace. But many in Israel, the Middle East and Washington will expect that future acts of aggression by Israel against Iran or other neighbours will be defended – if not promoted – by the man at Obama’s elbow.

It is now emerging that Mr Emanuel was also a director of Freddie Mac when it stands accused of misreporting profits and ignoring red flags.

The rumours that either Larry Summers or Tim Geithner will be made Treasury Secretary made me even queasier. The appointment of either of these architects of the current global financial disaster, these arch-deregulators and serial-forbearance artists, would be a great middle-finger to America’s foreign creditors and the global investors suffering asset deflation. Both men have been instrumental in, first, the Fed’s exported inflation via massive monetary bubble-blowing and, now, the Fed/FDIC/SIPC exported deflation through Chapter 11 and margin call orchestrations ensuring more pain abroad than at home.

Summers would be particularly egregious. Not only did Summers promote the Friedmanite export of toxic debt to the rest of the world at the Clinton Treasury, at the World Bank he promoted the export of toxic pollution to underdeveloped nations to add poison to poverty. To quote from his 1991 memo, "I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that."

The much bandied idea that Robert Gates, former deputy director of the CIA under President G.H.W. Bush, architect and financier of Saddam’s military machine and Bin Laden’s Al Qaida, might be kept as Secretary of Defense under Obama “for continuity’s sake” after six years of failed and callous military adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan, with occasional illegal forays into Pakistan, Georgia, Syria and Iran, makes me frankly nauseous. If America is ever to restore its fiscal balance, cuts in the bloated military/security/intelligence apparatus will have to be implemented. A career insider central to the creation and export of the bloat is the wrong man for the job.

Maybe the problem in America is not a struggle between rich and poor. Overtaxed and undertaxed. Empowered and disenfranchised. Educated and illiterate. Insured and uninsured. Law abiding and lawless. Godless and God-fearing. Republican and Democrat. Red and Blue.

Maybe the problem in America is there is no struggle about the fundamental mechanisms of American oppression and aggression: debt and threat.

American policies promote debt and force as the hammer and anvil for shaping the economy and the political dialogue. What cannot be financed into penury must be crushed into submission. The bulk of the economy is designed to prosper either the bankers or the police/prison/military/intelligence industries at everyone else’s expense. Propped up on these twin pillars of debt and threat, America remains staunchly and irrevocably American whoever wins the elections.

The restoration of fiscal prudence has been swiftly repudiated post-election in favour of more debt-financed “stimulus” and “stabilisation”.

The restoration of the rule of law and holding those who committed crimes accountable – both within America and internationally – has received no post-election endorsement from Obama.

I asked the asylum Iraqis at the local kebab shop last night what they made of the American election. They follow the news, and I’ve always found them knowledgeable and articulate. The kebab chef (a former civil engineer from northern Iraq) looked glum. “It makes no difference. They are all the same.” I fear his well-informed cynicism is sound.

Our unglamorous and unelected British prime minister, Gordon Brown, called for more international cooperation “with American leadership central to its success” – as he toured the Arab Gulf with his begging bowl. He was physically following American “leadership” as he trailed Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Robert Kimmet’s pilgrimage to the Gulf last week. American leadership got us successfully into this debt crisis, and Brown appears determined to follow it even deeper.

The central banks in the UK, EU and Switzerland obliged yesterday by following the Fed toward negative real interest rates, discouraging savers and lenders alike by cutting 150bps, 50bps and 50bps respectively. Jean-Claude Trichet spoke of the cooperation of the central banks as a “brotherhood”. He made me think of the mafia or the Freemasons. Perhaps he meant to.

Obama’s election still inspires me. I still hope for change.

Obama demonstrated good judgement throughout the campaign, and good management of the people working for him. That in itself will bring major change to the White House.

Better managed American debt and threat policies under Obama will be an improvement over the horribly managed debt and threat policies under Bush. Some hope.