Debasing the Baseless – Modern Monetary Theory

Debasing the Baseless – Modern Monetary Theory

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Macro Letter – No 114 – 10-05-2019

Debasing the Baseless – Modern Monetary Theory

  • Populist politicians are turning to Modern Monetary Theory
  • Fiscal stimulus has not led to significant inflation during the last decade
  • MMT is too radical to be adopted in full but the allure of fiscal expansion is great
  • Asset markets will benefit over the medium-term

A recent post from the Peterson Institute – Further Thinking on the Costs and Benefits of Deficits – follows on from the Presidential Lecture given by Olivier Blanchard at the annual gathering of the American Economic Association (AEA) Public Debt and Low Interest Rates . The article discusses a number of issues which are linked to Blanchard’s speech: –

  1. Is the political system so biased towards deficit increases that economists have a responsibility to overemphasize the cost of deficits?

  2. Do the changing economics of deficits mean that anything goes and we do not need to pay attention to fiscal constraints, as some have inferred from modern monetary theory (MMT)?

  3. You advocate doing no harm, but is that enough to stabilize the debt at a reasonable level?

  4. Isn’t action on the deficit urgent in order to reduce the risk of a fiscal crisis?

  5. Do you think anything about fiscal policy is urgent?

Their answers are 1. Sometimes, although they question whether it is the role of economists to lean against the political wind. 2. No, which is a relief to those of a more puritanical disposition towards debt. The authors’ argument, however, omits any discussion of the function of interest rates in an unfettered market, to act as a signal about the merit of an investment. When interest rates are manipulated, malinvestment flourishes. They propose: –

…that the political system should adopt a “do no harm” approach, paying for new proposals but not necessarily making it an urgent priority to do any more than that. Adopting this principle would have the benefit of requiring policymakers to think harder about whether to adopt the next seemingly popular tax credit or spending program. Many ideas that seem appealing judged against an unspecified future cost are less appealing when you make their costs explicit today.

  1. Yes. At this point the authors’ make the case for addressing the shortfalls in the social security and health budgets. They make the admirable suggestion that better provision is not only necessary but desirable, however, to achieve their goal they warn more will need to be contributed by individuals. Sadly, I expect politicians to cherry pick from the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) menu, they will not champion the case for higher individual contributions. 4. No. Here I am in begrudging agreement with their conclusion, although I worry about their projections. Fiat currencies and artificially low interest rates underpin the current political system. It is hardly surprising that developed country government activity, as a share of GDP, has risen. 5. Yes. Again, I agree with the need to think about fiscal policy, though I anticipate that Peterson’s proposals are likely to exacerbate the current problems further.

A prelude to MMT

The reason for highlighting recent Peterson commentary is because it represents the acceptable face of a more dubious set of proposals, known collectively as MMT. These ideas are not particularly modern, beginning with the Chartalist tenet that countries which issue their own fiat currencies can never “run out of money.” For a measured introduction to this topic, Dylan Matthews has published a brilliant essay for Vox – Modern Monetary Theory, explained. Here are some of the highlights: –

[The starting point is]…endogenous money theory, that rejects the idea that there’s a supply of loanable funds out there that private businesses and governments compete over. Instead, they believe that loans by banks themselves create money in accordance with market demands for money, meaning there isn’t a firm trade-off between loaning to governments and loaning to businesses of a kind that forces interest rates to rise when governments borrow too much.

MMTers go beyond endogenous money theory, however, and argue that government should never have to default so long as it’s sovereign in its currency: that is, so long as it issues and controls the kind of money it taxes and spends. The US government, for instance, can’t go bankrupt because that would mean it ran out of dollars to pay creditors; but it can’t run out of dollars, because it is the only agency allowed to create dollars. It would be like a bowling alley running out of points to give players.

A consequence of this view, and of MMTers’ understanding of how the mechanics of government taxing and spending work, is that taxes and bonds do not and indeed cannot directly pay for spending. Instead, the government creates money whenever it spends…

And why does the government issue bonds? According to MMT, government-issued bonds aren’t strictly necessary. The US government could, instead of issuing $1 in Treasury bonds for every $1 in deficit spending, just create the money directly without issuing bonds.

The Mitchell/Wray/Watts MMT textbook argues that the purpose of these bond issuances is to prevent interest rates in the private economy from falling too low. When the government spends, they argue, that adds more money to private bank accounts and increases the amount of “reserves” (cash the bank has stocked away, not lent out) in the banking system. The reserves earn a very low interest rate, pushing down interest rates overall. If the Fed wants higher interest rates, it will sell Treasury bonds to banks. Those Treasury bonds earn higher interest than the reserves, pushing overall interest rates higher…

“In the long term,” they conclude, “the only sustainable position is for the private domestic sector to be in surplus.” As long as the US runs a current account deficit with other countries, that means the government budget has to be in deficit. It isn’t “crowding out” investment in the private sector, but enabling it.

The second (and more profound) aspect of MMT is that it proposes to reverse the roles of fiscal and monetary policy. Taxation is used to control aggregate demand (and thus inflation) whilst government spending (printing money) is used to prevent deflation and to stimulate consumption and employment. Since MMT advocates believe there is no need for bond issuance and that interest rates should reside, permanently, at zero, monetary policy can be controlled entirely by the treasury, making central banks superfluous.

At the heart of MMT is an accounting tautology, that: –

G − T = S – I

Where G = Government spending, T = Taxation, S = Savings and I = Investment

In other words…

Government Budget Deficit = Net Private Saving

wraybook

You may be getting the feeling that something does not quite tally. Robert Murphy of the Mises Institute – The Upside-Down World of MMT explains it like this (the emphasis is mine): –

When I first encountered such a claim — that the government budget deficit was necessary to allow for even the mathematical possibility of net private-sector saving — I knew something was fishy. For example, in my introductory textbook I devote Chapter 4 to “Robinson Crusoe” economics.

To explain the importance of saving and investment in a barter economy, I walk through a simple numerical example where Crusoe can gather ten coconuts per day with his bare hands. This is his “real income.” But to get ahead in life, Crusoe needs to save — to live below his means. Thus, for 25 days in a row, Crusoe gathers his ten coconuts per day as usual, but only eats eight of them. This allows him to accumulate a stockpile of 50 coconuts, which can serve as a ten-day buffer (on half-rations) should Crusoe become sick or injured.

Crusoe can do even better. He takes two days off from climbing trees and gathering coconuts (with his bare hands), in order to collect sticks and vines. Then he uses these natural resources to create a long pole that will greatly augment his labor in the future in terms of coconuts gathered per hour. This investment in the capital good was only possible because of Crusoe’s prior saving; he wouldn’t have been able to last two days without eating had he not been able to draw down on his stockpile of 50 coconuts.

This is an admittedly simple story, but it gets across the basic concepts of income, consumption, saving, investment, and economic growth. Now in this tale, I never had to posit a government running a budget deficit to make the story “work.” Crusoe is able to truly live below his means — to consume less than his income — and thereby channel resources into the production of more capital goods. This augments his future productivity, leading to a higher income (and hence consumption) in the future. There is no trick here, and Crusoe’s saving is indeed “net” in the sense that it is not counterbalanced by a consumption loan taken out by his neighbor Friday…

When MMTers speak of “net saving,” they don’t mean that people collectively save more than people collectively borrow. No, they mean people collectively save more than people collectively invest.

MMT goes on to solve the problem of achieving full employment by introducing a job guarantee and wage controls.

If, by this stage, you feel the need for an antidote to MMT, look no further than, Forty Centuries of Wage and Price Controls: How Not to Fight Inflation by Dr Eamon Butler of the ASI. Published in 1978, it documents the success of these types of policy during the past four thousand years.

Conclusion and Investment Opportunities

The radical ideas contained in MMT are unlikely to be adopted in full, but the idea that fiscal expansion is non-inflationary provides succour to profligate politicians of all stripes. Come the next hint of recession, central banks will embark on even more pronounced quantitative and qualitative easing, safe in the knowledge that, should they fail to reignite their economies, government mandated fiscal expansion will come to their aid. Long-term bond yields will head towards the zero-bound – some are there already. Debt to GDP ratios will no longer trouble finance ministers. If stocks decline, central banks will acquire them: and, in the process, the means of production. This will be justified as the provision of permanent capital. Bonds will rise, stocks will rise, real estate will rise. There will be no inflation, except in the price of assets.

John Mauldin describes the end-game of the debt-explosion as the Great Reset, but if government borrowing costs are zero (or lower) the Great Reset can be postponed, but the economy will suffer from low productivity growth due to malinvestment.

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Global Real Estate – Has the tide begun to recede?

Global Real Estate – Has the tide begun to recede?

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Macro Letter – No 113 – 19-04-2019

Global Real Estate – Has the tide begun to recede?

  • Despite the fourth quarter shakeout in stocks, real estate values keep rising
  • Financial conditions remain key, especially in a low rate environment
  • Isolated instances of weakness have yet to breed contagion
  • The reversal of central bank tightening has averted a more widespread correction

I last wrote about the prospects for global real estate back in February 2018 in Macro Letter – No 90 – A warning knell from the housing market – inciting a riot? I concluded: –

The residential real estate market often reacts to a fall in the stock market with a lag. As commentators put it, ‘Main Street plays catch up with Wall Street.’ The Central Bank experiment with QE, however, makes housing more susceptible to, even, a small rise in interest rates. The price of Australian residential real estate is weakening but its commodity rich cousin, Canada, saw major cities price increases of 9.69% y/y in Q3 2017. The US market also remains buoyant, the S&P/Case-Shiller seasonally-adjusted national home price index rose by 3.83% over the same period: no sign of a Federal Reserve policy mistake so far.

As I said at the beginning of this article, all property investment is ‘local’, nonetheless, Australia, which has not suffered a recession for 26 years, might be a leading indicator. Contagion might seem unlikely, but it could incite a riot of risk-off sentiment to ripple around the globe.

More than a year later, central bank interest rates seem to have peaked (if indeed they increased at all) bond yields in most developed countries are falling again and, another round of QE is hotly anticipated, at the first hint of a global, or even regional, slowdown in growth.

In the midst of this sea-change from tightening to easing, an article from the IMF – Assessing the Risk of the Next Housing Bust – appeared earlier this month, in which the authors remind us that housing construction and related spending account for one sixth of US and European GDP. A boom and subsequent bust in house prices has been responsible for two thirds of recessions during the past few decades, nonetheless, they find that: –

…in most advanced economies in our sample, weighted by GDP, the odds of a big drop in inflation-adjusted house prices were lower at the end of 2017 than 10 years earlier but remained above the historical average. In emerging markets, by contrast, riskiness was higher in 2017 than on the eve of the global financial crisis. Nonetheless, downside risks to house prices remain elevated in more than 25 percent of these advanced economies and reached nearly 40 percent in emerging markets in our study.

The authors see a particular risk emanating from China’s Eastern provinces but overall they expect conditions to remain reasonably benign in the short-term. The January 2019 IMF – Global Housing Watch – presents the situation as at Q2 and Q3 2018: –

housepricesaroundtheworld IMF, BIS, ECB,Federal Reserve, Savills, Sinyl Real Estate

Source: IMF, BIS, Federal Reserve, ECB, Savills, Sinyl, National Data

Hong Kong continues to boom and Ireland to rebound.

They go on to analyse real credit growth: –

creditgrowth IMF, Haver Analytics

Source: IMF, Haver Analytics

Interestingly, for several European countries (including Ireland) credit conditions have been tightening, whilst Hong Kong’s price rises seem to be underpinned by credit growth.

Then the IMF compare house prices to average income: –

pricetoincome IMF, OECD

Source: IMF, OECD

Canada comes to the fore-front but Ireland is close second with New Zealand and Portugal not far behind.

Finally the authors assess House price/Rent ratios: –

pricetorent IMF, OECD

Source: IMF, OECD

Both Canada, Portugal and New Zealand are prominent as is Ireland.

This one year snap-shot disguises some lower term trends. The following chart from the September 2018 – UBS Global Real Estate Bubble Index puts the housing market into long-run perspective.

ubs-bubbles-index

Source: UBS

UBS go on to rank most expensive cities for residential real estate, pointing out that top end housing prices declined in half of the list:-

real-estate-bubbles list UBS

Source: UBS

Over the 12 months to September 2018 UBS note that house prices declined in Milan, Toronto, Zurich, New York, Geneva, London, Sydney and Stockholm. The chart below shows the one year change (light grey bar) and the five year change (dark grey line): –

housing-bubbles-growth-rates 1yr - 5yr change UBS

Source: UBS

Is a global correction coming or is property, as always, local? The answer? Local, but with several local markets still at risk.

The US market is generally robust. According to Peter Coy of Bloomberg – America Isn’t Building Enough New Housing – the effect of the housing collapse during the financial crisis still lingers, added to which zoning rules are exacerbating an already small pool of construction-ready lots. Non-credit factors are also corroborated by a recent Fannie Mae survey of housing lenders which found only 1% blaming tight credit, whilst 48% pointed to lack of supply.

North of the border, in Canada, the outlook has become less favourable, partly due to official intervention which began in 2017. Since 2012, house price increases in Toronto accelerated away from other cities, Vancouver followed with a late rush after 2015 and price increases only stalled in the last year.

In their February 2019 report Moody Analytics – 2019 Canada Housing Market Outlook: Slower, Steadier – identify the risks as follows: –

Interventions by the BoC, OSFI, and the British Columbia and Ontario governments were by no means a capricious attempt to deflate a house price bubble for the mere sake of deflation. Financial and macroeconomic aggregates point to the possibility that the mortgage credit needed to sustain house price appreciation may be unsustainable. Since 2002, the ratio of mortgage debt service payments to disposable income has gone from a historical low point of little more than 5% in 2003 to almost 6.6% by the end of last year…

The authors go on to highlight the danger of the overall debt burden, should interest rates rise, or should the Canadian economy slow, as it is expected to do next year. They expect the ratio of household interest payments to disposable income to rise and the percentage of mortgage arrears to follow a similar trajectory. In reality the rate of arrears is still forecast to reach only 0.3%, significantly below its historical average.

External factors could create the conditions for a protracted slump in Canadian real estate. Moody’s point to a Chinese real estate crash, a no-deal Brexit, renewed austerity in Europe and a continuation of the US/China trade dispute as potential catalysts. In this scenario 4% of mortgages would be in arrears. For the present, however, Canadian housing prices remain robust.

Switching to China, the CBRE – Greater China Real Estate Market Outlook 2019 – paints a mixed picture of commercial real estate in the year ahead: –

Office: U.S.–China trade conflict and the ensuing economic uncertainty are set to dent office demand in mainland China and Hong Kong. Leasing momentum in Taiwan will be less affected. Office rents will likely soften in oversupplied and trade and manufacturing-driven cities in 2019.

Retail: The amalgamation of online and offline will continue to drive the evolution of retail demand on the mainland. Retailers in Hong Kong and Taiwan will adopt a conservative approach towards expansion due to the diminishing wealth effect. Retail rents are projected to stay flat or grow slightly in most markets across Greater China.

Logistics: Tight land and warehouse supply will translate into steady logistics rental growth in the Greater Bay Area, Yangtze River Delta and Pan-Beijing area. Risks include potential weaker leasing demand stemming from the U.S.-China trade conflict and the gradual migration to self-built warehouses by major e-commerce companies.

The Chinese housing market, by contrast, has suffered from speculative over-supply. Estimates last year suggested that 22% of homes, amounting to around 50 million dwellings, are unoccupied. Government intervention has been evident for several years in an attempt to moderate price fluctuations. Earlier this month the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) said it aims to increase China’s urbanization rate by at least 1% with the aim of tackling the surfeit of supply. This is part of a longer-term goal to bring 100 million people into the cities over the five years to 2020. As of last year, 59.6% of China’s population lived in urban areas. According to World Bank data high middle income countries average 65% rising to 82% for high income countries. For China to reach the average high middle income average, another 70mln people need to move from rural to urban regions.

The new NDRC strategy will include the scrapping of restrictions on household registration permits for non-residents in cities of one to three million. For cities of three to five million, restrictions will be “comprehensively relaxed,” although the NDRC did not specify the particulars. Banks will be incentivised to provide credit and the agency also stated that it will support the establishing of real estate investment trusts (REITs) in order to promote a deepening of the residential rental market.

The NDRC action might seem unnecessary, average prices of new homes in the 70 largest Chinese cities rose 10.4% in February, up from 10.0% the previous month. This is the 46th straight monthly price increase and the strongest annual gain since May 2017. Critics point to cheap credit as the principal driver of this trend, they highlight the danger to domestic prices should the government decide to constrain credit growth. The key to maintaining prices is to open the market to foreign capital, this month’s NDRC policy announcement is a gradual step in that direction. It is estimated that at least $50bln of foreign capital will flow China over the next five years.

Despite the booming residential property market, the Chinese government has been tightening credit conditions and cracking down on illegal financial outflows. This has had impacted Australia in particular, investment fell more than 36% to $.8.2bln last year, down from $13bln in 2017. Mining investment fell 90%, while commercial real estate investment declined by 32%, to $3bln from $4.4bln the previous year. Investment in the US and Canada fell even more, declining by 83% and 47% respectively. Globally, however, Chinese investment has continued to grow, rising 4.2%.

Australian residential housing prices, especially in the major cities, have suffered from this downdraft. According to a report, released earlier this month by Core Logic – Falling Property Values Drags Household Wealth Lower – the decline in prices, the worst in more than two decades, is beginning to bite: –

According to the ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics), total household assets were recorded at a value of $12.6 trillion at the end of 2018. Total household assets have fallen in value over both the September and December 2018 quarters taking household wealth -1.6% lower relative to June 2018. While the value of household assets have fallen by -1.6% over the past two quarters, liabilities have increased by 1.5% over the same period to reach $2.4 trillion. As a result of falling assets and rising liabilities, household net worth was recorded at $10.2 trillion, the lowest it has been since September 2017…

As at December 2018, household debt was 189.6% of disposable income, a record high and up from 188.7% the previous quarter. Housing debt was also a record high 140.2% of disposable income and had risen from 139.5% the previous quarter.

In 2018 the Australian Residential Property Price Index fell 5.1%, worst hit was Sydney, down 7.8% followed by Melbourne, off 6.4%, Darwin, down 3.5% and Perth, which has been in decline since 2015, which shed a further 2.5%. The ABS cited tightening credit conditions and reduced demand from investors and owner occupiers.

According to many commentators, Australian property has been ready to crash since the bursting of the tech bubble but, as this chart shows, prices are rich but not excessive: –

AMP Capital - Australian housing since 1926

Source: AMP Capital

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

The entire second chapter of the IMF – Global Financial Stability Report – published on 10th April, focusses on housing: –

Large house price declines can adversely affect macroeconomic performance and financial stability, as seen during the global financial crisis of 2008 and other historical episodes. These macro-financial links arise from the many roles housing plays for households, small firms, and financial intermediaries, as a consumption good, long-term investment, store of wealth, and collateral for lending, among others. In this context, the rapid increase in house prices in many countries in recent years has raised some concerns about the possibility of a decline and its potential consequences…

Capital inflows seem to be associated with higher house prices in the short term and more downside risks to house prices in the medium term in advanced economies, which might justify capital flow management measures under some conditions. The aggregate analysis finds that a surge in capital inflows tends to increase downside risks to house prices in advanced economies, but the effects depend on the types of flows and may also be region- or city-specific. At the city level, case studies for Canada, China, and the United States find that flows of foreign direct investment are generally associated with lower future risks, whereas other capital inflows (largely corresponding to banking flows) or portfolio flows amplify downside risks to house prices in several cities or regions. Altogether, when nonresident buyers are a key risk for house prices, contributing to a systemic overvaluation that may subsequently result in higher downside risk, capital flow measures might help when other policy options are limited or timing is crucial. As in the case of macroprudential policies, these measures would not amount to targeting house prices but, instead, would be consistent with a risk management approach to policy. In any case, these conditions need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and any reduction in downside risks must be weighed against the direct and indirect benefits of free and unrestricted capital flows, including better smoothing of consumption, diversification of financial risks, and the development of the financial sector.

Aside from some corrections in certain cities (notably Vancouver, Toronto, Sydney and Melboune) prices continue to rise in most regions of the world, spurred on by historically low interest rates and generally benign credit conditions. As I said in last month’s Macro Letter – China in transition – From manufacturer to consumer – China will need to open its borders to foreign investment as its current account switches from surplus to deficit. Foreign capital will flow into Chinese property and, when domestic savings are permitted to exit the country, Chinese capital will support real estate elsewhere. The greatest macroeconomic risk to global housing markets stems from a tightening of financial conditions. Central banks appear determined to lean against the headwinds of a recession. In the long run they may fail but in the near-term the global housing market still looks unlikely to implode.

Capital Flows – is a reckoning nigh?

Capital Flows – is a reckoning nigh?

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Macro Letter – No 111 – 15-03-2019

Capital Flows – is a reckoning nigh?

  • Borrowing in Euros continues to rise even as the rate of US borrowing slows
  • The BIS has identified an Expansionary Lower Bound for interest rates
  • Developed economies might not be immune to the ELB
  • Demographic deflation will thwart growth for decades to come

In Macro Letter – No 108 – 18-01-2019 – A world of debt – where are the risks? I looked at the increase in debt globally, however, there has been another trend, since 2009, which is worth investigating as we consider from whence the greatest risk to global growth may hail. The BIS global liquidity indicators at end-September 2018 – released at the end of January, provides an insight: –

The annual growth rate of US dollar credit to non-bank borrowers outside the United States slowed down to 3%, compared with its most recent peak of 7% at end-2017. The outstanding stock stood at $11.5 trillion.

In contrast, euro-denominated credit to non-bank borrowers outside the euro area rose by 9% year on year, taking the outstanding stock to €3.2 trillion (equivalent to $3.7 trillion). Euro-denominated credit to non-bank borrowers located in emerging market and developing economies (EMDEs) grew even more strongly, up by 13%.

The chart below shows the slowing rate of US$ credit growth, while euro credit accelerates: –

gli1901_graph1

Source: BIS global liquidity indicators

The rising demand for Euro denominated borrowing has been in train since the end of the Great Financial Recession in 2009. Lower interest rates in the Eurozone have been a part of this process; a tendency for the Japanese Yen to rise in times of economic and geopolitical concern has no doubt helped European lenders to gain market share. This trend, however, remains over-shadowed by the sheer size of the US credit markets. The US$ has remained preeminent due to structurally higher interest rates and bond yields than Europe or Japan: investors, rather than borrowers, dictate capital flows.

The EC – Analysis of developments in EU capital flows in the global context from November 2018 concurs: –

The euro area (excluding intra-euro area flows) has been since 2013 the world’s leading net exporter of capital. Capital from the euro area has been invested heavily abroad in debt securities, especially in the US, taking advantage of the interest differential between the two jurisdictions. At the same time, foreign holdings of euro-area bonds fell as a result of the European Central Bank’s Asset Purchase Programme.

This bring us to another issue; a country’s ability to service its debt is linked to its GDP growth rate. Since 2009 the US economy has expanded by 34%, over the same period, Europe has shrunk by 2%. Putting these rates of expansion into a global perspective, the last decade has seen China’s economy grow by 139%, whilst India has gained 96%. Recent analysis suggests that Chinese growth may have been overstated by 2% per annum over the past decade, but the pace is still far in excess of developed economy rates. Concern about Chinese debt is not unwarranted, but with GDP rising by 6% per annum, its economy will be 80% larger in a decade, whilst India’s, growing at 7%, will have doubled.

Another excellent research paper from the BIS – The expansionary lower bound: contractionary monetary easing and the trilemma – investigates the problem of monetary tightening of developed economies on emerging markets. Here is part of the introduction, the emphasis is mine: –

…policy makers in EMs are often reluctant to lower interest rates during an economic downturn because they fear that, by spurring capital outflows, monetary easing may end up weakening, rather than boosting, aggregate demand.

An empirical analysis of the determinants of policy rates in EMs provides suggestive evidence about the tensions faced by monetary authorities, even in countries with flexible exchange rates.

…The results reveal that, even after controlling for expected inflation and the output gap, monetary authorities in EMs tend to hike policy rates when the VIX or US policy rates increase. This is arguably driven by the desire to limit capital outflows and the depreciation of the exchange rate.

…our theory predicts the existence of an “Expansionary Lower Bound” (ELB) which is an interest rate threshold below which monetary easing becomes contractionary. The ELB constrains the ability of monetary policy to stimulate aggregate demand, placing an upper bound on the level of output achievable through monetary stimulus.

The ELB can occur at positive interest rates and is therefore a potentially tighter constraint for monetary policy than the Zero Lower Bound (ZLB). Furthermore, global monetary and financial conditions affect the ELB and thus the ability of central banks to support the economy through monetary accommodation. A tightening in global monetary and financial conditions leads to an increase in the ELB which in turn can force domestic monetary authorities to increase policy rates in line with the empirical evidence presented…

The BIS research is focussed on emerging economies, but aspects of the ELB are evident elsewhere. The limits of monetary policy are clearly observable in Japan: the Eurozone may be entering a similar twilight zone.

The difference between emerging and developed economies response to a tightening in global monetary conditions is seen in capital flows and exchange rates. Whilst emerging market currencies tend to fall, prompting their central banks to tighten monetary conditions in defence, in developed economies the flow of returning capital from emerging market investments may actually lead to a strengthening of the exchange rate. The persistent strength of the Japanese Yen, despite moribund economic growth over the past two decades, is an example of this phenomenon.

Part of the driving force behind developed market currency strength in response to a tightening of global monetary conditions is demographic, a younger working age population borrows more, an ageing populous borrows less.

At the risk of oversimplification, lower bond yields in developing (and even developed) economies accelerate the process of capital repatriation. Japanese pensioners can hardly rely on JGBs to deliver their retirement income when yields are at the zero bound, they must accept higher risk to achieve a living income, but this makes them more likely to drawdown on investments made elsewhere when uncertainty rises. A 2% rise in US interest rates only helps the eponymous Mrs Watanabe if the Yen appreciates by less than 2% in times of stress. Japan’s pensioners face a dilemma, a fall in US rates, in response to weaker global growth, also creates an income shortfall; capital is still repatriated, simply with less vehemence than during an emerging market crisis. As I said, this is an oversimplification of a vastly more complex system, but the importance of capital flows, in a more polarised ‘risk-on, risk-off’ world, is not to be underestimated.

Returning to the BIS working paper, the authors conclude: –

The models highlight a novel inter-temporal trade-off for monetary policy since the level of the ELB is affected by the past monetary stance. Tighter ex-ante monetary conditions tend to lower the ELB and thus create more monetary space to offset possible shocks. This observation has important normative implications since it calls for keeping a somewhat tighter monetary stance when global conditions are supportive to lower the ELB in the future.

Finally, the models have rich implications for the use of alternative policy tools that can be deployed to overcome the ELB and restore monetary transmission. In particular, the presence of the ELB calls for an active use of the central bank’s balance sheet, for example through quantitative easing and foreign exchange intervention. Furthermore, the ELB provides a new rationale for capital controls and macro-prudential policies, as they can be successfully used to relax the tensions between domestic collateral constraints and capital flows. Fiscal policy can also help to overcome the ELB, while forward guidance is ineffective since the ELB increases with the expectation of looser future monetary conditions.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

The concept of the ELB is new, the focus of the BIS working paper is on its impact on emerging markets. I believe the same forces are evident in developed economies too, but the capital flows are reversed. For investors, the greatest risk of emerging market investment is posed by currency, however, each devaluation by an emerging economy inexorably weakens the position of developed economies, since the devaluation makes that country’s exports immediately more competitive.

At present the demographic forces favour repatriation during times of crisis and repatriation, at a slower rate, during times of EM currency appreciation. This is because the ageing economies of the developed world continue to drawdown on their investments. At some point this demographic effect will reverse, however, for Japan and the Eurozone this will not be before 2100. For more on the demographic deficit the 2018 Ageing Report: Europe’s population is getting older – is worth reviewing. Until demographic trends reverse, international demand to borrow in US$, Euros and Yen will remain popular. Emerging market countries will pay the occasional price for borrowing cheaply, in the form of currency depreciations.

For Europe and Japan a reckoning may be nigh, but it seems more likely that their economic importance will gradually diminish as emerging economies, with a younger working age population and higher structural growth rates, eclipse them.

Central bank balance sheet reductions – will anyone follow the Fed?

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Macro Letter – No 110 – 15-02-2019

Central bank balance sheet reductions – will anyone follow the Fed?

  • The next wave of QE will be different, credit spreads will be controlled
  • The Federal Reserve may continue to tighten but few other CB’s can follow
  • ECB balance sheet reduction might occur if a crisis does not arrive first
  • Interest rates are likely to remain structurally lower than before 2008

The Federal Reserve’s response to the great financial recession of 2008/2009 was swift by comparison with that of the ECB; the BoJ was reticent, too, due to its already extended balance sheet. Now that the other developed economy central banks have fallen into line, the question which dominates markets is, will other central banks have room to reverse QE?

Last month saw the publication of a working paper from the BIS – Risk endogeneity at the lender/investor-of-last-resort – in which the authors investigate the effect of ECB liquidity provision, during the Euro crisis of 2010/2012. They also speculate about the challenge balance sheet reduction poses to systemic risk. Here is an extract from the non-technical summary (the emphasis is mine): –

The Eurosystem’s actions as a large-scale lender- and investor-of-last-resort during the euro area sovereign debt crisis had a first-order impact on the size, composition, and, ultimately, the credit riskiness of its balance sheet. At the time, its policies raised concerns about the central bank taking excessive risks. Particular concern emerged about the materialization of credit risk and its effect on the central bank’s reputation, credibility, independence, and ultimately its ability to steer inflation towards its target of close to but below 2% over the medium term.

Against this background, we ask: Can central bank liquidity provision or asset purchases during a liquidity crisis reduce risk in net terms? This could happen if risk taking in one part of the balance sheet (e.g., more asset purchases) de-risks other balance sheet positions (e.g., the collateralized lending portfolio) by a commensurate or even larger amount. How economically important can such risk spillovers be across policy operations? Were the Eurosystem’s financial buffers at all times sufficiently high to match its portfolio tail risks? Finally, did past operations differ in terms of impact per unit of risk?…

We focus on three main findings. First, we find that (Lender of last resort) LOLR- and (Investor of last resort) IOLR-implied credit risks are usually negatively related in our sample. Taking risk in one part of the central bank’s balance sheet (e.g., the announcement of asset purchases within the Securities Market Programme – SMP) tended to de-risk other positions (e.g., collateralized lending from previous longer-term refinancing operations LTROs). Vice versa, the allotment of two large-scale (very long-term refinancing operations) VLTRO credit operations each decreased the one-year-ahead expected shortfall of the SMP asset portfolio. This negative relationship implies that central bank risks can be nonlinear in exposures. In bad times, increasing size increases risk less than proportionally. Conversely, reducing balance sheet size may not reduce total risk by as much as one would expect by linear scaling. Arguably, the documented risk spillovers call for a measured approach towards reducing balance sheet size after a financial crisis.

Second, some unconventional policy operations did not add risk to the Eurosystem’s balance sheet in net terms. For example, we find that the initial OMT announcement de-risked the Eurosystem’s balance sheet by e41.4 bn in 99% expected shortfall (ES). As another example, we estimate that the allotment of the first VLTRO increased the overall 99% ES, but only marginally so, by e0.8 bn. Total expected loss decreased, by e1.4 bn. We conclude that, in extreme situations, a central bank can de-risk its balance sheet by doing more, in line with Bagehot’s well-known assertion that occasionally “only the brave plan is the safe plan.” Such risk reductions are not guaranteed, however, and counterexamples exist when risk reductions did not occur.

Third, our risk estimates allow us to study past unconventional monetary policies in terms of their ex-post ‘risk efficiency’. Risk efficiency is the notion that a certain amount of expected policy impact should be achieved with a minimum level of additional balance sheet risk. We find that the ECB’s Outright Monetary Transactions – OMT program was particularly risk efficient ex-post since its announcement shifted long-term inflation expectations from deflationary tendencies toward the ECB’s target of close to but below two percent, decreased sovereign benchmark bond yields for stressed euro area countries, while lowering the risk inherent in the central bank’s balance sheet. The first allotment of VLTRO funds appears to have been somewhat more risk-efficient than the second allotment. The SMP, despite its benefits documented elsewhere, does not appear to have been a particularly risk-efficient policy measure.

This BIS research is an important assessment of the effectiveness of ECB QE. Among other things, the authors find that the ‘shock and awe’ effectiveness of the first ‘quantitative treatment’ soon diminished. Liquidity is the methadone of the market, for QE to work in future, a larger and more targeted dose of monetary alchemy will be required.

The paper provides several interesting findings, for example, the Federal Reserve ‘taper-tantrum’ of 2013 and the Swiss National Bank decision to unpeg the Swiss Franc in 2015, did not appear to influence markets inside the Eurozone, once ECB president, Mario Draghi, had made its intensions plain. Nonetheless, the BIS conclude that (emphasis, once again, is mine): –

…collateralized credit operations imply substantially less credit risks (by at least one order of magnitude in our crisis sample) than outright sovereign bond holdings per e1 bn of liquidity owing to a double recourse in the collateralized lending case. Implementing monetary policy via credit operations rather than asset holdings, whenever possible, therefore appears preferable from a risk efficiency perspective. Second, expanding the set of eligible assets during a liquidity crisis could help mitigate the procyclicality inherent in some central bank’s risk protection frameworks.

In other words, rather than exacerbate the widening of credit spreads by purchasing sovereign debt, it is preferable for central banks to lean against the ‘flight to quality’ tendency of market participants during times of stress.

The authors go on to look at recent literature on the stress-testing of central bank balance sheets, mainly focussing on analysis of the US Federal Reserve. Then they review ‘market-risk’ methods as a solution to the ‘credit-risk’ problem, employing non-Gaussian methods – a prescient approach after the unforeseen events of 2008.

Bagehot thou shouldst be living at this hour (with apologies to Wordsworth)

The BIS authors refer on several occasions to Bagehot. I wonder what he would make of the current state of central banking? Please indulge me in this aside.

Walter Bagehot (1826 to 1877) was appointed by Richard Cobden as the first editor of the Economist. He is also the author of perhaps the best known book on the function of the 19th century money markets, Lombard Street (published in 1873). He is famed for inventing the dictum that a central bank should ‘lend freely, at a penalty rate, against good collateral.’ In fact he never actually uttered these words, they have been implied. Even the concept of a ‘lender of last resort’, to which he refers, was not coined by him, it was first described by Henry Thornton in his 1802 treatise – An Enquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Paper Credit of Great Britain.

To understand what Bagehot was really saying in Lombard Street, this essay by Peter Conti-Brown – Misreading Walter Bagehot: What Lombard Street Really Means for Central Banking – provides an elegant insight: –

Lombard Street was not his effort to argue what the Bank of England should do during liquidity crises, as almost all people assume; it was an argument about what the Bank of England should openly acknowledge that it had already done.

Bagehot was a classical liberal, an advocate of the gold standard; I doubt he would approve of the nature of central banks today. He would, I believe, have thrown his lot in with the likes of George Selgin and other proponents of Free Banking.

Conclusion and Investment Opportunities

Given the weakness of European economies it seems unlikely that the ECB will be able to follow the lead of the Federal Reserve and raise interest rates in any meaningful way. The unwinding of, at least a portion of, QE might be easier, since many of these refinancing operations will naturally mature. For arguments both for and against CB balance sheet reduction this paper by Charles Goodhart – A Central Bank’s optimal balance sheet size? is well worth reviewing. A picture, however, is worth a thousand words, although I think the expected balance sheet reduction may be overly optimistic: –

http___com.ft.imagepublish.upp-prod-eu.s3.amazonaws

Source: IMF, Haver Analytics, Fulcrum Asset Management

Come the next crisis, I expect the ECB to broaden the range of eligible securities and instruments that it is prepared to purchase. The ‘Draghi Put’ will gain greater credence as it encompasses a wider array of credits. The ‘Flight to Quality’ effect, driven by swathes of investors forsaking equities and corporate bonds, in favour of ‘risk-free’ government securities, will be shorter-lived and less extreme. The ‘Convergence Trade’ between the yields of European government bonds will regain pre-eminence; I can conceive the 10yr BTP/Bund spread testing zero.

None of this race to zero will happen in a straight line, but it is important not to lose sight of the combined power of qualitative and quantitative easing. The eventual ‘socialisation’ of common stock is already taking place in Japan. Make no mistake, it is already being contemplated by a central bank near you, right now.

Sustainable government debt – an old idea refreshed

Sustainable government debt – an old idea refreshed

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Macro Letter – No 109 – 01-02-2019

Sustainable government debt – an old idea refreshed

  • New research from the Peterson Institute suggests bond yields may fall once more
  • Demographic forces and unfunded state liabilities point to an inevitable reckoning
  • The next financial crisis may be assuaged with a mix of fiscal expansion plus QQE
  • Pension fund return expectations for bonds and stocks need to be revised lower

The Peterson Institute has long been one of my favourite sources of original research in the field of economics. They generally support free-market ideas, although they are less than classically liberal in their approach. I was, nonetheless, surprised by the Presidential Lecture given at the annual gathering of the American Economic Association (AEA) by Olivier Blanchard, ex-IMF Chief Economist, now at the Peterson Institute – Public Debt and Low Interest Rates. The title is quite anodyne, the content may come to be regarded as incendiary. Here is part of his introduction: –

Since 1980, interest rates on U.S. government bonds have steadily decreased. They are now lower than the nominal growth rate, and according to current forecasts, this is expected to remain the case for the foreseeable future. 10-year U.S. nominal rates hover around 3%, while forecasts of nominal growth are around 4% (2% real growth, 2% inflation). The inequality holds even more strongly in the other major advanced economies: The 10-year UK nominal rate is 1.3%, compared to forecasts of 10-year nominal growth around 3.6% (1.6% real, 2% inflation). The 10-year Euro nominal rate is 1.2%, compared to forecasts of 10-year nominal growth around 3.2% (1.5% real, 2% inflation). The 10-year Japanese nominal rate is 0.1%, compared to forecasts of 10-year nominal growth around 1.4% (1.0% real, 0.4% inflation).

The question this paper asks is what the implications of such low rates should be for government debt policy. It is an important question for at least two reasons. From a policy viewpoint, whether or not countries should reduce their debt, and by how much, is a central policy issue. From a theory viewpoint, one of pillars of macroeconomics is the assumption that people, firms, and governments are subject to intertemporal budget constraints. If the interest rate paid by the government is less the growth rate, then the intertemporal budget constraint facing the government no longer binds. What the government can and should do in this case is definitely worth exploring.

The paper reaches strong, and, I expect, surprising, conclusions. Put (too) simply, the signal sent by low rates is that not only debt may not have a substantial fiscal cost, but also that it may have limited welfare costs.

Blanchard’s conclusions may appear radical, yet, in my title, I refer to this as an old idea, allow me to explain. In business it makes sense, all else equal, to borrow if the rate of interest paid on your loan is lower than the return from your project. At the national level, if the government can borrow at below the rate of GDP growth it should be sustainable, since, over time (assuming, of course, that it is not added to) the ratio of debt to GDP will naturally diminish.

There are plenty of reasons why such borrowing may have limitations, but what really interests me, in this thought provoking lecture, is the reason governments can borrow at such low rates in the first instance. One argument is that as GDP grows, so does the size of the tax base, in other words, future taxation should be capable of covering the on-going interest on today’s government borrowing: the market should do the rest. Put another way, if a government become overly profligate, yields will rise. If borrowing costs exceed the expected rate of GDP there may be a panicked liquidation by investors. A government’s ability to borrow will be severely curtailed in this scenario, hence the healthy obsession, of many finance ministers, with debt to GDP ratios.

There are three factors which distort the cosy relationship between the lower yield of ‘risk-free’ government bonds and the higher percentage levels of GDP growth seen in most developed countries; investment regulations, unfunded liabilities and fractional reserve bank lending.

Let us begin with investment regulations, specifically in relation to the constraints imposed on pension funds and insurance companies. These institutions are hampered by prudential measures intended to guarantee that they are capable of meeting payment obligations to their customers in a timely manner. Mandated investment in liquid assets are a key construct: government bonds form a large percentage of their investments. As if this was not sufficient incentive, institutions are also encouraged to purchase government bonds as a result of the zero capital requirements for holding these assets under Basel rules.

A second factor is the uncounted, unfunded, liabilities of state pension funds and public healthcare spending. I defer to John Mauldin on this subject. The 8th of his Train-Wreck series is entitled Unfunded Promises – the author begins his calculation of total US debt with the face amount of all outstanding Treasury paper, at $21.2trln it amounts to approximately 105% of GDP. This is where the calculations become disturbing: –

If you add in state and local debt, that adds another $3.1 trillion to bring total government debt in the US to $24.3 trillion or more than 120% of GDP.

Mauldin goes on to suggest that this still underestimates the true cost. He turns to the Congressional Budget Office 2018 Long-Term Budget Outlook – which assumes that federal spending will grow significantly faster than federal revenue. On the basis of their assumptions, all federal tax revenues will be consumed in meeting social security, health care and interest expenditures by 2041.

Extrapolate this logic to other developed economies, especially those with more generous welfare commitments than the US, and the outlook for rapidly aging, welfare addicted developed countries is bleak. In a 2017 white paper by Mercer for World Economic Forum – We Will Live to 100 – the author estimates that the unfunded liabilities of US, UK, Netherlands, Japan, Australia, Canada, China and India will rise from $70trln in 2015 to $400trln in 2050. These countries represent roughly 60% of global GDP. I extrapolate global unfunded liabilities of around $120trln today rising to nearer $650trln within 20 years: –

image_2_20180622_tftf

Source: Mercer analysis

For an in depth analysis of the global pension crisis this 2016 research paper from Citi GPS – The Coming Pensions Crisis – is a mine of information.

In case you are still wondering how, on earth, we got here? This chart from Money Week shows how a combination of increased fiscal spending (to offset the effect of the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000) combined with the dramatic fall in interest rates (since the great financial recession of 2008/2009) has damaged the US state pension system: –

pensionshortfallinussince1998-moneyweek

Source: Moneyweek

The yield on US Treasury bonds has remained structurally higher than most of the bonds of Europe and any of Japan, for at least a decade.

The third factor is the fractional reserve banking system. Banks serve a useful purpose intermediating between borrowers and lenders. They are the levers of the credit cycle, but their very existence is testament to their usefulness to their governments, by whom they are esteemed for their ability to purchase government debt. I discuss – A history of Fractional Reserve Banking – or why interest rates are the most important influence on stock market valuations? in a two part essay I wrote for the Cobden Centre in October 2016. In it I suggest that the UK banking system, led by the Bank of England, has enabled the UK government to borrow at around 3% below the ‘natural rate’ of interest for more than 300 years. The recent introduction of quantitative easing has only exaggerated the artificial suppression of government borrowing costs.

Before you conclude that I am on a mission to change the world financial system, I wish to point out that if this suppression of borrowing costs has been the case for more than 300 years, there is no reason why it should not continue.

Which brings us back to Blanchard’s lecture at the AEA. Given the magnitude of unfunded liabilities, the low yield on government bonds is, perhaps, even more remarkable. More alarmingly, it reinforces Blanchard’s observation about the greater scope for government borrowing: although the author is at pains to advocate fiscal rectitude. If economic growth in developed economies stalls, as it has for much of the past two decades in Japan, then a Japanese redux will occur in other developed countries. The ‘risk-free’ rate across all developed countries will gravitate towards the zero bound with a commensurate flattening in yield curves. Over the medium term (the next decade or two) an increasing burden of government debt can probably be managed. Some of the new borrowing may even be diverted to investments which support higher economic growth. The end-game, however, will be a monumental reckoning, involving wholesale debt forgiveness. The challenge, as always, will be to anticipate the inflection point.

Conclusion and Investment Opportunities

Since the early-1990’s analysts have been predicting the end of the bond bull market. Until quite recently it was assumed that negative government bond yields were a temporary aberration reflecting stressed market conditions. When German schuldscheine (the promissory notes of the German banking system) traded briefly below the yield of German Bunds, during the reunification in 1989, the ‘liquidity anomaly’ was soon rectified. There has been a sea-change, for a decade since 2008, US 30yr interest rate swaps traded at a yield discount to US Treasuries – for more on this subject please see – Macro Letter – No 74 – 07-04-2017 – US 30yr Swaps have yielded less than Treasuries since 2008 – does it matter?

With the collapse in interest rates and bond yields, the unfunded liabilities of governments in developed economies has ballooned. A solution to the ‘pension crisis,’ higher bond yields, would sow the seeds of a wider economic crisis. Whilst governments still control their fiat currencies and their central banks dictate the rate of interest, there is still time – though, I doubt, the political will – to make the gradual adjustments necessary to right the ship.

I have been waiting for US 10yr yields to reach 4.5%, I may be disappointed. For investors in fixed income securities, the bond bull market has yet to run its course. Negative inflation adjusted returns will become the norm for risk-free assets. Stock markets may be range-bound for a protracted period as return expectations adjust to a structurally weaker economic growth environment.

A world of debt – where are the risks?

A world of debt – where are the risks?

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Macro Letter – No 108 – 18-01-2019

A world of debt – where are the risks?

  • Private debt has been the main source of rising debt to GDP ratios since 2008
  • Advanced economies have led the trend
  • Emerging market debt increases have been dominated by China
  • Credit spreads are a key indicator to watch in 2019

Since the financial crisis of 2008/2009 global debt has increased to reach a new all-time high. This trend has been documented before in articles such as the 2014 paper from the International Center for Monetary and Banking Studies – Deleveraging? What deleveraging? The IMF have also been built a global picture of the combined impact of private and public debt. In a recent publication – New Data on Global Debt – IMF – the authors make some interesting observations: –

Global debt has reached an all-time high of $184 trillion in nominal terms, the equivalent of 225 percent of GDP in 2017. On average, the world’s debt now exceeds $86,000 in per capita terms, which is more than 2½ times the average income per-capita.

The most indebted economies in the world are also the richer ones. You can explore this more in the interactive chart below. The top three borrowers in the world—the United States, China, and Japan—account for more than half of global debt, exceeding their share of global output.

The private sector’s debt has tripled since 1950. This makes it the driving force behind global debt. Another change since the global financial crisis has been the rise in private debt in emerging markets, led by China, overtaking advanced economies. At the other end of the spectrum, private debt has remained very low in low-income developing countries.

Global public debt, on the other hand, has experienced a reversal of sorts. After a steady decline up to the mid-1970s, public debt has gone up since, with advanced economies at the helm and, of late, followed by emerging and low-income developing countries.

The recent picture suggests that the old world order, dominated by advanced economies, may be changing. For investors, this is an important consideration. Total debt in 2017 had exceeded the previous all-time high by more than 11%, however, the global debt to GDP ratio fell by 1.5% between 2016 and 2017, led by developed nations.

Setting aside the absolute level of interest rates, which have finally begun to rise from multi-year lows, it makes sense for rapidly aging, developed economies, to begin reducing their absolute level of debt, unfortunately, given that unfunded pension liabilities and the escalating cost of government healthcare provision are not included in the data, the IMF are only be portraying a partial picture of the state of developed economy obligations.

For emerging markets, the trauma of the 1998 Asian Crisis has finally waned. In the decade since the great financial recession of 2008 emerging economies, led by China, have increased their borrowing. This is clearly indicated in the chart below: –

eng-december-26-global-debt-1

Source: IMF

The decline in the global debt to GDP ratio in 2017 is probably related to the change in Federal Reserve policy; the largest proportion of global debt is still raised in US$. Rather like the front-loaded US growth which transpired due the threat of tariff increases on US imports, I suspect, debt issuance spiked in expectation of a reversal of quantitative easing and an end to ultra-low US interest rates.

The IMF goes on to show the breakdown of debt by country, separating them into three groups; advanced economies, emerging markets and low income countries. The outlier is China, an emerging market with a debt to GDP ratio comparable to that of an advanced economy. The table below may be difficult to read (an interactive one is available on the IMF website): –

imf chart of debt by country december 2018

Source: IMF

At 81%, China’s private debt is much greater than its public debt, meanwhile its debt to GDP ratio is 254% – comparable with the US (256%). Fortunately, the majority of Chinese private debt is denominated in local currency. Advanced economies have higher debt to GDP ratios but their government debt ratios are relatively modest, excepting Japan. The Economist – Economists reconsider how much governments can borrow – provides food for thought on this subject.

Excluding China, emerging markets and low income countries have relatively similar levels of debt relative to GDP. In general, the preponderance of government debt in lower ratio countries reflects the lack of access to capital markets for private sector borrowers.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

Setting aside China, which, given its control on capital flows and foreign exchange reserves is hard to predict, the greatest risk to world financial markets appears to be from the private debt of advanced economies.

Following the financial crisis of 2008, corporate credit spreads narrowed, but not by as much as one might have anticipated, as interest rates tended towards the zero bound. The inexorable quest for yield appears to have been matched by equally enthusiastic issuance. The yield-quest also prompted the launch of a plethora of private debt investment products, offering enticing returns in exchange for illiquidity. An even more sinister trend has been the return of many of the products which exacerbated the financial crisis of 2008 – renamed, repackaged and repurposed. These investments lack liquidity and many are leveraged in order to achieve acceptable rates of return.

The chart below shows the 10yr maturity Corporate Baa spread versus US Treasuries since March 2007: –

baa 10yr spread 2007 to 2019

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

The Baa spread has widened since its low of 1.58% in January 2018, but, at 2.46%, it is still only halfway between the low of 2018 and the high of February 2016 (3.6%).

The High Yield Bond spread experienced a more dramatic reaction into the close of 2018, but, since the beginning of January, appears to have regained its composure. The chart shows the period since September 2015: –

high yield spread 10yr 2016 to 2019

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

Nonetheless, this looks more like a technical break-out. The spread may narrow to retest the break of 4% seen on November 15th, but the move looks impulsive. A return to the 3.25% – 3.75% range will be needed to quell market fears of an imminent full-blown credit-crunch.

If the next crisis does emanate from the private debt markets, governments will still be in a position to intervene; the last decade has taught us to accept negative government bond yields as a normal circumstance. Demographic trends have even led long dated interest rate swaps to trade even lower than risk-free assets.

A decade after the financial crisis, markets are fragile and, with an ever increasing percentage of capital market transactions dictated by non-bank liquidity providers, liquidity is ever more transitory. Credit spreads have often been the leading indicator of recessions, they may not provide the whole picture this time, but we should watch them closely during 2019.