#modernmonetarytheory

The one fatal flaw experts forget when seeking to mimic #Abenomics style endurance

Pain

Over three decades ago, the Japanese introduced a TV programme titled, ‘Za Gaman‘ which stood for ‘endurance‘. It gathered a whole bunch of male university students who were challenged with barbaric events which tested their ability to endure pain because the producer thought these kids were too soft and self-entitled. Games included being chained to a truck and dragged along a gravel road with only one’s bare buttocks. Another was to be suspended upside down in an Egyptian desert where men with magnifying glasses trained the sun’s beam on their nipples while burning hot sand was tossed on them. The winner was the one who could last the longest.

Since the Japanese bubble collapsed in the early 1990s, a plethora of think tanks and central banks have run scenario analyses on how to avoid the pitfalls of a protracted period of deflation and low growth that plagued Japan’s lost decades. They think they could do far better. We disagree.

There is one absolutely fatal flaw with all arguments made by the West. The Japanese are conditioned in shared suffering. Of course, it comes with a large slice of reluctance but when presented with the alternatives the government knew ‘gaman’ would be accepted by the nation. It was right.

We like to think of Japan, not as capitalism with warts but socialism with beauty spots. Having lived there for twenty years we have to commend such commitment to social adhesion. It is a large part of the fabric of Japanese culture which is steeped in mutual respect. If the West had one lesson to learn from Japan it would be this. Unfortunately, greed, individualism and self-entitlement will be our Achilles’ heels.

It is worth noting that even Japan has its limits. At a grassroots level, we are witnessing the accelerated fraying of that social kimono. Here are 10 facts taken from our ‘Crime in Japan‘ series – ‘Geriatric Jailbirds‘, ‘Breakup of the Nuclear Family‘ and the ‘Fraud, Drugs, Murders, Yakuza and the Police‘ which point to that old adage that ‘all is not what it seems!

  1. Those aged over 65yo comprise 40% of all shoplifting in Japan and represent the highest cohort in Japanese prisons.
  2. 40% of the elderly in prison have committed the same crime 6x or more. They are breaking into prison to get adequate shelter, food and healthcare.
  3. Such has been the influx in elderly felons that the Ministry of Justice has expanded prison capacity 50% and directed more healthcare resources to cope with the surge in ageing inmates.
  4. To make way for more elderly inmates more yakuza gangsters have been released early.
  5. 25% of all weddings in Japan are shotgun.
  6. Child abuse cases in Japan have skyrocketed 25x in the last 20 years.
  7. Single-parent households comprise 25% of the total up from 15% in 1990.
  8. Domestic violence claims have quadrupled since 2005. The police have had to introduce a new category of DV that is for divorced couples living under the same roof (due to economic circumstances).
  9. The tenet of lifetime employment is breaking down leading to a trebling of labour disputes being recorded as bullying or harassment.
  10. In 2007, the government changed the law entitling wives to up to half of their husband’s pension leading to a surge in divorces.

These pressures were occurring well before the introduction of Abenomics – the three arrow strategy of PM Shinzo Abe – 1) aggressive monetary policy, 2) fiscal consolidation and 3) structural reform.

Since 2013, Abenomics seemed to be working. Economic growth picked up nicely and even inflation seemed like it might hit a sustainable trajectory. Luckily, Japan had the benefit of a debt-fueled global economy to tow it along. This is something the West and Japan will not have the luxury of when the coronavirus economic shutdown ends.

However, Japan’s ageing society is having an impact on the social contract, especially in the regional areas. We wrote a piece in February 2017, titled ‘Make Japan Great Again‘ where we analysed the mass exodus from the regions to the big cities in order to escape the rapidly deteriorating economic prospects in the countryside.

Almost 25 years ago, the Japanese government embarked on a program known as
‘shichosongappei’ (市町村合併)which loosely translates as mergers of cities and towns. The total number of towns halved in that period so local governments could consolidate services, schools and local hospitals. Not dissimilar to a business downsizing during a recession.

While the population growth of some Western economies might look promising versus Japan, we are kidding ourselves to think we can copy and paste what Nippon accomplished when we have relatively little social cohesion. What worked for them won’t necessarily apply with our more mercenary approach to economic systems, financial risk and social values.

Sure, we can embark on a path that racks up huge debts. We can buy up distressed debt and repackage it as investment grade but there is a terminal velocity with this approach.

The Bank of Japan is a canary in the coalmine. It has bought 58% of all ETFs outstanding which makes up 25% of the market. This is unsustainable. The BoJ is now a top 10 shareholder of over half of all listed stocks on the index. At what point will investors be able to adequately price risk when the BoJ sits like a lead balloon on the shareholder registry of Mitsui Bussan or Panasonic?

Will Boeing investors start to question their investment when the US Fed (we think it eventually gets approval to buy stocks) becomes the largest shareholder via the back door? Is the cradle of capitalism prepared to accept quasi state-owned enterprises? Are we to blindly sit back and just accept this fate despite this reduction in liquidity?

This is what 7 years of Abenomics has brought us. The BoJ already has in excess of 100% of GDP in assets on its balance sheet, up from c.20% when the first arrow was fired. We shouldn’t forget that there have been discussions to buy all ¥1,000 trillion of outstanding Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) and convert them into zero-coupon perpetual bonds with a mild administration fee to legitimise the asset. Will global markets take nicely to erasing 2 years worth of GDP with a printing press?

Who will determine the value of those assets when the BoJ or any other central bank for that matter is both the buyer and seller. If the private sector was caught in this scale of market manipulation they’d be fined billions and the perpetrators would end up serving long jail sentences.

Can we honestly accept continual debt financing of our own budget deficit? Japan has a ¥100 trillion national budget. ¥60 trillion is funded by taxes. The remainder of ¥40 trillion (US$400 billion) is debt-financed every single year. Can we accept the RBA printing off whatever we need every year to close the deficit for decade upon decade?

In a nutshell, we can be assured that central banks and treasuries around the world will be dusting off the old reports of how to escape the malaise we are in. Our view is that they will fail.

What will start off as a promising execution of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), rational economics will dictate that the gap between the haves and the have nots will grow even wider. Someone will miss out. Governments will act like novice plate spinners with all of the expected consequences.

In our opinion, the world will change in ways most are not prepared for. We think the power of populism has only started. National interests will be all that matters. Political correctness will cease. Identity politics will die. All the average punter will care about is whether they can feed their family. Nothing else will matter. Climate change will be a footnote in history as evidenced by the apparition that was Greta Thunberg who had to tell the world she caught COVID19 even though she was never tested.

Moving forward, our political class will no longer be able to duck and weave. Only those that are prepared to tell it like it is will survive going forward. The constituents won’t settle for anything else. Treat them as mugs and face the consequences, just like we saw with Boris Johnson’s landslide to push through Brexit.

The upcoming 2020 presidential election will shake America to its foundations. Do voters want to go back to the safety of a known quantity that didn’t deliver for decades under previous administrations and elect Biden or still chance Project Molotov Cocktail with Trump?

What we know for sure is that Trump would never have seen the light of day had decades of previous administrations competently managed the economy. COVID19 may ultimately work in Trump’s favour because his record, as we fact-checked at the time of SOTU, was making a considerable difference.

Whatever the result, prepare to gaman!

 

Who left the currency printer on?

CBs

This chart shows how fast he printing presses have been flying to boost the “asset” line of the Bank of Japan (blue), the US Federal Reserve (red) and the ECB (green).

The BoJ has grown its “assets” from ¥100 trillion in 2008 to ¥585 trillion today. Yes, that is right the Japanese central bank has printed so much money that the assets on the book are the equivalent of 100% of GDP, 5x that of 12 years ago.

Does MMT predicate that it is ok to print another 100%? After all the existing Japanese national debt pile is ¥1000 trillion. So who is counting?

We note that the shares in Japan’s biggest currency printing press maker Komori (6349) quadrupled during the boom and only tapered off as the BoJ slowed the rate in early 2018. Maybe coronavirus will get the BoJ back to its wicked ways as it buys up even more of the stock market??? It already owns 58% of outstanding ETFs and by stealth has become a top 10 shareholder in almost 50% of listed stocks. In a sense, we have a trend which threatens to turn Japan’s largest businesses into quasi-state-owned enterprises (SoE) by the back door.

The US Fed has grown “assets” from just shy of US$1 trillion at the time of GFC when the economy was worth US$15.7 trillion or around 6%. There was a nice breathing period between 2014 and 2018 before tapering started.

However, in October 2019 we noted that the Fed was getting a LOT more active in the repo market. Now with coronavirus upon us and the volatility in capital markets at the start of 2020 we can see that another $1.6 trillion has been added to the asset line to a record $5.8 trillion or around 30% of current GDP.

The European Central Bank (ECB) has powered up its balance sheet too from around Eur 1.4 trillion to Eur 4.7 trillion. or 40% of Europe 19’s Eur 10.7 trillion GDP. At the time of the GFC, Europe 19’s combined GDP was Eur 9.3 trillion meaning ECB assets were only 15% of the total. Note the ECB has discontinued reporting its assets.

The point is with the world economy about to hit a brick wall, will markets just face more central bank distortion? Surely no one honestly believes that central banks have got this under control with such an appalling record.

To be honest, if modern monetary theory (MMT) was truly working to date, there should be no unemployment, no poverty, no taxes and we could have easily funded all that renewable energy without even having a debate. Just print and spend.

Therein lies its fatal flaw of MMT. Eventually, conjuring money out of thin air hits terminal velocity. Truth be told the tales above show that each asset that the central banks have bought has created less and less impact in the real economy. Velocity has been sliding for decades.

It is a bit like taking morphine to kill the pain. Take too much and the side effects are:

  1. nausea and vomiting
  2. constipation
  3. itching
  4. loss of appetite
  5. lower body temperature
  6. difficulty urinating
  7. slow breathing
  8. sleepiness
  9. changes in heart rate
  10. weakness
  11. dizziness upon standing up
  12. confusion
  13. nervousness
  14. erectile dysfunction
  15. osteoporosis and risk of fractures

Not unlike the symptoms being shown by the global economy today.

Return of the State-Owned Enterprise

Image result for state owned enterprises

A new investor to Japan once asked CM how to categorise corporate behaviour in the land of the rising sun. CM replied, “Japan is not capitalism with warts, but socialism with beauty spots.

Latest reports confirm the Bank of Japan (BoJ) has now become a top 10 shareholder in almost 50% of listed stocks. In a sense, we have a trend which threatens to turn Japan’s largest businesses into quasi-state-owned enterprises (SoE) by the back door. The BoJ now owns $250bn of listed Japanese equities. It is the top shareholder in household Japanese brands such as Omron, Nidec and Fanuc. At current investment rates, the BoJ is set to own $400bn worth of the market by 2020-end.

The original reason for this move was to boost the ETF market and hope that Mrs Watanabe would pocket her winnings and splurge them at Mitsukoshi Department Store to increase consumption. Sadly all she has done is stuff it under the futon.

Although the government has been very public about the drive for good corporate governance, a stewardship code that drives to unwind cross-shareholdings, improve liquidity and lift returns, sadly the BoJ essentially reverses free-float and confounds the ability of companies to be attractive investments. What will happen if one day the BoJ announces it needs to pare its balance sheet back or that its holdings become too noticeable? These stocks will crater and Mrs Watanabe will become even more gun shy.

We shouldn’t forget that behind the walls of the BoJ, there is discussion to buy all $10 trillion of outstanding Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) and convert them into zero-coupon perpetual bonds with a mild administration fee to legitimise the asset. Global markets won’t take nicely to wiping out 2 years worth of GDP with a printing press. Such a reckless experiment has yet to hit the Japanese Diet for discussion because such a move will require legislation to approve it. If it happens, the inflation the BoJ has now given up on will turn into a tsunami.

Debunking Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

Corp Profit

While the Dow & S&P500 indices grind back higher thanks to the US Fed chickening out on a rate rise in because the economy can’t handle it, many people still overlook the fact that core US profitability has tracked sideways since 2012. 6 years of next to nada. Sure one can boost profits by adding back unrealistic  “inventory adjustments” but the reality is plain and simple. If you search for inventory adjusted earnings they’re still marginally growing but there in lies the point. Real profits aren’t.

Record buybacks fueled by cheap debt is the cause for ‘flattered’ earnings. No growth in E  just falls in S.  EPS growth can look spectacular if you ignore 50% of US corporates have BBB credit ratings or worse.

The latest lexicon is “modern monetary theory” (MMT). The idea that the central banks just manipulate markets in perpetuity. Austerity is no longer needed. Central banks print money and extinguish debts the same way. Seriously why bother with taxation? The question is if it is meant to be a sure winner, why aren’t we all living in 5 bedroom mansions with a Mercedes Benz and a Porsche in the driveway? Why not a helicopter?

Logically if central banks can buy our way out of this debt ridden hellhole, why is growth so anemic? Why is European GDP being cut back? Why is German industrial production at its worst level since 2009? Why does Salvini want to jail the Italian central bankers? Why does the Yellow Vest movement in France carry on for its 15th consecutive week? If MMT works why would the EU care if the UK leaves with No Deal? MMT can solve everything for unelected bureaucrats in theory. Even £39bn can be printed

Last year the US Fed announced it had stopped reporting its balance sheet activity. In 2006 it stopped reporting M3 money supply. Curious timing when inside 2 years the world was flung into the worst recession since 1929. Transparency is now a danger for authorities.

The question boils down to one of basic sanity. All assets are priced relative to others. It’s why an identical house with a view in a nice neighborhood trades at a relatively higher price than one in a outer suburban back lot. The market attributes extra value even if the actual dwelling is a carbon copy. It is why currencies in banana republics trade by appointment and inflation remains astronomical. Investors don’t trust their ability to repay debts unless given extremely favorable terms. Market forces at work.

To put the shoe on the other foot, if all countries adopted MMT why bother buying bonds for retirement? The interest is merely backed by a printing press. Best consume 100% and save zero. The government has moved beyond moral hazard and hopes no one will notice

Take a look at Japan. It has $10 trillion in outstanding debt which is 2x its economy. The Bank of Japan owns 60% of that paper bought through a printing press. The market for JGBs is so manipulated that several Japanese mega banks have handed back their trading licenses because it has become worthless to be on that exchange. The BoJ thinks it can make whatever prices it chooses. The ultimate aim is to convert all of the outstanding debt into a zero coupon perpetual bond with a minor ‘administration’ fee in order to assign some value to it. To the layman, a zero coupon perpetual means you get no interest on the money you lend and the borrower is technically never required to pay the borrowed amount back. Such loans are made by parents to their children, not central banks to politicians (although one could be forgiven to think their behaviour is child like).

Yet the backdrop remains the same. Consumers are tapped out in many countries. Lulled by a low interest rates forever mentality, even minute rises to stem inflation (real is different to reported) hurt. My credit card company constantly sends emails to offer to transfer balances at 9% as opposed to the 20% they can charge if I don’t pay in full.

APRA recently relented on interest only mortgages after demanding it be tightened to prevent a housing bubble getting bigger. Now mortgage holders hope the RBA cuts rates to ease their pain.

Like most new fads, MMT can’t remove the ultimate dilemma that Milton Friedman told us half a century ago. Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. One can’t hope that putting money in the hands of everyone can be sustainable.

The one lesson that we should have learnt from GFC was that living at the expense of the future has rapidly diminishing returns. All we did was double down on that stupidity.

Do we think it normal that Sydney house prices  trade at levels the Japanese property bubble did in the late 1980s? Do we realize that we hold as much mortgage debt than Japanese banks did for a population 5x our size? Do we think that our banks are adequately stress tested? When an economy like ours has avoided recession for a quarter century, it builds complacency.

MMT is nothing more than a figment of the imagination. It preys on the idea that we won’t notice if we can’t see it. Unfortunately behind the scenes, the real economy can’t sustain the distortions. The French make the best modern day example of  a growing number of Main Streeters struggling  to make ends meet.

Central banks monkeying around with MMT smacks of all the same hubris of the past. It is experimental at best and reckless at worst. Markets can be manipulated for as long as confidence can be sustained. Lose the market’s trust and all of a sudden no amount of modern day jargon  can overcome what economists have known for millennia.

If you flood a global economy with cash at 5x the rate the economy can feasibly grow then it will ultimately require bigger and bigger hits to get the same bang before the jig is up. It’s a Ponzi scheme. Bernie Madoff got 120 years jail. Why not the central bankers?

So what is the best asset out there? Gold. It can’t be printed. It requires effort to discover it and dig it out of the ground. Of course the barbouros relic deserves to be consigned to the dustbin of history. If that were so Fort Knox might as well leave the gate open. The more it is hated only makes this contrarian investor want it more.