I’m sure it’s nothing…
I’m sure it’s nothing…
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.
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.