#monetarypolicy

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!

 

The depression we have to have

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In his 1967 presidential address to the American Economic Association, Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman said, “… we are in danger of assigning to monetary policy a larger role than it can perform, in danger of asking it to accomplish tasks that it cannot achieve, and as a result, in danger of preventing it from making the contribution that it is capable of making.

What we are witnessing today is not capitalism. While socialists around the world scream for equality and point to the evils of capitalism, the real truth is that they are shaking pitchforks at the political class who are experimenting with economic and monetary concoctions that absolutely defy the tenets of free markets. As my learned credit analyst and friend, Jonathan Rochford, rightly points out, central banks have applied “their monetary policy hammer to problems that need a screwdriver.

Never has there been so much manipulation to keep this sinking global ship afloat. Manipulation is the complete antithesis to capitalism.  Yet our leaders and central banks think firing more cheap credit tranquillizers will somehow get us out of this mess. IT. WILL. NOT.

BONDS

As of August 15th, 2019, the sum of negative-yielding debt exceeds $16.4 trillion. That is to say, 30% of outstanding government debt sits in this category. Every single government bond issued by Germany, The Netherlands, Finland and Denmark are now negative-yielding. Germany just announced a 30-yr auction with a zero-interest coupon.

Unfortunately, insurance companies and pension funds are large scale buyers of bonds and negative interest rates don’t exactly serve their purposes. Therefore the hunt for positive yield (that ticks the right credit rating boxes) means the pickings continue to get slimmer.

Put simply to buy a bond with a negative yield, means that the cost of the bond held to maturity is more than the sum of all the coupons due and the receipt of face value combined. It also says clearly that controlling the extent of the loss of one’s money is preferable to sticking to strategies in other asset classes (e.g. property, equities) where TINA (there is no alternative) is the rule of thumb.

CM believes that there is a far bigger issue investors should focus on is the return “of” their money, not the return “on” it.

Rochford continues,

Central banks have hoped that extraordinary monetary policy would kick start economic growth, but they have instead only created asset price growth. In applying their monetary policy hammer to problems that need a screwdriver they have created the preconditions for the next and possibly greater financial crisis. The outworkings of many years of malinvestment are now starting to show with increasing regularity.

Argentina’s heavily oversubscribed issuance of 100-year bonds in 2017 was considered insane by many debt market participants at the time. The crash to below 50% of face value this month and request for maturity extensions is no surprise for a country that has a long rap sheet of sovereign defaults. Greece’s ten-year bond yield below 2% is another example of sovereign debt insanity…

…There have been three regional bank failures in China in the last three months, likely an early warning of the bad debt crisis brewing in China’s banks and debt markets. Europe’s banks aren’t in much better shape, there’s still a cohort of weak banks in Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain that haven’t fixed their problems that first surfaced a decade ago. Deutsche Bank is both fundamentally weak and the world’s most systemically important bank, a highly dangerous combination.”

What about equity markets?

EQUITIES

We only need look at the number record number of IPOs in 2018 where over 80% launched with negative earnings, you know, just like what happened in 2000 when the tech bubble collapsed.

Have people paid attention to the fact that aggregate US after-tax corporate earnings have been FLAT since 2012? That is 7 long years of tracking sideways. Where is this economic miracle that is spoken of?

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The only reason the markets have continued to remain excited is the generous share buyback regimes among many corporates which have flattered earnings per share (EPS). The “E” hasn’t grown. It is just that “S” has fallen. Credit spreads between AAA and BBB rated corporate paper has been so narrow that over 50% of US corporates now have a BBB or worse credit rating. Now credit spreads between top and bottom investment-grade bonds remain ridiculously tight. At some stage, investors will demand an appropriate spread to account for market “risk.”

Axios noted that for 2019, IT companies are again on pace to spend the most on stock buybacks this year, as the total looks set to pass 2018’s $1.085 trillion record total. Pretty easy to keep markets in the clouds with cheap credit fuelling expensive buybacks. Harley-Davidson is another household name which suffers from strategy decay yet deploys more cash to share buybacks instead of revitalising its core franchise. Harley delinquencies are at a 9-yr high.

Companies like GE embarked on a $45bn share buyback program despite a balance sheet which still reveals considerable negative equity. GE was the largest company in the world in 2000 and now trades at 20% of that value almost 20 years later.

Should we ignore Harry Markopolos, who discovered the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, when he points to the problems within GE? GE management can protest all they like but ultimately the company is not winning the argument if the share price is a barometer.

Valuations are at extreme levels. Beyond Meat trades at 100x revenues. Don’t get CM started on Tesla. A largely loss-making third rate automaker which is trading at outlandish premiums. The blind faith put in charge of a CEO that has lost over 100 senior management members.

Bank of America looked at 20 metrics to evaluate current market levels of the S&P500. 17 of them pointed to excess valuations relative to history including one metric that revealed S&P500 being 90% overvalued on a market cap to GDP ratio. Never mind.

Then witness the push for diversity nonsense inside corporate boardrooms. CM has always believed if a board is best suited to be run by all women based on background, skills and experience, then so be it. That is the best outcome for shareholders. However, to artificially set targets to morally preen will mean absolutely nothing if a sharp downturn exposes a soft underbelly of a lack of crisis management skills. Shareholders and retirees won’t be impressed.

It was laughable to hear superannuation funds ganging up on Harvey Norman last week for not having a diverse enough board. Even though Harvey Norman is thumping the competition which focuses too much on ESG/CSR, the shortcomings of our retirement managers are only too evident. Retirees want returns and their super managers should focus on that, rather than try to push companies to meet their ridiculous self-imposed investment restrictions. Retirees won’t be happy when their superannuation balances are decimated because fund managers wanted to appear socially acceptable at cocktail parties.

PROPERTY

It was only last month that Jyske Bank in Denmark started to offer negative interest mortgages. That is the bank pays interest to the mortgage holders. Of course, the bank is able to source credit below that rate to make a profit however net interest margins for the banks get squeezed globally. What next? Will people be able to sign up to a perpetual negative interest mortgage? Shall we expect a Japan-style multi-generational loan?

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The RBA’s latest chart pack shows net interest margins at the lowest levels for two decades. With the Hayne Banking Royal Commission likely to further crimp on lending growth, we are storing up huge pain in property markets despite the hope that August clearing rates signal a bottom in the short term. Yet more suckers lured in at the top of a shaky economy and financial sector.

Of course, central banks will dance to the tune that all is OK. Until it isn’t.

Don’t forget former US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, said “our financial institutions are strong” right before plugging $700bn worth of TARP money to save many of them from bankruptcy in 2008.

CM has previously investigated the Big 4 Aussie banks who have equity levels that are chronically low levels. Our major banks have such high exposure to mortgages that a severe downturn could potentially lead to part or whole nationalisation. Of course, between signalling the importance of factoring climate change, APRA assures us the stress tests ensure our financial institutions are safe.

Back in 2007, Sydney house prices were 8x income. In 2017 Demographia stated average housing (excluding apartment) prices were in the 13-14x range. The Australian Bureau of Statistics notes that 80% of people live in houses and 20% in apartments. Only Hong Kong at 19x beats Sydney for dizzy property prices. In 2019, expect that price/income rates remain at unsustainable levels.

In 2018, Australia’s GDP was around A$1.75 trillion. Our total lending by the banks was approximately $2.64 trillion which is 150% of GDP. At the height of the Japanese bubble, total bank lending as a whole only reached 106%. Mortgages alone in Australia are near as makes no difference 100% of GDP. Where there is smoke, there is fire.

At the height of the property bubble frenzy, Japanese real estate related lending comprised around 41.2% (A$2.5 trillion) of all loans outstanding. N.B. Australian bank mortgage loan books have swelled to 64% (A$1.8 trillion) of total loans.

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Sensing the bubble was getting out of control, the Bank of Japan went into a tightening rate cycle (from 2.5% to 6%) to contain it. Unfortunately, it led to an implosion in asset markets, most notably housing. From the peak in 1991/2 prices over the next two decades fell 75-80%. Banks were decimated.

In the following two decades, 181 Japanese banks, trust banks and credit unions went bust and the rest were either injected with public funds, forced into mergers or nationalized. The unravelling of asset prices was swift and sudden but the process to deal with it took decades because banks were reluctant to repossess properties for fear of having to mark the other properties (assets) on their balance sheets to current market values. Paying mere fractions of the loan were enough to justify not calling the debt bad. If banks were forced to reflect the truth of their financial health rather than use accounting trickery to keep the loans valued at the inflated levels the loans were made against they would quickly become insolvent. By the end of the crisis, disposal of non-performing loans (NPLs) among all financial institutions exceeded 90 trillion yen (A$1.1 trillion), or 17% of Japanese GDP at the time.

The lessons are no less disturbing for Australia. As a percentage of total loans outstanding in Australia, mortgages make up 65%. The next is daylight, followed by Norway at around 40%. US banks have cut overall property exposures and Japanese banks are now in the early teens. Post GFC, US banks have ratcheted back mortgage exposure. They have diversified their earnings through investment banking and other areas. That doesn’t let them off the hook mind you.

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Japanese banks have 90%+ funding from domestic deposits. Australia is around 60-70%. Our banks need to go shopping in global markets to get access to capital. Conditions for that can change on a dime. External shocks can see funding costs hit nose bleed levels which are passed onto consumers. When you see the press get into a frenzy over banks passing on more than the rate rises doled out by the RBA, they aren’t just being greedy – a large part is absorbing these higher wholesale funding costs.

Central banks need a mea culpa moment. We need to move away from manipulating interest rates to muddle through. It isn’t working. At all.

Rochford rightly points out,

Coming off the addiction to monetary policy is going to be painful, but it is the only sustainable course. It is likely that normalising monetary policy will result in a global recession, but this must be accepted as an unavoidable outcome given the disastrous policies of the past. Excessive monetary and fiscal stimulus has pulled consumption forward, the process of unwinding that obviously requires a level of consumption to be pushed backwards.”

Rochford is being conservative (no doubt due to his polite demeanour) in his assessment of a global recession. It is likely that this downturn will make the GFC of 2008 look like a picnic. CM thinks depression is the more apt term. 1929, not 2008. Central banks are rapidly losing what little confidence remains. If the RBA think QE will be a policy option, there is plenty of beta testing to show that it doesn’t work in the long run.

It is time to have the recession/depression we had to have to get the markets to clear. It will be excruciatingly painful but until we face facts, all the manipulation in the world will fail to keep capitalism from doing its job in the end. The longer we wait the worse it will get.

“It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble…..it is what you know to be sure that just ain’t so! – Mark Twain.

An ominous speech from the Philly Fed in 2013

A Limited Central Bank

Perhaps one of the most prophetic speeches made by the Fed. Unfortunately, central bankers continue to completely and totally ignore what he warned today.

Charles I. Plosser, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia who served from August 1, 2006, to March 1, 2015, said in the 100th anniversary of the Fed.

When establishing the longer-term goals and objectives for any organization, and particularly one that serves the public, it is important that the goals be achievable. Assigning unachievable goals to organizations is a recipe for failure. For the Fed, it could mean a loss of public confidence. I fear that the public has come to expect too much from its central bank and too much from monetary policy, in particular. We need to heed the words of another Nobel Prize winner, Milton Friedman. In his 1967 presidential address to the American Economic Association, he said, “… we are in danger of assigning to monetary policy a larger role than it can perform, in danger of asking it to accomplish tasks that it cannot achieve, and as a result, in danger of preventing it from making the contribution that it is capable of making.6 In the 1970s, we saw the truth in Friedman’s earlier admonitions. I think that over the past 40 years, with the exception of the Paul Volcker era, we failed to heed this warning. We have assigned an ever-expanding role for monetary policy, and we expect our central bank to solve all manner of economic woes for which it is ill-suited to address. We need to better align the expectations of monetary policy with what it is actually capable of achieving.”

Plosser’s conclusions were:

The financial crisis and its aftermath have been challenging times for global economies and their institutions. The extraordinary actions taken by the Fed to combat the crisis and the ensuing recession and to support recovery have expanded the roles assigned to monetary policy. The public has come to expect too much from its central bank. To remedy this situation, I believe it would be appropriate to set four limits on the central bank:

  • First, limit the Fed’s monetary policy goals to a narrow mandate in which price stability is the sole, or at least the primary, objective.
  • Second, limit the types of assets that the Fed can hold on its balance sheet to Treasury securities.
  • Third, limit the Fed’s discretion in monetary policymaking by requiring a systematic, rule-like approach.
  • And fourth, limit the boundaries of its lender-of-last-resort credit extension and ensure that it is conducted in a systematic fashion.

These steps would yield a more limited central bank. In doing so, they would help preserve the central bank’s independence, thereby improving the effectiveness of monetary policy, and, at the same time, they would make it easier for the public to hold the Fed accountable for its policy decisions. These changes to the institution would strengthen the Fed for its next 100 years.”

Sadly we’re experiencing the opposite.

When President Trump bullies Jerome Powell to hurry up with rate cuts to “keep up with China“, he is only coercing the US Fed chairman to move even further away from these four guidelines. One has to wonder did any of the central bankers ever play with matches as a child?

Perhaps Friedman had it right when he said,

Government has three primary functions. It should provide for military defence of the nation. It should enforce contracts between individuals. It should protect citizens from crimes against themselves or their property. When government– in pursuit of good intentions tries to rearrange the economy, legislate morality, or help special interests, the cost comes in inefficiency, lack of motivation, and loss of freedom. Government should be a referee, not an active player.

 

RBA is the new axe on climate change.

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The RBA can barely manage interest rates so where does it get off babbling on about how climate change is going to maim the economy? Stay in your lane!  Even worse the speech based its assertions on the prophecies of the IPCC and BOM, two of many organizations which have been caught red handed manipulating climate data. CM thought the science was settled? If so, what is the point of so many climate bodies fiddling the figures? Why can’t the RBA open its ‘assess all risk’ lens? Wouldn’t data malfeasance constitute a red flag in the RBA’s internal analysis? Clearly not.

While the RBA is there to manage risk, why doesn’t it try evidence based research? Perhaps try look at the debate on both sides of the argument rather than follow an ideology because it feels the need to virtue signal by joining the herd.

Well if the economy collapses under its watch they can blame a drought, a flood and a bushfire rather than poor stewardship of monetary policy. Maybe the RBA might look at the perilous financial state our main banks find themselves in. Maybe the bank managements being attacked in the Royal Commission can blame climate change for the sudden hot blooded mistakes they made.

What a farce.

Some interesting reading

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John Mauldin has put together a few interesting pieces over the weekend. Some of the select quotes from Thoughts from the frontline:

Money Velocity (which CM wrote about in 2016):

velocity of money, which is continuing to fall, as it has for almost 20 years…So it is somewhat disturbing to see velocity now at its lowest point since 1949, and at levels associated with the Great Depression.”

Income Disparity:

Note that it is the 95th percentile of workers that has received the bulk of the increase in wages. The bottom 50% is either down or basically flat since 1979. Even the 70th percentile didn’t do all that well.

Budget Deficits:

Over the last half-century, higher deficits have been associated with recessions. After recessions end, the deficit shrinks, and occasionally we get a surplus. That’s not happening this time. Deficits are growing even without a recession…but in the next recession tax revenues will fall, and spending will increase enough to not only swell the annual deficit but also to add north of $2 trillion to the national debt each year. We’re using up our breathing room, and that will be a problem – sooner or later.

Monetary Policy:

Ominously, you can see from Grant’s labels (In the above chart) with arrows that peak yields tended to correspond with crises. If the current breakout persists, it is probably going to get its own label, and I bet we won’t like it.

Nothing to see here?