The Icelandic Success Story

Emotionally, I love Iceland’s financial policies since the crash of 2008:

Iceland

Iceland went after the people who caused the crisis — the bankers who created and sold the junk products — and tried to shield the general population.

But what Iceland did is not just emotionally satisfying. Iceland is recovering, while the rest of the Western world — which bailed out the bankers and left the general population to pay for the bankers’ excess — is not.

Bloomberg reports:

Few countries blew up more spectacularly than Iceland in the 2008 financial crisis. The local stock market plunged 90 percent; unemployment rose ninefold; inflation shot to more than 18 percent; the country’s biggest banks all failed.

This was no post-Lehman Brothers recession: It was a depression.

Since then, Iceland has turned in a pretty impressive performance. It has repaid International Monetary Fund rescue loans ahead of schedule. Growth this year will be about 2.5 percent, better than most developed economies. Unemployment has fallen by half. In February, Fitch Ratings restored the country’s investment-grade status, approvingly citing its “unorthodox crisis policy response.”

So what exactly did Iceland do?

First, they create an aid package for homeowners:

To homeowners with negative equity, the country offered write-offs that would wipe out debt above 110 percent of the property value. The government also provided means-tested subsidies to reduce mortgage-interest expenses: Those with lower earnings, less home equity and children were granted the most generous support.

Then, they redenominated foreign currency debt into devalued krone, effectively giving creditors a big haircut:

In June 2010, the nation’s Supreme Court gave debtors another break: Bank loans that were indexed to foreign currencies were declared illegal. Because the Icelandic krona plunged 80 percent during the crisis, the cost of repaying foreign debt more than doubled. The ruling let consumers repay the banks as if the loans were in krona.

These policies helped consumers erase debt equal to 13 percent of Iceland’s $14 billion economy. Now, consumers have money to spend on other things. It is no accident that the IMF, which granted Iceland loans without imposing its usual austerity strictures, says the recovery is driven by domestic demand.

What this meant is that unsustainable junk was liquidated. While I am no fan of nationalised banks and believe that eventually they should be sold off, there were no quick and easy bailouts that allowed the financial sector to continue with the same unsustainable bubble-based folly they practiced before the crisis (as has happened throughout the rest of the Western world).  

And best of all, Iceland prosecuted the people who caused the crisis, providing a real disincentive (as opposed to more bailouts and bonuses):

Iceland’s special prosecutor has said it may indict as many as 90 people, while more than 200, including the former chief executives at the three biggest banks, face criminal charges.

Larus Welding, the former CEO of Glitnir Bank hf, once Iceland’s second biggest, was indicted in December for granting illegal loans and is now waiting to stand trial. The former CEO of Landsbanki Islands hf, Sigurjon Arnason, has endured stints of solitary confinement as his criminal investigation continues.

That compares with the U.S., where no top bank executives have faced criminal prosecution for their roles in the subprime mortgage meltdown. The Securities and Exchange Commission said last year it had sanctioned 39 senior officers for conduct related to the housing market meltdown.

Iceland’s approach is very much akin to what I have been advocating — write down the unsustainable debt, liquidate the junk corporations and banks that failed, disincentivise the behaviour that caused the crisis, and provide help to the ordinary individuals in the real economy (as opposed to phoney “stimulus” cash to campaign donors and big finance).

And Iceland has snapped out of its depression. The rest of the West, where banks continue to behave exactly as they did prior to the crisis, not so much.

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Does the Bank of England Worry About the Cantillon Effect?

The empirical data is in. And it turns out that as I have been suggesting for a very long time — yes, shock horror — helicopter dropping cash onto the financial sector does disproportionately favour the rich.

The Guardian:

The richest 10% of households in Britain have seen the value of their assets increase by up to £322,000 as a result of the Bank of England‘s attempts to use electronic money creation to lift the economy out of its deepest post-war slump.

Threadneedle Street said that wealthy families had been the biggest beneficiaries of its £375bn quantitative-easing (QE) programme, under which it has been buying government gilts for cash since early 2009.

The Bank of England calculated that the value of shares and bonds had risen by 26% – or £600bn – as a result of the policy, equivalent to £10,000 for each household in the UK. It added, however, that 40% of the gains went to the richest 5% of households.

Although the Bank said it could not come up with precise figures for the gains from QE, estimates can be produced using wealth distribution data from the Office for National Statistics. These show the average boost to the holdings of financial assets and pensions of the richest 10% of households would have been either £128,000 per household or £322,000 depending on the methodology used.

Here are a few questions for Britain’s monetary overlords at the BoE:

  1. Are you concerned about the long-term social and economic implications of a monetary policy that enriches the rich over and above everyone else?
  2. Are you familiar with the concept of the Cantillon Effect whereby the creation and allocation of new money transfers purchasing power to whoever it is allocated to? Did you consider this effect prior to embarking on a program of quantitative easing to the financial sector?
  3. Given the financial sector’s awful track record in terms of blowing up the economy, fabricating LIBOR data for its own enrichment, and neglecting cash-starved small businesses, is the financial sector an appropriate allocator of new money?
  4. Now that the empirical record shows the policy of helicopter-dropping cash directly to the financial sector disproportionately favours the rich, have you considered changing course and adopting a different monetary policy that doesn’t favour any particular group?

Sadly, I expect to see the announcement of more quantitative easing to the financial sector long before I expect to see answers to any of these questions.

The Shape of the Debt Reset

I was asked recently by Max Keiser who benefits in the case of a debt reset, and when we should expect such an event to occur.

I don’t think I answered it as comprehensively as I should have. I talked a little about the fact that events leading up to such an event could be extremely messy and its impact unpredictable, and so it is hard to say who will benefit, although we can expect the powers-that-be  — and particularly the Wall Street TBTF banks — to try and leverage events for political and financial gain. And of course, all three kinds of debt reset — heavy inflation, liquidation or an orderly debt jubilee — would look very different.

Here’s the problem:

The crisis in 2008 was one fuelled by excessive total debt. As society became more and more indebted the costs of servicing debt became proportionally higher, which has made it harder for countries to grow. Instead of individuals and businesses investing their income or growing their business, a higher and higher proportion of income becomes taken up by the costs of paying down debt.

Historically in a free market system, these kinds of credit bubbles have ended in liquidation of the entire bubble and all the bad debt. However the Fed’s money printing since 2008 (much like the Bank of Japan’s money printing in the 90s) has done just enough to keep the debt load serviceable.

The worrying thing is that Japan — which experienced a very similar series of events in the 1990s — remains in a high-debt, low-growth deleveraging trap. While the USA has managed a small decrease in indebtedness since 2008, it could take a very, very long time — Steve Keen estimates up to 15 or 20 years — for the debt level to fall to a level where strong organic GDP and employment growth is possible again. In my view, it is more likely (especially considering the Japanese example) that (with continued central bank assistance) there may be no long-run deleveraging at all, and that we may have entered a zombie cycle of reinflationary QE followed by market decline and deflation, followed by more reinflationary QE, etc. 

The point that I didn’t really emphasise to Max Keiser is just how beneficial a debt reset — so long as society comes out of it in one piece — will be in the long run. As both Friedrich Hayek and Hyman Minsky saw it, with the weight of excessive debt and the costs of deleveraging either reduced or removed, long-depressed-economies would be able to grow organically again. Yet after years of stagnation, a disorderly liquidation or inflation would surely be accompanied by financial, social and political chaos. And the cost of kicking the can and remaining in a deleveraging trap — as Japan has done (and as the US is now doing) — can have serious social consequences, such as elevated long-term unemployment, a deterioration in skills, diminished innovation and decreased entrepreneurialism.

I think this underlines the importance of trying to achieve the effects of a debt reset in an orderly way before nature forces it upon us again, and before we have spent a long time stuck in the deleveraging trap with a huge debt load relative to GDP, elevated unemployment, and very low growth. The least unfair way of doing this would seem to be the modern debt jubilee advocated by Steve Keen — print money, and instead of pumping it into the financial system as per QE, use it to write down a portion (say, $6,000) of each person’s debt load, and send out cheques up to an equal amount to those who are not indebted. Unlike with quantitative easing, because everyone gets the same quantity of new money, nobody receives a disproportionate transfer of purchasing power via the Cantillon effect, as happens not only with quantitative easing but also with more traditional monetary policy operations such as interest rate cuts, which are strongly correlated with disproportionately strong growth in the financial sector and bank assets. And the inflationary impact of the new money would be shared equally by everyone — rather than screwing pensioners or savers — because everyone would receive the same amount.

This is obviously not ideal, but it is surely better than remaining in a Japanese-style deleveraging trap.

Yet while most of the economic establishment remain convinced that the real problem is one of aggregate demand, and not excessive total debt, such a prospect still remains distant. The most likely pathway continues to be one of stagnation, with central banks printing just enough money to keep the debt serviceable (and handing it to the financial sector, which will surely continue to enrich itself at the expense of everyone else). This is a painful and unsustainable status quo and the debt reset — and without an economic miracle, it will eventually arrive — will in the long run likely prove a welcome development for the vast majority of people and businesses.

The Great LIBOR Bank Heist of 2008?

The LIBOR manipulation revelations ask some interesting questions.

Washington’s Blog notes:

Barclays and other large banks – including Citigroup, HSBC, J.P. Morgan Chase, Lloyds,Bank of AmericaUBS, Royal Bank of Scotland– manipulated the world’s primary interest rate (Libor) which virtually every adjustable-rate investment globally is pegged to.

That means they manipulated a good chunk of the world economy.

They have been manipulating Libor on virtually a daily basis since 2005.

While the implications of this to the $1200 trillion derivatives market would seem to be profound, one question I have not seen asked much yet are the implications of the manipulation to the reality of the 2008 financial crisis.

Here’s a really wild hypothesis: if the LIBOR rate was under manipulation in 2008, is it not possible that the inter-bank lending rate spike (and resultant credit freeze) was at least partly a product of manipulation by the banking cartel?

Could the manipulators have purposely exacerbated the freeze, to get a bigger and quicker bailout? After all, the banking system sucked $29 trillion out of the taxpayer following 2008. That’s a pretty big payoff. LIBOR profoundly affects credit availability — and the bailouts were directly designed to combat a freeze in credit availability. If market participants were manipulating or rigging LIBOR, they were manipulating a variable directly tied to the bailouts.

That means that every single tick must be under scrutiny; we know that rates have been manipulated for profit. I am no conspiracy theorist; it may just be a coincidence that a massive spike in a variable we now know to have been manipulated contributed to a credit freeze that led to historically-unprecedented bailouts. Yet it is no great leap of the imagination to say that the crisis may have been deliberately worsened for profit.

Investigators should investigate.

(H/T to Saifedean Ammous)

The United Kingdom of Massive Debt

Perhaps it is unpatriotic of me to ask, but are France’s shrill politicians right? Is the United Kingdom the weak link?

From the Guardian:

The entente is no longer so cordiale. As the big credit rating firms assess whether to strip France of its prized AAA status, Bank of France chief Christian Noyer this week produced a long list of reasons why he believes the agencies should turn their fire on Britain before his own country.

France’s finance minister François Baroin put things even more bluntly: “We’d rather be French than British in economic terms.”

But is the outlook across the Channel really better than in Britain? Taking Noyer’s reasons to downgrade Britain – it “has more deficits, as much debt, more inflation, less growth than us” – he is certainly right on some counts.

Britain’s deficit will stand at 7% of GDP next year, while France’s will be 4.6%, according to International Monetary Fund forecasts. But Britain’s net debt is put at 76.9% of GDP in 2012 and France’s at 83.5%. UK inflation has been way above the government-set target of 2% this year and the IMF forecasts it will be 2.4% in 2012. In France the rate is expected to be 1.4%.

On growth, neither country can claim a stellar performance. France’s economy grew 0.4% in the third quarter and Britain’s 0.5%. Nor has either a particularly rosy outlook. In Britain the economy is expected to grow by 1.6% in 2012. But in the near term there is a 1-in-3 chance of a recession, according to the independent Office for Budget Responsibility. In France, the IMF predicts slightly slower 2012 growth of 1.4%. But in the near term France’s national statistics office predicts a technical, albeit short, recession.

There is one significant factor everyone is overlooking.

Total debt:

From Zero Hedge:

While we sympathize with England, and are stunned by the immature petulant response from France and its head banker Christian Noyer to the threat of an imminent S&P downgrade of its overblown AAA rating, the truth is that France is actually 100% correct in telling the world to shift its attention from France and to Britain.

France should quietly and happily accept a downgrade, because the worst that could happen would be a few big French banks collapsing, and that’s it. If, on the other hand, the UK becomes the center of attention then this island, which far more so than the US is the true center of the global banking ponzi scheme, will suddenly find itself at the mercy of the market.

And why is the debt so high? Well, the superficial answer is that the UK is a “world financial centre”. The deeper answer is that the UK allows unlimited re-hypothecation of assets. Re-hypothecation is when a bank or broker re-uses collateral posted by clients, such as hedge funds, to back the broker’s own trades and borrowings. The practice of re-hypothecation runs into the trillions of dollars and is perfectly legal. It is justified by brokers on the basis that it is a capital efficient way of financing their operations. In the US brokers can re-hypothecate assets up to 140% of their book value.

In the UK, there is absolutely no statutory limit on the amount that can be re-hypothecated. Brokers are free to re-hypothecate all and even more than the assets deposited by clients. That is the kind of thing that creates huge interlinked webs of debt. And much of Britain’s huge debt load — particularly in the financial industry — is one giant web of endless re-hypothecation. Even firms (e.g. hedge funds) that do not internally re-hypothecate collateral are at risk, because their assets may have been re-hypothecated by a broker, or they may be owed money by a firm that re-hypothecates to high heaven. The problem here is the systemic fragility.

Simply, the UK financial sector has been attracting a lot of global capital because some British regulations are extremely lax. While it is pleasing to see the Vickers report, that recommends a British Glass-Steagall separation of investment and retail banking, becoming government policy, and while such a system might have insulated the real economy from the madness of unlimited re-hypothecation, the damage is already done. The debt already exists, and some day that debt web will have to be unwound.

Now Britain does have one clear advantage in over France. It can print its own money to recapitalise banks. But with inflation already prohibitively high, any such action is risky. If short sellers turn their fire on Britain, we could be in for a bumpy ride to hell and back.

UPDATE: Readers wanting to understand the true extent of economic degradation in some parts of the UK ought look no further than a recent post

Long Production, Short Consumption

An excellent interview of The China Money Report‘s Dan Collins from Max Keiser, wherein Collins debunks much of the “China is a bubble” nonsense so popular in circles that should know better:

Some readers have had a hard time understanding my position on China and America.

In a nutshell: I am long production and short consumption. I am long creditors and short debtors. 

Or, in more depth:

China has a property bubble, resulting from excess supply. It is also the world’s greatest industrial behemoth, controlling the world’s supply chains in many key components, and is becoming an increasingly powerful player in energy markets thanks to its buy-out of Venezuela and its close ties to authoritarian Eurasian energy powers like Russia, Iran and Pakistan. This means that it’s probably not the best place for Westerners to park capital in the short term. But it has no bearing on China’s strategic standing in the medium to long term.

A comparison with America is inevitable. The United States destroyed its industrial productive capacity, has a zombified financial system (including a huge derivatives ponzi that is yet to collapse), a stagnating labour market, stagnating infrastructure, a clueless establishment, and its currency is about to lose global reserve currency status.

Every day, America becomes more dependent on foreign oil and resources.

America needs the global resource and trade infrastructureThat’s why America is in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan. That’s why there are hundreds of bases around the world and why America spends trillions policing the world.

The counter-argument I often hear is “but America has nukes, America can order other countries to do things and they will do it”. But, ever since mutually-assured destruction that hasn’t been true.

If you don’t control your supply chains, you have a geostrategic problem. China grasped the importance of supply chains, and through cunning use of long-term planning has made itself the spider at the centre of the web of global trade. America grasped they could get a free lunch with US treasuries and that free lunch destroyed their productive capacity.

Why Cash Is Not King

This is a strange and beautiful crisis. For the last century, at times of change and instability, nervous investors have traditionally piled their money in two directions, into Treasury Bonds, and into cash. This time, the fortifications underlying the entire financial system are straining beneath the weight of change, the weight of systemic debt, and the rise of China, Brazil, India and Russia. From The Economist’s resident cartoonist, KAL:


And the most common response to these wild and whirling winds of change is money flowing into the asset class that has just been downgraded, the US Treasury, slashing yields by half a percent. Why? Because it is the most widely traded and the most liquid asset in the world. Put money in Treasuries — goes the common logic — and you will get your money back. The United States Treasury cannot, will not default. Why? The answer has been spoken explicitly in the past few days, most prominently by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan:

The United States can pay any debt it has because we can always print money to do that. So there is zero probability of default

Sadly, Chairman Greenspan is sorrily wrong. There are others kinds of defaults, and currently one is ongoing as a policy choice. With rates low, it is only necessary to have a small rate of inflation for real rates to be negative.

So are real interest rates really negative? It depends how we measure inflation. A huge aspect of my economic case is that — really — there is no such thing as a uniform inflation (or uniform inflation expectations), because there are different rates for different people, different communities and different strata of society. For welfare-recipients on a fixed income, food and fuel make up a much higher proportion of their income, leading to a much higher inflationary rate. For large corporations importing vast quantities of goods from China, inflation is undoubtedly lower. But no matter who you are, the rate of inflation is high enough to yield a negative real rate on cash.  On Treasuries, this is not necessarily true. But real rates on Treasuries are undoubtedly close to zero, if they are not negative.

Of course as I noted above that is the point of the zero interest rate policy: it is designed to spur holders of cash and Treasuries out of merely holding onto wealth, and instead into more productive ventures. The ostensible goal of the Federal Reserve’s policy, at this stage is to gradually increase productivity, output and unemployment and kick the can down the road for long enough to be able to get the burden under control. This is why Bernanke has called for further fiscal stimulus, as well as continuing monetary stimulus. In this environment, cash and Treasuries cannot be king, because cash and Treasuries are being deliberately throttled (even as the market deludes itself by pushing them to ever-greater heights).

What is king? Returns above the rate of inflation, at least. Right now that includes gold, silver, stocks from various countries and continents, and corporate bonds — so long as they are not in default. But in the long run, the winner will be quality productive assets built around solid companies, solid entrepreneurs, solid products and solid ideas. Value investors have known this for an eternity. But in tempestuous markets, getting in at the right price and at the time is difficult. That is why so many investors are waiting on the sidelines in cash and treasuries.