Shadow Banking 101

This article originally appeared in the May 1st edition of The Occupied Times.

Meet James. James bought a house. It cost him $150,000, of which $30,000 had come from his own savings, leaving him with a $120,000 30-year fixed-rate mortgage from the WTF Bank, with a final cost (after 30 years of interest) of $200,000. Now, up until the ’80s, a mortgage was just a mortgage. Banks would lend the funds and profit from interest as the mortgage is paid back.

Not so today. James’s $200,000 mortgage was packaged up with 1,000 other mortgages into a £180 million MBS, (mortgage backed security), and sold for an immediate gain by WTF Bank to Privet Asset Management, a hedge fund. Privet then placed this MBS with Sacks of Gold, an investment bank, in return for a $18 billion short-term collateralised (“hypothecated”) loan. Two days later Sacks of Gold faced a margin call, and so re-hypothecated this collateral for another short-term collateralised $18 billion loan with J.P. Morecocaine, another investment bank. Three weeks later, a huge stock market crash resulted in a liquidity panic, resulting in more margin calls, more forced selling, which left Privet Asset Management — who had already lost a lot of money betting stocks would go up — completely insolvent.


You should be. This is of course a fictitious story. But the really freaky thing is that this kind of scenario — the packaging up of fairly ordinary debt into exotic financial products, which are then traded by hundreds or even thousands of different parties, has occurred millions and millions of times. And it is extremely dangerous. When everybody is in debt to everybody else through a complex web of debt one small shock could break the entire system. The $18 billion debt that Privet owed to Sacks of Gold could be the difference between Sacks of Gold having enough money to survive, or not survive. And if they didn’t survive, then all the money that they owed to other parties, like J.P. Morecocaine, would go unpaid, thus threatening those parties with insolvency, and so on. This is called systemic risk, and shadow banking has done for systemic risk what did the Beatles did for rock & roll: blow it up, and spread it everywhere.


The banking system has blown up multiple times in history, when depositors have panicked and withdrawn funds en masse in what is known as a bank run. So traditional banks have become party to a lot of regulations. For example, banks must keep on hand 10% of deposits as a reserve. This reserve is a buffer, so that if depositors choose to withdraw their money they can do so without the bank having to call in loans. Of course, banks can still suffer from a liquidity panic if a large proportion of their depositors choose to withdraw their money. Under those circumstances, traditional banks have access to central bank liquidity — short term loans from the central bank to guarantee that they can pay depositors.

Shadow banking arose out of bankers’ desire to not be bound by these restrictions, and so to create more and more and more financial products, and debt, without the interference or oversight of regulators. Of course, this meant that they did not have access to central bank liquidity, either.

Essentially, shadow banking is still banking. It is a funnel through which money travels, from those who have an excess of it and wish to deposit it and receive interest payments, to those who want to borrow money. Shadow banking institutions are intermediaries between investors and borrowers. They can have many names: hedge funds, special investment vehicles, money market funds, pension funds. Sometimes investment banks, retail banks and even central banks. The difference is that in the new galaxy of shadow banking, these chains of intermediation are often extremely complex, the shadow bank does not have to keep reserves on hand, and shadow banking institutions raise money through securitisation, rather than through accepting deposits.


With securitisation, the financial industry creates the products which populate the shadow banking ecosystem, and act as collateral. Rather than accepting deposits (and thus accepting regulation as traditional banks) shadow banking gets access to money through borrowing against assets. These assets could be anything — mortgages, credit card debt, commodities, car loans. These kinds of products are packaged up into shares, sold and traded. There are various forms: collateralised debt obligations, collateralised fund obligations, asset-backed securities, mortgage-backed securities, asset back commercial paper, tender option bonds, variable rate demand obligations, re-hypothecation, and hundreds more exotic variants. (Hypothecation is where the borrower pledges collateral to secure a debt – i.e. a mortgage, and re-hypothecation is where that collateral is passed on and someone else borrows against it, even though it remains in the original debtors hands). The function of these assets are essentially the same; securitisation is a way of creating products with an exchange value, and bringing money into the shadow banking system; so much money that the shadow banking system in 2008 was much larger than the traditional banking system:


Plummeting Junk

So securitisation — as well as its siblings hypothecation and re-hypothecation, allowed for pre-existing securities to be re-posted again and again as collateral, sucking more and more money into the system — became a pretty significant way of funding lending. The problem in the financial crisis beginning in 2007 was that a lot of the assets securitised to bring money into the shadow banking system turned out to be junk.

Think back to the MBS bundle containing James’s mortgage: if 90% of the mortgages in the MBS were defaulted upon, that MBS would yield a huge loss for whoever was currently holding it. If that MBS had been posted as collateral against further lending, those debts would be called in. For shadow banking institutions that were highly leveraged this turned out to be a huge problem. To raise capital, they started selling just about anything that wasn’t bolted down. This meant that prices — even of securities that weren’t fundamentally weak — plummeted. And because of the problems with a lot of existing securities, the funding source for a huge part of global lending completely dried up, worsening the economic contraction.

The risk — that debtors would default upon their loans — rather than being confined to a single bank, came to be spread about the entire economy, with bad debts that had been securitised, hypothecated and re-hypothecated coming to sit on the balance sheets of tens or even hundreds of financial institutions.


This entire system creates another problem. Securities came to be a kind of pseudo-money. In other words, they became a unit of exchange and a means for payment between banking institutions. With the 2008 shadow banking implosion, this meant that many prices, including prices of products like equities that were superficially disconnected from the shadow banking system, fell precipitously simply because there was less money floating around in the system.

Friedrich Hayek wrote about this problem long before anyone coined the term shadow banking:

There can be no doubt that besides the regular types of the circulating medium, such as coin, notes and bank deposits, which are generally recognised to be money or currency, and the quantity of which is regulated by some central authority or can at least be imagined to be so regulated, there exist still other forms of media of exchange which occasionally or permanently do the service of money. Now while for certain practical purposes we are accustomed to distinguish these forms of media of exchange from money proper as being mere substitutes for money, it is clear that, other things equal, any increase or decrease of these money substitutes will have exactly the same effects as an increase or decrease of the quantity of money proper, and should therefore, for the purposes of theoretical analysis, be counted as money.

Thus, as the shadow banking system expanded, it caused inflation, and as it imploded it caused deflation. It was a big toxic bubble waiting to burst.

The Future

Ultimately, markets are a little crazy. People will do all manner of wacky things trying to turn a profit. All kinds of weird and wonderful systems will emerge. Some systems work better than others. And — as might be sensibly expected — the shadow banking system’s wacky idea of financing banking operations through the securitisation of debt failed. But because of the wider implications for the financial system, central banks began throwing money around in order to save these broken institutions and systems.

The Federal Reserve’s first quantitative easing program bought up tranches of defunct MBS. This stabilised markets to the extent that while securitisation virtually ground to a halt in 2009, by 2011 the shadow banking system was growing again. But this is surely just a temporary measure. Simply, there is no reason whatever to doubt that the same problem — of bad debt coming to be spread around the entire financial system through securitisation and re-hypothecation — will take root once again, causing similar turmoil in the future.

The status quo is that we have a broken and dangerous system that doesn’t really work, surviving on government subsidies. Sure, a full collapse of shadow banking in 2008 would have been painful. But we may have created a bigger and more painful collapse further down the road.


Treasuries Still Not Cracking

Tyler Durden pointed out yesterday that just three weeks after Goldman made the case for equities relative to bonds, the muppets who had listened to their advice were getting skewered:

I wrote a while back that (unlike some others) I didn’t believe it was likely that  this was going to be a cataclysmic rate spike. Readers who want to detect one need to watch whether sovereign creditors especially Russia and China are selling, and at what pace — the faster the liquidation, the more rates may spike.

Of course, I am still convinced that the real fragility to America’s economy isn’t actually a rate spike or inflation.The Fed has a very good handle on both of these things (but not, perhaps on unwanted side effects. They can effectively do QE without really inflating the currency much; simply shoot the money to primary dealers for treasuries.

When volatility is artificially suppressed, there are always unwanted side effects. And that — the unwanted side effects, not the widely-reported fears of inflation and rate spikes — I believe, is the true danger.

One unwanted side effect could be provoking a damaging trade war with China, from which the West imports so much. That is my pet theory, and one I’ve devoted a few thousand words to over the last few months. But the trouble with side-effects is that it is very hard to tell what the weakest link (i.e. the point that will break) in a volatility-suppressed system is. Tyler Durden reports that systemic financial fragility (as measured by CDS) is at a recent-high, too:

Believers in technical analysis (I am very sceptical) are pointing to a head-and-shoulders top in the “recovery” (to go with the bigger head and shoulders top that is very much one of the stories of the last ten years):

I don’t know when the black swans will come home to roost and the strange creature that we call the present global economic order will go ka-put. I don’t even know if they ever will! But I see the fragilities caused by central planners suppressing the system’s natural volatility.

Why Goldman Sachs Cannot Be Wrong

When it comes to equities, they play both sides of the argument.

From Business Insider:

You’ve got to be kidding us, Goldman Sachs.

In recent weeks, at least four different strategists from Goldman Sachs (honestly we’ve lost count) have offered different opinions on the direction of the stock markets.  They range from extremely bullish to uber bearish:

David Kostin, Chief Equity US Strategist: BEARISH

Back in December, Kostin said he thought the S&P 500 would end 2012 at 1,250.  This officially made him one of the most bearish strategists on all of Wall Street.  And despite the monster rally in stocks since then, Kostin hasn’t budged.

Jim O’Neill, Chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management: BULLISH

When O’Neill published his 11 predictions for 2012, his position was that the S&P 500 was more likely to head to 1,400 than 1,000.  His call came two weeks after Kostin’s 1,250 call.

Abby Joseph Cohen, President of the Goldman Sachs Global Markets Institute and Senior Investment Strategist: BULLISH

It’s hard to think of a time when Cohen wasn’t bullish.  She made a name for herself in the late 1990’s by being bullish as the stock markets soared during the dotcom bubble.

Peter Oppenheimer, Co-Head of Economics, Commodities and Strategy Research in Europe: BULLISH

Everyone’s still buzzing about Oppenheimer’s note titled The Long Good Buy; the Case for Equities where he argued that the equity risk premium made stocks look incredibly cheap.

“The prospects for future returns in equities relative to bonds are as good as they have been in a generation,” he concluded.

The embarrassing thing for Goldman is that their uncertainty and disagreement over where markets are going reflects that the masters of the universe — no matter how well connected — are just as clueless as the rest of us.

The problem for muppets (i.e. Goldman clients) is that it is impossible to be both short and long. Muppets will have to decide whose arguments to listen to for themselves, and will have be responsible for gains or losses. The difference between the masters and the muppets is that Goldman don’t have to take responsibility for their actions. If Goldman screws up — say, by purchasing CDS from a counter-party that goes bust, like they did in 2008 — they can easily get a bailout, and  a boatload of loose QE money to turn their balance sheet around.

Underwater equities? Balance sheet full of junk? No problem for Goldman — merely “hunt elephants” (as Greg Smith put it): encourage your clients to put their money into whatever Goldman wants to sell.

Problem with regulation? No problem: just call up any of their friends in government. The friendship starts at the top.

From Firedoglake:

Certainly, Obama sucked at the teats of Goldman Sachs more than any other politician in recent times. It began for him as little-known Senator from Illinois with a razor- thin resume whose ambitions outshone his accomplishments. Obama’s eloquent, heavily prepped address to the Democratic National Convention caught not only the eyes of the Democratic top brass, but that of the big bankers. As early as the Spring of 2006, Senator Barack Obama was intimately involved with Bob Rubin and Goldman Sachs through his involvement with the Hamilton Project.

Fittingly, Senator Obama was chosen by Rubin and the Hamilton Project to give the inaugural address of the Hamilton Project in April, 2006. An excellent, seminal discussion of the Hamilton Project by Dr. Kirk James Murphy, M.D., can be found here. A video clip of then Senator Barack Obama speaking at the inauguration of the Hamilton Project in April, 2006 can be found here and here (with an excellent discussion) and here.

Obama not helpful? Is he having one of those days where he needs to pretend to be a populist to keep his muppets (i.e. voters) on board? That’s fine — Goldman can try Geithner, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Hillary Clinton, Peter Orszag, William Dudley, or any of the other Goldmanites in positions of power.

Muppets may not be so well-connected. Muppets don’t get bailouts, or QE slush money.

Bernanke vs Greenspan?

Submitted by Andrew Fruth of AcceptanceTake

Bernanke and Greenspan appear to have differing opinions on whether the Fed will monetize the debt.

Bernanke, on behalf of the Federal Reserve, said in 2009 at a House Financial Services Committee that “we’re not going to monetize the debt.

Greenspan, meanwhile, on Meet the Press in 2011 that “there is zero probability of default” because the U.S. can always print more money.

But they can’t both be true…

There is only 0% probability of formal default if the Fed monetizes the debt. If they refuse, and creditors refuse to buy bonds when current bonds rollover, then the U.S. would default. But Ben said the Fed will never monetize the debt back on June 3, 2009. That’s curious, because in November 2010 in what has been termed “QE2” the Fed announced it would buy $600 billion in long-term Treasuries and buy an additional $250-$300 of Treasuries in which the $250-$300 billion was from previous investments.

Is that monetization? I would say yes, but it’s sort of tricky to define. For example, when the Fed conducts its open market operations it buys Treasuries to influence interest rates which has been going on for a long time — way before the current U.S. debt crisis.

So then what determines whether the Fed has conducted this egregious form of Treasury buying we call “monetization of the debt?”

The only two factors that can possibly differentiate monetization from open market operations is 1) the size of the purchase and 2) the intent behind the purchase.

This is how the size of Treasury purchases have changed since 2009:

Since new data has come out, the whole year of 2011 monetary authority purchases is $642 billion – not quite as high as in the graph, but still very high.

Clearly you can see the difference in the size of the purchases even though determining what size is considered monetization is rather arbitrary.

Then there’s the intent behind the purchase. That’s what I think Bernanke is talking about when he says he will not monetize the debt. In Bernanke’s mind the intent (at least the public lip service intent) is to avoid deflation and to boost the economy – not to bail the United States out of its debt crisis by printing money. Bernanke still contends that he has an exit policy and that he will wind down the monetary base when the time is appropriate.

So In Bernanke’s mind, he may not consider buying Treasuries — even at QE2 levels — “monetizing the debt.”

The most likely stealth monetization tactics Bernanke can use — while still keeping a straight face — while saying he will not monetize the debt, will be an extreme difference between the Fed Funds Rate and the theoretical rate it would be without money printing, and loosening loan requirements/adopting policies that will get the banks to multiply out their massive amounts of excess reserves.

If, for example, the natural Fed Funds rate — the rate without Fed intervention — is 19% and the Fed is keeping the rate at 0%, then the amount of Treasuries the Fed would have to buy to keep that rate down would be huge — yet Bernanke could say he’s just conducting normal open market operations.

On the other hand, if the banks create money out of nothing via the fractional reserve lending system and a certain percentage of that new money goes into Treasuries, Bernanke can just say there is strong private demand for Treasuries even if his policies were the reason behind excessive credit growth that allowed for the increased purchase of Treasuries.

Maybe Bernanke means he will not monetize a particular part of the debt that was being referred to in the video. Again, though, he could simply hide it under an open market operations 0% policy or encourage the banking system to expand the money supply.

Whatever the case, if you ever hear Bernanke say “the Federal Reserve will not monetize the debt” again, feel free to ignore him. When he says that, it doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t buy a large quantity of Treasuries with new money created out of nothing.

Remember, Greenspan says there’s “zero probability of default” because the U.S. can always print more money. Does Greenspan know something here? There’s only zero probability if the Fed commits to monetizing the debt as needed. If Greenspan knows something there will be monetization of the debt, even if Bernanke wants to call it something else.

Get Bullish, Muppets!

Sounds like Goldman has some equities (AAPL?) to dump on its muppet clients.

From Business Insider:

Goldman portfolio strategists Peter Oppenheimer and Matthieu Walterspiler are out with a doozy of report, basically presenting a big bullish case for stocks, relative to bonds.

From Goldman:

In 1956, George Ross Goobey, the general manager of the Imperial Tobacco pension fund in the UK made a controversial speech to the Association of Superannuation and Pension Funds (ASPF) arguing the merits of investing in equities to generate inflation linked growth for pension funds.  He became famous for allocating the entirety of the funds investments to equities, a move that is often associated with the start of the so-called ‘cult of the equity’.

Prior to this, equities were largely seen as volatile assets that achieved lower risk adjusted returns than government bonds and, consequently, required a higher yield. As more institutions warmed to the idea of shifting funds into equities, partly as a hedge against inflation, the yield on equities declined and the so-called ‘reverse yield gap’ was born. This refers to the fall in dividend yields to below government bond yields; a pattern that has continued, in most developed economies, until recently.

In his speech to the ASPF, Ross Goobey talked about the long-run historical evidence that the ex-post equity risk premium was positive and that investors ignored this at their own peril.

The long-run performance of equities was much greater than for bonds having adjusted for inflation. As he said: ‘I know that people will say: ‘Well, things are never going to be the same again’, but … it has happened again, and again. I say to you that my views are that it is still going to happen yet again even though it may not be the steep rises which we have had in the past.’ Over the 50 years that followed Mr. Ross Goobey’s pitch, his predictions proved very successful. The annualized real return to US equities (as a proxy)  between 1956 and 2000 were 7.4%.

But things have changed since the start of this century and the collapse of equity markets following the bursting of the technology bubble. In this post bubble world valuations fell from unrealistically high levels. But the decline of equity markets continued well after most equity markets returned to more ‘normal’ valuations. The onset of the credit crunch, and the deleveraging of balance sheets in many developed economies that followed this have punctured the confidence that once surrounded equities, and the pre-1960s skepticism about equity returns has returned. Dividend yields are once again above bond yields and both historical, and expected future returns have collapsed.

That’s right muppets, time to get bullish and hoover up all the equities we want to offload! This is a once in a generation opportunity to own equities!

Or not. Let’s just say that prices aren’t exactly being supported by a surge in manufacturing:

That’s right: manufacturing is just about where it was at the turn of the millennium, and unsurprisingly so is the S&P.

However there is a sliver of a superficial hint that the muppet masters may be right.

Here’s the S&P500 priced in gold:

Looks cheap next to where we were ten years ago. But in the long run I don’t really think where we were ten years ago tells us much about the fundamentals; it tells us more about Greenspan’s propensity to grease markets with shitloads of liquidity and watch stocks soar. The deeper I dig into the data, the more I tend to conclude that we really need to throw all recent historical trends out of the window.

Here’s a choice data set:

Does that look like a normal recovery? It looks like a complete paradigm shift to me. I’ve already covered my underlying reasons for believing that we live in unprecedented times. But this chart from Zero Hedge speaks as much as anything else:

So, if you have money to burn and a gullible nature go ahead and throw your money at the muppet masters. In the long run, equities and other productive assets have proven themselves superior to any other asset class, because they tend to produce a tangible return.

But right now? The real problem is that the global economic system is a mesh of interconnected fragility where one failed party can take the entire system down. Well run companies can be dragged down by badly-run counter-parties, and badly run companies can just be bailed out, totally obliterating the market mechanism. This is not an environment conducive to organic growth. It’s a cancerous environment, juiced up on (priced in) central bank interventions. It is the very definition of iatrogenesis: when “medicine” causes deeper and worse sickness.

The Vampire Squid’s Problems

Greg Smith, a now former Goldman Sachs derivatives executive slams his former employer in the NYT:

To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money. Goldman Sachs is one of the world’s largest and most important investment banks and it is too integral to global finance to continue to act this way. The firm has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.

When the history books are written about Goldman Sachs, they may reflect that the current chief executive officer, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and the president, Gary D. Cohn, lost hold of the firm’s culture on their watch. I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.

What are three quick ways to become a leader?

a) Persuading your clients to invest in the stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit.

b) Get your clients — some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like selling my clients a product that is wrong for them.

c) Find yourself sitting in a seat where your job is to trade any illiquid, opaque product with a three-letter acronym.

It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail. Even after the S.E.C., Fabulous Fab, Abacus, God’s work, Carl Levin, Vampire Squids? No humility? I mean, come on. Integrity? It is eroding. I don’t know of any illegal behavior, but will people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client’s goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact.

It astounds me how little senior management gets a basic truth: If clients don’t trust you they will eventually stop doing business with you. It doesn’t matter how smart you are.

I hope this can be a wake-up call to the board of directors. Make the client the focal point of your business again. Without clients you will not make money. In fact, you will not exist.

Smith’s sentiments are appreciated, but actually he is wrong about a fundamental point, at least in today’s business environment. Goldman doesn’t have to give a damn about its clients because the vampire squid has found a much more lucrative way of insuring their bottom line: government largesse.

Let’s be clear: the bailout of AIG was not solely a bailout of AIG. It was also bailout of Goldman Sachs, to whom AIG were a counter-party. AIG’s failure would have meant Goldman’s balance sheet — already stuffed with derivatives dynamite — blew up. Goldman — along with a whole slew of other firms who created and invested in these dynamite products — would have been bankrupt.

And so the real problem is not Goldman’s rapaciousness. It’s the fact that systemic rapacity is being subsidised and protected by the government. Malpractice and malinvestment — such as the current global derivatives mesh which spreads risk around balance sheets like a pandemic — will in nature always eventually be punished by failure. That’s precisely what we saw in 2008, and that’s precisely what governments around the world crystallised and condoned through their bailout programs. Goldman have no incentive to change their business practices under the present conditions, and they won’t.

What’s the point of running a good business when you can run a rapacious and badly-run one and continue to thrive on government welfare? Bailouts destroy the market mechanism, and allow immoral and stupid firms (and systems) to prosper at the expense of better-run ones.

I wish Smith had the moral courage to approach the real problem — the arrogant and deluded central planners who allow the vampire squid to thrive and prosper.

Sterilised QE Analysis

I write this post rather hesitantly.

From the WSJ:

Federal Reserve officials are considering a new type of bond-buying program designed to subdue worries about future inflation if they decide to take new steps to boost the economy in the months ahead.

Under the new approach, the Fed would print new money to buy long-term mortgage or Treasury bonds but effectively tie up that money by borrowing it back for short periods at low rates. The aim of such an approach would be to relieve anxieties that money printing could fuel inflation later, a fear widely expressed by critics of the Fed’s previous efforts to aid the recovery.

This confirms four important points that relatively few economic commentators have grasped.

First, if QE was intended — as Bernanke always said it was — solely to lower the interest rates on government debt, and force investors into “riskier” assets, rather than to directly stimulate the economy, why were the first two rounds of QE not sterilised? Is Bernanke making it up as he goes along? No — the first two rounds of QE were undoubtedly reflationary:

While the S&P slumped, the monetary base was dramatically increased. This — even as confidence remained weak — allowed the (debt-based) money supply (M2) to keep growing, and thus avoiding Bernanke’s bugbear deflationary spiral.

Second, that Bernanke— unlike Paul Krugman — is concerned about inflation expectations. Given that the money supply could theoretically still triple without any new money printing, I would be too. How might banks respond to an oil shock or some other negative supply shock? We have no real idea. Would all those reserves quickly get lent out, as more and more money chases fewer and fewer goods? We can speculate (I would say this eventuality is quite unlikely) but we just don’t know. Simply, the Fed has created a bed of inflationary dynamite, and we have no real means to predict whether or not it will be set alight, or whether the Fed would be able to temper such an explosion.

Third, that if the Fed is not willing to continue pumping money into the wider economy, the current reinflationary bubble is over. But the money supply has surged ahead of industrial production:

Without a surge in real productivity (I don’t see one coming) price levels will not be sustainable, which may force the Fed back for another round of unsterilised QE.

Fourth, the Fed seems completely and defiantly intent on driving interest rates on Treasury debt into the ground. The supposed justification — that investors are avoiding riskier (but productive) assets seems completely irrelevant. If investors do not want to put their money into equities, they will find a way not to — either by investing in commodities and futures, or in alternative monetary instruments like gold and silver. The real justification — at least for this round of QE — seems to be to cheapen the Treasury’s liabilities, especially in light of the fact that America’s biggest external creditors are getting cold feet. That takes the pressure off the Treasury, but for how long? How much leeway does the Fed have to act as a price ceiling on Treasury debt?

The hope is that the Fed will have much more leeway as a result of sterilised QE. And of course, Bernanke is hoping that there is a real economic recovery down the line so that all these emergency measures can be retired.

The trouble is that the problem in the United States was never that of too little money, but rather that of a broken economy: broken infrastructure, broken energy infrastructure, corporatism, financialisation and diminishing productivity. The Corporatocracy and their cronies in government seem to have no interest in addressing the real problems. That is fundamentally unsustainable — and no amount of QE, or demand for iThingies, NFLX, LULU or corporatist Obamacare will fix it. The real American economy is dependent on foreign goods, foreign energy, foreign components, and foreign resources and there is no guarantee that the free flow of goods and resources will be around forever. In fact, the insistence on not fixing anything — and instead of throwing money at problems — almost guarantees a future breakdown. The era of the American free lunch is over.

What we now know for sure is that the trigger for the coming breakdown is extremely unlikely to be domestic. Bernanke is a can-kicking genius, and will invent new can-kicking apparatuses as they become needed (up to the point of systemic breakdown). America must hope that he — or someone else — has a similar genius for foreign policy, and for negotiating with hostile powers upon which America has rendered herself economically dependent.

Wall Street vs Chimps

A friend sent me an interesting article debunking the widely-promulgated myth that traders are especially gifted creatures. Simply, other businesses make much more efficient returns on shareholder equity. Of the top ten DJIA stocks ranked by return-on-equity, only one — American Express — is in the sector of financial services:

But actually, the rabbit hole goes a little deeper.

From the Daily Mail:

They are paid a fortune for their ability to make complex decisions about where to invest millions of pounds every single day.

But perhaps the job of an investment banker is not quite as difficult as it might seem.

A chimpanzee in Russia has out-performed 94 per cent of the country’s investment funds with her portfolio growing by three times in the last year.

Moscow TV reported how circus chimp Lusha chose eight companies from a possible 30 to invest her one million roubles – around £21,000.

I think this brings us to a (rather obvious) hidden truth.

Human beings are generally very good — vastly better than any chimpanzee — at creating value, producing things, bringing ideas to life. That’s why the most efficient companies on the DJIA — even over long periods — are all industrials.

Human beings are generally very bad — no better than any random stochastic process, like a chimpanzee throwing darts — at predicting the future in non-linear domains like currency rates and stock prices.

The fact that our predictive industries keep requiring taxpayer bailouts seems to confirm this.

Greece Defaults

From Sky News:

The talking is over; it is finally happening. For the first time since World War Two, a developed nation is going into default.

That’s the significance of the events of the past 24 hours, with Greece’s debt being classified as in “selective default” and the European Central Bank banning it from its cash window. Months of planning by both banks and policymakers have gone into ensuring that Greece’s negotiated default will be a smooth painless process. We are about to find out whether that planning pays off.

Now, we shouldn’t be surprised by Standard & Poor’s decision to cut the rating on Greece’s sovereign debt from CC to SD (which stands for “selective default”). The ratings agencies had always said that, given private investors are about to lose just over half the value of their debt (through a complex bond swap), this downgrade would be a natural consequence.

Nor should we be shocked that the ECB says it will no longer accept Greek debt as collateral: in fact, the only surprise is that it’s taken this long – on the basis of the ECB’s previous policy, the bonds should have become ineligible when were first downgraded from investment status two years ago.

Peter Tchir thinks all the hullabaloo is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing:

So far there are no dramatic consequences of the Greek default. The ECB did say they couldn’t accept it as collateral, but national central banks (including Greece’s somehow solvent NCB) can, so no real change. We will likely get a Credit Event prior to March 20th once CAC’s are used to get the deal fully done. Will the market respond much to that? Probably not, though there is a higher risk of unforeseen consequences from that, than there was from the S&P downgrade.

It just strikes me that Europe wasted a year or more, and has created a less stable system than it had before. A year ago, Europe was adamant about no haircuts and no default. I could never understand why. Let Greece default, renegotiate terms, stay in the Euro and move on.

I suppose the magnitude of the problem depends on just which kind of credit event. And that mostly depends on how well-insulated the financial system is, and market psychology. A full-blown Lehmanesque credit shock? Who knows — certainly banks are fearful. Certainly, the problem of default cascades has been out in the open for a while. But most of the attempts to deal with the prospect of such things have mostly been emergency room treatment, and not preventative medicine — throwing liquidity at the problem. Certainly, it is possible the system is in a worse shape than 2008.

  1. The derivatives web is (nearly) as big as ever:
  2. There are still a myriad of European housing bubbles ready to pop.
  3. American banks are massively exposed to Europe.
  4. China’s housing bubble is bursting Surely their reserves will go into bailing out their own problems, and not those of Europe and America?
  5. Rising commodity prices — especially oil — are already squeezing consumers and producers with cost-push inflation.

Meanwhile, the only weapon central bankers have in their arsenal is throwing more money at the problem.

Will throwing more money at the problem work? Yes — in the short term. The danger is that creditor nations will not be prepared to throw enough to shore up balance sheets.

Will throwing money at the problems cause more problems in the long run? Yes — almost certainly.

Ultimately, we must look at preventative medicine — to stop credit bubbles expanding beyond the productive capacity of the economy. We should also look at insulating the economy from the breakdown of any credit bubbles that do form.

Those Lazy Greeks

Or, not.

From the Guardian:

Sadly, it’s not quite as simple as that.

From the BBC:

Greeks are working longer and harder than anyone else in Europe. But they’re still producing less than many other nations who are working a lot less hard. The OECD suggest that this is due to the shape of the Greek labour market:

Pascal Marianna, who is a labour markets statistician at the OECD says: “The Greek labour market is composed of a large number of people who are self-employed, meaning farmers and – on the other hand – shop-keepers who are working long hours.”

Still, I think it’s high time we put the lazy Greek myth to bed, because the evidence just doesn’t support it.