Correction or Crisis?

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After almost seven years of relative calm and stability, a stock market crash is finally upon us.

This is a very predictable crash stemming from a very widely known cause. Hundreds of analysts including myself — following the trail illuminated by Michael Pettis — have for a long time been banging on about a Chinese slowdown gathering an uncontrollable momentum, sending China into a panic, and infecting global markets.

What’s less clear yet is whether this is a correction or a crisis. My view is toward the latter, simply because confidence is fragile.  Once the animal spirits of the market turn negative, it takes a heck of a lot to soothe them. And the markets look increasingly spooked. The fear is rising. Last week I tweeted that I felt the risks of a new financial crisis are greater than ever.

The reasons why are simple: Western central banks have gone a bit nuts, and are trying to hike rates even though inflation is close to zero even after interest rates being at zero for seven years. And Western governments have gone a bit nuts (especially in the eurozone and Britain but also to a lesser extent in the United States) and are trying to encourage growth with austerity even though all the evidence illustrates that austerity is only a helpful policy in a booming economy, not in a slack one.

Those two factors weren’t too destructive in an economic situation where there was moderate economic growth. More like a minor brake on growth. Keep swimming forward, and sooner or later inflation will rear its head, and rates will have to be raised. But with a stock market crash and a growth downturn, and an unemployment spike, and deflation, things get very problematic very fast.

Let me explain how I think this plays out: interest rates are at zero. Inflation is almost at zero, and a stock market crash will only push that lower. Simply, this is the bottom falling out of the bottom. A crash here is like falling off the bicycle in spite of the Fed’s training wheels. Unconventional monetary policy has already been exhaustively tried, and central bank balance sheets are already heavily loaded with assets purchased in quantitative easing programs. Now the Fed’s balance sheet does not excessively concern me — central banks can print all the money they like to buy assets up to the point of excessive inflation. But will that be enough to reverse a new crash?

Personally, my doubts are growing. At the zero bound, I believe Keynes was right, and fiscal policy is the best answer. The post-2008 economic landscape has been defined by monetarists trying desperately to perfect new tools like quantitative easing to avoid outright debt-financed fiscal policy. But there have been problems upon problems with the transmission mechanisms. Central banks have succeeded at getting new money into the banking system. But the drip of that money into the real economy where it can do its good work and create growth, employment and prosperity has been slow and uneven. The recovery is real, but weak, even after all the trillions of QE. And it has left us vulnerable to a new downturn.

If the effects of the crash cannot be reversed with monetary policy, that leaves fiscal policy — that old, neglected, unpopular tool — to fight any breakouts of deflation or mass unemployment.

Or it leaves central banks to try really radical policies that emulate the directness of fiscal policy, like literally throwing money out of helicopters or OMFG.

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Mark Carnage

The greater story behind Mark Carney’s appointment to the Bank of England may be the completion of Goldman Sachs’ multi-tentacled takeover of the European regulatory and central banking system.

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But let’s take a moment to look at the mess he is leaving behind in Canada, the home of moose, maple syrup, Jean Poutine and now colossal housing bubbles.

George Osborne (who as I noted last month wants more big banks in Britain) might have recruited Carney on the basis of his “success” in Canada. But in reality he is just another Greenspan — a bubble-maker and reinflationist happy to pump the banking sector full of loose money and call it “prosperity” before the irrational exuberance runs dry, and the bubble inevitably bursts.

Two key charts. First, household debt-to-GDP.

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Deleveraging? Not in Canada.

The Huffington Post noted earlier this year:

Household debt levels have reached a new high, increasing the vulnerability of average Canadians to unexpected economic shocks just at a time when uncertainty is mounting.

Despite signs that Canada’s economic recovery is fizzling, data released by Statistics Canada Tuesday shows that the ratio of credit market debt to personal disposable income climbed to 148.7 per cent in the second quarter, surpassing the previous record of 147.3 per cent set in the first three months of this year.

Second, Canadian house prices:

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Famed analyst Jesse Colombo recently wrote:

Booming commodities exports and skyrocketing housing prices are encouraging Canadians to spend far beyond their means, while binging on credit, mimicking their American neighbors’ profligate behavior of six years earlier. (They’re thinking, “Canada is different!”) RBC Global Asset Management’s chief economist warns that Canada’s record household debt could “spell its undoing,” while Moody’s warns that Canadian banks face significant risk due to their exposure to overleveraged Canadian consumers. Maybe things really are different in Canada, where a group of under-21-year-olds got caught by the police for racing $2 million worth of exotic supercars, including Ferraris and Lamborghinis. Or not.

The age-old misperception that this time is different, that Chinese investors will continue to spend millions on crack shacks in Vancouver, that an industrial boom in East Asia will continue to support demand for Canadian commodities, that Canada’s subprime slush isn’t vulnerable, that hot inflows from capital rich low-interest rate environments like Japan and America will continue forever.

In the short term what is going on is that the ex-Goldmanite Carney has pumped up a huge bonanza of securitisation and quick profits for big banks and their management who are laughing all the way to the Cayman Islands (or in Carney’s case, Threadneedle Street). Once the easy money quits flowing into the Canadian financial system from abroad, defaults will begin to accumulate, cracks will quickly appear, and Canada will spiral into debt-deflation. Taxpayers in Canada (and in other similar cases like Australia) may well end up bailing out the banks profiting so handsomely now, just like their American and British and Japanese cousins.

The appointment of Carney is a disaster for Britain and a disaster for the Bank of England. Carney has already singled out Andy Haldane for criticism, an economist at the Bank of England with a solid understanding of the dynamics of complex financial systems, and a champion of simple and clear regulation. 

In a hundred years, people may be taking out zero-down mortgages against building geodesic domes on Mars or the Moon, and flipping them off to greater fools for huge profits. Because this time is different, right? And another crash and depression will follow.