Archive for January 2012
by Keith Warner
Posted Jan 25, 2012
AS THE TITLE OF THIS ESSAY SUGGESTS, A LOAN IS AN EXCHANGE OF WEALTH FOR INCOME. Like everything else in a free market (imagine happier days of yore), it is a voluntary trade. Contrary to the endemic language of victimization, both parties regard themselves as gaining thereby, or else they would not enter into the transaction.
In a loan, one party is the borrower and the other is the lender. Mechanically, it is very simple. The lender gives the borrower money and the borrower agrees to pay interest on the outstanding balance and to repay the principle. As with many principles in economics, one can shed light on a trade by looking back in history to a time before the trade existed and considering how the trade developed.
It is part of the nature of being a human that one is born unable to work, living on the surplus produced by one’s parents. One grows up and then one can work for a time. And then one becomes old and infirm, living but not able to work. If one wishes not to starve to death in old age, one can have lots of children and hope that they will care for their parents in their old age. Or, one can produce more than one consumes and hoard the difference.
One discovers that certain goods are better for hoarding than others. Beyond a little food for the next winter season, one cannot hoard very much. One of the uses of the monetary commodity is to carry value over time. So one uses a part of one’s weekly income to buy, for example, silver. And over the years, one accumulates a pile of silver. Then, when one is no longer able to work, one can sell the silver a little at a time to buy food, clothing, fuel, etc.
Like direct barter trade, this is inefficient. And there is the risk of outliving one’s hoard. So at some point, a long time ago, they discovered lending. Lending makes possible the concept of saving, as distinct from hoarding. It is as significant a change as when people discovered money and solved the problem of “coincidence of wants”. This is for the same reason: direct exchange is replaced by indirect exchange and thereby made much more efficient.
With this new innovation, one can lend one’s silver hoard in old age and get an income from the interest payments. One can budget to live on the interest, with no risk of running out of money. That is, one can exchange one’s wealth for income.
If there is a lender, there must also be a borrower or there is no trade. Who is the borrower? He is typically someone young, who has an income and an opportunity to grow his income. But the opportunity—for example, to build his own shop—requires capital that he does not have and does not want to spend half his working years accumulating. The trade is therefore mutually beneficial. Neither is “exploiting” the other, and neither is a victim. Both gain from the deal, or else they would not agree to it. The lender needs the income and the borrower needs the wealth. They agree on an interest rate, a term, and an amortization schedule and the deal is consummated.
I want to emphasize that we are still contemplating the world long before the advent of the bank. There is still the problem of “coincidence of wants” with regard to lending; the old man with the hoard must somehow come across the young man with the income and the opportunity. The young man must have a need for an amount equal to what the old man wants to lend (or an amount much smaller so that the old man can lend the remainder to another young man). The old man cannot diversify easily, and therefore his credit risk is unduly concentrated in the one young man’s business. And bid-ask spreads on interest rates are very wide, and thus whichever party needs the other more urgently (typically the borrower) is at a large disadvantage.
Of course the very next innovation that they discovered is that one need not hoard silver one’s whole career and offer to lend it only when one retires. One can lend even while one is working to earn interest and let it compound. This innovation lead to the creation of banks.
But before we get to the bank, I want to drill a little more deeply into the structure of money and credit that develops.
Before the loan, we had only money (i.e. specie). After the loan, we have a more complex structure. The lender has a paper asset; he is the creditor of the young man and his business who must pay him specie in the future. But the lender does not have the money any more. The borrower has the money, but only temporarily. He will typically spend the money. In our example, he will hire the various laborers to clear a plot of land, build a building and he will buy tools and inventory.
What will those laborers and vendors do with the money? Likely they will keep some of it, spend some of it… and lend some of it. That’s right. The proceeds that come from what began as a loan from someone’s hoard have been disbursed into the economy and eventually land in the hands of someone who lends them again! The “same” money is being lent again!
And what will the next borrower do with it? Spend it. And what will those who earn it do? Spend some, keep some, and lend some. Again.
There is an expansion of credit! There is no particular limit to how far it can expand. In fact, it will develop iteratively into the same topology (mathematical structure) as one observes with fractional reserve banking under a proper, unadulterated gold standard!
Without banks, there are two concepts that are not applicable yet. First is “reserve ratio”. Each person is free to lend up to 100% of his money if he wishes, though most people would not do that in most circumstances.
And second is duration mismatch. Since each lender is lending his own money, by definition and by nature he is lending it for precisely as long as he means to. And if he makes a mistake, only he will bear the consequences. If one lends for 10 years duration, and a year later one realizes that one needs the money, one must go to the market to try to find someone who will buy the loan. And then discover the other side of that large bid-ask spread, as one may take a loss doing this.
Now, let’s fast forward to the advent of the investment bank. Like everyone else in the free market, the bank must do something to add value or else it will not find willing trading partners. What does the bank do?
As I hinted above, the bank is the market maker. The market maker narrows the bid-ask spread, which benefits everyone. The bank does this by standardizing loans into bonds, and the bank stands ready to buy or sell such bonds. The bank also aggregates bonds across multiple lenders and across multiple borrowers. This solves the problem of excessive credit risk concentration, coincidence of wants (i.e. size matching), and saves both lenders and borrowers enormous amounts of time. And of course if either needs to get out of a deal when circumstances change, the bank makes a liquid market.
The bank must be careful to protect its own solvency in case of credit risk greater than it assumed. This is the reason for keeping some of its capital in reserve! If the bank lent 100% of its funds, then it would be bankrupt if any loan ever defaulted.
What the bank must not do, what it has no right to do, is lend its depositors’ funds for longer than they expressly intended. If a depositor wants to lend for 5 years, it is not the right of the bank to lend that depositor’s money for ten! The bank has no right to declare, “well, we have a reserve ratio greater than our estimated credit risk and therefore we are safe to borrow short from our depositors to lend long”
Not only has the bank no way to know what reserve ratio will be proof against a run on the bank, but it is inevitable that a run will occur. This is because the depositors think they will be getting their money back, but the bank is concealing the fact that they won’t behind an opaque balance sheet and a large operation. So, sooner or later, depositors need their money for something and the bank cannot honor its obligations. So the bank must sell bonds in quantity. If other banks are in the same situation, the bond market suddenly goes “no bid”.
The bank has no legal right and no moral right to lend a demand deposit or to lend a time deposit for one day longer than its duration. And even then, the bank has no mathematical expectation that it can get away with it forever.
Like every other actor in the market (and more broadly, in civilization) the bank adds enormous value to everyone it transacts with, provided it acts honestly. If a bank chooses to act dishonestly (or there is a central bank that centrally plans money, credit, interest, and discount and forces all banks to play dirty) then it can destroy value rather than creating it.
Unfortunately, in 2012 the world is in this sorry state. It is not the nature of banks or banking per se, it is not the nature of borrowing and lending per se, it is not the nature of fractional reserves per se. It is duration mismatch, central planning, counterfeit credit, buyers of last/only resort, falling interest rates, and a lack of any extinguisher of debt that are the causes of our monetary ills.
by Jim Quinn
of The Burning Platform
Posted on 8th January 2012
“In retrospect, the spark might seem as ominous as a financial crash, as ordinary as a national election, or as trivial as a Tea Party. The catalyst will unfold according to a basic Crisis dynamic that underlies all of these scenarios: An initial spark will trigger a chain reaction of unyielding responses and further emergencies. The core elements of these scenarios (debt, civic decay, global disorder) will matter more than the details, which the catalyst will juxtapose and connect in some unknowable way. If foreign societies are also entering a Fourth Turning, this could accelerate the chain reaction. At home and abroad, these events will reflect the tearing of the civic fabric at points of extreme vulnerability – problem areas where America will have neglected, denied, or delayed needed action.” – Strauss & Howe – The Fourth Turning – 1997
IN DECEMBER 2010 I WROTE AN ARTICLE CALLED Will 2012 Be as Critical as 1860?, THAT PONDERED WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN WITH THE 2012 presidential election and the possible scenarios that might play out based on that election. Well, 2012 has arrived and every blogger and mainstream media pundit is making their predictions for 2012. The benefit of delaying my predictions until the first week of 2012 is that I’ve been able to read the wise ponderings of Mike Shedlock, Jesse, Karl Denninger, and some other brilliant truth seeking analysts regarding what might happen during 2012. The passage above from Strauss & Howe was written fifteen years ago and captured the essence of what has happened since 2007 and what will drive all the events over the next decade. Predicting specific events is a futile human endeavour. The world is so complex and individual human beings so impulsive and driven by emotion, that the possible number of particular outcomes is almost infinite.
But, as Strauss and Howe point out, the core elements that created this Crisis and the reaction of generational cohorts to the implications of debt, civic decay and global disorder will drive all the events that will occur in 2012 and for as far as the eye can see. Linear thinkers in mega-corporations, mainstream media and Washington D.C. focus on retaining the status quo, their power and their wealth. They believe an economic recovery can be manufactured through monetary manipulation and Keynesian borrowing and spending. They are blind to the fact that history is cyclical, not linear. In order to have an understanding of what could happen in the coming year, it is essential to keep the big picture in focus. As we enter the fifth year of this twenty year Crisis period, there is absolutely no chance that 2012 will see an improvement in our economy, political atmosphere or world situation. Fourth Turnings never de-intensify. They exhaust themselves after years of chaos, conflict and turmoil. I can guarantee you that 2012 will see increased mayhem, riots, violent protests, recessions, bear markets, and a presidential election that will confound the establishment. All the episodes which will occur in 2012 will have at their core one of the three elements described by Strauss & Howe in 1997: Debt, Civic Decay, or Global Disorder.
Debt – On the Road to Serfdom
The world is awash in debt. Everyone is focused on the PIIGS with their debt to GDP ratios exceeding the Rogoff & Reinhart’s 90% point of no return. But, the supposedly fiscally responsible countries like Germany, France, U.K., and the U.S. have already breached the 90% level. Japan is off the charts, with debt exceeding 200% of GDP. These figures are just for the official government debt. If countries were required to report their debt like a corporation, their unfunded entitlement promises to future generations are four to six times more than their official government debt.
Any critical thinking person can look at the chart above and realize that creating more debt out of thin air to solve a debt problem is foolish, dangerous, and self serving to only bankers and politicians. The debt crisis took decades of terrible choices and bogus promises to produce. The world is now in the midst of a debt driven catastrophe. At best, the excessive levels of sovereign debt will slow economic growth to zero or below in 2012. At worst, interest rates will soar as counties attempt to rollover their debt and rolling defaults across Europe will plunge the continent into a depression. The largest banks in Europe are leveraged 40 to 1, therefore a 3% reduction in their capital will cause bankruptcy. Once you pass 90% debt to GDP, your fate is sealed.
“Those who remain unconvinced that rising debt levels pose a risk to growth should ask themselves why, historically, levels of debt of more than 90 percent of GDP are relatively rare and those exceeding 120 percent are extremely rare. Is it because generations of politicians failed to realize that they could have kept spending without risk? Or, more likely, is it because at some point, even advanced economies hit a ceiling where the pressure of rising borrowing costs forces policy makers to increase tax rates and cut government spending, sometimes precipitously, and sometimes in conjunction with inflation and financial repression (which is also a tax)?” – Rogoff & Reinhart
The ECB doubling their balance sheet and funnelling trillions to European banks will not solve anything. The truth that no one wants to acknowledge is the standard of living for every person in Europe, the United States and Japan will decline. The choice is whether the decline happens rapidly by accepting debt default and restructuring or methodically through central bank created inflation that devours the wealth of the middle class. Debt default would result in rich bankers losing vast sums of wealth and politicians accepting the consequences of their false promises. Bankers and politicians will choose inflation. They believe they can control the levers of inflation, but they have proven to be incompetent, hubristic, and myopic. The European Union will not survive 2012 in its current form. Countries are already preparing for the dissolution. Politicians and bankers will lie and print until the day they pull the plug on the doomed Euro experiment.
The false storyline of debt being paid down in the United States continues to be propagated by the mainstream press and decried by Paul Krugman. The age of austerity storyline gets full play on a daily basis. Total credit market debt in 2000 was $27 trillion. It skyrocket to $42 trillion by 2005 as George Bush and Alan Greenspan encouraged delusional Americans to defeat terrorism by leasing SUVs and live the American dream by putting zero down on a $600,000 McMansion, financing it with a negative amortization no doc loan. Paul Krugman got his wish as a housing bubble replaced the dotcom bubble. Debt accumulation went into hyper-speed in 2006 and 2007 as Wall Street sharks conducted a fraudulent feeding frenzy by peddling their derivatives of mass destruction around the globe. By the end of 2007, total credit market debt reached $51 trillion.
In a world inhabited by sincere sane leaders, willing to level with the citizens and disposed to allow financial institutions that took world crushing risks to fail through an orderly bankruptcy process, debt would have been written off and a sharp short contraction would have occurred. The stockholders, bondholders and executives of the Wall Street banks would have taken the losses they deserved. Instead Wall Street used their undue influence, wealth and power to force their politician puppets to funnel $5 trillion to the bankers that created the crisis while dumping the debt on taxpayers and unborn generations. The Wall Street controlled Federal Reserve provided risk free funding and took toxic mortgage assets off their balance sheets. The result is total credit market debt higher today than it was at the peak of the financial crisis in March 2009.
Our leaders have done the exact opposite of what needed to be done to address this debt crisis. The country is adding $3.7 billion per day to the National Debt. With the debt at $15.2 trillion, we have now surpassed the 100% to GDP mark. The National Debt will be $16.5 trillion when the next president takes office in January 2013. Ben Bernanke has been able to keep short term interest rates near zero and the non-existent U.S. economic growth and European disaster has resulted in keeping long-term rates near record lows. Despite these historic low rates, interest on the National Debt totalled $454 billion in 2011, an all-time high. The effective interest rate was approximately 3%. If rates stay at current levels, interest will be between $400 and $500 billion in 2012. Each 1% increase in rates would cost American taxpayers an additional $150 billion. A rapid increase in rates to the 7% level would ratchet interest expense above $1 trillion and destroy the last remaining vestiges of Bernanke’s credibility. It can’t possibly happen in 2012. Right? The world has total confidence in pieces of paper being produced at a rate of $3.7 billion per day.
Confidence in Ben Bernanke, Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress is all that stands between continued stability and complete chaos. What could go wrong? Debt related issues that will likely rear their head in 2012 are as follows:
- A debt saturated society cannot grow. As debt servicing grows by the day, the economy losses steam. The excessive and increasing debt levels will lead to a renewed recession in 2012 as clearly detailed by ECRI, John Hussman and Hoisington Investment Management.
“Here’s what ECRI’s recession call really says: if you think this is a bad economy, you haven’t seen anything yet. And that has profound implications for both Main Street and Wall Street.” – ECRI
At present, we observe agreement across a broad ensemble of models, even restricting data to indicators available since 1950 (broader data since 1970 imply virtual certainty of recession). The uniformity of recessionary evidence we observe today has never been seen except during or just prior to other historical recessions.- John Hussman
Negative economic growth will probably be registered in the U.S. during the fourth quarter of 2011, and in subsequent quarters in 2012. Though partially caused by monetary and fiscal actions and excessive indebtedness, this contraction has been further aggravated by three current cyclical developments: a) declining productivity, b) elevated inventory investment, and c) contracting real wage income. In summary, the case for an impending recession rests not only on cyclical precursors evident in productivity, real wages, and inventory investment, but also on the disfunctionality of monetary and fiscal policy. – Van Hoisington
- The onrushing recession will send housing down for the count. With 2.2 million homes already in the foreclosure process and another 13 million homes with negative or near negative equity, the recession will push more people over the edge. As foreclosures rise a self reinforcing loop will develop. Home prices will fall as banks dump houses at lower prices, pushing millions more into a negative equity position. Home prices will fall another 5% to 10% in 2012, with a couple years to go before bottoming.
- The recession will result in companies laying off more workers. It won’t be as dramatic as 2008-2009 because companies have already shed 6 million jobs. The working age population will increase by 1.7 million, the number of people employed will go up by 1 million, but the official unemployment rate will drop to 7% as the BLS reveals that 10 million people decided to relax and leave the workforce. Surely I jest. The government manipulated unemployment rate will rise above 9%, while the real rate will surpass 25%.
- The American people rationally increased their savings rate to 6.2% in the 2nd Quarter of 2009. When you are over-indebted and the country heads into recession, spending less and saving more is a sane option. Consumer expenditures accounted for 69% of GDP in 2007, prior to the economic collapse. The “recovery” of 2010-2011 has been driven by Ben’s zero interest rate policy, the resumption of easy credit peddling by the Wall Street banks, and consumers convinced that going further into hock to attain the American dream is rational. Consumer spending as a percentage of GDP has actually risen to 71% and the savings rate has plunged to 3.6%. The 20% drop in gas prices since April bottomed in December. This decline temporarily boosted consumer spending, but prices are on the rise again. With the State and local governments reducing spending, do the Wall Street Ivy League economists really believe consumers will increase their consumption to 73% of GDP and reduce their savings rate to 1%? If you open your local newspaper you will see the master plan. Car dealers are offering 0% financing with nothing down for 60 months. The GMAC/Ditech/Ally Bank zombie lives as subprime auto loans are back. The “strong” auto sales are a debt financed illusion. Ashley Furniture is offering 0% financing for 50 months with no payments through Wells Fargo Bank. When the Federal Reserve provides the Wall Street banks with 0% funding, banks are willing to take big risks knowing that Uncle Ben and the naive American taxpayer will be there to bail them out when it blows up again.
- With recession a certainty as fiscal stimulus wears off, home prices fall, employment stagnates, and consumer spending grinds to a halt, what will happen to the stock market? The Wall Street shills paraded on CNBC and interviewed by the multi-millionaire talking head twits assure you that stocks are undervalued and the market will surely be up 10% to 15% by 2013. It’s a mortal lock, just as it has been for the last twelve years, with the S&P 500 at the same level as January 1999. The fact is the stock market drops 30% on average during a recession. The talking heads declare that corporate profits are at record levels and will continue higher. Not bloody likely. Corporate profit margins are at an all-time peak about 50% above their historical norms. Profits always revert to their mean. These profits are not sustainable as they were generated by firing millions of workers, zero interest rates for banks, fraudulent accounting by the banks, and trillions in handouts from the middle class taxpayers to corporate America.
In a true free market excess profits will draw more competitors and profits will fall due to competition. When corporate profits exceed the mean by such a large amount, you can conclude that crony capitalism has replaced the free market. Government bureaucrats have been picking the winners (Wall Street, War Industry, Big Media, Big Healthcare) and the American people are the losers. Corporate oligarchs prefer no competition so they can reap obscene risk free profits and reward themselves with king-like compensation. Mean reversion will eventually be a bitch. Real S&P earnings have reached the 2007 historic peak. To believe they will soar higher as we enter a recession takes the same kind of faith shown by Americans buying a $600,000 McMansion in Stockton with no money down in 2005. The result will be the same. Do you ever wonder how corporations are doing so well while the average American sinks further into debt, despair and poverty?
The brilliant John Hussman captures the gist of an investor’s dilemma in his latest article:
“With 10-year Treasury yields below 2%, 30-year yields below 3%, corporate bond yields below 4%, and S&P 500 projected 10-year total returns below 5%, we presently have one of the worst menus of prospective return that long-term investors have ever faced. The outcome of this situation will not be surprisingly pleasant for any sustained period of time, but promises to be difficult, volatile, and unrewarding. The proper response is to accept risk in proportion to the compensation available for taking that risk. Presently, that compensation is very thin. This will change, and much better opportunities to accept risk will emerge. The key is for investors to avoid the allure of excessive short-term speculation in a market that promises – bends to its knees, stares straight into investors’ eyes, and promises – to treat them terribly over the long-term.”