The Fed and Alice in Wonderland

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland a young Alice experiences a series of bizarre adventures after falling down a rabbit hole. The new Fed Chairman Jerome Powell will similarly have to lead global financial markets through a series of bizarre, unprecedented experiences.

Down the Rabbit Hole

In 2008, after the collapse of Lehman Bros, financial markets were in complete disarray and in danger of imploding. The Fed, under chairman Ben Bernanke, embarked on an unprecedented (and unproven) rescue attempt — now known as quantitative easing or QE for short — injecting more than $3.5 trillion into the financial system through purchase of long-term Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities (MBS).

Fed Total Assets

The Fed aimed to drive long-term interest rates down in the belief that this would encourage private sector borrowing and investment and revive the economy. Their efforts failed. Private sector borrowing did not revive. Most of the money injected ended up, unused by the private sector, as $2.5 trillion of excess commercial bank reserves on deposit at the Fed.

Fed Excess Reserves

Richard Koo pointed out that the private sector will under normal cirumstances respond to lower interest rates with increased borrowing but during a financial crisis, when their balance sheets have been destroyed and their liabilities exceed their assets, their sole focus is to restore their balance sheet, using surplus cash flow to pay down debt. The only way to prevent a collapse is for the government to step in and plug the gap, borrowing surplus capital and investing this in infrastructure.

One Pill Makes you Larger

Fortunately Bernanke got the message.

US and Euro Area Public Debt to GDP

… and spread the word.

Japan Public Debt to GDP

And One Pill Makes you Small

Unfortunately, other central banks also followed the Fed’s earlier lead, injecting vast sums into the financial system through quantitative easing (QE).

ECB and BOJ Total Assets

Driving long-term yields to levels even Lewis Carroll would have struggled to imagine.

10-Year Treasury Yields

The Pool of Tears

Then in 2014, another twist in the tale. Long-term yields continued to fall in Europe and Japan, while US rates stabilised as Fed eased off on QE. A large differential appeared between US and European/Japanese rates (observable since 2014 on the above chart), causing a flood of money into the US, in pursuit of higher yields.

….. with an unwanted side-effect. The Dollar strengthened. Capital inflows caused the trade-weighted value of the US Dollar to spike upwards beween 2014 and 2016, damaging US export industries and local manufacturers facing competition from foreign imports.

US Trade-Weighted Dollar Index

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

A jobless recovery in manufacturing and low wage growth in turn led to the election of Donald Trump in 2016 promising increased protectionism against global competition.

US Manufacturing Jobs

Then in 2017, to the consternation of many, despite rising interest rates the US Dollar began to fall.

US TW Dollar Index in 2017

Learned analysis followed, ascribing the weakening Dollar to rising commodity prices and a recovery in emerging markets. But something doesn’t quite add up.

International bond investors are a pretty smart bunch. When they look at US bond markets, what do they see? The new Fed Chairman has inherited a massive headache.

Donald Trump is determined to stimulate job growth through tax cuts and infrastructure spending. This will certainly create jobs. But when you stimulate an economy that is already at full employment you get inflation.

Who Stole the Tarts?

Jerome Powell is sitting on a powder keg. More than $2 trillion of excess reserves that commercial banks can withdraw without notice. Demand for bank credit is expected to rise as result of the Trump stimulus. Commercial banks, not known for their restraint, can make like Donkey Kong with their excess reserves provided by the Bernanke Fed.

Under Janet Yellen the Fed mapped out a program to withdraw excess reserves from the market by selling down Treasuries and MBS at the rate of $100 billion in 2018 and $200 billion each year thereafter. But at that rate it will take 10 years to remove the excess.

Bond markets are worried about what will happen to inflation in the mean time.

Off With His Head

The new Fed Chair has made all the right noises about being hawkish on inflation. But can he walk the talk? Especially with his $2 trillion headache.

….and the Red Queen, easily recognizable from Lewis Carroll’s tale, tweeting “off with his head” if a hawkish Fed threatens to spoil the party.

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she’s ten feet tall

….When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low….

When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head
Feed your head

~ White Rabbit by Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane (1967)

Richard Koo: Surviving in the Intellectually Bankrupt Monetary Policy Environment

Richard C. Koo, Chief Economist, Nomura Research Institute, at the ACATIS Value Konferenz 2016 in Frankfurt

Why QE doesn’t work.

I have the greatest respect for Richard Koo and his unconventional, balance-sheet-recession approach to economics.

It strikes me is that if central banks lower interest rates to stimulate borrowing and borrowing does not rise because borrowers are repaying debt to restore solvency, then it will backfire and hurt GDP. Households reliant on income from investments, especially in financial assets, will experience a significant loss of income from lower interest rates and will reduce their consumption accordingly. Falling consumption will cause a drop in GDP.

Investments in financial assets consist not only of household bank deposits and bonds, but also insurance sector and pension fund investments in financial assets (mainly bonds) which will raise insurance premiums and lower pensions as a result.

Australia: Housing, Incomes & Growth

A quick snapshot of the Australian economy from the latest RBA chart pack.

Disposable income growth has declined to almost zero and consumption is likely to follow. Else Savings will be depleted.

Disposable Income & Consumption

Residential building approvals are slowing, most noticeably in apartments, reflecting an oversupply.

Residential Building Approvals

Housing loan approvals for owner-occupiers are rising, fueled no doubt by State first home-buyer incentives. States do not want the party, especially the flow from stamp duties, to end. But loan approvals for investors are topping after an APRA crackdown on investor mortgages, especially interest-only loans.

Housing loan approvals

The ratio of household debt to disposable income is precarious, and growing worse with each passing year.

Household debt to disposable income

House price growth continues at close to 10% a year, fueled by rising debt. When we refer to the “housing bubble” it is really a debt bubble driving housing prices. If debt growth slows so will housing prices.

House price growth

Declining business investment, as a percentage of GDP, warns of slowing economic growth in the years ahead. It is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve productivity growth without continuous new investment and technology improvement.

Business investment

Yet declining corporate bond spreads show no sign of increased lending risk.

Corporate bond spreads

Declining disposable income and consumption growth mean that voters are unlikely to be happy come next election. With each party trying to ride the populist wave, responsible economic management has taken a back seat. Throw in a housing bubble and declining business investment and the glass looks more than half-empty.

Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.

~ Eric Hoffer

Icarus trade continues, with the next global crisis further away than you think

Good to see Ambrose Evans-Pritchard weighing in on the (absence of) the next global financial crisis:

….If corporation tax drops to 25 per cent and incentives are offered to repatriate up to $US4 trillion of US corporate cash held offshore – tinder for stock buy-backs – you might see the sharemarket’s price earnings ratio breaking the all-time high of the dotcom boom.

Whether any of this stimulus is wise is another matter. The Bank for International Settlements chides central banks for making a Faustian Pact long ago, rescuing markets every time there is trouble but letting asset bubbles run unchecked in the good times.

They have created “intertemporal” imbalances that require ever lower real interest rates with each cycle. The deformity is worse today than before the Lehman crisis after eight years of emergency stimulus.

The global debt ratio is 40 percentage points higher at 327 per cent of GDP. Nobody knows what the sensitivity may be to even a modest degree of tightening.

Yet if the Sword of Damocles hangs ever over us, that does not mean it is about to fall. My humbling discovery after decades of amateur observation is that such episodes take longer to play out than you imagine.

I was convinced that the global financial system was spiralling into crisis at least 18 months before Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Lehman Brothers collapsed over those terrifying weeks of late 2008.

That was a bad call. Even disasters have their proper sequencing.

Source: Icarus trade continues, with the next global crisis further away than you think

Draining the swamp?

WASHINGTON—The Trump administration proposed a wide-ranging rethink of the rules governing the U.S. financial sector in a report that makes scores of recommendations that have been on the banking industry’s wish list for years.

….If Mr. Trump’s regulatory appointees eventually implement them, the recommendations would neuter or pare back restrictions from the Obama administration, which argued the rules were necessary to guard against excessive risk taking and a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis.

Seems to me like the exact opposite of ‘draining the swamp’. The new administration proposes removing or limiting the rules intended to reduce risk-taking in the financial sector.

This could end badly.

Especially with bank capital at current low levels.

Source: Trump Team Proposes Broad Rethink of Financial Rulebook – WSJ

Australia: RBA hands tied

Falling wage rate growth suggests that we are headed for a period of low growth in employment and personal consumption.

Australia Wage Index

The impact is already evident in the Retail sector.

ASX 300 Retail

The RBA would normally intervene to stimulate investment and employment but its hands are tied. Lowering interest rates would aggravate the housing bubble. Household debt is already precariously high in relation to disposable income.

Australia: Household Debt to Disposable Income

Like Mister Micawber in David Copperfield, we are waiting in the hope that something turns up to rescue us from our predicament. It’s not a good situation to be in. If something bad turns up and the RBA is low on ammunition.

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and — and in short you are for ever floored….

~ Mr. Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield

RBA stuck

Great slide from the NAB budget presentation:

RBA Interest Rates in a Cleft Stick

The RBA is in a cleft stick:

  • Raising interest rates would increase mortgage stress and threaten stability of the banking system.
  • Lowering interest rates would aggravate the housing bubble, creating a bigger threat in years to come.

The underlying problem is record high household debt to income levels. Housing affordability is merely a symptom.

There are only two possible solutions:

  1. Raise incomes; or
  2. Reduce debt levels.

Both have negative consequences.

Raising incomes would primarily take place through higher inflation. This would generate more demand for debt to buy inflation-hedge assets, so would have to be linked to strong macroprudential (e.g. lower maximum LVRs for housing) to prevent this. A positive offshoot would be a weaker Dollar, strengthening local industry. The big negative would be the restrictive monetary policy needed to slow inflation when the job is done, with a likely recession.

Shrinking debt levels without raising interest rates is difficult but macroprudential policies would help. Also policies that penalize banks for offshore borrowings. The big negative would be falling housing prices as investors try to liquidate some of their investments and the consequent threat to banking stability. The slow-down in new construction would also threaten an economy-wide down-turn.

Of the two, I would favor the former option as having less risk. But there is a third option: wait in the hope that something will turn up. That is the line of least resistance and therefore the most likely course government will take.

China’s Great Cleansing Has Begun | Basis Point

From David Chin at Basis Point:

….China’s commodity futures markets are the ‘canary in the coalmine’ for hints that the markets may be in for an even wilder ride.

Most WMPs [wealth management products] have a maturity between 1-4 months and managers of these WMPs need their Chinese retail investors to roll over by buying new WMPs. If this stops or slows, (which is happening now – see Bloomberg) it will result in assets being force-sold by fund managers to pay back expiring WMPs. The liquid assets that have boomed in recent months such as iron ore futures, will be, and have been, the first to be sold. Next to be sold will be shares, international assets and local property and local corporate bonds if there is still a functioning market for them.

Source: China’s Great Cleansing Has Begun – Basis Point

Australia: Financial Stability | RBA

Extract from the latest Financial Stability Review by the RBA:

….In Australia, vulnerabilities related to household debt and the housing market more generally have increased, though the nature of the risks differs across the country. Household indebtedness has continued to rise and some riskier types of borrowing, such as interest-only lending, remain prevalent. Investor activity and housing price growth have picked up strongly in Sydney and Melbourne. A large pipeline of new supply is weighing on apartment prices and rents in Brisbane, while housing market conditions remain weak in Perth. Nonetheless, indicators of household financial stress currently remain contained and low interest rates are supporting households’ ability to service their debt and build repayment buffers.

The Council of Financial Regulators (CFR) has been monitoring and evaluating the risks to household balance sheets, focusing in particular on interest-only and high loan-to-valuation lending, investor credit growth and lending standards. In an environment of heightened risks, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) has recently taken additional supervisory measures to reinforce sound residential mortgage lending practices. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission has also announced further steps to ensure that interest-only loans are appropriate for borrowers’ circumstances and that remediation can be provided to borrowers who suffer financial distress as a consequence of past poor lending practices. The CFR will continue to monitor developments carefully and consider further measures if necessary.

Conditions in non-residential commercial property markets have continued to strengthen in Melbourne and Sydney, while in Brisbane and Perth high vacancy rates and declining rents remain a challenge. Vulnerabilities in other non-financial businesses generally appear low. Listed corporations’ profits are in line with their average of recent years and indicators of stress among businesses are well contained, with the exception of regions with large exposures to the mining sector. For many mining businesses conditions have improved as higher commodity prices have contributed to increased earnings, though the outlook for commodity prices remains uncertain.

Australian banks remain well placed to manage these various challenges. Profitability has moderated in recent years but remains high by international standards and asset performance is strong. Australian banks have continued to reduce exposures to low-return assets and are building more resilient liquidity structures, partly in response to regulatory requirements. Capital
ratios have risen substantially in recent years and are expected to increase further once APRA finalises its framework to ensure that banks are ‘unquestionably strong.’

Risks within the non-bank financial sector are manageable. At this stage, the shadow banking sector poses only limited risk to financial stability due to its small share of the financial system and minimal linkages with the regulated sector, though the regulators are monitoring this sector carefully. Similarly, financial stability risks stemming from the superannuation sector remain low.

While the insurance sector continues to face a range of challenges, profitability has increased of late and the sector remains well capitalised.

International regulatory efforts have continued to focus on core post-crisis reforms, such as addressing ‘too big to fail’, as well as new areas, such as the asset management industry and financial technology. While the goal of completing the Basel III reforms by end 2016 was not met, discussions are ongoing to try to finalise an agreement soon. Domestically, APRA is continuing its focus on the risk culture in prudentially regulated institutions and will review compensation policies and practices to ensure these are prudent.

Reading between the lines:

  • household debt is too high
  • apartments are in over-supply and prices are falling
  • we have to maintain record-low interest rates to support the housing bubble
  • APRA is “taking steps” to slow debt growth but also has to be careful not to upset the housing bubble
  • the Basel committee has been dragging its feet on new regulatory guidelines and we cannot afford to wait any longer

Source: RBA Financial Stability Review PDF (2.4Mb)

Australia: Warning signs of a contraction

Australia faces shrinking inflationary pressures.


Wage growth is falling.

Wage Price Index

Credit growth is shrinking.


Growth of currency in circulation is also slowing. The fall below 5% warns of a contraction.

Currency in Circulation: Growth

One piece of good news is that Chinese monetary policy seems to be easing. After a sharp contraction of M1 money stock growth in January, February shows a partial recovery. Collapse of the Chinese property bubble may be deferred a while longer.

China M1 Money Stock

Which is good news for iron ore exporters. At least in the short-term.