Category Archives: Financial Markets

Capitalism with accountability

HT to my learned colleague David Parr for this piece from vox.com. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) rolled out a big idea to challenge how we think about inequality and the fundamental structure of the economy. She has been concerned with the current structure of capitalism which since the 1980’s has really focused on the interests of shareholders and executives at the expense of employees further down a company’s ‘pecking order’. Reagan and Thatcher started the recent privatisation trend in the 1980’s and, with great success, a lot of the commanding heights of the economy were up for sale. This put any left wing political opposition in a quandary. Do they renationalise these industries and payout shareholders or just start to move their ideology further right on the continuum. The latter was the only real option with the expense of buying back the industries and also upsetting their maybe voters who had bought shares for saving purposes.

Warren with other Democrats is proposing the Accountable Capitalism Act in order to alter the balance of interests in corporate decision-making and giving voices to workers in corporate boardrooms. The legislation would:

  • reduce the huge financial incentives that entice CEOs to lush cash out of shareholders rather than reinvest in businesses
  • curb political activities – using lobbying funds
  • ensure workers and not just shareholders get a voice on big strategic decisions.
    bring about more meaningful career ladders for workers and higher pay
  • ensure that Corporations act like decent citizens who uphold their fair share of the social contract and not like sociopaths whose sole obligation is profitability — as is currently conventional in American business thinking.
  • limit corporate executives’ ability to sell shares of stock that they receive as pay — requiring that such shares be held for at least five years after they were received, and at least three years after a share buyback.

Business executives, like everyone else, want to have good reputations and be regarded as good people but, when pressed about topics of social concern, frequently fall back on the idea that their first obligation is to do what’s right for shareholders. A new charter would remove that crutch, and leave executives accountable as human beings for the rights and wrongs of their decisions.

More concretely, US corporations would be required to allow their workers to elect 40 percent of the membership of their board of directors. Since 80 percent of the value of the stock market is owned by about 10 percent of the population and half of Americans own no stock at all, this has been a huge triumph for the rich – see graph.

Meanwhile, CEO pay has soared as executive compensation has been redesigned to incentivize shareholder gains, and the CEOs have delivered. Gains for shareholders and greater inequality in pay has led to a generation of median compensation lagging far behind economy-wide productivity, with higher pay mostly captured by a relatively small number of people rather than being broadly shared. The graph below show the share of wealth with the top 1% owning 38% of the country’s wealth and the bottom 90% holding only 19% of wealth.

This kind of huge transfer of economic power from rich shareholders to middle- and working-class employees would provoke fierce resistance. But reform of corporate governance also has some powerful political tailwinds behind it.

I am on holiday now and out of internet range – back on the 8th January. Have a good xmas and new year.

Source: Top House Democrats join Elizabeth Warren’s push to fundamentally change American capitalism. Vox

10 years after GFC – what we’ve learnt

Thanks to colleague Paul Chapman for this article from Mercer ‘Health Wealth Career’. Its looks at the 10 lessons learnt from the GFC and 3 thoughts from what we might expect in the future.

Lesson 1 – Credit cycles are inevitable. As long banks are driven by growth and profit margins their decision-making inevitably leads to greater risk and poorer quality. The growth from 2005-2008 was generated by leverage.

Lesson 2 – The financial system is based on confidence, not numbers. Once confidence in the banking system takes a hit investors start to pull their money out – Northern Rock in the UK.

Lesson 3 – Managing and controlling risk is a nearly impossible task. Managing risk was very difficult with the complexity of the financial instruments – alphabet soup of CDO, CDS, MBS etc. A lot of decisions here were driven by algorithms which even banks couldn’t control at the time. Models include ‘unkown unkowns’

Lesson 4 – Don’t Panic. Politicians learnt from previous crashes not to panic and provided emergency funding for banks, extraordinary cuts in interest rates and the injection of massive amounts of liquidity into the system. The “person on the street” may well not have been aware how close the financial system came to widespread collapse

Lesson 5 – Some banks are too big to be allowed to fail. This principle was established explicitly as a reaction to the crisis. The pure capitalist system rewards risk but failure can lead to bankruptcy and liquidation. The banks had the best of both worlds – reward was privatised with profits but failure was socialised with bailouts from the government. Therefore risk was encouraged.

Lesson 6 – Emergency and extraordinary policies work! The rapid move to record low policy interest rates, the injection into the banking system of huge amounts of liquidity and the start of the massive program of asset purchases (quantitative easing or “QE”) were effective at avoiding a deep recession — so, on that basis, the policymakers got it right.

Lesson 7: If massive amounts of liquidity are pumped into the financial system, asset prices will surely rise (even when the action is in the essentially good cause of staving off systemic collapse). They must rise, because the liquidity has to go somewhere, and that somewhere inevitably means some sort of asset.

Lesson 8: If short-term rates are kept at extraordinarily low levels for a long period of time, yields on other assets will eventually fall in sympathy — Yields across asset classes have fallen generally, particularly bond yields. Negative real rates (that is, short-term rates below the rate of inflation) are one of the mechanisms by which the mountain of debt resulting from the GFC is eroded, as the interest accumulated is more than offset by inflation reducing the real value of the debt.

Lesson 9: Extraordinary and untried policies have unexpected outcomes. Against almost all expectations, these extraordinary monetary policies have not proved to be inflationary, or at least not inflationary in terms of consumer prices. But they have been inflationary in terms of asset prices.

Lesson 10: The behavior of securities markets does not conform to expectations. Excess liquidity and persistent low rates have boosted market levels but have also generally suppressed market volatility in a way that was not widely expected.

The Future

Are we entering a period similar to the pre-crash period of 2007/2008? There are undoubtedly some likenesses. Debt levels in the private sector are increasing, and the quality of debt is falling; public-sector debt levels remain very high. Thus, there is arguably a material risk in terms of debt levels.

Thought 1: The next crisis will undoubtedly be different from the last – they always are. The world is changing rapidly in many ways (look at climate change, technology and the “#MeToo” movement as just three examples). You only have to read “This Time is Different” by Ken Rogoff and Carmen Rheinhart to appreciate this.

Thought 2: Don’t depend on regulators preventing future crises. Regulators and other decision makers are like generals, very good at fighting the last war (or crisis) — in this case, forcing bank balance sheets to be materially strengthened or building more-diverse credit portfolios — but they are usually much less effective at anticipating and mitigating the efforts of the next.

Thought 3: The outlook for monetary policy is unknown. The monetary policy tools used during the financial crisis worked to stave off a deep recession. But we don’t really know how they might work in the future. Record low interest rates with little or no inflation has rendered monetary policy ineffective – a classic liquidity trap.

Source: Mercer – September 2018 – 10 Years after the GFC – 10 lessons

New Zealand keep triple A rating but what does it mean?

Moody’s credit rating agency continued with a Aaa rating of New Zealand’s economy. They expect the coalition government will remain committed to fiscal discipline, with the Budget staying in surplus. The high strength of New Zealand’s institutions was a key factor in underpinning the credit rating. There are three main rating agencies in the global economy – Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch – below are the ratings that each company uses.

Conflict of Interest and the sub-prime crisis of 2008
Rating agencies are paid by the people whose products they grade and they are competing against other rating agencies for the business. Subsequently the rating agencies were being played-off against each other by the bankers in this market and this led to a systemic decline in standards and willingness not to check the underlying information as thoroughly as possible for fear of losing the deal. Even the rating agencies themselves admit mistakes were made is assessing sub-prime debt and that there were issues to do with data quality from their sources of research. However one has to consider whether the world have been better off if credit rating agencies had not existed as pension funds, bond funds, insurance companies etc would have had to do a lot more of their own research on what they were buying.

Remember before the credit crisis AAA investments mushroomed between 2000-2006 see graph below.

But consider the following:
Bear Stearns
– rated A2 a month before it went bankrupt
Lehman Brothers – rated A2 just days before it collapsed
AIG – rated AA within days of being bailed out
Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac – AAA rating before being bailed out by the government
Citigroup – A2 before receiving a bail out package from the Government
Merrill Lynch – A2 before being sold to Bank of America

A2 is considered a good investment grade

 

A2 Economics – Liquidity Preference Curve

With mock exams this week here is something on Liquidity Preference – included is a mind map that has been modified from Susan Grant’s CIE revision book.

Demand for money

TRANSACTIONS DEMAND – T – this is money used for the purchase of goods and services. The transactions demand for money is positively related to real incomes and inflation. As an individual’s income rises or as prices in the shops increase, he will have to hold more cash to carry out his everyday transactions. The quantity of nominal money demand is therefore proportional to the price level in the economy. (note:  the real demand for money is independent of the price level)

PRECAUTIONARY BALANCES – P – this is money held to cover unexpected items of expenditure. As with the transactions demand for money, it is positively correlated with real incomes and inflation.

SPECULATIVE BALANCES – S – this is money not held for transaction purposes but in place of other financial assets, usually because they are expected to fall in price.

Bond prices and interest rates are inversely related – Interest Rates ↑ = Bond Prices ↓ and Interest Rates ↓ = Bond Prices ↑.

If a bond has a fixed return, e.g. $10 a year. If the price of a bond is $100 this represents a 10% return. If the price of the bond is $50 this represents a 20% return, i.e. the lower the price of the bond, the greater the return.

At high rates of interest, individuals expect interest rates to fall and bond prices to rise. To benefit from the rise in bond prices individuals use their speculative balances to buy bonds. Thus when interest rates are high speculative money balances are low.

At low rates of interest, individuals expect interest rates to rise and bond prices to fall. To avoid the capital loses associated with a fall in the price of bonds individuals will sell their bonds and add to their speculative cash balances. Thus, when interest rates are low speculative money balances will be high.

There is an inverse relationship between the rate of interest and the speculative demand for money.

The total demand for money is obtained by the summation of the transactions, precautionary and speculative demands. Represented graphically, it is sometimes called the liquidity preference curve and is inversely related to the rate of interest.

 

 

Has banking culture changed since GFC?

Below is an excellent video by Gillian Tett of the FT looking at banking culture. She discusses the ‘flaw’ in Alan Greenspan’s thinking and how culture has been overlooked at the cost to the global economy 10 years on from the financial crisis. By understanding the role of culture in banking, are we more resilient to another crisis now? She also talks of trust in the modern economy and in order to build it you must understand it and how human culture works. And once trust or credit is lost it is very hard to regain.

New Zealand’s Neutral Rate of Interest

A speech delivered last July by John McDermott (Assistant Governor and Head of Economics at the RBNZ) talked about the neutral rate of interest. Central Banks have often used the term ‘the neutral rate’ which refers to a rate of interest that neither stimulates the economy nor restrains economic growth. This rate is often defined as the rate which is consistent with full employment, trend growth, and stable prices – an economy where neither expansionary nor contractionary measures need to be implemented.

The neutral interest rate is the rate of interest where desired savings equal desired investment, and can be thought of as the level of the OCR that is neither contractionary nor expansionary for the economy.

OCR > Neutral Rate = Contractionary and slowing down the economy
OCR < Neutral Rate = Expansionary and speeding up the economy

The RBNZ’s last published estimate of the neutral OCR was in June 2017 at 3.5%, with a range of estimates around that between 2.6% to 4.6%. Like many other countries, the neutral cash rate in NZ is estimated to have been declining over many years.

Since the GFC neutral rates around the world have been falling which reflects the following:

  1.  Lower expectations about growth in the economy = reduces the return to investment
  2.  Relative to pre-GFC, a wider spread between the central bank rate and the interest rates faced by households and businesses (i.e. mortgages and business lending rates).
  3. An increase in global desired savings. For instance, demographic trends offshore have led to an increase in saving among the cohort of the population going through prime earning years (as they save for retirement). Likewise, increased income inequality is thought to increase desired savings, as top income earners typically have a lower marginal propensity to consume – MPC.
  4. Higher debt ratios in some countries (including NZ) make the economy more sensitive to interest rate increases than before.

Central Banks don’t have the independence to set the neutral rate as it is very much influenced by global forces. However they do have independence as to where they set their policy rate relative to the neutral rate.

Source: BNZ – Interest Rate Research – 14th June 2018

10 years on and the financial system is still fragile

Nassim Taleb of “Black Swan” fame has a new book out entitled “Skin in the Game”. Below is an interview with John Solman of PBS ‘Making Sense’. In this he argues:

  • a financial system works only if the people who are running it have a stake in the outcome.
  • a society should be built around risk and reward – if you make good decisions you do well but if something goes wrong you are penalised.
  • Currently profit is privatised and loss is socialised, where the taxpayer only has a downside and will never have the benefit of what’s going on.
  • The financial system is at risk if people can make money transferring risk to others and aren’t penalised. Dangerous, unfair and immoral
  • The Federal Reserve tried to cure debt with debt, transferring debt from one to the other, from the private to the public.
  • The system loaded — laden with debt and with pseudo experts will collapse eventually.

Bitcoin bubble?

Here is a video from PBS News with Paul Solman – he looks into cryptocurrencies  and tries to explain what they are and how to buy them. Also is bitcoin a bubble?

Professor, author and hedge fund manager Vikram Mansharamani states:

You do need some more stability in the value of it before it gets truly adopted as a currency, not as an instrument of speculation. Today it’s de facto an instrument of speculation or a means through which to fund illicit activities off the grid. Bitcoins and sort of other cryptocurrencies live outside of the traditional banking network. And in fact are intended to do so by design.

 

Ten years on and is the world economy still vulnerable to another crisis?

In 2007 the world economy was thrown into turmoil as the subprime housing crisis in the USA started a chain reaction around the world. Although developments dating back to the 1970s led to increased risk-taking as markets became less regulated. In total it is estimated that the loss to the global economy was US$15 trillion. But it could have been worse if it wasn’t for the lessons learned from the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

What did policymakers do better in 2008 compared to 1929?

Government’s in 2008 were a lot more active in pumping money into the circular flow and their budgets became a much bigger share of the economy, thanks partly to the rise of the modern social safety net. As a result government borrowing and spending on benefits did far more to stabilize the economy than they did during the Depression. Also policymakers stepped in to prevent the extraordinary collapse in prices and incomes experienced in the 1930’s. Although unpopular government’s bailed out banks and prevented panic like that in the Depression were there was a ‘run on the banks’ – about half the banks in the USA closed after 1929. This prevented an implosion of the global economy. But after the Depression government’s were forced into radical reforms to correct the economy which ultimately led to 50 years of economic stability. This wasn’t the case with the GFC in that the success of government policies meant that they avoided the radical reforms of the 1930’s – the disposing of the gold standard. So does this mean that the global economy is still vulnerable to the same variables that caused the problem in the first place?

Financial Reforms
To explain the root cause of the 2008 financial crisis George Soros uses an oil tanker as a metaphor. In the movie documentary “Inside Job” he basically said that markets are inherently unstable and there needs to be some sort of regulation along the way. The oil tanker has quite an vast frame and, in order to stop the movement of oil from making the tanker unstable, shipping manufacturers have designed them with approximately 8-12 compartments, depending on the size. This maintains the tanker’s stability in the water.

After the Depression the Glass Stegal Act was passed in 1933. This act separated investment and commercial banking activities. At the time, “improper banking activity”, was deemed the main culprit of the financial crash. According to that reasoning, commercial banks took on too much risk with depositors’ money. Therefore to use Soros’ metaphor, a compartment was put into the tanker to make it more stable.

However, in 1999 Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act effectively removed the separation that previously existed between investment banking which issued securities and commercial banks which accepted deposits. The deregulation also removed conflict of interest prohibitions between investment bankers serving as officers of commercial banks. Therefore, the tanker had a compartment/s removed which made it very unstable and it eventually capsized. Consequently the deregulation of financial markets has led to the end of compartmentalisation.

Post Depression Roosevelt restored growth and made up for what was lost during the depression years but post GFC there have been no major reforms of capital flows and the concentration of the financial sector’s weight in the global economy hasn’t changed. Also central banks have not tried to make-up the lost output and as a result the recovery has been weak. Monetary policy has had to remain very much expansionary and will take time before it returns to a neutral rate. This means when the next recession comes around monetary policy will become ineffective with little ammunition left as rates are so low. However, the main issue is that the fundamental problems that caused the GFC are still there.

Source: A lost decade – The Economist December 16th 2017