Category Archives: Financial Markets

Eight body problem in economics

Physicists and mathematicians have puzzled over the three-body problem – the question of how three objects orbit one another according to Newton’s laws. No single equation can predict how three bodies will move in relation to one another and whether their orbits will repeat or devolve into chaos.

John Mauldin of Mauldin Economics wrote about the eight-body problem in economics in which we cannot predict how the economy will react when eight variables change. He lists the following:

What is certain is that as government fiscal intervention starts to lose its effectiveness it will be inevitable that monetary policy will continue to remain very accommodating with bond buybacks and record low interest rates. COVID-19 has turned conventional economic thinking upside down.

What would US$10,000 invested in 2015 have yielded by 2020?

Just finished reading the book ‘The New World Economy – A Beginner’s Guide’ (2020) by Randy Charles Epping – a recent addition to the King’s College library. It is particularly good for those students who are new to the subject and it explains current issues in a very understandable language. It looks at:

Bitcoin – Economic Crisis to Global Crisis – Ranking Countries – Brexit – Globalisation – Inflation vs Deflation – Hot Money – AI – BRICS – Inequality – Tax Evasion – Climate Change – China – Trade Wars and many more economic issues.

One table I found interesting was the return of US$10,000 over the last five years – see table below. Bitcoin has been incredible but stay clear of Argentinian stocks.

Source: The New World Economy – A Beginner’s Guide (2020) by Randy Charles Epping

US dollar under pressure as the reserve currency.

In doing most introductory courses in economics you will have come across the four functions of money which are:

  • Medium of exchange
  • Unit of Account
  • Store of Value
  • Means of deferred payment

Since the Bretton Woods Agreement in 1944 the US dollar was nominated as the world’s reserve currency and ranks highly compared to other currencies in the above functions. As a medium of exchange the US dollar is very prevalent:

  • 60% of the world’s currency reserves are in US dollars
  • 50% of cross-border interbank claims
  • After the GFC, purchases of the US dollar increased significantly – store of value.
  • Around 90% of forex trading involves the US dollar
  • Approximately 40% of the world’s debt is issued in dollars
  • n 2018 banks of Germany, France, and the UK held more liabilities in US dollars than in their own domestic currencies.

So why therefore is there pressure on the US dollar as the reserve currency?

The COVID-19 pandemic has closed borders and will inevitably lead to more regionalised trade, migration and money flows which suggests a greater use of local currencies. However China has made its intention clear that the Yuan should become a more universal currency. Some interesting facts:

  • Deposits in yuan = 1trn yuan = US$144bn
  • Yuan transactions have grown in Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and London.
  • Investment by Chinese firms into Belt and Road project = US$3.75bn which was in yuan
  • China settles 15% of its foreign trade in yuan
  • France settles 20% of its trade with China in yuan
  • 2018 – Shanghai sock market launched yuan-denominated oil futures.
  • The IMF suggest that the ‘yuan bloc’ accounts for 30% of Global GDP – the US$ = 40%

However if the past is anything to go by the US economy has gone through some very turbulent times but the US dollar has remained firm. This suggests that how we perceive the US economy doesn’t seem to relate to the value of its currency.

Source: The Economist – China wants to make the yuan a central-bank favourite
7th May 2020

US or China for Post Covid-19 financial dominance

Very informative video from The Economist with Matthieu Favas – Finance Correspondent – talking about the balance of power between the USA and China. The US didn’t show global leadership during the pandemic and China might fill the global vacuum that the US has left on the world stage. China has the second biggest bond market in the world and Covid-19 provided a rigorous test to suggest that people trust Chinese bonds. However there is a distrust of Chinese intentions and remember that Chinese officials covered up the spread of COVID-19.

This Time it is Different

I have mentioned in previous posts the work of Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart – co-authors of “This Time is Different” – 2009. Below is a summary from Amazon

Throughout history, rich and poor countries alike have been lending, borrowing, crashing–and recovering–their way through an extraordinary range of financial crises. Each time, the experts have chimed, “this time is different”–claiming that the old rules of valuation no longer apply and that the new situation bears little similarity to past disasters. With this breakthrough study, leading economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff definitively prove them wrong.

However the rise of the coronavirus and the impact it is having on the global economy is not the same as previous recessions/ depressions in history. Ken Rogoff found it hard to think of a historical parallel and came up with the Spanish flu epidemic which killed millions of people worldwide. Rogoff talks to Paul Solmon of PBS about the impact of the coronavirus.

What is ‘Value’ in an economy?

I was recently given a review (from Palladium Governance Futurism) of Mariana Mazzucato’s book ‘The Value of Everything : Making and Taking in the Global Economy’ in which she challenges the view of what ‘value’ is in an economy. She refers to ex Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s quote

The people of Goldman Sachs are among the most productive in the world.’

Goldman Sachs was one of the many investment banks that had to be bailed out after the GFC but how do we value their productivity?

Privatise reward and socialise risk
It seems that the investment banks were happy to privatise the reward but socialise the risk – when it all “turns to custard” they need to be bailed because they are too big to fail. The question that people are now asking is what is the vulnerable asset class? Mortgage-backed securities was the cause in 2008. For a lot of these companies a large payout is a sign of success in that they are too big to fail and leave the government no alternative. However where is the value generation from this?

Value – historical perspective

  • French physiocrats – value was produced from the land
  • Adam Smith – saw landlords as rentier class
  • Marx – labour is the source of value

Today economics is more focused on a subjective, utility-focused approach and therefore sidestepping the historic debate about value which is undermining the discipline of economics. This new approach, according to Mazzucato, has weakened neoliberal economies to innovate. Key to understanding the the value debate is what is considered production in our GDP. The informal economy is a part of all economies but is not included in the national accounts. As is someone building their own house. So what is considered to be real wealth/value? Rather than focusing on how wealth was created and what counted as wealth, economists began to ask how utility was satisfied on the margin. This allowed for the mathematical approaches to be used in modern economics.

Thomas Aquinas stressed the need for a ‘just price’. It was immoral for a supplier to raise his price when consumers are in great need of a specific good (inelastic demand). The price should cover the cost of production and the maintenance of the worker and his family. Today value is in the eye of the consumer and price, in turn, reflects utility gained by a consumer from an additional unit go goods or services.

Finance and productive value

Finance’s case is founded on the notion that it is a necessary part of production by allocating capital to businesses. However Banks direct their revenues into interest payments and the share price. This fuels speculative bubbles which are refinanced through the securitisation food chain and therefore inflating assets without investment.

Australian bank Macquarie acquired utility company Thames Water – increased its debt to US$10.05 bn over 6 years, therefore leveraging the privatised assets they had acquired into increasing debt. By doing this they saved their own revenues for interest payments and shareholder distributions – hard to make the case for privatising public assets. Mazzucato also points out that since the GFC the finance sector has focused on debt deflation and unemployment and wage reduction so corporate profits could be maintained at the expense of employee earnings. So the financial sector continues to make contributions to GDP in the money it generates but firms in the tech sector and natural resources can’t contribute to the money supply the way commercial banks can, and can’t easily hedge parts of the economy.

The book also gives examples of factors that contribute to GDP but they don’t actually produce anything.

  • Ford – 2000’s – they made more money from selling loans for cars than by selling cars themselves
  • General Electric – finance arm of the business made around 50% of the whole group’s earnings.

On a more positive side Welsh Water was a company with the lowest ratio of debt to equity and the highest credit rating. It is mutually owned and operated as a not-for-profit operation.

Two great myths – Innovation and Public Sector

She points out that the world’s biggest companies have built themselves on the legacy of state backed, publicly funded innovation. EG:

  • Nearly all major parts on smartphones were developed in university-based research facilities using public money.
  • Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency – developed the Internet and SIRI
  • US Navy – GPS system used by phones and computers.
  • National Science Foundation grant – created the algorithm behind Google.
  • Pharmaceutical drugs – 2/3 of the most innovative drugs trace their research to funding by the US National Institutes of Health.

Final thought

Keynes was seen as the last supporter of government investment. He recommended state intervention during downturns in order to stimulate growth and spending. This intervention is intended to shock the economy into greater output

According to Mazzucato the public sector is the true creator of economic value – value which could not just be created by private counterparts. Vital to this is the rebuilding of the public sector’s funding for innovation. Her clear goal is that economists and governments alike to cease viewing value as a purely subjective and individualistic measure.

Should Central Banks still be independent?

Video from CNBC looking at why central banks became independent and if it still should be the case – very informative and they use the Phillips Curve in their explanation. WIth the ongoing inflation problems in the 1970’s and 80’s it was thought that giving central banks independence of government control should be implemented. It was argued that policy makers would struggle to convince the public they were serious about containing inflation if politicians retained a say on setting interest rates. In 1989 New Zealand become the first country to introduce an independent bank with the 1989 – Reserve Bank Act. The mandate was to keep inflation between 0-2% but later changed to 1-3%.

With the GFC in 2008 it was central banks who slashed interest rates and implemented several rounds of quantitative easing to stimulate demand. However the GFC could have been prevented if central banks intervened to stop the biggest asset-bubble in history instead of focusing purely on keeping inflation low. Furthermore the European Central Bank were slow to act and the recovery was stymied. The fact that Germany is under the threat of deflation means that the ECB have cut interest into negative territory and are relaunch another round of quantitative easing – they are running out of options. Economists are focusing on fiscal stimulus – tax cuts and government spending. Therefore monetary and fiscal policy should be working together. According to Larry Elliott of The Guardian. central bank independence is a product of the neoliberal Chicago school of economics and aims to advance neoliberal interests. More specifically, workers like high employment because in those circumstances it is easier to bid up pay.

Argentina – will capital controls work?

Last week Argentina imposed currency controls on business to prevent money leaving the economy after the Argentinian Peso lost over 25% of its value since elections last month – see graphic. The central bank now require that:

  • exporters to repatriate earnings within 5 to 15 days
  • businesses will need permission to repatriate profits abroad or buy US dollars
  • residents are restricted to foreign exchange purchase of US$10,000 and non-residents US$1,000

With a track record of hyperinflation and financial crises, Argentinians are quick to sell their Pesos for US$ to maintain store value – with inflation and turmoil in an economy the local currency has less purchasing power. It is important for the Argentina government to restrict the demand for US$ and improve its ability to pay its significant debt – US$101bn. Capital controls have the aim of protecting the stability of the Peso and savers.

Will it work?

Although capital controls do stabilise the currency in a panic situation, they will only work in the long-term if they are used to confront the underlying macroeconomic problems in the economy itself. However, with Argentina’s inflationary issues coupled with fiscal deficits, capital controls are a band aid solution to the macroeconomic problems. Below is a very good video from the FT giving a background to the problems in Argentina.

America’s next recession

Following on from a previous post about the inverted yield curve, The Economist have produced a very good video explaining how when the outlook is gloomy investors turn buy safe assets like long-term bonds, pushing their price up so the interest rate for holding them falls. Higher bond prices are also a signal that there are fewer exciting investment opportunities elsewhere such as the stockmarket. Unemployment is also an indicator that closely correlates with a recession and even R index* can fuel recessionary expectations. There are some particularly good graphs in the video.

*The recession index (the R-word index) is an informal index created by The Economist which counts how many times the word ‘recession’ is mentioned in the Washington Post and the The New York Times in a quarter.

The inverted yield curve – what does it mean?

There has been a lot in the news about the ‘inverted yield curve’ which occurs when interest rates on short-term ends are higher that the interest rates paid on long-term bonds – see video below from WSJ. Here we are talking about 2 year bonds in relation to 10 year bonds. The thinking is that people are so worried about near-term future that they are putting money into safer long-term investments.

When an economy is growing at steady rate bondholders want a higher yield (return) on longer-term bonds than for short-term bonds. The rationale behind this is that if your money is tied up for a longer period of time (10 year bond) you want to be rewarded for that risk. In contrast bonds that require shorter time commitments don’t require as much sacrifice and usually pay less.

However this week the yield on 10 year bonds fell below the yield on 2 year bonds for the first time since 2007 – remember this was followed by the GFC. The chart below shows the difference in the yield between 2 year and 10 year bonds – as stated bonds of longer duration should have a higher yield. What is significant is that the inverted yield curve has occurred before every US recession since 1955 and is viewed as a strong predictor of a recession / downturn. If people are willing to take such little money for their long-term bonds it would indicate that inflation is not a concern.