Category Archives: Financial Markets

The Pound, the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) and George Soros pockets $1bn

Teaching  exchange rates with my AS Level class and couldn’t get away from the events in Britain on the 16th September 1992 – known as Black Wednesday. On this day the British government were forced to pull the pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). The video below explains the drama that unfolded very well.


The Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) was the central part of the European Monetary System (EMS) and its purpose was to provide a zone of monetary stability – the ERM was like an imaginary rope (see below), preventing the value of currencies from soaring too high or falling too low in relation to one another.

It consisted of a currency band with a ‘Ceiling’ and a ‘Floor’ through which currencies cannot (or should not) pass and a central line to which they should aspire. The idea is to achieve the mutual benefits of stabel currencies by mutual assistance in difficult times. Participating countries were permitted a variation of +/- 2.25% although the Italian Lira and the Spanish Peseta had a 6% band because of their volatility. When this margin is reached the two central banks concerned must intervene to keep within the permitted variation. The UK persistently refused to join the ERM, but under political pressure from other members agreed to join “when the time is right”. The Chancellor decided that this time had come in the middle of October 1990. The UK pound was given a 6% variation

Black Wednesday

Although it stood apart from European currencies, the British pound had shadowed the German mark (DM) in the period leading up to the 1990s. Unfortunately, Britain at the time had low interest rates and high inflation and they entered the ERM with the express desire to keep its currency above 2.7 DM to the pound. This was fundamentally unsound because Britain’s inflation rate was many times that of Germany’s.

Compounding the underlying problems inherent in the pound’s inclusion into the ERM was the economic strain of reunification that Germany found itself under, which put pressure on the mark as the core currency for the ERM. Speculators began to eye the ERM and wondered how long fixed exchange rates could fight natural market forces. Britain upped its interest rates to 15% (5% in one day) to attract people to the pound, but speculators, George Soros among them, began heavy shorting* of the currency. Spotting the writing on the wall, by leveraging the value of his fund, George Soros was able to take a $10 billion short position on the pound, which earned him US$1 billion. This trade is considered one of the greatest trades of all time.

* In finance, short selling is the practice of selling assets, usually securities, that have been borrowed from a third party (usually a broker) with the intention of buying identical assets back at a later date to return to that third party. The short seller hopes to profit from a decline in the price of the assets between the sale and the repurchase, as the seller will pay less to buy the assets than it received on selling them. Wikipedia.

Short-selling explained – ‘Trading Places’ movie

The 1983 movie ‘Trading Places’, staring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd tells the story of an upper class commodities broker Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd) and a homeless street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy) whose lives cross paths when they are unknowingly made part of an elaborate bet.

There is a great part in the movie when they are on the commodities trading floor that explains price and scarcity. Winthorpe and Valentine are up against the Duke Brothers in the Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice (FCOJ) futures market.

How a futures market works
As opposed to traditional stock/shares futures contracts can be sold even when the seller doesn’t hold any of the commodity. For instance a contract of $1.30 per pound for a 1000 pounds of FCOJ in February indicates that the seller is compelled to provide the produce at that time and the buyer is compelled to buy the produce.

Here’s how it worked in the movie

The Duke Brothers believe they have inside knowledge about the crop report for the orange harvest over the coming year. They are under the impression that the report will state the harvest will be down on expectations which will necessitate greater demand for stockpiling FCOJ – this will mean more demand and a higher price. Therefore at the start of trading the Dukes representative keeps buying FCOJ futures. Others saw they were only buying and wanted in on the action, those that had futures were not willing to sell so the price kept rising. However the report was fake and Winthorpe and Valentine had access to the genuine report which stated that the orange harvest had not been affected by adverse weather conditions. Knowing this they wait till the the price of FCOJ reaches $1.42 and start to sell future contracts.

Then when the crop report is announced and it indicates a good harvest investors sell their contracts and the price drops very quickly. The Dukes are unable to sell their overpriced contracts and are therefore obliged to buy millions of units of FCOJ at a price which exceeds greatly the price which they can sell them for. In the meantime Winthorpe and Valentine for every unit they sold at $1.42 they only have to pay $0.29 to buy it back to fulfill their obligation. This results in a profit of $1.13 per unit.

A2 Economics – Credit Multiplier

When a bank accepts or collects deposits they keep some of the deposit as reserves (0.r is the reserve ratio) and advance the rest. As this money is spent it comes back into the banking system as someone else’s deposits. Some of this new deposit is kept as reserves and the rest advanced. This process continues until the new deposit becomes so small it can be ignored.

The value credit creation multiplier is an indicator of the final change in bank deposits which will stem from the initial change. We can calculate this as 1 / 0.r, where 0.r is the reserve ratio.

In the example below the credit creation multiplier equals 4 (that is, 1 / 0.25). Further we can work out the growth in the money supply (eventual increase in money supply), using the following formula: Eventual increase equals 1 / 0.r multiplied by the initial deposit in the money supply. In our example it is 4 times $100m equals $400m. The example below shows that loans given by one bank then become a deposit in another bank. Of that $75m deposited 25% must be kept in reserve ($18.75) and the remainder can be lent out ($56.25). This process continues through the banking system. We can also calculate the secondary expansion or credit created using this formula: Credit created equals (1 / 0.r multiplied by the initial deposit) minus the initial deposit.In our example it is $400m – $100m equals $300m.

The change in the money supply may not be as high as calculated because of leakages or withdrawals from the credit creation process. Banks tend to lose reserves as the public will not deposit the whole of the loans back. The public may retain some of the loan in the form of cash, or banks may be unable to find creditworthy customers to make advances to, or funds may get diverted into government securities.

Reserves may also be lost to taxation and imports (under a fixed exchange rate). The reasons for the initial increase in bank reserves could be the public banking more notes and coins than they withdraw, or public debt maturing. If a Central Bank buys back (purchases) government securities or other financial assets from the public or financial institutions, then there will be an increase in bank reserves.

Read more at: elearn Economics

Credit rating agencies polices could impact developing countries recovery.

The world’s three major private credit-rating agencies (CRA) Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch are using their power to prevent low-income countries from restructuring their debts and stimulating their economies. Credit rating agencies realise that developing economies who engage with private creditors, which is part of the G20 Common Framework for Debt Treatments, run the risk that those creditors will incur losses and therefore CRA downgrade the developing country’s credit rating. The Common Framework is supposed to help debt-ridden countries and are the best chance for developing countries to reduce their liabilities but a ratings downgrading damage their prospects.

Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch control more than 94% of outstanding credit ratings. They are basically an oligopoly influencing financial portfolio investments, the pricing of debt and the cost of capital. Their authority is also enhanced by the SEC (Security and Exchange Commission) who see them as the official CRA. Below are the ratings that each company uses.

We’ve been here before – 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

Source: Credit-Rating Agencies Could Derail Economic Recovery – Project Syndicate

Doc Martens – from anti-capitalist punk movement to London Stock Exchange

In the 1970’s Doc Marten boots were a symbol of youth culture, inner rebellion and an essential part of the uniform. However last week the company floated on the London Stock Exchange which sort of sums up the unequal environment that we live in as it seems that everything can be repackaged, commodified and resold – e.g. US housing market and subprime mortgages.

The story of Doc Martens is the story of the financialisation of the global economy. It is a tale of credit cycles, access to capital and a winner-takes-all form of capitalism that undermines our social fabric. The story is a microcosm of much that is problematic with late-stage, 21st-century financial engineering. Some key points about the financialisation of Doc Martens:

  • 1945 -Klaus Märtens a doctor in the German army injured his ankle whole skiing. Designs a better boot.
  • 1947 – now with investor partner Herbert Funck they start to make good sales
  • 1959 – R. Griggs group Ltd (UK shoe manufacturer) bought patent rights
  • 2013 – Griggs family sell the company to private equity company Permira for £300 million
  • 2021 – Permira plans to float Doc Martens at a valuation of $4 billion.

The advantage to firms like Permira is that they can borrow money at virtually 0% interest and deals like this normally involve a small amount of equity, carrying a significant amount of debt.

This means that if the debt-to-equity ratio of the original deal was 90/10, the return on committed equity could be more than 100 times the original cash investment. It is not difficult to see why, at times of very low interest rates, the return to the already wealthy and financially literate goes through the roof. Financial engineering that benefits the extremely rich, converts an everyday shoe company into a gold mine. (We are talking Doc Martens here, not a life-saving Covid vaccine.) David McWilliams

Inequality statistics from the USA:

  • Top 10 per cent of wealthiest families in the US hold 76 per cent of total household wealth.
  • Bottom 50 per cent held just 1 per cent of the nation’s wealth.
  • Top 1 per cent of families account for 40 per cent of all wealth.
  • Between 1979 & 2015, households in the top 1 per cent saw their incomes grow five times as fast as the bottom 90 per cent,
  • Earnings of the top 0.1 per cent grew 15-times faster than the bottom 90 per cent.

In 1941, US supreme court justice Louis Brandeis noted: “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

Source: What a Doc Martens boot can teach us about the wealth gap

Financial Crisis and Political Upheaval in Nazi Germany

A recent paper by Sebastian Doerr, Stefan Gissler, José-Luis Peydró and Hans-Joachim Voth investigates the role that a financial crisis in Germany played in the Nazis coming to power. They show how financial distress can lead to radical voting when accompanied by a convergence of cultural and economic factors. In less than four years, the Nazis went from capturing 2.6% to 37.3% of the popular vote. The authors identified the failure of one bank as being significant in growing the support of the nazis – Danatbank.

Danatbank and Dresdner Bank
Danatbank (the second largest bank in Germany) was widely seen as responsible for causing the financial crisis, and it was headed by the well-known Jewish manager Jakob Goldschmidt, a favourite target of Nazi propaganda. Its collapse in 1931 saw a surge of support for Hitler. Dresdner Bank, Germany’s third-largest lender, failed as well. Exposure to Dresdner Bank had a similar negative effect on city incomes as exposure to Danat, but had almost no effect on support for the Nazis. By contrast, Dresdner Bank was not the key target for Nazi propaganda – even if it had numerous Jews occupying leading positions like most German banks. While the economic impact of the two bank failures was almost identical, only exposure to Danat had a significant effect on Nazi voting. By 1932 Danatbank and Dresdner Bank merged.

Note: The shaded area indicates the period of the 1931 banking crisis, from the beginning of troubles at Austrian Creditanstalt to the merger between Danatbank and Dresdner Bank. Blue vertical lines show: (A) beginning troubles at Austrian Creditanstalt (May 1931), (B) Nordwolle accounting irregularities discovered and Hoover Moratorium established (June 1931), (C) failure of Danatbank and ensuing bank holidays (July 1931), and (D) forced merger of Danatbank and Dresdner Bank. 

The Depression enabled the Nazis’ rise to power, but the financial collapse of 1931 thus lent seeming plausibility to a key Nazi hate narrative, helping to bring a large part of the German middle class round to the party’s world view.

Crowd Psychology and the Stock Market

Anatole Kaletsky wrote an article in Gavekal Research – ‘Five Features Of Market Madness’ – (Ideas June 16 2020) in which he talked about ‘Nominative determinism’. Two examples:

  1. Chinese property company called Fangdd Network where its value jumped from US$800mn to US$10bn in four hours of trading. Fangdd Network made it sound like a cheap ETF (ETFs give you a way to buy and sell a basket of assets without having to buy all the components individually) for the FAANG technology giants.
  2. Nikola, an aspiring electric vehicle manufacturer with no revenues that launched three months ago on Nasdaq saw its value spike to almost US$30bn, up from US$300mn at its March IPO, mainly because, like Elon Musk’s electric car company, it was also named after 19th century Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla.

Anatole Kaletsky 5 features of market madness

  • While monetary easing usually starts a bubble, a reversal in monetary policy is unlikely to deflate the bubble once the speculative momentum builds.
  • Valuations do not matter while a bubble is inflating, but they become very important after it bursts.
  • Bubbles typically end with the some huge corporate collapses (Charles’s analogy of dynamite fishing), often tainted with fraud.
  • Bubble dynamics need not bear any relation to the strength, or weakness, of the economic cycle.
  • Speculation increases dramatically when prices break through major highs.

These examples show that it is not analysis of valuations, monetary policy or economic data that is driving prices up. Famous economist J.K. Galbraith once remarked that ‘economic forecasting was invented to make astrology look respectable’. He also said that we are mush reassured by the ‘conventional wisdom – i.e. strongly held beliefs that have, at best, a tenuous grounding in reality. John Maynard Keynes stated that ‘the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent’. Mervyn King, former Governor of the Bank of England, argues that economic decisions always occur under conditions of, what he calls, ‘radical uncertainty’ – unaware of what might happen in the future. King says that people use ‘narratives’ to make sense of the world. He also suggest that economists in the 2008 GFC didn’t learn from history – the Great Depression before they were born.Each time they suggest that this time it is different – an expression by experts suggesting that the new situation (GFC) bears little resemblance to previous crises. Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff in their book entitled ‘This Time is Different’ show that we haven’t learnt from what happened in the past – short memories make it all too easy for crises to recur.

Wall Street and Main Street – the disconnect.

Excellent video from The Economist regarding the disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street i.e. Stock Market and the Economy. The S&P 500 is up 38% since the middle of March this year when the US economy has been going through one of its worst recessions. The US Federal Reserve had a role here by providing aid packages so the increase in the S&P was seen as a Fed rally and not from normal fundamentals.

Why does Japanese public debt have little impact on bond yield levels?

Japan is top of the table in accumulating government debt and with a record stimulus to cushion the impact of COVID-19 it is approaching debt levels of 250% of GDP. So how does Japan manage to keep its government bond yields so low (see graph below) and investor confidence high that it can avoid default?

Source: FT

To finance this debt, the Japanese government issues bonds known as JGBs. These are snapped up in enormous volumes by the Bank of Japan (BoJ), the country’s central bank that is officially independent but in practice closely co-ordinates economic policy with the government.

Bond Prices vs Yield

Like any investment the buyer of the bond wants to get the greatest return. Bond prices and interest rates (yield) move in opposite directions and an easy way to consider this is zero-coupon bonds. Here the interest is derived by the difference between the purchase price of the bond and the value of the bond on maturity.
Bond price $920 – Maturity value $1000. The bond’s rate of return = (1000-80 ÷ 920) x 100 = 8.7% return. However a lot depends on what else is happening in the bond market. If interest were to increase and newly issued bonds were giving a return of 10% the 8.7% return is no longer attractive. To match the 10% the original bond price would have to decrease to $909. The bond’s rate of return = (1000-909 ÷ 909) x 100 = 10% return

Reasons for low rates on JGB’s

Japanese Government Bond (JGB) is a bond issued by the government of Japan. The government pays interest on the bond until the maturity date. At the maturity date, the full price of the bond is returned to the bondholder. Japanese government bonds play a key role in the financial securities market in Japan.

The BoJ has recently been buying up billions dollars of Japanese government bonds keeping interest rates around 0% in the hope of increasing the inflation rate to its 2% target. Therefore any rise in bond yields triggers a buy action from the BoJ. As of 2019, the central bank owns over 40% of Japanese government bonds. The BOJ’s government bond holdings rose 3.4% from a year ago to 486 trillion yen ($4.5 trillion) as of March 2020, roughly 90% the size of the country’s economy, according to the central bank’s earnings report for the previous fiscal year.

Addressing savings glut needs more than monetary policy

Today central banks have a limited toolkit and the powers to deal with the savings glut (see image below), lack of investment, climate change and income inequality. There is a lot of money in the system but the velocity of circulation is slow – MV=PT – and this is one reason why we have little inflation.

Velocity of circulation of money is part of the the Monetarist explanation of inflation operates through the Fisher equation:

M x V = P x T

M = Stock of money
V = Income Velocity of Circulation
P = Average Price level
T = Volume of Transactions or Output

Add to this COVID-19 and the impact it has had on especially developing economies and we have economic stagnation.

Source: Bloomberg Economics

Some economists have suggested the need for more expansionary fiscal policy as well as structural reform to achieve economic growth. The latter being a long-term policy can take the form of price controls, management of public finances, financial sector reforms. labour market reforms etc. Although the US Federal Reserve is adopting a flexible average inflation target to avoid a disinflationary environment it will not be enough to deal with secular stagnation.

Secular stagnation
Since the GFC in 2008 it is evident that low interest rates are the new normal and according to Larry Summers (former Treasury Secretary) we are in an era of secular stagnation. This refers to the fact that on average the ‘natural interest rate’ – the rate consistent with full employment – is very low. There can be periods of full employment but even with 0% interest rates private demand is insufficient to eliminate the output gap. The US was in a liquidity trap for eight of the past 12 years; Europe and Japan are still there, and the market now appears to believe that something like this is another the new normal.

Paul Krugman suggests that there are real doubts about unconventional monetary policy and that the stimulus for an economy should take the form of permanent public investment spending on both physical and human capital – infrastructure and health of the population. This spending would take the form of deficit-financed public investment. There has been the suggestion that deficit-financed public investment might lead to ‘crowding out’ private investment and also how is the debt repaid? Krugman came up with three offsetting factors

  1. When the economy is in a liquidity trap, which now seems likely to be a large fraction of the time, the extra public investment will have a multiplier effect, raising GDP relative to what it would otherwise be. Based on the experience of the past decade, the multiplier would probably be around 1.5, meaning 3% higher GDP in bad times — and considerable additional revenue from that higher level of GDP. Permanent fiscal stimulus wouldn’t pay for itself, but it would pay for part of itself.
  2. If the investment is productive, it will expand the economy’s productive capacity in the long run.This is obviously true for physical infrastructure and R&D, but there is also strong evidence that safety-net programmes for children make them healthier, more productive adults, which also helps offset their direct fiscal cost (Hoynes and Whitmore Schanzenbach 2018).
  3. There’s fairly strong evidence of hysteresis — temporary downturns permanently or semi-permanently depress future output (Fatás and Summers 2015).

Source: “The Case for a permanent stimulus”. Paul Krugman cited in “Mitigating the COVID Economic Crisis: Act Fast and Do Whatever It Takes” Edited by Richard Baldwin and Beatrice Weder di Mauro

Bloomberg Economics – Yellen, Summers Say Central Banks No Match for Savings Glut