25 October 2009

"they have failed to address the financial sector’s overall size"

Hat tip to Duncan

Gillian Tett: “Was October 2008 just a dress rehearsal?”

A lot of investors I know lamented the loss of Gillian Tett. As the Financial Times’ capital markets editor in the runup to the crisis, she had provided very insightful into some of the more arcane goings-on in the financial markets. I’ve had reason to look at her older commentary (circa 2004-2005) and some of it is freakishily prescient. But then she got promoted, she went to work on her book, and her writings were less frequent and just not as crisp.

Well, we may be getting the old Miss Tett back, and we all should be careful what we wished for. This article is very much like some pieces she wrote in January 2007…..and she says we’ll know better if the “reflate the economy by creating an asset bubble” strategy will work in 6 months.

Um, first we have the ugly 6 month parallel. The real break in the credit markets started in July 2007….6 months out from her January 2007 pieces.

Second, she indicates that most observers recognize the rally is not the result of fundamentals (duh!) but the result of excessive liquidity chasing assets. She adds this:

Now, some western policymakers like to argue – or hope – that this striking rally could be beneficial, in a way, even if it is not initially based on fundamentals. After all, the argument goes, if markets rebound sharply, that should boost animal spirits in a way that could eventually seep through to the “real” economy….

Yet, what worries me is that it is still very unclear that that pile of damp wood – aka the real economy – truly will catch fire, in a sustainable way.

Tett is being way too cautious. Someone tried this very experiment once and it was a complete disaster.

In 1985, the US bilateral trade deficit with Japan had gotten so bad that even the “free markets” oriented Reagan administration felt it had to do something about it. The result was the Plaza accord, a coordinated currency intervention to push down the greenback.

It was narrowly too successful and broadly a failure. The dollar fell further than anyone wanted it to, over 50% versus the yen. In fact, two years later, another coordinated intervention, the Louvre accord, was implemented to drive the dollar back up.

Even though US imports from Japan fell, US exports to Japan barely budged. The trade barriers were structural. But the Japanese now had a very pricey currency, and their exports to other countries fell also.

So the authorities figured they’d try to stimulate consumer spending via asset appreciation. Notice how Japan’s problem then is analogous to China’s now: an economy that depends on exports with insufficient consumer spending (of course, one problem in Japan that everyone seems to forget is the small size of their homes. How can you consume a lot if you have restricted living and storage space?). The idea was that the wealth effect would lead people to spend more and raise the level of domestic growth, offsetting the fall in exports.

We know how that movie ended.

Asset bubbles beget more bubbles unless the authorities shrink the financial sector. Tett’s colleague Wolfgang Munchau wrote earlier in the week:

This is exactly what the economist Hyman Minsky predicted in his financial instability hypothesis.** He postulated that a world with a large financial sector and an excessive emphasis on the production of investment goods creates instability both in terms of output and prices.

While, according to Minsky, these are the deep causes of instability, the mechanism through which instability comes about is the way governments and central banks respond to crises. The state has potent means to end a recession, but the policies it uses give rise to the next phase of instability….The world has witnessed a proliferation of financial bubbles and extreme economic instability that cannot be explained by any of the established macroeconomic models. Minsky is about all we have.

His policy conclusions are disturbing, especially if contrasted with what is actually happening. In their crisis response, world leaders have focused on bonuses and other irrelevant side-issues. But they have failed to address the financial sector’s overall size. So if Minsky is right, instability should continue and get worse.

From Tett:

Earlier this month, I received a sobering e-mail from a senior, recently-retired banker. This particular man, a veteran of the credit world, had just chatted with ex-colleagues who are still in the markets – and was feeling deeply shocked.

“Forget about the events of the past 12 months … the punters are back punting as aggressively as ever,” he wrote. “Highly leveraged short-term trades are back in vogue as players … jostle to load up on everything from Reits real estate investment trusts and commercial property, commodities, emerging markets and regular stocks and bonds.

“Oh, I am sure the banks’ public relations people will talk about the subdued atmosphere in banking, but don’t you believe it,” he continued bitterly, noting that when money is virtually free – or, at least, at 0.5 per cent – traders feel stupid if they don’t leverage up.

“Any sense of control is being chucked out of the window. After the dotcom boom and bust it took a good few years for the market to get its collective mojo back this time it has taken just a few months,” he added. He finished with a despairing question: “Was October 2008 just a dress rehearsal for the crash when this latest bubble bursts?”

I daresay this missive reflects some element of hyperbole. But I have quoted it at length because the question is becoming more critical. Six months ago, the financial system was in deep distress, reeling from a meltdown. Now despair and panic have been replaced not simply by relief – but, in some quarters, euphoria. Never mind the high-profile rally that has occurred in the equity markets; what is perhaps most stunning is the less visible rebound in debt and derivatives markets, as risk assets have displayed what Barclays describes as a “stellar performance”

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