Over-rated and fallible

While monetary policy is a powerful tool that works to support consumer spending, business investment, and public confidence, it cannot provide a settled rule book for international trade. Our challenge now is to do what monetary policy can do to sustain the expansion.

Remarks attributed to Jerome Powell, made at Jackson Hole Central Bank Symposium in August. This is my source. Monetary policy is not a powerful tool that helps any of the above. It is a limited tool that works under very specific circumstances. Experience has taught us that.

After so many years of egging on central banks to go negative, etc., Summers has found religion. He says central bankers are powerless. It is too late and he may well be abandoning a sinking ship. A tweet-storm or tweet thread on this is here (HT: Niranjan Rajadhyaksha). Tweets 18-24 under this thread are the important ones:

In contrast under the secular stagnation view we have outlined – what might be called “new old Keynesian” economics – interest rate cuts, even if feasible, may be at best only weakly effective at stimulating aggregate demand and at worst counterproductive.

There is the further point that reducing interest rates may degrade future economic performance for any of the following reasons.

First, financial instability. The financial crisis had roots in bubbles & excessive leverage caused by efforts to maintain demand after the 2001 recession. Japan’s late 1980s bubble had roots in a low interest rate tight fiscal environment after the 1987 stock market crash.

Second, risks of zombification of firms. Firms that do not face debt service payments are like students who do not have to take tests. They can drift along complacently & ultimately unsuccessfully. And low rates may contribute to increased monopoly power and reduced dynamism.

Third, risks of bank failures. Low rates crowd bank profits and franchise value, making them more vulnerable to adverse shocks at any given level of regulatory capital.

Fourth, risks of further reducing monetary policy effectiveness. To the extent to which rate cuts now “borrow” demand from the future as firms and consumers bring forward investment and durable purchases, low rates now may imply less effective monetary policy in the future.

The right issue for macroeconomists to be focused on is assuring adequate aggregate demand. We believe it is dangerous for central bankers to suggest that they have this challenge under control – or that with their current toolkit they will be able to get it under control.

I hope the last tweet is not the harbinger of more hare-brained approaches. Summers (and his friends in the academia in the United States who still swear by monetary policy effectiveness) would do well to reflect on this speech by Graeme Wheeler, former Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand made in October 2015. It is not secular stagnation in aggregate demand. It is secular stagnation in trend growth. That is the nature of the game. The answer to the question of where inflation is, if trend growth is weak as well is that inflation is driven by wage dynamics. Labour has been stifled and its pricing power emaciated for last four decades. It has not come back. As long as that is the case, conventional inflation rate (CPI index change) is the wrong place to look for deficient or excess aggregate demand. That was the mistake pre-2008 and now post-2008 too.

Summers’ ‘revelations’ carry no trace of him having preached something very different all these ears. Some acknowledgement of the errors of his past world view would be the intellectually honest thing to do.

Four Governors of the Federal Reserve wrote a joint op.-ed., urging the American President to respect the independence of the Federal Reserve. Not quite directly but that was the intention. Their effort was undone by an op.ed., by William Dudley (a Goldman Sachs Alumni), former President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in which he urged the Federal Reserve not to offset the damage President Trump might be causing the American economy with his ongoing dispute with China and also to tweak policy to thwart his re-election chances! It is unclear as to whom he is batting for. It was clear whom he was batting against.

Best response to William Dudley came from Michael Lebowitz:

Dudley really has some nerve. The Fed, with Dudley’s help for ten years, lays tons of economic tinder for economic troubles and then he places blame on the potential spark (Trump). [Link]

Why 2007-08 was only a curtain-riser

What began as a message to my faculty colleagues at IFMR Graduate School of Business was eventually abandoned and it ended up being a ‘long read’ article published in Mint. They had removed many of the hyper links to keep the piece tractable. Fair enough.

Here is the original version. Perhaps, Mint should have titled the piece, ‘Why it feels like the autumn of 2007?’ The original version, below, has more links.

Wall Street Journal recently issued an oxymoron alert. The oxymoron was that high yield bonds had gone negative. “There are about 14 companies with junk bonds worth more than €3 billion ($3.38 billion) that are trading with negative yields, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch. They include telecom giant Altice Europe NV and tech-equipment company Nokia Corp.” It would have been unthinkable even a few years ago to have high-yield/speculative/junk bonds being sold for negative yields. They were meant to be high-yielding bonds because they carried with a high probability of default. But, to compensate the borrower to buy them means that the logic of higher expected return for higher risk has been upended. This makes investing impossible.

A pension fund manager in a European country was told by his regulator not to hold too much cash because it is risky and was told to invest them in negative yielding bonds, instead! This cannot and will not end well. It is time for investors to baton down their hatches and settle for safety rather than returns because it is a recipe for the elevation of socialist policies in America to a historically unprecedented level, after the next Presidential elections in 2020.

Globally, about USD 13.0 trillion of debt is trading at negative yields. Two US companies that issued leveraged loans have quickly seen their bonds lose value. Obviously, lenders chasing yields have ignored risks. The companies recycle printer ink cartridges and another one is a beauty company! – Clover Technologies and Anastasia Beverly Hills! See here.

Amidst all this, what is funny or tragic (depending on your lens) is that investors, according to Schroders, have upped their return expectations for 2019 to 10.7% from 9.9%. This is based on a survey of 25,000 people across 32 countries. In other words, the survey respondents plan to make riskier investments (some of which now yield negative returns!) and that they expect central banks to underwrite their risks with ultra-low interest rates or negative rates or nominal GDP targeting into eternity.

Who is responsible for this upside-down world of investing?

Let us start with the Federal Reserve. Its monetary policy committee is meeting on July 30-31. Donald Trump is putting tremendous pressure on the Federal Reserve to ease monetary policy aggressively. Check out his four tweets on the Federal Reserve including and starting from this one. Although the Federal Reserve strenuously denies complying, it is behaving as though it is complying. The Federal Reserve is ready to cut interest rates by 25 basis points at the minimum in its meeting in July. One should not be surprised if the pre-emptive ‘vaccination’ is 50 basis points. The American economy does not need it. William Dunkelberg of the National Federation of Independent Businesses marshalled data to show that no real business – including small ones – is being starved of credit.

All else being equal, a besieged Federal Reserve would have made the US dollar a sitting duck for speculators and for the world, in general, to fall out of love with the greenback. But, it won’t happen in a hurry because others are far worse off. So, the story of the world finally getting out of the dollar standard has to wait. That is because other central banks are again talking of cutting rates aggressively. European Central Bank is fully prepared to outdo the Federal Reserve. Eurozone countries have selected a ‘tainted’ politician to replace Mario Draghi as the President of the European Central Bank. She will be more populist and ‘bolder’ than him with monetary policy experiments. That will be music to financial markets, hedge funds, PE investors who place bets with a high degree of leverage.

The crisis of 2008 was supposedly due to excessive debt carried by different financial institutions – some visible and some hidden. But, the answer from central banks has been to incentivise even higher gearing of balance sheets. In America, the number of companies with increased risk of becoming financially distressed  – companies that either generated negative EBITDA or have net debt to EBITDA over 3x – has grown noticeably this cycle (53% as 6/30/19) versus last cycle (32% as of 6/30/2007). It gets worse.

Central banks deliberately avoid thinking about why their decade-long policy of ultra-low interest rates have failed to mend economies. In less than a year after proclaiming the return to normalcy, central banks are priming themselves to become even more adventurous with their monetary policies. All that their policies have engendered is reckless risk-taking in financial markets, more leverage, greater inequality and tremendous stress on savers, bank deposit-holders and pensioners. Think of the clients of the pension fund mentioned earlier.

Another important consequence of such remarkable persistence with such ill-advised policies is the diversion of capital for unproductive ends and personal aggrandisement. Loss-making start-ups are carrying on without a concern for profits because cheap money means private equity investors blanket them with funds. ‘Wework’ is a technology unicorn in the office rental space. The company has filed for an IPO but it had the temerity to issue USD 4.0 billion debt before that and its co-founder has cashed out USD 700.0 million in the last year! It is valued at USD 47.0 billion. Softbank wanted to invest USD 16.0 billion in that company with USD 6.0 billion in new money. Its partners protested and the investment was pared back. IWG, the owner of Regus, another office space rental company, is valued at USD 4.0 billion and it is making profits. I had blogged on it here.

We heard of price-eyeball ratio in the dotcom bubble era of the Nineties. Now, ‘Wework’ presents ‘community adjusted’ EBITDA which strips out “not only interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, but also basic expenses like marketing, general and administrative, and development and design costs.” No one has heard of this EBITDA before because it is effectively gross revenue and without accounting for costs, it turns into profits, of course.

Not only have promoters benefited immensely from loose monetary policies and funds available on liberal terms from capital markets but they have also profited from the tendency of governments to compete away their tax dollars from companies.

The corporate tax rates in developed world have come down steadily from 38% in 1990 down to 22% in 2018. This has forced low-income countries to lower their tax rates as well as, otherwise, companies will shift their tax bases to havens that still remain in high-income countries. Corporate tax rates in low-income countries have come down from 46% to around 28% in the same period. This data comes from the International Monetary Fund which, officially, has been the cheer-leader for unconventional monetary policies that have played a leading role in precipitating the next biggest crisis after 2008. That will not be just an economic crisis but a socio-political one too.

Capitalism does not need enemies or competing ideologies. Capitalists are doing a great job of destroying it with multilateral institutions like the IMF egging on central banks to stick to policies that would ultimately cause capitalism to implode.

There has been much schadenfreude in Asia at the self-destruction of capitalist western societies. But, if only such sentiment were justified. Asia, if anything, is more vulnerable. The crisis of 2008 has damaged their growth models irreparably. Let us start with China. Beijing is presiding over a shaky economy in China as official growth rate is again overstating true economic growth and global manufacturing supply chains are moving out of China, exactly as intended by the American administration, even if they are not returning to the United States.

In the meantime, China’s Minsheng Investment Trust Corp. is defaulting on its dollar debt. Its parent, Minsheng Banking Corporation is China’s largest private sector bank by assets. In 2015, it did warn of ‘systemic, concentrated financial risk happening in China’ but it has become a victim of it, itself. In Hong Kong, protests against the pro-Beijing government are intensifying.

Smaller Asian nations are faring no better. Japan’s exports have had seven straight months of decline up to June 2019. So has the performance of Korea’s exports been except that its export slump appears to be worse than that of Japan. No wonder South Korean auto industry is in a slump. Singapore’s non-oil domestic exports is a bell-weather for international trade and global economy. It is declining  precipitously and Singapore economy itself appears headed for harder times. Singapore’s overall GDP contracted 3.4% in the second quarter (QoQ, annualised). Of course, this is an advance estimate based on two months’ of data. Preliminary estimates based on three months of data will be released in August. Indonesian exports have declined for eight straight months up to June and Malaysia’s exports have fared slightly better than Singapore’s and Indonesia’s.

In Europe, German investor and economic sentiment (ZEW) is going deeper into negative territory. The same ZEW survey also pointed out that “the indicator for the current economic situation in the eurozone fell 6.9 points to a level of minus 10.6 points in July.”

A survey of the global political landscape confirms our worst fears. Leaders are ill-equipped to face the oncoming economic storm. Worse, they are seeding and nourishing it. Japan and South Korea are back to feuding in which the trade disputes playing a small but significant role in it. The wounds are historical and they were re-opened by a Seoul court ruling last October. Malaysian Prime Minister looks all set to walk back on his word to hand over power to Anwar, again! Such political conspiracies and power-grab have rendered ASEAN irrelevant both politically and economically. It was laid low by the crisis of 1998 and it has not recovered since then.

In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson looks set to become Prime Minister and Brexit – deal or no deal – looks likely. Its consequences will be unpredictable because the country has now fraught relations with the United States, with European Union, with China and with Iran. But, the English team’s Pyrrhic victory in the Cricket World Cup 2019 is a small boost to national sentiment. In continental Europe, Angela Merkel’s physical health is deteriorating. Turkey, the pivotal Eurasian nation at the frontier of the Western alliance against Russia, is no longer a part of it, de facto, if not de jure. This is historic and has enormous implications.

Elsewhere, Iran has seized a British oil tanker and America has shot down an Iranian drone. Of course, the current expectations are that things won’t spiral out of control. But, a President seeking re-election is increasingly focusing on cementing and consolidating his base. Belligerence towards his domestic and international opponents will be consistent with those political goals.

Finally, let us examine if India is anywhere close to being a safe haven from the turbulent world. After all, in the elections held in May, its government won a strong mandate with a better majority Alas, its economy is getting deeper into trouble. The slump in the Indian auto sector mirrors that of South Korea and its overall economy has not stopped slowing. The Reserve Bank of India Governor has taken to chiding public sector banks on their non-transmission of his rate cuts. Just as it is the case in the West, monetary policy has no answers to structural ills. Resolving them starts with admitting to them and then being patient without too much anxiety about short-term growth pains. Window dressing only complicates the problem and delays eventual resolution, recovery and strong growth. The budget was incoherent at best and dangerous at worst, for it privileged financial liberalisation and trade illiberalisation. It socked the rich again and that was needless, both politically and economically.

The government announced that it would go for sovereign foreign currency borrowing at a time when India’s export performance is poor and the global growth environment is becoming worse. Dr. Y.V. Reddy, former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, wrote that a decision on India’s capital account convertibility must precede the decision to issue sovereign dollar bond. But, this is not the best time to liberalise capital account when India’s fiscal health is not at its best and when export performance is sluggish at best and has deteriorated, at worst.

What appeared to be a cleverly disguised (positive) move to divest government stake in public sector enterprises below 51% has been denied, as well. Monsoon is erratic once again and anecdotal evidence points to India being more vulnerable to global climate change than most other nations. India may be sleepwalking into a major and prolonged economic slowdown. Narayanaswamy Jayakumar may have been prophetic here.

As we head into 2020 – the year of American Presidential elections –present trends in financial markets and economies around the world would coalesce into a major storm, convulsing most of them in the process. The Presidential election campaign in America could yet be the most fractious in history searing the nation apart, at a time when the economy may be pushed into a recession by a crash in the stock market or the other way around. That may set off a dollar crisis. The rest of the world, with political and economic problems of their own, will be unable to fill the leadership vacuum left by a politically fractious and economically floundering America.

Once the storm subsides, a new world economic and political order might emerge. To end on a positive note, the destruction wreaked by the storm might mark a true and a lasting bottom for the world economy on which its durable recovery could be built with more sensible policies than the snake oil that central banks have applied.

Which inflation to fight?

The lesson, to me, is crystal clear. Deflation is a threat posed by a critical breakdown of the financial system. Slow growth and recurrent recessions without systemic financial disturbances, even the big recessions of 1975 and 1982, have not posed such a risk. The real danger comes from encouraging or inadvertently tolerating rising inflation and its close cousin of extreme speculation and risk-taking, in effect standing by while bubbles and excesses threaten financial markets. Ironically, the “easy money,” striving for a “little inflation” as a means of forestalling deflation, could, in the end, be what brings it about. That is the basic lesson for monetary policy. It demands emphasis on price stability and prudent oversight of the financial system. Both of those requirements inexorably lead to the responsibilities of a central bank.

Volcker, Paul. Keeping At It: The Quest for Sound Money and Good Government (p. 227). Public Affairs. Kindle Edition.

This is the lesson that central banks in several advanced nations have ignored repeatedly in the last decade and are preparing to ignore again, in 2019

The broken world of finance or Does Capitalism need enemies?

I was startled to read these two stories and contrast them with the picture below.

This image file came via courtesy of this website.

This article in Bloomberg gamely tries but fails to make sense of the craze for negative yielding bonds.

Wework floated a debt before filing for IPO! It has been losing money ever since it was founded and it is valued at USD47.0bn!

In contrast,

Regus owner IWG , founded in 1989, has a similar business. It booked revenue nearly twice as high as WeWork did last year yet it has an enterprise value a bit above $4 billion. [Link]

Wework co-founder has reportedly cashed out US$700 million from the company through stock sale and borrowings against shares of Wework. JP Morgan advised him on his sales and it is also advising the company on its debt offering. His shares hold 10 times the voting rights of standard shares. He has properties that are leased back to Wework and he collects millions in rent from Wework! Source: Link

Evidently, he could cash out so much because the company had the chutzpah to issue USD4.0 billion of debt

What a model of ethical capitalism!

It is into this loss-making company with co-founder cashing out such a large sum before IPO that Softbank decided to invest USD 16.0 billion including USD 6.0 billion of new money! The amount was eventually scaled back after partners opposed it.

Blame central banks and their policies for money losing its value and investors losing their heads and eventually, their shirts and trousers.

The real economy does not need rate cuts

The Federal Reserve will announce its interest rate decision tomorrow (Wednesday). Financial markets expect a rate cut of 25 basis points or even 50 basis points. But, William Dunkelberg, Chief Economist at the National Federation of Independent Businesses, beautifully and in very simple language establishes that the real economy does not need interest rate cuts. If anything, credit availability, cost of loans, unmet credit needs are all at near five-decade lows. Read the whole thing here. It is worth it.

It is clear that the Federal Reserve under Jay Powell has really flattered to deceive in respect of decoupling monetary policy from asset prices. Now, it is fully captured, it appears. One still entertains a faint hope that the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee will surprise us pleasantly with some spine.

In a sense, William Dunkelberg’s article really is a succinct capture of all that is wrong with ‘The Rise of Finance’ that Gulzar Natarajan and I had documented.

Monetary policy transmission in India

In its monetary policy meeting last week, the Reserve Bank of India’s Monetary Policy Committee cut the policy rate – the repo rate – by 25 basis points. This is its third rate cut since December 2018 and it was unanimous. The Committee also unanimously decided to move to an ‘accommodative’ stance indicating further easing down the road. So far, so good.

Transmission from RBI policy rate to the lending rates fo banks remains the big challenge in India. See this article in ‘Business Line’, for example. Some banks have even increased their lending rate since the last RBI policy rate cut!

Everyone – including my friend Gulzar Natarajan – points out that Indian banks have a much higher share of their liabilities in bank deposits. These deposits are fixed in nature. Therefore, interest rates on them are payable at a fixed rate regardless of the movements in the policy rate. Since they cannot come down with cuts in the policy rate, the lending rates too cannot be lowered. Ergo, there is no transmission.

Gulzar even shared a chart with me that showed that Indian banks’ deposits as a % of overall liabilities is higher compared to other developing nations.

But, the truth is that Current and Savings Accounts (CASA) are more than 40% of overall deposits. 41.3% to be precise. The last data point available – in a easy to retrieve manner, that is – is from February 2019. See here.

Current accounts pay no interest and the interest payable on savings accounts is 4% – at the lowest balance between the 11th and the end of the month. That is as low as one can get, in terms of savings account balances. In the first ten days, the balance could be higher due to salary deposits. That is why they are excluded!

Therefore, the argument is somewhat unconvincing. Not untrue but not the total explanation.

The explanation lies in lack of competition with the central bank prescribing a floor for lending rates via its formulaic Marginal Cost of Deposits based Lending Rate (MCLR). I wrote about it in my MINT column last Tuesday.

If one went through the RBI Internal Working Group Report on the MCLR and the previous base rate, published in October 2017, one would realise that these are not MCLR (i.e., not marginal) but that they are also binding floors for lending rates.

Note a key sentence in the report:

One bank included a negative spread under business strategy due to market competition, which was in contravention to regulatory guidelines. (PAGE 47)

Indeed, that should be the case. Banks should have the freedom to take the basic of decisions for a commercial entity – the pricing decision. But, they do not.

India needs genuine competition in lending rates between banks. Neither the owner nor the regulator must intervene. It will also enable the owners to figure out which of them are worthy of further capital infusion, growth and which of them deserve to be merged, consolidated or weeded out.

Of course, the second thing is the Small Savings Interest Rate. Check out the table in page 26 of the said report (Table II.8).

Interest rates offered on bank deposits are lower than that of the interest rates on small savings and these interest incomes are tax-free too. The Government-announced interest rates on these Small Savings Schemes are higher than that of the rates that would be offered if the government sticks to the formula that it promised – linking the interest rate to the 10-year Government bond yield. It has not. On top of it, there are tax benefits.

That is the second (or, even the first) biggest hindrance to transmission. That is why I felt that the usually meticulous Indira Rajaraman quite did not get it right in her column on the topic of transmission. She is right with her conclusion, of course. The multiple strands that link the funding of government budgets (of the States and the Union) to the National Small Savings Fund (NSSF) need to be broken. She is right on that one.

But, more than that, the idea of offering a higher interest rate on a product that is even safer than a bank deposit and with tax benefits is a sure-fire killer of the banking system profitability and of transmission of monetary policy.

Some politically unpopular decisions need to be taken. They will be unpopular in the short-term. But, a government with its back to the wall on the banking system and with such low actual economic growth (more on that in a separate blog post) has to take some decisions and face up to the tradeoffs. There are no costless choices here.

Surjit Bhalla had got this one right. One of the most important decisions ever taken by a FM was taken by Yashwant Sinha when he lowered the interest rate on Small Savings Deposits. That did play a big role – among many other things – in India’s post-2002 economic boom.

Surjit Bhalla had got this one right. One of the most important decisions ever taken by a FM was taken by Yashwant Sinha when he lowered the interest rate on Small Savings Deposits. That did play a big role – among many other things – in India’s post-2002 economic boom.

Who makes recessions in America?

I stumbled upon the website of CMG and Mr. Steve Blumenthal’s weekly missive called ‘On my radar’. He had penned one of his recent letters based on David Rosenberg’s presentation at the John Mauldin’s Strategic Investment Conference. Must attend one of them soon. At least, an impressive array of speakers.

One thing one has to like, admire and envy about David Rosenberg is that in 2011 or so, he switched to being an equity market bull and rode the wave all the way up to 2018. He has again turned bearish now. Full credit to him for such intellectual openness. It requires a lot of discipline and intellectual integrity to be able to switch.

This is a clear case of seeing things as they are likely to be rather than as what one likes them to be. Not easy at all.

The presentation and the slides are, as usual, very informative and perceptive. I have a minor/major quibble about the causality attributed to Federal Reserve tightening for economic recessions in America. That is a false framework, in my view.

Recessions happen not because the Fed hikes interest rates. The Federal Reserve tightening merely confirms that the cycle had run its course. The Fed’s mistake is not that it overtightens but that it does not tighten enough and early. Indeed, what it does is to tighten too late and even then it does too little only. But, that is enough to topple the apple cart of the economy because, by then, it had accumulated so many excesses that it does not need too many excuses to topple over.

So, who makes recessions in America? It is the Federal Reserve and financial institutions that pay little heed to accumulating risk and passing them on to the rest of the society. The Federal Reserve is still the villain but not with its ‘restrictive’ or ‘normalisation’ stance but with its ‘low and easy for long’ stance.

‘Blaming the Fed’ for recessions plays into the hands of politicians and the financial market types who would prefer a perpetual flow of funds at cheap rates. They can earn the returns and pass on the risks to the broader society and taxpayers.

In response to the criticisms that the Fed tightenened and precipitated a recession, the Federal Reserve eases aggressively and keeps rates too low for too long in the next cyle. That is what the Federal Reserve did in 2001-07. The result was 2008. Again, the Federal Reserve has repeated 2001-07 between 2009 and 2017 and the result is likely far worse.