Saturday, June 2, 2012

Nationalisation of Markets

Every once in a while, the Economist magazine gets it right. In this case, the point is made in the Buttonwood column, titled 'The Nationalisation of Markets':
EACH step taken by the authorities over the past five years has been designed to prop up the economy and save the financial system. But the cumulative effect has been the creeping nationalisation of markets. Central banks are the biggest players in many rich-world government-bond markets. Equity markets seem to perk up only when central banks are expanding the money supply. And banking systems are incredibly reliant on implicit or explicit government support.
It is a very worrying point, and reflects the discussion of Richard Duncan that I considered in a post a while ago. I summarised his position as follows:
The most interesting point about the talk is the dispassionate approach to the current and future situation. He simply accepts that, in a few years time, the world economy will have a horrendous crash, that states are now fully in the driving seat of the world economy, and most importantly that investment choices should now be based upon state action rather than market drivers. In simplistic terms, whenever a government prints money, his answer is buy, buy, buy!
When listening to Richard Duncan, some might suggest that his view is an outlier, or even outlandish. However, we know that, when the Economist reports the same thing (albeit in a column rather than an editorial), there has been a shift in broader perceptions about what is going on in the global economy. For regular readers of the blog, the idea that states are in the driving seats is nothing new. For example, in January 2010 I had the following to say, in a post titled 'Masters of the Universe':
I am not sure that anyone can actually pull apart the increasingly tangled knots between the financial system and the state. They appear to be mutually dependent, with the state providing guarantees, and the financial system funding the state with financial support through bond purchases to shore up their capital ratios, and so forth. How convenient that bank capital adequacy encourages the holding of government debt. Going back to Renaissance Italy, bankers were granted licenses and monopolies if they were willing to lend to the state on preferential terms. Nothing has changed. 
I described how governments were intervening in ever wider areas of their economies. I went on to say the following:
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard is right when he suggests that we should rip up the economics textbooks. What we are seeing is a grand experiment, in which economists and policymakers are attempting to structure wealth in economies by fiat. As each lever is pulled, as each policy is enacted, there are ripples through the world economy. Flooding $US into the markets whilst holding interest rates low sees the export of $US popping up and creating bubbles elsewhere. Backstopping the mortgage market sees foreclosures reduced, but at the risk of calling into question (contributing to doubts about) the financial viability of the state. Holding the value of the RMB down leads to greater trade imbalances. Each policy has a consequence, and each policy interacts with the policy pursued by every other government.
In other words, as each lever is pulled, the consequences defeat the intention of the lever puller. For example, if the trade imbalances destroy the economic stability of the destination of Chinese exports, where will this leave the Chinese economy? The more each state pulls on the levers, the greater the turbulence between each of the economies. The world economy is a dynamic system, such that policy in one country impacts on the economy of another country, which then reacts with its own policy provisions, which then impact upon other countries. It is an endless cycle of reactivity, with each reaction driving further reaction, and developing an increasingly unstable system as each country enacts ever more dramatic policy to counter or ameliorate the effects of the policies of other countries.

A simple example is the relatively recent Japanese policy of printing money to stave off deflation. With rock bottom interest rates, the newly printed money was simply exported into other countries in the so called 'carry trade'. Within Japan, deflation persisted, whilst the newly printed Japanese money appeared in other countries, contributing to the process of asset price inflation in the countries that were the destination of the carry trade. The policy levers were pulled, but the consequences were far from those that were intended.

What textbook might be able to predict the outcome of such a dynamic system? Despite this, we see the policymakers pulling on their levers, and offering confidence that they know what they are doing. Apparently, the masters of the universe are in control.
I wrote this a long while ago, and we can now see that states are now firmly in the driving seats of global markets. The problem that I long ago identified is now playing out on the world stage. The 'masters of the universe' kept pulling on their policy levers, the ripples radiated out, interacted with the ripples of other policy levers being pulled, and the result is ever more pulling on policy levers. That we are now in a position in which governments are driving markets is unsurprising, and was the inevitable result of the dynamic that states set into action.

The fundamental problem is that, as the world situation deteriorates, the policy actions are becoming ever more extreme. The LTRO was but one example of the escalation, and there is surely more to come. The worrying part of these actions is that those who are pulling the levers are doing so in the belief that they are taking actions to correct problems in their economies, when the reality is that they are now fundamentally in the driving seats of their economies, and the problems that they seek to resolve are problems that they, and their colleagues in other countries, are creating. The markets are now resting on government policy actions, and they created the situation where this was the case. It did not happen by magic, but specifically because the extremes of policy interventions were overtaking 'normal' market signals.

At this point, the sane response would be to pull back. However, as the 'masters of the universe', policy makers are simply too arrogant. They think that they know what they are doing. They cannot see that the current parlous situation is being derived from their own policy responses. They are dealing with a system of such huge complexity that each action that they take can never have a predictable response.  This has always been true to some degree, but the extremes of current policy have changed the degree of the outcomes, and the intensity and the complexity of the feedback from each policy provision. A very simple illustration can be found in the LTRO, as I discussed a short while ago:
The problem is simple. No external investors believe that there is any real commitment to policy that might allow borrowers to pay back their debts. The only way any sane person will purchase the debt is if it sold at fire-sale prices, which means big losses for current holder of 'periphery' European debt. Instead, the only way forwards is for the European Central Bank (ECB) to continue its backdoor bailouts, by continuing to lend to bankrupt European banks so that they can buy their home country sovereign debt, and thereby expose themselves to ever more bad debt.

Having bought so much euro zone debt, banks in the periphery are now major holders of their governments’ liabilities and will be sitting on losses, given recent selling of peripheral debt, according to Das.

“As with the sovereigns, the LTRO does not solve the longer term problems of the solvency or funding of the banks, which now remain heavily dependent on the largesse of the central banks,” said Das, who fears deep recession. “It is a government-sponsored Ponzi scheme where weak banks are supporting weak sovereigns, who in turn are standing behind the banks — a process which can be described as two drowning people clinging to each other for mutual support.”
The analogy in the quote is quite apt. For those that have not read about it, the LTRO (Long-Term Refinancing Operation) is the ECB's complete abandonment of Germanic prudence, whereby bankrupt European banks are being bailed out by the ECB. As one wag put it, the ECB is accepting bus tickets as security for the lending at below market rates. The really stunning part of this is that it is possible to find commentators and analysts who support this lunacy. I mean really, bankrupt sovereigns supported by bankrupt banks, which in turn are supported by bankrupt sovereigns? And this is a good idea?
A good idea? Pour money into banks in countries like Spain, encourage the banks to buy their own sovereign debt and this will fix both the states and the banks. The result of this madness can be seen emerging into the financial headlines. When we read those headlines, we absolutely must remember that someone in a meeting/presentation actually said this was a good idea. This person was one of the self-selected 'masters of the universe', undoubtedly supported their good idea with reams of economic theory, but nevertheless was unable to foresee that their actions have left, for example in Spain, governments and banks in worse condition than before they started.

And here is the rub. As the situation continues downhill, there will likely be another policy response. It will now, as a matter of necessity, have to be even more extreme response than the last policy response. The problem has grown larger, not smaller, and the only 'solution' to the ever growing crisis will be a larger and more extreme policy responses. The illusion of control of the situation continues, but those who think they are in control just do not have any idea (or acceptance) that they are the problem, not the solution.


  1. What we have then, is a widely accepted (because it's largely being conducted by the banks and polticians with no mainstream media or public questioning) transfer of money from taxpayers to the banking/polical establishment. Whether it's happening by design, to some grand (Bilderberg?) scheme or not doesn't really matter. The banks, having convinced the world that they are Too Big To Fail can get away with anything now. They just play the TBTF card. Can someone help me out and tell me how that played out in Iceland? They chose a different path which isn't reported on so much.

    Has anyone done any analysis on the position of bodies such as the Civil Service (across the different euro countries)in all of this? Governments can be transitory with elections causing an inconvenient change. But the civil service remains in place. Just a thought.

    Bear with me as I ask what might be naive and simplistic questions. Have I got this right - Sovereign Governments give money (QE) to the main banks in their territory so that the banks can buy Government bonds thus making the banks look like they've got real assets. The banks then lend money back to the Government. Banks get the money at close to 0% and lend it back at 5% (or thereabouts). Is it really that simple? The banks therefore no longer have a viable business model as it depends entirely on the state continuing to give them money at close to zero. They have no other sources of funds. This is in effect what you're saying about the policy decisions now usurping the intelligence and natural reactions of the markets.

    Too Big To Fail? Really? More like "Too Rotten to Survive". It just can't go on. Surely.

    It looks to me like the instantaneous sharing of information using internet technologies: blogs; twitter; facebook; immediate response computer models;etc might be causing things to run away from the (perceived)control of the bankers & politicians. "Events dear boy, events" - might yet break the current systems completely. Where we'll go next? I wish I knew.

  2. Without the state, could the markets function at all? The state enforces a level playing field that theoretically protects fledgling companies from being trampled on by existing monopolies. It provides patent protection. It effectively bails out anyone who goes bankrupt, allowing entrepreneurs to take gambles and risks they otherwise wouldn't. It provides factory fodder through state education. As far as I know, these 'interventions' are not considered very controversial even among hard line free marketeers.

    The state also provides a social safety net that, in conjunction with government borrowing, provides the public with a warm safety blanket, allowing them to take personal risks in borrowing and spending that they would otherwise not do out of cold fear for the future. It provides a sense of social cohesion, and reduces disparities between the incomes of rich and poor (yes, it reduces the incomes of the rich). It gives space for people to forget the struggle for existence, and to try their hands at art, architecture, design, all the while tantalising them with the prospect of untold wealth. These people then go on to be the designers of iPhones, Facebook and Jaguar cars that sell in their millions.

    I just wonder if, without any of these interventions over the years, the West would have been in the position it once was in proudly proclaiming to the Soviets and Chinese what a brilliant idea capitalism was. But at the same time, those interventions also sowed the seeds of the markets' destruction. They may not have sounded like all that much but, in a system as complex and unstable as the economy, butterflies' wings and all that.

    Personally, I just don't believe that the markets could ever be self-governing and self-correcting, and nor do I believe that the people who end up as politicians and economists are capable of running anything. Basically, we humans inherited a sweet shop where it was impossible to mess things up so badly that we couldn't have a good time for a while, but we inevitably ate too much. It wasn't the individual states' faults particularly, or the market's, just human nature.


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