US debt/asset dynamics……the bubble the Fed appears not to see

In last week’s “Decision Making at the Federal Reserve” at the International House of New York Janet Yellen said that the US economy had made tremendous progress in recovering from the damage caused by the financial crisis, that labour markets were healing and that the economy was on a solid course.  She also said the economy was not a bubble economy, and that if you were to look for evidence of financial instability brewing you would not find it in key areas: over valued asset prices, high leverage and rapid credit growth.  She and the FRB did not see those imbalances and despite weak growth would not describe what we currently see in the US as a bubble economy.

Perhaps the question was the wrong one.   The bubble, indeed most bubbles, are financial in nature and relate to both the flow of financing and the current stock of financing.   We are always in a bubble to some extent given that one of the key facets of the monetary system is the discounting of the present value of future flows through the allocation of assets, principally of money relative to all other assets.  Today’s differential between what the economy can produce over time and the value and supply of assets that represent the future expenditure flows from our economy, are I believe, in excess of the present value of those flows.  Part of this is due to monetary stimulus designed to drive growth forward in the face of demographic change, increasing income inequality (which weakens the expenditure base of the economy) and important transitions in key emerging economies that have numerous structural relationships.

We are in a bubble and while the economic issue today is one of a deflating frame (i.e. not one with inflationary characteristic usually associated with economic overheating), the differential between the financial frame and the economic has arguably never been so wide.  Perhaps the Federal Reserve should have defined what they believed to be a bubble or rather the moderator should have been a bit cleverer! 

Some may say that excess financial leverage of households has moved back to more sensible levels:  the following chart shows that consumer debt levels have moved back to early 2004 levels but that these levels were associated with much higher longer term real GDp growth rates.  In this context debt has not really fully adjusted.

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And, looking at shorter term real growth trends we see that real GDP growth has peaked at much lower levels relative not just to total debt to the rate of increase in consumer debt.  One would be forgiven for thinking that the last 5 years included a recession in the data, but it has not:

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Why do economists like Paul Krugman completely ignore financial imbalances and their structural accentuators?

In a recent post Paul Krugman challenged the “rationale” for the Minneapolis Fed appointment of Neel Kashkari.

His objection lay with “the view” of the new chair (Kashkari) that growth prior to the breaking of the financial crisis was artificially fast due to the leveraging of the economy.  Krugman’s point was that just “because we had a bubble, in which some people were borrowing too much,” does not mean that the output produced from 2000 to 2007 wasn’t real and therefore the problem we have now is 100% one of insufficient demand as opposed to supply. 

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A brief “thought” on debt defaults, asset prices, MS velocity and consumption expenditure risks.

When a private non bank debt collapses the money supply itself is not impacted.  There is however a collateral impact on future expenditure and the velocity of money supply itself.

Asset values are extremely sensitive to portfolio cash allocations.  A given reduction in preferred cash holdings relative to other assets, all other things equal, raises asset prices by a much greater magnitude and vice versa. 

However not all transactions represent closed loops: a disposal of an asset for future consumption transfers asset focussed money supply to consumption focussed money supply.  With money also being transferred in to the asset portfolio the net impact on asset values of consumption related transactions tends to be much smaller.

A default in non bank debt, or loss of any asset, should therefore have an impact on future MS velocity and expenditure while also possibly increasing the asset focus of money supply (all else being equal).  In the event of default, assets/collateral are no longer available for sale in exchange for money for consumption expenditure purposes (and of course investment expenditure purposes) and the potential velocity of money supply falls, specifically with respect to consumption and possibly also with respect to assets. 

Likewise a fall in asset values, especially the significant declines seen in recent decades, also impacts expenditure and MS consumption focussed velocity. Typically asset price declines have been short lived and given the fact that marginal transfers out of the global asset portfolio for consumption purposes has tended to be small in % terms, the impact of price declines etc on expenditure has also historically been small – this is especially so where asset focussed money supply growth has been expanding, demand for assets have been expanding (+ve population growth and demographic dynamics), where there is increasing income inequality (less MS flows out of the asset portfolio etc), but much less so in the reverse scenario.  

QE on the other hand has tended to focus primarily on supporting the financial system and high quality assets with minimal risk of default.   Whether it impacts expenditure decisions depends on the liability profiles of asset holders in general.  In a world of increasing income and wealth inequality asset price support may have only declining marginal benefits for consumption expenditure even though the resulting increase in asset focussed MS has affected a much wider range of asset prices. 

QE and low interest rate policy may well have supported potential expenditure based relationship loops from assets to consumption via asset price support based solely on asset valuations (not re yields) but may also, via increased risk taking within the higher yield/shadow banking asset spectrum, have increased the consumption sensitivity of assets; higher yielding assets are likely to be more consumption sensitive than lower yielding equity type assets.  

QE and lower IRs may well have increased the exposure of consumption and possibly also investment expenditure to future asset price shocks via two routes:

Increased exposure to leveraged loans, emerging market debt, high yield bonds, collateralised debt/loan investments, “wealth management products” (China) etc, exposes future consumption expenditure to higher default based risks, especially in high debt/low growth environments.  This depends on the extent to which QE has pushed investors out of lower risk higher yielding assets into higher risk/relatively higher yielding assets and the changing composition of the market portfolio especially with respect to those investors exposed to higher future liability demands.

Higher asset prices in low growth environments with increasing debt to GDP ratios also exposes consumption and investment expenditure to greater asset price volatility: we have seen quite extreme fluctuations in asset prices since the late 1990s.  As populations age the sensitivity of expenditure to asset prices increase.

The issue of default and asset price shock is compounded by issues of liquidity, especially with regard to many shadow banking products that investors may confuse as being cash like and therefore exposed to greater liquidity risks in risk events.

It is probable given the higher debt to GDP ratios, slower growth profiles and the many transition risks in the global economy, that global asset price consumption risks are not insignificant.  Another reason to support asset prices, another reason for QE and negative IRs, but not necessarily a solution.

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Some people are confusing bank deposit creation (loan growth) as saving..this misses the point

Some people seem to think bank loans and savings are one and the same thing..in other words if a bank lends someone $10,000, some believe that this instantly becomes savings in someone’s hands.  I do not believe it does.  They seem to think that excess savings is synonymous with too much debt…I find this incredible…

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The Geneva report and my points on the debt/asset value/IR chokehold

Many of the points I made in my choke point blog are also reflected in the latest Geneva report, Deleveraging? What Deleveraging?

One thing I would like to touch on before I highlight excerpts from that text is that high levels of debt and misallocations of capital may well be a feature of many a boom, but what makes the current situation much different is the fact that interest rates lie on a lower bound, almost incapacitated by a higher bound debt level, itself tied to highly valued asset markets.   High debt levels and weak growth dynamics are dangerous, irrespective of whether you are undecided as to whether high debt led to growth or low growth to high levels of debt, although I tend to believe that the reality is that weakening developed economy growth dynamics accompanied the debt build up prior to the onset of the crisis.  Beyond that point in time, high debt levels I would say are clearly impacting growth.

Whereas all significant debt misallocations have an impact on subsequent bank lending and new credit growth (the stock of broad MS is tied to these low or non performing loans), not all such instances have occurred at such low interest rate levels.  I think this is key, critical and as the Geneva report suggests “poisonous” intersect, although the report itself strays from emphasising what I consider to be the greater risk of high debt levels at low IRs..

Another point that I have laboured is the present value of future output growth or national income relative to debt is out of balance and this is the first time I have seen explicit reference to this in any other document I have read.

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Share buybacks..quantitative easing, secular stagnation and the risks of Myopic Share Virus..

The point about share buybacks is that they sit uncomfortably in a widening narrative of increasing inequality, weak income growth (worse at lower income levels), falling economic growth rates and disturbing trends in both human and capital investment. The backdrop to the narrative and one that threatens to envelop it as one are the burgeoning asset and debt markets, whose rise is at odds with the weakening fundamental growth prospects of many developed economies. Asset markets and hence debt are being supported, yet the fundamental underpinning to their longer term valuation, investment and growth in real incomes is being weakened. At some point the two, economic reality and asset market capitalisation will need to meet.

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Between boom and bust – US Economic context + data charts bonanza

The US economy lies somewhere between boom and bust as shown by the following graphical representation of real GDP growth.  Nevertheless, there are aspects of US economic growth that have boom type characteristics/risks; these are found primarily in the significant increases in auto focussed consumer credit and automotive production/capacityimage

Short term data has varied wildly of late; such can often obscure the underlying trend: what if we adjust for inventories and changes in consumer credit?   Well we see less noise for one, but we also see a slower underlying growth profile – yes, credit creation is part and parcel of growing expenditure but I still feel we are in a high debt/deleveraging and weak income growth dynamic that needs to be especially sensitive to growth in credit/debt.

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There is of course another interpretation of falling wages…a decline in the investment in human capital.. a part of secular stagnation

More and more people are talking about declining real and nominal wage growth and more and more people are asking when is wage growth going to pick up. 

It is a very good point.  But I think we need to look at the dynamics of wage growth from another perspective.   This perspective is that of human capital investment: wages are an investment in human capital and you pay more when you want to invest/upgrade/increase productivity etc.  If you expect to grow and you expect to depend on investment in human capital to grow, you will invest more, and one indicator of this investment is wages.

Now, we know that capital investment as a % of GDP has been declining for some time and we also know that corporations have been buying back shares and borrowing money to do so.  But these three (wages, capex, buybacks) all look to me to be pretty synchronised.

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It looks pretty much as if corporations are adjusting to lower long term economic growth either as a consequence of lower wage growth, less investment or some other natural dynamic —productivity/TFP or demographic dynamic.  Of those who discuss the issue of secular stagnation many point to the 1980s as the starting point and the trends noted above would fit into this timeframe….

Is the balance sheet recession over? Financial sector debt…

Financial sector debt (and as noted consumer debt) has fallen significantly since the crisis:

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Yet, if we look at the financial sector assets with respect to non financial sector credit market debt, we start to see an interesting picture:

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