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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China rebalancing, a crisis? Yes, and one of magnitude and complexity.

China did not end up with its current imbalances as part of a natural process and therefore the transition itself is unlikely to be natural. 

China is both the here and now and the future, it has untold potential, a growing debt problem (here, here, here, here, here and more in the links below) and a “government” still “seemingly” capable of pissing great distances into the wind.  But working out China for many is tougher than working out the meaning of life itself.

I have concerns over the ease and the speed with which many believe China can rebalance itself from an export led/debt financed investment growth model to a debt financed services and consumption growth led model.  That is how China can transform itself from a manufacturer of goods to the world and builder of infrastructure, to a perfect model of advanced western capitalism? Odd really given that neither model appears to be stable or perfect in its entirety, both representing forms of economic extremism, excess and various levels of maturity/immaturity. 

The issue is not debt alone, but the rate at which it has recently accumulated, especially post 2008 and the imbalanced nature of the economy upon which it rests.  Just because an economy has potential, just because compared to more mature developed country metrics China has some way to go in absolute terms, does not mean that the current force exerted at the turning point is inconsequential.

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The Centre of Gravity of Risk and its Sensitivity has long since shifted towards the financial.

China is a key piece of the puzzle and much more so than people understand.  Without weighty Chinese domestic demand growth the transition out of untoward monetary policy towards financial and economic stability is jeopardised further.  Monetary policy had stabilised and propelled markets higher, but the time horizon for economic and financial normalisation is highly dependent on the timing of key transitions. 

The world economy is changing, decelerating, maturing and transitioning.  The world’s central banks, from the late 1990s onwards, co-opted the financial system to drive growth forward.  We have suffered a number of shocks as a result, but the strategy of juicing growth has continued. 

Our biggest immediate problem is not that the growth rate of expenditure is decelerating, or that populations are aging, but that the debt (and other contingent liabilities) that has been built up through a low interest rate and asset focussed monetary policy in the developed world and more recently, through infrastructure and other capital investment expenditure in the developing world, has created a mismatch between the supply and pricing of assets (debt and equity) and the economic growth rate on the other hand.

It is not that the fundamentals of underlying economic growth have become more volatile but that the relationship between monetary policy and assets and that growth has widened. 

I have written on this issue many times in my posts: it is not the economy we should fear but the financial system, its volatilities, risks and divergence.  Many still are ignorant of the shift in sensitivities from the economic to the financial: whereas in previous asset market history asset market movements had less impact on the here and now, their impact has become increasingly important.  The centre of gravity has shifted as the weight and importance of assets and debt to growth and the financial system has ballooned.

There are of course other problems that are making things worse: increasing income inequalities and falling productivity growth and of course the global structural imbalances that have arisen as China took centre stage in global manufacturing supply chains.

Slower growth and aging populations are likely inevitable and natural depreciation of the capital stock at the margin, in the absence of a shift upwards in productivity, via a shift of flows towards current consumption and away from investment is natural and self adjusting.  As flows shift away from capital investment we will also likely see lower growth rates in debt and money supply growth and the natural dynamics of decline means that this shift in flows may ultimately result in a decline in endogenous money supply growth, loans and other forms of debt and declining asset values. 

What is happening  is that the financial system is fighting demographic shifts, income inequality dynamics, transitional shifts between developed and developing economies, productivity stagnation in the hope that these dynamics are all transitory.  Apart from the transitional shifts between global economies there is much less certainty with respect to the other factors.  Importantly within discounted present value calculations, the largest component of value is held within the short to medium term horizon. So even if certain dynamics are transitory, the horizons are in conflict.

I see much potential volatility in the near term and much uncertainty with respect to fiscal and central bank accommodation of the divergence itself.   What the slowdown in China is bringing into the open is the divergence, the importance of the time horizon and the risk that normalisation of the growth trajectory is not going to happen, at least within a time frame meaningful to supporting the asset price/GDP dynamic divergence.  This is why markets are currently highly volatile and the major reason why the price adjustment is likely to continue.

See also:

A world in transition, but so many straws in the wind, some thoughts!

Not a “Savings Glut” per se but a monetary excess amidst a period of complex global structural economic change!

A Foray into the Fundamentals of Austerity in Anticipation of the Outcome.

A recent IMF report pointed out some supposed vast amounts of room available for the world’s economies to step up government borrowing to finance consumption, investment and production decisions.   Oddly the report appeared to ignore other forms of debt and material deterioration in key areas of the economic frame.  

When the crisis broke back in 2007 it was clear to me that monetary and fiscal policy would likely need to go for broke to support economic growth and employment at a time of collapsing asset values, debt defaults and a world wide retrenchment in expenditure of all kinds.   As it happened a great deal of that support went into asset prices and financial institutions.

But some years after the crisis, after a slow and drawn out recovery with interest rates locked to the floor, economies still appear to be borderline reliant on debt financed government expenditure.  Any attempt to reduce borrowing, to either raise taxes or cut expenditure to pay back debt would be considered by many to have an adversely negative impact on economic growth, especially at such low growth rates. 

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In the context of interest rate decisions you have to ask yourself just what are we waiting for?

I have seen that the IMF has asked the Fed to defer interest rate increases until we see clear signs of wage increases and inflationary pressure.

The request IMO is both scary and rationale given that so much of today’s National Income Accounting Identity (output=C+I+X-M) relies on factors that lie outside of its operation.  I speak of new bank generated loan growth given that income growth/distribution and investment growth still appear to be weak in the scheme of things..i.e. C+I the drivers. 

The last time the FRB delayed interest rate increases we had a debt financed consumption boom in the US followed by IR increases and a de facto financial collapse.   By raising rates we likely restrict one of the few modes of generating consumption growth in the US (note auto loans) and many other countries.  We also likely raise the impact of existing debt burdens on what are to date still historically low rates of income/wage growth.  

As such you have to ask yourself just what are we waiting for?  Well we need higher income growth, but not just higher income growth: we need a more equitable and fair distribution so that economic growth itself becomes less reliant on debt and low interest rates, and less exposed to the scary divergence of asset values. 

But the world is also changing in ways that question whether we can effectively outwait the inevitable: populations are aging and declining.  Areas where the frame can still expand in consumption terms, areas such as China, may be heading into their own period of slow growth and low IR debt support. 

Importantly will the status quo submit to a reconfiguration of the pie and can the world assume a less debt dependent economic raison d’etre?  

So yes, the rationale to defer interest rate rises is both scary and realistic, but it fails to answer important questions: what are we waiting for, how long can we wait, and are our hopes realistic? 

This is just a quick 3 minute post, but the issues are critical!

Increase the number of variables and human beings lose it..but this should not be optimal..

It is said that people are better able to make a decision when the number of factors and variables are small.  Increase the number of variables and the human brain shuts down.  If you show an investor 100 mutual funds, they will find it next to impossible to make a decision, as opposed to the much simpler outcome if you narrow it to 2 or 3.  In reality, a reference to a 100 fund universe should be an easier decision than a 2 to 3 sample drawn from that universe.  But why?

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