The Vile Prospect of Political Triumph. Consider today’s realities:

(1) Global economies have grown to their current scale thanks to a glorious secular expansion of worldwide credit – credit unreserved with bank assets and deposits; credit extended to brand new capitalists; credit that can never be extinguished without significant debt deflation or hyper monetary inflation.

(2)  Economies no longer form sufficient capital to sustain their scales or to justify broad asset values in real terms.

(3)  Markets cannot price assets fairly in real terms without risking significant declines in collateral values supporting them and their underlying economies.

(4) Politicians that used to anguish (rhetorically) over the right mix of potential fiscal policies, ostensibly to get things back on track (as if somehow finding the right path would have actually been legislated into existence) have come to realize the limits of their power to have a meaningful impact. Monetary authorities have become the only game in town, assassinating all economic logic so they may juggle public expectations in the hope – so far successfully executed – that neither man nor nature will be the wiser.

Authored by Paul Brodsky of Macro-Allocation.com: The good news for policy makers is that man remains collectively unaware and vacuous; the bad news is that nature abhors a vacuum. The massive scale of economies relative to necessary production (not to mention already embedded systemic leverage) suggests this time is truly different.

The net result of these realities is that assets are generally rich over the long term in both stock and flow terms. They are rich in stock terms because there is not enough money and transferable credit to settle accounts at current prices were all assets to be sold. (Although assets would never be sold en masse at once, the dearth of money and transferable credit relative to asset values implies lower future real valuations in societies with aging populations.)

Stocks, bonds and real estate are rich in flow terms because current revenues and earnings have been pulled forward from the far future and are insufficient to provide investors with positive returns when adjusted for debt service and/or necessary currency devaluation.

Unlike the credit crisis in 2008, the provenance of today’s spreading economic miasma is not grass roots greed and lather. Institutional idiocy (or corruption) in the form of poor policy responses to the crisis is to blame. Extraordinarily easy monetary policies, that continue today, have reduced economic sustainability and worsened future economic prospects. Like Catholicism without hell, capitalism without failure can’t work.

It has been a triumph of politics over economics, and still they persist. Taking the old cigarette ad as a guideline, monetary policy makers “would rather fight than switch” to a more laissez faire posture that would let price levels of goods, services and assets find natural clearing prices.

A Tenuous Thread

So into the breach we go with negative interest rates. Quickly slowing global output growth and trade, fully-priced equity markets and naturally occurring non-sovereign debt deflation are pushing sovereign debt yields ever lower. Investors are meeting asset allocation requirements and valuing return-of-capital over return-on-capital (at least in nominal terms)

Meanwhile, gold strength is discounting the eventual policy response to global debt deflation – central bank administered de-leveraging through monetary inflation. (Increasing the total money stock effectively de-leverages balance sheets by decreasing the burden of debt repayment, rather than decreasing the stock of debt, which also reduces nominal output.) To be sure, negative sovereign market yields across the world and gold strength reflect rational economics.

Central bank policy rates are following market yields through zero percent, not the other way around. Central bankers seem desperate to appear as though the global economy remains in a cyclical growth phase, and that negative market yields are a product of their contrivance, borne from their wisdom and unique cleverness that such a scheme will be economically stimulative. Their institutional stiff upper lips are politically expedient yet alarmingly negligent. It would be better to step aside, let valuations fall where they may, and then, if they must, help pick up the pieces.

A soothing narrative that ignores real asset values and unsustainably high real economic growth rates is being held together by beta investors structured during the economic scaling phase to allocate capital as though it would persist forever, and by policy makers willing to assume formerly model-able Keynesian economics.

Banks

Commercial banks are generally unconcerned with inflation-adjusted returns – theirs or their constituents. Their revenues and earnings can only be increased over time by increasing the nominal scale of their loan books.

Borrowing short-term and lending long-term requires only a positively sloped yield curve. Absolute rate levels do not matter. It makes little difference to commercial banks whether they borrow at 3% and lend at 5% or borrow at negative 3% and lend at negative 1%. This implies that commercial banks can survive in a negative interest rate environment.

Commercial bank funding rates are ultimately determined by deposit rates and/or central bank lending rates. Diminished returns elsewhere – like the capital markets – allow commercial banks to borrow from depositors or their central banks at reduced, even negative costs.

Investment banks are not really banks. Rather than using a spread model like depository institutions, they survive and prosper mostly on a transaction model, which requires healthy and active capital markets. Those that operate alongside commercial banks (e.g., JP Morgan Securities), tend to have trouble when investors withdraw from capital market participation.

Both investment and commercial banks suffer from declining capital market participation – investment banks due to declining transactional and asset management fees; commercial banks due to declining market liquidity, which leads to declining nominal values of their loan books.

The primary responsibility of central banks is the health and viability of their commercial banking systems. The secondary responsibility is the health of the economies their constituent banks serve. Importantly, central banks do not directly oversee the viability of non-bank creditors. This is a critical policy identity to understand in times of significant market dislocation and decreasing market liquidity.

Shadow Banking

We know a bit about shadow banking, having spent 1986 through 1996 as a mortgage-backed securities trader and 1996 through 2006 as an MBS hedge fund manager. Shadow banking ultimately reduces to non-bank investors that extend credit. It includes a broad swath of investors, including large and small bond buyers, and even private lenders like your uncle Henry.
There is a fundamental difference between bank loans and shadow bank loans. Banks make loans without having 100% of the capital they lend. Alternatively, shadow bank loans are fully-funded. JP Morgan creates a loan (at once an asset and a liability) from thin air while BlackRock or Uncle Henry must have $1,000 to lend $1,000.

When we overlay this fundamental identity with the primary responsibility of central banks (to maintain a healthy and viable commercial banking system), we cannot help but conclude that bonds and other loans made outside the banking system are not ultimately protected by central banks’ ability to create bank reserves.

This suggests extraordinary power lies in the subjective policies of central banks. In a contracting economy in which debt service is stressed, to what degree might monetary authorities decide to let shadow bank loans suffer? Is it possible central banks and other economic policy makers would pick favorites within the non-bank credit markets? Might central banks prefer to protect debt in the public credit markets that is also held as assets by its constituent banks? Was the 2009 experience, in which non-bank lenders and borrowers like General Motors and AIG were bailed out, be repeated? How political might this process be?

Rational Policy Applications

There is a lot to consider when it comes to negative interest rates and central bank monetary and credit policies. Negative interest rates means creditors pay to lend to governments, which further means that central banks, acting as monetary agents for sovereign governments, can turn government expenses into revenues. And they can do this while not necessarily impacting the viability of their primary constituent banks.

If we assume that high and rising global leverage (as measured by debt-to-GDP or debt-to-base money) will eventually crowd-out global consumption and demand growth, then we can also assume that the purveyors of money and credit will be able to selectively apply austerity within their economies.

Today, for example, sovereign debt and bank balance sheets in Japan and Europe are benefitting greatly from their central banks’ negative interest rate policies. The German government can sell five-year debt and receive forty basis points while Deutsche Bank can buy back its debt at levels that improve its sick balance sheet. Meanwhile European savers must find a place to store their wealth where it is not effectively taxed by negative yields.

We continue to argue the Fed will hike Fed Funds more this year in an effort to strengthen the Dollar and attract global capital to American banks and capital markets. The US Treasury curve would continue to flatten in response, pushing mortgages rates lower – an effective easing. Such a scenario would help fund the Treasury at lower yields and increase US bank deposits, which would be able to offer global depositors higher rates (even at 0%) than European and Japanese banks.

As Saudi Arabia is making a play for global market share in crude through its superior position as the low cost producer, so will the US make a play for global capital (and foreign assets) through its dominant reserve currency, asset markets and control over shipping lanes. This would be a perfectly rational response to current economic and market conditions.

Rational Investment Posture

Negative sovereign yields and policy rates (NIRP) might be ringing the proverbial bell. After seven years of major exogenous monetary stimulus concluding in negative rates around the world, investors today would be irrational to expect an economic expansion in the coming years or even a mild recession followed by a garden variety expansion, in our view.





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