Gone fishing – Jackson hole in 2039

Trout, an important fish in the history of central banking

Two years ago I wrote an oped for the Financial Times (https://www.ft.com/content/9089eaf8-83fe-11e7-a4ce-15b2513cb3ff ) the byline of which ran ‘Jackson Hole offers a chance for central banks to hand over baton – It is time for central banks to let governments take on more of the burden of economic policy’. That I could reprint the same article today says much less about my foresight and much more about the stopped clock of international economics and finance.

Central banks should long ago have stepped back from generously providing stimulus to economies and markets, particularly as the economic impact of quantitative easing (QE) is diminishing, if not negative in terms of the effect of negative interest rates in banking systems.

Moreover, clever fiscal policy should be been deployed some time ago, especially in Europe where growth is stubbornly low. More broadly, the reality is that many governments do not have the fiscal capacity to stimulate their economies and more importantly to cushion the effects of a coming recession. President Trump’s economy is a case is point, with a historically high budget deficit (5%) and near record level of debt (to GDP).

Many of these issues will have been discussed at the Kansas Federal Reserve ‘offsite’ at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The event has become one of the more important platforms for central bankers, due in little part to its proximity to decent fishing. Legend has it that up to the early 1980’s the Kansas Fed struggled to attract participants to its annual conference but came up with the idea of hosting it in Jackson Hole, because the prospect of excellent trout fishing might lure then Fed Chairman Paul Volcker (a keen fisherman) to the conference. The strategy worked and Jackson Hole gathering is now internationally famous and attracts many professional central bankers, whose pronouncements are closely followed by markets. Never before has trout played such an important role in central banking.

The title of this year’s symposium was ‘Challenges for Monetary Policy’. Whether on purpose or not, this title echoes with the Jackson Hole symposium of twenty years earlier. In 1999, the likes of Mervyn King, Alan Greenspan and late economists and central bankers like Wim Duisenberg, Rudiger Dornbusch and Martin Feldstein gathered to discuss ‘New Challenges for Central Banking’.

Their debates, which occurred in the wake of the Emerging Market and LTCM crises, just tell us much about the persistence of financial market phenomena such as asset price bubbles and the ways in which the central banking community has a tendency to fight ‘yesterday’s monetary wars’ rather than those of the future. A couple of things struck me.

One was the focus on price stability – in particular comments from Wim Duisenberg, then the first head of the European Central Bank, whose comments reflected the orthodoxy of central banks like the Bundesbank that price stability was the holy grail of central banking, something that itself had roots in prior decades of inflation.

Inflation, in consumer prices at least, is now well and truly dead, killed off not so much by central bankers but by the residual effects of the global and eurozone financial crises on household balance sheets. In this light and with the euro-zone in mind, it is interesting that (apart from Feldstein) there was very little mention in 1999 of the frailties of the euro-zone system.

The second interesting factor in the 1999 meeting was a discussion on asset prices and monetary policy. There was a firm consensus then that central banks should not tackle asset price bubbles head on. The rest as the say is history – the 2001 dot.com bubble and then the housing and derivative bubbles of 2007 that led to the financial crisis. Today, there is not enough discussion amongst central bankers about the effect of monetary policy on wealth inequality or on the bubble in fixed income markets. If and when the trillions of bonds in and around negative yield territory sell-off, this will produce a crisis in central banking.

Indeed, if we move forward twenty years and think of what the 2039 Jackson Hole symposium will discuss, I can hazard at least three topics. The first will be an evaluation of central banking credibility following the ‘Great QE Bubble of 2021’. The second might be ‘Does Facial Recognition Improve the Efficiency of Central Bank Digital Currencies’ and a third might be ‘The Effects on the Emirate Economies of Euro-zone Membership’. Much to think about for the future.

Have a great week ahead,


Death of the bond market

Now time for the death of bonds?

This week a very wise friend alerted me to the fact that exactly forty years ago, BusinessWeek magazine decorated their frontpage with the proclamation of  ‘The Death of Equities’. As with many bold magazine covers, they got it horribly wrong. At the time the S&P 500 index stood at 107, and it has recently touched over 3,000.  

Part of the reason that equities have done well is that inflation has been brought under control (largely by Paul Volker and to a degree by Alan Greenspan) and as a result interest rates have fallen structurally. Indeed, if one were to craft a magazine cover today, it might carry the title ‘Death of the Bond Market’ such has been the rally in bonds (half of bonds internationally have a yield below 2% and 20% are in negative yield territory. Perhaps the ‘Death of the Central Bank’ might be an even more provocative headline.

The historically odd phenomenon of negative yields signals lower trend economic growth, the end of globalization, the fracturing of the world order and the failure of policy makers to address these issues. The bottomless ‘central banking toolbox’ has as they say become the only game in town, but it increasingly produces market distortions rather than economic solutions.

With many other writers scribbling away on negative rates, the development that struck me last week came in the tiny sliver of the bond market where yields trade above 10%, and specifically with Argentina, which a year before the BusinessWeek headline, won the World Cup. Argentina has been a constant source of volatility in markets – it has defaulted on its debt eight times since its independence, seen many restructurings and economic crises.

Last week, a primary election vote suggested that Mauricio Macri is unlikely to gain re-election and this prompted an over 30% collapse in the peso (to 55 to the dollar compared to 18 when Macri came to power), and a similar downshift in its stock (Argentina was admitted to the MSCI Emerging Market index in May) and bond markets. With broader bond markets now beginning to price in a recession, there are several lessons from Argentina.

The first relates to country strength – which I define as the ability of a country to withstand economic and financial shocks. The robustness of its economy and the quality of its institutions are two of the factors that make up country strength. That markets can move so dramatically on the likelihood that Macri may not win a second term, shows that Argentina is low on ‘country strength’.

Conversely, as David Skilling of Landfall Strategy shows in his excellent, annual ‘State of Small Advanced Economies’ Report, the likes of Singapore, Norway and Switzerland rank amongst the highest in the world on factors like productivity and human development that help to generate ‘country strength’ or ‘resilience’ (https://twitter.com/dskilling/status/1162232440468824069). As the trade war deepens, this factor or quality will become increasingly prized by markets.

In emerging markets, this will be doubly the case, not least as globalization gives way to a multipolar world. Here, the example of  Argentina in the 1920/30’s is worth studying. At the time, the world was coming to the end of the first wave of globalization, and Argentina was an economic and financial powerhouse. However its economy was heavily dependent on agriculture and as a result was not resilient enough to deal with the collapse of globalization. The rest as they say, is history.

Argentina and the predicament of Mr Macri also hold lessons for international policy makers. Should Macri be replaced with the Alberto Fernandez government that markets fear, this will further damage the reputation of the IMF, and its austerity first policy recipe-book. Macri had pursued financial reforms but the effect of austerity has been politically costly. Much the same is true across the euro-zone. In future, if there are to remain relevant, bodies like the IMF will need to work around the political consequences of reform programs, and the time inconsistency implications of them for politicians.

Reform minded governments usually do not last to see the fruits of their labour, and as such reform programs may well need to be tilted away from fiscal consolidation and more towards supply side and institutional measures that will improve a country’s ‘strength’, and that will give serious political reformers a chance of staying in power to enact their policies. To this end, it may make more sense for bodies like the OECD to be more involved in economic rescues than the IMF.

For the time being, Argentina’s debt is an outlier in that it is perhaps one of the few fixed income assets that correctly reflects a country’s fundamentals, rather than the mirage of ‘QE’ (quantitative easing) driven pricing. In this way it is ‘normal’ and the rest of the bond world is increasingly absurd.

Have a great week ahead,


Is Trump Hoover?

Herbert Hoover in better times

Over a week ago I penned an article for Dow Jones/Marketwatch where I predicted (note that I only use this verb after the event) that the recent rate cut by the Federal Reserve would mark the top for equities. The subsequent volatility, and of course last week’s missive on the yuan, prove me to be a financial market genius.

More seriously, recent volatility is a reminder of the fragility of investor behavior and of the risks lurking in the global economy. On a longer scale, as we approach September, they are a reminder that while the global financial crisis of 2008 did not quite end in an economic depression, neither has it produced a true economic renaissance. Many of the factors that caused the crisis in the first place—indebtedness, corporate risk taking and poor governance—have simply been in abeyance, hibernating, and are now again emerging into the daylight.

One consequence of these persistence economic fault lines is that we are in a political depression. In this light, some respected commentators—notably, Madeleine Albright in her book Fascism: A Warning—draw parallels between political figures today and those of the 1920s and ’30s. Recent events in the US, and comments by the President reinforce the parallel.

In ‘The Levelling’ my intention is to avoid the gloomier comparisons with the 1920’s/30’s, but the deepening trade dispute between the US and China makes them inevitable. One reason that President Trump has been eager to push the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates is that he ‘doesn’t want to be the next Hoover’.

Other commentators have already been making this comparison with Herbert Hoover (President from 1929 to 1933). Paul Krugman recently wrote that the level of tariffs applied by the Trump administration is now close to that of the Great Depression.

Hoover was different to Trump in that he distinguished himself in various ways, notably in his humanitarian work in Belgium with the US Food and Drug Administration, and in Central Europe in the aftermath of the First World War.

In other ways, he has several things in common with President Trump: German/British parentage, a business background, and a mastery of new communications channels, in Hoover’s case the use of radio (rather than Twitter) to reach voters and the introduction of the press conference as a regular political event.

Furthermore, the trade dispute between the United States and China has excited commentators who fear that Trump may repeat the mistakes of the Hoover government. Even the Wall Street Journal editorial team warned last year that the Trump trade team is like Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Willis Hawley, promotors of the disastrous 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. The same newspaper now talks of a ‘Navarro Recession’, in honour of Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro.

 The Act aided and abetted the onset of the Great Depression with the introduction of tariffs of up to 60 percent on twenty thousand types of goods imported into the United States. The net effect of the Act was to squash any hope of an economic recovery in the aftermath of the Great Depression and to cut world trade by 33 percent.

In addition, readers might tremble to know that Hoover took office with US equity valuations at very high levels. Robert Shiller’s excellent database highlights that the US market’s price to earnings ratio was at 32 in January 1929 (the highest it reached was 44 in December 1999) and that it reads 29.5 today, which is 75 percent higher than the historical average of 16 and thus puts the market in expensive territory from a valuation standpoint. Eight months into Hoover’s term the Wall Street Crash occurred, and the United States lurched first into recession and then into the Great Depression.

Whenever the market wobbles as it did last week, some investors revisit the ‘Great Depression’ hypothesis, and many others point to a coming recession. For my part I am sticking to my cautious line for a number of reasons.

First the trade war is a reminder of the many policy risks in the world (widespread negative yields are another pointer), and of the fact that as growth slows, countries will squabble more over the crumbling pie of globalization.

Second, moves in other asset classes than equities – government bonds, even corporate and high yield bonds and particularly commodities are bearish

Third, the world is becoming more fractured. South Korea and Japan are locked in a trade dispute, and there is a growing risk of some form of confrontation between India and Pakistan. Do not of course forget events in Hong Kong, and the untethering of the yuan.

With lots to watch, have a great week ahead,


All consequences are at your risk

Lasers battle cameras in Hong Kong

The Chinese military garrison in Hong Kong released a video under the banner ‘All consequences are at your risk’. This an excellent dictum, though only when applied to the behavior of investors, banks and central banks in financial markets. Readers of The Levelling will know that I think the consequences of risk taking across markets are badly distorted, and risk taking and risk baring are mis-aligned.

The dictum might also be applied to President Trump’s twitter account, whose latest salvo has been to up the ante in the trade war between China and the USA after a very lukewarm meeting between US and Chinese officials in Beijing. China, which has been relatively restrained during the trade war will now respond, potentially with a boycott of certain US goods. US tech and capital goods companies look vulnerable.

Then, I should say emphatically that the ‘consequences/risk’ dictum should not apply to largely peaceful crowds in Hong Kong who protest in favour of democracy and an open society of sorts. China, for its part in the domains of economics and technology, has shown an ability to learn from both history and other countries. It should also do so with regard to the situation in Hong Kong and resist the urge to adopt a heavy handed approach.

While the backdrop of the trade dispute helps to paint events in Hong Kong as a context between China and the West, this is not the case, my sense is that the protesters are more standing up for their preferred ‘system’ than against China. A more violent response will change all this.

One of many reasons I drawn to the case of the Hong Kong protesters is the parallels with Levellers. The Levellers were generally constructive in their approach and experts at pamphleteering (the social media of the day). Similarly, the Hong Kong protesters have a (rather short-term) list of demands and are also particularly resourceful, deploying lasers against facial recognition cameras.  The second reason is that the Levellers failed in their project, as many other idealistic, reform minded movements have. Recall the brutal way the Arab Spring was suppressed. The Hong Kong movement need to study the history of other groups, and guard against being outmaneuvered.

One trigger that may upset the balance of power is the scope for damage to the Hong Kong economy, property market and financial sector, and any contagion they may hold for international markets.

A transformation of the protests into a deeper conflict would have grave humanitarian and political implications, and I am simply reflecting my own expertise in focusing on the economic consequences here.

First, the Hong Kong stock market is the fifth largest in the world, heavily dependent on financial and property stocks, and a crucial gateway for Chinese companies that want to access liquid markets and international investors. A sell-off would be contagious via an unwind of investor positioning, the unwind of investment products and heightened credit risk across Asia.

Secondly, the Hong Kong property market, one of the pillars of the local economy, is one of the most precarious in the world in terms of valuation. A house price to income ratio of 18 times is eye watering in a market where the purchase of property is funded by relatively large cash deposits. Also, the property market is heavily financialized in terms of the number of funds and investment products that are tied to it.

The third risk is the Hong Kong dollar peg. In recent months the Hong Kong Monetary Authority has been spending more of its large reserves in supporting the peg. A stronger dollar, combined with lower local interest rates in Hong Kong has put upward pressure on the peg.

Well-established currency pegs are very hard to break, but any signs that the HK peg is pushing its lower limits in the context of a weaker local economy will at least fuel speculation about the peg. This in turn can lead to negative feedback on the local economy and property market, and by extension may also see investors worry more about the yuan. When the yuan weakens, international markets go ‘risk-off’.

There is now an unfortunate ‘perfect storm’ of factors gathering – stronger dollar, deeper trade dispute, acute tension on the streets of Hong Kong. For the sake of people in Hong Kong I hope it doesn’t worsen, though if it does expect contagion to spread quickly to financial markets.

Have a great week ahead,