Two Essays on the Continuing Financial Crisis

By: John Mauldin | Mon, Apr 28, 2008
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This week in Outside the Box we look at two brief essays which give us different perspective on the Continuing Crisis. The first is by Mohamed El-Erian, the co-chief executive and co-chief investment officer of Pimco. His book, 'When Markets Collide: Investment Strategies for the Age of Global Economic Change', will be published by McGraw Hill in June, and it will be on my summer reading list. El-Erian argues in the thought-provoking piece from the Financial Times that the crisis is still far from finished, and that those who think we are returning to more placid times may be surprised when volatility suddenly becomes even more pervasive.

The second is by good friend and Maine fishing buddy David Kotok, the chief investment officer of Cumberland Asset Managers ( He was recently in Africa where he met with the head of the central bank of a small country with headline inflation of 10%. The problem is that "core inflation" is 5% and food inflation is 15%, yet accounts for 50% of the GDP. He asked a group of financial thinkers (including your humble analyst) to ponder what that central banker should do. Do you set high rates and target overall inflation or set lower rates and not worry about food inflation.

Why should we worry about inflation in a small African country? Because the principles are the same, and it makes a real difference where the Fed comes down at the end of the day on this very question.

This week's reading should be very helpful and thought-provoking. I hope you enjoy this read as much as I did.

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box


Why This Crisis is Still Far From Finished
By Mohamed El-Erian

During the past few weeks we have seen a growing number of market participants predict an end to the dislocations that erupted last summer and claimed victims throughout the financial system and beyond. While their predictions are understandable, they are premature. The dynamics driving the disruptions are morphing and may again move ahead of both the market and policy responses.

The optimistic view is based on two distinct elements. First, that the deleveraging process is reaching its natural end as valuations stabilize and institutions come clean about their losses and raise capital; second, that a series of previously unthinkable policy responses have been effective in restoring liquidity to the financial system.

Both views have merit. Financial institutions, particularly in the US, have recognized the scale of the problem and are taking remedial steps. Just witness the recent round of capital raising by Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, JPMorgan and Wachovia. At the same time central banks in Europe and the US have opened up their financing windows, expanding the size of the financing, the range of institutions that can access it and the list of eligible collateral.

Yet, consistent with what we have seen since last summer, the dislocations are entering a new phase. As such, bold reactions on the part of policymakers may, once again, prove to be too little and too late.

Persistent financial dislocations have now caused the real economy to become, in itself, a source of potential disruption. During the next few months there will be a reversal in the direction of causality: the unusual adverse contamination by the financial sector of the real economy is now morphing into the more common phenomenon of recessionary forces threatening to undermine the financial system.

Economic data in the US have taken a notable turn for the worse. Most importantly, the already weakening employment outlook is being further undermined by a widely diffused build-up in inventory and falling profitability. History suggests that the latter two factors lead to significant employment losses.

Pity the US consumers. Their ability to sustain spending is already challenged by the declining availability of credit, a negative wealth effect triggered by declining house values, and a lower standard of living as the result of higher energy and food prices and a depreciating dollar. Job losses will accentuate the pressures on consumers, leading to income declines and a further loss of confidence.

While the financial system has taken steps to enhance balance sheets, they speak essentially to addressing the consequences of excessive leveraging and imprudent financial alchemy. As such, the nasty turn in the real economy may fuel another wave of disruptions that, this time around, would also have an impact on mid-size and smaller banks.

It is thus too early to declare the end of the turmoil that started last summer. Instead, during the next few months we may witness a new phase of dislocations, led this time by the real economy. The blame game will intensify; political pressure will continue to mount; momentum will build for greater and broader regulation of financial activities within the banking system and beyond.

The focus will also be on the reaction of policymakers. Here the outlook is mixed. The good news is that the crisis is now moving to an area where traditional policy tools are more effective. This is in sharp contrast to the situation of the past few months, where central banks were forced to use instruments that were too blunt for the purpose at hand.

But there is also bad news. The sharp slowdown in the US real economy will occur in the context of continued global inflationary pressures. As such, the Federal Reserve's dual objectives - maintaining price stability and solid economic growth - will become increasingly inconsistent and difficult to reconcile. Indeed, if the Fed is again forced to carry the bulk of the burden of the US policy response, it will find itself in the unpleasant and undesirable situation of potentially undermining its inflation-fighting credibility in order to prevent an already bad situation from becoming even worse.

It is still too early for investors and policymakers to unfasten their seatbelts. Instead, they should prepare for renewed volatility.

And our next essay:

Food Price Inflation, Monetary Policy & Financial Markets
By David Kotok

Suddenly food price inflation has become the premier hot topic. The media is now attuned to food issues including emerging market country riots.

In the US, the politicians are gearing up to castigate the speculators and blame everyone but themselves. They conveniently forget that they are the ones who passed the ethanol subsidy and they are the ones who appropriate taxpayer money to pay farmers not to grow crops. And so the political circus begins.

Notice how the three presidential candidates are silent on how the US ethanol subsidy has caused a food price explosion in grains. They avoid the issue of US policy starving many in the world. 1 billion very poor people sustain themselves on $1 or less a day. We have doubled the cost of their food.

Ethanol directly impacted corn which, in turn, also drove up maize. In addition, the substitution of wheat and rice are not easily occurring because of crop issues and concomitant price inflation in those items.

Well Cumberland is in the financial market and money management business. We eat food. We don't grow it and we don't process it. So let's try to inject some serious monetary policy issues into this media hysteria and political cacophony.

In the mature countries, food is a minor portion of the price index. And some of the food costs originate from eating out and some come from food processing. Processed food cost is heavily dependent on the inputs which are non-food items. Labor, machinery, transportation and distribution all come in to play. So in the mature countries we see that the food price inflation may be topical and attention getting but it is not a crisis.

Also, the major mature countries are mostly in food surplus. In the US we are very efficient in running our agriculture enterprise. We actually pay farmers not to till their soil. This is dumb. It occurs only because of our sorrowful Congress who has learned how to bribe the farm belt for votes at the expense of the rest of us.

In the US food has a 14% weight in the consumer price index. Compare that with Canada at 17%, the Euro zone at 16%, England at 11% and Japan at 25%. Only Japan lacks the fullness of food self sufficiency. Sure, food price inflation is important. But it is not the most important issue in these major economies.

The reverse is true for the emerging markets. In some of them the food price component is as much as half the price index. In a few it is above half. Since many of these economies are open to some degree, the importation of food price inflation is hitting them particularly hard. Some are responding with tariff adjustments. Others have actually embargoed food exports. Of course they ultimately make matters worse when they restrict world trade and in the end all suffer because of this protectionism.

What about monetary policy?

Here is where it gets difficult. We will admittedly simplify now and we acknowledge to our critics that we know there are second order effects and are ignoring them to make our point. In our view, monetary policy cannot easily and directly address food price inflation when the source of the inflation is in the raw food commodity. This is also true for energy costs when the source is in the oil or natural gas. The whole concept of "core" inflation vs. total inflation originates in this notion that monetary policy should be directed at the price level changes it can affect.

Let's get to the inflation problem in an emerging economy. Our example is imaginary for simplicity's sake. But it reflects characteristics that are very similar to many countries and regions in the emerging markets of the world.

We developed this simple and theoretical case study and then sent it to a number of economist friends. We suggested that following facts: the economy in question is a small and open emerging market. The food price component is 50% of the price index and is inflating at 15%. The non-food component is inflating at 5%. Thus the overall index is inflating at 10%. In this small and open economy, the main items in the food component are based on maize; therefore, the US ethanol policy which has raised the corn priced has also pressured an increase in the maize price.

Suppose you are the governor of the central bank. You have to set your policy interest rate. Do you base that decision on overall inflation rate of 10% or on the core inflation rate of 5%? Or are you going to confront the food inflation rate of 15%. Let's further assume that your economy is growing at a trend rate of 5% and all other aspects are in trend or neutral position. You have no negative output gap and no above trend pressures. Your only direct problem is what to do about inflation.

My economist friends who answered offered a suggested policy rate as low as 6% and as high as 13.5%. The answers were about equally divided and the respondents sample size is over 20. The distribution of answers was distinctly bi-modal. About half the answers were bunched in the lower range of 6%-8%; the other half were in the double digit area between 11% and 13.5%.

The divided views centered on whether or not to target food, ignore food, or blend policy. No one wanted to set the interest rate above the 15% food price inflation. Nearly all acknowledged that this central bank would have difficulty in communicating whatever it decided. Most respondents worried about changes in inflation expectations because of the complexity of this issue. Most believed the citizens in the country would not understand the monetary policy dynamics that led to the decision.

Some worried that setting the policy interest rate in double digits would impose a very high financing cost on the non-food portion of the economy and cause it to go into recession. They argued that the real (inflation-adjusted) rate of interest for that non-food half of the economy would be 7% or so. That would set the threshold of finance too high.

Others argued that the monetary policy expectation effect would cause the rate of inflation to accelerate if the policy rate was not set in double digits. They were willing to take the recession in the non-food area in order to keep inflation expectations under control. No one mentioned substitution effects. Perhaps that was overlooked. Or it may be because rice and wheat are not easy cultural substitutes and those grains are each experiencing their own price pressures.

In sum, almost two dozen folks with some monetary economics expertise were equally divided on this technical question. It is a question that impacts billions of citizens in this world and many countries, their governments, their currencies and, possibly, their political stability.

We do not know the correct answer. Our view would support the lower interest rate and we would focus on the non-food portion of the economy but we can argue the other side with equal vigor. For us a lot would depend on how the food price inflation spreads into wages and if it could trigger a broader wage/price spiral.

In many respects this question is now being asked of the major and mature economy central banks as well. It appears that the European Central Bank (ECB) favors the higher mode while the US Federal Reserve is positioned in the lower one. For the emerging markets it appears that there is quite a mix of policy and that it is made more complicated by the management of each currency's foreign exchange rate. In sum, our simple case study is actually quite complex when applied in the real world.

David R. Kotok, Chairman and Chief Investment Officer

I trust you enjoyed this week's Outside the Box. And for the record, I thought rates in our hypothetical African country should be at the lower end. Targeting food inflation with high interest rates would hammer the productive, job creating portion of the economy. I have been to 15 countries in Africa and they are in desperate need of jobs. Better to target inflation through control of the money supply and encourage capital formation and foreign direct investment. But it is a tough question.

Your glad I don't have to be a African central banker analyst,



John Mauldin

Author: John Mauldin

John Mauldin

John Mauldin

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