An Unprecedented Speculative Spree

By: Kurt Richebächer | Fri, Mar 23, 2007
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A study recently published by the Bank for International Settlements (Monetary and Prudential Policies at a Crossroad?) says:

"Financial liberalization is undoubtedly critical for the better allocation of resources and long-term growth. The serious costs of financial repression around the world have been well documented. But financial liberalization has also greatly facilitated the access to credit... more than just metaphorically. We have shifted from a cash flow-constrained to an asset-backed economy."

Though we basically agree with the analysis and the conclusions of the study, we radically disagree with the one sentence that "Financial liberalization is undoubtedly critical for the better allocation of resources and long-term growth." The indispensable first condition for proper resource allocation at a national as well as global scale is avoidance of excessive money and credit creation. In many countries, and in particular in the United States, they are excessive as never before.

If Mr. Bernanke complains about irregularities of M2, this is nothing in comparison with the fact that credit and debt growth in the United States has exploded for more than two decades. When Mr. Greenspan took over at the helm of the Fed in 1987, outstanding debt in the United States totaled $10.5 billion. In less than 20 years, this sum has quadrupled to $41.9 billion. In reality, this significantly understates the rise in debts because, for example, highly leveraged hedge funds with trillions of outstanding debts are not captured. In 1987, indebtedness was equivalent to 223% of GDP, which was already pretty high. Lately, it is up to 317% of GDP.

In actual fact, there used to be a very stable relationship between money or credit growth and GDP or income growth until the early 1980s. Growth of aggregate outstanding indebtedness of all nonfinancial borrowers - private households, businesses and government - had narrowly hovered around $1.40 for each $1 of the economy's gross national product. Debt growth of the financial sector was minimal.

The breakdown of this relationship started in the early 1980s. Financial liberalization and innovation certainly played a role. But the most important change definitely occurred in the link between money and credit growth to asset markets. Money and credit began to pour into asset markets, boosting their prices, while the traditional inflation rates of goods and services declined. The worst case of this kind at the time was, of course, Japan.

Do not be fooled by the sharp decline in consumer borrowing into the belief that money and credit has been tightened in the United States. Instead, borrowing for leveraged securities purchases (in particular, carry trade and merger and acquisition financings) has been outright rocketing, with security brokers and dealers playing a key role. Over the three quarters of 2006, their net acquisitions of financial assets have been running at an annual rate of more than $600 billion, more than double their expansion in the past.

Federal funds and repurchase agreements expanded in the third quarter at an annual rate of $606.3 billion, or an annual 26%. The main borrowers were brokers and dealers. During the first three quarters of the year, their assets increased $427 billion, or 27% annualized, to $2.57 billion. A large part of the money came from the highly liquid corporations. There is no reason to wonder about low and falling long-term interest rates.

All this confirms that financial conditions remain extraordinarily loose. Even that is a gross understatement. Credit for financial speculation is available at liberty. Expectations for weaker economic activity only foster greater financial sector leverage. Why such unusually aggressive speculative expansion in the face of a slowing economy?

The apparent explanation is that the financial sector intends to make the greatest possible profit from the coming decline of interest rates, promising further rises in asset prices against falling interest rates. While the real economy slows, the leveraged speculation by the financial fraternity goes into overdrive. Principally, there is nothing new about such speculation. New, however, is its exorbitant scale.

Before leading his jumbo-sized delegation to Beijing, Henry Paulson, U.S. Treasury secretary, cautioned against expecting any big breakthroughs from the visit. And so it has turned out. The meeting produced plenty of statements about the desirability of improving relations, but nothing concrete to do so.

Of course, the Chinese are in a very strong position with the central bank holding more than $1 trillion of bonds in its portfolio, mostly denominated in dollars. According to reports, the American visit was initiated by Mr. Paulson in an effort to contain rising Sinophobia in the U.S. Congress, which increasingly blames China for America's economic problems, from its huge current account deficit to stagnating real incomes. In other words, those troublemakers, not the trade deficit, are the problem.

One cannot say that U.S. policymakers and economists have been preoccupied with worries about possible harmful effects of the exploding trade deficit. They appear obsessed with the conventional wisdom that free trade is good and must always be good under any and all circumstances, as postulated in the early 19th century by David Ricardo.

Ricardo exemplified this by comparing trade in wine and cloth between Portugal and England. Portugal was cheaper in both products, but its comparative advantage was greater in wine. As a result, according to Ricardo, Portugal boosted its production and exports of wine. In contrast, England gave up its wine production and could produce more sophisticated goods. In both countries, living standards rose.

For sure, it appears highly plausible that American policymakers feel they are following Ricardo's logic. Only they are disregarding some caveats of Ricardo's. For equal benefit, first of all, balanced foreign trade is required. "Exports pay for imports" was a dogma of classical economic theory. Ricardo, furthermore, disapproved of foreign investment, with the argument that it slows down the home economy.

With an annual current account deficit of more than $800 billion, the U.S. economy is definitely a big loser in foreign trade. To offset this loss of domestic spending and income, alternative additional demand creation is needed. Essentially, all job losses are in high-wage manufacturing, and most gains are in low-wage services. In essence, the U.S. economy is restructuring downward, while the Chinese economy is restructuring upward.

Considering that Chinese wages are just a fraction of U.S. or European wages, it appears absurd that the Chinese authorities deem it necessary to additionally subsidize their booming exports by a grossly undervalued currency, held down by pegging the yuan to the dollar.

In the U.S. financial sphere, the year 2006 has set new records everywhere: records in stock prices, records in mergers and acquisitions, records in private equity deals, record-low spreads, record-low volatility. Manifestly, there is not the slightest check on borrowing for financial speculation. There is epic inflation in Wall Street profits.

One wonders what can stop this unprecedented speculative binge. Pondering this question, we note in the first place that the gains in asset prices - look at equities, commodities and bonds - have been rather moderate. To make super-sized profits, immense leverage is needed. We think the speculation is unmatched for its scope, intensity and peril. Plainly, it assumes absence of any serious risk in the financial system and the economy. The surest thing to predict is that the next interest move by the Fed will be downward.

In our view, the obvious major risk for speculation is in the economy - that is, in the impending bust of the gigantic housing bubble. Homeownership is broadly spread among the population, in contrast to owning stocks. So the breaking of the housing bubble will hurt the American people far more than did the collapse in stock prices in 2000-02. For sure, the U.S. economy is incomparably more vulnerable than in 2001. Another big risk is in the dollar.

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Kurt Richebächer

Author: Kurt Richebächer

Dr. Kurt Richebächer
The Daily Reckoning

A version of this essay was first published in the free daily e-mail: The Daily Reckoning.

Dr. Kurt Richebacher is the editor of The Richebacher Letter. Former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker once said: "Sometimes I think that the job of central bankers is to prove Kurt Richebächer wrong." A regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal, Strategic Investment and several other respected financial publications, Dr. Richebächer's insightful analysis stems from the Austrian School of economics. France's Le Figaro magazine has done a feature story on him as "the man who predicted the Asian crisis."

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