Sunday, August 19, 2012

Bubbling Up...8/19/12

1) Chart of the Day: Public deficits and private savings in the euro zone by Edward Harrison @ Credit Writedowns
Budget deficits are what results ex-post from an accounting identity between the sectoral balances and should not be a primary goal of public policy. What we want to do is target the cause of the deficits, insufficient demand which I believe is the result of the overhang of debt after a period of excess private sector credit growth. What you want to do is eliminate that debt overhang by reducing the debt or increasing private sector incomes to support the debt. That’s getting at root causes.

2) How the Economic Machine Works by Ray Dalio @ Bridgewater (h/t Humble Student of the Markets)

[I]f you understand the game of Monopoly®, you can pretty well understand credit and economic cycles. Early in the game of Monopoly®, people have a lot of cash and few hotels, and it pays to convert cash into hotels. Those who have more hotels make more money. Seeing this, people tend to convert as much cash as possible into property in order to profit from making other players give them cash. So as the game progresses, more hotels are acquired, which creates more need for cash (to pay the bills of landing on someone else’s property with lots of hotels on it) at the same time as many folks have run down their cash to buy hotels. When they are caught needing cash, they are forced to sell their hotels at discounted prices. So early in the game, “property is king” and later in the game, “cash is king.” Those who are best at playing the game understand how to hold the right mix of property and cash, as this right mix changes.
Now, let’s imagine how this Monopoly® game would work if we changed the role of the bank so that it could make loans and take deposits. Players would then be able to borrow money to buy hotels and, rather than holding their cash idly, they would deposit it at the bank to earn interest, which would provide the bank with more money to lend. Let’s also imagine that players in this game could buy and sell properties from each other giving each other credit (i.e., promises to give money and at a later date). If Monopoly® were played this way, it would provide an almost perfect model for the way our economy operates. There would be more spending on hotels (that would be financed with promises to deliver money at a later date). The amount owed would quickly grow to multiples of the amount of money in existence, hotel prices would be higher, and the cash shortage for the debtors who hold hotels would become greater down the road. So, the cycles would become more pronounced. The bank and those who saved by depositing their money in it would also get into trouble when the inability to come up with needed cash caused withdrawals from the bank at the same time as debtors couldn’t come up with cash to pay the bank.
Woj’s Thoughts - Although Dalio’s fund may be struggling this year as markets increasingly deviate from economic growth, his insights regarding economic cycles remain a great source of knowledge. In many advanced economies, property was clearly king until the shortfall in cash among households became so pronounced that a debt deflation ensued. The productive portion of the private sector (non-financial) continues to hold too much property and debt relative to cash (savings and income). Rather than encouraging and aiding a “smooth” shift towards cash, public policy remains supportive of reverting back towards property and debt. As long as this mix remains highly unbalanced, economies will prove fragile and prone to crises. (Fun tidbit about a child I loved playing the game of Monopoly. This may have been an early sign that I was destined for a future in economics and finance.)

3) How Long Can Japanese Bond Prices Defy Gravity? by Cullen Roche @ Pragmatic Capitalism

As you likely know, Japan has been suffering a horrid deflation for 20 years as a result of a multitude of factors.  So we’ve witnessed an endless stream of JGB bond traders diving out of windows as they short JGB’s and lose out to ever increasing prices.  One interesting conclusion in the Hoshi/Ito paper is their view on Japan’s ”unrealistically optimistic assumption that Japan’s GDP will grow at 2% annually for the next 40 years”.   If growth is to stagnate then where will the inflation come from?  What could scare these bondholders into a massive JGB revolt leading to higher rates (something which, mind you, did not even occur in the USA during the great stagflation of the 1970′s)?   I am lost for a cause here because Japan’s central bank controls interest rates and as the supplier of reserves to the banking system they can always control the entire yield curve (yes, if they wanted to pin the 30 year bond at a specific rate they would just have to name it and challenge the bond traders to compete with their endless reserve position – the bond traders would lose quickly).
So the question remains – how long can Japanese bond prices defy gravity?  Well, the short answer is – as long as the Japanese central bank is willing to keep rates low.  The more important question is when will Japan experience an environment which forces their central bank to alter the current structure of the yield curve?  Will a stagflation occur similar to the 70s in the USA?  Will a hyperinflation occur for whatever reason?  Will growth rebound?   Or what if Hoshi and Ito’s pessimistic GDP projections are correct?  Then we’re likely to continue seeing JGB traders jumping out of windows following unsuccessful attempts to fight the Bank of Japan.
Woj’s Thoughts - So yes, the Fed can (and to a degree currently does) control long-term interest rates. These questions are equally important for investors currently betting against US Treasuries. When will economic factors cause the Fed to raise interest rates in the foreseeable future? Private sector deleveraging is likely to persist for a few more years and government deficits are decreasing. This suggests a still lengthy period of low growth and inflation, which is consistent with the Fed maintaining short-term rates near zero. The recent sell-off in Treasuries is approaching a level at which the long-side again becomes enticing.  

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