–The year began with everyone worrying about bank failures. It’s ending with everyone worried about whole nations failing, or at least national governments. And it’s not just Greece we’re talking about. It’s the Big Kahuna of the global economy, the United States. And to their credit, it looks like Australia’s politicians know this.
–You could view last week’s rise ten-year bond yields as a kind of global fire alarm for dollar-denominated assets. You saw a politically weak U.S. President and a weak-willed U.S. Congress both agree to do nothing about spending less money. The rise in U.S. bond yield s is a vote of no confidence in America’s bonds.
–It might not look like that today. In fact the U.S. dollar rallied on higher retail sales figures in America. If you thought the spike in bond yields would lead to a rapid dollar crisis, that’s not going to happen. So what is?
–This is an important point for understanding what Treasurer Wayne Swan is up to with his bank reforms. The U.S. government is set to borrow so much money in the next few years that it will crowd out other borrowers (corporates and governments) and drive interest rates up. If you want to borrow money and you’re, say, an Australian bank trying to grow your balance sheet, you’re going to have to find some other source of funding.
–It’s kind of like if you knew that it wasn’t going to rain next year at all. Or, if all the rainfall went to irrigate one farmer’s crops, and that farmer was not you. If you knew the drought was coming, you’d do everything you could to stockpile water now or find other people willing to sell you water.
–All the big reforms announced by the Treasurer this weekend are aimed at keeping Australia’s housing bubble alive and booming. First was another $4 billion in government money to buy residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS). This is how smaller lenders finance mortgage lending. It’s a clever way to channel tax-payer money directly into housing prices (and bank profits).
–But the big reform was the introduction of covered bonds. It’s a story we wrote about late last month. On the surface, finding more local sources of lending looks good. If you know you’re going to have trouble borrowing from abroad, why not borrow closer to home?
–The trouble with covered bonds, in our view, is that it puts bond holders in line for depositor’s money ahead of depositors. Of course this would only happen in the case of a bank failure. And that could only happen in Australia if, say, the housing market collapsed. And that could never happen. So maybe we’re all worried over nothing.
–And after all the government says it’s going to look after depositors. They will now be covered by the Financial Claims Scheme. That little ripper was an outgrowth of the GFC and provides government-backed deposit insurance in the case of a bank failure. Depositors don’t get wiped out, even if secured creditors and equity investors do.
–But once you waft away the smoke you can see what’s happened. The liability for paying back depositors has shifted from the banks to the government. You are the government. So now if a bank fails, you’re going to have to pay out depositors.
–The banks and the government will tell you that the guarantee is there to provide confidence in the banks. As such, it will never be needed because just having it will reassure people they can always get their money from the bank, even if the bank fails. But this just conceals an obvious trend: more and more of Australia’s wealth is being tied up and invested in residential housing.
–This is precisely what doomed economies in Spain, Ireland, and the United States. Yet the banks and the government are essentially doubling down on housing as a national investment priority/get rich quick scheme. Even if you were to argue that this is just prudent provisioning for a world where the cost of credit is going up, it’s still a national gamble on rising housing prices.
–All of the measures taken over the weekend aim to funnel more money into the housing market—from covered bonds to the RMBS program to steps which allow the flow of retirement funds into the mortgage market. The rigmarole about exit fees was just bread and circuses for the media and the masses. The real aim was to keep the money flowing to housing and keep the bubble going.
–This is a clear winner for the banks. For banks to keep growing they have to keep lending. And since they already have so much of their loan book tied up in housing, even more housing loans grow the loan book AND support the assets already on the book.
–And it’s always a win if a bank engineers a deal where all the profits are private but all the losses are fobbed off on investors and the public. But just why Australia would increase the financialisation of its economy when that same policy is failing everywhere else on the planet…that’s a real had scratcher.
For Markets and Money