“TK 421, why aren’t you at your post?”
“What?” we replied to one of our analysts this morning.
“He’s the only Storm Trooper named in the Star Wars movie. I bought a card board cut out of him pointing his laser rifle at you. It was on sale the Science Works exhibit. I’ve put him behind your desk to remind you that you’re under the gun.”
True enough. It’s not just your editor under the gun, though. What’s at stake this week is whether attempts by governments and central banks to prevent more credit writedowns have succeeded. If they have, it could prevent the further transmission of the credit crisis from the financial sector to the real economy. And for investors, it could kick off a Great Releveraging.
Are we changing our tune, then, about what to expect from markets? Not one bit. But the question now is timing. The collapse of 2008 was so severe because of the sudden reduction in leverage in the financial sector. As assets fell in value, the most highly leveraged firms (or lenders who raised money by selling debt) went out of business.
This kicked off a chain reaction in which other market players were forced to sell assets and preserve capital. Banks preserve capital by not lending. This is how the credit crisis “jumped” from the financial sector the medium and small businesses (those not big enough or politically connected enough to qualify for government bailouts). And from businesses the deleveraging crisis went straight to households, who began saving more and cutting back spending.
And now it comes full circle. When households cut back, it eats into corporate profits and bank profits. Households with members who’ve been fired get behind on bills. Securitised credit card receivables, car loans, and mortgages – a large chunk of bank assets – start to go pear shaped. And banks face more credit writedowns, accelerating the cycle.
This is the cycle the Feds and global monetary authorities set out to short circuit this time last year. Their main objective: increase asset prices to stabilise bank balance sheets and prevent the spread of the credit crisis. How did they do it? TALF, TARP, CAP, the suspension of mark-to-market accounting rules, and the maintenance of low interest rates (in the States especially).
All these clearly did support asset prices, and especially allowed banks to post a quarter two of quarter over quarter earnings growth. This has created the appearance of stability. But what has not improved one bit is the quality of those bank assets purchased with borrowed money. There will be more writedowns to come. But when?
We should entertain the possibility that the Feds can support asset prices for some time. Take Australian housing for example. This week the Federal government announced that it would chuck another $8 billion in taxpayer money to purchase residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS). Treasurer Wayne Swan says he’s doing it to support “the home lending market.”
We’d say he’s doing it to keep money flowing into the housing sector so builders stay busy, banks stay profitable, and house prices stay high. Remember, this subsidy to non-bank lenders in the RMBS market is there because other investors won’t fund these lenders. And why would they when the government is happy to put your money on the line.
The government says the securities are collateralised by high-quality residential real estate. But that’s what pretty much anyone who was hawking this kind of debt said in the U.S. for the three years of peak mortgage issuance. This is how real estate – traditionally a local industry where prices vary from place to place – becomes a national market – through the nationalisation of the mortgage bubble. A national mortgage bubble can inflate house prices across the board-making the entire country vulnerable to higher interest rates and/or a credit crisis.
Here you see the public sector adding debt while the private sector scales back. Also, in Australia, there is still widespread public belief that house prices only ever go up. That means the government can support lending because borrowers are still borrowing. This just makes the inevitable house price correction much more devastating. The borrowers with the smallest margin for error are going to be hurt the most.
Here’s something else to think about: what happens when the stimulus spending dries up? Treasury Secretary Ken Henry says that the economy could lose another 100,000 jobs and that the withdrawal of stimulus spending will shave 1.5% off Australian GDP in 2010. This is another way of saying the peak effect of the stimulus (in terms of supporting both consumer demand and employment) was in middle two quarters of the year.
So how will Aussie consumers and businesses behave when the stimulus is withdrawn? Did the Rudd government give the economy just enough free money smack to keep its credit high going? Or will the comedown be just around the corner around Christmas? If they’re cautious, Australians will put away their wallets and cut up the credit cards and reduce spending growth to match income growth. The retail sector and retail stocks will be hit hard.
There’s one other big question for investors heading into the end of the year. We know the government can support some sectors more effectively than others. Big ticket items like housing and cars can be subsidised with tax rebates or, in the case of housing, with a fresh injection of credit to support politically connected non-bank lenders in the RMBS market.
But you have to reckon the economy boosting effects of supporting the housing market are limited. The main beneficiaries are the banks and the builders. Granted, if you’re a politician, those are two important constituencies to keep happy. But what about the rest of the economy?
The basic question is how much of it will stand on its own two feet once you remove the stimulus. The stimulus, the FHOG, the government backing of the RMBS market…these are all attempts to revive an economic growth model that’s dependent on asset inflation and credit bubbles. That’s the model that led to the bubble that led to the bust.
Papering offer the holes blasted in bank balance sheets by the credit crisis seems to have worked in terms of restoring confidence. Call it a successful psychological operation by the government spin doctors and their buddies in the media and banking. The whole purpose of the operation was to appear to recapitalise banks to healthy levels. But really it was to prevent the banks from having to take further credit writedowns, which itself feeds the process of forced asset sales, declining asset prices, and more household deleveraging.
One immediate risk to watch for is Australia’s resource export industry. Export volumes are down year. But for the largest export categories, last year’s contract prices are still in effect. Looking forward, 2010 could see lower export volumes AND lower prices for bulk commodities like iron ore and coal (especially if Chinese inventory restocking is complete). This would make the current valuations on resource earnings look pretty generous. You’ll read more this week on which sectors are going to thrive and fail in this Great Releveraging.
Back to gold and the dollar and the new world currency order. A simple question: what was all the fuss about last week with a new reserve currency anyway? Here is an answer. If OPEC demands payment for oil in something other than U.S. dollars, then people who buy oil (and who doesn’t?) have to stockpile the other currencies in which oil is priced and traded. That would be pretty tough on America.
To support its oil appetite, the U.S. would have to buy the currencies in which oil is priced. It couldn’t use good old greenbacks. How do you buy foreign currencies?
Well, you can sell your assets (gold, real estate, stocks) and use the money to pay for oil. This is what Australia does. Or you can borrow in a foreign currency (did anyone say future Chinese bond market?) It’s also possible you can use earnings on your foreign-owned assets – provided those assets generate enough money to support your oil habit.
These are all options within the free market system. The main point is that all other things being equal, you have to sell something to pay for something. This is why the foundation for economic health is always wealth production, not consumption. Production creates the goods that facilitate the trade that creates the profits to increase purchasing power for the things you don’t produce.
But outside the free market system, you could opt for just taking the oil by force. By that we meant that should the U.S. be put in the position of having to pay for oil with new borrowings or asset sales, it might take the geopolitical path of least resistance and resort to a good old fashioned overt resource war. The declining Empire will strike back with its principal remaining asset, its military.
Likely candidates for an oil war? Not Iran. It’s too far away. There are too many U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan that would become targets. And the effect of a Middle East war would be too destabilising on oil prices. But Venezuela, on the other hand, is much closer to home.
Granted, comrade Obama is a peace maker. He was a won a price for it. Peace be upon him. And it would not seem like he’s not likely to attack his good friend Comrade Chavez.
But if the current president flounders in the fiscal morass he finds himself in, he’ll be a one term savior. Some pundits are already calling him “America’s Gorbachev.” He’s the man who will preside over the swift fall from grace of a Superpower.
There will be no second coming (term). And that leaves room for a challenge from a more hawkish member of his own party (Hillary Clinton) or a populist Republican with a handy doctrine of liberty within the hemisphere (let’s call it the Palin Doctrine). If Obama is America’s Gorbachev, who is America’s Putin? That’s what Glenn Reynolds at www.instapundit.com is asking.
Naturally all of this is pure speculation. But our main point is that the oil game is not just a currency game. It’s a power game. And it’s silly to think the U.S. would relinquish its control over the oil market so easily. There will be a fight.
Not that the U.S. could maintain the reserve currency status quo by force. But sooner or later someone at the policy level in America is going to realise that once the reserve currency status is lost, the country loses a huge strategic and competitive advantage. Its standard of living, already in major decline, would face a major body blow.
Just how American policy makers plan on maintaining that advantage is yet to be seen. Of course maybe they don’t plan on it at all. The Empire could be so narcissistic and full of false confidence that few people fail to see the inevitable chain of events the country faces. You’ll just get more spending and more chest-thumping and more fiddling. Or more war.
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