They don’t ring a bell at the top, goes the old saying. But all we could hear last night was cow bell and more cow bell. Granted, it was part of the percussion section of a jazz/blues/funk band playing for the opening of a new art gallery on St. Kilda Road. But we’re going to take the cow bell as a warning, and dedicate today’s Markets and Money to it.
But a warning about what? Sure, stocks, oil, and gold were all down yesterday and the U.S. dollar was up. But is it really the end of the dollar carry trade? And if it is, what happens next?
More cow bell!
We should back up a second. What is the dollar carry trade? It’s the engine of bank profit growth this year. It’s what’s given the illusion that the financial system has recovered from its brush with death last year.
But as you’ll learn today, the bankers, the Fed, the media…the whole lot of them…have learned nothing from last year. The hangover was just beginning to set in, so everyone began drinking again heavily. And now the party is wild and out of control. Even the cops are drunk.
Incidentally, this complete abandonment of monetary sobriety and fiscal prudence shows up every day in real life, where the declining value of money is paralleled by a general decline in public behaviour. For example, on Sunday morning we were tucking into a breakfast of banana caramel pancakes (with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the top) when three incredibly drunk but fairly well dressed middle aged men had a seat next to us at the cafe.
They wanted to chat about the John Birmingham book on the table. They wanted to smoke. They wanted to laugh, and did so loudly to the point where they began upsetting the various dogs assembled in the sun. They ordered a pitcher of beer. They were served. It was 9am and they hadn’t been to sleep.
Our cow bell tells us that the financial party thrown by Ben Bernanke may soon be ending. The dollar carry trade, by the way, is where financial firms and speculators borrow cheap money in the U.S. and use it to buy higher yielding assets elsewhere (like the Aussie dollar).
The carry trade is a bubble enabler and balance sheet stabiliser in the short-term. The Fed keeps rates low, the banks borrow and then buy U.S. bonds (which helps the U.S. fund its deficit), buy stocks, and buy commodities. The dollar carry has fuelled the world-wide rally more so than any phantom recovery in the real economy, where employment hasn’t recovered and wage growth is hard to find.
What the carry trade has not done is fundamentally improved the balance sheets of the very financial firms that were at risk of insolvency last year. Why not? First, the earnings rebound in the first three months of the year was not driven by better business conditions. Speaking to the Financial Times earlier this week, George Soros said, “Those earnings are not the achievement of risk-takers…These are gifts, hidden gifts, from the government.”
The banks booked profits from trading stocks and bonds. And because the Fed, through quantitative easing, was supporting bond prices directly, it was as close to free money/a rigged market as you can get. With enough leverage, even small gains in bond prices were bankable.
But now there is an enormous, gut busting irony to the position the banks find themselves in. Remember that the original idea to repair bank balance sheets and restore their capital positions to healthier levels was to replace toxic mortgage-backed debt with safe, sound, and liquid U.S. Treasuries. Snort. Guffaw.
The irony is that those same Treasuries could be the next big blow up, wiping out the banks thin equity capital sliver all over again, and plunging the financial sector into a second wracking round of forced deleveraging and asset sales. Round two of the recession, morphing into a Depression as the public sector ramps up deficit spending to make up for the collapse in household and business spending.
We all know how much serious the cycle of deleveraging and asset sales was last time around, so it’s not a claim we’d make lightly, or without some evidence. So let’s get to the evidence. First is an article from Gillian Tett, also in yesterday’s FT, titled “Rally fuelled by cheap money brings a sense of foreboding.”
“Earlier this month,” she begins, “I received a sobering e-mail from a senior, recently-retired banker. This particular man, a veteran of the credit world, had just chatted with ex-colleagues who are still in the markets – and was feeling deeply shocked.”
” ‘Forget about the events of the past 12 months … the punters are back punting as aggressively as ever,’ he wrote. ‘Highly leveraged short-term trades are back in vogue as players … jostle to load up on everything from Reits [real estate investment trusts] and commercial property, commodities, emerging markets and regular stocks and bonds.'”
” ‘Oh, I am sure the banks’ public relations people will talk about the subdued atmosphere in banking, but don’t you believe it,’ he continued bitterly, noting that when money is virtually free – or, at least, at 0.5 per cent – traders feel stupid if they don’t leverage up.
” ‘Any sense of control is being chucked out of the window. After the dotcom boom and bust it took a good few years for the market to get its collective mojo back [but] this time it has taken just a few months,’ he added. He finished with a despairing question: ‘Was October 2008 just a dress rehearsal for the crash when this latest bubble bursts?'”
This ‘latest bubble’ is in evidence across all asset markets-bonds, stocks, commodities, property, and cash. Free money does not discriminate on the basis of asset class. But nowhere has the bubble been more generous than in the U.S. Treasury bond market. Short-term U.S. bond yields are vanishingly low. The Fed just purchased $14 billion more in mortgage-backed securities last week and now holds $776 billion in MBS and $773 billion in Treasuries. All up, the Fed’s balance sheet is at $2.1 trillion.
But here is the thing: the Fed says it’s ready to end its program of buying Treasuries and MBS. It realises it will have its hands full funding big U.S. deficits. But if the Fed withdraws its support for bond prices…you can expect bond prices to fall and yields to rise. This may happen even if the Fed keeps buying bonds…but creditors like the Chinese and Japanese stop (as they have done with agency securities.)
All sorts of interesting things begin to happen now, if by interesting you mean terrible but fascinating. Falling bond prices and rising yields would make perfect sense in a U.S. dollar rally. And a U.S. dollar rally makes perfect sense if the carry trade ends and the dollar shorts cover. Speculators take profits in oil, gold, stocks and jump back into cash and the greenback. This is roughly what happened last time the wheel’s came off the financial system.
Where does that leave banks and their massive new hoards of U.S. Treasury bonds? An article called “Bank Insolvency Is Not A Dead Issue” by Daniel Aaronson and Lee Markowitz shows that banks have dramatically increased their holdings of U.S. Treasury securities. When you add their existing exposure to U.S. real estate (facing an Option-ARM crisis over the next twelve months) you have a huge swathe of bank collateral that could face another massive write down.
What do you think that might do the global economy? Aside from putting a few more banks out of business, it would again cut off the flow of credit to small businesses and the rest of the economy. It might again cut off the flow of bank credit from international lenders to the Big Four here in Australia. And this time, what kind of aid can the Feds really offer when their last attempt at help (exchanging Treasuries for RMBS) set the banks up for precisely the implosion they were trying to avoid?
As you can see from the chart above, banks have grown assets again with the Fed’s borrowed money. You know have a freshly steaming pile of recovering asset prices supported by a thin wafer of equity capital. It’s a fraud with a cherry on top. As the charts below, U.S. banks own nearly $1.5 trillion in government securities. And they are gobbling them up like there is no tomorrow.
There is always a tomorrow. But corporations and institutions live and die just like species. Only the earth abideth forever.
We reckon that the entire financial industry is still dangerously close to a species-destroying event. It’s leveraged model of asset growth and debt accumulation imploded last year. But the Fed has brought it back, and like a Zombie/Frankenstein mash-up, it’s here to torment us all again.
Soros told the FT this sequence of events is causing a lack of confidence in governments. “There is a general lack of confidence in currencies and a move away from currencies into real assets,” he told the FT. “There is a push in gold, there’s strength in oil and that is a flight from currencies.”
So in the short-term, don’t be surprised to see a stronger rally in the USD, which would take some of the starch out of oil and gold prices. As the dollar carry trade unwinds a bit, stock markets will fall and so will other asset classes that have zoomed up on the speculation.
But the bigger story playing out is this: the entire method by which the fiscal welfare state funds itself is blowing up. More on how this will happen and what it means tomorrow. Until then, we hope you heard the cow bell.
for Markets and Money