Macro Malpractice

Stephen S. Roach

30 September 2012


NEW HAVENThe wrong medicine is being applied to America’s economy. Having misdiagnosed the ailment, policymakers have prescribed untested experimental medicine with potentially grave side effects.
The patient is the American consumer – the world’s biggest by far, but now in the throes of the worst funk since the Great Depression. Recent data on consumer spending in the United States have been terrible. Growth in inflation-adjusted US personal consumption expenditure has just been revised down to 1.5% in the second quarter of 2012, and appears to be on track for a similarly anemic increase in the third quarter.
Worse, these numbers are just the latest in what has now been a four-and-a-half-year-old trend. From the first quarter of 2008 through the second quarter of 2012, annualized growth in real consumption spending has averaged a mere 0.7% all the more extraordinary when compared with the pre-crisis trend of 3.6% in the decade ending in 2007.
The disease is a protracted balance-sheet recession that has turned a generation of America’s consumers into zombies – the economic walking dead. Think Japan, and its corporate zombies of the 1990’s. Just as they wrote the script for the first of Japan’s lost decades, their counterparts are now doing the same for the US economy.
Two bubblesproperty and credit enabled a decade of excessive consumption. Since their collapse in 2007, US households have understandably become fixated on repairing the damage. That means paying down debt and rebuilding savings, leaving consumer demand mired in protracted weakness.
Yet the treatment prescribed for this malady has compounded the problem. Steeped in denial, the Federal Reserve is treating the disease as a cyclical problemdeploying the full force of monetary accommodation to compensate for what it believes to be a temporary shortfall in aggregate demand.
The convoluted logic behind this strategy is quite disturbingnot only for the US, but also for the global economy. There is nothing cyclical about the lasting aftershocks of a balance-sheet recession that have now been evident for nearly five years.

Indeed, balance-sheet repair has barely begun for US households. The personal-saving rate stood at just 3.7% in August 2012up from the 1.5% low of 2005, but half the 7.5% average recorded in the last three decades of the twentieth century.
Moreover, the debt overhang remains massive. The overall level of household indebtedness stood at 113% of disposable personal income in mid-2012down 21 percentage points from its pre-crisis peak of 134% in 2007, but still well above the 1970-1999 norm of around 75%. In other words, Americans have much farther to go on the road to balance-sheet repair – which hardly suggests a temporary, or cyclical, shortfall in consumer demand.
Moreover, the Fed’s approach is severely compromised by the so-called zero bound on interest rates. Having run out of basis points to cut from interest rates, the Fed has turned to the quantity dimension of the credit cycleinjecting massive doses of liquidity into the collapsed veins of zombie consumers.
To rationalize the efficacy of this approach, the Fed has rewritten the script on the transmission mechanism of discretionary monetary policy. Unlike the days of yore, when cutting the price of credit could boost borrowing, “quantitative easingpurportedly works by stimulating asset and credit markets. The wealth effects generated by frothy financial markets are then presumed to rejuvenate long-dormantanimal spirits” and get consumers spending again, irrespective of lingering balance-sheet strains.
There is more: Once the demand problem is cured, according to this argument, companies will start hiring again. And then, presto – an unconventional fix magically satisfies the Fed’s long-neglected mandate to fight unemployment.
But the Fed’s policy gambit has taken the US down the wrong road. Indeed, the Fed has doubled down on an approach aimed at recreating the madness of an asset- and credit-dependent consumption modelprecisely the mistake that pushed the US economy toward the abyss in 2003-2006.
Just as two previous rounds of quantitative easing failed to accelerate US households’ balance-sheet repair, there is little reason to believe that “QE3” will do the trick. Quantitative easing is a blunt instrument, at best, and operates through highly circuitous – and thus dubiouschannels.
Significantly, it does next to nothing to alleviate the twin problems of excess leverage and inadequate saving. Policies aimed directly at debt forgiveness and enhanced saving incentivescontentious, to be sure – would at least address zombie consumers’ balance-sheet problems.
Moreover, the side effects of quantitative easing are significant. Many worry about an upsurge in inflation, though, given the outsize slack in the global economy – and the likelihood that it will persist for years to come – that is not high on my watch list.
Far more disconcerting is the willingness of major central banksnot just the Fed, but also the European Central Bank, the Bank of England, and the Bank of Japan – to inject massive amounts of excess liquidity into asset marketsexcesses that cannot be absorbed by sluggish real economies.
That puts central banks in the destabilizing position of abdicating control over financial markets. For a world beset by seemingly endemic financial instability, this could prove to be the most destructive development of all.
The developing world is up in arms over the major central banks’ reckless tactics. Emerging economies’ leaders fear spillover effects in commodity markets and distortions of exchange rates and capital flows that may compromise their own focus on financial stability. While it is difficult to track the cross-border flows fueled by quantitative easing in the so-called advanced world, these fears are far from groundless. Liquidity injections into a zero-interest-rate developed world send return-starved investors scrambling for growth opportunities elsewhere.
As the global economy has gone from crisis to crisis in recent years, the cure has become part of the disease. In an era of zero interest rates and quantitative easing, macroeconomic policy has become unhinged from a tough post-crisis reality. Untested medicine is being used to treat the wrong ailment – and the chronically ill patient continues to be neglected.

Copyright Project Syndicate -

Stephen S. Roach was Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia and the firm's Chief Economist, and currently is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute of Global Affairs and a senior lecturer at Yale’s School of Management. His most recent book is The Next Asia.

Uncertainty and Risk in the Suicide Pool

By John Mauldin

Sep 29, 2012

“By ‘uncertain’ knowledge, let me explain, I do not mean merely to distinguish what is known for certain from what is only probable. The game of roulette is not subject, in this sense, to uncertainty; nor is the prospect of a Victory bond being drawn. Or, again, the expectation of life is only slightly uncertain. Even the weather is only moderately uncertain. The sense in which I am using the term is that in which the prospect of a European war is uncertain, or the price of copper and the rate of interest twenty years hence, or the obsolescence of a new invention, or the position of private wealth owners in the social system in 1970. About these matters there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever.”.

-John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, 1937

“... there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.”.

-Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, 2002

“There are four types of men:.

1. One who knows and knows that he knows... His horse of wisdom will reach the skies.

2. One who knows, but doesn't know that he knows... He is fast asleep, so you should wake him up!
3. One who doesn't know, but knows that he doesn't know... His limping mule will eventually get him home.
4. One who doesn't know and doesn't know that he doesn't know... He will be eternally lost in his hopeless oblivion!”.
-Ibn Yami, 13th-century Persian-Tajik poet

For the past 80 years, we have created ever more sophisticated models of risk in the economic and investment worlds. With each new tool we create to measure risk, we seem to think we have somehow gained more control over our future. Paradoxically, we appear to believe that the more we understand risk, the more we can somehow control our exposure to it. The more we build elaborate models and see correlations between events and the performance of our investments and the economy, the more confident we become.

And if by some ill fortune we encounter a period of lengthy stability in our models and portfolio performance, we are likely to imbibe a cocktail of collective hubris: we actually think we understand some things in a quantifiable way. We thereupon seek to take on more risk at precisely the time when additional risk is the most disastrous. This week we explore the difference between risk and uncertainty. Perhaps we can even tie all this into our understanding of secular bull and bear markets.

Jumping into the Suicide Pool

My oldest son Henry and my son-in-law Allen Porter are both in their late 20s, perfect gentleman, appropriately humble, engaging, and thoughtful young men. Unless you are talking about sports, when they become opinionated, overly self-confident, and quite willing to share their intimate knowledge of the subtleties and nuances of sports in general but football in particular. For the last few seasons, my friend Barry Habib has enticed the three of us to participate in what is known as a Suicide Pool.

A Suicide Pool is a betting pool – with a twist. Starting with the second game of the season, participants simply have to pick one winner out of all the games that are played that week. There are no point spreads involved and no handicaps. All you have to do is predict just one team that will win that week. Every week, if you like, you can pick the team that is the most heavily favored to win. There are no restrictions on your choices.

At the beginning of the season you “invest $100 into the pool. And you stay in the pool as long as the team you pick wins. If more than one person survives to the end of the season, the winner is decided by cumulative point spreads. If you go out the first week, you are allowed to buy back in for $50 plus a point-spread penalty.

Notice the word if. Having done this for a few years, I have noted that the survival rate is actually quite small. The trick is not to pick close games but just to survive. But even if you are trying to choose the safest picks, every now and then there is a secular bear market among the top teams.

So, I bought spots for Henry, Allen, and myself. Since I know absolutely nothing about what teams to pick, Henry and Allen chose them for me. My only instructions were to choose the safest pick and never to choose the Cowboys. It is bad enough to have the home team lose without losing your money as well. After 50 years, I’ve had too many heartbreaks watching the Cowboys to want to bet on them.

I figured the Suicide Pool would give us guys something to talk about and share a few laughs over, at least for a few months. But as US football fans know, in the past few weeks there has been the equivalent of a market crash rivaled only by the NASDAQ in 2000-2001.

This year has been a disaster for us Suicide Poolers. We started with 148 in the pool. We lost 78 footballexperts” (!) in the first week, but 57 of those (including your humble analyst) had enough hubris to buy back in to the pool. (The winner would get $17,600 enough to keep you fully invested.) After a second straight week of major upsets, there were only 21 people still standing, or about 14% of the original 148. Even worse, only eight (about 5%) were able to pick two winning teams in a row.

Note that my brain trust picked two prohibitive favorites, the least risky choices available. They agreed with my plan to avoid risk and also agreed on the teams we should all choose, rather than diversifying our risk. I went with my experts. We chose the New England Patriots the first week and the Pittsburgh Steelers the next. And we were not part of the elite 5%. No family-time discussions and debates, just commiseration and licking our wounds. I was hoping that at least one if not more of our chances would carry us a few months into the season, providing us with some good times, making game time a little more interesting – the whole thing seemed like a good investment at the time.

(Clearly, my choice of investment advisers this year has not been optimal. Wait till next year. Only, next year I’m going with the real sports authority in the family, my daughter Abbi.)

Probability Theory and Retirement Portfolios

While this is a cute story, there is, sadly, an investment implication. While no one would call betting on football an investment (except a bookie, and he is really investing in human frailty and probabilities and not, strictly speaking, football), all too often investors approach the markets in a fashion distressingly similar to my approach to betting on football. You either think you are an expert on the stock market, or you hire someone whom you think is. And while we are a great deal more serious about our investments, here too we try to pick safe investments that will last us for the long run. We use models to outline the probability of success or failure, and all too often we ignore the low probabilities that would be absolutely disastrous if they came about.

In most places and in most times, withdrawing 5% a year from a retirement portfolio is a reasonable approach. But not in all places and certainly not at all times. Your retirement plan should not be the investment equivalent of the Suicide Pool.

Many investors are told that it is safe to take 5% of their savings each year to spend on retirement. And the history of the last 110 years suggests that on average this is true. But every now and then people retire at the beginning of a secular bear market. Taking out 5% at such times is about as safe as betting on football.

My friend Ed Easterling at Crestmont Research did some very basic research which shows that if you retire and decide to keep your retirement savings 100% in stocks, then if you begin to invest your savings at a 5% withdrawal rate during a period when stocks are in the highest 25% of the historical average of valuation (P/E ratios), about 5% of the time you will be out of money within 23 years.

And this outcome has a probability that we can model. Of course, we can’t tell you what your actual experience will be, but we can demonstrate that you are involved in risky behavior! Typically, investors are comfortable taking such a risk, because at the end of a secular bull market stocks have been performing well for a very long time. All the models show the bull will continue – or at least the ones you get to see. (You can read Ed’s full report here.)

Obsessing on Risk, Ignoring Uncertainty

Investors in the stock market, especially professionals, are obsessed with risk, your humble analyst included. We try to measure risk in any number of ways, looking for an edge to improve our returns. Not only do we try to determine probable outcomes, we also look for the “fat tailevents, those things that can happen which are low in probability but will have a large impact on our returns.

I have found that it was the surprises that were not in my model that were the true drivers of portfolio performance. We like it when surprises produce a positive result, and we often find a way to congratulate ourselves for our wise choices. No one in 1982 thought that price-to-earnings ratios would rise by five times in the next 18 years. Yet that simple driver accounted for 60% of the last bull market (20% was inflation and only 20% was actual increased earnings). And while a few people began to invest in technology in the early ’80s, many of those early technology stocks ended up being disasters. (Remember Wang? Osborne? Sorry, I know, you were trying to forget.)

“In 1910 the British journalist Norman Angell published a book called ‘The Great Illusion. Its thesis was that the integration of the European economy, and by implication the global economy too, had become so all-embracing and irreversible that future wars were all but impossible. The book perfectly captured the zeitgeist of its time and fast became a best seller.

“In some respects, the early 20th century was a period much like our own one of previously unparalleled global trade and exchange between nations. Human beings appeared largely to have outgrown their propensity to mass slaughter, and everyone could look forward to to a world of ever increasing prosperity. War, Angell compellingly argued, was economically harmful to all, victors and defeated alike. Self interest alone could be expected to prevent it happening again.” (Jeremy Warner writing in The London Telegraph)

On the eve of World War I, bond markets throughout Europe were not pricing in a conflict. Everyone knew” there would not be a war. It was all bluff and bluster. And then the world got a surprise. Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated and armies began to march. And while no one expects a war today in Europe, there are certainly plenty of tensions.

An Uncertain Spain

The Spanish government announced this week a rather severe austerity budget. They promise they will hold their budget deficits to 6.3% while slashing spending almost 9% and raising taxes. And of course there will be no wage increases for government workers. They also assume that growth will only fall to -0.5% in the face of that austerity, which most observers think is woefully optimistic.

Even though the ECB has committed to buying Spanish bonds, they have made it clear that they will do so only as long as Spain is committed to bringing its deficit under control.

European Central Bank Executive Board member Joerg Asmussen said on Friday that he would only support purchasing the bonds of struggling euro zone countries if pressure on them to reform their economies remained high. Only under strict conditionality and only if there is continued pressure to reform,’ Asmussen said of the bond purchase plan announced by ECB President Mario Draghi earlier this month.” (Reuters)

And if things were not already difficult enough for Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy, one of my favorite regions of Spain, Catalonia, which includes the beautiful city of Barcelona, is seriously talking about seceding from Spain. As much as 20% of the population (1.5 million) turned out for a march supporting independence last week.

Prime Minister Rajoy met with Catalonia’s president and flatly rejected any autonomy or more money. Catalonians are not happy that they send a great deal of money to Madrid, which goes to other regions as they deal with their own crises. So much for “all for one and one for all.”

The situation is complicated by the fact that the Basque region of Spain has been given a great deal of autonomy in its budget. If Spain were to compromise and give Catalonia the same deal, it would cost the Spanish government a great deal of money and enlarge the already gaping hole in their budget.

“Separately, the parliament of Spain’s most economically important region, Catalonia, approved holding a referendum on independence. Ms Saenz de Santamaria threw down the gauntlet to Spain’s most economically important region, arguing that Madrid could use a constitutional measure to block any attempt at a separatist vote. ‘Not only do instruments exist to prevent [a referendum], there is a government here that is willing to use them,’ she said.” (The Financial Times)

Casually browsing news on the Catalonian crisis, I came across an article on previous referenda concerning independence, held on a city-by-city basis in Catalonia. Independence was favored in nearly all cities by margins of 90% or more. This was rather surprising to me, as I am not certain I could get 90% of my neighbors to agree on the time of day.

In addition to the Basque and Catalonian regions, there are two other northern Spanish regions that send net revenues further south. If you give Catalonia budgetary autonomy, let alone political autonomy, then what do you do for the other two?

Which brings up the uncertainty in the entire euro project. It is one thing to create a common market in which goods and services can freely trade. It is another to impose monetary and fiscal authority on a sovereign nation.

If economic tensions within the regions of Spain begin to move voters to push for independence from central control, how much more inclined will voters in the various eurozone nations be to do so?

Germany is just now entering a recession that has the real potential to get much worse. If Germany is asked to write checks and send them to other countries when they are in the midst of their own financial crisis, how will that play in Bavaria?

The only thing I can be certain about regarding Europe is that Europe is an uncertain mess. But the markets go on treating all these pressures as if they were not real. And, indeed, perhaps the mess will all get sorted out.

It is my belief that we focus on risk because it is something that we can model. The economics profession has physics envy. Economists like to think of themselves as scientists, but I must say that I am not convinced. Economics has a great deal to teach us, but it cannot tell us much about certainty. It can’t even help us all that much to avoid risk.

I fear we don’t pay enough attention to uncertainty because we cannot reduce it to an equation. How did you price in the risk of Catalonia succeeding from Spain, even two months ago? The answer is that no one did.

The US market seems to be focused on the “fiscal cliff” that will inevitably create a recession unless Congress does something. The fact that doing nothing will clearly create a recession gives me some confidence that even Congress will figure out a way to avoid doing nothing. What has not been priced in is what Congress will do about the deficit. Depending on what they do, what we get will be hugely positive or negative. But we remain totally uncertain as to what they will actually do. And so for years we have ignored the looming train wreck that is unfunded liabilities.

It is the fact that the results of inaction on the deficit are uncertain that allows Congress to keep postponing the inevitable.

“About these matters there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever.”

We live in most uncertain times.

It is time to hit the send button on what will be our last Friday night/Saturday morning newsletter. I stop here knowing that I will get to write next Sunday, rather than all night Friday, and I really believe I’ll be more efficient. We’ll see! Have a great week, and you might check out early voting – I already have.

Your going to sleep till the crack of noon analyst,

John Mauldin

Copyright 2012 John Mauldin. All Rights Reserved.