miércoles, septiembre 10, 2014

HOW THE RICH RULE / PROJECT SYNDICATE


How the Rich Rule

DANI RODRIK


PRINCETON – It is hardly news that the rich have more political power than the poor, even in democratic countries where everyone gets a single vote in elections. But two political scientists, Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University, have recently produced some stark findings for the United States that have dramatic implications for the functioning of democracy – in the US and elsewhere.

The authors’ research builds on prior work by Gilens, who painstakingly collected public-opinion polls on nearly 2,000 policy questions from 1981 to 2002. The pair then examined whether America’s federal government adopted the policy in question within four years of the survey, and tracked how closely the outcome matched the preferences of voters at different points of the income distribution.

When viewed in isolation, the preferences of the “average” voter – that is, a voter in the middle of the income distribution – seem to have a strongly positive influence on the government’s ultimate response. A policy that the average voter would like is significantly more likely to be enacted.

But, as Gilens and Page note, this gives a misleadingly upbeat impression of the representativeness of government decisions. The preferences of the average voter and of economic elites are not very different on most policy matters. For example, both groups of voters would like to see a strong national defense and a healthy economy. A better test would be to examine what the government does when the two groups have divergent views.

To carry out that test, Gilens and Page ran a horse race between the preferences of average voters and those of economic elites – defined as individuals at the top tenth percentile of the income distribution – to see which voters exert greater influence. They found that the effect of the average voter drops to insignificant levels, while that of economic elites remains substantial.

The implication is clear: when the elites’ interests differ from those of the rest of society, it is their views that count – almost exclusively. (As Gilens and Page explain, we should think of the preferences of the top 10% as a proxy for the views of the truly wealthy, say, the top 1% – the genuine elite.)

Gilens and Page report similar results for organized interest groups, which wield a powerful influence on policy formation. As they point out, “it makes very little difference what the general public thinks” once interest-group alignments and the preferences of affluent Americans are taken into account.

These disheartening results raise an important question: How do politicians who are unresponsive to the interests of the vast majority of their constituents get elected and, more important, re-elected, while doing the bidding mostly of the wealthiest individuals?

Part of the explanation may be that most voters have a poor understanding of how the political system works and how it is tilted in favor of the economic elite. As Gilens and Page emphasize, their evidence does not imply that government policy makes the average citizen worse off. Ordinary citizens often do get what they want, by virtue of the fact that their preferences frequently are similar to those of the elite. This correlation of the two groups’ preferences may make it difficult for voters to discern politicians’ bias.

But another, more pernicious, part of the answer may lie in the strategies to which political leaders resort in order to get elected. A politician who represents the interests primarily of economic elites has to find other means of appealing to the masses. Such an alternative is provided by the politics of nationalism, sectarianism, and identity – a politics based on cultural values and symbolism rather than bread-and-butter interests. When politics is waged on these grounds, elections are won by those who are most successful at “priming” our latent cultural and psychological markers, not those who best represent our interests.

Karl Marx famously said that religion is “the opium of the people.” What he meant is that religious sentiment could obscure the material deprivations that workers and other exploited people experience in their daily lives.

In much of the same way, the rise of the religious right and, with it, culture wars over “family values” and other highly polarizing issues (for example, immigration) have served to insulate American politics from the sharp rise in economic inequality since the late 1970s. As a result, conservatives have been able to retain power despite their pursuit of economic and social policies that are inimical to the interests of the middle and lower classes.

Identity politics is malignant because it tends to draw boundaries around a privileged in-group and requires the exclusion of outsiders – those of other countries, values, religions, or ethnicities. This can be seen most clearly in illiberal democracies such as Russia, Turkey, and Hungary. In order to solidify their electoral base, leaders in these countries appeal heavily to national, cultural, and religious symbols.

In doing so, they typically inflame passions against religious and ethnic minorities. For regimes that represent economic elites (and are often corrupt to the core), it is a ploy that pays off handsomely at the polls.

Widening inequality in the world’s advanced and developing countries thus inflicts two blows against democratic politics. Not only does it lead to greater disenfranchisement of the middle and lower classes; it also fosters among the elite a poisonous politics of sectarianism.


Dani Rodrik is Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey. He is the autor , Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions, and Economic Growth and, most recently, The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy.


Facing Reality in the Eurozone


Adair Turner

LONDON – European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s recent speech at the annual gathering of central bankers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, has excited great interest, but the implication of his remarks is even more startling than many initially recognized. If a eurozone breakup is to be avoided, escaping from continued recession will require increased fiscal deficits financed with ECB money. The only question is how openly that reality will be admitted.
The latest economic data have forced eurozone policymakers to face the severe deflationary risks that have been apparent for at least two years. Inflation is stuck far below the ECB’s 2% annual target, and GDP growth has ground to a halt. Without strong policy action, the eurozone, like Japan since the 1990s, faces a lost decade or two of painfully slow growth.
Until last month, growing concern provoked unconvincing policy proposals. Jens Weidmann provided the novel spectacle of a Bundesbank president calling for higher wages. But wage growth will not occur without policy stimulus.
Draghi sought to talk down the euro exchange rate to improve competitiveness. But Japan and China also want competitive exchange rates to spur export growth, and the eurozone already runs a current-account surplus. The German model of export-led growth cannot work for the eurozone as a whole. Structural reform is certainly needed in some countries to increase long-term growth potential; but the impact of structural reform on short-term growth is often negative.
The eurozone needs higher domestic demand to escape the debt overhang left behind by pre-crisis excess. In countries such as Spain and Ireland, private debts grew to unsustainable levels. In others, such as Greece and Italy, public debt also was too high. Household consumption, business investment, and public expenditure have all been cut in an attempt to pay down debt.
But simultaneous public and private deleveraging is bound to depress demand and growth. Faced with private deleveraging in the 1990s, Japan avoided an even deeper depression only by running large public deficits.
That is why eurozone fiscal austerity has become self-defeating. The more aggressively the Italian government, for example, cuts expenditure or increases taxation, the more its public-debt burden – already above 130% of GDP – will likely grow to unsustainable levels.
Until two weeks ago, eurozone policymakers denied this reality. On August 22, at Jackson Hole, Draghi admitted it. Without higher aggregate demand, he argued, structural reform could be ineffective; and higher demand requires fiscal stimulus alongside expansionary monetary policy.
The Italian economists Francesco Giavazzi and Guido Tabellini have spelled out what coordinated fiscal and monetary policy could mean. They propose tax cuts equal to 5% of GDP for 3-4 years in all eurozone countries, financed by very long-term public debt, all of which the ECB should buy. They argue that ECB quantitative easing alone, with no fiscal relaxation, would be ineffective.
Giavazzi and Tabellini’s proposals may entail too large a stimulus. But they also highlight a crucial question: How does quantitative easing stimulate an economy? The Bank of England has presented QE as a purely monetary policy tool that sustains economic growth in the face of necessary and desirable fiscal consolidation. It works, the BoE has argued, by reducing medium-term interest rates, increasing asset prices, and inducing shifts in investor preferences that indirectly stimulate investment and thus demand.
The US Federal Reserve’s position has been more ambiguous. Fed Vice-Chairman Stanley Fischer, like former Chairman Ben Bernanke, has stressed that premature fiscal consolidation can hold back post-crisis recovery. Thus, the Fed has implicitly viewed QE in part as a tool to ensure that rising bond yields do not offset the beneficial impact of large deficits.
The Fed’s position is more persuasive. Fiscal stimulus has a direct and powerful impact on demand. In Milton Friedman’s words, it enters directly into “the current income stream.” Monetary stimulus alone is less direct, takes longer, and risks causing adverse side effects. Continued low interest rates allow unsuccessful companies to struggle on, slowing productivity growth; asset-price rises exacerbate inequality; and monetary stimulus works only by reigniting the private credit growth that generated the debt overhang in the first place.
But if fiscal stimulus must be facilitated by central bank bond purchases to prevent yield increases and to assuage fears about debt sustainability, doesn’t that amount to monetary financing of fiscal deficits?
The answer depends on whether the purchases prove permanent. In Japan, where the central bank now owns government bonds worth 35% of GDP (a level that is rising fast), they undoubtedly will. There is no credible scenario in which Japan can generate fiscal surpluses large enough to repay its accumulated debt: a significant proportion will remain permanently on the Bank of Japan’s balance sheet. Likewise, if Giavazzi and Tabellini’s proposal were adopted, the result would almost certainly be some permanent increase in the ECB’s balance sheet.
Should we admit that possibility explicitly in advance? The argument in favor is that failure to do so would raise fears about how increased public debt would ever be repaid, or about how the ECB would “exit” from a swollen balance sheet, in turn undermining the stimulative impact of fiscal and monetary coordination. The argument against is moral hazard: If we admit that modest ECB-financed deficits are possible and appropriate now, what will prevent politicians and electorates from demanding large and inflationary ECB-financed deficits on other occasions?
The political risks are certainly great. Optimal policy may therefore require a non-transparent fudge; monetary and fiscal “coordination” might mean, after the fact, permanent monetary finance, but without ever openly admitting that possibility. But, fudge or not, Draghi has moved the debate forward dramatically. Without a greater role for fiscal policy, the eurozone will face either continued slow growth or an eventual breakup.


Adair Turner, former Chairman of the United Kingdom’s Financial Services Authority, is a member of the UK’s Financial Policy Committee and the House of Lords.



Restructuring Debt Restructuring

BARRY EICHENGREEN


BERKELEY – Sometimes the worst intentions yield the best results. So it is, unexpectedly, with Argentine debt.

The story begins with Argentina’s financial crisis in 2001-2002. There is no question that the crisis left the country unable to service its debts. But Argentina made no friends by waiting four years to negotiate with its creditors and then offering settlement terms that were stingy by the standards of previous debt restructurings.

Still, the terms were acceptable to the vast majority of the country’s creditors, who exchanged their old claims for new ones worth 30 cents on the dollar. All, that is, except for a few holdouts who bought up the remaining bonds on the cheap and went to court, specifically to the US District Court of the Southern District of New York, asking to be paid in full.

This quixotic strategy met with unexpected success when Federal Judge Thomas Griesa ruled in the holdouts’ favor. Griesa idiosyncratically reinterpreted the pari passu, or equal treatment, clause in the debt contracts to mean that “vulture” funds refusing to participate in the earlier debt exchange should receive not 30 but 100 cents on the dollar.

Griesa’s ruling threatened to hold the Bank of New York Mellon, the Argentine government’s agent, in contempt if it paid other bondholders without also paying the vultures. Effectively barred from servicing its debt on the renegotiated terms, Argentina had little choice but to default again.

This was not an episode from which anyone emerged smelling like a rose. Argentina’s hardball tactics and erratic policies did not endear it to investors. The vultures showed no scruples in profiting at the expense of Argentine taxpayers. They are now deploying the same strategy against the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the world’s poorest countries.

Griesa, for his part, showed no compunction about upending a financial order in which market-based exchanges of old bonds for new ones are used to restructure the debts of countries unable to pay. By making it impossible for sovereigns to restructure, he effectively rendered them unable to borrow in the United States. Ignoring previous precedent and all economic common sense, he threw international financial markets into turmoil.

This prompted various suggestions for reforming sovereign-debt markets. Resuscitating ideas advanced in the wake of Argentina’s earlier default, some experts proposed creating an international bankruptcy court in the IMF. Others suggested that Argentina might issue bonds under European – or even domestic – law.

But experience has shown that bondholders are not inclined to subordinate their claims to some untested international bankruptcy court. The only thing they would like less are obligations whose terms were enforced by courts as easy to manipulate as Argentina’s. As for borrowing in European currencies, Griesa was quick to declare that his rulings would cover such bonds as well.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution to these problems. Investors could agree to insert language into bond contracts that leaves no room for vulture funds.

First, they could clarify the pari passu clause, specifying that it guaranteed comparable treatment for existing bondholders, not for existing bondholders and earlier bondholders whose claims were already extinguished.

Second, issuers could add “aggregation clauses” specifying that an agreement supported by a qualified majority of a country’s bondholders, say, two-thirds, would bind one and all. There was already movement after Argentina’s earlier default to add “collective-action clauses” that allowed the holders of an individual bond issue to take a binding vote to accept a restructuring offer.

But this still allowed the vultures to block the process by buying up a third of a particular bond issue. By contrast, purchasing a third of a country’s entire debt stock, as required for a blocking position when all bondholders vote together, is an altogether more costly proposition.

In 2003, in an article in the American Economic Review, Ashoka Mody and I made the case for these provisions. They are basically what the International Capital Market Association of leading investors and issuers has now agreed to implement, subject to some additional details that need not be examined here.

Why didn’t it happen sooner? The answer is that getting investors to agree is like herding cats. In this case, it required strong behind-the-scenes leadership from the US Treasury.

The agreement is not perfect, and problems remain. Because new contractual provisions are not easily retrofitted into old bonds, it will take years before the clauses are included in the entire stock of debt. Establishing an international bankruptcy court would be a far more efficient solution, but that doesn’t make it feasible. Investors were wise to acknowledge that, in international capital markets, the perfect is the enemy of the good.


Barry Eichengreen is Professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former senior policy adviser at the International Monetary Fund. His most recent book is Exorbitant Privilege: The Rise and Fall of the Dollar and the Future of the International Monetary System.


Europe Takes the QE Baton


By John Mauldin 

Sep 07, 2014



If the wide, wide world of investing doesn’t seem a little strange to you these days, it can only be because you’re not paying attention. If you’re paying attention, strange really isn’t the word you’re probably using in your day-to-day investing conversations; it may be more like weird or bizarre. It increasingly feels like we’re living in the world dreamed up by the creators of DC Comics back in the 1960s, called Bizarro World. In popular culture "Bizarro World" has come to mean a situation or setting that is weirdly inverted or opposite from expectations.

As my Dad would say, “The whole situation seems about a half-bubble off dead center” (dating myself to a time when people used levels that actually had bubbles in them). But I suppose that now, were he with us, he might use the expression to refer to the little bubbles that are effervescing everywhere. In a Bizarro French version of very bubbly champagne (I can hardly believe I’m reporting this), the yield on French short-term bonds went negative this week. If you bought a short-term French bill, you actually paid for the privilege of holding it. I can almost understand German and Swiss yields being negative, but French?

And then Friday, as if to compound the hilarity, Irish short-term bond yields went negative. Specifically, roughly three years ago Irish two-year bonds yielded 23.5%. Today they yield -0.004%! In non-related un-news from Bizarro World, the Spanish sold 50-year bonds at 4% this week. Neither of these statistics yielded up by Bloomberg makes any sense at all. I mean, I understand how they can technically happen and why some institutions might even want 50-year Spanish bonds. But what rational person would pay for the privilege of owning an Irish bond? And does anyone really think that 4% covers the risk of holding Spanish debt for 50 years? What is the over-under bet spread on the euro’s even existing in Spain in 50 years? Or 10, for that matter?


We might be able to lay the immediate, proximate cause of the bizarreness at the feet of ECB President Mario Draghi, who once again went all in last Monday for his fellow teammates in euroland. He gave them another round of rate cuts and the promise of more monetary easing, thus allowing them to once again dodge the responsibility of managing their own economies. The realist in me scratches my already well-scratched head and wonders exactly what sort of business is going to get all exuberant now that the main European Central Bank lending rate has dropped to 0.05% from an already negligible 0.15%. Wow, that should make a lot of deals look better on paper.

We should note that lowering an already ridiculously low lending rate was not actually Signor Draghi’s goal. This week we’ll look at what is happening across the pond in Europe, where the above-mentioned negative rates are only one ingredient in a big pot of Bizarro soup. And we’ll think about what it means for the US Federal Reserve to be so close to the end of its quantitative easing, even as the ECB takes the baton to add €1 trillion to the world’s liquidity. And meanwhile, Japan just keeps plugging away. (Note: this letter will print longer than usual as there are a significant number of graphs. Word count is actually down, for which some readers may be grateful.)

But first, I’m glad that I can finally announce that my longtime friend Tony Sagami has officially come to work for us at Mauldin Economics. Tony has been writing our Yield Shark advisory since the very beginning, but for contractual reasons we could not publicize his name. I will say more at the end of the letter, but for those of you interested in figuring out how to increase the yield of your investments, Tony could be a godsend.

The Age of Deleveraging

Extremely low and even negative interest rates, slow growth, unusual moves by monetary and fiscal authorities, and the generally unseemly nature of the economic world actually all have a rational context and a comprehensible explanation. My co-author Jonathan Tepper and I laid out in some detail in our book End Game what the ending of the debt supercycle would look like. We followed up in our book Code Red with a discussion of one of the main side effects, which is a continual currency war (though of course it will not be called a currency war in public). Both books stand up well to the events that have followed them. They are still great handbooks to understand the current environment.
Such deleveraging periods are inherently deflationary and precipitate low rates. Yes, central banks have taken rates to extremes, but the low-rate regime we are in is a natural manifestation of that deleveraging environment. I’ve been doing a little personal research on what I was writing some 15 years ago (just curious), and I came across a prediction from almost exactly 15 years ago in which I boldly and confidently (note sarcasm) projected that the 10-year bond would go below 4% within a few years. That was a little edgy back then, as Ed Yardeni was suggesting it might go below 5% by the end of the following year. That all seems rather quaint right now. The Great Recession would send the 10-year yield below 2%.

Sidebar: The yield curve was also negative at the time, and I was calling for recession the next year. With central banks holding short-term rates at the zero bound, we no longer have traditional yield-curve data to signal a recession. What’s a forecaster to do?

I was not the only one talking about deflation and deleveraging back then. Drs. Gary Shilling and Lacy Hunt (among others) had been writing about them for years. The debt supercycle was also a favorite topic of my friend Martin Barnes (and prior to him Tony Boeckh) at Bank Credit Analyst.

Ever-increasing leverage clearly spurs an economy and growth. That leverage can be sustained indefinitely if it is productive leverage capable of creating the cash flow to pay for itself. Even government leverage, if it is used for productive infrastructure investments, can be self-sustaining. But ever-increasing leverage for consumption has a limit. It’s called a debt supercycle because that limit takes a long time to come about. Typically it takes about 60 or 70 years. Then something has to be done with the debt and leverage. Generally there is a restructuring through a very painful deflationary bursting of the debt bubble – unless governments print money and create an inflationary bubble. Either way, the debt gets dealt with, and generally not in a pleasant manner.

We are living through an age of deleveraging, which began in 2008. Gary Shilling summarized it this week in his monthly letter:

We continue to believe that slow worldwide growth is the result of the global financial deleveraging that followed the massive expansion of debt in the 1980s and 1990s and the 2008 financial crisis that inevitably followed, as detailed in our 2010 book, The Age of Deleveraging: Investment strategies for a decade of slow growth and deflation. We forecast back then that the result in the U.S. would be persistent 2% real GDP growth until the normal decade of deleveraging is completed. Since the process is now six years old, history suggests another four years or so to go.

We’ve also persistently noted that this deleveraging is so powerful that it has largely offset massive fiscal stimuli in the form of tax cuts and rebates as well as huge increases in federal spending that resulted in earlier trillion-dollar deficits. It has also swamped the cuts in major central bank interest rates to essentially zero that were followed by gigantic central bank security purchases and loans that skyrocketed their balance sheets.  Without this deleveraging, all the financial and monetary stimuli would surely have pushed real GDP growth well above the robust 1982–2000 3.7% average instead of leaving it at a meager 2.2% since the recovery began in mid-2009.

The problems the developed world faces today are the result of decisions made to accumulate large amounts of debt over the past 60 years. These problems cannot be solved simply by the application of easy-money policies. The solution will require significant reforms, especially labor reforms in Europe and Japan, and a restructuring of government obligations.

Mohammed El-Erian called it the New Normal. But it is not something that happens for just a short period of time and then we go back to normal. Gary Shilling cites research which suggests that such periods typically last 10 years – but that’s if adjustments are allowed to happen. Central banks are fighting the usual adjustment process by providing easy money, which will prolong the period before the adjustments are made and we can indeed return to a “normal” market.

How Bizarre Is It?

We are going to quickly run through a number of charts, as telling the story visually will be better than spilling several times 1000 words (and easier on you). Note that many of these charts display processes unfolding over time. We try to go back prior to the Great Recession in many of these charts so that you can see the process. We are going to focus on Europe, since that is where the really significant anomalies have been occurring.

First, let’s look at what Mario Draghi is faced with. He finds himself in an environment of low inflation, and expectations for inflation going forward are even lower. This chart depicts inflation in the two main European economies, Germany and France.



Note too that inflation expectations for the entire euro area are well below 1% for the next two years – notwithstanding the commitment of the European Central Bank to bring back inflation.



But as I noted at the beginning, ECB policy has already reached the zero bound. In fact the overnight rate is negative, making cash truly trash if it is deposited with the ECB.



With inflation so low and a desperate scramble for yield going on in Europe, rates for 10-year sovereign debt have plummeted. It is not that Italy or Spain or Greece or Ireland or France is that much less risky than it was five years ago.

Note that banks can get deposits for essentially nothing. They can lever those deposits up (30 or 40 times), and the regulators make them reserve no capital against investments made in sovereign debt. Even after their experience with Greek debt, they essentially claim that there is no risk in sovereign debt. If your bank’s profits are being squeezed and it’s hard to find places to put money to work in the business sector, then the only game in town is to buy sovereign debt, which is what banks are doing. Which of course pushes down rates. Low interest rates in Europe are as much a result of regulatory policy as of monetary policy.

Next is a chart of 10-year bond yields. We’ve also included the US, Japan, and Switzerland. Note that Japan and Switzerland are in the 50-basis-point range. (Japan is at 0.52%, and Switzerland is at 0.45%). Italy and Spain now have 10-year bond yields below that of the US.


The following chart is a screenshot of a table from Bloomberg, listing 10-year bond yields around Europe. Note that Greece is at 5.48%. Hold that thought while you look at the table.



This next chart requires a minute or two of analysis, and looking at it in black and white probably won’t work. Essentially, this is the spread of the yields of 10-year bonds of various European countries over German bunds. Note that only two years ago Greek debt paid 25% per year more than German debt did. Anyone who bought Greek debt when that country was busy defaulting has scored big. (While I probably take far too much risk in my portfolio, I will readily admit to not having enough nerve to do something like that.) The other thing to note, and it is a little bit more difficult to see on this chart, is that for all intents and purposes the market is treating European-wide EFSF debt as German debt. There are only 10 basis points of difference.



Now let’s take a little stroll through history and view a chart of the yield curve of French debt. The top dotted line is where the yield curve was on January 1, 2007. We took our first look at this chart last Tuesday in preparation for this letter, noting that short-term French debt was at the zero bound. It went negative on Thursday, and negative all the way out to two years! Note that a 50-year French note (which I’m not sure actually trades) yields a hypothetical 2.5%, only modestly more than a 30-year would yield. You might have to have the patience of Job, and I’m not sure quite how you would go about executing the trade, but that has to be one of the most loudly screaming shorts I’ve ever seen!



Here is the equivalent chart for the German yield curve going back to January 2007. Note that German debt has a negative yield out to three years!!!


While it should surprise no one, German long-term bond yields are at historic lows. I recall reading that Spanish bond yields are lower now than they have been at any other time in their history. I actually applaud the Spanish government for issuing 50-year bonds at 4%. I can almost guarantee you the day will come when Spain looks back at those 4% bonds with fondness. (I assume that the buyers are pension funds or insurance companies engaged in a desperate search for yield. I guess the extra 2% over a ten-year bond looks attractive … at least in the short term.)

And finally, let’s really widen our time horizon on German yields:



Time to Ramp up the Currency War

The yen hit a six-year low this week (over 105 to the dollar), creating even more of a problem for Germany and other European exporters to Asia. The chart below shows that Germany’s exports to the BRIICS except China are down significantly over the past few years, partially due to competition from Japan as the yen has dropped against the euro.

The yen-versus-euro problem (at least from Germany’s standpoint) is exacerbated by the remarkable appetite of Japanese investors for French bonds. This has been going on for over a year. In May and June of this year alone, Japanese investors bought $29.3 billion worth of French notes maturing at one year or more (presumably, this was before rates went negative). Note that even with minimal yields, the Japanese investors are up because of the currency play. (Interestingly, Japanese investors are dumping German bonds, again a yield play.)

Japanese analysts say that Japanese investors are hesitant to take the risks on the higher-yielding Italian and Spanish bonds, but for some reason they see almost no risk in French bonds. (Obviously not many Thoughts from the Frontline readers in Japan.) This behavior, of course, helps to drive down the price of the yen relative to the euro. (Source, Bloomberg)



Interesting side note: the third-largest country holding of US treasuries behind Japan and China is now Belgium. When you first read that, you have to do a double-take. Digging a little deeper, you find out there’s been a 41% surge in Belgian ownership of US bonds in just the first five months of this year. As it turns out, Euroclear Bank SA, a provider of security settlements for foreign lenders, is based in Belgium and is where countries can go to buy bonds they are not holding in their own treasuries. This buying surge is helping hold down US yields even as the Federal Reserve is reducing its QE program. Further, there is serious speculation, or rather speculation from serious sources, that Russian oligarchs are piling into US dollars by the tens of billions, again through Belgium.

Europe Takes the Baton

It is probably only a coincidence that just as the Fed ends QE, Europe will begin its own QE program. Note that the ECB has reduced its balance sheet by over $1 trillion in the past few years (to the chagrin of much of European leadership). There is now “room” for the ECB to work through various asset-buying programs to increase its balance sheet by at least another trillion over the next year or so, taking the place of the Federal Reserve. Draghi intends to do so.

Risk-takers should take note. European earnings per share are significantly lower than those of any other developed economy. Indeed, while much of the rest of the world has seen earnings rise since the market bottom in 2009, the euro area has been roughly flat.



Both the US and Japanese stock markets took off when their respective central banks began QE programs. Will the same happen in Europe? QE in Europe will have a little bit different flavor than the straight-out bond buying of Japan or the US, but they will still be pushing money into the system. With yields at all-time lows, European investors may start looking at their own stock markets. Just saying.

Draghi also knows there is really no way to escape his current conundrum without reigniting European growth. One of the textbook ways to achieve easy growth is through currency devaluation; and as we wrote in Code Red, the ECB will step up and do what it can to cheapen the euro in competition with Japan.

Just as the world is getting fewer dollars (in a world where global trade is done in dollars), Draghi is going to flood the world with euros.

Bank of Japan Governor Kuroda has steered the BOJ to where it now owns 20% of all outstanding Japanese government debt and is buying 70% of all newly issued Japanese bonds. The BOJ hoped that by driving down long-term rates it could encourage Japanese banks to invest and lend more, but bond-hungry regional Japanese banks are still snapping up long-term Japanese bonds, even at 50 basis points of yield. Given the current environment, the Bank of Japan cannot stop its QE program without creating a spike in yields that the government of Japan could not afford. Hence I think it’s unlikely that Japanese QE will end anytime soon, thus putting further pressure on the yen.

The BOJ is going to continue to buy massive quantities of bonds and erode the value of the yen over time in an effort to get 2% inflation.

In a world where populations in developed countries are growing older and are thus more interested in fixed-income securities, yields are going to be challenged for some time. Those planning retirement are going to generally need about twice what would have been suggested only 10 or 15 years ago in order to be able to achieve the same income. Welcome to the world of financial repression, brought to you by your friendly local central bank.

Introducing Tony Sagami

When we first launched Mauldin Economics some two years ago, my partners and I thought there was a need for a good fixed-income letter with a little different style and focus. My very first phone call was to my longtime friend Tony Sagami, to ask if he would write it. I have known Tony for almost 25 years. We have worked together, he has worked for me, and we have been competitors, but we’ve always been good friends.

Even though he now lives in Bangkok most of the year, we still visit regularly by email and Skype, and try to make a point of catching up in some part of the world at least twice a year. In addition to his talents as a writer, Tony brings a seasoned perspective and huge experience as a trader and investor. (Seasoned is a technical term for getting older, having made lots of instructive mistakes in your early years.) He has a way of taking my macro ideas and efficiently and effectively putting them to work. I know Yield Shark subscribers must be happy, because our renewal rates are very high by industry standards.

As I mentioned early in the letter, for contractual reasons we haven’t been able to name Tony as the editor of Yield Shark. I’m really pleased that we can do so now. Tony was recently in Dallas, and we did a short video together so that I could introduce him. You can watch the video and learn more about Tony here. You will soon be receiving information from my partners about a new newsletter that Tony will also be writing, which we are tentatively calling The Rational Bear.

A special hat tip goes to my associate Worth Wray for finding and creating most of the charts for this week. Plus helping me think through the letter. He has been a huge help this last year.

You have a great week and take a friend who tells great stories to lunch. It will do wonders for your outlook on life.

Your still can’t believe negative French interest rates analyst,

John Mauldin