It’s my overarching thesis that the world is in the waning days of a historic multi-decade experiment in unfettered finance. As I have posited over the years, international finance has for too long been effectively operating without constraints on either the quantity or the quality of Credit issued. From the perspective of unsound finance on a globalized basis, this period has been unique. History, however, is replete with isolated episodes of booms fueled by bouts of unsound money and Credit - monetary fiascos inevitably ending in disaster. I see discomforting confirmation that the current historic global monetary fiasco’s disaster phase is now unfolding. It is within this context that readers should view recent market instability.
It’s been 25 years of analyzing U.S. finance and the great U.S. Credit Bubble. When it comes to sustaining the Credit boom, at this point we’ve seen the most extraordinary measures along with about every trick in the book. When the banking system was left severely impaired from late-eighties excess, the Greenspan Fed surreptitiously nurtured non-bank Credit expansion.
Importantly, the promotion of “market-based” finance dictated a subtle yet profound change in policymaking. A functioning New Age financial structure required that the Federal Reserve backstop the securities markets. And especially in a derivatives marketplace dominated by “dynamic hedging” (i.e. buying or selling securities to hedge market “insurance” written), the Fed was compelled to guarantee “liquid and continuous” markets. This changed just about everything.
Contemporary finance is viable only so long as players can operate in highly liquid securities markets where price adjustments remain relatively contained. This is not the natural state of how markets function. The bullish premise of readily insurable/hedgeable market risks rests upon those having written protection being able to effectively off-load risk onto markets that trade freely without large price gaps/dislocations. And, sure enough, perceptions of liquid and continuous markets do create their own reality (Soros’ reflexivity). Sudden fear of market illiquidity and dislocation leads to financial crashes.
U.S. policymaking and finance changed profoundly after the “tech” Bubble collapse. Larger market intrusions and bailouts gave way to Federal Reserve talk of “helicopter money” and the “government printing press” necessary to fight the scourge of deflation. Mortgage finance proved a powerful expedient. In hindsight, 2002 was the fateful origin of both the historic mortgage finance Bubble along with “do whatever it takes” central banking. The global policy response to the 2008 Bubble collapse unleashed Contemporary Finance’s Bubble Dynamics throughout the world - China and EM in particular.
There are myriad serious issues associated with New Age finance and policymaking going global. The bullish consensus view holds that China and EM adoption of Western finance has been integral to these economies’ natural and beneficial advancement. Having evolved to the point of active participants in “globalization,” literally several billion individuals have the opportunity to prosper from and promote global free-market Capitalism. Such superficial analysis disregards this Credit and market cycles’ momentous developments.
The analysis is exceptionally complex – and has been so for a while now. The confluence of sophisticated finance, esoteric leverage, the highly speculative nature of market activity and the prominent role of government market manipulation has created an extremely convoluted backdrop. Still, a root cause of current troubles can be boiled down to a more manageable issue: “Contemporary finance” and EM just don’t mix. Seductively, the two appeared almost wonderfully compatible - but that ended with the boom phase. For starters, the notion of “liquid and continuous” markets is pure fantasy when it comes to “developing” economies and financial systems. As always, “money” gushes in and rushes out of EM. Submerged in destabilizing finance, EM financial, economic and political systems become, as always, overwhelmed and dysfunctional. And as always is the case, the greater the boom the more destabilizing the bust.
In general, reckless “money” printing has over years produced a massive pool of destabilizing global speculative finance. Simplistically, egregious monetary inflation (along with zero return on savings) ensured that there was way too much “money” chasing too few risk assets. Every successful trade attracted too much company. Successful strategies spurred a proliferation of copycats and massive inflows. Strong markets were flooded with finance. Perceived robust economies were overrun. Popular regions were completely inundated. To be sure, the post-crisis “Global Reflation Trade” amounted to history’s greatest international flow of speculative finance. Dreadfully, now comes The Unwind.
From individual trades, to themes to strategic asset-class and regional market allocations, speculative “hot money” flows have reversed course. Global deleveraging and de-risking has commenced. The fallacy of “liquid and continuous” markets is being exposed. Faith that global central bankers have things under control has begun to wane. And for the vast majority in the markets it remains business as usual. Another buying opportunity.
Whether on the basis of an individual trade or a popular theme, boom-time success ensured that contemporary (trend-following and performance-chasing) market dynamics spurred speculative excess and associated structural impairment. They also ensured latent Crowded Trade fragilities (notably illiquid and discontinuous “risk off” markets).
Crowded Trade Dynamics ensure that a rush for the exits has folks getting trampled. Previous relationships break down and time-tested strategies flail. “Genius” fails. When the Crowd decides it wants out, the market turns bereft of buyers willing and able to take the other side of the trade. And the longer the previous success of a trade, theme or strategy the larger The Crowd - and the more destabilizing The Unwind. Previous performance and track records will offer little predictive value. Models (i.e. “risk parity” and VAR!) will now work to deceive and confound.
Today, a Crowd of “money” is rushing to exit EM. The Crowd seeks to vacate a faltering Chinese Bubble. “Money” wants out of Crowded global leveraged “carry trades.” In summary, the global government finance Bubble has been pierced with profound consequences. Of course there will be aggressive policy responses. I just fear we’ve reached The Unwind phase where throwing more liquidity at the problem only exacerbates instability. Sure, the ECB and BOJ could increase QE – in the process only further stoking king dollar at the expense of faltering energy, commodities, EM and China. And the Fed could restart it program of buying U.S. securities. Bolstering U.S. markets could also come at the expense of faltering Bubbles around the globe.
It has been amazing to witness the expansion of Credit default swap (CDS) markets to all crevices of international finance. To see China’s “shadow banking” assets balloon to $5 Trillion has been nothing short of astonishing. Then there is the explosion of largely unregulated Credit insurance throughout Chinese debt markets – and EM generally. I find it incredible that Brazil’s central bank would write $100 billion of currency swaps (offering buyers protection against devaluation). Throughout it all, there’s been an overriding certitude that policymakers will retain control. Unwavering faith in concerted QE infinity, as necessary. The fallacy of liquid and continuous markets persisted so much longer than I ever imagined.
I feel I have a decent understanding of how the Fed and global central bankers reflated the system after the 2008 collapse of the mortgage finance Bubble. The Federal Reserve collapsed interest-rates to zero, while expanding its holdings (Fed Credit) about $1 Trillion. Importantly, the Fed was able to incite a mortgage refinance boom, where hundreds of billions of suspect “private-label” mortgages were transformed into (money-like) GSE-backed securities (becoming suitable for Fed purchase). The Fed backstopped the securities broker/dealer industry, the big banks and money funds. Washington backed Fannie, Freddie and the FHLB, along with major derivative players such as AIG. The Fed injected unprecedented amounts of liquidity into securities markets, more than content to devalue the dollar. Importantly, with the benefit of international reserve currency status and debt denominated almost exclusively in dollars, U.S. currency devaluation appeared relatively painless.
These days I really struggle envisaging how global policymakers reflate after the multi-dimensional collapse of the global government finance Bubble. We’re already witness to China’s deepening struggles. Stimulus over the past year worked primarily to inflate a destabilizing stock market Bubble that has gone bust. They (again) were forced to backtrack from currency devaluation. Acute fragilities associated both with massive financial outflows and enormous amounts of foreign currency-denominated debt were too intense. Markets are skeptical of Chinese official signals that the renminbi will be held stable against the dollar.
Market players instead seem to be interpreting China’s efforts to stabilize their currency as actually raising the probability for future abrupt policy measures (significant devaluation and capital controls) or perhaps a highly destabilizing uncontrolled breakdown in the peg to the U.S. dollar.
And as China this week imposed onerous conditions on some currency derivative trading/hedging, it’s now clear that Chinese officials support contemporary market-based finance only when it assists their chosen policy course. How long will Chinese officials tolerate spending international reserves to allow “money” to exit China at top dollar?
September 3 – Financial Times (Henny Sender and Robin Wigglesworth): “Lee Cooperman, the founder of Omega Advisors, has joined the growing chorus of investors blaming last week's stock market sell-off — and his own poor performance in August — on esoteric but increasingly influential trading strategies pioneered by hedge funds like Bridgewater. In a letter to investors…, Mr Cooperman and his partner Steven Einhorn said fundamental factors such as China's ructions and uncertainty over the US interest rate outlook ‘cannot fully explain the magnitude and velocity of the decline in equity markets last month’… ‘These technical factors can push the market away from fundamentals,’ Marko Kolanovic, a senior JPMorgan strategist, noted in a widely circulated report last week. ‘The obvious risk is if these technical flows outsize fundamental buyers. In the current environment of low liquidity, they may cause a market crash such as the one we saw on [August 24]. These investors are selling equities and will negatively impact the market over coming days and weeks.’”
I wholeheartedly agree with the statement “technical factors can push the market away from fundamentals.” Indeed, that’s been the case now for going on seven years. A confluence of unprecedented monetary inflation, interest-rate manipulation, government deficits and leveraged speculation inflated a historic divergence between securities markets Bubbles and underlying fundamentals. The global Bubble is now faltering. Risk aversion is taking hold. De-leveraging is accelerating.
The yen jumped 2.2% this week. Japanese stocks were hit for 7%. The Brazilian real sank 7.3%. The South African rand dropped 4.2%. The Turkish lira dropped another 2.9% and the Russian ruble sank 5.0%. China sovereign CDS surged, pulling Asian CDS higher throughout.
The Hang Seng China H-Financials Index sank another 7.4% this week, having now declined 39% from June highs. From my vantage point, market action points to serious unfolding financial dislocation in China. It also would appear that a large swath of the leveraged speculating community is facing some real difficulty.
After a rough trading session and an ominous week for global markets, I was struck by Friday evening headlines. From the Wall Street Journal: “An Investor’s Field Guild to Bottom Fishing;” “Global CEOs See Emerging Markets As Rich With Opportunity.” From CNBC: “Spike in Volatility Creates ‘Traders Paradise.” And from the Financial Times: “Wall Street Waiting for Those Buy Signals;” “Time to Buy EM Stocks, History Suggests;” “Why I’m Adding Emerging Markets Exposure Despite China Wobble;” “G20 Defies Gloom to Forecast Rise in Growth.”
There still seems little recognition of the seriousness of the unfolding global market dislocation.
It’s destined to be a wrenching bear market – at best.