Sunday, September 30, 2012

No Bank Runs Allowed

You might suppose that zero interest rates, and their attendant distorting effects on the capital markets, would be enough financial repression to last a lifetime, but you might be wrong.  This past week, our benevolent Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, came out in favor of more repressive policies, this time targeted at money market fund investors.

Reforming Money Market Funds
Government financial overseers have for some time been reviewing a proposal to make money market funds less vulnerable to the systemic risks that plague our world, and which might otherwise lead funds to "break the buck" with shareholders.  The stated objective is to limit runs on money market funds that might further destabilize the financial system during periods of financial panic.
Apparently, the Securities and Exchange Commission was not convinced that this proposal was the right way to achieve that end, and it declined to act.  Such caution was not in Secretary Geithner's playbook, so he went over the head of the SEC and this past week issued a letter to the Financial Stability Oversight Council urging action.
Geithner's letter said that, without this measure, “our financial system will remain vulnerable to runs and instability.”  Although stability is a very laudable goal, we know that the Secretary and his friends have tended to go overboard before, and so maybe we ought to examine this proposal before he gets his way
What Would Happen to Your Money
Among the proposed "reforms" are features that provide a floating price for a money market fund.  That would work by defining a fraction of each investor's balance as the "minimum balance at risk", which would absorb losses if the fund was liquidated.  Redemptions of the minimum balance at risk would be delayed by 30 days.  In the event of an imminent financial crisis, this would force investors to remain partially invested in the fund long enough "to share in any imminent portfolio losses or costs of their redemptions."  In other words, no bank runs allowed.

What Would Not Change
Of course, even today investors in money market funds are not immune to loss, and the new rules would not change this.  Even under present rules, another crisis could arise suddenly and "break the buck" before any money market shareholder could react by withdrawing funds.

On the other hand, people who observe the financial landscape and actively manage their investments might in some circumstances be forced by the new rules to take losses that they could otherwise avoid if the financial system visibly destabilizes over a period of weeks or days.  Of course, people always think that they can get out of the door before the rest of the crowd, and a 30 day redemption delay might or might not make a difference in individual outcomes.
This Benefits the Banks, Not You
It is easy to predict that risk-averse people will withdraw money from money market funds and move them to safer investments if this proposal is adopted.  An official acknowledgement of the risks to money market funds would likely change investor perceptions and might prompt many to move their money elsewhere.  Maybe this is what Geithner and his friends in the financial community want.

It is easy to see who will benefit.  Risk-averse people would move money into insured bank deposits, on which the banks pay very little interest.  In other words, the proposed new rules would provide the banks with very cheap new funds.  With about $2.7 trillion in money market funds, this could provide the banks with a huge amount of cheap new funds. 
Cheap, new funds are exactly what the banks need to improve their balance sheets and continue their recovery from the financial crash -- and continue raking in profits at the expense of American savers. 
Of course the banks want your money market fund.  When the next "Lehman moment" hits, do you think the American people will allow their elected representatives to vote more money for the banks again?   Maybe the banks will need your money market fund.
A Signal That All Is Not Well
This is not to say that all the money withdrawn from money market funds will go to the banks.  Maybe some will go into Treasury bills, and maybe some will look for other havens.  Jesse's Cafe Americain wrote:  "I think quite a bit will go into gold and silver as people sicken of the financial repression of the Banks and their friends". 

It makes sense.  Money market funds have long been seen as a safe investment.  If the government changes the rules on money market funds, it will be a signal to the American people that something is wrong.  It will become more evident to shareholders that the financial system is not yet healed, that systemic risk remains high, and that the government has been extending and pretending.  It may even become clear that nothing has been done to solve the basic problems of indebtedness and leverage that got us into this mess.  People look for ultimate havens in circumstances like that.
The Zero Hedge blog started to raise the alarm on the proposed "reform" of money market funds starting about two years ago, and they revisited the topic this past week when Geithner's letter appeared.  I have no idea if the rules will be adopted, but the appearance of Geithner's letter shows that official circles are still highly concerned.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Trust is Still the Issue

Trust Restored!

The S&P stock index has doubled over the past three years, since making its low point in March 2009 in the wake of the 2007-2009 financial crisis.   After this protracted advance, it is hardly fashionable to utter a bearish word about stocks.   In fact, the apparent progress that the US has made in repairing the damage inflicted by the bursting of an unprecedented bubble of debt and speculation seems to have renewed many Americans' trust in the markets, the economy, and the health of the financial system.

Well, Not Really

All of this celebratory hullabaloo is mere appearance, of course, and a look beneath the surface reveals that trust is still the issue.  Crises triggered by extremes of debt always play out over many years.  The underlying causes of the present crisis have barely begun to be addressed.  So far, they have merely been papered over by an official policy of "extend and pretend", and the financial system has been kept alive only by extraordinary monetary policy.

 These extraordinary policies have entirely destroyed the trust necessary for prudent investing.

No Way to Assess Investments

There is no way for investors to make prudent investing decisions, because prudent investment analysis is now impossible.  Analysis requires plausible, trustworthy assumptions about future cash flows.  This means assumptions about factors such as interest rates, asset values, bond coupons, etc. over the lifetime of the investment.   Can you really trust any set of assumptions about these things today? 

Chaotic Policy

In today's world, the future value of every security and every real world asset depends totally on unpredictable, even chaotic factors.   As Doug Noland reminded us in his Credit Bubble Bulletin:  "How does one go about modeling future cash flows and valuing assets when there is every indication that the current monetary backdrop is both unstable and unsustainable?"   There is no way to know how far central bankers will go in their program of money creation.  If you cannot make reasonable assumptions about the range of future interest rates, or even the value of your own currency, how can you seriously evaluate any investment proposition? 

It is useless to evaluate the future of a firm, and industry, and even the economic growth of a nation when the future of every one of these things depends on policy decisions made by bureaucrats and politicians.   The whim of individuals is unpredictable (unless you own the bureaucrats and politicians).

Broken Financial System

There is also the risk that events will be taken out of the hands of central bankers, because they have no more options left.  Mohammed El Erian addressed the St. Louis Fed recently, saying that central bank actions are having "declining effectiveness" and the bankers must hope for a handoff to other actors.  This can only mean fiscal actions by the legislative branch, which is hardly likely to occur in an age of constrained budgets.   If the bankers are reduced to hope, the system is truly broken, and we are reduced to passively waiting for the next speculative financial disaster.  A ticking time bomb is hardly reason for trust in the future.

Broken Fiscal System

The federal budget deficit is out of the headlines at the moment, but the debt burden continues to mount.  Growth is insufficient to raise tax revenues in this low-growth era, and the burdens of government are growing in every sphere -- old age, unemployment, infrastructure deterioration, increasing international competition, etc.   The US is fortunate that European troubles are in the headlines now, and the US is viewed as the best of a bad lot among the nations of the developed world.  The fiscal trajectory of the US is unsustainable, and it is just a question of when concerns will reemerge, and how severe the crisis will be.  Whether the outcome is extreme austerity, a rise in real interest rates, or more financial repression, it will be accompanied by a crisis of trust.

Broken Markets

The future of an investment is always clouded with uncertainty, but at least we can see the price at which we buy a thing.  We want to "buy low" and so we use various metrics to assess present prices.  But what use is this when the market's price-setting mechanism is broken?   Market manipulation is now the rule, not the exception.  If risk-free interest rates are artificially low, it costs nearly nothing to borrow money to speculate in risky assets.  If governments purchase mortgages or Treasury notes or other assets in quantity, we lose trust in the prices of those classes of securities.   When market prices fail to communicate the visible risks in the most common of securities, what trust can we have in any asset price? 

A Connected System

Meanwhile, the European debt situation continues to deteriorate.  Now that Greece has restructured, Spain is starting to come apart, and politicians are once again making pretenses that they will be able to cut budgets and generate revenues to resume a stable path for that country.  As we saw with Greece, this is only a game, and it is only a question of when and where the pain will fall -- haircuts for bond holders, austerity and unemployment for the common people, or political disunion for Europe.  In a connected financial system, the fallout will touch everyone, even in the US, yet another reason to lack trust.

The Reciprocal of Trust

I have no idea what to do when politicians fail to properly manage the world's fiscal and monetary affairs, but at least one person has a decided opinion.  Jim Grant was back in the financial news recently, reminding us that, in his cosmology, gold is the reciprocal of trust.