Moral Markets and Other People's Money

Guido has just got round to reading The Big Short by Michael Lewis, author of the eighties-era defining Liar’s Poker. It is the most readable book on the American sub-prime crisis that was the catalyst for the global sovereign debt crisis we now face. Essentially Lewis has found and written the story of the few who not only foresaw the crisis but bet on it, big bets. Was it moral for traders to bet that sub-prime lending would end in disaster? Via synthetic Collateralised Debt Obligations risk was added to the financial system, purely for speculative purposes. In a free society with a free economy it is good that consenting capitalists are allowed to take risks, the problem was that the PhD-equipped quantitative-modelling geeks who inhabit investment bank trading rooms got the models for analysing risk completely wrong. The ratings agencies bought into the models because their customers demanded it. When it all went wrong governments and central banks stepped in to bailout banks out of fear that the financial system would fail. The banks had allegedly become too big to fail.

Guido was an investment banker, has a lot of friends who are investment bankers, hell Guido even married an investment banker. Since the days of the Long Term Capital debacle at dinner parties Guido has argued that the problem with investment banking was that the geeks had brilliant reasons for losing big money, in that they had complex models that impressed management better than traditional trader’s gut instinct. The second problem was that investment banks were no longer partnerships, they were publicly listed companies, with shareholders who were not involved in day-to-day management. This has proved to be a disastrous form of capitalism, with owners who don’t know what the managers of their money are doing.

Up until Salomon Brothers listed in 1981 the investment banks were partnerships. That meant the firm’s capital was provided and risked by the partners who ran the firm. The oldest and most experienced partners tended to have the most capital in the firm. This had a risk management effect greater than any Nobel Prize winning computer-calculated risk model, the old guy with the grey hair stood to lose everything when some testosterone charged 27 year-old trader bet the firm’s capital. This incentivised senior management to control risk, because they know there are old traders and there are bold traders but there are very few old, bold traders. The bosses’ desire to keep their retirement pots concentrated their minds.

Michael Lewis points out that public listings transferred all the risks from management partners to the firm’s shareholders who had no idea what risks were being taken. Now we have huge financial combines with managements incentivised to bet the shareholders capital big, win and get out with their annual bonus. If they lose, the shareholders lose, or if they lose really big the taxpayer eventually bails them out because they have retail banking High Street subsidiaries which democratic governments are terrified will be dragged under as well. Capitalism with the risk being taken with Other People’s Money has the same fundamental problem associated with socialist governments spending Other People’s Money. Why worry if it isn’t your money?

Downing Street is briefing that the PM will be promoting the idea of “moral markets”. It is of course human nature to act in your self-interest, what has gone wrong is that the incentives have been given to those who manage the capital to take risks which informed owners would never knowingly take. There is nothing moral in asymmetric markets where the risks are borne by others than those taking the risks. If taxpayers in Western democracies are to implicitly insure retail banks – in effect owning the risk – the cost of that insurance should be such that it is prohibitive for retail banks to take exotic trading risks. Proprietary trading is for proprietors. Moral markets require risk and reward to be fairly priced.

+ + + GDP: 0.5 + + +

Services up by 0.7%. Production up by 0.5%. Much heralded, last time round, construction down by 0.6%. 0.3% margin of error.

Not as bad as expected, but nothing to write home about.

Charles Dallara representing 450 private sector lenders…

“There has been no agreement on any Greek deal or a specific haircut”

+ + + CPI up to 5.2% + + +

A warning

Occupy the Bank of EnglandInflation Helps Central Bankers, Hurts Us All

The “Occupy the London Stock Exchange” and “Occupy Wall Street” crowd have got the wrong target. Living standards are being deliberately and systematically undermined by central bankers not stockbrokers. The London protestors should head over to the Bank of England and their friends in NYC should head for DC. Inflation at 5% is robbing rich and poor alike of our earning power.

In consistently predicting this inflationary mess Guido would happily claim sagacity, but it is pretty basic economics that if the supply of something rises, unless demand increases, the value of it goes down. If you print more money, you get inflation. Simples.

Ben Bernanke and Mervyn King say inflation isn’t a problem, in fact the Bank of England’s official position is that deflation is the danger. The Chancellor says he agrees with the governor. George Osborne also claims he is a “monetary activist”, though since monetary policy is in the hands of the nominally independent Bank of England it is hard to understand how his activism can take effect. He also claims to be a “fiscal conservative” who, when not putting up taxes, spends and borrows more than Gordon Brown. Mervyn King is alright, his pension is inflation protected.

In the think-tanks and on the financial pages the likes of Allister Heath, Dan Hannan, the MPs Douglas Carswell and Steve Baker, as well as yours truly, are all sympathetic to a radical school of economics that is attracting growing interest. The father of this school was an Austrian economics professor, Ludwig von Mises, as the credit crisis deepens his books are selling better, in particular Human Actionin which he warns

There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved.

Capitalism is widely understood as a profit and loss system, through trial and error in free markets we find a more optimal allocation of resources. If central banks deliberately provide cheap and easy credit the creative destruction that is part and parcel of capitalism ceases. The losses and errors are not destroyed, instead they are bailed out until an incredible €2 trillion €uro bailout is the consequence.

Banks under-priced risk because interest rates were too low for too long. The US housing bubble owes its existence to central bankers, the recklessness of investment banks was encouraged by the Fed rescuing investors in Long Term Capital because it was “too big too fail”. The credit crisis of the West is now, finally, approaching “too big to bail” territory. The catastrophe will be greater the longer we try to head off economic reality with short-term bailouts which make things worse in the long-run.

Inflation: Printing Error

On the Today programme this morning George Osborne dismissed the inflation threat “Actually the problem at the moment is too little money… That’s why the independent monetary policy committee came to its judgement” Is that really true?

The MPC has failed for 60 months in a row to meet its inflation target of 2%, inflation will probably come in at 5% next month. That clearly isn’t a deflation problem, it is an inflation problem which gives savers and pensioners on fixed incomes negative real interest rates, deliberately halving the real value of their pensions in little over a decade. That isn’t an unfortunate consequence of government policy, it is a deliberate policy aim because it also halves the government’s debts in real terms as well.

Those dangerous radicals at SAGA, the retirees organisation, are describing QE as aTitanic Disaster,

“QE2 will damage pensions, impoverish pensioners and ultimately risk another crash. Inflation depletes spending power. It does not create growth. This inflation has undermined confidence and caused consumers to retrench, which has actually weakened the economy. The authorities must take heed of these dangers before it’s too late.”

The Monetary Policy Committee is simply no longer even trying to contain inflation, the Federal Reserve in Washington and the Bank of England in London are, in concert with their respective treasuries, deliberately letting inflation go to solve the government debt crisis on the backs of pensioners and prudent savers. The only reason they don’t say it explicitly is because if inflation expectations were to be higher it would feed, reflexively, into even still higher inflation. That is why Mervyn King has disingenuously claimed for 5 years that inflation is “a blip”. Some blip…

This from the party of sound money will hit a key voter demographic hardest, the demographic that is most loyal in voting for the Conservative Party, affluent retirees. David Cameron’s conference speech last week was nowhere near as good as his 2008 speech:

I believe that government’s main economic duty is to ensure sound money and low taxes. Sound money means controlling inflation, keeping spending under control and getting debt down. So we will rein in private borrowing by correcting that big mistake made by Gordon Brown, and restoring the Bank of England’s power to limit debt in the economy.

In government and at the Chancellor’s behest we are seeing the printing of money on a scale never seen before, inflation is uncontrolled, spending is rising, debt is being encouraged to rise. The Chancellor plans to facilitate more private borrowing from the Treasury by poor corporate credit risks and the Bank of England now holds on its books a third of all the government debt outstanding with no credible plan to unwind the hundreds of billions in QE driven government gilt purchases. Sound money? What a joke.

Osborne's Corporatism Isn't Fiscal Conservativism

There is often more truth in satire than news reporting and yesterday gave us an amusing example. The Chancellor’s vague plan for the Treasury to buy small firm’s corporate bonds was reported on by the Daily Mash thus:

Osborne’s offer of credit to thousands of small businesses will make Britain the first conservative-led communist state when the loans are inevitably defaulted and the government ends up owning and running everything.

The Chancellor seems to think the solution to the credit crisis is more debt, even though many businesses are doing the opposite and de-leveraging. Banks make money from lending and they lose money lending to bad credit risks. The government thinks the banks are being too cautious even though the markets think there is serious trouble ahead. Guido thinks the markets have it right.

When challenged to introduce growth-stimulating tax cuts the Chancellor refrains saying that he won’t because he is a “fiscal conservative”. George Osborne presumably would concede that Nigel Lawson was also a fiscal conservative, yet he managed to cut the top marginal tax rate from 60% to 40%. There is nothing fiscally conservative about maintaining a tax rate so perversely high it generates lower revenues by driving high earners out. This isn’t fiscal conservativism, it is political defeatism.

It is even less likely that fiscally conservative Nigel Lawson would countenance Osborne’s proposed socialisation of the corporate credit markets. When the government starts lending money to companies that no one else wants to lend to, you can be sure of one thing, they are going to lose a lot of taxpayers’ money. Billions.

Welcome to Low Tax Ireland

Downing Street will not be best pleased that Twitter has chosen Dublin not London as its European base. Dave and Boris invested in a joint Twitter charm offensive, with No. 10 briefing the Telegraph: “All that matters is that they come to London.”  They didn’t and Ireland’s business Minister Richard Bruton says it “is a massive win and shows there is real ground for Ireland’s claim to be the internet capital of Europe”.

Twitter joins Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Linked-In, Zynga, PayPal, eBay, AOL and Yahoo in Dublin, where the internet hub is generating thousands of high-tech jobs of the future. Can you blame them? Lower corporation tax rates and lower personal tax rates made it an easy decision for Ali Rowghani, the chief financial officer of Twitter. The UK has to become more tax competitive if it wants to attract geographically mobile internet firms.

Fiscally Ireland is doing what has to be done, an expansionary fiscal contraction is well on its way, GDP growth is well above the €urozone average, there is a healthy trade surplus. If the Irish political elite would steel themselves to exit the €uro, implement a controlled default on the bank debts and re-introduce an Irish punt pegged loosely against a basket of $, £ and €, the country would be free to thrive again. With UK banks holding £133 billion of Irish debt (equal to 6% of UK GDP), much of which is secured against London property, Britain’s fate is far more closely tied up with Ireland than Greece. The €uro as we know it is doomed, it is in Britain’s interest to focus on its trading near neighbour and leave Greece to Germany.

IMF Wants More

Back in July the government won a vote to send £9 billion to the IMF by just 28 votes, the tightest margin yet for the Coalition government.[…]

+ READ MORE +

Goldbugs v FT

For years the FT has portrayed investing in gold as akin to flat-earthism, Alan Beattie at the FT is perhaps the most prominent, if not sole, media supporter of Gordon Brown’s sell-off of gold a decade ago. Guido has long lamented the FT’s tendency to follow the latest intellectual fashions and it is no surprise the FT approved of the Balls/Brown sell-off of gold reserves.[…]

+ READ MORE +

UK Now Safer Haven than Germany

Over at the “evidence based” LeftFootFoward blog they have an opinion piece claiming “Osborne’s ‘safe haven’ view is delusional”. Let’s examine the evidence, starting with Sovereign Credit Default Swap rates:

Exhibit A

CDS rates reflect the cost of insuring against the risk of default.[…]

+ READ MORE +

Nouriel Roubini tells the FT…

“Until last year policymakers could always produce a new rabbit from their hat to trigger asset reflation and economic recovery. Zero policy rates, QE1, QE2, credit easing, fiscal stimulus, ring-fencing, liquidity provision to the tune of trillions of dollars and bailing out banks and financial institutions – all have been tried.[…]

+ READ MORE +

Only Believe in Gold

The inevitable is now in process, policy makers are not going to be able to avert inflation and economic retrenchment, markets are starting to recognise reality. The credit of the United States has been downgraded, the euro is in a death spiral, nations teeter on the brink of bankruptcy.[…]

+ READ MORE +

Mirror, Mirror on the Fall

As speculation matures into full-blown witness statements and accusations, Trinity Mirror have called in the law firm Herbert Smith and launched an investigation into phone-hacking across its titles. Until now there have been only present tense denials of such actions.

One shareholder told the FT they expected “nothing less” than an investigation, but it hasn’t come in time to stop the company’s share price going into free fall, with a 9.8% plummet on Monday since Guido, swiftly followed by the BBC, and grudgingly some other papers, began lifting the lid. […]

+ READ MORE +

+++ Labour Votes No To £9.5 Billion to IMF Bailout Fund +++

A few moments ago in Committee Room 14 at the usually staid Statutory Instruments Committee, Labour members voted in the national interest.  Government whips got it through 10/6. Something very rare happened in what is usually the dullest of committees. A dozen or so Tory non-members of the committee came and spoke against affirming the instrument.[…]

+ READ MORE +

Cross-Party Rejection of IMF Increase

As Guido mentioned yesterday, the Statutory Instruments Committee meets today to debate the £9.5 billion the government proposes to export to the IMF en route to Greece and probably the ECB. He hears it is a lively debate and that Labour are set possibly to vote against or abstain from supporting the transfer, potentially forcing a full Commons vote tomorrow…

The day Christine Legarde moves in to the IMF.[…]

+ READ MORE +



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