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Archive for the ‘Banking crisis’ Category

Beyond the stock market correction

The current stock market correction is likely to be over quite soon, the fund manager Neil Woodford suggested yesterday, and I suspect that he is right for now. His view, sensible as always, is that the main reason for the market’s fall is that investors have taken fright at the evidence of slower than hoped for global economic growth, particularly in Japan and Europe, plus a number of other contingent factors. The market correction, the sharpest for over two years, is long overdue, given increasing investor complacency in the face of Federal Reserve and other central bank manipulation of market prices. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

October 17, 2014 at 10:28 AM

It’s all about her background, stupid

There is a long and interesting profile of Janet Yellen, the head of the Federal Reserve, in the latest issue of the New Yorker. As you might expect from this longstanding voice of the liberal New York elite, it paints her in a  sympathetic light, and usefully draws attention to how and where her views about the role of economics and the central bank were formed.  Here is a short extract, in which the author picks up on the fact that her first official public appearance after succeeding Ben Bernanke in the job was carefully chosen to send a message about her priorities:

She had gone to Chicago a few weeks earlier to speak at a conference for neighbourhood revitalisation organisations – not the venue a new Fed chair wouuld ordinarily choose for a maiden speech. Yellen was sending a signal. As she put it that day “Although we work through financial markets, our goal is to help Main Street, not Wall Street”. More than five years after the financial crisis, historically high numbers of Americans are still out of the labor force, working part time when they’d rather be full time, or unemployed for more than six months. Yellen spoke mainly about unemployment, and told the stories of three blue-collar Chiacagoans, two black, one white, who had lost their jobs in the recession. Her staff had found these people for her, and she had spoken to them on the phone before her speech. Two of the three – from Chicago’s desperately poor West Side – had criminal records.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

July 28, 2014 at 4:21 PM

Is Janet Yellen really a closet hawk?

My longstanding correspondent Ken Fisher, the West Coast money manager, has a typically contrarian take on how the new head of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, should be regarded by the markets. In a column for the Financial Times, he says that, although an adherent of Ben Bernanke’s approach to monetary policy, she is in reality more of “a closet” hawk than a dove. This is essentially because while she supports QE, in practice that kind of monetary stimulus only forces down long term interest rates, inhibiting rather than encouraging banks from lending. She is also in favour of requiring banks to shore up their capital bases, which also inevitably tightens the flow of credit to the real economy and leads to slower than expected economic growth. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

November 4, 2013 at 4:11 PM

Emerging markets: an accident that’s been waiting to happen

Stern words today about the roots of the current emerging markets crisis from Stephen Roach, the former chief economist at Morgan Stanley now less stressfully ensconced at Yale University, where  he is a senior Fellow. You can read the full broadside here, but this is a short extract, highlighting how the huge destabilising capital flows into – and now out of – emerging markets can be directly traced back to the policy of quantitative easing. The countries now suffering most are those, such as India and Indonesia, which have run large current account deficits and/or have failed to make necessary structural reforms during the good times:

A large current-account deficit is a classic symptom of a pre-crisis economy living beyond its means – in effect, investing more than it is saving. The only way to sustain economic growth in the face of such an imbalance is to borrow surplus savings from abroad. That is where QE came into play.

It provided a surplus of yield-seeking capital from investors in developed countries, thereby allowing emerging economies to remain on high-growth trajectories. IMF research puts emerging markets’ cumulative capital inflows at close to $4 trillion since the onset of QE in 2009. Enticed by the siren song of a shortcut to rapid economic growth, these inflows lulled emerging-market countries into believing that their imbalances were sustainable, enabling them to avoid the discipline needed to put their economies on more stable and viable paths. Read the rest of this entry »

The house price/general election nexus

One of the reasons I gave up being a full-time business journalist in favour of a career in investment was the fear that I might be falling prey to the all-pervasive cynicism to which so  many members of the media sadly seem to succumb over time. Excessive exposure to the doings of government can have that effect on you. I could not resist a wry smile however at seeing the attached chart, published by the economics pundits at Capital Economics. It shows the close correlation  that exists between house prices and the political fortunes of the party currently in power. As might be expected the relationship appears to be both powerful and close, and, I fear, is not at all accidental.  Political party strategists know full well that consumer confidence, in which rising house prices are the key component, holds the key to earning electoral victory.

chart2 house

Read the rest of this entry »

Debt: still very much in favour

Reports by the Wall Street Journal that officials at the Federal Reserve are drawing up plans for starting to rein in the current programme of QE are worth noting. Jon Hilsenrath, the Journal reporter who wrote the story, is widely held to be the Fed’s favourite unofficial channel for making known its future intentions.  Could it be that even the Fed is starting to get concerned about the runaway effect that its monetary stimulus is having on asset prices? Throw in Mr Bernanke’s warnings about excessive risk-taking last week and it is tempting to suppose that even the Fed would be happy to see a pause in the the advance of risk assets, at least for now.

That would certainly seem to sit quite well with the normal midyear seasonal pullback that we have seen for each of the last three years. The worry with QE has always been that it is easy to get started on it, but very difficult to stop. Now that the Japanese have joined the QE party in an even more dramatic way, the ripples are being felt in financial markets all round the globe, compounding the scale of the eventual problem. Yields in a number of credit markets (eg junk bonds, leveraged loans) have fallen to what look like dangerously complacent levels. Companies such as Apple are obviously happy to take advantage of the ultra-low rates on corporate debt, but whether that achieves any longer term benefit remains to be seen – not so obvious when the purpose of the debt is committed to share repurchases rather than new capital investment. All the while a return to the levels of economic growth we witnessed before the crisis broke in 2008 remains stubbornly distant. Read the rest of this entry »

Rich valuations for the stock market’s global elite

The news that Paul Walsh, the CEO of Diageo, has unloaded a huge amount of stock (£16m) after exercising a raft of share options draws attention to the extent that the prices of high quality companies with strong global business franchises and the ability to generate cash have been bid up to very rich levels. The veteran market-watcher Richard Russell has observed something similar on the other side of the Atlantic.

What do billionaires Warren Buffett, John Paulson, and George Soros know that you and I don’t know?  I don’t have the answer, but I do know what these billionaires are doing.  They, all three, are selling consumer-oriented stocks.  Buffett has been a cheerleader for US stocks all along. But in the latest filing, Buffett has been drastically cutting back on his exposure to consumer stocks.  Berkshire sold roughly 19 million shares of Johnson and Johnson.  Berkshire has reduced his overall stake in consumer product stocks by 21%, including Kraft and Procter and Gamble.  He has also cleared out his entire position in Intel.  He has sold 10,000 shares of GM and 597,000 shares of IBM. Read the rest of this entry »

The “most dangerous investment environment ever”

These are the latest comments on the implications of the drastic policy measures being adopted by central banks in a so far unsuccessful attempt to stimulate their economies. They come from one of the most successful managers of a “real return” fund in the UK. Iain Stewart has been running the Newton Real Return fund since its launch in 2004, with only one small down year (2011). Anyone interested in capital preservation in the current uncertain climate is likely to find much that resonates here. The full story can be found here (source: FE Trustnet).

“Fixing the price of government bonds is a very risky policy as it can lead to mis-allocated capital. I would say now is the most dangerous environment I have ever seen. It feels nice when stock prices just keep going up, but if anything, those assets are being pushed up by policy. It may be an uncomfortable thought, but we need to keep reminding ourselves that the reason we are all bathing in an ocean of liquidity some five years on from the financial crisis is that we have, to date, failed to lay to rest the legacies of the last cycle. The problem is that forcing mature, ageing economies to grow through monetary easing is recreating the distortions and excesses which caused the crisis in the first place”. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

April 23, 2013 at 3:06 PM

Even cash is now at risk

Albert Edwards, the lead strategist at Societe Generale, has added some typically forthright (and witty) comments on the latest developments in Euroland. By making explicit the fact that both uninsured bank depositors and all classes of bondholder have been required to take part in the rescue/liquidation of the two largest Cypriot banks, the troika (EU, IMF and ECB) has highlighted the fact that cash itself is now officially potentially an unsafe asset. He wonders also (as do I) how long it will be before a Eurozone country finally decides that remaining in the single currency is not worth the trauma that staying in involves.

Most economic analysis concludes, probably correctly, how much more costly it would be for either a creditor or debtor nation to leave the eurozone system compared to struggling on within it. Indeed for Germany, despite becoming increasingly irritated by having to dip their hands into their rapidly fraying pockets, the crisis in the eurozone has been accompanied by the lowest unemployment rates since before re-unification in 1990. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

March 27, 2013 at 5:42 PM

Cyprus and beyond: more thoughts

As usual it will take a day or two for the markets to decide which of their initial reactions to the Cyprus bailout – relief that a deal has been struck, or concern at the implications of the terms imposed by the troika – will prove dominant. Some things do seem clear from what we have learnt already:

  • This was the most acrimonious bailout negotiation yet, with little love lost between the Cypriot negotiators and the troika representatives on the other. Talks came close to breakdown on several occasions over the course of the past week. Apparently tipped off in advance that the Russians would not come riding to the rescue, the troika played hardball – and eventually won, although not before the Cypriot President had threatened to resign and/or take Cyprus out of the euro – a desperate course of action which the influential Archbishop of Cyprus, for one, has openly advocated.
  • Although the deal will avoid the outcome of Cyprus leaving the euro for now, that still remains a possibility. The bailout creates a number of important precedents, raising the possibility that bondholders and depositors in troubled banks elsewhere in the Eurozone could be forced to pick up the tab if their bank needs to be rescued in future. The Dutch finance minister who now heads the Eurogroup said as much yesterday, and subsequent attempts to smooth over his remarks – which were remarkably explicit – have been less than convincing.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

March 26, 2013 at 2:01 PM

Cyprus: new fault lines in the Eurozone

What to make of the Cyprus rescue deal announced this morning? Is it necessary? Absolutely: the Cypriot banking system is insolvent, and has been ever since the Greek rescue deal last year, if not before. Is it fair? Probably not. Knowing how weak the Cypriots’ bargaining position was, the troika (EU, ECB and IMF) has played hardball with one of the EU’s smallest member countries, which makes it certain that for every irate mobster or money launderer who loses a chunk of their capital, there will also be many hard luck cases.

The deal administers rough and ready treatment to bank depositors in the country’s two largest banks, while preserving – belatedly, and at the second attempt – the general principle that depositors with less than $100,000 euros are still protected from loss by state guarantee. (Important to note that while the EU has enshrined this principle as a political objective, the guarantees are only as good as the individual state that provides them. Cross-border deposit insurance, under which the EU would collectively guarantee bank deposits in all member states, is necessary if the banking union which the EU is trying to edge towards is ever to become a reality, but it remains so electorally toxic that it won’t be introduced any time soon). Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

March 25, 2013 at 4:12 PM

Change on the way at the Bank of England?

I have always liked the pragmatic approach to economics of the Financial Times Economics Editor Chris Giles, whose balanced pieces are a useful corrective to the doctrinally-driven work of most economists. His recent article in the Financial Times included this sensible comment on the most recent speech by Sir Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, which I think was a significant milestone on the road towards what increasingly looks like a coming change in emphasis in UK monetary policy.

On Tuesday evening, Sir Mervyn King completed his slow conversion from being an activist on what economists call the “demand side” to a “supply side” pessimist. Where the Bank of England governor once saw monetary policy as a simple tool to reinvigorate spending and bring the level of output back to its previous trend, his speech indicates he now sees the pre-crisis period as infected by unsustainably overexposed bank lending and “unsustainable paths of consumption”. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

January 27, 2013 at 8:29 PM

Hold on to your hats in Japan

The dramatic upwards move in the Japanese equity market since the autumn has plenty further to go, according to Jonathan Ruffer, the founder of the private client fund management group Ruffer LLP, one of the professionals whose latest thinking I (and many others) like to follow closely.  Ruffer as a firm has held an overweight position in Japan for quite a long time, and now stands ready to be vindicated if Japan’s new reflation policy takes hold, as the markets now seem to be assuming. Writing in his latest quarterly review, he comments as follows:

We hold roughly half of portfolios in equities, in the UK, Europe, US and Asia, but the largest geographic position is in Japan. This market was broadly flat when we last wrote to you, although we had made good money in financial and property stocks. In the last quarter these and other holdings surged further, providing a strong finish to a dull year. The rationale in Japan remains intact; it is the warrant on world economic growth, and so more of the same in terms of monetary stimulus should favour Japan without the rest of the world’s downside. The stability of Japan, its lack of overcapacity, and the absence of financial or labour fragilities, give some protection, and afford it the ability to generate a self-sustaining economic recovery. The low expectations built into the possibility of a Japanese economic recovery provide the opportunity for further sharp market rises. The major obstacle to a more bullish backcloth has disappeared with the appointment of Abe as Prime Minister, and the forthcoming retirement of Shirikawa as Governor of the Bank of Japan. In this new world, the investment danger for foreigners is a weak yen (we have been fully hedged), but this is a benefit to the equity market. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

January 21, 2013 at 3:33 PM

Fools rush in while wise men take their time?

The New Year has started well, with plenty of evidence that professional investors are continuing to rediscover their appetite for risk assets, with the price of equities, corporate bonds and high yield debt all heading higher. The charts for leading equity indices, including the S&P 500 and the FTSE All-Share, have been trending higher ever since Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank, announced last summer his intention to “do whatever it takes” to prevent the eurozone from falling apart. He has every reason to be pleased with the response to his intervention, which to date has been effectively cost-free. Would it were always so easy! European stock markets, having been priced for disaster before, have led the way up as fears of the euro’s fragmentation recede. Volatility, as measured by the VIX, has meanwhile fallen to multi-year low levels. Read the rest of this entry »

The eurozone’s fundamental problem

For those with an interest in the interminable eurozone saga, this syndicated interview with the French president Francois Hollande is well worth reading. It sets out clearly the main current differences in approach between M. Hollande and Mrs Merkel as they set off for the latest European summit, which starts today.  As always the meeting will attempt to paper over the cracks between these two very different ideas of how greater political and fiscal union in Europe should be achieved. There is still a long way to go before a really durable solution that can guarantee the euro’s survival is reached (if indeed that proves to be possible).

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

October 18, 2012 at 11:26 AM

A dissenting view on inflation

Has the Bank of England lost control of interest rates? You won’t hear that view from any official source, but it is worth listening to the economist Peter Warburton, the founder of the consultancy Economic Perspectives, whose often dissenting opinions have been more right than wrong over the past couple of decades. He argues differently in this contribution to the Shadow Monetary Policy Committee’s latest review of economic conditions, in which he warns about the incipient threat of price inflation. It is well worth reading: I suspect it will look very prescient when we look back in years to come.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the Bank of England has lost control of UK retail borrowing costs. During the three years-plus that Bank Rate has been set at ½%, the average interest rate paid on banks’ and building societies’ notice deposit accounts has risen from a low of 0.17% in February 2009 to 1.83% in July 2012.

Admittedly, the quoted monthly rates have bounced around, but the average for 2012 is 1.41%. This is a measure of the average cost of retail funds to the banking sector; the marginal cost is closer to 3%. On the other side of the balance sheet, Santander UK has recently announced a 50 basis point increase in its standard variable mortgage rate, to 4.74% from October. Clearly, the level of Bank Rate has played no role in the evolution of market rates for the past three years. The MPC’s consideration of a cut in Bank Rate is perverse and farcical in this context. As and when the UK economic news flow permits, Bank Rate should be raised in order to reconnect it to the structure of market rates. However, with UK activity indicators currently erratic and weak, now is not a good time to do this. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

September 4, 2012 at 9:41 AM

The risk of a short circuit in markets

Richard Burns, until recently the senior partner at Baillie Gifford, is now chairman of a range of the firm’s investment trusts, including Mid Wynd International, a special situations fund that holds positions in interesting companies that are too small to make a difference to its flagship funds. This is his most recent take on the investment environment, taken from the trust’s annual report. With the Eurozone crisis continuing to cast a shadow over events, and equity markets not obviously cheap, cautious and pragmatic investors (a type much in evidence in Edinburgh) are mostly marking time for now.

Repeated central bank stimuli have managed to contain, for now, what would otherwise have been a combination of Western debt deflation and deep recession. These interventions buy time, but not an indefinite amount. Policy making in the afflicted parts of the Western world appears to be running up against the laws of diminishing returns. Underlying sovereign balance sheets are deteriorating further meantime. What has happened is akin to stripping insulation from the bare economic wire – governments and central banks are that insulation. As time goes on, and in the absence of a more potent recovery, the risk of short-circuit increases.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

August 30, 2012 at 9:04 AM

Ruffer: the right question to ask

The estimable and splendidly ideosyncratic private client fund manager Jonathan Ruffer, whom I profiled a couple of years ago in The Spectator, has some thoughtful points on the prospects for Europe in his most recent monthly investment review. Here is a short extract, in which he points to the underlying frailty of the European project, about whose future he is not optimistic:

The Treaty of Rome in 1957 was a great moment for the peacemakers, but now its architects are dead, as are pretty much all those who felt the visceral despair in the darkness of the late 1940s. That hope has been replaced with a sort of Communism: power divorced from economics. Just as Russia could not keep control when the figures didn’t add up, nor can Europe. It is only a question of time. So, when does it all end? I think it is a mistake to try and guess. Observers of 1980s Russia fell into two categories: those who thought things would continue as they were forever, and those who could see the pressure, the inconsistencies, and imagined that the crisis would strike a week on Thursday. Nevertheless, it is striking on my return to find how far the status quo has shifted in Europe since March. It’s the same tune, to be sure, but the violins have been replaced by cellos.

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Written by Jonathan Davis

August 20, 2012 at 4:39 PM

An invidious choice

I find it hard to disagree with these comments from Sebastian Lyon, the CEO of Troy Asset Management, writing in the annual report of Personal Assets, the investment trust to which he and his colleagues now act as Investment Adviser, following the death of Ian Rushbrook four years ago.

The secular bear market in UK and US equities is now in its thirteenth year. How much longer must we wait until we can again be fully invested (or even geared!) and reap the double-digit returns we long for? Ask the policy makers! Stocks would be considerably lower were central banks not keeping stock prices artificially high by means of zero interest rates and quantitative easing. Despite these interferences, stock markets have gone sideways during the past year. Savers have not been rewarded for taking risk and hence our cautious strategy has paid off, for now, although we are likely to lag short term rises in the market should further monetary interventions be forthcoming.

Politicians in Europe are confronted with the invidious choice between severe austerity, which is likely to lead to periodic recessions and declining tax revenues, or incautious borrowing in the hope of buying growth. Both approaches will eventually force governments to pay higher rates of interest on debts. The maths do not stack up. No wonder governments are looking to extricate themselves from an intractable problem by leaning on central bankers to pull their inflationary strings. But our greatest concern is that the European challenges that have dogged markets since early 2010 are merely the dress rehearsal for the main event – a US fiscal crisis. While the UK and Europe have at least tried to tame their budget deficits, the United States has pushed ever harder on the fiscal accelerator. Stock markets swooned last August when they got a shock preview of what might happen should the brakes be applied. Following the public disagreement in Washington over increasing the public debt ceiling, the Dow Jones Industrials Index fell 13% in seven trading days. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

August 16, 2012 at 7:56 PM

La commedia e finita?

Don Coxe, the Canadian investment strategist, whose monthly publication Basic Points is required reading for anyone who follows financial markets, has a wonderfully mordant turn of phrase which from time to time he uses to devestating effect in illuminating current issues. This is Don on the Eurozone crisis, as seen from four thousand miles across the pond:

We remain of the view that no new promises, no new money creation, no new bailouts, and no new debts will resolve the basic problem – that only a few eurozone members have soundly functioning, globally competitive economies. That these nations should continue to subsidise their dysfunctional co-believers in Europeanism would be OK if it were not inflicting such damage on so many millions of unemployed young people, let alone the global capital markets and the global economy. During the last two years, the rest of the world has watched with growing impatience as leaders strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage and then, in many cases, were heard no more, becuase their own voters, in an overdue spasm of good sense, rejected them. There is an Orwellian aspect to the emerging nomenclature of the emerging institutions in this process of illusions and disilusions. The latest bailout banking entity is called The European Stability Mechanism, which is eurospeak for a lender that allows deadbeats to get even more hopelessly indebted in the name of stability”.

According to the most recent estimate I have seen, Europe’s leaders have so far “invested” something like three trillion euros, in loans, bailout funds, transfer payments etc, to try and keep the Eurozone going in its current 17-member format – and the results to date have been dismal. Now, with the region slipping into recession, and Spain hovering on the brink of joining Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus in requiring a sovereign bailout to avoid bankruptcy, they are gearing up to throw even more money at the problem. Don’s view is that “the euroelites should have declared La commedia e finita and rung down the curtain two trillion euros or so ago”. Future historians, I fear, will have little option but to pass a similar verdict.

Written by Jonathan Davis

August 9, 2012 at 9:23 AM

Posted in Don Coxe, Eurozone