THIS TIME IT COULD BE MONEY – NOT BANKS
Because the global financial crisis (GFC) was caused by a collapse of trust in banks, it can be all too easy to assume that the next crash, if there is one, must take the same form.
In fact, it’s more likely to be different. Whilst the idiocy-of choice before 2008 had been irresponsible lending, by far the most dangerous recklessness today is monetary adventurism.
So it’s faith in money, rather than in banks, that could trigger the next crisis.
Introduction – mistaken confidence
Whenever we live through a traumatic event, such as the GFC of 2008, the authorities ‘close the stable door after the horse has bolted’. They put in place measures that might have countered the previous crisis, if only they had they known its nature in advance.
The reason why such measures so often fail to prevent another crash is simple – the next crisis is never the same as the last one.
That’s where we are now. We might be slightly better-placed to combat a GFC-style event today than we were back in 2008, though even that is doubtful. But we are dangerously ill-prepared for what is actually likely to happen.
Put at its simplest, the GFC resulted from the reckless accumulation of debt over the previous 8-10 years. Debt creation has continued – indeed, accelerated – since 2008, but the new form of recklessness has been monetary adventurism.
So it’s likely to be money, not debt, which brings the house down this time. Where 2008 was triggered by a collapse of faith in banks, a loss of faith in currencies could be the trigger for the next crisis.
And, judging by their actions, the authorities seem not to have spotted this risk at all.
Where the likelihood of a sequel to 2008 is concerned, opinion divides into two camps.
Some of us are convinced that the GFC is unfinished business – and that another crisis has been made more likely by the responses adopted back then. That we’re in a minority shouldn’t worry us because, after all, change happens when the majority (‘consensus’) view turns out to be wrong.
Others, probably the majority, believe that normality has now been restored.
But this is view, frankly, is illogical. To believe that what we have now is “normality”, you would have to accept each of these propositions as true.
1. Current monetary conditions, with interest rates that are negative (lower than inflation), are “normal”
2. It is “normal” for people to be punished for saving, but rewarded for borrowing
3. It is also “normal” for debt to be growing even more rapidly now than it did before 2008
4. Buying $1 of “growth” with $3 or more of borrowing is “normal”
5. QE – the creation of vast sums of new money out of thin air – is also “normal”
6. Vastly inflated asset values, and extremely depressed incomes, are “normal”
7. Policies which hand money to the already-wealthy, at the expense of everyone else, are another aspect of “normal”
8. It is quite “normal” for us to have destroyed the ability to save for pensions, or for any other purpose.
To be sure, Lewis Carroll’s White Queen famously managed to believe “six impossible things before breakfast”, but even she would have struggled to swallow this lot with her croissants and coffee.
When we consider, also, the continued stumbling global economy – which, nearly a decade after the crisis, remains nowhere near “escape velocity” – the case for expecting a second crash becomes pretty compelling.
But this does not mean that we should expect a re-run of 2008 in the same form.
Rather, everything suggests that the sequel to 2008 will be a different kind of crisis. The markets won’t be frightened by something familiar, but will be panicked by something new.
This means that we should expect a form of crisis that hasn’t been anticipated, and hasn’t been prepared for.
2008 – a loss of trust in banks
We need to be clear that the GFC had two real causes, both traceable in the last analysis to reckless deregulation.
First, debt had escalated to unsustainable levels.
Second, risk had proliferated, and been allowed to disperse in ways that were not well understood.
Of these, it was the risk factor which really triggered the crash, because nobody knew which banks and other financial institutions were safe, and which weren’t. This put the financial system into the lock-down known as “the credit crunch”, which was the immediate precursor to the crash.
Ultimately, this was all about a loss of trust. Even a perfectly sound bank can collapse, if trust is lost. Because banks are in the business of borrowing short and lending long, there is no way that they can call in loans if depositors are panicked into pulling their money out.
This also means – and please be in no doubt about this – that there is no amount of reserves which can prevent a bank collapse.
So – and despite claims to the contrary – a 2008-style banking crisis certainly could take place again, even though reserve ratios have been strengthened. This time, though, banks are likely to be in the second wave of a crash, not in the front line.
Coming next – a loss of trust in money?
The broader lesson to be learned from the financial crisis is that absolute dependency on faith is by no means unique to banks.
Trust is a defining characteristic of the entire financial system – and is particularly true of currencies.
Modern money, not backed by gold or other tangible assets, is particularly vulnerable to any loss of trust. The value of fiat money depends entirely on the “full faith and credit” of its sponsoring government. If that faith and creditworthiness are ever called into serious question, the ensuing panic can literally destroy the value of the currency. It’s happened very often in the past, and can certainly happen again.
Loss of faith in a currency can happen in many ways. It can happen if the state, or its economy, become perceived as non-viable. In fact, though, this isn’t the most common reason for currency collapse. Rather, any state can imperil the trustworthiness of its currency if it behaves irresponsibly.
Again, we can’t afford to be vague about this. Currency collapse, resulting from a haemorrhaging of faith, is always a consequence of reckless monetary policy. Wherever there is policy irresponsibility, a currency can be expected to collapse.
In instances such as Weimar Germany and modern-day Zimbabwe, the creation of too much money was “route one” to the destruction of the trust. But this isn’t the only way in which faith in a currency can be destroyed. Another trust-destroying practice is the monetizing of debt, which means creating money to “pay” government deficits.
So the general point is that the viability of a currency can be jeopardized by any form of monetary irresponsibility. The scale of risk is in direct proportion to the extent of that irresponsibility.
The disturbing and inescapable reality today is that the authorities, over an extended period, have engaged in unprecedented monetary adventurism. As well as slashing interest rates to levels that are literally without precedent, they have engaged in money creation on a scale that would have frightened earlier generations of central bankers out of their wits.
Let’s be crystal clear about something else, too. Anyone who asserts that this adventurism isn’t attended by an escalation in risk is living in a fantasy world of “this time is different”.
Here is a common factor linking 2008 and 2017. In the years before the GFC, reckless deregulation created dangerous debt excesses. Since then, recklessness has extended from regulation into monetary policy itself. Now, as then, irresponsible behaviour has been the common factor.
A big difference between then and now, though, lies in the scope for recovery. In 2008, the banks could be rescued, because trust in money remained. This meant that governments could rescue banks by pumping in money. There exist few, if any, conceivable responses that could counter a haemorrhage of faith in money.
Obviously, you can’t rescue a discredited currency by creating more of it.
If a single currency loses trust, another country or bloc might just bail it out. But even this is pretty unlikely, because of both sheer scale, and contagion risk.
So there is no possible escape route from a systemic loss of trust in fiat money. In that situation, the only response would be to introduce wholly new currencies which start out with a clean bill of health.
An exercise in folly
To understand the current risk, we need to know how we got here. Essentially, we are where we are because of how the authorities responded to the GFC.
In 2008, the immediate threat facing the financial system wasn’t the sheer impossibility of ever repaying the debt mountain created in previous years. Most debt doesn’t have to be repaid immediately, and can often be replaced or rolled-over.
Rather, the “clear and present danger” back then was an inability to keep up interest payments on that debt. Because the spending of borrowed money had given an artificial boost to apparent economic activity, there was widespread complacency about how much debt we could actually afford to service. When the crash unmasked the weakness of borrowers, it became glaringly apparent that the debt mountain simply couldn’t be serviced at a ‘normal’ rate of interest (with ‘normal’, for our purposes, meaning rates in the range 4-6%).
The obvious response was to circumvent this debt service problem by slashing rates. Cutting policy rates was a relatively straightforward, administrative exercise for central bankers. But prevailing rates aren’t determined by policy alone, because markets have a very big say in rate-setting. This, ultimately, was why QE (quantitative easing) was implemented. QE enabled central banks to drive down bond yields, by using gigantic buying power to push up the prices of bonds.
Beyond the mistaken assurance that QE wasn’t the same as “printing money” – so wouldn’t drive inflation up – little or no thought seems to have been devoted to the medium- or longer-term consequences of monetary adventurism.
In essence, ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) was a medicine employed to rescue a patient in immediate danger. Even when responding to a crisis, however, the wise physician is cognisant of two drug risks – side-effects, and addiction.
The financial physicians considered neither of these risks in their panic response to 2008. The result is that today we have addiction to cheap money, and we are suffering some economic side-effects that are very nasty indeed.
The inflation delusion
Even the assurance about inflation was misleading, because increasing the quantity of money without simultaneously increasing the supply of goods and services must create inflation. This is a mathematical certainty.
Rather, the only question is where the inflation is going to turn up.
As has been well explained elsewhere, handing new money to everyone would drive up general inflation. Giving all of it to little girls, on the other hand, would drive up the price of Barbie dolls. Since QE handed money to capital markets, its effect was to drive up the price of assets.
That much was predictable. Unfortunately, though, when policymakers think about inflation, they usually think only in terms of high street prices. When, for example, the Bank of England was given a degree of independence in 1997, its remit was framed wholly in CPI terms, as though the concept of asset inflation hadn’t occurred to anyone.
This is a dangerous blind-spot. The reality is that asset inflation is every bit as ‘real’ as high street inflation – and can be every bit as harmful.
In itself, though, inflation (asset or otherwise) is neither the only nor the worst consequence of extreme monetary recklessness. Taken overall, shifting the basis of the entire economy onto ultra-cheap money must be one of the most damaging policies ever adopted.
Indeed, it is harmful enough to make Soviet collectivism look almost rational.
The essence of a cheap money is policy is to transform the relationship between assets and incomes through the brute force of monetary manipulation.
Like communism before it, this manipulation seeks to over-rule market forces which, in a sane world, would be allowed to determine this relationship.
By manipulating interest rates, and thereby unavoidably distorting all returns on capital, this policy has all but destroyed rational investment.
Take pensions as an example. Historically, a saver needing $10,000 in twenty-five years’ time could achieve this by investing about $2,400 today. Now, though, he would need to invest around $6,500 to attain the same result.
In effect, manipulating rates of return has crippled the ability to save, raising the cost of pension provision by a factor of about 2.7x.
Therefore, if (say) saving an affordable 10% of income represented adequate provision in the past, the equivalent savings rate required now is 27%. This is completely unaffordable for the vast majority. In effect, then – and for all but the very richest – policymakers have destroyed the ability to save for retirement.
Small wonder that, for eight countries alone, a recent study calculated pension shortfalls at $67 trillion, a number projected to rise to $428 trillion (at 2015 values) by 2050.
What this amounts to is cannibalizing the economy. This is a good way to think about what happens when we subsidise current consumption by destroying the ability to provide for the future.
Savings, of course, are a flip-side of investment, so the destruction of the ability to save simultaneously cripples the capability to invest efficiently as well. The transmission mechanism is the ultra-low rate of return that can now be earned on capital.
A further adverse effect of monetary adventurism has been to stop the necessary process of “creative destruction” in its tracks. In a healthy economy, it is vital that weak competitors go under, freeing up capital and market share for new, more dynamic entrants. Very often, the victims of this process are brought down by an inability to service their debts. So, by keeping these “zombies” afloat, cheap money makes it difficult for new companies to compete.
Obviously, we also have a problem with inflated asset values in classes such as stocks, bonds and property. These elevated values build in crash potential, and steer investors towards ever greater risk in pursuit of yield. Inflated property prices are damaging in many ways. They tend towards complacency about credit. They impair labour mobility, and discriminate against the young.
More broadly, the combination of inflated asset values and depressed incomes provides adverse incentives, favouring speculation over innovation. And this is where some of the world’s more incompetent governments have stepped in to make things even worse.
In any economic situation, there’s nothing that can’t be made worse if government really works at it. The problems created by “zombie” companies are worsened where government fails to enforce competition by breaking up market domination. Though the EU is quite proactive over promoting competition, the governments of America and Britain repeatedly demonstrate their frail grasp of market economics when they fail to do the same.
Worse still, the US and the UK actually increase the shift of incentives towards speculation and away from innovation. Having failed to tax the gains handed gratuitously to investors by QE, these countries follow policies designed to favour speculation. Capital gains are often taxed at rates less than income, and these gains are sheltered by allowances vastly larger than are available on income.
The United Kingdom has even backstopped property markets using cheap credit, apparently under the delusional belief that inflated house prices are somehow “good” for the economy.
How will it happen?
As we’ve seen, monetary recklessness – forced on central bankers by the GFC, but now extended for far too long – has weakened economic performance as well as intensifying risk. In some instances, fiscal policy has made a bad problem worse.
In short, the years since the crash have been characterised by some of the most idiotic policies ever contemplated.
All that remains to consider is how the crash happens. The prediction made here is that, this time around, it will be currencies, rather than banks, which will be first suffer the crisis-inducing loss of trust (though this crisis seems certain to engulf the banks as well, and pretty quickly).
The big question is whether the collapse of faith in currencies will begin in a localized way, or will happen systemically.
The former seems likelier. Although Japan has now monetized its debt to a dangerous scale (with the Bank of Japan now owning very nearly half of all Japanese government bonds), by far the most at-risk major currency is the British pound.
In an earlier article, we examined the case for a sterling crash, so this need not be revisited here. In short, it’s hard to find any reason at all for owning sterling, given the state of the economy. On top of this, there are at least two potential pitfalls. One of these is “Brexit”, and the other is the very real possibility than an exasperated public might elect a far-left government.
Given a major common factor – the fatuity of the “Anglo-American economic model” – it is tempting to think that the dollar might be the next currency at risk. There are, pretty obviously, significant weaknesses in the American economy. But the dollar enjoys one crucial advantage over sterling, and that is the “petro-prop”. Because oil (and other commodities) are priced in dollars, anyone wanting to purchase them has to buy dollars first. This provides support for the dollar, despite America’s economic weaknesses (which include cheap money, and a failure to break up market-dominating players across a series of important sectors).
Once the loss of trust in currencies gets under way, many different weaknesses are likely to be exposed.
The single most likely sequence starts with a sterling crash. By elevating the local value of debt denominated in foreign currencies, this could raise the spectre of default, which could in turn have devastating effects on faith in the balance sheets of other countries. Moreover, a collapse in Britain would, in itself, inflict grave damage on the world economy.
Of course, how the next crisis happens is unknowable, and is largely a secondary question. Right now, there are two points which need to be taken on board.
First, the sheer abnormality of current conditions makes a new financial crisis highly likely.
Second, and rather than assume that banks will again be in the eye of the storm, we should be looking instead at the most vulnerable currencies.
Losing faith in banks, as happened in 2007-08, was bad enough.
But a loss of faith in money would be very, very much worse.