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#154. An autumn nexus

A CONVERGENCE OF STRESS-LINES

If you’ve been following our discussions here for any length of time, you’ll know that the main focus now is on the need for energy transition. This is a challenge made imperative, not just by environmental considerations but, just as compellingly, by the grim outlook for an economy which continues to rely on energy sources – oil, gas and coal – whose own economics are deteriorating rapidly.

These, of course, are long-term themes (though that’s no excuse for the gulf between official and corporate rhetoric and delivery). But the short term matters, too, and an increasing number of market participants and observers have started to notice that a series of significant stress-lines are converging on the months of September and October, much as railway lines converge on Charing Cross station.

The context, as it’s understood from an energy economics perspective, is that a fracture in the financial system is inevitable (though ‘inevitable’ isn’t the same thing as ‘imminent’). Properly understood, money has no intrinsic worth, but commands value only as a claim on the output of the ‘real’ economy of goods and services. Whilst the mountain of monetary claims keeps getting bigger, the real economy itself is being undermined by adverse energy economics.

Ultimately, financial crises happen as correctives, when the gap between the financial and the ‘real’ economies becomes excessive.

This is what happened with the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), which followed a lengthy period of what I call “credit adventurism”. A sequel to 2008, known here as “GFC II”, is the seemingly inevitable consequence of the “monetary adventurism” adopted during and after 2008. This, incidentally, is where the parallels end because, whilst credit adventurism put the banking system in the eye of the storm in 2008, the subsequent adoption of monetary recklessness implies that GFC II will be a currency event.   .

An understanding of the inevitability of GFC II doesn’t tell us when it’s likely to happen. All that I’ve ventured on this so far is that a ‘window of risk’ has been open since the third quarter of 2018. Whether that window has yet opened wide enough to admit GFC II is a moot point. But the converging stresses are certainly worthy of consideration.

Chinese burns

Three of the most important lines of stress originate in China.

As we’ve seen – and with the country’s Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE) now in the climacteric range at which prosperity growth goes into reverse – there’s no doubt at all that the Chinese economy is in trouble. After all (and expressed at constant 2018 values), China has added debt of RMB 170 trillion (+288%) over a period in which reported GDP has expanded by RMB 47 tn (+114%), and no such pattern can be sustained in perpetuity.

This is complicated by Sino-American trade tensions, and, given the huge divergence between Chinese and American priorities, there seems little prospect that these can be resolved in any meaningful way.

The third and newest component of the Chinese risk cocktail is unrest in Hong Kong. Few think it likely that Beijing would be reckless enough to make a forceful intervention there, but it’s a risk whose relatively low probability is offset by the extremity of consequences if it were to happen.

In this context, it’s interesting to note that markets initially responded euphorically to Mr Trump’s delaying of new sanctions, seemingly interpreting it as some kind of ‘wobble’ on his part. It looks a lot more like a Hong Kong-related cautionary signal, seasoned with a twist of gamesmanship and soupçon of characteristic showmanship.

Whilst I’m not one of Mr Trump’s critics, it does seem undeniable that he makes too much of the (actually very tenuous) relationship between economic performance and the level of the stock market. This adds his voice to the chorus of those advocating ever cheaper money.

When the next crash does, come, of course, this chorus will rise to a crescendo, but central bankers will in any case have started pouring ever larger amounts of liquidity into the system in an effort to prop up tumbling asset prices. This, in turn, is likely to lead to a flight to perceived safe havens, one of which is likely to be the dollar, whilst other currencies come under the cosh.

But this is to look too far ahead.

“Brexit” blues

The focus in Europe, of course, is on “Brexit”. I’m neither an admirer nor a critic of Boris Johnson, any more than I’m a supporter or an opponent of “Brexit” itself (a subject on which I’ve been, and remain, studiously neutral).

This said, Mr Johnson is surely right to assert that you’ll never get anything out of negotiations if you start off by committing yourself to accept whatever the other side deigns to offer. This does indeed look like brinkmanship on his part, but it’s remarkable how often negotiations, be they political or commercial, do go “right down to the wire”, being settled only when time presses hard enough on the parties involved.

I’ve said before that the EU negotiators worry me more than their British counterparts in this process. The British side has, of course, mishandled the “Brexit” situation, but this can have come as no great surprise to anyone familiar with Britain’s idiosyncratic processes of government.

Unfortunately, British floundering has been compounded by remarkable intransigence on the EU side of the table. The attitude of the Brussels apparatchiks, all along, has been ‘take it or leave it’, and this seems to have been based on two false premises.

The first is that the British have to be ‘punished’ to deter other countries from following a similar road. This is a false position, because influencing how French, Spanish, Italian and other citizens cast their votes in domestic elections is wholly outside Brussels’ competence.

In any case, ‘punishment’ should not be part of the lexicon of any adult participant in statesmanship.

The second false premise is that Britain attends the negotiating table as a supplicant, because a chaotic “Brexit” will inflict far more economic harm on the United Kingdom than on the other EU member countries.

My model suggests that this is simply not true. The country at single greatest risk is Ireland, whose economy is far weaker than its “leprechaun economics” numbers suggest, and whose exposure, both to debt and to the financial system, is as worrying as it is extraordinary.

Ireland is followed, probably in this order, by France, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany. The French economy looks moribund, despite its relentlessly-increasing debt, and the prosperity of the average French person has been subjected to a gradual but prolonged deterioration, a process so aggravated by rising taxes that it has led to popular unrest.

Though its economy is stronger, the Netherlands is exposed, by the sheer scale of its financial sector, to anything which puts the global financial system at risk.

Germany, whose own economy is stuttering, must be wondering how quite much of the burden of cost in the wider Euro Area it might be asked to bear.

Moreover, the European Central Bank’s actions endorse the perception that the EA economy is performing poorly. The ECB has made it clear that there is no foreseeable prospect of the EA being weened off its diet of ultra-cheap liquidity.

This makes it all the more remarkable (in a macabre sort of way) that none of the governments of the most at-risk EA countries have sought to demand some pragmatism from Brussels. What we cannot know – though it remains a possibility – is whether the ever-nearer approach of ‘B-Day’ will energise at least, say, Dublin or Paris into action.

Madness, money and moods

Long before the markets took fright at the inversion of the US yield curve, the financial system (in its broadest sense) has looked bizarre.

In America, the corporate sector is engaged in the wholesale replacement of flexible equity with inflexible debt, whilst investors queue up to support “cash burners”, and buy into the IPOs of deeply loss-making debutants. The BoJ (the Japanese central bank) now owns more than half of all Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) in issue, acquired with money newly created for the purpose.

Around the world, more than $15 trillion of bonds trade at negative yields, meaning that investors are paying borrowers for the privilege of lending them money. The only logic for holding instruments this over-priced is the “greater fool” theory. This states that you can profit from buying over-priced assets by selling them on to someone even more optimistic than yourself. There’s something deeply irrational about anything whose logic is founded in folly.

The same ultra-low interest rates that have prompted escalating borrowing have blown huge holes in pension provision – and have left us in a sort of Through the Looking Glass world in which we’re trying to operate a ‘capitalist’ system without returns on capital.

Until now, markets seem to have been insouciant about the bizarre characteristics of the system, for two main reasons.

First, they seem to assume that, whatever goes wrong, central banks will come to the rescue with a monetary lifeboat. To mix metaphors, this attitude portrays the system as some kind of kiddies-fiction casino, in which winners pocket their gains, but losers are reimbursed at the door.

If, as seems increasingly likely, we’ve started a ‘race to the bottom’ in currencies, this should act as a reminder that the value of any fiat currency depends, ultimately, entirely on confidence – and central bankers, at least, ought to understand that excessive issuance can be corrosive of trust.

The markets’ second mistake is a failure to recognize the concept of “credit exhaustion”. The assumption seems to be that, just so long as debt is cheap enough, people will load up on it ad infinitum. What’s likelier to happen – and may, indeed, have started happening now – is that borrowers become frightened about how much debt they already have, and refuse to take on any more, irrespective of how cheap it may have become.

A measured way of stating the case is that, as we look ahead to autumn, we can identify an undeniable convergence of stress-lines towards a period of greatly heightened risk.

This perception is compounded by a pervading mood of complacency founded on the excessive reliance placed on the seaworthiness of the monetary lifeboat.

I’m certainly not going to predict that a dramatic fracture is going to occur within the next two or three months at the nexus of these stress lines. We simply don’t know. But it does seem a good time for tempering optimism with caution.

 

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