The Issue Is Not Really Regulation ... It is a Malignant, Symbiotic Relationship Between Government and Wall Street
Most informed people are familiar with the concept of Peak Oil, but fewer are aware that we’re also entering the era of Peak Government. The central misconception of Peak Oil -- that it’s not about “running out of oil,” it’s about running out of cheap, easy-to-access oil -- can also be applied to Peak Government: It’s not about government disappearing, it’s about government shrinking. Central government -- the Central State -- has been in the expansion mode for so long that the process of contracting government is completely alien to the nation, to those who work for the State, and to those who are dependent on the State. Thus we have little recent historical experience of Peak Government and few if any conceptual guideposts to help us understand this contraction. Peak Government is not a reflection of government services or the millions of individuals who work in government; it is a reflection of four key systemic forces that drove State expansion are now either declining or reversing.
If the establishment is to be believed — it’s in the interests of “long-term financial stability” that creditors who stupidly bought unrepayable debt don’t get a big haircut like they would in a free market. And it’s in the interests of “long-term financial stability” that bad companies who made bad decisions don’t go out of business like they would in a free market, but instead become suckling zombies attached to the taxpayer teat. And apparently it is also in the interests of “long-term financial stability” that a broken market and broken system doesn’t liquidate, so that people learn their lesson. Apparently our “long-term financial stability” depends on producing even greater moral hazard by handing more money out to the negligent. The only real question is whether or not it will just be the IMF and the EU institutions, or whether Bernanke at the Fed will get involved beyond the inevitable QE3 (please do it Bernanke! I have some crummy equities I want to offload to a greater fool!)
Anyone who worked in finance in the decade before Glass-Steagall was repealed knows that prior to Gramm-Leach-Bliley the megabanks just took their hyper-leveraged activities offshore (primarily to London where no such regulations existed). The big problem (at least in my mind) with Glass-Steagall is that it didn’t prevent the financial-industrial complex from gaining the power to loophole and lobby Glass-Steagall out of existence, and incorporate a new regime of hyper-leverage, convoluted shadow banking intermediation, and a multi-quadrillion-dollar derivatives web (and more importantly a taxpayer-funded safety net for when it all goes wrong: heads I win, tails you lose). I fear that the only answer to the dastardly combination of hyper-risk and huge bailouts is to let the junkies eat dirt the next time the system comes crashing down. You can’t keep bailing out hyper-fragile systems and expect them to just fix themselves. The answer to stupidity is not the moral hazard of bailouts, it is the educational lesson of failure. You screw up, you take more care next time. If you’re bailed out, you just don’t care. Corzine affirms it; Iksil affrims it; Adoboli affirms it. And there will be more names. Which chump is next?
- How do you define market risk?
- Do you take fixed price positions?
- Are you exclusively a hedger or do you “optimize” your assets?
- Do you have a risk policy?
- How do you monitor trading/hedging limits?.
That is the only way to express this author’s utter bewilderment that former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan is still given an outlet to speak his mind. Actually, I am surprised Mr. Greenspan has the audacity to show his face, let alone speak, in public after the economic destruction he is responsible for. It was because of Greenspan, of course, that the world economy is still muddling its way along with painfully high unemployment. His decision to prop up the stock market with money printing under any and every threat of a downtick in growth, also known as the Greenspan Put, created an environment of easy credit, reckless spending, and along with the federal government’s initiatives to encourage home ownership, the foundation from which a housing bubble could emerge. It was moral hazard bolstering on a massive scale. Wall Street quickly learned (and the lesson sadly continues today) that the Federal Reserve stands ready to inflate should the Dow begin to plummet by any significant amount. Following his departure from the chairmanship and bursting of the housing bubble, Greenspan quickly took to the press and denied any responsibility for financial crisis which was a result in due part to the crash in home prices.
As Nassim Taleb described in The Black Swan these kinds of trades — betting large amounts for small frequent profits — is extremely fragile because eventually (and probably sooner in the real world than in a model) losses will happen (and of course if you are betting big, losses will be big). If you are running your business on the basis of leverage, this is especially dangerous, because facing a margin call or a downgrade you may be left in a fire sale to raise collateral. This fragile business model is in fact descended from the Martingale roulette betting system. Martingale is the perfect example of the failure of theory, because in theory, Martingale is a system of guaranteed profit, which I think is probably what makes these kinds of practices so attractive to the arbitrageurs of Wall Street (and of course Wall Street often selects for this by recruiting and promoting the most wild-eyed and risk-hungry). Martingale works by betting, and then doubling your bet until you win. This — in theory, and given enough capital — delivers a profit of your initial stake every time. Historically, the problem has been that bettors run out of capital eventually, simply because they don’t have an infinite stock (of course, thanks to Ben Bernanke, that is no longer a problem). The key feature of this system— and the attribute which many institutions have copied — is that it delivers frequent small-to-moderate profits, and occasional huge losses (when the bettor runs out of money).
What summarizes the clip below best:
A) Hubris; B) Greed; C) Stupidity; D) Moral Hazard; E) All of the above?
The dulcet tones of Jim Grant provided much food for thought on Tom Keene's Bloomberg Radio show this morning. While the interest rate observer did not change his tack on the extreme experimentation of world's central banks, he did have some new perspective on the incredible moral hazard (or unintended consequence) that is being created. One of his main criticisms is the incredible arrogance and conceit of a central banking system that believes it can see the future and thwart things before they come to pass, as he notes "I blame the central bankers for confusing the black art of central planning with the traditional art of central banking". He fully expects more easing by the Fed and its friends as he awaits their response to this latest stumble in the markets but what is most evident to him is that "The Fed owns the stock market" since they have financially repressed all investors into risky assets they now have been forced to have a moral responsibility to keep us safe in those assets - incredibly! The Fed is more likely than not to intervene with still more money-printing in any effort to keep this bubble afloat. What Jim focuses on is the morality in economics and the current immoral policies that have very bad consequences.
Every quarter as part of its refunding announcement, the Office of Debt Management together with the all important Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee, which as noted previously is basically Wall Street's conduit telling the Treasury what to do, releases its Fiscal Quarterly Report which is for all intents and purposes the most important presentation of any 3 month period, containing not only 70 slides worth of critical charts about the fiscal status of the country, America's debt issuance, its funding needs, the structure of the Treasury portfolio, but more importantly what future debt supply and demand needs look like, as well as various sundry topics which will shape the debate between Wall Street and Treasury execs for the next 3 months: some of the fascinating topics touched upon are fixed income ETFs, algo trading in Treasurys, and finally the implications of High Frequency trading - a topic which has finally made it to the highest levels of executive discussion. It is presented in its entirety below (in a non-click bait fashion as we respect readers' intelligence), although we find the following statement absolutely priceless: "Anticipation of central bank behavior has become a significant driver of market sentiment." This is coming from the banks and Treasury. Q.E.D.
Three weeks ago we discussed the ultimate-doomsday presentation of the state of Spain which best summarized the macro-concerns facing the nation and its banks. Since then the market, and now the ratings agencies, have fully digested that meal of dysphoric data and pushed Spanish sovereign and bank bond spreads back to levels seen before the LTRO's short-lived (though self-defeating) munificence transfixed global investors. However, the world moves on and while most are focused directly on yields, spreads, unemployment rates, and loan-delinquency levels, there are two critical new numbers to pay attention to immediately - that we are sure the market will soon learn to appreciate. The first is 5%. This is the haircut increase that ECB collateral will require once all ratings agencies shift to BBB+ or below (meaning massive margin calls and cash needs for the exact banks that are the most exposed and least capable of achieving said liquidity). The second is 10%. This is the level of funded (bank) assets that are financed by the Central Bank and as UBS notes, this is the tipping point beyond which banks are treated differently by the market and have historically required significant equity issuance to return to regular private market funding. With S&P having made the move to BBB+ this week (and Italy already there), and Spain's banking system having reached 11% as of the last ECB announcement (and Italy 7.7%), it would appear we are set for more heat in the European kitchen - especially since Nomura adds that they do not expect any meaningful response from the ECB until things get a lot worse. The world is waking up to the realization that de-linking sovereigns and banks (as opposed to concentrating that systemic risk) is key to stabilizing markets.
Does believing in the "recovery" make it real? The propaganda policies of the Federal Reserve and the Federal government are based on the hope that you'll answer "yes." The entire "recovery" is founded on the idea that if the Fed and Federal agencies can persuade the citizenry that down is up then people will hurry into their friendly "too big to fail" bank and borrow scads of money to bid up housing, buy new vehicles, and generally spend money they don't have in the delusional belief that inflation is low, wages are rising and the economy is growing.... Data is now massaged for political expediency, failure is spun into success, and consequences are shoved remorselessly onto the future generations. The entire policy of the Federal Reserve and the Federal government boils down to pushing propaganda in the hopes we'll all swallow the con and believe that down is now up and our "leadership" is a swell bunch of guys and gals instead of sociopaths who will say anything to evade the consequences of their actions and policy choices.
Overall, EverBank is showing good current performance, but some of the asset quality factors and trends that I see are of concern for the future.
"In the last three plus years, central banks have had little choice but to do the unsustainable in order to sustain the unsustainable until others do the sustainable to restore sustainability!" is how PIMCO's El-Erian introduces the game-theoretic catastrophe that is potentially occurring around us. In a lecture to the St.Louis Fed, the moustachioed maestro of monetary munificence states "let me say right here that the analysis will suggest that central banks can no longer – indeed, should no longer – carry the bulk of the policy burden" and "it is a recognition of the declining effectiveness of central banks’ tools in countering deleveraging forces amid impediments to growth that dominate the outlook. It is also about the growing risk of collateral damage and unintended circumstances." It appears that we have reached the legitimate point of – and the need for – much greater debate on whether the benefits of such unusual central bank activism sufficiently justify the costs and risks. This is not an issue of central banks’ desire to do good in a world facing an “unusually uncertain” outlook. Rather, it relates to questions about diminishing returns and the eroding potency of the current policy stances. The question is will investors remain "numb and sedated…. by the money sloshing around the system?" or will "the welfare of millions in the United States, if not billions of people around the world, will have suffered greatly if central banks end up in the unpleasant position of having to clean up after a parade of advanced nations that headed straight into a global recession and a disorderly debt deflation." Of course, it is a rhetorical question.
The Fed's currency swap with the ECB is nothing more than a covert bailout for European banks. Philipp Bagus of Mises.com explains how the USD-funding crisis occurred among European banks inevitably leading to the Fed assuming the role of international lender of last resort - for which US taxpayers are told to be lucky happy since this free-lunch from printing USD and sending them overseas provides an almost risk-free benefit in the form of interest on the swap. Furthermore, the M.A.D. defense was also initiated that if this was not done, it would be far worse for US markets (and we assume implicitly the economy). The Fed's assurances on ending the bailout policy should it become imprudent or cost-benefits get misaligned seems like wishful thinking and as the EUR-USD basis swap starts to deteriorate once again, we wonder just how long before the Fed's assumed role of bailing out the financial industry and governments of the world by debasing the dollar will come home to roost. As Bagus concludes: "Fed officials claim to know that the bailout-swaps are basically a free lunch for US taxpayers and a prudent thing to do. Thank God the world is in such good hands." and perhaps more worryingly "The highest cost of the Fed policy, therefore, may be liberty in Europe" as the Euro project is enabled to play out to its increasingly centralized full fiscal union endgame.