When it comes to Central Banks, there are doves and hawks - though in recent times, the two have become confused as to just what they think. However, it is becoming clear that in spite of their incessant need to print money (liquidity) into existence to maintain the status quo, some (but not all) are realizing there are very real costs to this insanity. Compare:
- ECB - *COEURE: LIQUIDITY INTERVENTION CAN INTERFERE WITH PRICE STABILITY
- ECB - *COEURE SAYS CRISIS SUPPORT CAN LATER HAVE "PERVERSE EFFECTS", GENERATE MORAL HAZARD
- FED - *WILLIAMS SEES UNCONVENTIONAL STIMULUS FOR NEXT FEW YEARS
- FED - *FED ZERO-RATE MOVE DIDN'T COMPROMISE POLICY
It seems central bankers believe what they want to believe.
The irresponsibility of Congress and the rest of the political class cannot be understated. Underwriting this behavior is equivalent to the Fed providing a teenager with a bottle of whiskey and the keys to an automobile. In a context where the Fed could have done no harm by tapering, they instead created a huge moral hazard that will be exploited by politicians of all stripes.
While bubbling assets are a major part of the history of the Greenspan/Bernanke economy, so too is unsustainable borrowing. It seems wise to keep an eye out for another borrowing binge, especially as policymakers are encouraging all forms of financial risk-taking. And one place to check is the Fed’s quarterly “Flow of Funds” report, which recently took the fancy new title, “Financial Accounts of the United States,” but still goes by the nickname “Z1.” There’s a cautionary note in comparisons of today’s leverage ratio to the last three expansions. The last three times the ratio jumped above the current reading of 7.2 were Q1 1990, Q1 1999 and Q2 2007. And from these points in time, the economy fell into recession about a year later, or less, in each case. (The respective times to recession were two, four and two quarters.)
Don't Blame Free Market Capitalism ... We Haven't Had It for a While
When skimming and speculation are more profitable than actually increasing the production of goods and services, the discipline and incentives of a market economy are distorted to the point of no return. The only way to restore natural market discipline is to let the cost of credit rise to a market-discovered price, force all speculators to absorb the losses resulting from their bad bets, and let the risk of losses discipline lenders to adjust loan portfolios and interest rates to reflect the risks of rising rates and defaults. "Growth" that depends on manipulated interest rates and easy credit is a sand castle awaiting the rising tide; its destruction is assured.
Unfortunately for the bubble-blowing central banks, asset bubbles are a double-bind: you cannot inflate assets forever. At some unpredictable point, the risk and moral hazard that are part and parcel of all asset bubbles trigger an avalanche of selling that pops the bubble. This is another facet of The Fed's Double-Bind: if you stop pumping asset bubbles, they pop as participants realize the music has stopped, and if you keep pumping them, they expand to super-nova criticality and implode.
Financialization and the Neocolonial Model of credit-based exploitation leave immense human suffering in their wake when speculative credit bubbles inevitably implode.
A government that is operating under the credo "by the corporation for the corporation", rather than "by the people for the people."
For roughly forty years (since the report was published in 1972), technology has pulled one magic rabbit after another out of the hat, making a mockery of the claims that there were limits on consumption and resource extraction: the green revolution and fossil-fuel fertilizers expanded food production, new supergiant oil fields and improved drilling technologies opened up vast new energy reserves, and improved technologies led to more efficient use of resources. The success of the past four decades in pushing back looming limits has created a widespread confidence that technology can solve any apparent limits. For example, if the seas have been stripped of fish, then aquaculture will fill the desire for fresh fish. Presto-magico. But what if the technological improvements are entering a terminal phase of diminishing returns? What if the "solutions" don't really replace what has been destroyed? For example, the ecology of the open ocean is not restored by aquaculture; rather, it is further harmed by poor aquaculture practices.
What are the consequences of a central bank creating trillions of dollars for speculation and a central state borrowing trillions of dollars on a permanent basis? As noted before, risk cannot be extinguished, it can only be offloaded onto someone else or masked for a short time. The consequences of this sleight-of-hand (the Fed creates money to buy Federal bonds so the government can borrow and blow trillions of dollars) are not yet visible, but there will be consequences at some point; the risks have only been temporarily cloaked.Borrowing and printing $10 trillion hasn't fixed anything; it has only raised the reservoir of risk to the top of the dam. Cracks are opening as the pressure builds, and we should not be surprised when risk and consequence reconnect and the dam gives way.
From the historical perspective, concentrating virtually all systemic risk into the state is a Grand Experiment. Cheap, abundant oil, expanding working-age populations and rapidly increasing productivity conjured the illusion that the state was large enough and powerful enough to absorb infinite risk with no real consequence. The problem is the state's ability to tax/print/borrow money to cover payouts and losses is not infinite. Having transferred virtually all systemic risks to the state, we presume the state is so large and powerful that a virtually limitless amount of risk can be piled onto the state with no consequences. Offloading risk onto the state does not make the risk vanish; it simply concentrates the risk of collapse into the state itself.
There are all sorts of candidates for the root cause of the systemic global financial crisis, but if we separate the wheat from the chaff we're left with risk and moral hazard. Pointing to human greed and cupidity as the cause doesn't identify anything useful about this era's crisis, as human greed, self-interest and opportunism are default settings. Programs that backstop banks and social insurance systems like Medicare are not like fire or life insurance because they are effectively open-ended in terms of costs and in exposure to risk. A system which pools risk without distributing it to the participants and eliminates the causal connection between risk and consequence introduces moral hazard on a grand scale.
Over the last thirty some odd years, the world has seen an unprecedented level of economic growth and prosperity. That much is certain. However, things are not as they appear when the bullish rose-tinted glasses that most view the world through are removed.
And the issue is debt.
Why sell cocaine at a 200% markup when there are much bigger profits to be had in this moral hazard economy funded, government protected business.
The rapid pace of China credit expansion since the Global Financial Crisis, increasingly sourced from the inherently more risky and less transparent "shadow banking" sector, has become a critical concern for the global markets. From the end of 2008 until the end of 2013, Chinese banking sector assets will have increased about $14 trillion. As Fitch notes, that's the size of the entire US commercial banking sector. So in a span of five years China will have replicated the whole US banking system. What we're seeing in China is one of the largest monetary stimuli on record. People are focused on QE in the US, but given the scale of credit growth in China Fitch believes that any cutback could be just as significant as US tapering, if not more. Goldman adds that China stands to lose up to a stunning RMB 18.6trn/$US 3trn. should this bubble pop. That seems like a big enough number to warrant digging deeper...