April 30, 2008

Prognosis for the Economy

What is the prognosis for the economy?
There are three fairly obvious possibilities:
Firstly, some people think that most of the problems for the financial services have happened and so are we are near to a turnaround. This sentiment is evidenced by the current vacillating of the share markets.
Secondly, other people think that the financial services have precipitated a wider economic recession and now that will take over to drag down the economy into a deeper hole. As the economy is enabled by financial services that could certainly be true and consumer spending is changing, showing increasingly parsimonious spending patterns.
Thirdly, others believe that recent activities by central banks have staved off a potentially deepening crisis. Certainly, making more credit available to banks reduces the risks of further banking problems, which would pique the lack of confidence. However, has enough been done and are there other techniques that could be employed.

Which View is Correct?
The fact that the financial services sector was jointly at the heart of creating the problems and the fact that they are vacillating now over its depth means that they don’t have a clear vision of if we are at an economic low point, even though they are the ‘experts’. Central bankers seem to be at least as much in the dark as the financial services gurus, because they didn’t see the problems coming either. They have made increasingly strong efforts to avert a cascading of the problems into the wider economy and this indicates they too don’t know how far this will go. A preponderance of others have commented that they expect things to get worse before they get better. It would seem that the ‘clever money’ would be on a deepening of the current macro economic problems, exasperated by falling property prices along with rising food and fuel prices.
The full effects of problems on this scale do take time to ripple through an economy, so it is likely that even if we have reached the nadir of the original problems for the bankers, they may yet be revisited by their wider effects. So although none seems to have a full understanding of this problem plexus, we can expect the shockwave to ripple through the economy for some time. An important question is: will the after shock feed back to the financials strongly enough to initiate a new vanguard of problems.
My own view is that this crisis will deepen. Lending is constricted by tightening positions in financial services leading to tighter loan conditions. Many people have become comfortable with living at the edge of financial solvency and have started to find their newly restricted position forces them to cutback hard. This pruning of expenditure will denude businesses at marginal operational viability, which in turn will feed costs to the economy through unemployment. Fortunately, the businesses that are least viable and able to ride out a slowdown will tend to be small and although there will be a constant flow of them, they will have less of a confidence damaging effect than mass employers making redundancies. Also, people love to buy stuff and have a short memory for problems. As soon as their positions stabilise they will be back with what credit they can get and there will be creditors with money to lend. Further, service dominated economies are quicker to respond to demand, so for example the US and UK economies should bounce quicker than manufacturing based economies. Therefore, although I expect things to worsen, I also expect that they will flip back quickly to growth. Financial stability and solvency are less of a concern for many today and that combined with faster and more free flowing information than ever will resolve to a faster turnaround in the economy. We will soon return to the consumer dream, not because I want it, or think it is a good idea, but because most people want it. Given the desire for something and the opportunity for others to make money from that desire, there will be a race to make sure they get it, as soon as possible.

What should central bankers do?
Firstly, they must restore confidence. Confidence is the most important factor for a healthy financial services sector and central banks have moved to improve it. So much of the economic success of a country now depends upon its financial services sector that it must be unencumbered. Therefore, improving the stability of financial institutions with government backed loans is a possible scheme. However, this tardy tactic is essentially printing money and hence inflationary. Central banks know that the excessive valuations placed on residential property must be normalised. Price growth has exceeded wage growth and that leads to a bubble that draws in a disproportionate percentage of overall income to service that debt. This is not good balance and balance, after confidence, is most important. The central bankers should be encouraging the rapid normalisation of this over valuation to quickly restore parity. Drawing out normalisation will only delay the return to a balanced growing economy and I am concerned that a government statement about preventing people from losing their homes could do just that. They have not detailed how they plan to do this and it could be empty rhetoric, but if not and they start to intervene at this point they could stifle recovery for some time. An interventional strategy would have been much better to prevent the bubble. Intervention now should be to encourage a property market decline.
Secondly, they must address the root causes of the original crisis. They are manifold, but two stand out as significant: Excessive speculation using residential property, especially by people who do not understand investment markets. A poor pension system which encourages people to look for other ‘stable’ savings vehicles, in this case property investment was used.

What can we do as individuals?
As a general strategy, buck the trend. Be a saver when all about are spending big. The best time to spend big is when everyone else is not, you get the best deals then. Particularly, you should be looking at the big things: buying a house or moving to a better one, buying shares and a nice car at a bargain price. So, property will soon be a much better deal, shares already are, but will probably become better still and slightly used luxury cars will soon be everywhere at great prices. Simple really, just difficult to do.

October 30, 2007

Lets hide the debt problem!

Filed under: Economics, Musings, Observations, Worries — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — conceptualizer @ 5:16 pm

The Master Liquidity Enhancement Conduit (MLEC) fund has been created by several big US banks with between $75bn and $100bn (depending upon who you believe) to buy up debt from Structured Investment Vehicles (SIV) which in simple terms are mortgage providers. The debt is largely in the form of Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities (RMBS) and Collateralised Debt Obligations (CDOs) – i.e. mortgages. SIVs, which own about $400bn of assets, are investment pools used by banks, but most enthusiastically by Citigroup who originated them in the 1980’s. It is now clear SIVs have been too keen to offer debt to financially dubious property buyers. The MLEC is an attempt by the private sector to mitigate some of the risks associated with bad debt incurred during the US property price bubble. That bubble was inflated by the poor lending strategies of the SIVs and ultimately those that initiated them. The MLEC fund will be accepting only the best risks, leaving the worst in the SIVs, so they will flounder rather than the banks. It is interesting to speculate as to why this cause was not taken up by the IMF, whose role it is to promote international financial stability. Perhaps they do not see it as a big enough problem.

So can this fund help? Well as an attempt to reintroduce confidence to the market and hence stability, to some extent that is going to happen, especially as it has the tacit approval of the US treasury. However, ultimately the problem is rooted in lending money on the basis of economic growth that was not there. Now that position has to unwind and the costs of the overestimate will have to be dissipated. This fund can only act as a buffer, trying to spread and slow the normalisation cost, it still has to happen. So in that sense it is more like an attempt to convert a painful punch into a protracted uncomfortable pressure. The problem has to be handled and it seems that somewhere someone has made the decision that the drawn out normalisation approach is the better option. So as we get used to the inevitable slowdown, the remaining market confidence will be subdued rather than demolished. In that sense it is a better strategy as stability and confidence are perhaps the most essential assets of a reliable economy. Ultimately the costs of this failing will be carried by everyone, the banks will ensure that, rather than just their shareholders.

September 21, 2007

Mad as a balloon!

Filed under: Economics, Worries — Tags: , , , , , , , — conceptualizer @ 12:38 pm

We are all encouraged to sell our work before we have even done it, for those nice shiny things. Lenders understand human nature and the future of money management ~ see Debt to save the world. If you are a prospective first time UK house buyer I sympathise, you are trapped. It has become a competition of who dare take on the largest debt. There are plenty of 125% mortgages available and several 130% offers! Those of us who are not trapped need to resist the temptation, or at least understand it.
This crazy situation can only be reversed if financial services regulators prevent large salary multiples, high loan to valuation, very long repayment periods and fractional (shared equity) mortgages being used to calculate the acceptable size of a loan. Unfortunately such regulation would be a very unpopular move with lenders and in the short to medium term with borrowers. Perhaps it is best implemented at the bottom of a house price cycle when there will be more acceptance of it, especially if it were be phased in gradually.
I will not be surprised when lenders start offering us mortgages before we have even left school. That way lenders can extract even more from the most successful in society; people will always go the extra mile for their children. This will, like private schools, tend to perpetuate advantage and an elite successful class, making the idea of social mobility even more farcical.

September 11, 2007

Debt to save the world!

Are you wondering how the problems in the US sub-prime market can be so pervasive? I am. Surely that market can’t be that big and not all of those borrowers are going to default. I suspect the problem is more to do with a lack of confidence afflicting the markets. They have had such a good run for so long people are suspicious and looking for that next crash. This probably says as much about human nature as it does about debt. However, in general the amount of debt is increasing while savings decrease (lowest household savings ratio since 1960), so should we be concerned? If we extrapolate carefully from this situation we can uncover some interesting trends that will impact on us all.
The US sub-prime problem is a personal debt problem rooted in the combination of: widespread lending to people at the limits of their ability to cover repayments, at low interest rates, with high loan to value conditions, in a confidence lead rising property price market with big property development programs. Later, increased interest rates were the trigger that pushed those closest to the edge over it and once enough had succumbed the price bubble burst. With increasing repossessions, declining property values and high loan to value conditions lenders suffered big loses. They then tried to increase their margins to recover their positions by increasing interest rates on their most risky situations and pushed more borrowers into the red exacerbating the situation.
Significant personal debt was once a facility only available to a small fraction of people, but recently it has become available to almost all people. This broadening of the debtor base to include less wealthy and financially sophisticated customers tends to encourage debt commoditisation. Commoditisation reduces profit margins, consequently money is chasing larger customer volumes and larger fractions of the market. This change militates against the small lender, increasing pressure to consolidate into fewer global money managers (GMM) providing credit and debt services. When they become large enough their financial power will eventually succeed even that of central banks to influence interest rates and so governments will gradually relinquish some economic control to them.
In addition to growing personal debt, governments are not shy about creating a public debt on our behalf. This has been the case for a long time, such as when financing the second world war effort, for which we could not reasonably have been expected to save as we did not plan it. Outside of unplanned costs like war, how can it be that a whole country can’t live within its means? Like any individual, government should save for expenditure rather than use the more expensive option of borrowing. Unfortunately, saving is a long-term strategy that is not encouraged by our current system of government. It is much easier to ride a wave of popularity fuelled by spend from debt than to tell everyone we have to save. The end effect of this is again to imbue the GMM with greater control as they increasingly own the money lent to the individual and the state.
The rise of the GMM will have some interesting consequences. Firstly, interest rates are facing long-term downward pressure as the GMM seek to encourage every person and country to become a customer, essentially owning some of their generated wealth. So the GMM will seek to make debt easier to afford with lower rates and savings are going to be less remunerative due to tighter margins between their credit and debt services. This will be a problem for savers (who fund the GMM) if inflation is not restrained. One corollary to this situation is increasing pressure on governments to keep down inflation. This will lead to tightening on expenditure, for example leading to more frequent disputes with public sector workers over pay. Another corollary to this is that those seeking higher rewards will increasingly become financial instrument market speculators, so we should see an explosion in speculation management services specialising in certain sectors of the markets and on specific classes of investor. For similar reasons as in the creditor consolidation, international financial market consolidation is inevitable and already ongoing. Protectionists economies lack vision and will find their markets increasingly sidelined until they capitulate, but then their influence will be much smaller. Secondly, economic power will increasingly rest with the GMM, with governments forced to recognise their influence. This should eventually resolve in GMM taking a moderating role in international disputes, becoming the ultimate non-partisan authorities that no government ever can be.
So, in the short term those debtors existing at the margins will have a tough time in several countries, but the problem is too small to cause lasting or widespread damage. In the medium term this is a lesson about hubris being tolerated. In the long run the GMM will ultimately convert our own desire to get things without saving first into a stabilising international force. The emergence of the GMM and their concomitant economic power is a defining characteristic of our age.

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