AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMES RICKARDS
Octavian Report: Could you take us through what you see happening to the monetary system?
James Rickards: The dollar, the yen, the euro — all are forms of money. I would say gold is a form of money. Bitcoin is a form of money. In times past, feathers and clam shells have been money. One of the criticisms of many modern forms of money, of central bank money and Bitcoin in particular, is that they are not backed by anything.
I make the point — and I’m not the first one to say this, I actually learned this from Paul Volcker — that it is backed by one thing, which is confidence. Meaning if we have confidence that something is money, then it’s money. If you and I think something’s money, and you’re willing to take it from me in exchange for goods and services, and furthermore you believe that you can give it to someone else in exchange for goods and services and make investments, then it’s money. It functions as money. But the problem with confidence is that it’s fine as long as it lasts, but it’s very fragile and it’s very easily lost. Once it’s lost, it’s impossible to get back, or at least extremely difficult to get back.
When I talk about the collapse of the international monetary system, people think I must be an apocalyptic doom-and-gloomer. End of the world, we’re all going to be living in caves, eating canned goods. I say no, not at all. I don’t think it’s the end of the world, I just think it’s the end of a system that has in fact collapsed three times in the past 100 years. There’s nothing unusual about breakdowns in the international monetary system. When it happens, the major trading financial powers get together, sit around a table, and rewrite what they call the rules of the game. “Rules of the game” is actually a phrase, a term of art in international finance, for the operating system (just to use modern jargon) of the international monetary system.
All I’m doing is looking at the system dynamics. It’s very easy to see the collapse coming based on that, and then ask the question: when the collapse comes, what will the new system look like? That is, what will it look like after the next Bretton Woods, or the next Smithsonian agreement, or for that matter Genoa in 1922? The next time the powers sit around the table, what deal will they come up with? Then I work backwards from that to today, and ask: what can I or should I do with my portfolio now to prepare for this new deal?
That’s the scenario. Now, I have the view that basically all the central-bank models, all the risk-management models used on Wall Street and in capital markets around the world are obsolete. There are much better tools available today. The three that I use most frequently — not the only three — are complexity theory, behavioral psychology, and causal inference. Causal inference also goes by the name inverse probability, and it’s also known as Bayes’ theorem. Three branches of science: one’s physics, one’s applied mathematics, and one’s social-psychological. That’s my tool kit, along with some other things.
Using those tools, it’s very easy to see the collapse coming for two reasons. One, in complex systems — and I would make the case that capital markets are complex systems nonpareil — the worst thing that you can have happen is an exponential function of scale. Meaning that as you scale up the system, you don’t increase the risk in a linear way, you increase it in an exponential way. To take a simple example, let’s say that J.P. Morgan tripled the gross notional value of its derivatives. You go to Jamie Dimon and say, “Okay, Mr. Dimon, you tripled your balance sheet. How much did the risk go up?” He would say: “Yeah, we tripled the balance sheet, but it’s long, short, long, short, long, short. The longs offset the shorts. You net it down, the actual risk is quite small relative to the gross notional value. That’s not the way to think about it. We tripled the balance sheet, but the risk went up a little bit.”
If you ask the everyday citizen, they would probably use intuition and say, “Well, if you tripled the balance sheet, sounds like you tripled the risk.” The correct answer is that Jamie Dimon’s wrong, and the everyday citizen using intuition is wrong. The correct answer is if you triple the scale of the system, you increase the risk by a factor of 10 or 100, some X-factor based on the slope of the curve, which is a power curve. It’s basically the degree, the distribution of severity and frequency of risk.
You go back to 2008: what did we hear about? Too big to fail, too big to fail, too big to fail. Today, the five largest banks in the United States are bigger than they were in 2008. They have a larger percentage of all the banking assets, and their derivative books are much bigger. Everything that was too big to fail in 2008 is much bigger today. Given the exponential function I just described, the risk is exponentially greater than 2008. Whatever you saw in 2008, get ready. A much bigger collapse is coming. Probably sooner than later.
I was general counsel of Long-Term Capital Management. I negotiated their bailout, so I had a front row seat for that. I was on the phone with the heads of the major banks. Jon Corzine at Goldman Sachs, Sandy Warner at J.P. Morgan, David Komansky at Merrill Lynch, Herb Allison and others, and Bill McDonough and Gary Gensler from the Treasury in Washington. I basically negotiated that bailout and saw exactly how close the global system came to complete collapse. We were hours away from shutting every stock and bond exchange in the world. Literally hours away, and the bailout got done. Four billion dollars changed hands. The balance sheet was supported. A press release was issued and the crisis passed. But it was extremely close, and not a foregone conclusion at all that we could get that done.
Having witnessed that, and knowing the team at LTCM — we had sixteen Ph.D.s from MIT, Harvard, Chicago, Stanford, and Yale, and two Nobel Prize winners — I said, well, if the smartest people in the world in this field with 160-plus IQ’s can get it that badly wrong, they must be missing something. There must be something wrong with the theory, because they’re not stupid. Nobody likes to lose their own money, so there must be something wrong with the theory.
I spent the next 10 years working on this, about five years figuring out what was wrong, where the flaws were, and another five years figuring out what actually works to remedy them. I refined my models enough that in 2005 and 2006 I was warning people that a collapse was coming again. That it would be worse.
Now, I didn’t say, Bear Stearns’ hedge fund is going to fail at the end of July 2007. I didn’t say that Lehman Brothers was going to collapse in mid-September 2008. It wasn’t necessary. It was sufficient to say that the collapse was coming because none of the lessons of 1998 had been learned. I’m in the same state today: the lessons of 2008 have not been learned. I’m watching the dynamics, I’m watching it play out, and you can see the next collapse coming. Here’s the tempo. In 1998, Wall Street bailed out a hedge fund to save the world. In 2008, central banks bailed out Wall Street to save the world. Move forward 10 years — let’s say 2018, to pick a number — and who’s going to bail out the central banks? Each bailout gets bigger than the one before. Each collapse is bigger than the one before, which is exactly what complexity theory would forecast based on the scaling metrics and the dynamics I described.
So who bails out the central banks? There’s only one clean balance sheet left in the world. There’s only one source of liquidity. After all, the Fed took their balance sheet from $800 billion approximately in 2008 to a little over $4 trillion dollars today. The problem is they haven’t normalized. Now that the crisis is long over, they haven’t gone back to the $800-billion-dollar level, which would be a more normal balance sheet. They stayed at $4 trillion; they’re stuck there. They’re not doing more QE, but they are rolling over what they have and they can’t reduce the size of the balance sheet.
What are they going to do in the next crisis? Go to $8 trillion? To $12 trillion? What is the outer boundary of how much money they can actually print? Legally, there is no boundary. They could actually print $12 trillion if they wanted to. At some point, however, you cross this intangible, invisible confidence boundary that I described earlier — and that goes back to the original problem of confidence in any form of money. And all the other central banks are in the same situation. The People’s Bank of China, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank. It’s not unique to the U.S. If the central banks don’t have the wherewithal to liquefy the world in the next panic, and if the next panic is coming and you can see it a mile away, where will the liquidity come from? There’s only one source of liquidity left in the world, which is the IMF. They can print world money, which are the special drawing rights or SDRs.
When you get to the endgame, they’re going to have to print trillions of SDRs (each SDR is worth about $1.50) to re-liquefy the world in a global financial panic. Will that work? In theory it could work, but I expect if it works, it will only be because nobody understands it, like something’s happening and, as Bob Dylan sang in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Something’s happening here and you don’t know what it is.” At best, it will be highly inflationary.
Now, maybe it won’t work. Maybe people will say, “I’ve lost confidence in Federal Reserve money and European Central Bank money and Bank of Japan money. Why should I have any more confidence in IMF money? It’s just another form of currency, and I’ve lost confidence in all of them and I’m going to go get some gold.” If that actually happens, the world may have to go to a gold standard. Now, I guarantee there’s not a central bank in the world that wants a gold standard. They may have to go to one, not because they want to, but because they have no choice, because it’s the only way to restore confidence. That raises an interesting question: if you go to a gold standard, what’s the price of gold? I talk about this in The New Case for Gold, about the blunder of 1925 with Churchill taking the U.K. back to a gold standard at a price that Keynes warned him was deflationary. Keynes didn’t favor a gold standard at the time. He did in 1944 and he did in 1914. He didn’t in 1925, but he did tell Churchill if you’re going to do this, you need a much higher price to avoid deflation. Churchill ignored him and threw the U.K. into a depression.
So question is: what is the implied non-deflationary price of gold today? I’ll use M1 of China, U.S., and the ECB, just as a frame. The answer’s $10,000 now if you have 40 percent backing — and over $50,000 if you have 100 percent backing of M2, which is a broader money supply. I don’t think you have to use M2. I don’t think you need 100 percent. It’s a judgement that’s debatable. But even on the modest assumptions of M1 using 40 percent backing, gold would have to be $10,000 an ounce to support the money supply. You may or may not have a gold standard, but if you do gold will be $10,000 an ounce.
Now, if you don’t, if the SDR thing actually works, gold will get to $10,000 an ounce the other way, which is inflation. Gold is going to shoot much higher. In the SDR scenario it will shoot much higher because of inflation, and in the gold-standard scenario it will shoot much higher because it has to, to avoid deflation. It’s not really the price of gold going up, it’s the devaluation of the paper currency. It’s the same thing. The dollar price of gold is just the inverse of the value of the dollar.
OR: Why do you say gold has to be part of a new system? What do you say to the people who think it’s an anachronism?
Rickards: The flaw in that — and I think this is one of the biggest problems today, and certainly an issue with everyone from Milton Friedman to Janet Yellen — is that they take confidence for granted. If you assume that confidence in paper money is infinitely elastic, then there’s no reason why the money supply cannot be infinitely elastic.
There are a lot of gold bashers out there who will be very quick to tell you that gold’s a barbarous relic, blah blah blah. But there are some more thoughtful people out there, among whom I would include Stephanie Kelton, Warren Mosler, Richard Duncan, and others. They’re all different, but they’re smart people. I’ve met a lot of them. Paul McCulley, formerly of PIMCO and a close associate of Bill Gross. They call themselves modern monetary theorists.
I think Adair Turner is coming out this way in his new book, Between Debt and the Devil, and even Larry Summers in some ways. What they’re saying is that there’s nothing you cannot print yourself out of. You get too much deflation? Print more money. Deflation won’t go away? Print more. People won’t spend? The government can spend. Maybe you cannot force people to spend it, but the government loves to spend money, they know how to do that really well. If it increases the deficit, so what? Just issue more debt to cover the deficit, and if people don’t want your debt, the central bank can buy it. Don’t worry about paying it back because the central bank can convert the treasury bonds into perpetual bonds. The whole thing just goes away. You don’t have to worry about the national debt — the Fed can just buy the whole $19 trillion of it, sock it away on their balance sheet, make it a perpetual note, and go play golf. What’s the problem?
This is sometimes called “helicopter money.” It’s called “people’s QE” by Jeremy Corbyn, it’s called “fiscal dominance” by Rick Mishkin. It has different names, but it always says the same thing: there’s no outer boundary on how much money you can print, so what’s the problem?
My thesis — and here I’ll flip over to the behavioral-psychology side a little bit — is that it’s not a problem until it is. In other words, confidence can be sustained until it can’t. You can lose this very quickly, so I don’t believe that confidence is infinitely elastic. There’s nothing in human nature or history that says that. If you’re relying on confidence to say that money can be infinitely elastic, then you’re wrong. The concern is that the elites will go down this road — having been wrong about the wealth effect, about QE1, QE2, and QE3, about Operation Twist — and then they’ll somehow wake up and see they’re wrong again. But they’ll find out the hard way because confidence in the entire system will collapse. At which point, your only two remedies are SDRs and gold.
OR: What’s your take on central banks and gold?
Rickards: With regard to central banks and gold, I always say watch what they do, not what they say. If the U.S. has a budget problem, and we’re sitting on about $380 billion in gold, why don’t you just sell the gold and get some money? That’s what Canada did. That’s what the U.K. did. Why are we hanging onto it?
The question answers itself. Obviously, it has some value. Obviously, it has some role in the monetary system. In my book, I write about a discovery I made — one of those discoveries that’s hiding in plain sight. I had been working on a thesis that the Fed is, at least on occasion, insolvent. My basis for that was to look at the Fed’s balance sheet. They’re leveraged today about 113 to one. That’s unheard of. I’ve been in the hedge-fund business, I’ve been in the investment-banking business, I’ve been in the banking business for decades. Banks leverage maybe 12 to one, broker-dealers and investment banks leverage maybe 15 to one, a hedge fund will lever two or three to one (although that’s getting a little risky). Even Long-Term Capital Management was never leveraged more than 20 to one, and we were very aggressive about leverage. 113 to one is way, way off the charts.
Now, just to be clear, the Fed does not mark its value sheet to market. My thought experiment is: what if they did? There’s a lot of data out there about the composition of the bond holdings of the Fed, particularly those held at the New York Fed. It’s not difficult to get that information, to do some bond math, and mark it to market. Doing that, I discovered that they were in fact insolvent at various times along the way. I had this conversation with several Fed officials. One member of the board of governors, another individual who was not a member of the board, but a very, very close advisor to Bernanke and Yellen, a true insider, a Ph.D. economist, a friend of mine. I was able to have this conversation with him. Interestingly, the member of the board of governors more or less conceded my point, but her rejoinder was, “Well, maybe we’re insolvent, but it doesn’t matter.” In other words, central banks don’t need capital. That’s a point of view.
The other conversation was with the insider: he was adamant that they’ve never been insolvent, ever. Regardless of bond-market moves. He wouldn’t tell me why, so I got to thinking about it. I went back to the balance sheet to see what I was missing. And lo and behold, there was this gold item valued at $42 an ounce. I said, “Well I should mark that to market. If I’m going to mark the bonds to market, I need to mark the gold to market.”
Now, as I was doing this I noticed a couple things. The Fed’s gold holdings are approximately 8,000 tons exactly. Close to exactly the amount held by the U.S. Treasury. In intelligence work, the first rule is there are no coincidences, and this non-coincidence explains why the Treasury stopped selling gold in 1980. Bven as late as the late 70’s, the Treasury was still dumping gold to suppress the price. That’s not speculation; there’s declassified correspondence among President Ford, Henry Kissinger, Arthur Burns, and the Chancellor of Germany that lays this out. The Treasury was actually dumping thousands of tons of gold in the late 1970s, but then in 1980 it just stopped on a dime. The U.S. has sold almost no gold since. Instead, we got everyone else to dump their gold. We got the U.K. to dump six hundred tons in the beginning of 1999. We got Switzerland to dump over a thousand tons in the early 2000s. We got the IMF to dump four hundred tons in 2010. The U.S. has been prevailing upon all these other people to sell their gold, but we won’t sell any ourselves. Why? They can’t. The Treasury has to hold the gold they’ve got in order to honor, on legal and constitutional grounds, the certificate held by the Fed. This was received in exchange for the gold (with an explicit guarantee that the gold was there to backstop the Fed’s balance sheet).
So I was wrong the first time. The Fed has never been insolvent; my insider friend was correct. The reason I was wrong was not because of the bond portfolio, which would have made them insolvent, but because of the gold, which adds about $350 billion to the balance sheet. When you add that to capital on a mark-to-market basis, the leverage ratio drops from 113 to one to about 13 to one, which is pretty healthy for a normal bank. On top of everything else we’re discussing, you find that the Federal Reserve has a hidden asset, which is the value of gold, and that it’s well capitalized — if you count the gold. What does it mean when central bankers and public officials disparage gold, tell you it’s an anachronism, tell you it’s a tradition, tell you it’s a barbarous relic, tell you that you’re a fool to own it — and yet they themselves are propped up and made solvent by gold?
OR: More and more physical gold is leaving the tradable system as China and Russia stockpile it, yet huge derivatives are still being written on it. Can you talk about that disconnect?
Rickards: Well, there is a world of paper gold and there’s a world of physical gold. Now, paper gold to me is not paper gold. It’s paper, but it references the price of gold. There’s not going to be any actual large difference between the paper price and the physical price quoted whether it’s in London or Beijing, because of the arbitrages.
I just recently returned from Switzerland where I met with the head of the country’s biggest gold refinery, who told me that he’s seeing severe shortages in supply. This guy, he knows who all the big sellers are, he knows who all the big buyers are because he’s the biggest gold refiner and he takes it in and ships it out. He knows who all the players are and this is, again, in the physical world. He said that with regard to his selling side, he has more demand than he can handle. He’s sending the Chinese 10 tons a week; they want 20 tons. He won’t provide it because he doesn’t have that much gold and he has other customers to take care of.
The physical shortages are already showing up and they’re getting worse. I’ve heard similar things from wholesale dealers — people who deal directly with London Bullion Market Association members and Comex-approved warehouses. These are the large holders of gold in the world, and they are saying that it is taking longer and longer to fill deliveries. The supply situation is stretched and probably about to break.
Meanwhile, the paper gold market continues to expand with 100-to-one leverage. Warehouses continue to get drawn down, contracts continue to be written. You have a very, very large inverted pyramid, with a broad base of paper gold on top and a tiny sliver of physical gold supporting the whole thing. It’s becoming wobbly, and it’s about to tip over.
Any break in that market — coming back to the issue of confidence — would lead directly to what I would call the mother of all short squeezes and a buying panic. What would I mean by a break? Well, most likely a failure to deliver. Suppose some dealer, some large bank, some exchange, some intermediary somewhere has sold a lot of paper gold and has been called upon by the buyers to deliver. They say, “I don’t want to roll over my contract, I don’t want cash settlement, I want the gold, please. Give me the gold.”
They’re not going to be able to get it. That failure will become public, because it always does, and will create a crisis of confidence. Everyone will run down to their dealers, their exchanges, and their brokers all at once and say, “Give me my gold!” They’ll then discover that there’s only about one percent of what’s needed to fulfill that demand, and there’s nowhere near enough gold in the world at anything close to today’s prices (even if you could find it, which you probably will not be able to) to satisfy those contracts.
What would happen next? The answer is that, since you cannot deliver the gold, you’re going to have to terminate the contract, and it will come as a surprise to a lot of paper gold buyers that such terminations are totally legal. If you actually read the contracts gold buyers sign you’ll find what are called force majeure clauses or material adverse change clauses, meaning gold exchanges have the power to suspend delivery. There’s also what’s called trading for liquidation only, which means you can roll over your contract or close it out, but you cannot take delivery. They have emergency powers to do, really, whatever they want to maintain orderly markets. So what they’ll do is they’ll terminate all these contracts using these contractual and governance provisions. They won’t steal your money, they’ll send you a cash settlement for yesterday’s price. But meanwhile the price of gold today will be going up $200, $300, $400, $500 an ounce. Day after day you’ll be sitting there, watching the exact hyperbolic price movements that were the reason you bought the gold in the first place — and you will not be participating in them.
You will be closed out at exactly the time when you most want the contract. That always happens. That’s the conditional correlation effect. The time you most want it is the time you won’t have it, because it doesn’t work for the other guy. They close you out, send you a check for yesterday’s price, and you’ll miss the move. And by the way, even if you want to jump back in, you won’t be able to buy any. Dealers will be sold out, mints will be backlogged, refiners will be backlogged. They won’t even take your calls. That’s what my friend in Switzerland told me. He said if I didn’t know you and you weren’t already a customer, I wouldn’t take your call. I’m not taking any new business because I cannot supply it.
OR: Can you talk about the so-called war on cash and the potential confiscation of gold?
Rickards: The war on cash is over. The government won. We hear about the cashless society and I think Sweden may be the first to get there. Others are considering it. Larry Summers writes an op-ed on abolishing the 100-dollar bill, and there’s a movement in Europe to get rid of the 500-euro note, so there are a lot of significant legal and political trends against cash. It’s really irrelevant, because we don’t use cash anywhere. You might have a few bucks in your wallet, but people get their paychecks from direct deposit, they get their retirement checks from direct deposit, they pay their bills online, they use their credit cards, they use their debit cards, and there hasn’t been a paper Treasury security issue, I think, since the late 1970’s. The dollar is already a digital currency, and so are all the other major currencies.
To the extent we have any paper money at all, it’s a token. To the point where you buy a two-dollar candy bar, you don’t even reach in your pocket and get out a five, you just swipe your debit card. We already live in a world of digital currencies, with respect to the dollar, the major currencies.
People say, “Yeah, but it’s still legal. I can go down to the bank and get $10,000 or $20,000 and stick it in a safe to avoid negative interest rates or have it for an emergency.” They’re wrong. It’s not that easy. If you go actually do it, actually go down to the bank and ask them for $15,000 or $20,000, you will be treated like a drug dealer or a tax evader. Some banks will tell you to come back in a couple days, that they have to order the cash. There’ll be reams of paperwork to fill out. They’ll file a report with the Treasury.
People are kidding themselves about the ease with which they can get cash. They are locked into a digital system. The war on cash is over and the government won. That’s just the prelude to negative interest rates. It’s like slaughtering pigs: you don’t chase the pigs around a field. You get them into a pen and then you slaughter them. What’s happening with savers is that everyone’s being rounded up into one of four or five digital pens, i.e. Citi and J.P. Morgan and Wells Fargo, and they’re going to be led to the slaughterhouse of negative interest rates.
OR: Do you think we are seeing a currency war going on internationally at the moment?
Rickards: About currency wars, let me say I’m always amused when I see a journalist or someone write a story saying “Oh gee, there’s a currency war. Look at this. China’s weakening against the yen.” I make the point that the most recent currency war started in 2010. I talk about it in my book on the subject which came out in 2011. It’s the same currency war. Wars consist of many battles, wars are not continuous fighting all the time. There are big battles and little battles; there are quiet periods and then a new battle erupts. You have an occasional D-Day or Battle of the Bulge, but some episodes are more intense than others.
Currency wars are the same. There are quiet periods, but it’s the same war. What I call Currency War One lasted from 1921 to 1936. What I call Currency War Two lasted from 1967 to 1987. I make the point that the world is not always in a currency war, but when we are they can go on for a very long time because they have no logical conclusion. It’s just back and forth, with a race to the bottom via competitive devaluations. The only conclusion to a currency war is either systemic reform or systemic collapse. Either the system breaks down completely or people get together, as they did at the Plaza Hotel in 1985, to give the system some coherence.
I don’t see the leadership, I don’t see the giants today. I don’t see people like James Baker, Bob Rubin, George Schultz, or John Maynard Keynes. I don’t see people like that on the landscape. I see a lot of people not of that stature in positions of power. I don’t see any awareness that this collapse is coming. So given the two possible outcomes — systemic reform or systemic collapse — I think systemic collapse is the more likely. But we are in a currency war and have been since 2010. We will be perhaps until 2025. Unless the system collapses earlier, which is what I expect.
James Rickards is an investor and the bestselling author of The New Case for Gold, Currency Wars, and The Death of Money.
Reserve Currency Status
Brainard’s speech didn’t address recent concerns regarding the reserve currency status concerns of the US dollar or China’s current lead in the CBDC race, which could advance its national interests. The reserve currency status is among others determined by the resilience of a country’s payment system, depth and trust in the well-functioning of the capital markets and exchanges, appeal to and innovation acumen of its tech industry and financial market infrastructure, international thought leadership, lead into climate change solutions and the global military might and power base, which reinforces adoption of a currency. (Customers pay for oil in the currency of the nation which offers regime protection at the oil fields. Asians and Europeans move every month out of their home currency in favor of the US Dollar to pay for their imported oil bill). Global adoption can also be ensured if censorship or control concerns, linked to the use of the CBDC, can be substantially mitigated.
Referring to innovation acumen and climate change solutions, could the central bank digital currency project incorporate scientific data observations regarding climate change triggering terrestrial and atmospheric trends? Could TRACE, a consortium tracking greenhouse gas emissions 24/7 by satellite, foster a balance between monetary policy and a thriving planet and be made part of this initiative? Could monetary policy be framed incorporating observations from those data trends, with support from climate scientists? Could digital currency be directed at ZIP code levels, impacted by climate change calamities? From a supervisory perspective, could solvency weightings for banks’ asset exposure be dynamically set as a function of the data observations and the remaining finite carbon budget? Could bank stress testing scenarios under CCAR (Comprehensive Capital Assessment and Review), undertaken to assess the banks’ adequacy of solvency levels, be articulated as an extended continuum of such climate change observations?
Innovative monetary design ingenuity linked to climate change solutions can only solidify the continued appeal in the US dollar as the global reserve currency.
The Current Five-Headed Crisis
The current crisis is five-headed in nature, characterized by a
- public health crisis, a
- financial crisis, a
- social justice crisis, a
- climate change crisis and a
- trust crisis in institutions and international trade.
Could a central bank digital crypto currency address each of the crisis challenges? How could financial inclusion offer a dent into the social injustice paradigm? How could distributed, decentralized and crypto-graphed data sharing enhance trust in institutions? How could the Central Bank consensus protocol be made more energy efficient than the private crypto-currency protocols? How could smart contract design introduce a central bank digital currency-based reward economy?
Instead of offering mere helicopter money, could compensation be offered in exchange for contributions to the regenerative (climate change) and caring economy (childcare and parental care at home)? How could blockchain supported supply chain data trace the global export and import flows in relationship to FX trades and exchange rates? How could market intervention and/or sustainable change to circular economic paradigms be steered on the back of those data?
Need For A New Anchor Currency
The debasing of currencies by the most important central banks ($6 Trillion of QE in the US alone), the arising currency tensions in the emerging markets (e.g. Lebanon, Turkey, South-Africa,….) and the COVID-19 default impact on total debt outstanding of $258 trillion per Q1 2020 will only accelerate the need and call for debt rescheduling and ensuing FX rate mechanism interventions. If gold is no longer an option, could a central bank issued stablecoin, finite in supply, become a store of value or new anchor currency to manage the restructurings and market support activities?
Brainard’s speech makes reference to a new initiative with the Bank of International Settlement’s Innovation Hub. This initiative could provide a useful avenue to design such Central Bank stablecoin.
The collateral base of the stablecoin could consist of a reserve of natural capital assets, consisting of
- 50% of land and forests,
- 35% In renewable energy initiatives, and
- 10% in the top 100 most compliant ESG companies and
- 5% in biotech research.
The collateral base would be managed dynamically, but would also benefit from monetary policy and prudential supervisory decisions aimed at regenerating the natural capital base on earth and replenishing its finite carbon reserve. The supply could be managed, within a range, as a function of the TRACE observations.
On the occasion of Bretton Woods II, the new Central Bank Stablecoin could be introduced and offered, akin to the gold standard, as a fixed rate against all other fiat currencies, including the US dollar.
Milton Friedman once observed, only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. Then, ideas once dismissed as unrealistic or impossible might just become inevitable.
Submitted by Michael Every of Rabobank
- The Eurodollar system is a critical but often misunderstood driver of global financial markets: its importance cannot be understated.
- Its origins are shrouded in mystery and intrigue; its operations are invisible to most; and yet it controls us in many ways. We will attempt to enlighten readers on what it is and what it means.
- However, it is also a system under huge structural pressures – and as such we may be about to experience a profound paradigm shift with key implications for markets, economies, and geopolitics.
- Recent Fed actions on swap lines and repo facilities only underline this fact rather than reducing its likelihood
What is The Matrix?
A new world-class golf course in an Asian country financed with a USD bank loan. A Mexican property developer buying a hotel in USD. A European pension company wanting to hold USD assets and swapping borrowed EUR to do so. An African retailer importing Chinese-made toys for sale, paying its invoice in USD.
All of these are small examples of the multi-faceted global Eurodollar market. Like The Matrix, it is all around us, and connects us. Also just like The Matrix, most are unaware of its existence even as it defines the parameters we operate within. As we shall explore in this special report, it is additionally a Matrix that encompasses an implicit power struggle that only those who grasp its true nature are cognizant of.
Moreover, at present this Matrix and its Architect face a huge, perhaps existential, challenge.
Yes, it has overcome similar crises before…but it might be that the Novel (or should we say ‘Neo’?) Coronavirus is The One.
So, here is the key question to start with: What is the Eurodollar system?
The Eurodollar system is a critical but often misunderstood driver of global financial markets: its importance cannot be understated. While most market participants are aware of its presence to some degree, not many grasp the extent to which it impacts on markets, economies,…and geopolitics – indeed, the latter is particularly underestimated.
Yet before we go down that particular rabbit hole, let’s start with the basics. In its simplest form, a Eurodollar is an unsecured USD deposit held outside of the US. They are not under the US’ legal jurisdiction, nor are they subject to US rules and regulations.
To avoid any potential confusion, the term Eurodollar came into being long before the Euro currency, and the “euro” has nothing to do with Europe. In this context it is used in the same vein as Eurobonds, which are also not EUR denominated bonds, but rather debt issued in a different currency to the company of that issuing. For example, a Samurai bond–that is to say a bond issued in JPY by a nonJapanese issuer–is also a type of Eurobond.
As with Eurobonds, eurocurrencies can reflect many different underlying real currencies. In fact, one could talk about a Euroyen, for JPY, or even a Euroeuro, for EUR. Yet the Eurodollar dwarfs them: we shall show the scale shortly.
So how did the Eurodollar system come to be, and how has it grown into the behemoth it is today? Like all global systems, there are many conspiracy theories and fantastical claims that surround the birth of the Eurodollar market. While some of these stories may have a grain of truth, we will try and stick to the known facts.
A number of parallel events occurred in the late 1950s that led to the Eurodollar’s creation – and the likely suspects sound like the cast of a spy novel. The Eurodollar market began to emerge after WW2, when US Dollars held outside of the US began to increase as the US consumed more and more goods from overseas. Some also cite the role of the Marshall Plan, where the US transferred over USD12bn (USD132bn equivalent now) to Western Europe to help them rebuild and fight the appeal of Soviet communism.
Of course, these were just USD outside of the US and not Eurodollars. Where the plot thickens is that, increasingly, the foreign recipients of USD became concerned that the US might use its own currency as a power play. As the Cold War bit, Communist countries became particularly concerned about the safety of their USD held with US banks. After all, the US had used its financial power for geopolitical gains when in 1956, in response to the British invading Egypt during the Suez Crisis, it had threatened to intensify the pressure on GBP’s peg to USD under Bretton Woods: this had forced the British into a humiliating withdrawal and an acceptance that their status of Great Power was not compatible with their reduced economic and financial circumstances.
With rising fears that the US might freeze the Soviet Union’s USD holdings, action was taken: in 1957, the USSR moved their USD holdings to a bank in London, creating the first Eurodollar deposit and seeding our current UScentric global financial system – by a country opposed to the US in particular and capitalism in general.
There are also alternative origin stories. Some claim the first Eurodollar deposit was made during the Korean War with China moving USD to a Parisian bank.
Meanwhile, the Eurodollar market spawned a widely-known financial instrument, the London Inter Bank Offer Rate, or LIBOR. Indeed, LIBOR is an offshore USD interest rate which emerged in the 1960s as those that borrowed Eurodollars needed a reference rate for larger loans that might need to be syndicated. Unlike today, however, LIBOR was an average of offered lending rates, hence the name, and was not based on actual transactions as the first tier of the LIBOR submission waterfall is today.
Dozer and Tank
So how large is the Eurodollar market today? Like the Matrix – vast. As with the origins of the Eurodollar system, itself nothing is transparent. However, we have tried to estimate an indicative total using Bank for International Settlements (BIS) data for:
- On-balance sheet USD liabilities held by non-US banks;
- USD Credit commitments, guarantees extended, and derivatives contracts of non-US banks (C, G, D);
- USD debt liabilities of non-US non-financial corporations;
- Over-the-Counter (OTC) USD derivative claims of non-US non-financial corporations; and
- Global goods imports in USD excluding those of the US and intra-Eurozone trade.
The results are as shown below as of end-2018: USD57 trillion, nearly three times the size of the US economy before it was hit by the COVID-19 virus. Even if this measure is not complete, it underlines the scale of the market.
It also shows its vast power in that this is an equally large structural global demand for USD. Every import, bond, loan, credit guarantee, or derivate needs to be settled in USD.
Indeed, fractional reserve banking means that an initial Eurodollar can be multiplied up (e.g., Eurodollar 100m can be used as the base for a larger Eurodollar loan, and leverage increased further). Yet non-US entities are NOT able to conjure up USD on demand when needed because they don’t have a central bank behind them which can produce USD by fiat, which only the Federal Reserve can.
This power to create the USD that everyone else transacts and trades in is an essential point to grasp on the Eurodollar – which is ironically also why it was created in the first place!
Given the colourful history, ubiquitous nature, and critical importance of the Eurodollar market, a second question then arises: Why don’t people know about The Matrix?
The answer is easy: because once one is aware of it, one immediately wishes to have taken the Blue Pill instead.
Consider what the logic of the Eurodollar system implies. Global financial markets and the global economy rely on the common standard of the USD for pricing, accounting, trading, and deal making. Imagine a world with a hundred different currencies – or even a dozen: it would be hugely problematic to manage, and would not allow anywhere near the level of integration we currently enjoy.
However, at root the Eurodollar system is based on using the national currency of just one country, the US, as the global reserve currency. This means the world is beholden to a currency that it cannot create as needed.
When a crisis hits, as at present, everyone in the Eurodollar system suddenly realizes they have no ability to create fiat USD and must rely on national USD FX reserves and/or Fed swap lines that allow them to swap local currency for USD for a period. This obviously grants the US enormous power and privilege.
The world is also beholden to US monetary policy cycles rather than local ones: higher US rates and/or a stronger USD are ruinous for countries that have few direct economic or financial links with the US. Yet the US Federal Reserve generally shows very little interest in global economic conditions – though that is starting to change, as we will show shortly.
A second problem is that the flow of USD from the US to the rest of the world needs to be sufficient to meet the inbuilt demand for trade and other transactions. Yet the US is a relatively smaller slice of the global economy with each passing year. Even so, it must keep USD flowing out or else a global Eurodollar liquidity crisis will inevitably occur.
That means that either the US must run large capital account deficits, lending to the rest of the world; or large current account deficits, spending instead.
Obviously, the US has been running the latter for many decades, and in many ways benefits from it. It pays for goods and services from the rest of the world in USD debt that it can just create. As such it can also run huge publicor private-sector deficits – arguably even with the multitrillion USD fiscal deficits we are about to see.
However, there is a cost involved for the US. Running a persistent current-account deficit implies a net outflow of industry, manufacturing and related jobs. The US has obviously experienced this for a generation, and it has led to both structural inequality and, more recently, a backlash of political populism wanting to Make America Great Again.
Indeed, if one understands the structure of the Eurodollar system one can see that it faces the Triffin Paradox. This was an argument first made by Robert Triffin in 1959 when he correctly predicted that any country forced to adopt the role of global reserve currency would also be forced to run ever-larger currency outflows to fuel foreign appetite – eventually leading to the breakdown of the system as the cost became too much to bear.
Moreover, there is another systemic weakness at play: realpolitik. Atrophying of industry undermines the supply chains needed for the defence sector, with critical national security implications. The US is already close to losing the ability to manufacture the wide range of products its powerful armed forces require on scale and at speed: yet without military supremacy the US cannot long maintain its multi-dimensional global power, which also stands behind the USD and the Eurodollar system.
This implies the US needs to adopt (military-) industrial policy and a more protectionist stance to maintain its physical power – but that could limit the flow of USD into the global economy via trade. Again, the Eurodollar system, like the early utopian version of the Matrix, seems to contain the seeds of its own destruction.
Indeed, look at the Eurodollar logically over the long term and there are only three ways such a system can ultimately resolve itself:
- The US walks away from the USD reserve currency burden, as Triffin said, or others lose faith in it to stand behind the deficits it needs to run to keep USD flowing appropriately;
- The US Federal Reserve takes over the global financial system little by little and/or in bursts; or
- The global financial system fragments as the US asserts primacy over parts of it, leaving the rest to make their own arrangements.
See the Eurodollar system like this, and it was always when and not if a systemic crisis occurs – which is why people prefer not focus on it all even when it matters so much. Yet arguably this underlying geopolitical dynamic is playing out during our present virus-prompted global financial instability.
Down the rabbit hole
But back to the rabbit hole that is our present situation. While the Eurodollar market is enormous one also needs to look at how many USD are circulating around the world outside the US that can service it if needed. In this regard we will look specifically at global USD FX reserves.
It’s true we could also include US cash holdings in the offshore private sector. Given that US banknotes cannot be tracked no firm data are available, but estimates range from 40% – 72% of total USD cash actually circulates outside the country. This potentially totals hundreds of billions of USD that de facto operate as Eurodollars. However, given it is an unknown total, and also largely sequestered in questionable cash-based activities, and hence are hopefully outside the banking system, we prefer to stick with centralbank FX reserves.
Looking at the ratio of Eurodollar liabilities to global USD FX reserve assets, the picture today is actually healthier than it was a few years ago.
Indeed, while the Eurodollar market size has remained relatively constant in recent years, largely as banks have been slow to expand their balance sheets, the level of global USD FX reserves has risen from USD1.9 trillion to over USD6.5 trillion. As such, the ratio of structural global USD demand to that of USD supply has actually declined from near 22 during the global financial crisis to around 9.
Yet the current market is clearly seeing major Eurodollar stresses – verging on panic.
Fundamentally, the Eurodollar system is always short USD, and any loss of confidence sees everyone scramble to access them at once – in effect causing an invisible international bank run. Indeed, the Eurodollar market only works when it is a constant case of “You-Roll-Over Dollar”.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 and its huge economic damage and uncertainty mean that global confidence has been smashed, and our Eurodollar Matrix risks buckling as a result.
The wild gyrations recently experienced in even major global FX crosses speak to that point, to say nothing of the swings seen in more volatile currencies such as AUD, and in EM bellwethers such as MXN and ZAR. FX basis swaps and LIBOR vs. Fed Funds (so offshore vs. onshore USD borrowing rates) say the same thing. Unsurprisingly, the IMF are seeing a wide range of countries turning to them for emergency USD loans.
The Fed has, of course, stepped up. It has reduced the cost of accessing existing USD swap lines–where USD are exchanged for other currencies for a period of time–for the Bank of Canada, Bank of England, European Central Bank, and Swiss National Bank; and another nine countries were given access to Fed swap lines with Australia, Brazil, South Korea, Mexico, Singapore, and Sweden all able to tap up to USD60bn, and USD30bn available to Denmark, Norway, and New Zealand. This alleviates some pressure for some markets – but is a drop in the ocean compared to the level of Eurodollar liabilities.
The Fed has also introduced a new FIMA repo facility. Essentially this allows any central bank, including emerging markets, to swap their US Treasury holdings for USD, which can then be made available to local financial institutions. To put it bluntly, this repo facility is like a swap line but with a country whose currency you don’t trust.
Allowing a country to swap its Treasuries for USD can alleviate some of the immediate stress on Eurodollars, but when the swap needs to be reversed the drain on reserves will still be there. Moreover, Eurodollar market participants will now not be able to see if FX reserves are declining in a potential crisis country. Ironically, that is likely to see less, not more, willingness to extend Eurodollar credit as a result.
You have two choices, Neo
Yet despite all the Fed’s actions so far, USD keeps going up vs. EM FX. Again, this is as clear an example as one could ask for of structural underlying Eurodollar demand.
Indeed, we arguably need to see even more steps taken by the Fed – and soon. To underline the scale of the crisis we currently face in the Eurodollar system, the BIS concluded at the end of a recent publication on the matter:
“…today’s crisis differs from the 2008 GFC, and requires policies that reach beyond the banking sector to final users. These businesses, particularly those enmeshed in global supply chains, are in constant need of working capital, much of it in dollars. Preserving the flow of payments along these chains is essential if we are to avoid further economic meltdown.
Channeling dollars to non-banks is not straightforward. Allowing non-banks to transact with the central bank is one option, but there are attendant difficulties, both in principle and in practice. Other options include policies that encourage banks to fill the void left by market based finance, for example funding for lending schemes that extend dollars to non-banks indirectly via banks.”
In other words, the BIS is making clear that somebody (i.e., the Fed) must ensure that Eurodollars are made available on massive scale, not just to foreign central banks, but right down global USD supply chains. As they note, there are many practical issues associated with doing that – and huge downsides if we do not do so. Yet they overlook that there are huge geopolitical problems linked to this step too.
Notably, if the Fed does so then we move rapidly towards logical end-game #2 of the three possible Eurodollar outcomes we have listed previously, where the Fed de facto takes over the global financial system. Yet if the Fed does not do so then we move towards end-game #3, a partial Eurodollar collapse.
Of course, the easy thing to assume is that the Fed will step up as it has always shown a belated willingness before, and a more proactive stance of late. Indeed, as the BIS shows in other research, the Fed stepped up not just during the Global Financial Crisis, but all the way back to the Eurodollar market of the 1960s, where swap lines were readily made available on large scale in order to try to reduce periodic volatility.
However, the scale of what we are talking about here is an entirely new dimension: potentially tens of trillions of USD, and not just to other central banks, or to banks, but to a panoply of real economy firms all around the Eurodollar universe.
As importantly, this assumes that the Fed, which is based in the US, wants to save all these foreign firms. Yet does the Fed want to help Chinese firms, for example? It may traditionally be focused narrowly on smoothly-functioning financial markets, but is that true of a White House that openly sees China as a “strategic rival”, which wishes to onshore industry from it, and which has more interest in having a politically-compliant, not independent Fed? Please think back to the origins of Eurodollars – or look at how the US squeezed its WW2 ally UK during the 1956 Suez Crisis, or how it is using the USD financial system vs. Iran today.
Equally, this assumes that all foreign governments and central banks will want to see the US and USD/Eurodollar cement their global financial primacy further. Yes, Fed support will help alleviate this current economic and brewing financial crisis – but the shift of real power afterwards would be a Rubicon that we have crossed.
Specifically, would China really be happy to see its hopes of CNY gaining a larger global role washed away in a flood of fresh, addictive Eurodollar liquidity, meaning that it is more deeply beholden to the US central bank? Again, please think back to the origins of Eurodollars, to Suez, and to how Iran is being treated – because Beijing will. China would be fully aware that a Fed bailout could easily come with political strings attached, if not immediately and directly, then eventually and indirectly. But they would be there all the same.
One cannot ignore or underplay this power struggle that lies within the heart of the Eurodollar Matrix.
I know you’re out thereSo, considering those systemic pressures, let’s look at where Eurodollar pressures are building most now. We will use World Bank projections for short-term USD financing plus concomitant USD current-account deficit requirements vs. specifically USD FX reserves, not general FX reserves accounted in USD, as calculated by looking at national USD reserves and adjusting for the USD’s share of the total global FX reserves basket (57% in 2018, for example). In some cases this will bias national results up or down, but these are in any case only indicative.
How to read these data about where the Eurodollar stresses lie in Table 1? Firstly, in terms of scale, Eurodollar problems lie with China, the UK, Japan, Hong Kong, the Cayman Islands, Singapore, Canada, and South Korea, Germany and France. Total short-term USD demand in the economies listed is USD28 trillion – around 130% of USD GDP. The size of liabilities the Fed would potentially have to cover in China is enormous at over USD3.4 trillion – should that prove politically acceptable to either side.
Outside of China, and most so in the Cayman Islands and the UK, Eurodollar claims are largely in the financial sector and fall on banks and shadow banks such as insurance companies and pension funds. This is obviously a clearer line of attack/defence for the Fed. Yet it still makes these economies vulnerable to swings in Eurodollar confidence – and reliant on the Fed.
Second, most developed countries apart from Switzerland have opted to hold almost no USD reserves at all. Their approach is that they are also reserve currencies, long-standing US allies, and so assume the Fed will always be willing to treat them as such with swap lines when needed. That assumption may be correct – but it comes with a geopolitical power-hierarchy price tag. (Think yet again of how Eurodollars started and the 1956 Suez Crisis ended.)
Third, most developing countries still do not hold enough USD for periods of Eurodollar liquidity stress, despite the painful lessons learned in 1997-98 and 2008-09. The only exception is Saudi Arabia, whose currency is pegged to the USD, although Taiwan, and Russia hold USD close to what would be required in an emergency. Despite years of FX reserve accumulation, at the cost of domestic consumption and a huge US trade deficit, Indonesia, Mexico, Malaysia, and Turkey are all still vulnerable to Eurodollar funding pressures. In short, there is an argument to save yet more USD – which will increase Eurodollar demand further.
We all become Agent Smith?
In short, the extent of demand for USD outside of the US is clear – and so far the Fed is responding. It has continued to expand its balance sheet to provide liquidity to the markets, and it has never done so at this pace before (Figure 5). In fact, in just a month the Fed has expanded its balance sheet by nearly 50% of the previous expansion observed during all three rounds of QE implemented after the Global Financial Crisis. Essentially we have seen nearly five years of QE1-3 in five weeks! And yet it isn’t enough.
Moreover, things are getting worse, not better. The global economic impact of COVID-19 is only beginning but one thing is abundantly clear – global trade in goods and services is going to be hit very, very hard, and that US imports are going to tumble. This threatens one of the main USD liquidity channels into the Eurodollar system.
Table 2 above also underlines looming EM Eurodollar stress-points in terms of import cover, which will fall sharply as USD earnings collapse, and external debt service. The further to the left we see the latest point for import cover, and the further to the right we see it for external debt, the greater the potential problems ahead.
As such, the Fed is likely to find it needs to cover trillions more in Eurodollar liabilities (of what underlying quality?) coming due in the real global, not financial economy – which is exactly what the BIS are warning about. Yes, we are seeing such radical steps being taken by central banks in some Western countries, including in the US – but internationally too? Are we all to become ‘Agent Smith’?
If the Fed is to step up to this challenge and expand its balance sheet even further/faster, then the US economy will massively expand its external deficit to mirror it.
That is already happening. What was a USD1 trillion fiscal deficit before COVID-19, to the dismay of some, has expanded to USD3.2 trillion via a virus-fighting package: and when tax revenues collapse, it will be far larger. Add a further USD600bn phase three stimulus, and talk of a USD2 trillion phase four infrastructure program to try to jumpstart growth rather than just fight virus fires, and potentially we are talking about a fiscal deficit in the range of 20-25% of GDP. As we argued recently, that is a peak-WW2 level as this is also a world war of sorts.
On one hand, the Eurodollar market will happily snap up those trillions US Treasuries/USD – at least those they can access, because the Fed will be buying them too via QE. Indeed, for now bond yields are not rising and USD still is.
However, such fiscal action will prompt questions on how much the USD can be ‘debased’ before, like Agent Smith, it over-reaches and then implodes or explodes – the first of the logical endpoints for the Eurodollar system, if you recall. (Of course, other currencies are doing it too.)
Is Neo The One?
In conclusion, the origins of the Eurodollar Matrix are shrouded in mystery and intrigue – and yet are worth knowing. Its operations are invisible to most but control us in many ways – so are worth understanding. Moreover, it is a system under huge structural pressure – which we must now recognise.
It’s easy to ignore all these issues and just hope the Eurodollar Matrix remains the “You-Roll-Dollar” market – but can that be true indefinitely based just on one’s belief?
Is the Neo Coronavirus ‘The One’ that breaks it?
ORACLE: “Well now, ain’t this a surprise?”
ARCHITECT: “You’ve played a very dangerous game.”
ORACLE: “Change always is.”
ARCHITECT: “And how long do you think this peace is going to last?”
ORACLE: “As long as it can….What about the others?”
ARCHITECT: “What others?”
ORACLE: “The ones that want out.”
ARCHITECT: “Obviously they will be freed.”
Add together some of the biggest challenges U.S. banks weathered in the dozen years since the financial crisis, and you get an idea of how bad the coronavirus epidemic could be for them.
A decade ago, banks persevered through a recession and widespread loan defaults. Until 2015, they endured years of ultralow interest rates and slow loan growth that pressured their profitability. In 2015 and 2018, banks survived selloffs in the stock market. In 2016, the industry came through a collapse in energy prices with a few bruises, but no big busts.
Now, banks face all those threats simultaneously. Many of their businesses mirror economic activity, so falling growth and rising unemployment can dent their profits. Sharp drops in asset prices can sap their investment-banking and trading revenues as deal activity and investors pause.
Banks entered the year better capitalized and less reliant on flighty, short-term funding than they were on the eve of the financial crisis. But their earnings likely will suffer.
Fears of the impact of the coronavirus have erased all of the “Trump Bump” gains that the KBW Nasdaq Bank Index and four of the six largest U.S. banks had notched since the 2016 presidential election. The KBW index fell more than 10% Thursday morning as investors bet that new travel restrictions and the possibility of more rate cuts from the Federal Reserve will continue to hammer the financial sector.
Here is a look at how banks could fare in a coronavirus-related slowdown:
Lower Lending Revenue
Around two-thirds of banks’ revenue last year came from interest earned on loans and securities, according to data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The rates banks charge on some large categories of loans, including commercial and industrial lending and credit-card balances, are tied to benchmarks that have fallen in recent weeks. That threatens to crimp banks’ net interest income.
For instance, a reduction of 1 percentage point in both short- and long-term interest rates translates to $6.54 billion in lost interest income in 2020 for Bank of America Corp., BAC -9.53% or roughly 7% of its annual revenue, according to estimates from Credit Suisse Group AG. Bank of America is an outlier, but the average big U.S. bank will face a 2% hit to revenue from a drop in interest rates of that magnitude, according to Credit Suisse.
Falling Loan Growth
Banks might also struggle to make up on loan volume what they are giving up in terms of loan yields. Throughout 2019, businesses and consumers showed a willingness to borrow, and loan balances at all U.S. banks at the end of the year were up 3.6% from their levels at the end of 2018, according to FDIC data.
More recently, fears of the coronavirus weighed on businesses’ decisions to invest and expand, especially in sectors such as travel and hospitality and in industries that depend on global supply chains. Commercial and industrial loans increased by less than 1.5% each week in February compared with the same period last year, according to data from the Fed. In February 2019, commercial and industrial growth exceeded 10% each week.
Consumers have borrowed from banks at a higher pace than corporations have since the start of the year, but have started to flag in recent weeks. Since late January, banks’ consumer-loan growth has plateaued at just under 6%, according to Fed data.
The prospect of scores of consumers missing work and forfeiting paychecks also bodes poorly for many of the loans banks already have on their books. Delinquencies and defaults on mortgages, auto loans, credit cards and other forms of consumer borrowing tend to rise and fall with the unemployment rate, and any prolonged period of joblessness likely will mean that borrowers fall behind on their loan payments.
Banks have been more conservative in extending credit to consumers since the financial crisis, and the industrywide loan-loss rate is well below its long-term averages and just 0.18 percentage point above its record low in 2006, according to analysts at Barclays BCS -14.82% PLC. But things can worsen quickly: Banks have been reducing the reserves they have set aside to cover potential defaults in recent quarters, even as defaults on certain loan categories have been rising, according to FDIC data.
Even if consumers keep paying back their loans, their spending on luxuries such as dining out and vacations is likely to fall, decreasing revenue that banks earn on those kinds of credit- and debit-card transactions.
Not Out of Energy
Many of banks’ corporate borrowers will also face difficulties making loan payments in a worsening economy, especially those in the energy sector. A steep decline in oil prices this week means oil and natural-gas companies will have less money coming in to meet existing debt payments and a less valuable asset in the form of energy reserves that they will be able to borrow against.
If energy prices stay at this level, loan losses in banks’ energy portfolios would notch a “notable uptick,” analysts at KBW wrote in a note on Monday. The four largest U.S. banks have $65.5 billion in exposure to U.S. oil-and-gas companies, and loans to such companies account for more than 10% of overall portfolios at several regional U.S. banks, according to KBW.
Revenue from Wall Street businesses such as investment banking and trading account for one of banks’ biggest sources of fee income, and both are sensitive to the impact of the coronavirus. Since the start of the year, reluctance from corporate chiefs to pursue deals has driven global mergers-and-acquisitions volume down 28% from this point in 2019, according to data from Dealogic. Citigroup Inc. C -14.83% is expecting investment-banking fees to fall in the first quarter, finance chief Mark Mason said at an investor conference Wednesday.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
How do you expect the coronavirus outbreak to affect your borrowing and spending decisions? Join the conversation below.
Volatile markets and big swings in stocks, bonds and commodities kept banks’ trading desks busy during the first quarter, but fees from that business likely won’t be enough to offset weakness elsewhere. Banks employ fewer traders today than they did during the financial crisis, and with more trading moving to electronic venues, some fees have come down. Mr. Mason said Citigroup’s trading revenue was expected to increase “in the mid-single-digit range” in the first quarter, even though trading volumes rose by much more.
Trevor Noren, managing director at 13D Global Research and Strategy, discusses how the concentration of wealth and corporate power is shaping his macro perspective. He sees the past three decades of industry consolidation as root causes of the problems that the American economy currently faces: stagnant growth, increasing wealth inequality, and a QEdependent stock market. Noren predicts that this trend of consolidation will reverse, and he sees significant investment potential in gold, small cap stocks, and companies leading the decentralization movement. Filmed September 26, 2019 in New York.
Raoul Pal is a former hedge fund manager who retired at age 36 but remains actively involved in the world of macroeconomics and finance. In recent years, he started a finance news and content service called Real Vision.
In a video posted on YouTube on August 14th, Pal discusses his case for a recession in the next year or so as well as a very alarming scenario he calls the “doom loop.” It’s a fascinating and frightening thesis, and I find it persuasive. Here’s the line of reasoning:
(1) The Fed lowers interest rates to stimulate the economy through increased lending. How else are lower interest rates supposed to stimulate anything besides through more lending, i.e. more debt?
(2) As a result, all sorts of market and government actors increase their debt loads. Corporations, especially, took advantage of falling rates to refinance and take on more debt.
(3) Some of this debt buildup has been for acquisitions or mega-mergers, but much of it was taken on simply for share buybacks. See, for instance, this chart showing the way in which debt issuance and share buybacks became tightly correlated right around the time that the Fed Funds rate bottomed near zero. (See my article addressing this subject here.)
Source: Hussman Funds
Debt-funded buybacks have served as a convenient way for corporate executives to lift earnings per share, thus meeting guidance more regularly and reaching the targets for their performance bonuses more often. (I wrote about this subject here.) What’s more, an SEC study found that insider selling tended to coincide with the announcements or implementation of buybacks.
(4) Indeed, if you look at the performance of U.S. stocks versus any other country or world region’s stocks, you’ll notice a stark difference. U.S. stocks have soared ahead of the competition. It turns out that this is largely because of buybacks, as corporations themselves have been the biggest net buyers of corporate stock since the Great Recession:
Source: Avondale Partners
Notice that institutions (including pension funds) have been net sellers of U.S. equities since the recession. This likely means that pensions have been forced to sell many of their assets to fund benefit payouts but have sold other assets such as Treasuries at a faster rate than equities.
(5) Who is buying all this debt being issued to fund buybacks? The answer, in large part, is pensions. Mainly corporate pensions:
Writes Mark Johnson: “This uptick in bond buying has caused corporate pension funds to play a more influential role in the bond market, since pension managers tend to hold bonds for the long term. As more and more companies adopt the strategy of buying more bonds, pension demand could total $150 billion a year. It is estimated that corporate pension funds buy more than 50 percent of new long-term bonds, up from an estimated 25 percent a few years ago.”
So corporate pensions are buying more and more bonds. Which bonds? Specifically, corporate bonds: “Pension plans… like to use corporate bonds to hedge liabilities.” Corporate bonds offer the highest yields. Of course, pensions are only allowed to own investment grade corporate debt, but if they opt for longer duration or lower rated bonds they can get a higher yield. In the previous twelve months, BBB-rated corporate bonds have yielded as high as 4.83%, certainly better than the highest yield offered by the 20-year Treasury bill in the last twelve months — 3.27%.
BBB-rated corporate debt has grown to be roughly half of all corporate debt outstanding. That’s one (small, for some companies) step above junk status.
(6) During a recession, much of this investment grade debt (Pal guesstimates 10-20%) will be downgraded. But remember: pensions cannot own junk bonds. If BBB-rated debt on their books gets downgraded, they will be forced to sell it, even at a loss. If multiple downgrades happen quickly in succession, the supply of newly labeled junk bonds will overwhelm demand from other market buyers of those debt instruments. This could lead to a fire sale scenario, in which the prices of junk bonds plunge as pensions dump huge supplies into an unsuspecting market.
(7) Not only would pensions have to accept a fraction of their cost basis for these former investment grade bonds, they would also see their primary revenue stream — tax revenue — slacken during a recession. Tax receipts, after all, are as cyclical as the business cycle. When individuals and businesses aren’t making as much money, there is less available to be taxed. This would diminish demand for corporate bonds, which would cause corporate bond yields to spike.
(8) All of this chaos in the credit markets will make it very difficult for corporations to issue debt at anything other than high rates. This will cause the costs of new debt to soar high enough for buybacks to become prohibitively expensive. Moreover, cash flows will dry up, as they do in every recession, and thus every potential source of funds to use for buybacks will disappear.
(9) If the previous points play out, the biggest net buyer of U.S. equities over the last ten years will no longer be a buyer. “The largest buyer will have left the room,” as Pal says. In fact, publicly traded corporations may actually be net issuers of shares during the next recession as they were in 2008-2009.
In the words of Jesse Colombo, “If the stock market performed as poorly as it did in 2018 with record amounts of buybacks to prop it up, just imagine how much worse it would be if buybacks were to slow down significantly or grind to a halt?”
I don’t see how the preceding chain of events playing out as described would not ultimately result in a very nasty stock market crash. Whether it’s a relatively quick crash like in 2008-2009 or a bit more drawn out like from 2001-2003 is unknown. Either way, I see the above scenario as plausible. Disturbingly so.
Since I’m an income-oriented investor, my preferred method of hedging against this possible crash scenario is to hold ample cash and ultra-short term bond funds. That way, if this scenario does play out, I will be prepared to buy assets at fire sale prices with yields higher than I might ever see again in my lifetime.
Raoul Pal’s thesis is fascinating, but it could be wrong. What I’m much more certain of is that the Fed bears the majority of the blame for the underfunding of pensions and thus for putting us into a situation in which Pal’s thesis would even be possible.