Category Archives: Financialisation

19/12/18: From Goldilocks to Humpty-Dumpty Markets

As noted in the post above, I am covering the recent volatility and uncertainty in the financial markets for the Sunday Business Post :

Below is the un-edited version of the article:

2018 has been a tough year for investors. Based on the data compiled by the Deutsche Bank AG research team, as of November 2018, 65.7 percent of all globally-traded assets were posting annual losses in gross (non-risk adjusted) terms. This marks 2018 as the third worst year on record since 1901, after 1920 (67.6 percent) and 1994 (67.2 percent), as Chart 1 below illustrates. Adjusting Deutsche Bank’s data for the last thirty days, by mid-December 2018, 66.3 percent of all assets traded in the markets are now in the red on the annual returns basis.

CHART 1: Percentage of Assets with Negative Total Returns in Local Currency

Source: Deutsche Bank AG
Note: The estimates are based on a varying number of assets, with 30 assets included in 1901, rising to 70 assets in 2018

Of the 24 major asset classes across the Advanced Economies and Emerging Markets, only three, the U.S. Treasury Bills (+19.5% YTD through November 15), the U.S. Leveraged Loans (+7.45%), and the U.S. Dollar (+0.78%) offer positive risk-adjusted returns, based on the data from Bloomberg. S&P 500 equities are effectively unchanged on 2017. Twenty other asset classes are in the red, as shown in the second chart below, victims of either negative gross returns, high degree of volatility in prices (high risk), or both.

CHART 2: Risk-Adjusted Returns, YTD through mid-December 2018, percent

Source: Data from Bloomberg, TradingView, and author own calculations
Note: Risk-adjusted returns take into account volatility in prices. IG = Investment Grade, HY = High Yield, EM = Emerging Markets

The causes of this abysmal performance are both structural and cyclical.

Cyclical Worries

The cyclical side of the markets is easier to deal with. Here, concerns are that the U.S., European and global economies have entered the last leg of the current expansion cycle that the world economy has enjoyed since 2009 (the U.S. since 2010, and the Eurozone since 2014). Although the latest forecasts from the likes of the IMF and the World Bank indicate only a gradual slowdown in the economic activity across the world in 2019-2023, majority of the private sector analysts are expecting a U.S. recession in the first half of 2020, following a slowdown in growth in 2019. For the Euro area, many analysts are forecasting a recession as early as late-2019.

The key cyclical driver for these expectations is tightening of monetary policies that sustained the recovery post-Global Financial Crisis and the Great Recession. And the main forward-looking indicators for cyclical pressures to be watched by investors is the U.S. Treasury yield curve and the 10-year yield and the money velocity.

The yield curve is currently at a risk of inverting (a situation when the long-term interest rates fall below short-term interest rates). The 10-year yields are trading at below 3 percent marker – a sign of the financial markets losing optimism over the sustainability of the U.S. growth rates. Money velocity is falling across the Advanced Economies – a dynamic only partially accounted for by the more recent monetary policies.

CHART 3: 10-Year Treasury Constant Maturity Rate, January 2011-present, percent

Source: FRED database, Federal reserve bank of St. Louis. 

Structural Pains

While cyclical pressures can be treated as priceable risks, investors’ concerns over structural problems in the global economy are harder to assess and hedge.

The key concerns so far have been the extreme uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding the impact of the U.S. Presidential Administration policies on trade, geopolitical risks, and fiscal expansionism. Compounding factor has been a broader rise in political opportunism and the accompanying decline in the liberal post-Cold War world order.

The U.S. Federal deficit have ballooned to USD780 billion in the fiscal 2018, the highest since 2012. It is now on schedule to exceed USD1 trillion this year. Across the Atlantic, since mid-2018, a new factor has been adding to growing global uncertainty: the structural weaknesses in the Euro area financial services sector (primarily in the German, Italian and French banking sectors), and the deterioration in fiscal positions in Italy (since Summer 2018) and France (following November-December events). The European Central Bank’s pivot toward unwinding excessively accommodating monetary policies of the recent past, signaled in Summer 2018, and re-confirmed in December, is adding volatility to structural worries amongst the investors.

Other long-term worries that are playing out in the investment markets relate to the ongoing investors’ unease about the nature of economic expansion during 2010-2018 period. As evident in longer term financial markets dynamics, the current growth cycle has been dominated by one driver: loose monetary policies of quantitative easing. This driver fuelled unprecedented bubbles across a range of financial assets, from real estate to equities, from corporate debt to Government bonds, as noted earlier.

However, the same driver also weakened corporate balance sheets in Europe and the U.S. As the result, key corporate risk metrics, such as the degree of total leverage, the cyclically-adjusted price to earnings ratios, and the ratio of credit growth to value added growth in the private economy have been flashing red for a good part of two decades. Not surprisingly, U.S. velocity of money has been on a continuous downward trend from 1998, with Eurozone velocity falling since 2007. Year on year monetary base in China, Euro Area, Japan and United States grew at 2.8 percent in October 2018, second lowest reading since January 2016, according to the data from Yardeni Research.

Meanwhile, monetary, fiscal and economic policies of the first two decades of this century have failed to support to the upside both the labour and technological capital productivity growth. In other words, the much-feared spectre of the broad secular stagnation (the hypothesis that long-term changes in both demand and supply factors are leading to a structural long-term slowdown in global economic growth) remains a serious concern for investors. The key leading indicator that investors should be watching with respect to this risk is the aggregate rate of investment growth in non-financial private sector, net of M&As and shares repurchases – the rate that virtually collapsed in post-2008 period and have not recovered to its 1990s levels since.

The second half of 2018 has been the antithesis to the so-called ‘Goldolocks markets’ of 2014-2017, when all investment asset classes across the Advanced Economies were rising in valuations. At the end of 3Q 2018, U.S. stock markets valuations relative to GDP have topped the levels previously seen only in 1929 and 2000. Since the start of October, however, we have entered a harmonised ‘Humpty-Dumpty market’, characterised by spiking volatility, rising uncertainty surrounding the key drivers of markets dynamics. Adding to this high degree of coupling across various asset classes, the recent developments in global markets suggest a more structural rebalancing in investors’ attitudes to risk that is likely to persist into 2019.

23/1/16: Financial Globalisation and Tradeoffs Under Common Currency

A paper I recently cited in a research project for the European Parliament that is worth reading: "Trilemmas and Tradeoffs: Living with Financial Globalization" by Maurice Obstfeld. Some of my research on the matter, yet to be published (once the EU Parliament group clears it) is covered here: and see slides 5-8 here:

This is one of the core papers one simply must be acquainted with if you are to begin understanding the web of contradictions inherent in the structure of modern financial flows (in the case of Obstfeld's paper, these are linked to the Emerging Markets, but much of it also applies to the euro).

The paper "evaluates the capacity of emerging market economies (EMEs) to moderate the domestic impact of global financial and monetary forces through their own monetary policies. Those EMEs able to exploit a flexible exchange rate are far better positioned than those that devote monetary policy to fixing the rate – a reflection of the classical monetary policy trilemma.” The problem, as Obstfeld correctly notes, is that in modern environment, “exchange rate changes alone do not insulate economies from foreign financial and monetary shocks. While potentially a potent source of economic benefits, financial globalization does have a downside for economic management. It worsens the tradeoffs monetary policy faces in navigating among multiple domestic objectives.”

Per Obstfeld, the knock on effect is that “This drawback of globalization raises the marginal value of additional tools of macroeconomic and financial policy. Unfortunately, the availability of such tools is constrained by a financial policy trilemma, [which] posits the incompatibility of national responsibility for financial policy, international financial integration, and financial stability.”

This, of course, is quite interesting. Value of own (independent) tools beyond flexible exchange rates rises with globalisation, which normally incentivises more (not less) activism and interference from domestic (or regional - in the case of monetary integration) regulators, supervisors and enforcers. In other words, Central Banks and Fin Regs grow in size (swelling to design, fulfil and enforce new ‘functions’). And all of this expensive activity take place amidst the environment where none of can lead to effective and tangible outcomes, because of the presence of the second trilemma: in a globalised world, national regulators are a waste of space (ok, we can put it more politically correctly: they are highly ineffective).

Give this another view from this argument: ‘national’ above is not the same as sovereign. Instead, it is ‘national’ per currency definition. So ECB is ‘national’ in these terms. Now, recall, that in recent years we have been assured that we’ve learned lessons of the recent crisis, and having learned them, we created a new, very big, very expensive and very intrusive tier of supervision and regulation - the tier of ECB and centralised European Banking regulatory framework of European Banking Union (EBU). But, wait, per Obstfeld - that means preciously little, folks, as long as Europe remains integrated into globalised financial markets.

Obstfeld’s paper actually is a middle ground, believe it or not, in the wider debate. As noted by Obstfeld: “My argument that independent monetary policy is feasible for financially open EMEs, but limited in what it can achieve, takes a middle ground between more extreme positions in the debate about monetary independence in open economies. On one side, Woodford (2010, p. 14) concludes: “I find it difficult to construct scenarios under which globalization would interfere in any substantial way with the ability of domestic monetary policy to maintain control over the dynamics of inflation.” His pre-GFC analysis, however, leaves aside financial-market imperfections and views inflation targeting as the only objective of monetary control. On the other side, Rey (2013) argues that the monetary trilemma really is a dilemma, because EMEs can exercise no monetary autonomy from United States policy (or the global financial cycle) unless they impose capital controls.”

Now, set aside again the whole malarky about Emerging Markets there… and think back to ECB… If Rey is correct, ECB can only assure functioning of EBU by either abandoning rate policy independence or by abandoning global integration (imposing de facto or de sure capital controls).

Of course, in a way, bondholders’ bail-ins rules and depositors bail-ins rules and practices - the very sort of things the EBU and ECB’s leadership rest so far - are a form of capital controls. Extreme form. So may be we are on that road to ‘resolving trilemmas’ already?..

Have a nice day... and happy banking...

21/7/15: Central Europe’s Lesson: Fixed Euro or Floating Exchange Rates?

The EU report on economic convergence of the Accession States of the Central and Eastern Europe (CEE10) makes for some interesting reading. Having covered two aspects of convergence: real economic performance and financialisation, lets take a look at the exchange rate regime impact on convergence.

This is an interesting aspect of the CEE10 performance because it allows us to consider medium-term impact of euro on CEE10. 

Basically there were two regimes operating in the CEE10 vis-a-vis the euro: fixed regime (with national currency pegged to the euro) or floating regime (with national currency allowed to float against the euro).

First, recall, that "out of the five CEE10 countries which have adopted the euro by 2015, four (i.e. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia) already operated under fixed exchange rate regimes in 2004. In their case, euro adoption did not represent an essential regime change with respect to the role of nominal exchange rate flexibility in the convergence process vis-à-vis the EA12." 

Now, EU Commission would be slightly cheeky in making this statement, since while in the first order effect this is true, in the second order effect (expectations), this is not true - a peg to the euro could have been abandoned in a severe crisis, albeit less easily under the regime of ongoing financialisation of the CEE10 economies via foreign banks lending; however, once euro is adopted, no devaluation is possible even in theory. And this is not a trivial consideration, since policymakers know that should they mess up in the longer run, there will be a risk of peg abandonment, resulting in direct, transparent exposure of their policies-generated imbalances for all to see and in serious embarrassment vis-a-vis their European counterparts. In other words, the threat of devaluation as a feasible option could have actually acted, in part, to make peg regimes more stable.

But let us allow EU Commission their assumption (undefined as such) and chug on...

From EU own analysis: "Based on the GDP per capita in PPS data, there was no significant difference in the speed of real income convergence to the EA12 between fixers and floaters over the past decade, but there was a large degree of heterogeneity within both groups. Rather than the type of exchange rate regime, a more important relationship existed between the speed of catching-up and the initial income level, with less developed countries in general converging at a faster pace. Accordingly, the fastest growing economies were, among the fixers, the three Baltic countries and, among the floaters, Poland and Romania. In addition, Slovakia, which recorded one of the best catching-up performances, floated its currency until euro adoption in 2009 and the bulk of its real convergence over the past decade actually materialised before 2009." 

What does this mean? That nature of growth during the period was similar for floating and fixed regimes: both were driven by catching-up of economies, most notably via capital investment. Being fixed to the euro or not, it appears, had no effect on rates of convergence.

But, remember, euro is about stability, not growth. So the key test, really, is in volatility of convergence path, not the path itself. Per EU Commission: "The real convergence path of floaters was in general smoother than that of fixers. This was mainly due to the more pronounced economic overheating in the latter group prior to 2008, which then also led to a larger set back during the financial crisis." Oops… so staying closer to euro hurts. Having fixed rates, hurts. Bubbles got worse in countries with pegged rates. That is not exactly an endorsement of the euro-led regimes.

There's a caveat: "Nevertheless, fixers were able to again largely close their GDP-gap to floaters by 2012, as they enjoyed an export-led recovery, supported by internal price adjustment, structural reforms and favourable export market developments." Yep, that's right: austerity and re-shifting of economy toward external sectors, rather than domestic demand is the miracle that allowed for the fixed rates regimes convergence. That, plus unmentioned, monetary policy activism. 

Still, the view of boom-to-bust euro-driven economy for the fixed rates regime remains. Not that the EU Commission will acknowledge as much.

"The extent of price level convergence over the last decade mainly reflected differences in the speed of catching-up. That said, the average household consumption price level of fixers remained close to that of floaters until 2008, but it became significantly higher in the post-crisis period, as comparative prices of floaters fell." In normal English: deflation hit fixers, while floaters avoided it. 

Core conclusion (despite numerous caveats): "Floaters appear to have been in general able to benefit from their monetary autonomy to achieve a higher degree of price stability. In the pre-crisis period, faster growth and related overheating gradually drove up inflation in fixers significantly above the average inflation rate of floaters. Subsequently, larger output drops and the inability to depreciate against the euro implied that fixers generally also experienced more pronounced disinflation. From late-2010, inflation in the two groups developed quite similarly on average, but the variance was higher among floaters."

So final note on interest rates. Remember - convergence of rates irrespective of risk is one of the poor outcomes of the euro introduction in the EA12, fuelling massive asset bubbles in Spain and Ireland, fiscal imbalances in Greece and so on. In CEE10: "Over the past decade the benchmark long-term interest rate on government bonds was higher on average for floaters than for fixers, both nominally and in real terms. This is partly a consequence of the higher average public debt level among the floaters, but to some extent it is arguably also related to more exchange rate uncertainty inherent in floating." 

EU Commission grumbling acceptance of reality is almost entertaining: "Generally, it takes longer to regain cost competitiveness via internal price adjustment [something that fixed rates economies are forced to do] than via nominal exchange rate depreciation [something that flexible rate economies have access to] and the initial shock to the real economy is more severe. However, the internal adjustment is more permanent as it requires a structural solution to the underlying problems, whereas the temporary boost generated by nominal exchange rate depreciation can actually postpone the reforms necessary for further sustained catching-up." You'd think that flexible exchange rate economies just can't ever compete with fixed rates economies. In which case we obviously have a paradox: Denmark and Switzerland vs Italy and Spain (or for that matter Belgium and France).

So the core conclusion is simply this: things are complex, but having a peg to the euro looks more dangerous in crises and in bubbles build up stages, than running flexible exchange rates regime. Who would have guessed?..

21/7/15: Eastern Europe’s post-2004 Convergence with EU: Financialisation

In the previous post, I covered the EU's latest report on real economic convergence in Central & Eastern European (CEE10) Accession states. As promised, here is a look at the last remaining core driver of this 'fabled' convergence: the financial services sector (which drove the largest contribution to growth in pre-crisis period 2004-2008 and remained significant since).

In summary: debt is the currency of CEE10 convergence.

Let's start with Public Debt.

As the above shows, CEE10 debt rose during the crisis despite GDP uptick. Rate of growth in debt was slower in CEE10 than in the original euro area states (EA12), which was consistent with stronger CEE10 performance in terms of fiscal balances and lower incidence / impact of banking crises.

Scary bit: "The negative impact of the 2008/09 global financial crisis as well as the following euro-area sovereign debt crisis on financial conditions in the CEE10 revealed that, despite relatively lower general government debt levels (compared to the EA12 average), some CEE10 countries might still encounter problems to (re-)finance their public sector borrowing needs during periods of heightened financial market tensions as their domestic bond markets are in general smaller and less liquid".

And that is despite a major decline in long-term interest rates experienced across the region:

In addition, Gross External Debt has been rising in all CEE10 economies between 2004 and 2014, peaking in 2009:

Which brings us to private sector financialisation. Per EU: "CEE10 countries entered the EU with relatively underdeveloped financial sectors, at least in terms of their relative size compared to the EA12. This was the case for both market-based and banking-sector-intermediated sources of funding. In 2004, the outstanding stocks of quoted shares and debt securities amounted on average to just about 20% and 30% of CEE10 GDP, compared to around 50% and 120% of GDP in the EA12. Similarly, bank lending to non-financial sectors accounted for just some 35% of CEE10 GDP whereas it reached almost 100% of GDP in the EA12."

It is worth, thus, noting that equity and direct debt financialisation relative to bank debt financialisation, at the start of 'convergence' was healthier in the CEE10 than in the euro area EA12.

Predictably, this changed. "As the government sector accounted for the majority of debt security issuance in the CEE10, bank credit represented the main external funding source for the non-financial private sector."

"The CEE10 banking sectors have generally been characterised by a relatively high share of
foreign ownership as well as high levels of concentration. The share of foreign-owned banks and the market share of the five largest banks (CR5) in CEE10 countries remained relatively stable over the last 10 years, on average exceeding 60%. There was however some cross-country divergence as Slovenia stood out with a relatively low share of foreign-owned banks, which only increased to above 30% in 2013. At the same time, the Estonian and Lithuanian banking sectors exhibited the highest levels of concentration, with their respective CR5 averaging 94% and 82% over 2004-14. On the other hand, the role played by foreign-owned banks is rather limited in most EA12 countries while their banking sectors are in general also somewhat less concentrated, with their CR5 averaging around 55% over the last 10 years."

Which, basically, means that the lending boom pre-crisis is accounted for, substantially, by the carry trades via foreign banks: the EA12 banks had another property & construction boom of their own in CEE10 as they did in the likes of Ireland and Spain.

"The 2008/09 global financial crisis …proved to be a structural break in the overall evolution of bank lending to the non-financial private sector in the CEE10. As the pace of credit growth in the pre-crisis period was clearly excessive and unsustainable, a post-crisis correction was natural and unavoidable. However, credit to the NFPS increased by "only" some 13% between May 2009 and May 2014, with bank lending to the nonfinancial corporate sector basically stagnating while lending to the household sector expanded by
about 25%."

Shares of Non-Performing Loans rose quite dramatically, exceeding the already significant rate of growth in these in EA12 across 6 out of 10 CEE10 states.

The following chart shows two periods of financialisation: period prior to crisis, when financial activity vastly exceeded real economic performance dynamics; and post-crisis period where financial activity is acting as a small drag on real economic performance. This is try for both the CEE10 and EA12 economies, but is more pronounced for the former than for the latter:

In summary, therefore, a large share of 'real convergence' in the CEE10 economies over 2004-2014 period can be explained by increased financialisation of their economies, especially via bank lending channel. As the result, much of pre-crisis convergence is directly linked to unsustainable boom cycle in investment (including construction) funded by a combination of bank debt (carry trades from Euro area and Swiss Franc) plus EU subsidies. These sources of growth are currently suppressed by long-term issues, such as high NPLs and structural rebalancing in the banking sector.

The tale of 'convergence' is of little substance and a hell of a lot of froth…