Friday, August 8, 2008

End Of An Era?

End Of An Era?

By Puru Saxena | 8 August 2008

BIG PICTURE— Lets face it, the era of easy money and cheap oil has come to an end. And if my assessment is correct, this transformation will have a significant impact on the global economy.

There is no doubt in my mind that since the early 1970's the global economic boom has been largely financed by an ever-expanding quantity of money and credit. Once gold was removed from the monetary system in 1971, central banks were free to create as much paper currencies as they wanted. This reckless monetary inflation and credit growth has caused the value of all paper "money" to diminish significantly over the past three decades and to create a gigantic boom in global asset prices. Yet, each time an asset "bubble" has burst in the past 35 years, central banks have responded by reducing interest-rates, thereby encouraging even more credit growth which has spawned further speculative manias down the road. [[Indeed, since 2000, "credit" has come to be looked on as interchangeable with "money" (fiat or otherwise), meaning almost anyone could legally "print money", if only they had access to the credit markets! : normxxx]]

This time around, in the aftermath of the Anglo-Saxon housing bust [[and the concomittant collapse of the "credit/money" economy: normxxx]], Mr. Bernanke and his comrades are desperately trying to do the same. The trillion dollar question is whether they will succeed. In the current circumstances, I suspect it will be extremely difficult for the central banks to further expand credit growth, thereby inflating their way out of trouble. Below I present the reasons why I am doubtful about the continuation of the credit bubble:

First and foremost, in the current credit crisis, the entire banking and credit system is being brought to its knees. This is very different from the previous crises when perhaps a handful of financial institutions or hedge funds got into trouble. Unfortunately, the financial alchemy of "credit creation" (creation of structured products, over the counter derivatives, collateralised debt obligations, credit default swaps etc.) over the past few years has been so severe that the entire banking and credit system is now on the verge of total collapse.

So, even if the central banks tried further to re-inflate the credit bubble by keeping interest-rates abnormally low [[i.e., below the rate of inflation, thus "paying" their large financial institutions to take the "money" : normxxx]] for an extended period of time, I doubt if the large commercial banks are in any position to expand their balance sheets. With billions of dollars of 'write-downs' in the past year and humongous amounts of "Level 3" liabilities still festering on their books, the commercial banks have no other option but to try to repair the damage to their balance sheets by tightening credit standards. I doubt very much if they can or will participate in the central banks' sponsored credit and inflation agenda, for the foreseeable future. [[Instead, they are likely to lie low for the next decade or so, like those similarly 'insolvent' large banks of Japan in the 1990s.: normxxx]]

Secondly, I also happen to think that as a result of so many ridiculous tax-payer sponsored bail-outs of Wall Street banks, the hue and cry of the ordinary taxpayer will cause the US government and regulators to tighten their grip over the ministry of inflation (the Federal Reserve and the rest of the banking industry). Therefore, tighter regulation in the months ahead will also prevent the commercial banks from inflating the credit bubble further.

Yet another reason why I believe we have reached the inflection point in this super-credit cycle [[remarkably coincidental with the term of Alan Greenspan and his successor BB at the Fed: normxxx]] is the parlous state of the US Dollar. With the US Dollar trading at record-lows against major world currencies and soaring energy and food costs, I doubt very much if the Federal Reserve is in a position to lower interest-rates further. In fact, I would argue that the situation is totally out of the Federal Reserve's control and the entire global economy now depends on the mercy of the owners of US Treasuries. [[See, e.g., Henry Paulson Has Lost Control: normxxx]]

I have to admit that so far, given the amount of bail-outs and the state of the US Dollar, holders of US government bonds have been rather well behaved. [[It is hardly any comfort to note that there is scarcely any haven to replace the US dollar!: normxxx]] However, it may only be a matter of time before foreign holders of US Treasuries start liquidating their holdings. [[the Chinese are already trying to convert them into "harder" assets.: normxxx]] When that occurs, long-term interest-rates in the US would rise rapidly and the Federal Reserve would have no other option but to raise its Fed Funds rate.

Finally, given the level of indebtedness of the US consumer and falling asset prices, I wonder how the average American household would be able to take on even more debt. Once the technology bubble burst at the turn of the millennium and the Federal Reserve lowered interest-rates, Americans were quick to borrow and speculate in real-estate. However, this time around in the aftermath of the housing bust, even though the cost of borrowing has been reduced, Americans are not going deeper into debt. Figure 1 shows that US bank credit peaked earlier this year and is now in a decline. So, if American households are really tightening their belts and repaying their outstanding debt [[in most cases, involuntarily: normxxx]], there is no way the credit bubble could continue to inflate.

Figure 1: US bank credit is contracting


It is my observation that we have now entered a new era of credit contraction and deleveraging. The abrupt bursting of the credit bubble is likely to have had a profound impact on all asset prices in the West. If my view is correct, we are likely to see a period of poor economic growth and deflating asset prices in the developed world. The US economy is clearly struggling, Europe faces its own (possibly greater) problems, and Japan still seems unable to turn things around. So, I would not advise you to invest your capital in stock markets or real-estate in the industrialised nations. [[Or, even collectibles. At the moment, (depreciating) cash is king! As Richard Russell once so famously stated, "In a bear market, he who loses least, wins!": normxxx]]

There can be no disputing the fact that 'passive' US financial assets have provided disappointing returns since the beginning of this decade. It is worth noting that even though the Dow Jones index is flat in nominal terms since 2000, it has lost almost three-quarters of its value against gold over the same period. At the turn of the millennium, the level of the Dow Jones could buy over 40 ounces of gold.

Eight years later, the level of the Dow Jones can only buy roughly 12 ounces of gold! Clearly, gold has been a much better investment than US stocks over the past 8 years. In the years ahead, I expect to see further underperformance of financial assets and maintain my position that hard, tangible assets will continue to provide superior returns.



The contents of any third-party letters/reports above do not necessarily reflect the opinions or viewpoint of normxxx. They are provided for informational/educational purposes only.
The content of any message or post by normxxx anywhere on this site is not to be construed as constituting market or investment advice. Such is intended for educational purposes only. Individuals should always consult with their own advisors for specific investment advice.

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