Things Went Awry

A decade has passed since the day
That Lehman collapsed all the way
It sank several banks
And brought us Dodd-Frank
In effort to curb foul play

And during those ten years gone by
A number of things went awry
Some xenophobes won
And they’ve overrun
Attempts, good ideas, to apply

The upshot is markets worldwide
Have started to feel the downside
Of higher Fed rates
While there are debates
If euros or dollars will slide

Despite a number of ongoing stories that may ultimately impact markets, notably the US-China trade situation, Italian budget discussions and Brexit negotiations, movement overnight in the FX market has been benign. This morning, the broad dollar index is lower by about 0.25%, with most G10 currencies having strengthened by similar amounts, but the EMG bloc remains under pressure with TRY (-1.5%), INR (-0.75%), KRW (-0.5%) and ZAR (-0.5%) all leaning in the other direction. However, when stepping back to get perspective, the situation can fairly be summed up by saying EMG currencies have been weakening pretty consistently for the past six plus months, while the G10 has barely moved at all since the end of May when the dollar’s sharp rise came to a halt.

Given the relatively uninteresting state of markets this morning, and the fact that there is virtually no data of note until Wednesday this week, I thought I might take a short retrospective look at how things have changed since the financial crisis ten years ago.

Remarkably, last Friday was the tenth anniversary of Lehman Brothers bankruptcy filing. The ensuing ten years has brought about significant changes in the way markets behave, regulators oversee things and investors approach the process. Arguably, the bigger question is what will the next ten years look like. And while there is no way to be sure, there do seem to be several trends that have further to run.

The hardest thing to understand is how a debt fueled crisis resulted in policies designed to increase debt further. While during the immediacy of the extremely deep recession in 2009 there were few complaints about central bank policy trends, which were seen as emergency measures, the first eyebrows were raised when interest rates went negative in Sweden, and then followed throughout Europe and then finally in Japan. But even that would likely have been seen as generally reasonable if the interest rate cycle had been of a more normal duration. Instead, central bankers around the world collectively decided that expanding global money supply inexorably for ten years was the prudent thing to do. Consider that despite global growth chugging along at about 3.5%, global money supply has risen more than 100% since 2008, which means it has grown at nearly an 8% annual clip. As evidenced by the large gap between economic and monetary growth, it is clear that some great portion of that new money found a home outside the ‘real’ economy.

In fact, it is this situation that has defined market activity since 2008, while simultaneously confusing half the economic community. That money has found a home in global debt and equity markets, causing massive inflation there, while only trickling into the real economy and thus allowing measured price inflation, like CPI or PCE, to remain subdued. Most market analysts understood this concept within months of the process beginning, but mainstream economists and policymakers claimed to be puzzled by the lack of inflation, and so were willing to maintain ‘emergency’ policy for ten years, despite rebounding global growth. Now, clearly through this period there were areas in the world that had slowdowns (notably Europe in 2011 and China in 2015), but the idea that flooding the market with funds and then leaving them in place for nigh on ten years was economically prudent seems hard to swallow.

And of course, there were real consequences to these actions, not simply numeric arguments. Income and wealth inequality exploded, as those already rich were the main beneficiaries of the global stock and bond market rallies. At the same time, lower skilled labor found themselves under enormous pressure from a combination of technological improvements in production, reducing the demand for labor and globalization increasing the supply of labor. In hindsight, it should be no surprise at all that we have seen a significant increase in the number of nationalists being elected around the world, especially in the G10. After all, it is much easier to demonize foreign workers than industrial robots, especially since they don’t vote.

The thing is that while the Fed has, at least, made some strides to finally reduce the money supply, both raising rates and allowing their balance sheet to actually shrink, they remain the only central bank doing so. And even though the ECB is slowing its QE purchases, they are still adding funds, while both China and Japan continue to add money to the system indefinitely. Current forecasts show that global money supply will not start to shrink until the end of next year at the earliest based on current policy trajectories and expectations. However, that makes the heroic assumption that when money supply starts to shrink, financial markets will be unaffected. And that seems highly unlikely given how crucial those excess funds have been to financial market performance for the past decade.

Summing up, the Lehman bankruptcy triggered a global crisis that was built on excessive leverage, notably in the US housing market. The crisis response was to cut short-term interest rates dramatically while flooding the markets with cash in order to drive down long-term interest rates. The consequences of this policy, which was repeated around the world once the Fed led the way, was a massive rally in both equity and fixed income markets, and a modest rebound in economic growth. Financial engineering became the norm (issue cheap debt to repurchase shares and drive up EPS and stock prices while increasing balance sheet leverage), whereas R&D and Capex shrank in comparison. The dollar, meanwhile, initially rallied sharply as a safe haven, and despite periodic bouts of weakness, it has continued its long-term uptrend, thus pressuring export industries to move production offshore. And the result of all that economic and financial change has been the rise of nationalist political parties around the world as well as significant pressure on the global free trade movement amongst nations.

There is a great irony in the fact that for many years after the crisis, central bankers were terrified of global deflation, and sought aggressively to push inflation higher. Well, now they have done so in spades, and it will be quite interesting to see how they respond to this more traditional monetary phenomenon. As the Fed continues on its current policy path, we are seeing an increasing number of EMG central banks forced to raise rates as well, despite suspect economic growth, as inflation is breaking out all over the bloc. Friday saw Russia raise rates in a surprise, and all eyes are on Brazil and South Africa this week. My fear is that ten years of emergency monetary accommodation has left the world in a precarious position, one where the future will see even bigger problems than the crisis ten years ago. Ask yourself this, how will global markets respond to a debt “jubilee”, where debt is simply erased from the books and investors are left in the lurch? Don’t think it can’t happen.

And with that as a backdrop, let’s quickly look ahead to a very limited week of data as follows:

Today Empire Manufacturing 23.0
Tuesday TIC Flows $65.1B
Wednesday Housing Starts 1.23M
  Building Permits 1.31M
Thursday Initial Claims 210K
  Philly Fed 16.5
  Existing Home Sales 5.36M

With the FOMC meeting next week, all eyes are going to turn in that direction. While expectations are universal for a 25bp rate hike, the question is how hawkish or dovish will they sound. The interesting thing is that recent comments by Fed speakers have been far more focused on the potential of the ongoing trade issues to negatively impact the economy. (Secretly I believe that they are actually quite happy with this as if things turn south they will be able to blame someone else and the market will accept that explanation.) At any rate, the data of late has been mixed, with the wage data showing stronger than expected growth, while CPI was actually soft. Given the dearth of important data this week, I expect that the dollar will continue its recent wishy-washy performance, with some days of modest rallies and some days of modest declines, but no new trend evolving.

Good luck