5:12 am, April 18, 1906. A foreshock rocked the San Francisco Bay area followed 20 seconds later by one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history. The quake, which lasted a full minute, was felt from southern Oregon to south of Los Angeles and inland as far as central Nevada.
In the aftermath, the shock to the financial system was equally violent. Precious gold stores were withdrawn from the world’s major money centers to address the City by the Bay’s devastation. What followed was a run on liquidity that culminated in a recession beginning in June 1907. A decline in the U.S. stock market, combined with tight credit markets across Europe and a Bank of England in a tightening mode, set the stage.
Against the backdrop of rising income inequality spawned by the Gilded Age, distrust towards the financial community had burgeoned among working class Americans. Into this precarious fray, a scandal erupted centered on one F. Augustus Heinze’s machinations to corner the stock of United Copper Company. The collapse of Heinze’s scheme exposed an incestuous and corrupt circle of bank, brokerage house and trust company directors to a wary public. What started as an orderly movement of deposits from bank to bank devolved into a full scale run on Friday, October 18, 1907. Revelations that Charles Barney, president of Knickerbocker Trust Company, the third largest trust in New York, had also been ensnared in Heinze’s scheme sufficed to ignite systemic risk. Absent a backstop for depositors, J.P. Morgan famously organized a bailout to prevent the collapse of the financial system. Chief among his advisers on aid-worthy solvent institutions was Benjamin Strong, who would become the first president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Nearly 100 years later to the day, on May 2, 2006, California-based subprime lender Ameriquest announced it would lay off 3,800 of its nationwide workforce and close all 229 of its retail branches. There’s no need to rehash what followed. It remains fresh in many of our minds. Still, as we few skeptics who were on the inside of the Federal Reserve at the time can attest, that watershed moment also shattered the image of the false era that had sowed so many doubts, dubbed simply, The Great Moderation.
It is said that the Great Inflation gave way to the Great Moderation, so named due to the decrease in macroeconomic volatility the U.S. economy enjoyed from the 1980s through the onset of that third ‘Great,’ The Great Financial Crisis.
This from a 2004 speech given by none other than Ben Bernanke, who presided over this magnificent epoch:
“My view is that improvements in monetary policy, though certainly not the only factor, have probably been an important source of the Great Moderation.”
How very modestly moderate of him. To be precise, standard deviation gauges the volatility of a given data set by measuring how far from its long-run trend it swings; the higher the number, the more volatile, and vice versa. According to Bernanke’s own research, the standard deviation of GDP fell by half and that of inflation by two-thirds over this period of supreme calm.
In late 2013, Fed historians published a retrospective on The Great Moderation, which concluded as such:
“Only the future will tell for certain whether the Great Moderation is gone or is set to continue after the harrowing interruption of recent years. As long as the changes in the structure of the economy and good policy explained at least part of the Great Moderation, and have not been undone, then we should expect to return at least partially to the Great Moderation. And perhaps with financial stability being a more prominent objective and better integrated with monetary policy, financial shocks such as those seen over the past several years will be less common and have less severe impacts. If the Great Moderation is still with us, its reemergence in the aftermath of the Great Recession will be as welcome now as its first emergence was following the turbulence of the Great Inflation. As for its causes, economists may disagree on the relative importance of different factors, but there is little question that ‘good policy’ played a role. The Great Moderation set a high standard for today’s policymakers to strive toward.”
Strive they have, and succeeded spectacularly, by their set standards.
It matters little. Insert the observable phenomenon with anything that pertains to the macroeconomy and the financial markets, and you will see that volatility is all but extinct.
The volatility on stocks, as gauged by the VIX index, hit its lowest intraday level on record July 25 of this year. As for how much stocks are jostling about on any given day, that’s sunk to the lowest in 50 years. Treasury market volatility is at a…record low. A lack of volatility in the price of oil is peeving those manning the commodities pits. Even go-go assets are dormant. The risk premium, or extra compensation you receive to own junk bonds, is negative. Negative!
But this non-news spreads far beyond asset prices and presumably hits policymakers’ sweetest spot. According to some excellent reporting by the Wall Street Journal’s Justin Lahart, “Over the past three years, the standard deviation of the annualized change in U.S. gross domestic product…is just 1.5 percentage points, or about as low as it has ever been. It is a trend that is being matched elsewhere, with global GDP exhibiting the lowest volatility in history.”
Lahart goes on to add that job growth and corporate profits also seem stunned into submission. And then he goes for the jugular: “In the years since the financial crisis, the Federal Reserve and other central banks have acted like overprotective parents of a toddler, rushing in whenever the economy looks as if it might stumble. That risk-averse behavior has extended to businesses, making them unwilling to take chances.”
The WSJ goes on to report that at no time in at least 30 years has not one of the three major stock indexes in the U.S., Asia and Europe avoided a five percent decline in a calendar year…until what we’ve seen thus far in 2017, that is.
Is it any wonder the ranks of those who would profit from stocks declining have fallen to a four-year low? Why bother in such a perfect world?
In other words, we’ve never had it this good, or perhaps this bad. In that case, this must be The Greater Moderation. And by the looks of things, it’s gone global.
It’s no secret that the Bank of England, Bank of Japan and European Central Bank have been aggressively flooding their respective economies and in turn, the global financial system, with liquidity in some form of quantitative easing. If there is one lesson to be learned from The Great Moderation, it is that liquidity acts as a shock absorber.
In a less liquid world, the crash in oil prices would have resulted in a bankruptcy bloodbath. In a less liquid world, the bursting of the housing bubble would have led to millions of foreclosed homes clearing at fire sale prices. In a less liquid world, highly leveraged firms would have been rendered insolvent and incapable of covering their interest costs.
In short, a less liquid world would be smaller, for a time. But when the time came to allow nature to take its course, central bankers could not bear the pain, nor muster the discipline, to allow creative destruction to cull the weakest from the herd. Their policies have forced us to pay a dear price to maintain a population of inefficient operators.
The Economist recently featured a report on “corporate zombies”, firms that in a normal world would not walk among the living. Defining a ‘zombie’ as a company whose earnings before tax do not cover its interest expenses, the Bank for International Settlements placed 14 developed countries under the microscope. On this basis, the average proportion of zombies among publicly listed companies grew from less than six percent in 2007 to 10.5 percent in 2015.
So we have one-in-ten firms effectively sucking the life out of the world economy’s ability to regenerate itself. There is no such thing as a productivity conundrum against a backdrop of such widespread misallocation of capital and labor. There is no mystery cloaking the breakdown in new business formation. And there is no enigma, much less any reason to assign armies of economists to investigate, shrouding the new abnormality we’ve come to know as a low growth world.
There is simply no room for an economy to excel when its growth potential is choked off by an overabundance of liquidity that is perverting incentives. What is left behind is a yield drought, one that has left the whole of the world painfully parched for income and returns and yet too weary to conduct fundamental risk analysis.
You have Greece returning to the debt markets after a three-year exile and investors falling over themselves to get their hands on the junk-rated bonds; the offering was more than two times oversubscribed. Argentina preceded this feat, selling the first-of-its kind, junk-rated 100-year-maturity, or ‘century’ bond; it was 3.5 times oversubscribed.
Closer to home, Moody’s reports that lending to corporations has gone off the rails. Two-in-three loans offer no safeguards to lenders in the event a borrower hits financial distress; that’s up from 27 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, the kingpins of private equity have assumed such great powers, they’ve built in provisions that prohibit secondary market buyers of loans from assembling to make demands on their firms’ managements. Corporate lending standards in Europe are looser yet.
What are investors, big and small, to do? Apparently, sit back and do as they’re told to do: Buy in, but passively, and let the machines do their bidding. For institutions, add in alternative investments at hefty fees and throw in leverage to assist in elevating returns.
In late June, the recently retired Robert Rodriguez, a 33-year veteran of the markets, sat down for a lengthy interview with Advisor Perspectives (linked here). Among his many accolades, Rodriguez carries the unique distinction of being crowned Morningstar Manager of the Year for his outstanding management of both equity and bond funds. He likens the current era to that of the nine years ended 1951, a period during which the Fed and Treasury held interest rates at artificially low levels to finance World War II. His main concern today is that price discovery has been so distorted by the Fed that the stage is set for a ‘perfect storm.’ His personal allocation to equities is at the lowest level since 1971.
The combination of meteorological forces to bring on said storm, you ask? It may well be an act of God, an earthquake. It could just as easily be a geopolitical tremor the system cannot absorb; it’s easy enough to name a handful of potential aggressors. Or history may simply rhyme with the unrelenting shock waves that catalyzed the subprime mortgage crisis, coupled per chance with a plain vanilla recession.
We may simply and slowly wake to the realization that the assumptions we’ve used to delude ourselves into buying the most expensive credit markets in the history of mankind are built on so much quicksand.
The point is panics do not randomly come to pass; they must be shocked into existence as was the case in advance of 1907 and 2007.
One of Rodriguez’s observations struck a raw nerve for yours truly, who prides herself on being a reformed central banker: “The last great central banker that we had in the last 110 years other than Volcker was J.P. Morgan. The difference is, when Morgan tried to contain the 1907 crisis, he wasn’t using zeros and ones of imaginary computer money; he was using his own capital.”
It is only fair and true to honor history and add that Morgan’s efforts rescued depositors. Income inequality in the years that followed 1907 declined before resuming its ascent to its prior peak, reached at the climax of the Roaring Twenties.
The Fed’s intrusions since 2007, built on the false premise of a fanciful wealth effect concocted using models that have no place in the real world, have accomplished the opposite. Income inequality has not only grown in the aftermath of The Great Financial Crisis and throughout The Greater Moderation; it has long since smashed through its former 1927 record and kept rising. The Fed’s actions have not saved the little guy; they’ve skewered him.