By Sam Vaknin
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Author of "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited"
The global crisis of 2007-9 was, actually, a confluence of unrelated problems on three continents. In the United States, investment banks were brought down by hyper-leveraged investments in ill-understood derivatives. As stock exchanges plummeted, the resulting devastation and wealth destruction spilled over into the real economy and caused a recession which is bound to be mild by historical standards.
Depending heavily on imported energy and exported goods, Europe's economy faced a marked slowdown as the region's single currency, the euro, appreciated strongly against all major currencies; as China, India, and other low-wage Asian countries became important exporters; as the price of energy products and oil skyrocketed; and as real estate bubbles burst in countries like Spain and Ireland. Additionally, European banks were heavily leveraged and indebted - far more than their counterparts across the Atlantic. Governments throughout the continent were forced to bail out one ailing institution after another, taxing further their limited counter-cyclical resources.
Simultaneously, in Asia, growth rates began to decelerate. Massive exposure to American debt, both public and private, served a vector of contagion. The weakening of traditional export markets affected adversely industries and employment. Stock exchanges tumbled.
The 2007-9 upheaval was so all-pervasive and so reminiscent of the beginnings of the Great Depression that it brought about a realignment and re-definition of the roles of the main economic actors: the state, the central banks, financial institutions of all stripes (both those regulated and in the "shadow banking" sector), the investment industries, and the various marketplaces (the stock exchanges, foremost).
1. Central Banks
The global credit crunch induced by the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States, in the second half of 2007, engendered a tectonic and paradigmatic shift in the way central banks perceive themselves and their role in the banking and financial systems.
On December 12, 2007, America's Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, the European Central Bank (ECB), the Bank of Canada and the Swiss National Bank, as well as Japan's and Sweden's central banks joined forces in a plan to ease the worldwide liquidity squeeze.
This collusion was a direct reaction to the fact that more conventional instruments have failed. Despite soaring spreads between the federal funds rate and the LIBOR (charged in interbank lending), banks barely touched money provided via the Fed's discount window. Repeated and steep cuts in interest rates and the establishment of reciprocal currency-swap lines fared no better.
The Fed then proceeded to establish a "Term Auction Facility (TAF)", doling out one-month loans to eligible banks. The Bank of England multiplied fivefold its regular term auctions for three months maturities. On December 18, the ECB lent 350 million euros to 390 banks at below market rates.
In March 2008, the Fed lent 29 billion USD to JP Morgan Chase to purchase the ailing broker-dealer Bear Stearns and hundreds of billions of dollars to investment banks through its discount window, hitherto reserved for commercial banks. The Fed agreed to accept as collateral securities tied to "prime" mortgages (by then in as much trouble as their subprime brethren).
The Fed doled the funds out through anonymous auctions, allowing borrowers to avoid the stigma attached to accepting money from a lender of last resort. Interest rates for most lines of credit, though, were set by the markets in (sometimes anonymous) auctions, rather than directly by the central banks, thus removing the central banks' ability to penalize financial institutions whose lax credit policies were, to use a mild understatement, negligent.
Moreover, central banks broadened their range of acceptable collateral to include prime mortgages and commercial paper. This shift completed their transformation from lenders of last resort. Central banks now became the equivalents of financial marketplaces, and akin to many retail banks. Fighting inflation - their erstwhile raison d'etre - has been relegated to the back burner in the face of looming risks of recession and protectionism. In September 2008, the Fed even borrowed money from the Treasury when its own resources were depleted.
As The Economist neatly summed it up (in an article titled "A dirty job, but Someone has to do it", dated December 13, 2007):
"(C)entral banks will now be more intricately involved in the unwinding of the credit mess. Since more banks have access to the liquidity auction, the central banks are implicitly subsidising weaker banks relative to stronger ones. By broadening the range of acceptable collateral, the central banks are taking more risks onto their balance sheets."
Regulatory upheaval is sure to follow. Investment banks are likely to be subjected to the same strictures, reserve requirements, and prohibitions that have applied to commercial banks since 1934. Supervisory agencies and functions will be consolidated and streamlined.
Ultimately, the state is the mother of all insurers, the master policy, the supreme underwriter. When markets fail, insurance firm recoil, and financial instruments disappoint - the government is called in to pick up the pieces, restore trust and order and, hopefully, retreat more gracefully than it was forced to enter.
The state would, therefore, do well to regulate all financial instruments: deposits, derivatives, contracts, loans, mortgages, and all other deeds that are exchanged or traded, whether publicly (in an exchange) or privately. Trading in a new financial instrument should be allowed only after it was submitted for review to the appropriate regulatory authority; a specific risk model was constructed; and reserve requirements were established and applied to all the players in the financial services industry, whether they are banks or other types of intermediaries.
2. Common Investment Schemes
The credit and banking crisis of 2007-9 has cast in doubt the three pillars of modern common investment schemes. Mutual funds (known in the UK as "unit trusts"), hedge funds, and closed-end funds all rely on three assumptions:
Assumption number one
That risk inherent in assets such as stocks can be "diversified away". If one divides one's capital and invests it in a variety of financial instruments, sectors, and markets, the overall risk of one's portfolio of investments is lower than the risk of any single asset in said portfolio.
Yet, in the last decade, markets all over the world have moved in tandem. These highly-correlated ups and downs gave the lie to the belief that they were in the process of "decoupling" and could, therefore, be expected to fluctuate independently of each other. What the crisis has revealed is that contagion transmission vectors and mechanisms have actually become more potent as barriers to flows of money and information have been lowered.
Assumption number two
That investment "experts" can and do have an advantage in picking "winner" stocks over laymen, let alone over random choices. Market timing coupled with access to information and analysis were supposed to guarantee the superior performance of professionals. Yet, they didn't.
Few investment funds beat the relevant stock indices on a regular, consistent basis. The yields on "random walk" and stochastic (random) investment portfolios often surpass managed funds. Index or tracking funds (funds who automatically invest in the stocks that compose a stock market index) are at the top of the table, leaving "stars", "seers", "sages", and "gurus" in the dust.
This manifest market efficiency is often attributed to the ubiquity of capital pricing models. But, the fact that everybody uses the same software does not necessarily mean that everyone would make the same stock picks. Moreover, the CAPM and similar models are now being challenged by the discovery and incorporation of information asymmetries into the math. Nowadays, not all fund managers are using the same mathematical models.
A better explanation for the inability of investment experts to beat the overall performance of the market would perhaps be information overload. Recent studies have shown that performance tends to deteriorate in the presence of too much information.
Additionally, the failure of gatekeepers - from rating agencies to regulators - to force firms to provide reliable data on their activities and assets led to the ascendance of insider information as the only credible substitute. But, insider or privileged information proved to be as misleading as publicly disclosed data. Finally, the market acted more on noise than on signal. As we all know, noise it perfectly randomized. Expertise and professionalism mean nothing in a totally random market.
Assumption number three
That risk can be either diversified away or parceled out and sold. This proved to be untenable, mainly because the very nature of risk is still ill-understood: the samples used in various mathematical models were biased as they relied on data pertaining only to the recent bull market, the longest in history.
Thus, in the process of securitization, "risk" was dissected, bundled and sold to third parties who were equally at a loss as to how best to evaluate it. Bewildered, participants and markets lost their much-vaunted ability to "discover" the correct prices of assets. Investors and banks got spooked by this apparent and unprecedented failure and stopped investing and lending. Illiquidity and panic ensued.
If investment funds cannot beat the market and cannot effectively get rid of portfolio risk, what do we need them for?
The short answer is: because it is far more convenient to get involved in the market through a fund than directly. Another reason: index and tracking funds are excellent ways to invest in a bull market.
3. Capital-Allocating Institutions
The main role of banks, well into the 1920, was to allocate capital to businesses (directly and through consumer credits and mortgages). Deposit-taking was a core function and the main source of funding. As far as depositors were concerned, banks guaranteed the safety and liquidity of the store of value (cash and cash-equivalents).
In the 1920, stock exchanges began to compete with banks by making available to firms other means of raising capital (IPOs - initial public offerings). This activity gradually became as important as the stock exchange's traditional competence: price discovery (effected through the structured interactions of willing buyers and sellers).
This territorial conflict led to an inevitable race to the bottom in terms of the quality of debtors and, ultimately, to the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that ensued. Banks then were reduced to retail activities, having lost their investment services to hybrids known as "investment banks".
The invention of junk bonds in the 1980s heralded a whole new era. A parallel, unregulated financial system has emerged which catered to the needs of businesses to raise risk capital and to the needs of those who provided such funds to rid themselves of the hazards inherent in their investments. Consumer credits and mortgages, for instance, were financed by traditional banking businesses. The risks associated with such lending were securitized and sold to third parties.
As expertise evolved and experience accumulated, financial operators learned to slice the hazards, evaluate them using value-at-risk mathematical models, tailor them to the needs of specific customer profiles, hedge them with complex derivatives, and trade them in unofficial, unregulated, though highly liquid amorphous, virtual "marketplaces".
Thus, stock exchanges have begun to lose their capital allocation functions to private equity funds, hedge funds, investment banks, and pension funds. In the process, such activities have become even more opaque and less regulated than before. This lack of transparency led to pervasive counterparty distrust and difficulties in price discovery. Ultimately, when the prices of underlying assets (such as housing) began to tumble, all liquidity drained and markets seized and froze.
Thus, at the end of 2006, the global financial system was comprised of three main groups of actors: traditional retail banks whose main role was deposit taking and doling out consumer credits; exchanges whose main functions were price discovery and the provision of liquidity; and investment banks and their surrogates and special purpose vehicles whose principal job was the allocation of capital to businesses and the mitigation of risk via securitization and insurance (hedging).
Yet, these unregulated investment banks were also often under-capitalized and hyper-leveraged partnerships (at least until the late 1990s, when some of them went public). This is precisely why they had invented all manner of complex financial instruments intended to remove credit-related risks from their books by selling it to third parties. Physicists, analysts, and rating agencies all agreed that the risk attendant to these derivatives can be calculated and determined and that many of them were risk-free (as long as markets were liquid, of course).
The business strategy of the investment banks was viable. It should have worked perfectly had they not committed a primal sin: they have entered the fray not only as brokers, dealers, and mediators, but also as investors and gamblers (principals), taking on huge positions, often improperly hedged ("naked"). When these bets soured, the capital base of these institutions was wiped out, sometimes literally overnight. The very financial instruments that were meant to alleviate and reallocate risk (such as collateralized debt obligations - CDOs) have turned into hazardous substances, as investors (and investment banks) gambled on the direction of the economy, specific sectors, or firms.
In hindsight, the "shadow banks" subverted the very foundations of modern finance: they created money (modifying the money-printing monopoly of central banks); they obfuscated the process of price discovery and thus undermined the price signal (incidentally casting doubt on symmetrical asset pricing models); they interfered with the ability of cash and cash-equivalents to serve as value stores and thus shook the trust in the entire financial system; they amplified the negative consequences of unbridled speculation (that is not related to real-life economic activities and values); they leveraged the instant dissemination of information to render markets inefficient and unstable (a fact which requires a major revision of efficient market hypotheses).
This systemic dysfunctioning of financial markets led risk-averse investors to flee into safer havens: commodities, oil, metals, real estate and, finally, currencies and bonds. This was not merely a flight to quality: it was an attempt to avoid the abstract and fantastic "Alice in Wonderland" markets fostered by investment banks and to reconnect with tangible reality
With the disappearance of investment banks (those who survived became bank holding companies), traditional banks are likely to regain some of their erstwhile functions: the allocation to businesses and creditworthy consumers and homeowners of deposit-based capital. The various exchanges will also survive, but will largely be confined to price discovery and the allocation of risk capital. Some financial instruments will flourish (credit-default swaps of all types), others will vanish (CDOs).
All in all, the financial scenery of 2010 will resemble 1910's more than it will 2005's. Back to basics and home-grown truths. At least until the next cataclysm.
V. The Next Crisis: Imploding Bond Markets
To finance enormous bailout packages for the financial sector (and potentially the auto and mining industries) as well as fiscal stimulus plans, governments will have to issue trillions of US dollars in new bonds. Consequently, the prices of bonds are bound to come under pressure from the supply side.
But the demand side is likely to drive the next global financial crisis: the crash of the bond markets.
As the Fed takes US dollar interest rates below 1% (and with similar moves by the ECB, the Bank of England, and other central banks), buyers are likely to lose interest in government bonds and move to other high-quality, safe haven assets. Risk-aversion, mitigated by the evident thawing of the credit markets will cause investors to switch their portfolios from cash and cash-equivalents to more hazardous assets.
Moreover, as countries that hold trillions in government bonds (mainly US treasuries) begin to feel the pinch of the global crisis, they will be forced to liquidate their bondholdings in order to finance their needs.
In other words, bond prices are poised to crash precipitously. In the last 50 years, bond prices have collapsed by more than 35% at least on three occasions. This time around, though, such a turn of events will be nothing short of cataclysmic: more than ever, governments are relying on functional primary and secondary bond markets for their financing needs. There is no other way to raise the massive amounts of capital needed to salvage the global economy.
Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East.
He served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, Global Politician, PopMatters, eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He was the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.
Visit Sam's Web site at http://samvak.tripod.com