Ponzi schemes and modern finance
Andrew Sheng says when the originator of a scheme to pass on debt to others is also ‘too big to fail’ – like America – then the global economy is heading for some painful restructuring
THIS global financial crisis is not over, as the volatile start to the New Year showed that 2016 may be a precursor to the 10th anniversary of the 2007 sub-prime crisis, which itself evolved from 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, after which the US Fed cut interest rates and started the rapid financialisation of the US economy.
Two terms came out of the crisis that we see almost everyday, but have not been explained well by modern financial theory. Most economists think of them as aberrations that are at the periphery of normal economic behaviour. In fact, “Ponzi schemes” and “Too-Big-to-Fail” are at the heart of individual and social behaviour which go a long way to explain what is happening today.
A Ponzi scheme is a scam named after American Charles Ponzi. The term Ponzi scheme started in the 1920s from an American Charles Ponzi, who thought of selling an idea in making money from arbitraging the value of international reply coupons in postage stamps to a larger and larger investor scheme where he made money by getting new investors to pay for promised high returns to old investors. Of course, this is the “borrowing from Peter-to-Pay-Paul principle”, where the music stops when everyone want their money back. Ponzi schemes should in principle collapse naturally because it is of course impossible to pay unusually high returns. By this time, the founder would have run away to the Caribbean with a lot of OPM (other people’s money).
The securitisation (packaging) of sub-prime mortgages into CDOs (collateralised debt obligations) and turbo-charging these into CDO2 (creating a highly leveraged synthetic financial derivative) and selling these to investors with a AAA credit rating was a 21st century Ponzi variant.
In simple terms, this is like selling a box of rotting apples, getting a rating agency to say that the box is worth more than the individual apples, with a guarantee against losses by adding more (rotten apples). In the end, the investor is buying a box of rotting apples, in which all his savings have been eaten up by those who sold the boxes (the derivatives) in the first place.
There are two fundamental elements of Ponzi operations – the promise of very high returns (false expectations) and the widening of the investor circle. Variants of the Ponzi scheme can be found in asset bubbles and pyramid schemes, in which more and more investors (new suckers) are enticed in until they are the ones who bear the final losses. Like the game Musical Chairs, the ones who did not get out when the music stops are the losers.
Actually, Ponzi schemes work by the originator taking profits by selling (or passing) his losses to all his investors – the more suckers, the bigger his profits and the more people to share the losses.
Technically, a Ponzi scheme is sustainable if the new funds that come in actually deliver good returns, but because the Ponzi promises a return higher than anyone can actually deliver, most Ponzis end up as fraudulent schemes.
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But the Ponzi element in modern finance should be understood with another phenomena – the Too-Big-To-Fail (TBTF) dilemma. We all know that if we borrow US$1,000 from the bank, we are in trouble if we can’t pay, but if we borrow US$1bil from the bank, it is the bank that is in trouble. Thus, if a Ponzi scheme reaches the scale of TBTF, it has to be “rescued” somehow, because if everyone had bought the Ponzi product, everyone ends up being the loser.
This is the essence of modern money. Advanced country central banks can engage in quantitative easing (QE or printing money in whatever way you want to call it) to bail out banks that are losing money, because their banks are TBTF. The difference between QE and Ponzi is that the QE interest rate promised is near zero to negative, but the escalation of scale is the same. I call these Qonzi schemes.
In theory, in a closed economy, if you print too much money, you would get higher inflation. This is why the Germans are very much against the European Central Bank’s QE measures.
However, in a world with excess production capacity, you would not get into high inflation, because there are many more people in the emerging economies who are willing to hold reserve currencies like the US dollar, euro and yen. Under globalisation, the smaller reserve currency countries like the eurozone and Japan can engage in QE, because instead of getting inflation, their currencies depreciate against the dollar. The losers call such action “beggar-thy-neighbour” policy.
In other words, currency depreciation countries gain by passing “losses” to others, because they gain competitive trade advantage. But if everyone depreciates at the same rate, the whole world ends up with more deflation. Remember, when the Ponzi music stops, all losses are crystalised. As Warren Buffett used to say, when the tide goes out, you know who has been swimming naked.
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The dilemma in the world today is that the US is the largest TBTF debtor in the world, with gross international liabilities of US$31 trillion, equivalent to 40% of world GDP (gross domestic product). In a world where interest rates are near zero, the threat of the Fed increasing interest rates causes capital flight into the dollar. But a dollar that also yields near zero interest rate, with the inability to reflate due to political constraints, plays exactly the deflationary role of gold in the 1930s.
Hence, a strong dollar is deflationary on the whole world. As geopolitical tensions rise, flight into the dollar causes its own deflation. The latest US net international investment position is a deficit of US$7 trillion or 40% of GDP at the end of 2014, sharply up from US$1.3 trillion in 2007. A strong dollar in which the US would run larger even current account deficits is clearly unsustainable for the US and its creditors.
During the Asian financial crisis, countries with net liabilities of over 50% of GDP got into crisis. But the US is the TBTF country in the international monetary system. Further QE will not solve this dilemma. The only solution is painful structural adjustment by all concerned. This is why investors are all so downbeat.
Consequently, I see no alternative but a coming new Plaza Accord to ensure that the dollar does not get too strong, with a concerted effort to have global reflation. Otherwise, watch out for more “Qonzi” schemes.
– Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from the Asian perspective.