Too good to be true? Think twice


 

HAVE you ever grabbed an offer without any hesitation, simply because the price is too cheap to resist?

Many of us have this experience especially during sales or promotional campaigns. We tend to spend more at the end or buy things which we are uncertain of their quality when the deal seems too good to say no.

It may be harmless if the amount involved is insignificant. However, when we apply the same approach to big ticket items, it can cause vast implications.

Recently, I heard a case which reinforces this belief.

A friend shared that a property project which was selling for RM300,000 a few years ago is now stuck. Although the whole project was sold out, the developer has problem delivering the units on time.

The developer is calling all purchasers to renegotiate the liquidated and ascertained damages (LAD), a compensation for late delivery.

One of the homeowners said he is owed RM50,000 of LAD, which means the project is 1½ years late. When we chatted, we found that he purchased the unit solely due to its cheap pricing without doing much research in the first place.

The incident is a real-life example of paying too low for an item which can leave us as losers, especially when it involves huge sum of investment, such as property.

To many, buying a house maybe a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a decision made can make or break the happiness of a family.

A good decision ensures a roof over the head and a great living environment, while an imprudent move may incur long-term financial woes if the house is left uncompleted.

Nowadays, it is common to see people do research when they plan to buy a phone, household item, or other smaller ticket items.

Looking at the amount involved and implication of buying a house, we should apply the same discretion if not more.

It is always important for house buyers to study the background of a developer and project, consult experienced homeowners regarding the good and bad of a project before committing.

I have seen many people buy a house merely based on price consideration.

In fact, there are more to be deliberated when we commit for a roof over our heads. The location, project type, reputation of a developer, the workmanship, the future maintenance of the property etc, are all important factors for a good decision as they would affect the future value of a project.

Beware when a discount or a rebate sounds too good to be true, it may be just too good to be true and never materialised. If the collection or revenue of a housing project is not sufficient to fund the building cost, the developer may not be able to complete the project or deliver the house as per promised terms. At the end of the day, the “price” paid by homeowners would be far more expensive.

In general, the same principle applies elsewhere. It is a known fact that when we pay a premium for a quality product from a reliable producer, we have a peace of mind that the product could last longer and end up saving us money. Some lucky ones will end up gaining much more.

For instance, when we purchase a car, we should consider its resale value as some cars hold up well, while others collapse after a short period. Other determining factors include the specifications of the car, the after sales service, and the availability of spare parts.

Quality products always come with a higher price tag due to the research, effort, materials and services involved.

In addition to buying a house or big ticket items, other incidents that can tantamount to losing huge sums are like money games, get-rich-quick scheme, or the purchase of stolen cars or houses with caveats.

When an offer or a rebate sounds dodgy, the “good deal” can be a scam.

Years of experience tells me that when what is too good to be true, we should think twice. I always remind myself with a quote from John Ruskin (1819-1900) who was an art critic, an artist, an architect and a philosopher. “It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money – that’s all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do.

“The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot – it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better.”

Food for thought by Alan Tong

Datuk Alan Tong has over 50 years of experience in property development. He was the world president of FIABCI International for 2005/2006 and awarded the Property Man of the Year 2010 at FIABCI Malaysia Property Award. He is also the group chairman of Bukit Kiara Properties. For feedback, please email feedback@fiabci-asiapacific.com.

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Angry & frustrated investors lodged report, tell off staffs trying to buy time!


Angry investors who lodged a police report at the Pekan Kinrara station. Waiting for answers:

His first investment scheme failed with losses estimated at between RM400mil and RM1.7bil but JJPTR founder Johnson Lee has brazenly come up with a new one offering even higher returns of 35% a month and with a car, motorcycles and smartphones thrown in as lucky draw prizes. Many of his investors still have faith in him but those in another scheme, Change Your Life, are in a quandary. They now have to choose between getting lower returns or changing to ‘life points’ – and waiting.

Show me the money: Investors making enquiries at Icon City in Bukit Tengah, Bukit Mertajam. The money scam issue has got many who have parted with their savings feeling anxious

 

JJPTR offers ‘better’ plan

//players.brightcove.net/4405352761001/default_default/index.html?videoId=5418686139001

http://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/05/03/jjptr-offers-better-plan-founder-promises-higher-returns-but-stays-mum-on-refunds/

After the spectacular collapse of his previous financial scheme, purportedly because of a hacked account, controversial scheme operator Johnson Lee has rolled out a new plan, claiming to offer even better returns.

While JJPTR’s earlier scheme – which ended with RM500mil missing from the company’s account – offered returns of 20% a month, this new one offers 35%.

On top of that, it offers special lucky draws with a new car, motorcycles and smartphones as prizes.

What the company did not say in the shining glossary of the new plan is how Lee plans to address the US$400mil (RM1.73bil) losses he claims the company has incurred.

The new scheme also does not explain how he plans to repay those who lost their money to the earlier scheme.

The one-and-a-half minute video Lee uploaded shows that the new plan is based on a “split mechanism” and has three rounds.

The initial investment in US dollars is “split” or doubled in each round. Half of it is re-invested in the scheme and rolls over to the next round.

Each round lasts 10 days and investors are allowed to convert their earnings back to ringgit after three rounds.

Anyone who invests US$1,000 (RM4,331) is expected to receive US$450 (RM1,949) in each round, making it a return of US$1,350 (RM5,847) by the end of round three.

Under the proposed new scheme, investors will also be rewarded with JJ Points, which can be used in exchange for goods via its shopping platform JJ Mart.

The new scheme was announced by the 28-year-old Lee last Tuesday after news broke that his company had gone bust.

The company did not say when the new plan would start.

Attempts to contact Lee were futile and the number listed on the JJPTR Facebook page is already out of service.

A visit to the company’s offices in Penang showed that investors were no longer lining up for answers.

Instead, the staff, who preferred not to be photographed, were seen sitting at empty counters.

Penang-based JJPTR, or Jie Jiu Pu Tong Ren in Mandarin (salvation for the common people), came under the spotlight when investors complained that they did not get their scheduled payment last month.

JJPTR, JJ Poor to Rich and JJ Global Network are among the entities listed as unauthorised companies under Bank Negara Malaysia’s Financial Consumer Alert.

Records from the Companies Commission of Malaysia showed that JJ Global Network was a “RM2 company” owned by Lee and his former girlfriend Tan Kai Lee, 24. Each hold a single share.

Lee’s father Thean Chye, 58, and Tan are also directors of another company called JJ Global Network Holdings Bhd.

Thean Chye, who was an assistant professor at Southern University College in Johor, resigned on Wednesday after the JJPTR losses came to light.

Source: The Star/ANN

Investor tells off staff after failing to get refund 

 

Business as usual: Employees explaining the refund process and new scheme to investors at the JJPTR main office in Perak Road, Penang.

GEORGE TOWN: An investor, frustrated over not getting a promised refund on his stake, told off several female employees at the main JJPTR office in Perak Road.

The man, in his 40s, was heard having an exchange of words with the staff after being told that it may take “a few more days” before he could get his money.

He told them Johnson Lee, the founder of JJPTR, had said that the money was refunded to JJ2 scheme investors some days ago.

“But until today, I haven’t got my money back.

“I just want to know if the refund has been made or are you in the midst of processing the refund?

“If he has not started the refund, just be honest with the investors.”

He insisted on getting a firm date on when he would get back his money but the employees replied that they would need at least five working days.

He then demanded their names but they refused him.

“You don’t even dare give me your names. If I want to lodge a report, I won’t be able to provide the police with details.

“And don’t tell me you need days for a bank transfer. It only takes hours,” he said.

As he left the office, several journalists approached him for comment but were turned down.

“I don’t want to talk to reporters. You are all just causing trouble for us. I can get things done on my own,” he said.

JJPTR, or Jie Jiu Pu Tong Ren (“salvation for the common people” in Mandarin), is a Penang-based company that came under the spotlight when its investors complained that they did not get their scheduled profits last month.

According to online and media reports, the investors stand to lose RM500mil. They reportedly number in the tens of thousands, comprising Malaysians and foreigners from Canada, the United States and China.

Lee, who has blamed the loss on hackers, put the figure at US$400mil (RM1.75bil) in a widely-circulated video clip.

JJPTR, JJ Poor to Rich and JJ Global Network are listed as unauthorised companies by Bank Negara Malay­sia.

Source: The Star/ANN

JJPTR just trying to buy time, says ‘scam buster’ 

 

“Scam buster” Afyan Mat Rawi has ridiculed JJPTR’s new plan, calling it “unsustainable” and nothing but a forex scheme to placate angry investors.

Once a victim of an investment scam himself, the 37-year-old financial adviser said investors should stay away from the scheme, which he described as “illogical”.

“The investors are angry right now, and JJPTR is trying to pacify them by introducing this new plan.

“A 35% return at the end of the three rounds (one month) is illogical. Where would the company find all the money to reinvest?

“The new plan is just a way for them to buy time,” Afyan said.

He said any investment scheme promising returns of more than 15% in a year will ultimately collapse.

“No legitimate scheme will guarantee an annual return of more than 15%. Any scheme claiming to do otherwise has to be a scam.

“Like most other pyramid schemes, the (JJPTR) forex scheme will collapse when there is no entry of new investors.”

Afyan said that despite getting flak from investors after allegedly losing RM500mil due to its accounts being hacked, it was still “possible” for JJPTR to entice old and new investors to subscribe to the new plan, which promises higher returns and special lucky draws.

“Some investors may leave, because they no longer see hope but those in the “top tier” will continue finding new victims as they’ve already invested so much.

“Unfortunately, there will still be people who believe in them,” he related.

Commenting on a video of founder Johnson Lee announcing the new plan via JJPTR Malaysia’s Facebook page, Afyan said the laws in Malaysia were not harsh enough to serve as deterrent for so-called “scammers”.

He claimed that the only person to have been severely punished for operating an illegal investment scheme was Pak Man Telo, or Othman Hamzah, who was jailed and banished to Terengganu from Perak in the early 1990s.

Othman reportedly enticed 50,000 people to invest in his getrich-quick scheme, commonly known as the Pak Man Telo scheme, and managed to rake in RM90mil before being arrested, tried and sent to prison for two years. He died in Terengganu a few years later.

Ever since then, Afyan claimed, convicted scammers have been getting away easy.

“At most, scammers will be arrested and remanded. But you don’t hear about them serving time in prison. They’ve already made millions, billions, in profits.

“A penalty of a few thousand ringgit is nothing to them,” he said.

Afyan, who lost RM300 to a getrich-quick scheme while he was a university student in 2003, worked in Islamic insurance and financial planning after graduating.

He created a Facebook page in 2008 to share information on questionable investment opportunities, earning him the nickname “scam buster”.

He claims to have uncovered about 50 dubious companies so far.

Source: The Star/ANN

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Be an entrepreneur or a politician?


Let your children decide on their employment choice

Most parents in their fifties are looking at retirement options when their children starts looking for employment after their studies. There is this transition moment in our family circle of life where the baton of employment, career or business is being passed to the next generation.

The older generation after 30 years of slogging, looks forward to easier passing of days without the responsibilities and worries whilst the younger generation looks forward with optimism and high hopes of securing a good career ahead.

As an entrepreneur with businesses and investments, my natural instinct is to rope them into the family business, if any, as any typical old generation Chinese businessman will do. But I made up my mind some 7 years ago when my first born started his A Level, that my children will make their own choice whether they will prefer to seek employment elsewhere or participate in the family business. It will be their choice and decision and I will support whole heartedly whatever decisions they will make. 7 years later, I still have the same conviction.

I had this feeling that the business world and environment will be much different with all these globalization and technological advancement and the businesses that I was in will be operating in a much more competitive and disruptive world order. This has proven to be true.

The traditional brick and mortar businesses are under tremendous stress to keep up with new disruptive technologies and new business ideas.

My children will have to learn new skills and insights and they definitely will not be able to learn from my traditional family business unless I had instituted changes to my existing business to join the new business order. But I did not know how.

So it is better that they decide on their choice of employment in whatever industries they choose as long as they are working for a forward looking company who is able to embrace the new technological changes that is changing the business order across the global markets. And if they do decide later after some years of working experience to venture out as an entrepreneur, I will also support them wholeheartedly.

Assuming they are up to it, with the right attitude and skill sets.

Not everyone is capable of being a ‘successful’ entrepreneur. It is easy to start a business, call yourself a founder and entrepreneur but chances of being successful is limited to the capable few. For most cases, you are better off building a good career in a good organization rather than struggling in a small scale business for the rest of your life.

If you planned to be an entrepreneur, just make sure your business potential is scalable to a size that will earned you nett, double what you would be earning in a good job. Or else it will be a waste of time. The thrill of being your own boss wears thin over time when you are not doing well financially.

I have many friends who have done very well in their corporate careers and they seem very happy when we do meet up. They definitely look younger than me, with less stressful lines, a radiant and happy face. Compared to my aged face filled with worried lines and scars of agony suffered through the years. Was it worth it?

With the wisdom of hindsight, I am now able to advise my children on their decision making process on whether they should be a corporate suit or to go on their own. My only guidance to them is whatever choice they make, just ensure their actions are productive and contribute towards the well being of the economy. Don’t be lazy, do good where you can and be as good as you can be. Then start a family. Circle of life starts again.

The only career that I totally discouraged my children from is the job of a politician. Good politicians are hard to find nowadays. Since integrity left the politicians, good virtues and honesty followed. What is left is a shell of a conniving and corrupted politician using whatever means they can to stay in power supposedly representing the people’s interest.

All over the world, the politicians together with religious and racist bigots have caused total mayhem to our daily lives. People are divided by race, religion and skin colour. Nothing makes sense anymore. Throw in lots of money into a politician’s hands and we have absolute corruption across the ranks. Cash is king. Everybody can be bought. And I mean everybody.

What is really sad is the complete breakdown of morality and integrity of the human politician. Where he suffers no shame when he is openly corrupted. When he can sleep well even though he has done many evil things destroying the moral fabric of the society which he swore to protect. I have nothing but despise for these toxic politicians.

The few genuine politicians who stand up their grounds to all are few and far between. Eventually, they too will engulfed by the all pervasive influence of corruption.

To the younger generation joining the working community, my only advice is to pick a job that fits your personality and your skill sets. Make sure you enjoy the job. Get some proper working experience under your belt and you can evaluate your options in a more leisurely way.

You will know when there is a calling for you to become an entrepreneur. You will be unhappy with your job, your bosses irritates you, there is a burning desire that has just lighted up in your belly, a brilliant idea suddenly appeared and you feel that you are now ready to be an entrepreneur. Are you?

From experience, it takes a long time for an entrepreneur to make big fortune. If you do not have the patience, I recommend you a job that makes money faster than an entrepreneur.

Be a politician.

Source: Tan Thiam Hock, On Your Own/Starbizweek

The writer is an entrepreneur who hopes to share his experience and
insights with readers who want to take that giant leap into business but
are not sure if they should.

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The global mahjong winner’s curse


There is grave concern that the world economy is slipping into what Harvard professor and former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers calls the global secular deflation. In simple terms, growth has slowed without inflation, despite exceptionally stimulative monetary policy. Larry’s view is that the advanced countries can use fiscal policy to stimulate growth, using massive investments in infrastructure. If needs be, this can be financed by central banks.

Central bank financing fiscal deficits is technically called “helicopter money”, named by the late monetarist economist Milton Friedman as the central bank pushing money out of the helicopter. Strict monetarism thinks that this would cause inflation.

The simple reason why the world is moving into secular deflation is that the largest economies are all slowing for a variety of reasons. Unconventional monetary policy applied since the 2007 crisis has brought central bank interest rates to zero or negative terms in economies accounting for 60% of world GDP.

Most economists blame current slow growth to “lack of aggregate demand” or “excess of aggregate production”. The rich countries are mostly aging and already heavily burdened with debt, so they cannot consume more. After the 2007 global financial crisis, the emerging market economies have slowed down, as demand for their exports have slowed. We are in a vicious circle where global trade growth is now slower than GDP growth, because the US economy is no longer the consumption engine of last resort. China, which has been a huge consumer of commodities, has slowed. Japanese growth has been flat due to an aging population. European growth has not recovered, partly because the leading economy, Germany, calls for austerity by its southern partners.

The Brexit shock threatens to weaken global confidence and send growth down another notch.

Former Bank of England Governor Lord Mervyn King famously called the global monetary order a game of sodoku, in which national current accounts in the balance of payments add up to a zero sum game. This is because in the global trade game, one country’s current account deficit is another country’s surplus. In the past, if the US runs larger and larger current account deficits, world growth is stimulated because everyone wants to hold dollars and has been willing to supply the US with all manners of consumer goods. This has been called an “exorbitant privilege” for the dollar.

The present global monetary order or non-order is a result of the 1971 US dollar de-link from gold, which gave rise to a phase of floating exchange rates and rising capital flows, which some people call Bretton Woods II. The old order, set at the Bretton Wood Conference of 1944, centered around a system of global fixed exchange rates, based on the US dollar link with gold price at US$35 to one ounce of gold.

But flexible exchange rates has resulted in a system where everyone seems to be devaluing their way out of trouble. Has the global secular deflation something to do with Bretton Woods II?

My answer must be yes. The reason lies in what I call, instead of sodoku, the mahjong winner’s curse. The Chinese game of mahjong has four players with a limited number of chips. If one player is the persistent winner, he or she ends up with all the chips and the game stops. Since the global game of trade cannot stop, the winner has both an exorbitant privilege (of being funded by the others) and an exorbitant curse (of bearing the loss if the others won’t or refuse to pay). To keep the game going, the winner has to give or lend the chips back to the other players, who play with the hope of winning the next round.

Indeed, if the winner is generous, the game can be made bigger, because the winner can issue more chips (defined as a reserve currency), which the others are more than willing to borrow and play.

The current world situation is that the Winners are the four reserve currency countries, the dollar, euro, yen and sterling, all of which have interest rates near zero or even negative. Until recently, the Winners blame China and the oil producing countries as having too high current account surpluses. But recently, after the huge European cutback in expenditure, Europe as a whole is the world’s largest current account surplus group of nearly 5% of GDP.

Herein lies the winner’s curse. The emerging markets should be able to stimulate global growth, but are unwilling to run larger current account deficits because they cannot get financing. The richer economies can stimulate global growth, but they are unwilling to do so, because they either feel that they already have too much debt or because they worry that stimulus would lead to inflation.

However, reserve currency countries have an advantage. As long as they are willing to run current account deficits, there will be little inflation because the world economy has huge excess capacity and surplus savings. If emerging markets run higher current account deficits, they will have to depreciate, which is exactly what Brazil, South Africa and others have done.

The winner’s curse is that if Europe is now unwilling to reflate and spend, the world will continue to slow. Indeed, in a world of greater geo-political risks, money is fleeing to the US dollar and the yen, causing both to appreciate.

What these capital flows into the reserve currencies when their interest rate is zero and they are unable to reflate imply is that the dollar and yen play the deflationary role of gold in the 1930s. As more and more mahjong players hold gold and don’t spend, the world global trade and growth game slows further. The mahjong winner’s curse requires the winners to stimulate and spend, bearing higher credit risks. That’s the privilege and responsibility of winners in the global game. If not, look out for more global secular deflation.

By Tan Sri Andrew Sheng who writes on global issues from an Asian perspective.

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How do we get out of the debt trap without printing more money?


The policy options open to major economies, including China, to reduce debt, before another global crisis hits

ALL of us are worried about growing global debt as a precursor to another round of crises. After the last global financial crisis, 2007-2009, global debt rose to more than US$200 trillion or US$27,000 for each person in the world.

Since 2.8 billion or nearly 40% live on US$2 per day, there is no way that the debt can ever be repaid. The bulk of debt owed by governments, banks and companies will be repaid by creating more debt.

If we are happy to create money, we should be happy to create more debt. Right?

Wrong. The right question is not the size of the debt or liability, but where is the net asset? Individually, we can always repay the debt if we spend less than what we earn, or invested in an asset that generates sufficient income to pay the interest.

Collectively, the government can always borrow to repay, because it can always tax to repay, if not principal, at least on the interest. Countries only get into trouble when they owe foreigners and cannot raise enough foreign exchange to repay their debt.

Charles Goodhart, Emeritus Professor at London School of Economics and one of the foremost thinkers on money and banking has written a series of important articles for Morgan Stanley, analysing the current debt crisis.


Emerging markets

The reason we ended up with more debt than ever is due to three factors since 1970 – the willingness of the financial sector to lend, the increase in global savings relative to investment and the demand for safe assets. Professor Goodhart attributed the structural increase in savings to favourable demographics in the last forty years – particularly as emerging markets like China increased their savings from growth in their labour force that engaged in international trade.

The increase in savings relative to investments created a global savings glut, which meant lower real interest rates.

The willingness of emerging markets to park their excess savings in advanced countries in the form of official reserves and the banks willing to extend credit at lower interest rates created the boom in financialisation. Lower interest rates encouraged speculative activity (funded by debt) rather than investments in long-term productive projects.

When the bust occurred, the advanced central banks wanted to avoid a debt implosion and added to the bubble by lowering interest rates and flooded the markets with short-term liquidity.

The quantitative easing (QE) stopped the widening of the crisis, but its initial success enabled politicians to avoid taking tough action in structural reforms. The result was further slower growth from declining productivity, even as companies and governments continued to borrow, affordable only at near zero interest rates. In short, we are in a debt trap – more debt, little growth.

 

 

Negative interest rates as a policy tool was invented by small countries like Sweden and Switzerland to discourage large capital inflows that created excessive currency appreciation.

But for the eurozone and Japan to try that would actually destroy their banks’ profitability, which is why bank shares dropped after these were introduced. If banks think they will lose money, they will cut back lending to the real sector further, negating the objective of QE to stimulate growth. Banks receiving QE funds faced the double prospect of being punished for taking credit risks and also the need to increase both capital and liquidity due to the tighter bank regulations.

Helicopter money

Helicopter money is not about central bankers jumping out of helicopters to atone for their mistakes, but about central bank financing a massive increase in fiscal expenditure – truly monetary creation on a large scale. If this happens, watch out for a rise in gold prices.

Prof Goodhart has carefully analysed the three options for deleverging or getting out of the debt trap. The first is to deleverge by swapping debt for equity, being tried by China.

This is feasible when the country is a net lender and both borrowers and lenders are state-owned entities. The second option is to use inflation to reduce the real value of debt. As the recent experience showed, getting inflation even up to target was tough to achieve.

The third option is to address collateral by inducing lenders and borrowers to renegotiate their debt or make the debt permanent. This is both painful and difficult and is unlikely to be adopted unless other options are tried.

China’s banking regulator moves to contain off-balance-sheet risk

In my view, the true result of the Bank of Japan’s negative interest rates is a tax on the older generation, because they are the ones not spending.

Japan tried Keynesian fiscal spending, which failed to sustain growth but created a huge debt overhang.

The Japanese older generation and the corporate sector keeps on saving because they are worried about the future, not surprising given an aging population and sluggish demand for exports.

So if you can’t increase the inflation tax, or corporate taxation to reduce the fiscal debt, use negative interest rates to reduce the value of savings of retirees and the corporate sector. Only Japanese savers would not revolt under such inequity.

For countries that have net savings and large public assets, like China, there is a fourth option to get out of the debt trap, and that is to re-write the national balance sheet. Most foreign analysts who worry about China’s debt overhang forget that after three decades of growth, the Chinese state has also accummulated net assets (net of all liabilities) equivalent to 166% of GDP.

That can be injected as equity into the overleveraged enterprises and banks if and only if the governance and return on assets can be improved under better management.

In the short-run, a clean-up of the over-leveraged enterprise sector and local government debt, embedded in the official and shadow banking system, will help sustain long-run stable growth. How to do this technically will be explained in the next article.

By Tan Sri Andrew Sheng who writes on global affairs from an Asian perspective.

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The alchemy of money


Former Bank of England governor claims that for over two centuries, economists have struggled to provide rigorous theoretical basis for the role of money and have largely failed.

 

MONEY makes the world go round, so you would have thought that economists understand what money is all about.

The former governor of the Bank of England, Lord Mervyn King, has just published a book called The End of Alchemy, which made a startling claim that “for over two centuries, economists have struggled to provide rigorous theoretical basis for the role of money, and have largely failed.” This is a serious accusation from a distinguished academic turned central banker.

Alchemy is defined as the ability to create gold out of base metals or the ability to brew the elixir of life. King identifies that the main purpose of financial markets is to help real economy players to cope with “radical uncertainty”. But as we discovered after the global financial crisis, financial risk models widely used by banks narrowly defined risks as statistical probabilities that could be measured. By definition, radical uncertainty is an “unknown unknown” that cannot be measured. It was no wonder that the banks were blind to the blindness of financial models, which conveniently assumed that what cannot be measured does not exist. Ergo, no one but dead economists is to blame for bank failure.

When money was fully backed by gold, money was tied to real goods. But when paper currency was invented, money became a promisory note, first of the state – fiat money, supported by the power to impose taxes to repay that debt, and today, bank-created money, which is backed only by the assets and equity of the bank. The power to create “paper” money is truly alchemy – since promises by either the state or the banks can go on almost forever, until the trust runs out.

Today national money supply comprises roughly one-fifth state money (backed by sovereign debt) and four-fifths bank deposits (backed by bank loans and bank equity). Banks can create money as long as they are willing to lend, and the more they lend to finance bad assets, the more alchemy there is in the system.

A good description of financial alchemy is provided by FT columnist Prof John Kay, whose new book, Other People’s Money, is a masterpiece in the diagnosis of financialisation – how the finance industry traded with itself and (almost) ignored the real world. For example, Kay claimed that British banks’ “lending to firms and individuals in the production of goods and services – which most people would imagine was the principal business of a bank – amounts to about 3% of that total”. How is it possible that “the value of the assets underlying derivative contracts is three times the value of all the physical assets in the world”?

The answer is of course leverage. Finance is a derivative of the real economy, which can be leveraged or multiplied as long as there is someone (sucker?) willing to believe that the derivative has a “sound” relationship with the underlying asset. There are two pitfalls in that alchemy – a sharp decline in leverage and a fall in the value of the underlying asset – which were triggers of the global crash of 2007, as fears of Fed interest rate hikes tightened credit and questions asked about risks in subprime mortgage assets that were the underlying assets of many toxic derivatives.

Unfortunately, as we found to everyone’s costs, the banking system itself became too highly leveraged relative to its obligations, without sufficient equity nor liquidity to absorb market shocks.

The real trouble with financialisation is that central bankers, having not taken away the punch bowl when the party got really heady, cannot attempt anything like even trying to move in that direction without spoiling the whole party. Any attempt to raise interest rates by the Fed would be considered Armageddon by those who have huge vested interests in bubbly asset markets. Instead, central bankers like Mario Draghi has to continue to talk “whatever it takes” to continue the game of financialisation.

King’s recommendation that central banks reverse alchemy by behaving like pawnbrokers for all seasons (having collateral against all lending) can only be implemented after the next and coming crisis. Central bank discipline, like virginity, cannot be replaced once lost. The market will always think that in the end, it will be bailed out by central banks. In the end the market was right – it was bailed out and will be bailed out. In the game of playing chicken with finance, the politicians will always blink.

If we accept that radical uncertainty lies at the heart of finance, then money makes the world go around because it provides the lubricant of trade and investment. Without that lubricant, trade and investment would slow down significantly, but with too much lubricant, the system can rock itself to pieces.

The dilemma of central banks today is also globalisation. In addition to the Fed controlling dollar money supply within the US borders, there are US$9 trillion of dollars created outside the US borders over which the Fed has no control. Money today can be created in the form of Bitcoins, computerised digital units that tech people use to trade value. But Bitcoins ultimately need to be changed into dollars. So as long as someone will accept Bitcoins, digital currency become convertible money.

We got into a monetary crisis in which bad money drove out good. The reason was because the financial sector, in collusion with politics, refused to accept that there were losses in the system, so it printed more money to hide or roll over the losses. Surprise, surprise, there was no inflation, because the real economy, having become bloated with excess capacity financed by excess leverage, had in the short run no effective demand. So inflation at the global level is postponed.

But if climate change disrupts the weather and create food supply shortages, inflation will return, initially in the emerging economies, which cannot print money because they are not reserve currencies. In time, inflation will come back to haunt the reserve currency countries. But not before the emerging markets go into crises of inflation or banking first.

Money is inherently unfair – the rich will always suffer less than the poor.

In medieval times, only those with real money could afford alchemy. If it was true then, it remains true today.

Tan Sri Andrew Sheng writes on global affairs from an Asian perspective.

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Modern finance and money being managed like a Ponzi scheme !


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

 

The dilemma today is that the US is the world’s largest “too big to fail” debtor, with gross international liabilities of US$31 trillion, equivalent to 40 per cent of global GDP. Photo: AFP

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.

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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).

A foreclosure sign tops a “for sale” sign outside a property in northwest Denver in this 2007 photo. The number of homeowners receiving foreclosure notices hit a record high in the spring, driven up by problems with subprime mortgages. Photo: AP

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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Under globalisation, the smaller reserve-currency countries like the euro zone and Japan can engage in quantitative easing, because instead of getting inflation, their currencies depreciate against the dollar. Photo: Reuters

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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Rail cars and oil tankers sit on railway tracks as water vapour and smoke rise from a steel plant in the distance in Tonghua, Jilin province. The city’s once-vaunted state-run steel mills have slipped inexorably into decline, weighed down by slumping global markets and a changing economy. Photo: Bloomberg

 

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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.

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