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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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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