Wednesday, October 7, 2015

7/10/15: On the Illusion of Financial Stability

IMF’s Global Financial Stability Report for October 2015 is out, titled, predictably “Vulnerabilities, Legacies, and Policy Challenges: Risks Rotating to Emerging Markets”.

It is a hefty read, but some key points are the following.

“Th e Federal Reserve is poised to raise interest rates as the preconditions for liftoff are nearly in place. This increase should help slow the further buildup of excesses in financial risk taking.” As if this is something new… albeit any conjecture that the Fed move will somehow take out some of the risks built up over years of aggressive priming of the liquidity pump is a bit, err… absurd. The IMF is saying risk taking will slow down, not abate.

“Partly due to con fidence in the European Central Bank’s (ECB’s) policies, credit conditions are improving and credit demand is picking up. Corporate sectors are showing tentative signs of improvement that could spawn increased investment and economic risk taking, including in the United States and Japan, albeit from low levels.” So, as before, don’t expect a de-risking, expect slower upticks in risks. The bubbles won’t be popping, or even deflating… they will be inflating at a more gradual pace.

All of which should give us that warm sense of comfort.

Meanwhile, “risks continue to rotate toward emerging markets, amid greater market liquidity risks.” In other words, now’s the turn of EMs to start pumping in cash, as the Fed steps aside.

In summary, therefore, that which went on for years will continue going on. The shovel will change, the proverbial brown stuff will remain the same.

Still, at the very least, the IMF is more realistic than the La-La gang of european politicians and investors. Here are some warning signs:

  1. “Legacy issues from the crisis in advanced economies. High public and private debt in advanced economies and remaining gaps in the euro area architecture need to be addressed to consolidate financial stability, and avoid political tensions and headwinds to confidence and growth. In the euro area, addressing remaining sovereign and banking vulnerabilities is still a challenge.” You wouldn’t know that much, but the idea of rising rates and rising cost of funding has that cold steely feel to it when you think of your outstanding mortgage…
  2. “Weak systemic market liquidity… poses a challenge in adjusting to new equilibria in markets and the wider economy. Extraordinarily accommodative policies have contributed to a compression of risk premiums across a range of markets including sovereign bonds and corporate credit, as well as a compression of liquidity and equity risk premiums. While recent market developments have unwound some of this compression, risk premiums could still rise further.” Wait a second here. We had years of unprecedented money printing by the Central Banks around the world. And we have managed to inflate a massive bubble in bonds markets on foot of that. But liquidity is still ‘challenged’? Oh dear… but what about all this ‘credibility’ that the likes of ECB have raised over the recent programmes? Does it not count for anything when it comes to systemic liquidity?..
  3. The system is far from shocks-proof, again contrary to what we heard during this Summer from European dodos populating the Eurogroup. “Without the implementation of policies to ensure successful normalization, potential adverse shocks or policy missteps could trigger an abrupt rise in market risk premiums and a rapid erosion of policy con fidence. Shocks may originate in advanced or emerging markets and, combined with unaddressed system vulnerabilities, could lead to a global asset market disruption and a sudden drying up of market liquidity in many asset classes. Under these conditions, a signifi cant—even if temporary— mispricing of assets may ensue, with negative repercussions on fi nancial stability.”

In summary, then, lots done, nothing achieved: we wasted trillions in monetary policy firepower and the system is still prone to exogenous and endogenous shocks.

“In… an adverse scenario, substantially tighter fi nancial conditions could stall the cyclical recovery and weaken confi dence in medium-term growth prospects. Low nominal growth would put pressure on debt-laden sovereign and private balance sheets, raising credit risks.

  • Emerging markets would face higher global risk premiums and substantial capital out flows, putting particular pressure on economies with domestic imbalances. 
  • Corporate default rates would rise, particularly in China, raising fi nancial system strains, with implications for growth.
  • Th ese events would lead to a reappearance of risks on sovereign balance sheets, especially in Europe’s vulnerable economies, and the emergence of an adverse feedback loop between corporate and sovereign risks in emerging markets. 
  • As a result, aggregate global output could be as much as 2.4 percent lower by 2017, relative to the baseline. This implies lower but still positive global growth.”

Note, the IMF doesn’t even mention in this adverse scenario what happens to households up to their necks in debt, e.g. those in Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, and so on.

So let’s take a look at a handy IMF map plotting their own assessments of the financial systems stability in October 2015 report compared to April 2015 report. Do note that April 2015 report covers the period right before the ECB deployed its famed, fabled and all-so-credible (per IMF) QE.

Just take a look at the lot. Market & liquidity risks are up (not down), Risk Appetite is down. Macroeconomic risks improved, but everything else remains the same. That is a picture of no real achievement of any significant variety, regardless of what the IMF tells us. Worse, IMF analysis shows that risk appetite deteriorated across all 3 sub-metrics and as chart below shows, market & liquidity conditions have deteriorated across all 4 sub-metrics.

Meanwhile (Chart below), save for household risks, all other credit-related risks worsened too.

Meanwhile, markets are sustained by debt. That’s right: stock prices remain driven by debt-funded net equity buybacks and domestic acquisitions:

Meanwhile, Government bonds are in a massive bubble territory, especially for the little champions of the Euro:

You can see the extent of IMF’s thinking on the topic of just how bad the financial assets bubbles have grown in the following post.

The basic core of the IMF analysis is that although everything was made better, nothing is really much better. In the world of financial stability fetishists, that is like saying we have a steady state of no steady state. In the world of those of us living in the real economy, that is like saying all that cash pumped into the markets over the last seven years and across the globe has been largely wasted. 

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