Doing The Hugh Hendry

Below is some commentary from Hugh Hendry I found in an FT.com editorial I since can not access as I don’t have a login. But I thought it was interesting when I first read it awhile back and I still think it’s interesting now. I meant to post it earlier. Rectifying my mistake:

For the moment, let us forget the chances of a hard landing in China. Forget the drama of Europe’s circus of politically inspired economic incompetency. Forget that the good news of the US economy’s succession of positive economic surprises is really bad news as fixed income managers have sold copious amounts of too cheap volatility and because it has made equity investors turn bullish, sending stock market volatility back to 2007 levels. This is dangerous. Improved US data may represent a classic short-term cyclical upturn amid a profound global deleveraging cycle.

Such moves have been commonplace for the past three years and have yet to prove a harbinger of any structural upswing. I worry that the pathological course of the last several years will see volatility rise sharply once again. Even so, there exists, in terms of my parochial world of hedge fund investing, a bigger issue.

I fear that my no longer small community has been compromised. Last year was generally very tough for long/short strategies and I commiserate with all concerned. But last year world class funds lost more than 15 per cent in just two months. Today they are celebrated again for making double digit returns in the last quarter even though they still languish below high water marks and their reputation for risk management, at least to those clients who have poured over their copious due diligence statements, has been sorely compromised.

You can probably live with that if you are a pension scheme or a large, sophisticated fund-of-fund because you have a global macro sub-sector that can benefit from short-term shifts in volatility. But the unfortunate thing is that this group exercised its stop losses somewhere between the great stock market rallies of 2009 and 2010. That is to say, they honoured the pact they had with clients. They adhered to the terms of their risk budget: they lost money and they reduced their positions. I fear that owing to this nasty experience the financial world is in danger of harvesting a monoculture of fund returns that could prove less than robust should the global economy suffer another deflationary reversal.

To my mind the situation has parallels with the plight of the banana. Today the world eats predominately just one type of banana, the Cavendish, but it is being wiped out by a blight known as Tropical Race 4, which encourages the plant to kill itself. Scientists refer to it as programmed death cell destruction. In stressful situations bananas fortify themselves by dropping leaves, killing off weaker cells so that stronger ones may live to fight anew. They operate a stop-loss system.

But modern mass production of single type bananas has replaced jungle diversity with commercial monocultural fields that provide more hosts to harbour the blight. The economy keeps producing stressful volatility events. Good managers keep shedding risk and monetising losses and are duly fired, leaving us with a monoculture of brazen managers who will never stop loss because they are convinced central banks will print more money.

Diversification has proven the most robust survival mechanism against failures of judgment by any one society, hedge fund manager or style. But what if we are now a single global hedge fund community afraid to take stop losses and convinced of an inflationary outcome to be all short US Treasuries and long real assets?

This is pertinent as I have always been fascinated by that second rout in US Treasuries in 1984, long after the inflation of the 1970s was met head on by Paul Volcker’s monetary vice and a deep recession. How could 10-year Treasury yields have soared back to 14 per cent and how could so many investment veterans have been convinced that a second even more virulent inflation wave was to hit the global economy?

Psychologists tell us the explanation is embedded deep in the mind. They refer to the “availability heuristic”. Goaded by the proximity to the last dramatic event, investors overreacted to the news that the US economy was pulling out of recession in 1984. They saw high inflation where there was none.

With this in mind, I would contend that it may take several more years before the threat of debt and deflation can be successfully exorcised from investors’ minds, even if the global economy were not set on such a perilous course. Such is the potency and memory of 2008’s crash that anything remotely challenging to the economic consensus could be met by a sudden and severe reappraisal to the downside.

Should such an event send 30-year Treasury yields back to their 2008 low of 2.5 per cent, we believe enlightened investors might better be served by thinking the opposite. Only then might it prove rewarding to short the government bond market and embrace what may turn out to be a much promised once in a lifetime buying opportunity for risk assets.

 
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Notes – Gary North On Inflation, Deflation And Japan

The following notes cover Austrian economist Gary North’s views on the chances of inflation and deflation in the US and Japanese monetary systems, derived from a 5-part article series on the subject found at LewRockwell.com:

Why Deflation Is Not Inevitable (Sadly), Part 1: John Exeter’s Mistake

  • Fed will attempt to stabilize money supply before hyperinflation; “mass inflation, yes; hyperinflation, no. Then deflation.”
  • Deflation will not take place unless the CB stops making new money
  • When prices fall, you are richer, but you pay no income tax on your profits (deflation is good)
  • Not-money: if you pay a commission to exchange, the asset is not truly liquid
  • Gold is a mass inflation hedge, not a deflation hedge
  • According to Exter/deflationists, gold is supposedly both an inflation hedge and a deflation hedge– the only asset possessing this virtue
  • We have never been able to test Exter’s theory of gold as a hedge against price deflation because there has never been a single year in which CPI has fallen (Q: what did gold price of Yen do in 2009 Japanese CPI decrease?)
  • Consumer price indexes should be based upon goods and services that are rapidly consumed; not price of homes and other prices of “markets for dreams”
  • Central banks inflate, they do not deflate
  • “When housing is bought on the basis of ‘I’ll get rich,’ the market begins to resemble a stock market. When it is bought on the basis of ‘I can live here for what I can rent,’ it is more like the toilet paper market”
  • The skyrocketing price of housing under Greenspan was not reflected in the CPI; the collapsing price of housing under Bernanke was not reflected in the CPI
  • Consumer prices did not fall during the 2008-09 crisis because the money supply did not fall; if the money supply shrinks, there will be price deflation; watch the monetary statistics

Why Deflation Is Not Inevitable (Sadly), Part 2: The Deflationists’ Myth of Japan

  • The money supply shrank in the US 1930-33 (Q: Why did the Fed allow money supply to shrink? Does this weaken North’s argument that the Fed will always inflate rather than deflate going forward?)
  • The US and Japan had similar CB policies until late 2008, when the Fed “went berserk”
  • Japan’s M2 was mildly inflationary from 1992-2009; CPI was slightly deflationary over the same period of time but never worse than 1% in any 12mo period; prices rose 2% 1997 and 2008
  • There has been no systemic price deflation in Japan
  • Japan is more Chicago School than Austrian
  • Statistical conclusions about Japan:
    • CPI in Japan fell little 1992-2009, no more than 1% per annum
    • BoJ did not inflate the currency to overcome systemic price deflation, because it didn’t exist
    • Collapse of Japanese RE prices did not affect CPI
    • Collapse of Japanese stock market prices did not affect CPI

Why Deflation Is Not Inevitable (Sadly), Part 3: Why Currency Withdrawals Don’t Matter

  • The Japanese economy is starting to become price competitive; this will have ramifications higher up the corporate command chain
  • Estimates of US currency held outside the United States range from 50-70%
  • Rise of credit transactions such as credit cards have minimized the role paper currency plays in everyday transactions
  • Currency withdrawals from the banking system which are not later redeposited are deflationary due to the reserve ratio mechanism
  • Monetary deflation can occur as a result of deliberate Fed policy:
    • increase legal reserve requirement
    • sell assets
    • allow bank collapse to occur by not funding FDIC with new money to offset withdrawals

Why Deflation Is Not Inevitable (Sadly), Part 4: High Bid Wins

  • All economics systems are governed by principles of:
    • supply and demand
    • high bid wins
  • The increase in the Fed’s balance sheet (monetary base) has been offset by increase in excess reserves held at banks; thus, no price increases
  • Deflationists’ claim: “Commercial banks will not start lending until the recovery is clear. The recovery is a myth. So, banks will not start lending, no matter what the FED does. The largest banks remain over-leveraged. They will not be able to find borrowers at any rate of interest, so the capital markets will collapse (except gold), and then consumer prices will fall.”
  • North’s response: “the largest banks are making money hand over fist. It is the local banks that are failing. The FED has done what it was set up to do in 1913: protect the largest banks.”
  • Inflationists’ claim: “Commercial banks will start lending when the recovery is clear. The FED will probably not contract the monetary base all the way back to August 2008, because this would bring on another crisis comparable to September 2008. The FED will not risk bankrupting the still highly leveraged megabanks. It will therefore not fully offset the decrease in excess reserves. It will not “wind down” all the way, if at all. Bernanke fears 1930—33 more than anything else. So, the money supply will rise. Prices will follow.”
  • “The increase in excess reserves has been voluntary. The bankers are afraid to lend, even to the U.S. Treasury.” (Q: Why are bankers afraid to lend, even to the Treasury?)
  • “The FED is in complete control over excess reserves. It pays banks a pittance to maintain these reserves. It is legally authorized to impose fees.”
  • Why the Fed maintains its current policy:
    • doesn’t have to sell assets
    • doesn’t have to face rising long-term interest rates due to expanding money supply
    • doesn’t have to worry about collapsing housing market as interest rates go to 25-40%
    • doesn’t face a corporate bond market collapse
  • Monitoring money supply changes is key to predicting consumer price increases

Why Deflation Is Not Inevitable (Sadly), Part 5: Conclusion

  • J Irving Weiss and his son Martin, recommended 100% T-Bills since 1967; it takes $6400 to buy what $1000 bought in 1967
  • Deflationists confuse asset prices with consumer prices
  • Deflationists believe low interest rates lead to debt build up but lower ones won’t stabilize; cost of capital can fall to zero and no one will borrow
  • This is John Maynard Keynes theory, who therefore recommended the government should borrow and spend to avoid this fate
  • There is not a shortage of borrowers today, corporate bond rates are around 6%, not 0%, implying there are people looking to borrow at positive rates of interest
  • Capital markets — markets for dreams, priced accordingly
  • Consumer prices rise comparably to increases in M1 in the US and M2 in Japan
  • Deflationists confuse money (in a bank account) with dreams (imputed asset prices in capital markets)
  • At the supermarket, prices are slowly rising in the US and slowly falling in Japan

Thorsten Polleit: Deflation Will Not Be Tolerated

Over at the Mises Blog, Frankfurt-based business professor Thorsten Polleit explains the deflationary forces active in the banking system following the 2008 crisis:

In “fighting” the credit crisis, the US Federal Reserve increased US banks’ (excess) reserves drastically as from late summer 2008. As banks did not use these funds (in full) to produce additional credit and fiat-money balances, however, the credit and money multipliers really collapsed.

The collapse of the multipliers conveys an important message: commercial banks are no longer willing or in a position to produce additional credit and fiat money in a way they did in the precrisis period.

This finding can be explained by three factors. First, banks’ equity capital has become scarce due to losses (such as, for instance, write-offs and creditor defaults) incurred in the crisis.

Second, banks are no longer willing to keep high credit risks on their balance sheets. And third, banks’ stock valuations have become fairly depressed, making raising additional equity a costly undertaking for the owners of the banks (in terms of the dilution effect).

The bold part in effect represents Mike Shedlock’s argument for why we will see sustained deflation due to economic forces. He insists that the only way mass inflation or hyperinflation could occur is if the political forces in society decide to create it.

Interestingly, Polleit agrees:

The political incentive structure, combined with the antideflation economic mindset, really pave the way for implementing a policy of counteracting any shrinking of the fiat-money supply with all instruments available.

And the shrinking of the fiat-money supply can be prevented, by all means. For in a fiat-money regime the central bank can increase the money supply at any one time in any amount deemed politically desirable.

Even in the case in which the commercial banking sector keeps refraining from lending to the private sector and government, the central bank can increase the money supply through various measures.

Polleit says mass inflation can be produced by a central bank policy of quantitative easing (direct monetization of existing and newly issued government debt) and that in fact this is the policy choice already being observed with regards to the actions of the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank.

Deflation will be incredibly painful for the political and financial classes. But mass inflation is not necessarily a policy that will delight them either. On each side lies disaster and it’s hard to make the case that any particular disaster is more preferential than the other from the perspective of the political and financial interests. And surely, the absolute size of the problem and the precariousness of the perch currently enjoyed seems to dictate that an attempt at finding an “easy middle” ground will fail this time around.

Gary North Says “NO!” To Hyperinflation

In case you missed his previous missive on the subject, entitled “Which Flation Will Get Us?“, Gary North came out today firmly against the idea of a hyperinflationary experience in the US or any other industrialized country with a privately owned central bank. Instead, North is predicting “mass inflation”, which he defines as 15-30% money supply growth per annum.

North bases his conclusion on four premises:

  1. The central banks control inflation, the central banks are owned by the banks, hyperinflation destroys banks who are borrowed short and lent long
  2. There is too much public awareness of the role the Fed plays in promoting inflation nowadays (primarily thanks to Ron Paul), so they will get blamed if something goes wrong
  3. People have become accustomed to the boom-bust cycle and the pattern of recessions following inflations, so the public will be more tolerant and forgiving of a recession and the “return to normalcy” than the destruction and reset of a hyperinflation
  4. Members of the Federal Reserve System participate in a lucrative employee pension system which primarily holds US stocks (53% of plan assets) and bonds (34% of plan assets), which will be made worthless by a hyperinflation, giving the employees of the Federal Reserve System a vested interest in preserving the system and averting hyperinflation

North calls hyperinflation a “policy choice”. He believes the only thing that could change this outcome would be if the Congress nationalized the Fed. Then, all bets are off.

It’s an interesting prediction. It makes a lot of sense. I am not sure how mass inflation will avoid some of the problematic items mentioned above though (particularly #2 and #4).

If North is right, this should be good for gold and not so good for people invested in stocks as consumer price increases will likely outpace increases in stock prices. Stock prices may even get hurt short-term because of increased commodity prices for many businesses.

UPDATE

Robert Wenzel of EconomicPolicyJournal.com fires back:

So don’t put me in the more unemployment camp or the mild inflation camp,or in the non-hyperinflation camp. Long term there are too many unknowns to be in any camp, especially when you have a machine known as the Fed that can shoot out billions trillions of dollars whenever it chooses. I just watch what the Fed is doing and adjust accordingly on a roughly six month basis. The constant adjustments are no way to live, but are necessary because of the fact that we do have a central bank, the Federal Reserve, that manipulates up and down the money supply. Right now, because of the new money accelerated growth that is occurring,  I anticipate that the climb in price inflation is going to escalate dramatically, where this spike in price inflation will stop, I have no idea. I just take it six months at a time.