This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
March 25, 2009
The Who’s Who of finance descended upon Washington, D.C. Monday for 24 hours of policy analysis, complete with presentations from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Kevin Rudd
Dr. Sherry Cooper (Prime Minister of Australia), Meredith Whitney (the bank analyst who first called the Executive Vice President, demise of Citigroup), Professor Robert Shiller, Larry Summers (Assistant to the President for Chief Economist Economic policy), Nobel Laureate Myron Scholes, CEO of TIAA-CREF and former Fed
1-800-613-0205 Governor Roger Ferguson, and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, among many others. Assembled were senior leaders in investment banking, commercial banking, hedge funds, pension funds, derivatives trading, market exchanges and so on. The Wall Street Journal, sponsor of the by-invitation-only forum, is covering the formal proceedings of the meetings so I will share some of the informal discussions. Having the opportunity to just chat with George Soros or Nassim Taleb (of Black Swan fame) as well as with my friend and former boss, Paul Volcker was fascinating. The cocktail and table chatter confirmed what many of us are thinking, that no one really knows how and when the crisis will end, but many are now looking over the valley to the economic and financial risks in the recovery period. My overall impression is just how concerned many leaders are about the prospects of forthcoming inflation and a plunge in the dollar. Volcker commented that his hardwon battle against inflation is at risk if the current Fed is willing to accept inflation rates that “best foster economic growth and price stability in the longer term”. This is a quote from the March 18 FOMC press release, taken out of context, that the former Fed Chairman fears might indicate that the current FOMC is less committed to inflation control than he feels they should be. The fear is that the Fed would tolerate some inflation to get the economy going and the debt repaid. To be sure, the Fed is flooding the system with liquidity; M2 has been growing at a 15% annual rate in the past three months, and once the velocity of money picks up, the rebound in economic activity (sooner or later) will lead to inflation. This worry presumes that the Fed will not or can not reverse the growth in money in sufficient time to preclude this from happening. Chairman Bernanke, on the other hand, points out that many of the measures he is currently taking to boost the flow of credit are short-term in nature and that the Fed can drain reserves when necessary. As well, the Treasury and the Fed believe they can sterilize their actions (use open-market operations to counteract the effects of loans to financial institutions or capital injections on the country’s monetary base). Some have even suggested that the Fed could issue its own bonds to drain liquidity when necessary.
The counter argument is that the Fed will err on the side of easing (for too long) for macroeconomic reasons, and that with the budget deficit rising explosively, running the printing presses and allowing a “bit of inflation” makes it easier to repay the debt. Many point out that it is a natural tendency of over-spending governments to shy away from sufficiently tight monetary policy to avert or reduce inflation as we saw in the ‘60s and ‘70s. This is why Volcker is so concerned that if we let the inflation genie out of the bottle, the degree of tightness required to reverse the process could well be political untenable. It was Volcker who took the political heat in 1979 through 1982 for driving the economy into recession to break the back of inflation. (Remember 15% Treasury bills?) The issue of the dollar is very troubling and is highlighted by China and Russia raising the prospects of reduced Treasury buying and substitute reserve currencies. Volcker went as far as to say that we are in a dollar crisis, as well as a credit crisis, banking crisis, economic crisis, and so on. (However, he also suggested that other currencies are in crisis as well.) There is a crisis of confidence, and the shocking development that the financial system is government dependent. The U.S. dollar is falling, undoubtedly reflecting, at least in part, the excessive spending and borrowing of the government. The feared inability of the U.S. to finance the debt without much higher interest rates is underlined by today’s weak five-year Treasury note auction, with a lack of foreign investors coming to the table. This came after a sale of U.K. government debt Thursday failed. It was the first failed auction of conventional U.K. government bonds since 1995. If the Treasury continues to have difficulty funding the deficit, rates will rise returns will fall; even quantitative easing by the Fed cannot fully offset reduced foreign demand. Clearly, no one forces China to buy Treasuries, they do so to keep a lid on their own currency. If they remain unwilling to revalue the renminbi, then they are forced to buy U.S.dollar assets. Those purchases could shift more towards real assets, equities or other dollar-denominated investments. No wonder the Chinese would like to see their currency pegged to SDRs or another synthetic currency, reducing their need to buy dollars, presuming the hegemony of the dollar is declining. The Treasury and the Fed are well aware of these risks. Tim Geithner asserts his belief that the dollar will remain the global reserve currency. Judging from these concerns, many of the financial participants seem to take economic recovery for granted even though they have their doubts about the current bank bailout programs. I was surprised by an informal vote that showed that most participants (by far) believe the Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP) to buy legacy assets from troubled banks will not work as currently devised because banks won’t sell enough of these toxic assets at prices that private purchasers would offer; these prices, presumably below current marks, would lead to further write-downs, which require banks to go into the TARP
for more capital. Some suggested the amortization of the loss or some other capital relief for banks. Another issue, the cleavage of Wall Street and Main Street and the resulting rush to judgment by the House to tax bonuses is a concern. Lynch-mob populism is dangerous. Larry Summers suggested that the U.S. middle class feels squeezed. They are losing their jobs, their homes and their wealth and they are angry. In the past, they have directed their anger downward, resenting that welfare and social assistance programs were available for the poor but not for them. Ronald Reagan tapped into this sentiment in 1980. Some of that still exists manifested in the immigration debate. But now, the middle class is also directing its anger upward, hence the executive compensation furor. There will be a continuing firestorm towards Wall Street (in its broadest sense) and towards the business elite in general. (Just last night the home of the CEO of RBS was vandalized.) President Obama successfully tapped into that sentiment in his campaign. Seeing the danger of the mob, the President now is quieting his rhetoric. The Senate will provide the sober second look. House bills often die in the Senate and the recent House bill on an executive compensation claw back of 90% will likely die a quiet death. One Goldman Sachs executive at the conference quipped that being paid in stock was claw back enough. There is no returning to the norm of the past 30 years. While the goal is the return to fully functioning private credit markets, we are never going back to the credit and spending excesses of ‘03 and ‘04. The global imbalances created unsustainable U.S. overspending and
undersaving, financed in large measure by China and the petro-countries of the Middle East. America is now painfully deleveraging, which portends slower average growth and lower rates of return in the future. Ultimately, the 30%-to-40% household savings rates in China will wind down creating a more buoyant domestic buying market there. Meanwhile, in the U.S. banks must return to banking the old-fashioned way: knowing their customer, strengthening their underwriting standards and limiting leverage. More lending will be financed by deposits and fewer loans will be securitized. Nonbank financial institutions will come under more scrutiny and there will be greater price and volume transparency and capital and collateral requirements on credit default swaps and other derivative products. Financial regulatory oversight will be consolidated and reformed. Consideration will be given to reducing the procyclicality of capital requirements. It looks like the Fed will be tapped as the Systemic Risk Regulator, although what exactly that means is uncertain. Paul Volcker believes there should be a commercial-bank centred approach to regulation and supervision. Commercial banks have a fiduciary responsibility to serve the public, business and government. Their deposits are guaranteed. The rest of the financial system falls into the category of capital market institutions, which don’t need as
tight regulatory oversight because there is no presumption that the government protects them or their investors. Having said that, though, the nonbank FIs should be monitored requiring reporting and transparency rather than regulation.
The information, opinions, estimates, projections and other materials contained herein are provided as of the date hereof and are subject to change without notice. Some of the information, opinions, estimates, projections and other materials contained herein have been obtained from numerous sources and Bank of Montreal (“BMO”) and its affiliates make every effort to ensure that the contents thereof have been compiled or derived from sources believed to be reliable and to contain information and opinions which are accurate and complete. However, neither BMO nor its affiliates have independently verified or make any representation or warranty, express or implied, in respect thereof, take no responsibility for any errors and omissions which may be contained herein or accept any liability whatsoever for any loss arising from any use of or reliance on the information, opinions, estimates, projections and other materials contained herein whether relied upon by the recipient or user or any other third party (including, without limitation, any customer of the recipient or user). Information may be available to BMO and/or its affiliates that is not reflected herein. The information, opinions, estimates, projections and other materials contained herein are not to be construed as an offer to sell, a solicitation for or an offer to buy, any products or services referenced herein (including, without limitation, any commodities, securities or other financial instruments), nor shall such information, opinions, estimates, projections and other materials be considered as investment advice or as a recommendation to enter into any transaction. Additional information is available by contacting BMO or its relevant affiliate directly. BMO and/or its affiliates may make a market or deal as principal in the products (including, without limitation, any commodities, securities or other financial instruments) referenced herein. BMO, its affiliates, and/or their respective shareholders, directors, officers and/or employees may from time to time have long or short positions in any such products (including, without limitation, commodities, securities or other financial instruments). BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc. and/or BMO Capital Markets Corp. , subsidiaries of BMO, may act as financial advisor and/or underwriter for certain of the corporations mentioned herein and may receive remuneration for same. “BMO Capital Markets” is a trade name used by the Bank of Montreal Investment Banking Group, which includes the wholesale/institutional arms of Bank of Montreal, BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc. , BMO Nesbitt Burns Ltée/Ltd. , BMO Capital Markets Corp. and Harris N. A. , and BMO Capital Markets Limited. TO U. S. RESIDENTS: BMO Capital Markets Corp. and/or BMO Nesbitt Burns Securities Ltd. , affiliates of BMO NB, furnish this report to U. S. residents and accept responsibility for the contents herein, except to the extent that it refers to securities of Bank of Montreal. Any U. S. person wishing to effect transactions in any security discussed herein should do so through BMO Capital Markets Corp. and/or BMO Nesbitt Burns Securities Ltd. TO U. K. RESIDENTS: The contents hereof are not directed at investors located in the U. K. , other than persons described in Part VI of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (Financial Promotion) Order 2001. ™ - “BMO (M-bar roundel symbol) Capital Markets” is a trade-mark of Bank of Montreal, used under licence. © Copyright Bank of Montreal.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.