by Alasdair Macleod, GoldMoney:
World-wide, markets are horribly distorted, which spells danger not only to investors, but to businesses and their employees as well, because it is impossible to allocate capital efficiently in this financial environment.
With markets everywhere disrupted by interventions from central banks, governments, and their sovereign wealth funds, economic progress is being badly hampered, and therefore so is the ability of anyone to earn the profits required to pay down the highs levels of debt we see today. Money that is invested in bonds and deposited in banks may already be on the way to money-heaven, without complacent investors and depositors realising it.
It should become clear in the coming weeks that price inflation in the dollar, and therefore the currencies that align with it, will exceed the Fed’s 2% target by a significant amount by the end of this year. This is because falling commodity prices last year, which subdued price inflation to under one per cent, will be replaced by rising commodity prices this year. That being the case, CPI inflation should pick up significantly in the coming months, already reflected in the most recent estimate of core price inflation in the US, which exceeded two per cent. Therefore, interest rates should rise far more than the small amount the market has already factored into current price levels.
Most analysts ignore the danger, because they are not convinced that there is the underlying demand to sustain higher commodity prices. But in their analysis, they miss the point. It is not commodity prices rising, so much as the purchasing power of the dollar falling. The likelihood of stagflationary conditions is becoming more obvious by the day, resulting in higher interest rates at a time of subdued economic activity.
A trend of rising interest rates, which will have to be considerably more aggressive than anything currently discounted in the markets, is bound to undermine asset values, starting with government bonds. Rising bond yields lead to falling equity markets as well, which together will reduce the banks’ willingness to lend. In this new stagnant environment, the most overvalued markets today will be the ones to suffer the greatest falls.
Therefore, prices of financial assets everywhere can be expected to weaken in the coming months to reflect this new reality. However, the Eurozone is likely to be the greatest victim of a change in interest rate direction. The litany of potential problems for the Eurozone makes Chidiock Titchborne’s Elegy, written on the eve of his execution, sound comparatively upbeat. Negative yields on government debt will have to be quickly reversed if the euro itself is to be prevented from sliding sharply lower against the dollar. Bankrupt Eurozone governments are surviving only because of the ECB’s money-printing, which will have to restricted, and government borrowing exposed to the mercy of global markets. Key Eurozone banks are undercapitalised compared with the risks they face from higher interest rates, so they will do well to survive without failing. There is also a growing undercurrent of political unrest throughout Europe, fuelled by persistent austerity and not helped by the refugee problem. Lastly, if the British electorate votes for Brexit, it will almost certainly be Chidiock’s grisly end for the European project.
We know the powers-that-be are very worried, because the IMF warned Germany to back off from forcing yet more austerity on Greece, which is due to make some €11bn in debt repayments in the coming months. The only way Greece can pay is for Greece’s creditors to extend the money as part of a “restructuring”, which then goes directly to the Troika, for back-distribution. It will be extend-and-pretend, yet again, with Greece seeing none of the money. Greece will be forced to promise some more spending cuts, and pay some more interest, so the fiction of Greek solvency can be kept alive for just a little longer.
One cannot be sure, but the IMF’s overriding concern may be the negative effect Germany’s tough line might have on the British electorate, ahead of the referendum on 23rd of June. That is the one outlier everyone seems to be frightened about, with President Obama, NATO chiefs, the IMF itself, and even the supposedly neutral Bank of England, promising dire consequences if the Brits are uncooperative enough to vote Leave.
All this places Germany under considerable pressure. After all, her banks, acting on behalf of the government and Germany’s populace, have parted with the money and cannot afford to write it off. Greece is bad enough, but Germany must be even more worried about the effect that a Greek compromise will set for Italy, which is a far larger problem.
Officially, the Italian government’s debt-to-GDP ratio stands at 130%, and since the public sector is 50% of GDP, government debt is 260% of the Italian tax base. It is also the nature of these things that these official numbers probably understate the true position.
If the Eurozone is the greatest risk to global financial and systemic stability, Italy looks like being the trigger at its core. The virtuous circle of Italian banks, pension funds and insurance companies, funding ever-increasing quantities of debt for the government, is failing. Pension funds and insurers cannot match their liabilities at current interest rates, and importantly, the banks are under water with non-performing loans to the tune of €360bn, about 18% of all their lending. It also represents 19.4% of GDP, or because the NPLs are all in the private sector, it is 39% of private sector GDP.
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