Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The "New" Liquidity


This is the age of the “New” liquidity.  This new liquidity is driven by two things: first, information technology; and second, by the free flow of capital throughout the world. 

Finance is nothing more than information.  A dollar bill can be exchanged for another dollar bill.  A demand deposit can be exchanged for dollars and is nothing more than 0s and 1s on some bank’s computer.  A bond provides you with a series of cash flows, which are nothing more than electronic blips, 0s and 1s.  Mortgage-backed securities are nothing more than different cash flows cut into streams that suit the needs of whoever buys them…0s and 1s.

Information can be “sliced and diced” any way that you want it and can be stored and transmitted instantaneously almost anywhere in the world.   This latter point is where the free flow of capital throughout the world enters the picture.

This free flow of capital throughout the world is where the “new” liquidity comes in.  Financial assets, in today’s world, are extremely liquid.

 That is, these assets are liquid…until they aren’t liquid!  They remain liquid until something changes, like the price of the real estate behind certain assets ceases to rise continuously. 

And, this is the new world that the Federal Reserve has to operate within. 

The financial innovation of the last fifty years has been truly exceptional.  Information technology has aided this advance.  There are derivative instruments everywhere.  International capital markets have meant that financial assets can be placed all over the world.  The finance industry has become a huge part of the global economy, both in terms of wealth produced and in terms of employment.  Even manufacturing firms like General Motors and General Electric have gotten into the game and in recent years their finance wings have produced a majority of their profits.

The volume of financial assets that have been produced in this environment has relied on the liquidity of international capital markets to facilitate and expand the flow of these assets into every corner of the world.  The ease of the flow has been truly remarkable.

But, it is the very ease of the flow that has created problems here and there.  The problems I am alluding to are called “bubbles.”  Because capital can flow so freely from market to market and this flow can take place almost immediately, capital can move rapidly from various segments of the capital markets into other segments as sentiment or information changes.  And, as long as the markets remain “liquid” the movements can continue until the situation is played out.

This is a different environment from the one that the current model of monetary policy is based upon.  That model, originally created through the Bretton Woods agreement in the 1940s, assumed that there would not be a free flow of capital internationally.  Thus, with a gold standard and fixed exchange rates, the economic policy of a government could be focused on maintaining high levels of employment, low levels of unemployment. 

Of course, the credit inflation of the 1960s destroyed the underlying assumptions of this international monetary agreement and this was institutionalized on August 15, 1971 as President Richard Nixon took the United States off the gold standard and floated the value of the dollar.

The subsequent period of credit inflation and the consequent explosion of financial innovation has taken us into another realm.  And, it is this new environment we are dealing with now.

Money can now flow almost anywhere at extremely rapid speeds.  Money can flow almost instantenously into different sectors of the financial market.  Thus a change in investor sentiment or the introduction of new information or a change in the stance of monetary policy can create “bubbles” in different sectors of the economy. 

We saw a growing occurrence of bubbles over the past 20 years.  We saw the dot,com bubble in the 1990s followed by its collapse in the early 2000s.  We saw the housing bubble in the early 2000s, followed by the collapse in the housing market in the latter part of the decade.  We seemed to have had stock market bubbles in both decades. 

Recently we seem to have had a bubble in international commodity markets due to the quantitative easing of the Federal Reserve system along with bubbles in certain emerging nation stock markets.  One can also make the argument that the recent behavior of the Treasury bond market represents a bubble.  How else can you explain the fact that the yield on Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS) has been negative.  Participants in the financial markets were not interested in TIPS for their yield but as a price play connected with the “rush to quality” in international financial markets.  (See Jeremy Siegal and Jeremy Schwartz, “The Bond Bubble and the Case for Stocks,” http://professional.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903639404576516862106441044.html?KEYWORDS=jeremy+siegel&mg=reno-wsj.)

Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan continues to claim that a bubble cannot be perceived before-the-fact, that is, before the bubble has burst.  Hence, the Federal Reserve could not fight off bubbles in financial (or commodity) markets because they could not be identified.  This seems to be the reigning philosophy of the current leadership at the Fed.   It is the old model of monetary policy.

Yet, the liquidity of international financial markets is a reality and the existence of bubbles is a fact of life.  I believe that these facts are being accepted by the people running our governments and central banks.   Yet, their thinking still has a ways to go and their model of how central banking should be conducted has not been completely formed. 

For one, these “leaders” seem to think that every problem they are facing is a liquidity problem.  I have addressed this earlier. (See http://seekingalpha.com/article/288610-the-debt-crisis-it-ain-t-over-until-it-s-over.) Thus, their solutions are systematically based on the maintenance of liquidity in international capital markets.

The fact that the market for an asset may be illiquid because it is related to cash flow problems, say as in real estate investment, and that no amount of liquidity will bring the value of the asset back to previous levels seems to escape these “leaders.”  That is, an asset is liquid, until it is no longer liquid.

Second, the model being used by these “leaders”, a model that places high economic growth to achieve low levels of unemployment, leads these “leaders” to adopt policies, like QE2, that are totally inappropriate for the current economic situation.  Providing liquidity in these cases may create further bubbles, as presented above, but may have little or no effect on economic growth or employment.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is a very creative person.  He has been improvising monetary policy for the last three years.  The old model does not seem to fit any more.  Yet, a new model has not been created.  But, any new monetary policy must be based on the reality of today, a reality dominated by instantaneous flows of money to almost any where in the world.   

Keynes knew that you could not focus a nation’s economic policy on its own employment situation when capital flowed freely throughout the world.  That is why he created his macroeconomic model.  His followers, especially the fundamentalists Keynesians, don’t seem to understand this reality.   It is time to move on.  It is time to accept the reality of the “New” liquidity.

1 comment:

Julian Tonti-Filippini said...

Right, and the problem with all this added liquidity is that while it's dead easy to add, it's not easy to withdraw.

First there's the Fed's angle, providing dollar (and eurodollar) liquidity by swapping assets onto its books. Fine if it was done as a REPO, but it wasn't. The Fed swapped at par, massively overpaying for garbage, much of which if now marked to market would have no value at all. To withdraw the added liquidity, the swap must be reversed, but who is dumb enough to pay?

If the Fed takes the loss and simply ignores it, then money has been printed. Otherwise, it has to ask for a bailout from Treasury. So the liquidity it provided so rapidly is stuck out there indefinitely in the hands of the very same idiots who failed to comprehend risk and got themselves into a tight spot in 07/08. Those hands, made liquid again, will do exactly what they did last time and before too long they'll have (once more) backed themselves into a corner, low on dollars and high on illiquid "assets" (bombs). Rinse and repeat.

Then there's the Treasury angle, providing liquidity (via bailouts), but instead of taking "assets" onto its books, it simply runs up more public debt. Great. Now there's even LESS of a chance to conduct a proper repo because unwinding liquidity means taking taxes, something the financial sector is good at avoiding.

So now we have a situation where the Fed/Treasury has flushed liquidity into the financial economy but it has no way to withdraw it from the financial economy. Instead, the real economy will be hit for the liquidity drain. The financial economy will inflate while the real economy deflates, ultimately leading to the financial economy buying up more of the real economy.

By focusing (wrongly) on liquidity, the Fed and Treasury are destroying the real economy. The focus must be on the recklessness and incompetence of liquid hands. Irresponsibility cannot be tolerated (or worse in this case: promoted).