Unintended consequences of central bank policies

Every government policy and especially monetary policy has a very definite goal. But along with the goal there are always many unintended consequences. Some of these are the result of asymmetries of information

US Federal Reserve chairman and other central bankers around the world have assured investors that injecting trillions of dollars into the global economy will have only positive effects. Despite many forecasts, inflation remains under control. Bernanke has stated that the purchases do not disrupt market functioning and that there will not be any difficulty in unwinding the massive positions. Of course, as the just released transcripts of the Federal Reserve meetings in August 2007 show, they did not see much risk of recession and forecast only a modest slowdown in growth. In short, they got it badly wrong.


Every government policy and especially monetary policy has a very definite goal. But along with the goal there are always many unintended consequences. Some of these are the result of asymmetries of information. The truth, such as the real size and exposure of the shadow banking system in 2007, only becomes clear after the crash. There are unintended consequences that are known at the time. It is impossible to attempt to manipulate the markets on such a scale without them. Here are nine.


1. Emerging Market Bonds: With interest rates of developed countries and sovereign debt at all time lows, investors are searching the world for any investments that promise adequate yields. January saw an inflow of $2 billion, the second largest on record. While understandable, the demand for emerging market debt has ignored some of the obvious risks. While emerging markets in general have had good growth, it does not make them either transparent or well regulated. This is especially true of emerging market junk bonds. For example there has been particularly high demand for the junk bonds of Chinese developers despite their weak sales and heavy debts simply because of their high yields. Past defaults of Chinese bonds have returned less than 25% on the dollar in agreed exchanges. Bankruptcies in most of these countries really don’t exist for all practical purposes.


Read Gamble’s view on “Mistakes emerging market investors make”


2. Developed Market Junk: The quest for yield has resulted in a “dash for trash”. This has pushed junk bond yields below 6%, slightly more than 100 basis points above the average investment grade bonds’ ten year median of 4.7%. Over the past decade junk bonds have traded at an average of 8.2% and as high as 23% during the financial crisis. Meanwhile corporate defaults have risen to their highest levels since 2009.


3. US Municipal Bonds: Demand for the bonds of US municipalities increased sharply last year. The lowest rated bonds received the highest demand, because of their high yield. While yields were pushed to all-time lows, credit quality deteriorated. The rating agency Fitch also warned about the safety of these bonds. Fitch expects to downgrade dozens or even hundreds of municipalities in 2013. Their financial situation was made worse by low yields on their pension obligations which have now ballooned to $1.4 trillion for states and $217 billion for cities with populations over 500,000.


4. Currency Wars: The creation of easy money has forced currencies like the dollar down helping local exporters, but at the expense of competitors in other countries. It has also resulted in a flight to safer and stronger currencies like the Swiss franc. This has resulted in increased restrictions on international capital flows and the possibility of currency wars. Brazil has been complaining about this, but with the advent of Japan’s new policy of monetary stimulus, it has been joined by countries around the world from Russia to Columbia, Peru and even Costa Rica. To protect its currency the Swiss National Bank (SNB) has turned itself into the world’s largest hedge fund increasing its holdings of currencies, bonds, stocks and even gold to $541 billion almost the size of Switzerland’s GDP. With the euro at $1.33, the SNB is making a profit, but if the euro falls 10% it would wipe out the SNB’s entire capital.


Others also read Investing abroad? Consult the locals


5. Reform: No government really likes reform. Both capital and labour create and invest in distortions formed by a regulatory system that favours them. Changing an inefficient system meets enormous and well organized resistance. A major financial crisis is one of the few incentives large enough to force governments to reform labour laws, bankruptcy systems, foreclosure laws, licensing and regulatory environments and social entitlements. Delaying or avoiding these crises may appear to be the safest course, but they simply allow governments to avoid facing inevitable problems. The result is to prevent the real changes that would insure growth.


6. Bubbles: One of the main targets of the cheap money policy in Europe, the United States and China has been to stimulate the real estate market. This has been most successful in the US where it has finally encouraged buying. China, in contrast, may have simply exacerbated a bubble. But China is not alone. The money flowing out of China has resulted in a doubling of Hong Kong house prices and encouraged Singapore’s real estate to increase by 56% since 2009. The Chinese monetary stimulus has created demand for commodities in Australia and Canada along with real estate bubbles. House prices have increased 125% since 2000 in Canada and 150% in Australia. Brazil became the destination for much of the cheap money and its real estate prices increased by 140% between 2008 and 2011.


7. Zombies: Massive and lengthy manipulation of interest rates stymies the creative destruction of capitalism. Investors, management and labour loath bankruptcies. Politicians hate large ones. Keeping inefficient unprofitable companies afloat seems helpful, but it prevents reallocation of labour and capital to new and better businesses. It prevents economic growth and harms healthy competitors. It also infects banks. They are happy to roll over loans that will never be paid back to avoid hits to their balance sheets. But it prevents them from making new loans to profitable. Politicians encourage the financial sclerosis because it avoids bailouts.


 Read more on Zombie Companies in Zombie companies: Pushed by central banks all over the world


8. Corporate Profits: Low cost capital also distorts all corporate profits. The avalanche of corporate financing, at nominal rates, leverages capital and profits up, thus imitating growth. The leverage has divorced corporate profits from the economic cycle. It also lowers bank profits by flattening the yield curve. In the US the net interest margin has been reduced to 2.8% down from 4% ten years ago. This encourages banks to garner profits from riskier ventures like JP Morgan’s disastrous venture into credit derivatives by the London Whale.


9. Credibility and Moral Hazard: One of the most effective tools of central banks and government policy is crucial to their proper function. The president of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi has been able to lower yield on Italian and Spanish debt by threatening to buy it without actually carrying through. By indulging in massive intervention in markets utilizing unproven methods, central banks are not only indulging in a vast economic experiment on a global scale, they are threatening one of their most vital tools. As the 2007 transcripts illustrated, they have very limited abilities to predict the results which can and do go horribly wrong.


Perhaps the best statement about the consequences of cheap money was written by veteran fund manager Jeremy Grantham who wrote two years ago that “Adhering to a policy of low rates, employing quantitative easing, deliberately stimulating asset prices, ignoring the consequences of bubbles breaking, and displaying a complete refusal to learn from experience has left the Fed policy as a large net negative to the production of a healthy, stable economy with strong employment.” Sadly the Fed policy is now the global norm with ultimately similar effects.


To access more articles from William Gamble, please click here.


(William Gamble is president of Emerging Market Strategies. An international lawyer and economist, he developed his theories beginning with his first hand experience and business dealings in the Russia starting in 1993. Mr Gamble holds two graduate law degrees. He was educated at Institute D'Etudes Politique, Trinity College, University of Miami School of Law, and University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. He was a member of the bar in three states, over four different federal courts and has spoken four languages.)

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