Markets and Central Banks

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The financial world experienced its equivalent of a major earthquake this month when the Swiss National Bank (SNB), the central bank of Switzerland, made a dramatic and unexpected change in policy. In 2011, concerned by the rapid appreciation of the Swiss Franc and, thus, damage to Switzerland’s exporting industries and commercial banks, the SNB instigated a policy of maintaining a peg with the Euro at 1.20 Francs to the Euro. If ever the price of Euros declined against this mark then the SNB would obligate itself to sell Swiss Francs and accumulate Euros to maintain the parity. This policy therefore created a seemingly impenetrable price floor for the Euro against the Franc. Whenever the Euro declined to the 1.20 area traders could take a sure bet that they could sell Francs and use them to buy Euros (technically referred to as “shorting the Franc”), knowing that the SNB would take action to depreciate the value of the Franc and thus increase the value of the Euros that these traders now held. Indeed, that was precisely what was happening and what was expected on January 15th of this year when many traders had just opened long EUR/CHF positions as the currency pair was hovering around the 1.20 area. In recent months, however, the increasingly lax monetary position of the European Central Bank in order to ward off deflation and sluggish growth in the Eurozone – leading to a QE programme announced on January 22nd – led the SNB to maintain an increasingly expensive policy of depreciation of its own currency that risked fuelling bubbles and malinvestments within its borders. Clearly they were spooked by something as no one seemed to be prepared for the sudden announcement, on January 15th, that the SNB would, with immediate effect, abolish the peg against the Euro and the Franc would again be permitted to fluctuate freely. The market was suddenly awash with sell orders for the Euro and buy orders for the Franc that, within the space of a few minutes following the announcement, the Euro depreciated against the Swiss Franc from about 1.20 to around 0.75 – a dramatic drop of 37.5% – and eventually settling around the 1.00 mark. The movement happened so fast that any liquidity between these two points completely evaporated and anyone hoping for an entry or exit between them was pursuing a lost cause. Needless to say, anybody who owned the Euro against the Franc lost an awful lot of money, with some large institutions, such as Citibank, Barclays and Deutsche Bank, losing tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. Particularly hardest hit, however, was the retail foreign exchange market, which in recent years has seen considerable growth amidst relatively lax regulation. Several of these outlets went bust while the largest, FXCM, had to be bailed out by an investment bank with $300m. Retail traders to whom these institutions cater are those who trade “on margin”, in other words, they borrow money to fund their positions. Thus their own equity amounts to only a proportion of the total cost of any trade, often as small as 0.5%. Therefore, a small movement in favour of any particular trade can lead to large profits, while a small movement in the opposite direction threatens not only to wipe out the client’s capital but to leave them owing money to their broker if the trade continues to sink and is not closed out. If this is the consequence of a small adverse movement, imagine the effects of an extremely large move such as that seen on the 15th. The movement was so sudden that stop losses, the trader’s conventional protection against risk, were useless and FXCM was particularly hard hit, being left with $225m worth of client accounts with negative equity. Needless to say, of course, there were also big winners on the other side, particularly those who were either skilful or fortunate enough to own put options on the Franc against the Euro with a strike price close to the former peg.

Standing aside from this entire calamity, what should the Austro-libertarian make of the situation? Profits and losses are supposed to be the result of superior entrepreneurial judgment in directing scarce resources available to the ends most urgently desired by consumers. Those whose judgements are more accurate than anyone else’s will walk away with profits, those who whose are not will be lumbered with losses. In financial markets, this is manifest in, say, the purchase of a stock which demonstrates the willingness to invest capital in the underlying enterprise and that the enterprise is one which will meet the ends of consumers with its trade; or a speculation in, say, the futures market is an attempt at “price discovery” and to prevent the emergence of false prices that would cause resources to be wasted1. However, the overwhelming fact that was laid bare on January 15th is that entrepreneurial fortunes are not made and lost in the financial markets through correct foresight of the desires of consumers – they are made and lost based on the whim of central banks. People are no longer rewarded for best estimating the desires of consumers but for guessing the motivations of the financial lords and masters sitting on their thrones of paper money. The stock market is no longer a place to rationally allocate resources amongst industries but a place to make bets on monetary policy. Indeed most of the significant shifts in a given stock market are made on days when the relevant central bank makes an important announcement. Those who clap their hands with glee when parasitic “gamblers” burned their hands on the day of the SNB announcement and “got what they deserved” should ask the logically prior question of why the financial markets have become such a casino in the first place. For years, central banks have maintained artificially low interests supported by monetary expansion which have made it profitable to plough funds into assets such as stocks at extraordinarily low cost – buoyed up by the, not unreasonable, belief that central banks will act to correct any dips in asset prices. Indeed with interest rates so low, borrowing money to buy assets has become an almost costless affair. Why should anyone follow other, riskier entrepreneurial ventures when this one has almost no chance of failure? Indeed, the SNB’s own commitment to maintain the peg seemed to promise free profit to anyone wishing to buy Euros and sell Francs near the peg, knowing full well that the SNB would be doing the same and hence buoying the value of the Euro against the Franc. Given that central banks have been creating fortunes for years it should come as no surprise when they take them away again, albeit in one, spectacular blow.

There is, however, a glimmer of light that has emerged from the situation – that the reputation of central banks and their pronouncements may have received lasting damage. First, the fact that the SNB reiterated, in no uncertain terms, its policy to maintain the peg a mere month before it was removed indicates that what central banks say cannot be trusted or taken as gospel. Second, the fact that it did so abandon its policy reveals the fact that these institutions do not possess the omnipotence and invincibility that they have led us to believe. In the long run, central banks cannot outwit reality and the market cannot be fought. By accumulating depreciating Euro assets at the same time as appreciating Franc liabilities the SNB was driving itself towards bankruptcy with a ludicrously expensive policy. Perhaps, therefore, the sudden realisation that the emperor has no clothes will cause bankers, economists, investors and speculators to look at central banks with a more critical and sceptical eye. May be there will then be a chance that the fatality of the pursuits of the more important central banks, such as the US Federal Reserve, will achieve widespread realisation.

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1DuncanWhitmore, Speculation, duncanwhitmore.com

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Economic Myths #5 – Banking is Capitalist

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By both mainstream economists and the general public alike the cycle of “boom and bust” is believed to be a tendency inherent in any capitalist economy. The fact that the latest such cycle, resulting in the seemingly endless stagnation that we are enduring now, originated in the banking sector and that large banks and bankers ratcheted up huge earnings and bonuses only to cause disaster has implicated banking to represent the very worst aspects of capitalism, motivated by uncontrollable greed that ends in destruction.

Unfortunately this popular view of the mainstream could not be further from truth. In fact with its intimate ties to government and its special, legal privileges it is hard to imagine a less capitalistic industry than banking. Part of the deception – wilfully inflamed by politicians and their lackeys – is one that engulfs other industries subject to government meddling such as energy; that simply because the participants in the industry are private individuals or entities and are not officially part of the government means that the enterprise must be classified as part of the free market and saddled with all of the supposed flaws of that system. Very often however private companies and brands are simply the public facing part of what is essentially a government operation or a government controlled cartel. Britain’s railways, for example, are owned by Network Rail, a statutory corporation with no shareholders; the train operations are parcelled out into geographic monopoly franchises that are awarded to private bodies by the government. The network is, therefore, under the de facto control of the government. And yet when you are stranded for two hours on a crowded platform because of delays whose logo is it you see everywhere at the station? Whose name is embossed proudly along the side of the train that you’ve been waiting for and who – and, by extension, which economic system – gets all of the blame for the problems? This is just as true in the banking sector as it is in the railways. Banking is nothing more than a government run cartel operated in front of the public by private bodies.

The supporting pillar of this government cartel is the central bank. Although this body is not always government owned it possesses a key legal privilege which is to be the sole producer of the nation’s money supply. Since 1971 (but in practice much earlier) all of this money in the world has been paper money, irredeemable and unbacked by any precious metal or market-chosen commodity. This is a very hefty privilege indeed for who wouldn’t want to have the legal ability to just print the very thing that can be exchanged for valuable goods and services? The central bank can manipulate interest rates (the most important prices in the economy) and control the volume of money either by changing the reserve requirements of the commercial banks or by making open market purchases (usually of government bonds but since 2008 pretty much any asset) with freshly printed cash. At the very bedrock of the banking system, therefore, is an institution that is blessed not by the voluntary purchases and exchanges of individuals but rather by the aegis of government. This institution would not exist in a genuine, capitalist economy as its powers rely not upon free exchange but upon government enforcement. Money would not be a centralised, government issued ticket on worthless paper nor would anyone have monopoly control over its production. Rather, money would be a commodity such as gold or silver. No one would be able to simply wave a wand and make gold appear in the way that central banks can make paper money appear, nor could anyone simply do the equivalent of no productive work in order to purchase valuable assets. Rather they, like anyone else, would have to earn their money through productivity that serves consumers. The volume of money in the economy would be regulated not by the central bank’s fiat but by the demand for freshly mined gold from the ground. Interest rates would be set by the demand for and supply of loanable funds and not by the arbitrary decree of monetary policy.

The reason why private banks appear to be the epitome of greed is that they are the channel through which the central bank’s deeds flow. They are the recipients of new money from open-market operations and of new loan-issuing powers when reserve requirements are altered. Credit expansion under the business cycle therefore affects the banking industry first and it is this industry that demonstrates the largest paper gains – all of those huge profits and hefty bonuses – and, consequently, the most catastrophic losses when the inflation stops. And yet the only method of making the fraudulent and destabilising fractional reserve system work, at least for a time, is the monopoly issuance of paper money by a central authority, robbing people of the ability to redeem notes that are over-issued and allowing the banks to inflate continually in concert. Furthermore, under this system banks are endowed with a special legal privilege in that they do not have to time their assets in line with their liabilities. When the disaster of “borrowing short” to “invest long” finally unravels who is that steps in to save the day? Why, the cartel-managing central bank of course, in its role as a lender of “last resort”, permitting the private banks to privatise their gains and socialise their losses. Once this fact – recognised in the US as the infamous Greenspan put – is understood by the private banks it will serve only to inflame risky and reckless business ventures. After all, why bother with prudence when you know that someone else will mop up the mess? None of this would be possible in a genuine, capitalist economy where each bank would have to suffer its losses and take full responsibility for its risky ventures.

This short description indicates that banking is woefully far from being a capitalist industry. Rather it is an industry that is well and truly in bed with government, relying on government for its profits, for the sustainability of its operations and for the absorption of its losses. “Private” banks they may be but a part of the free market? Absolutely not!

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