It's deliciously ironic that emerging market (EM) problems have flared so soon after the meeting of the rich and powerful in Davos. According to the central bankers at Davos, the financial crisis is behind us and brighter days lay ahead. According to these bankers, the EM issues, which have since arisen, are confined to a handful of developing countries and they won't impact the West.
If only it were so. What the eruptions of the past week really show is that the system based on easy money created by these bankers remains deeply flawed and these flaws have been exposed by moves to tighten liquidity in the U.S. and China. The system broke down in 2008, and again in Europe in 2011 and now in EM in 2013-2014.
The market reaction to the latest events has been abrupt and violent, particularly in the currency world. In my experience, markets generally cope well when there is one crisis. If the current issue was isolated to Turkey, markets outside of this country would probably shrug their shoulders and move on. But when there are multiple spot fires like in the last week, markets don't cope as well.
What are investors supposed to do now? Well, going into this year, Asia Confidential suggested (here, here and here) being cautious on stocks given increasing deflationary risks from U.S. tapering and a China slowdown. And to go long government bonds in developed markets (the U.S.) given these risks and junior gold miners due to the extraordinarily cheap valuations on offer. These recommendations have performed well year-to-date and should continue to out-perform for the remainder of 2014.
Simple explanations for the crisis
Much ink has been spilled (or keyboards worn, in this day and age) trying to make sense of the past week's event. China's economic slowdown has copped much of the blame, as has QE tapering. And idiosyncratic issues in Turkey and Argentina have received their fair share of attention.
There have also been more sophisticated explanations such as this one from Kit Juckes at Societe Generale:
"There has been a shift in the balance of growth as Chinese demand for raw material wanes, and as higher wages and strong currencies make many EM economies less competitive. Meanwhile, the Fed policy cycle IS turning, and 4 years of capital being pushed out in a quest for less derisory yields, are ending. This isn't a repeat of the 1990s Asian crises, because domestic conditions are completely different but it is a turn in the global market cycle. We need to transition from a world where investment is pushed out of the US/Europe/Japan to one where it is pulled in by attractive prospects. When that happens, flows will be differentiated much more from one country (EM or otherwise) to another. But for now, we're just waiting for global capital flows to calm down."
Now I have a large issue with the purported attractive prospects of the U.S., Europe and Japan, but let's put that aside. The bigger issue is that the explanation here appears to be addressing the symptoms of the crisis (global capital flows) rather than the disease (excess credit and an unstable global economic system).
A more nuanced view
Let me elaborate on this. In a previous post, I echoed the thoughts of India's new central bank chief in suggesting that there were four main causes for the 2008 financial crisis:
- Rising inequality and the push for housing credit in the U.S. Growing income inequality in America, exacerbated by technology replacing low-wage jobs and an inadequate education system, which failed to re-skill people, led to politicians allowing easier credit conditions to boost asset prices and make people feel wealthier. That resulted in the subprime and housing crisis.
- Export-led growth and dependency of several countries including China, Japan and Germany. The debt-fueled consumption in the U.S. would have been inflationary were it not for these countries not meeting the consumption needs of Americans. In other words, they aided and abetted the consumption binge in the U.S.
- A clash of cultures between developed and developing countries. This relates back to 1997 when the Asian crisis forced countries in the region to go from being net importers to substantial net exporters, thereby creating the conditions for a global glut in goods.
- U.S. central bank policy pandering to political considerations by focusing on jobs and inflation at any cost. The bank acted in accordance with the wishes of politicians by keeping interest rates too low for too long. They did this to maintain high employment, one of the bank's two central mandates.
It's important to note that none of these issues have been resolved. In fact, many of them have worsened. And any hint of adjustments to one or more of these problems results in further crises (like Europe in 2011 and in EM mid-last year and today). This isn't to excuse the governance issues in the likes of Argentina and Turkey. But it is to suggest that they are merely symptoms of a deeper malaise.
Deflation is winning battle over inflation
If these adjustments were to happen in full, it would result in plunging global asset prices as excessive debt loads are unwound. De-leveraging, in economic terms. This deflationary action is anathema to the world's central bankers as deflation is enemy number one. Hence, they'll do "whatever it takes" to produce inflation. And if that means flushing currencies down the urinal, so be it. The battle between inflation and deflation is ongoing, though the latter has the upper hand right now.
The weapons of choice for central bankers to fight off deflation are QE and zero interest rates. Central bankers tell us that these policies are necessary for economies to heal. I'd suggest this is baloney and they're exacerbating the aforementioned problems. To see why, it's important to understand that interest rates are the central price signal off which all assets are priced. If central banks keep rates artificially low, it distorts these asset prices. And if you keep rates low for long enough, it distorts prices to such an extent that it's impossible to know what the real value of certain assets are.
Another issue is that by keeping rates low, businesses, which should go bankrupt stay alive. That's why government bail-outs of almost any private company are a bad idea. Keeping zombie businesses alive means economies become less competitive over time. Witness Japan since 1990.
These are but a few of the unintended consequences of the current policies.
There are three possible endgames to the current situation:
There's a global deflationary shock where all asset prices fall and fall hard. A la 2008. In this instance, central banks would go in all guns blazing with more money printing on an even grander scale. This would risk inflation-- if not hyperinflation-- as faith in currencies is diminished, if not lost.
You have a gradual global recovery and inflation stays tame enough for a smooth exit from current policies.
There's a recovery but central banks are slow to raise rates and inflation gallops, which forces tightening and a subsequent economic slowdown.
My bet remains on the first scenario given intensifying deflationary forces from a China economic slowdown and Japan currency debasement (which aids exporters in being more price competitive).
If I'm right, there may be deflation followed by extreme inflation (or one quickly followed by the other). That makes investing a tough game. Under both of those scenarios, stocks and bonds would under-perform in a big way (my current call to own developed market government bonds is a 6-12 month one, not long term). That's why cash (which would out-perform in deflation), gold (which would prosper under extreme inflation) and select property and other tangible assets such as agriculture (which may out-perform under extreme inflation on a relative rather than absolute basis) should be part of any diverse investment portfolio.