World-wide, markets are horribly distorted, which spells danger not only to investors, but also 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 high 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 percent, 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 percent. 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 Tichborne'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 be 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.
Within the private sector, NPLs are more prevalent in firms than in households. And that is the underlying problem: not only are the banks undercapitalised, but also the Italian industry is in dire straits as well. The Banca D'Italia's Financial Stability Report puts a brave gloss on these figures, telling us that the firms' financial situation is improving, when an objective independent analysis would probably be much more cautious.1
All financial prices in the eurozone are badly skewed, most obviously by the ECB, which will be increasing its monthly bond purchases from next month to as much as €80bn. So far, the price inflation environment has been benign, doubtless encouraging the ECB to think the inflationary consequences of monetary policy are nothing to worry about. But from the beginning of this year, things have been changing.
Because the recent pick-up in commodity prices will begin to show in the dollar's inflation statistics, markets will begin to smell the end of negative euro rates, in which case eurozone bond yields seem sure to rise steeply. Given their extreme overvaluations, price volatility should be considerably greater than that of the US Treasury market. Imagine, if instead of yielding 1.5%, Italian 10-year bond yields more accurately reflected Italy's finances, by moving to the 7-10% band.
This would result in write-downs of between 40% and 50% on these bonds. The effect on eurozone bank balance sheets would be obvious, with many banks in the PIGS2 needing to be rescued. Less obvious perhaps would be the effect on the ECB's own balance sheet, requiring it to be recapitalised by its shareholders. This can be easily engineered, but the political ramifications would be a complication at the worst possible moment, bearing in mind all EU non-eurozone central banks, such as the Bank of England, are also shareholders and would be part of the whip-round.
Assuming it survives the embarrassment of its own rescue, the ECB will eventually face a policy choice. It can continue to buy up all loose sovereign and corporate debt to stop yields rising, in which case the ECB will be signalling it has chosen to save the banks and member governments' finances in preference to the currency. Alternatively, it can try to save the currency by raising interest rates, giving a new and darker meaning to Mario Draghi's "whatever it takes". In this case, insolvent banks, businesses and the PIGS governments could go to the wall. The choice is somewhat black or white, because any compromise risks both a systemic failure and a collapse in the euro. And there is no guarantee that if the banks fail, the euro will survive anyway.
The ECB is likely to opt for supporting the banks and over-indebted governments, partly because that is the mandate it has set for itself, and partly because experience after the Lehman crisis showed it could expand money supply without destabilising price inflation. The danger, once it dawns on growing numbers of investors and bank depositors, is stagflation. In other words, rising goods prices, falling asset prices, and interest rates not being allowed to rise enough to break the cycle, all combining to further undermine the euro's purchasing power.
Financial and economic prospects for the eurozone have many similarities to the 1972-75 period in the UK, which this writer remembers vividly. Equity markets lost 70% between May 1972 and December 1974, cost of funding was reflected in a 15-year maturity UK Treasury bond with a 15.25% coupon, and monthly price inflation peaked at 27%. There was a banking crisis, with a number of property-lending banks failing, and sterling went through a bad time. The atmosphere became so gloomy, that there was even talk of insurrection.3
This time, the prospects facing the eurozone potentially could be worse. The obvious difference is the far higher levels of debt, which will never allow the ECB to run interest rates up sufficiently to kill price inflation. More likely, positive rates of only one or two percent would be enough to destabilise the eurozone's financial system.
Let us hope that these dangers are exaggerated, and the final outcome will not be systemically destabilising, not just for Europe, but globally as well. A wise man, faced with the unknown, believes nothing, expects the worst, and takes precautions.
1 Banca D'Italia Financial Stability Report, Number 2, November 2015, Chapter 2.2.
2 Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain.
3 See General Walter Walker's obituary for an entertaining read on this subject.