James Montier’s latest touches on the age of financial repression and investing in an uncertain environment. I loved these comments from him regarding current Fed policy, but as always, the whole thing is a must read:
“Put another way, QE sets the short-term rate to zero, and then tries to persuade everyone to spend rather than save by driving down the rates of return on all other assets (by direct purchase and indirect effects) towards zero, until there is nothing left to hold savings in. Essentially, Bernanke’s first commandment to investors goes something like this: Go forth and speculate. I don’t care what you do as long as you do something irresponsible.
Not all of Bernanke’s predecessors would have necessarily shared his enthusiasm for recklessness. William McChesney Martin was the longest-serving Federal Reserve Governor of all time. He seriously considered training as a Presbyterian minister before deciding that his vocation lay elsewhere, a trait that earned him the beautifully oxymoronic moniker of “the happy puritan.” He is probably most famous for his observation that the central bank’s role was to “take away the punch bowl just when the party is getting started.” In contrast, Bernanke’s Fed is acting like teenage boys on prom night: spiking the punch, handing out free drinks, hoping to get lucky, and encouraging everyone to view the market through beer goggles.
So why is the Fed pursuing this policy? The answer, I think, is that the Fed is worried about the “initial condition” or starting point (if you prefer) of the economy, a position of over-indebtedness. When one starts from this position there are really only four ways out:
i. Growth is obviously the most “popular” but hardest route.
ii. Austerity is pretty much doomed to failure as it tends to lead to falling tax revenues, wider deficits, and public unrest.
iii. Abrogation runs the spectrum from default (entirely at the borrower’s discretion) to restructuring (a combination of borrower and lender) right out to the oft-forgotten forgiveness (entirely at the lender’s discretion).
iv. Inflation erodes the real value of the debt and transfers wealth from savers to borrowers. Inflating away debt can be delivered by two different routes: (a) sudden bursts of inflation, which catch participants off guard, or (b) financial repression.
Financial repression can be defined (somewhat loosely, admittedly) as a policy that results in consistent negative real interest rates. Keynes poetically called this the “euthanasia of the rentier.” The tools available to engineer this outcome are many and varied, ranging from explicit (or implicit) caps on interest rates to directed lending to the government by captive domestic audiences (think the postal saving system in Japan over the last two decades) to capital controls (favoured by emerging markets in days gone by).”
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