A View from the Trenches, April 2nd, 2012: "Reflections from an Austrian observer"
Last week we had suggested that the strength of the Euro (by strength, we mean a Euro above $1,30) could be based on the fact that the liquidity lines extended by the European Central Bank were collateralized. As the sovereign risk of Spain,Italy and Portugal had deteriorated, so had the value of their sovereign debt diminished and, as this debt had been used as collateral by the banks of the Eurozone, these banks would be forced to sell assets and buy Euros to post on margin. It was simple and beautiful logic. However, we were wrong and the reason for that left us even more concerned. Someone better informed than us, who shall remain anonymous, wrote us the following (the highlighting is ours):
I just wanted to chime in on the issue of ECB (European Central Bank) margin calls. I completely agree that in theory the collateralized lending that now dominates can develop into a vicious cycle (as well as a virtuous one of course). However, in practice, a lot of the collateral that is pledged at the ECB is marked to model rather than marked to market. At least that’s what I am inferring from the ECB margin calls. The spikes that you saw relate to Greek collateral coming in and out of the ECB refi ops. Abstracting from those the margin calls themselves tend to be too small in my view to have an impact on the Euro…”
Having proved our axiom wrong (i.e. margin calls triggered by market volatility), our thesis is proved wrong. We had at the beginning of 2012 however warned that: “…in the short-term, the demand for Euros does not wane, because sovereign debt is denominated in that currency and the refinancing operations of the European Central Bank facilitate the purchase of that debt. This suggests to us that shorting the Euro will be a painful trade, with very high volatility…” (“Walking the fine line”, Feb 6th, 2012).
It is time now for us to write a few lines today about Canada and India. Over the past months, we have seen crude oil appreciate. Simultaneously, the Canadian dollar did not (the Canadian dollar is positively correlated with crude oil) and the data coming from activity in Canadahas been disappointing. What makes matters worse is that in light of this, the price of housing has remained strong and even slowly increasing. In discussions with those following this market we noticed that in general, investors tend to see the Canadian context with the same lens used to see that of the USand the UK: They see a bubble in the housing market that would eventually be harmful to the financial system, and which would end in systemic weakness for Canada. This is, after all, what occurred in the USand the UK(We remind readers that at “A View from the Trenches”, we have never seen the EU crisis based on anything else but an institutional problem, rather than a liquidity or solvency problem. Refer: http://sibileau.com/martin/2010/02/10/)
We see the Canadian context differently. We think that it is likely that the barbarians will use the back, rather than the front door. Because Canadians have on average tended to put significant down payments on their houses, only a fraction of the outstanding mortgages have required insurance from the Canadian Housing Mortgage Corp. That fraction can be (but is not necessarily) securitized. The rest remains warehoused by Canadian banks, which unlike US banks, have recourse on their borrowers (if these default on their homes). Our fear then is of a potential contagion from the government. Indeed, rather than expect contagion from the banking system to the government, inCanada, we expect contagion from the government to the banking system. If the fiscal situation deteriorated (led by Ontario), the guarantee of the Canadian Housing Mortgage Corp. and the implicit comfort based on the country’s sovereign AAA rating would immediately affect the banks.
Do we expect this deterioration to be triggered by an endogenous dynamic? No. We fear that Canada may be affected by a foreign development and we can think of many, from the Euro-zone,China, or theUS…which takes us to India.
India has and is embarked in an inflationary process and, like in any other inflationary process, the outstanding amount of money is the taxing base. Following the example set by the Mahatma Gandhi, Indians peacefully protest this taxation by leaving the taxing base, the rupee, in exchange of gold. This has angered the government there which has taken a few repressive measures. It has taxed gold (a tax currently under review), set import duties and even barred gold loan companies (that lend on gold as collateral) from lending against gold bars, coins and bullion. These companies can now only lend against gold jewellery, with a cap on the loan-to value asset ratio and maintaining a minimum Tier 1 capital of 12 per cent. Does anyone think that these measures will favour the development of capital markets in India? Does anyone actually believe that because the competition from the gold loan market falls, savings in rupees will grow and investors will accept the government’s strong hand and lend in rupees? This is another example of the idiocy of bureaucrats that is destroying capital markets across the globe. Not only will savings in rupees not grow, but the overall savings rate will tend to fall, because on the margin, if savings have nowhere to go…why save?
This destruction of capital markets, as we noted, is not only taking place in India. The same is carried away slowly, by breaking the price system, whose signals no longer seem to work. Compared to July 2011, we have more than a trillion of new Euros, we have had Operation Twist, the banks of England and Japan weaken their currencies, sovereign downgrades worldwide, Ben Bernanke announcing low rates until 2014 and yet, gold is below $1,700/oz, courtesy of the interventions (see: http://www.zerohedge.com/news/paul-mylchreest-presents-various-visual-case-studies-gold-price-manipulation) . Even worse, although gold is below $1,700/oz, it is obviously higher than a year ago…but the capitalization of the gold mining sector is lower.
Repression, repression, repression…Interest rates don’t reflect anything these days. If you ask us, we don’t even know what to call capital. The price of crude oil touched $110/bl and yet the capitalization of energy sector in Canada slipped. Only a few dare to short the Euro, in the face of the massive destruction of the financial system in the Euro-zone. How can this be possible?
People wonder and at the same time praise the fact that companies nowadays hoard record amounts of cash, as a sign of strength. We think this is actually a disgrace and it shows how central banks managed to distort the relative prices of the different components of the economy’s capital structure. These companies are not investing that cash but as we mentioned a month ago, they have started to return it via dividends or share buybacks.
The final outcome of these repressive policies can only be a reduction in the savings rate and investments, a fall in productivity, an increase in consumption, if the supply of money continues and the inevitable stagflation.
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