Sunday, 12 October 2008

The Run on the Global Financial System

The systematic liquidation of the financial system has truly gripped the worlds attention this week, as fear has spread to all facets of society. Global Stock markets have been crashing. As prices fall, margin calls are being made ensuring further deleveraging of positions. Comparisons with the Great Depression have become widespread in the mainstream media. World leaders and Central Banks have been meeting to try solve the issues, with co-ordinated interest rate cuts and monetary packages. Iceland, a whole country, is on the verge of collapse. Citizens everywhere have been withdrawing savings from banks, feeling safer holding cash themselves. Physical precious metal dealers are running out of gold and silver. The American mint has stopped issuing certain gold coins. All assets are in free fall with no place to go, apart from cash. Libor is rising, the Fed's balance sheet has exploded, talk of the CDS meltdown has begun as positions at Lehman, the recently collapsed investment bank, are unwound. The US debt clock in New York has run out of digits. The UK has part nationalised it's remaining banking system, after the full nationalisations of Bradford and Bingley and Northern Rock. If the general public didn't realise the severity of the situation before, they do now, after a week of paralysis and sheer terror caused by decades of high finance prominence, as savings and production were side lined for the new age. The public will pay dearly for the misallocation of capital, the loss of private savings and the end of cheap energy in the years to come. To illustrate what an unusual week it was, we saw Gordon Brown making banking jokes. It was a week of many surprises.

The years to come will be more of the same with many mini crisis to come. And in times of crisis, history has always shown there is great change. Politicians and governments always intervene in a panic stricken manner when all around them seems to be crashing and failing. Emergency laws are enacted for the 'good' of the nation. Normality of the past, has been replaced with the normality of the foreseeable future. This brings me to the point of what could possibly happen over the next decade. There are many interesting and viable possibilities that could occur and I will explain my thoughts on what actions could be taken, in order to try and stem the future crisis that will take place.

  • Confiscation of gold is more than plausible or the suspension of moving from paper assets into gold and silver. Precious metals are always seen as a safe haven when finance is in trouble. As the mistrust of paper based money becomes more prevalent after years of financial incompetence, people will start looking for tangible assets, ones outside the system. It would be an irrational decision and make no sense, but our leaders always seem to endorse those types of ideas.

  • I still believe in inflation in medium to long term. Prices may be falling currently but this is deleveraging not deflation. The governments and authorities are embarking on the great reflation, slashing interest rates, pumping future earnings into the system. Therefore I can see certain key commodities becoming very expensive and price controls at some point seem likely. Of course an idiotic policy, but they did it in the seventies.

  • Rationing is also a policy I can see been implemented at some point in the future. Food and energy rationing may become standard.

  • Further nationalisation of the system. The banks are gradually relying heavily on governments, but it won't stop in the finance sector. You will probably see airlines, car makers, other key industries handing out the begging bowl for government intervention. If we begin drinking vodka and producing fine cigars, then we know we really are in trouble.

  • Higher taxes sometime in the future are inevitable in my opinion. We are accumulating huge amounts of debt, more future promises to pay based on future earnings, with no current capital now. Western governments can't manage the books, and were running deficits well before the slowdown in the global economy. All of these future earnings may be severely impeded by our ageing populations and the end of cheap energy. I think Colin Campbell, a prominent proponent on the peaking of Oil, summarises it well in a speech he gave to Parliament in 2004 about the coming oil depletion, where only 3 MEPs bothered turning up.

    "The perception of looming decline may be worse than the decline itself. There will be panic. The market over-reacts to even small imbalances. Prices are set to soar in the absense of spare capacity until demand is cut by recessions. We will enter a volatile epoch of price shocks and recessions in increasingly vicious circles. A stock market crash is inevitable."

    And this from a geologist, someone not specialised in the details of economics and finance.

  • Further government borrowing will have further consequences on how much money our governments can keep borrowing, and if they can find a buyer. As Robert Preston, a mainstream journalist states:

    "Possibly the biggest risk for the US is that in bailing out the finances of the private sector, Paulson would dent international investors' confidence in the American government's balance sheet - which could ultimately undermine the dollar, push up inflation even more and raise the cost of servicing debt for the US authorities."

    What happens if the Saudis, Japanese and Chinese don't want to keep lending money to the West? We have little capital in our own societies. The prices of government bonds will go up, as investors suddenly realise certain institutions have no intent on making good on their promises as the currency devalues further.

  • Interest rate cuts have been used progressively over the past year. The trend will continue. They will fight the inflationary boom, that has just occurred, with more inflationist policies during the bust. Don't expect to be living on easy street though. Debt is far too high and the last thing banks are thinking about are more risky loans, just as defaults are rising and capital is being destroyed at a rapid rate.

  • I heard recently that bonuses in the city this year are due to decline 60-70% this year. As I have said in a previous post, finance will be in big decline for years to come. The age of excessive rewards are over, and in my opinion finance will become a middle earning job, with places like New York and London, that were heavily reliant on high finance to be in a state of terminal decline. For how long who knows. We may have seen a top, for the rest of our life times.

  • It may be all hands to the pump, co-ordinated action, on the current events, but this may turn as time goes on. Protectionist policies and the hoarding of certain assets will become more and more common between countries.

  • Regarding the above, if the flight of investors from certain countries does occur then governments may freeze assets to try and keep them within their borders, enacting emergency laws.

  • Wars regarding resources are bound to become more prominent. We have already had the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, which was the establishment of a middle east police station for the West. With more shortages to come, these areas will be of critical importance to many economies, with countries organising themselves into coalitions. China has already been in agreements with Venezuela regarding Oil supplies to name one of many relationships that are being formed. Water will become more important, with the potential for conflict between Israel and Palestine, Pakistan and India to name a couple. The Twentieth Century was the most bloody Century in human history, with the second half involving more deaths. I expect the first half of the twenty first century to continue this trend and be even more bloody, although I do hope I'm wrong on this point.
I suspect there will be a rally in the markets next week. The governments should be able to calm investors fears in the short term. More runs and panics will happen over the following years. With these events will come great changes. We are all in uncharted waters. Governments have the buckets at hand, but will it be enough to save the sinking ship? Or is the ship destined to sink as the damage done so far, is irreversible?

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