Tag Archives: financial markets

2016 is nothing like 2008, but there’s trouble ahead for the world economy

In my New Year post I did not write much about finance, but made some rather throwaway comments that the economy could take a turn for the worse in 2016.  Having just read Martin Wolf’s rather sanguine piece in the FT, I hadn’t quite understood that my views were in line with conventional wisdom in the financial markets – and this not at all a position I like to be in. But pessimism is in, and reflected by lower share prices worldwide. This has filtered through to left wing commentators, like Will Hutton, who gleefully want to show that “austerity” or “neoliberalism” is leading to a repeat of the 2008 crash (though Mr Hutton is too good a writer to use those particular totems). This is definitely company I don’t want to keep. Time to dig a bit deeper.

It helps to think back to what happened in the last turndown, the crash of 2008 – as this is foremost on people’s minds. At the start of 2008 the banking system was in deep trouble, although on the surface things were quite calm, if gently sinking. “Holed below the waterline” was the description that I used at the time – alas I was not publicly blogging until three years later, or my reputation might have been made. Trust was breaking down because the banks were dealing a lot with each other, or off-balance sheet offshoots, rather than with the public or businesses. And things were starting to go wrong, beginning with US sub-prime mortgages. The huge tangle of interbank transactions and derivatives meant that nobody knew how the losses would play out or where – so everybody was tainted. Things kept superficially calm until quite late in 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed, threatening a chain reaction that would have brought much of the world’s banking system to a screeching halt. Since the banking system is at the centre of everyday life in developed economies the result could have been catastrophic.

That catastrophe was largely avoided, but only because governments bailed banks out to keep the whole system afloat. Even then the damage to the non-banking economy was severe, and government finances, especially here in the UK, were ruined. What was so alarming about the whole episode was that a fairly routine downturn in the business cycle infected part of the US mortgage market, which then completely disproportionately went on threaten the whole system. Defenders of Britain’s Labour government still can’t believe it was anything to do with them – though in fact ten years of complacent economic management had left the country highly vulnerable to such a chain reaction.

Why are people worried now? Well one thing that helped the ameliorate the disaster in 2008 was that emerging markets, especially China, were less badly affected, and in China’s case, government stimulus helped keep things afloat. Now that side of things is unravelling. The Chinese economy is slowing, and in the process it is undermining world markets for commodities such as oil, which presents the threat of widespread damage in the developing world. The Chinese situation arises partly because the country has hit an awkward point in the evolution of its development, and partly because their stimulus package after 2008 was largely wasted and bad debts are threatening its banking system. Indeed the whole soundness of China’s growth strategy is coming into question (its second, state-directed phase , rather than Deng Xiaoping’s original liberalisation from 1978).

This is serious, and no mistake. The role China has played in the world economy in the last quarter century is hard to exaggerate. What is happening there is much bigger than the US subprime crisis that was at the heart of the 2008 debacle. But it doesn’t have the same destabilising features that caused such a fierce chain reaction – which were in plain view as 2008 started. China is not at the heart of a cat’s cradle of complex derivatives sitting in off-balance sheet funds, with almost every international bank taking part. And the huge power of the Chinese state, and the depth of its financial reserves, means that the country’s financial system will collapse slowly rather than suddenly. The western banking system is a much soberer thing than it was in 2008 too, even if many left wing commentators would have you believe that nothing has changed. For these reasons 2016 does not look like 2008. A meltdown, or near meltdown, does not look likely.

But there could be a slower moving form of trouble. Secular stagnation, the affliction of the world economy I referred to recently, is here to stay. Western economies will slow. Worse things may be in store in the developing world. Share prices may well fall badly – many markets have been overpriced for some time.

And in Britain? In my New Year post I suggested that 2016 might be the year the economy here started to turn sour. That comment wasn’t based on any deep thinking. Britain is unusually dependent on the international economy, as is evident from persistent trade and current account deficits, and a value for Sterling that is hard to justify based on its “real” economy. So, with things going awry in the world economy, Britain might be vulnerable. The Pound could come under pressure; foreign investors could desert London’s property market causing a chain reaction; or a downturn in the City’s finance sector could do the same thing. On the other hand, capital flight from the developing world could benefit London in particular, allowing the country to weather the storm. Some left wing commentators have been trying to stoke alarm about the level of personal debt – but that doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. Neither should we pay much heed to Labour’s economic adviser, David Blanchflower, who on the radio this morning suggested that Britain was less ready to deal with a crisis than in 2008, because interest rates were already rock bottom. That vastly inflates the effects of interest rate policy on crisis management. David Cameron’s and George Osborne’s luck could hold. I struggle to understand the alarmism on the political left – it will merely undermine its already shaky reputation for economic grasp.

it seems to me that 2016 will be the start of a good old-fashioned cyclical downturn for the world economy, with no more than the usual localised financial crises. Personally I think this will morph into a period of more prolonged secular stagnation that will put paid to economists’ lazy assumption that 1-2% rates of growth are a law of nature.

And that should pose some very challenging questions for the art of economics. But that’s a topic for another day. Meanwhile government bonds are a better bet than shares; cash is not a bad bet either; don’t mortgage up to your eyeballs in property; and interest rates aren’t going up.



Slow growth is not bad. If that means debt default, so be it. The world must change

Inflation expecationsThe state of the world economy is worrying economists. GDP growth is lacklustre in the developed world, which in turn poses problems for the developing world. That’s bad enough, but the economist’s nightmare of deflation – prices dropping rather than rising – now beckons around the world. And yet the prescriptions of most economists are shaped by a way of looking at the economy that belongs to the past. A paradigm shift is needed. Debt is at the heart of it, not GDP growth.

For a clear, conventional analysis of the issue read this week’s Economist.  Here’s a brief summary. The developed world economies are suffering from deficient demand. In other words, the economies could easily churn out more goods and services, using existing capital and labour, but don’t because people aren’t asking for the stuff or can’t pay for it. Another way of putting this is that the amount of investment (people spending money on building capital rather than the immediate consumption of goods and services) is less than the amount of saving (the amount by which people’s income exceeds the goods and services they consume). This leads to low growth rates. Now inflation is falling and deflation threatens. Deflation is bad, at least when low demand is its cause, because it makes debts more difficult to repay, and this gunges up the financial system, which makes matters worse.

The conventional answer to this problem, which also goes under the name of “secular stagnation”, is to reduce the prevailing rate of interest. This will encourage people to invest more since the returns to investment, compared to simply sitting on piles of money, would then be higher. But deflation, or low inflation, makes this impossible, because it raises the floor – the lowest real (after inflation) interest rate it is possible to charge. Answer: you raise the level of inflation. The method of doing this is to increase the money supply, since inflation is a monetary phenomenon. All sorts of ingenious ways are then dreamt up of how to do this. But this is all the product of a conventional way of thinking based on aggregate economic statistics, rather than what is really happening in developed societies.

There a number of challenges to make:

  1. Stagnation, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing in the developed world. Surely the current level of consumption of goods and services is sufficient, in aggregate, to secure perfectly decent wellbeing for everybody – and economic growth is not the most efficient way to securing improvement to that wellbeing. And as we judge the potentially catastrophic impact of man’s demands on the planet it is clear that a system based on ever increasing consumption cannot end well. We need to make better choices about what we consume, and distribute the consumption more evenly. But economists seem to worry about the speed of the train, rather than where it is going, or even whether it has arrived at where the passengers want it to go.
  2. Inflation in the modern, developed world does not work in the way the economic textbooks suggest. In particular the rate at which monetary wages rise has become detached from the rate of increase of consumer prices. Macro-economic policies, like monetary policy, aimed at increasing inflation may feed through to consumer prices without doing much for wages. This completely undermines the supposed benefits of a little bit of inflation.
  3. Things are no better in capital markets. Reducing interest rates seems to have little effect on levels of genuine, productive investment. Such investment is driven much more by zeitgeist than interest rates. Excess money either chases a relatively fixed pool of existing assets (land and buildings and shares), or it simply piles up in bank accounts. This makes conventional monetary policy very hard.

We can look beyond these challenges to recognise some issues that might be behind these challenges. Interestingly, these are, for the most part, not particularly controversial amongst modern economists – it is just that they seem unable to accept the implications:

  • Distribution of wealth and income matters more than aggregates. This is the complete opposite of  late-20th century conventional economic wisdom. The problem is that wealthy people have too much income to meat their needs, and that there are inadequate channels to invest the surplus productively (as opposed to bidding up property values, etc.). To try and balance out the deadening impact of this, the answer has been to get poorer people to consume more by piling up debt. That would be fine if those poorer people turned into rich people later in their lives – but that is not what is happening. This is unsustainable – and yet most conventional economic advice boils down to cranking this system around one more time.
  • Modern businesses require much less capital investment than previously. The modern business giants of Microsoft, Apple and Google never needed much debt and did not need much capital to get going. This is simply the way that technology has evolved. There remains demand for public infrastructure: railways, hospitals, power stations and so on, but the risks and returns, and their often monopolistic nature, makes this a difficult area for private businesses, as opposed to governments, to lead. This is one aspect of what economists refer to as “Baumol’s disease” – the paradox that the more productive the efficient areas of an economy become, the more the lower-productivity areas predominate in the economy as a whole.
  • Globalisation has changed economic dynamics profoundly. Amongst other things it has weakened the bargaining power of workers – one reason that prices and wages are becoming more detached from each other. Also,  less talked about and perhaps controversially, I believe that globalised finance means that developed world governments have less control over their currencies and monetary policies. This is one reason why it is more difficult to use monetary policy to manage inflation. It is also the reason that Europe’s currency union makes much more sense than conventional economists allow – but I digress.
  • Technology is changing the way the jobs market is working. Many middle-range jobs, in both manufacturing and services, are disappearing. This week Britain’s Lloyds Bank announced the loss of 9,000 such jobs in its branches and back office. This, and not the flow of immigrant labour, is the reason why the labour market has turned against so many.
  • And finally, I think that many consumers appreciate that additional consumption, and the income to support it, are not the answer to improved wellbeing. It is better to stop earning and pursue low-cost leisure activities. I notice this most in middle-aged middle-class types like me – who are retiring early. It is perfectly rational. And yet economists can’t seem to understand why reduced consumption and income might be a rational choice for an individual. There is a tendency to tell us to go out and spend more for the good of the economy. This is a perfectly liberal and rational downward pressure on national income – which surely should be encouraged for the sake of the planet.

Some of the consequences of these trends are straightforward. Redistribution of income and wealth are now at the heart of political and economic policy, rather something that can be ignored. A much greater proportion of economic investment must be government-led, which imposes a massive challenge for political management. Governments and central banks trying to tweak the inflation rate by a few percentage points is a fool’s errand. Also trying to revive the economy by getting the banks to lend more money to poorer people is unsustainable, even if the lending is collateralised on residential property. The appeal by many economists, such as the FT’s Martin Wolf, that developed country governments should borrow more to invest in infrastructure makes a lot of sense. Using monetary policy to help finance such investment makes sense too. Making sure this investment is directed sensibly is a bigger problem than most allow, though.

And the conventional economists are right to worry. A world of stagnant growth and low to negative inflation creates major problems. In particular many debts, in both private and public sector, will not be repayable. At some point there will be default, since the other options, inflation and growth, are off the table. Or to put it another way, much of the financial wealth that many people currently think is quite secure is anything but, in the longer term. This may a problem for many pension and insurance schemes, as well as wealthy individuals and corporations.

The consequences of this are quite profound. Our society must break its addiction to debt. The banks and the financial sector must shrink. “Leverage” should be a rude word in finance. If low growth is the result, or if a new financial crisis is hastened, then so be it. Let us learn to manage the consequences better. Borrowing to support genuine productive investment (not excluding the building of new houses where they are needed) is to be encouraged, including government borrowing to finance public infrastructure. But other borrowing must be discouraged. Taxation should increased, especially on the wealthy. If that causes a loss of productivity, then so be it – this should be compensated by more efficient financial flows from rich to poor. Political reform must run in parallel to ensure that public investment is conducted efficiently, rather than just disappearing into the pockets of the well-connected.

This is a daunting programme. Stagnating national income and deflation are not inevitable consequences – since these policies do address some of the causes of deficient demand. But we must not think that these statistics are the lodestars of public policy. We need a much more nuanced appreciation of the wellbeing of our planet and the people that live on its surface, and put it at the heart of economics.

Such sound eco


The Twitter launch tells you all you need to know about financial markets

Yesterday Twitter launched itself onto the financial markets by offering a small proportion of its share for sale. The company sold them for $26 each. By the close of the day they were being sold for $44; during the day they had been even higher. Last week The Economist carried out a sober assessment of what they thought the shares were worth. They thought that investors should not pay more than $18. So what is going on?

No new information was revealed last week that might raise the share valuations. Instead we get a lot candyfloss arguments about why investors should buy the shares: arguments that taste sweet but disappear as soon as you try to digest them. There is talk of growth potential and strategic value – but studious avoidance of how much these are already built into the price. For those of us brought up to believe that share values reflect the discounted value of future cash flows this sobering. But serious money is behind the price movements. Who is buying at these stupid prices?

The answer is that people are buying because they think they will increase in value in the short term, and that they can sell out at a profit before any trouble starts. They are not watching long term value; they are watching the other guy. This logic may make some sense for an individual investor (or perhaps more correctly “trader”), but collectively it is madness. It simply leads to asset price bubbles. And there is a lot of it about.

This leads to a massive source of instability at the heart of the world’s financial system. But what to do about it? The first thing to say is that the world’s central bankers should stop treating asset price bubbles as a minor aberration of the system whose damaging effects can be contained. They are the big deal: a more important source of instability than the consumer price inflation that they still tend to focus on. Such policies as quantitative easing should be assessed in that light.

You can’t and shouldn’t stop people speculating on financial assets with their own money. Ultimately this leads to more realistic prices. What fuels bubbles is when people speculate with other people’s money: “leverage” in the jargon. Banks and financial institutions should lend money for proper investment projects, and a modest amount for purchases of existing property for people to live in or use productively. They should not be lending to speculators. Since 2008 people are more aware of the dangers. Alas we have a long, long way to go.


Are the Muslims right about debt?

The Biblical invocation against usury, making loans for interest, has been discarded by the two older Abrahamic religions, the Jews and the Christians, though it persists in Islam. I used to think the prohibition was another obsolete idea, based on a misunderstanding of the usefulness of finance. But as time goes by, the more I come to see that the biblical fathers, or God if you prefer, were on to something. The dysfunctional nature of financial markets is one of the modern world’s most pressing problems.

This reflection comes on the fifth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which was the point at which the current financial crisis broke out into the open. This has lead to a flurry of newspaper comment. I was most drawn to an article by Gillian Tett in the FT, covering a talk given by Adair Turner, the former head of Britain’s financial regulator, the FSA. Unfortunately this behind the FT paywall, and I cannot find coverage anywhere else. Lord Turner produced a blog, but this only covers part of the subject matter, and not the most interesting bit reported by Ms Tett. Lord Turner says that we have not really come to grips with the failure of financial markets that became evident with the Lehman episode.

The most eye-catching thing about financial markets, which is the main point made in the blog, is the explosion of private sector debt. In 1960, according to Lord Turner, household debt in the UK was just 15% of total income; by 2008 it has risen to 200%. If you start to add up loans made by financial institutions to each other, then even that figure looks pretty tame (837% according to this rather good Economist School’s Brief on the subject – though this suggests a little confusion in Lord Turner’s numbers on household debt). But the statistic that hit me most forcibly was the claim that only 15% of the money that flows into financial products actually gets invested in proper wealth-creating projects.

Macroeconomists have long been dismissive of the significance of debt and financial markets in their imperious declarations about the state of national and global economies. These are just means to an end, and they all cancel out – one person’s debt is another’s asset; what matters is the real world of what is produced and consumed. Economists are reluctantly having to rethink this, though most would still rather divert the discussion into conventional subjects about austerity and money supply. Lord Turner’s 15% statistic, however, should translate the issue into one which even an old-fashioned macroeconomist can understand. There is a massive gap between what people set aside to save, and what is actually invested. Financial markets are meant to be the channel by which savings are turned into investments – but instead they are simply a smokescreen hiding a black hole, as it were.

Let’s pause for breath, and look at the problem from another angle. One of the critical points of economics, too often forgotten, is that money and financial assets have no intrinsic value. They are simply useful tools by which we can coordinate the process of producing work and consuming its output. You can think of it as being a bit like electricity. You cannot store it. If people want work now, and consume later at leisure, the simple act of putting aside money won’t do the trick. You have to persuade other people to be around to do the work for you when you want to do your consumption. The wider purpose behind financial products is to help us to do this, to balance our over-production now (i.e. saving) with over-consumption later, or vice versa. Theses activities depend on coordination with people who want to do the opposite, and that is what financial markets are meant to do. How? Through investment. Investment is work that is done now to produce things that can be consumed later. This allows production without consumption in money terms to be balanced by a real world equivalent. Maynard Keynes’s great breakthrough was understanding that the failure of the money and real worlds to match was the main cause of recessions.

So if 85% of savings are not actually invested, there is a problem. Where does the money go? There seem to be two main places. Firstly a lot of it consumed by intermediaries – those fat-cat salaries included – to no real purpose. Secondly a lot of it goes into inflating the prices of assets, real estate or financial assets, that exist already. In other words it is a colossal waste of time which simply serves to make a lucky few rich. And meanwhile huge volumes of debt are being created, much of which can never be repaid. Or, to put it another way, we have manufactured vast banks of financial assets which are not worth anything like what we think.

This spells trouble ahead, as this situation will only resolve itself through, one way or another, debt being forgiven and assets written down. The owners of those assets show no sign that they understand this; or if they do, they simply assume that it is somebody else that will pay. Meanwhile the best we can do is not to make things worse. Amongst other things that means continuing to make life miserable for the banks and the financial sector, and hope that, as they shrink, they concentrate on the more socially useful aspects of it work.

What those old Jewish and Christian fathers understood, and Islamic scholars still understand, is that debt creates moral problems by dehumanising the relationship between debtor and creditor. Financial assets are in fact human relationships between real people, which we are attempting to abdicate responsibility for. Alas though, it is unthinkable that our current economic system, with its manifold benefits, can be created or sustained without them. But we would all be better off if we understood the moral and personal implications, and consequent limitations, of financial assets and the markets through which we acquire them.



Does Britain need the City?

The British governing class has reacted furiously to the European Parliament’s attempt to limit bankers’ bonuses. Once again their central argument is that it is a threat the wholesale financial services businesses that are  based in the City of London, which they say is critical to the British economy as a whole. This is an argument that is regularly wheeled out by not just the establishment, but even by normally sensible commentators such as The Economist. The British public at large seems largely unmoved, however. This is a topic that could do with closer examination.

The City is an astonishingly successful business cluster, where I worked for 18 years up to 2005. The main controversy surrounds an very well-paid elite of traders, fund managers and investment bankers. These people, or the businesses they are part of, contribute disproportionately to national income – though exactly how much I am less clear about. Financial services consist of nearly 10% of the country’s GDP, but this includes a lot of businesses that are clearly not part of the City (retail bankers, estate agents, financial advisers, and so on), in spite of attempts by many commentators to conflate the two. But their high income reminds me of the joke about Bill Gates wandering into your local bar and the average income there soaring (this joke needs updating – Bill Gates’s income will have dropped alot in the last few years). If the City bankers leave, the country’s GDP may suffer, but that doesn’t been that everybody else is necessarily poorer.

But, the argument goes, these well-paid people spend their money here and create jobs. This argument is much weaker than it first appears. Rich people don’t spend all that much of their incomes on the sorts of things that create local jobs. A lot of their income is saved, with little of this saving going into productive investment in the UK economy. A more immediate problem is that a lot of their money is going into property, and other things where supply is limited (plumbers, school teachers at private schools, etc). All this does is bid up the price and put them out of reach of ordinary people. Still, if these businesses really are global, and having them on British soil contributes to the British trade balance, then some sort of net economic benefit is plausible.

A sounder argument can be made through taxes. City businesses and their employees pay a lot of tax under Britain’s progressive tax system (mostly income tax and national insurance on those bonuses – global businesses are very slippery on the matter of corporate taxes). How much? I don’t know: but it could amount to 1-2% of GDP (that’s guesswork working from the 10% of GDP for financial services income as a whole). There is an irony here. Very often we hear that our high taxes are damaging the City – but if they didn’t pay tax there would be little point in having it.

But behind this there is a deeper question. Are the services the City provides socially useful? In principle they should be. Our complex economy depends on finance to link those with surplus money with those who have productive investment projects to get off the ground. It’s what pays most people’s pensions. In principle fund managers, even those in hedge funds and private equity, should be helping this along. But a great deal of scepticism is in order. Too much energy is wasted in various intermediate devices – such as derivatives – whose value is difficult to see. Too much money is lost between one end of the process and the other. High profits, an economist will tell you, are a sign of economic inefficiency. It is the industry operators that are getting rich, not their clients. The aim of public policy should be to bear down on the industry to make it much less profitable, while maintaining its socially useful purpose.

But if it a global industry, can’t the British economy rake in the benefits of this inefficiency at the expense of the rest of the world? There are problems. First is that as global governments get to grips with the dysfunctional wholesale finance industry, it will gradually become less profitable, and the benefit reduces. The EU tussle on bonuses is but one part of this process, even if it is badly directed. The second problem is that the British taxpayer can become more embroiled in the industry than it should be. The bailout of British banks in 2009 surely wiped out many years of tax revenues derived from them. In any case income from financial services tends to be volatile, and so less useful – it disappears when you need it most. A further problem is that high City pay diverts the brightest local people away from more socially useful work.

So overall I find the case for special treatment for the City to be unpersuasive. What we actually want is for London to be a global hub for a smaller, less profitable and more functional financial services industry. The government is doing some quite sensible things: raising capital requirements, and separating investment from retail banking. This should limit the government’s exposure to bailouts, and reduce the level of finance (“leverage” in the jargon) available for trading operations, which believe is the critical issue. Other actions are more ambiguous: tougher regulation sounds fine, but it is in danger of harming decent retail banking businesses and reducing the level of competition as a by-product.

And as for the EU bonus regulations: I don’t think they will help much. They do not tackle the central issue, which is why banks are making so much money in the first place, and able to pay such large bonuses. But neither do I think they will do any real harm. Lower variable pay, and hence higher fixed pay, for banks may sound as if it increases risk, but it will force managers to ask more searching questions about what they are doing. And if more whiz-kids go to Singapore, so be it.



A tale of two City rogues

Too often people condemn City financiers without asking what it is that they do.  But we must try to distinguish the good from the bad.  The tale of two larger than life City financiers who have got into trouble brings this into focus rather neatly.

The first is Conservative donor and hedge fund manager Lewis Chester.  He, or rather the fund he manages, has been hit with a massive fine by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for abusive trading in mutual funds, the US equivalent of unit trusts and OEICs.  These collective funds provide opportunities for retail investors to take a share in a portfolio of investments without owning the shares individually, and are one of the best ways for ordinary investors (even very wealthy ones) to invest.  But they aren’t priced real-time, and that can leave them open to abuse.  In this case Mr Chester’s fund is supposed to have bought stakes late in the day, after prices had been fixed but when there was reason to think that they were under priced.    The fund was able to make a handy profit by selling the stake back later – but it came at the expense of the fund’s ordinary investors.

Hedge funds are investment funds given an unconventional or aggressive brief compared to the plodding ordinary funds which merely manage portfolios of shares and bonds.  Often the exploit pricing anomalies.  This isn’t very pretty, but usually it’s a way of transmitting information across financial markets and ensuring that everybody gets a fairer price.  On balance this is positive.  But when it comes to exploiting anomalies in mutual fund pricing there is no such information transmission.  It is simply theft, and there are rules against it. And even if rules aren’t actually broken, it is unethical, and anybody perpetrating it should be shunned by respectable society.

In this case Mr Chester still seems to be denying wrongdoing, dismissing his rather juicy emails as “banter” (gems like: Poor souls, working past cookie and milk time…for once in your lives, you can work like real men and do a proper day’s work. (You really are a bunch of women of the first order).).  But it’s gone through four years of judicial process and the fine has ended up at $100 million – though an appeal may be on its way.  I really hope that our own FSA is on his case, as if this is true he is hardly a fit and proper person to be conducting business here.

The second case is receiving much more attention, including two opinion pieces in todays FT.  It is Ian Hannam, a specialist in mining investments and friend of David Davis, the Conservative MP.  Like Mr Davis, and unlike Mr Chester, he is not a classic City smoothie who came up through the usual channels.  He got his boots dirty by travelling out to various dodgy parts of the world to take a closer look at the investments he was advising on, and talk tot he people that matter.  This is a striking contrast to so much of the City game of trawling through statistics and devising new computer programs.  He advised on investments and facilitated big deals.  Not pretty I’m sure, but you can see how this type of work can justify a big salary.  The net result is that more resources get mined to keep the world going in the style to which it has become accustomed.

Mr Hannam has been fined by the FSA £450,000 for flouting rules on insider information, for revealing too much about deals he was working on to clients.  I have no feel for the facts of this case, and Mr Davis has leapt to Mr Hannam’s defence.  What I do know is that the rules on insider information are tricky, and that there is a lot of grey in amongst the black and white.  If well connected insiders are getting all the best deals and making money out of the outsiders, this undermines confidence in markets.  But information is the lifeblood of markets, and restrict it, even amongst insiders, and markets will suffer.  It is already becoming more and more difficult for smaller companies to go public due largely to restrictions on information flow – and this will have a baleful influence on innovation.  Regardless of the rights and wrongs of Mr Hannam’s case the rules seem to be drawn too restrictively at the moment.

The last few decades have seen astonishing advances in the battle against world poverty.  A more globally integrated economy has been a key part of this, and global finance has been a key facilitator.  It has also been wildly abused, with too many fortunes being made to no socially useful end.  The public needs to take a closer interest in what goes on, to condemn the unethical (whatever side of the law they are on), but admire the people that genuinely make new connections and keep things moving – even if they cross the odd arbitrary line and get themselves into trouble.


Markets aren’t people – BBC’s Peston is taking anthropomorphism too far

Yesterday there were some rather worrying developments in the market for Euro area bonds, affecting even French and Dutch government stock.  This caught the journalists on BBC Radio 4 off guard, including the famed Robert Peston.  They quickly fell into the lazy habit of describing the markets as if they were thinking and breathing people, albeit in a plural form, like “Bond markets looked on the Italian government’s plans sceptically and yields rose over 7%”.  This formula is usually used to link the movements in market prices to some new information or news event, regardless of whether any such link is actually significant.  The idea of this mythical person or people breathing down the the necks of governments is clearly an attractive way to communicate a point.  The trouble this morning was that there was no such easy link to make…which led at least one commentator to go a bit apocalyptic, that “the markets” had lost faith in the Euro completely and were expecting it to break up.  This was more or less where Mr Peston ended up.

I have always hated this anthropomorphism of markets, which is by no means confined to journalists – market participants clearly enjoy the false sense of power it gives them.  But markets are not people, they are mechanism by which buy and sell orders (in this case for securities) are resolved by striking a mutually acceptable price, often by computers these days.  When nobody is buying or selling much, and market makers have to quote prices, then indeed human sentiment plays a major part in price movements.  The market makers are usually part of a small and social group where collective sentiment can develop and they don’t mind telling outsiders.  Journalists can find out what these sentiments are by talking to a couple of people.  In this case the anthropomorphism does bear some resemblance to reality.

But as soon as the real money enters the market, then all this sentiment is mere chatter. And it often takes a bit of time for the real reasons for market price movements to emerge.  People have to guess, and journalists usually go no further than to tap into the chatter.  What moves the money?  There are whole variety of things, many which economists would not recognise as rational – like a fund manager simply dumping shares to avoid an awkward situation with a client.  Or, sometimes it can be plain errors.  Then, of course, with so much automated trading it can simply be the unforeseen interaction of computer algorithms- as happened in the notorious “flash crash” in May 2010.

So what happened yesterday?  I don’t know, of course.   But the best explanation came to me via the Economist’s Buttonwood column, itself quoting one Michael Derks at a company called fxpro.  In essence the Euro zone recapitalision of banks is having some malign effects.  The idea was that banks should reserve more capital against their assets, so that they are better able to withstand losses.  Reasonable enough (and vital to bring incentives at banks back into the real world, in my view), but banks can comply by dumping assets instead of increasing capital.  That is what many banks are doing, and they are choosing relatively liquid government bonds to dump – including those of the French and Netherlands governments, as well as the usual suspects of Italy and Spain.  It is a battle to prevent bank ownership being diluted, not a considered opinion on the future of the Euro.

Mr Peston should have known better, and helped his listeners try to understand what was going on, instead simply plugging this lazy and narcissistic drivel  Shame on him!


When confidence is lost

A scary day.  Here in London people are appalled by the looting and burning, and angry and panicked.  Something analogous is going on in the world’s financial markets.  At times like this we realise how much of a modern society is built on trust and confidence in strangers.

On the streets we hope that our well-ordered and safe lives are built on more solid foundations: law and the agencies that enforce it.  But in fact it depends on almost everybody imposing voluntary boundaries on their behaviour.  Even a tiny minority can create havoc.  If it truly is a tiny minority then we can contain it, but at the cost of deadening society around us and reducing the level that different communities mix.  It’s impossible to know where we will end up, but our town centres may never recover and the divisions in our society may simply grow.

The financial markets are likewise built on trust.  We also like to think that it has more solid foundations, on decisions taken based on solid information, with effective regulation and security.  Alas no.  Decisions are taken in an instant, and often by computer algorithms with a limited digital input.  A lot has to be taken for granted, so when confidence diminishes panic is likely to follow.  One of the more irritating aspects of these markets is the way people jump to quick explanations as to why a market has moved in a particular direction.  This week there was a lot of talk about the downgrading of US debt.  But the causes are unknowable, the sum of many decisions based on partial information and individual circumstances.

The downgrading of US debt simply cannot be a rational explanation.  It was based on no new knowledge; it directly affects investors only at the margins.  US debt actually rose in price, while share markets tumbled.  Share prices had in fact mostly lost touch with reality anyway, so a sharp fall in value should hardly have been a surprise.  The ability of professional investors to accept clear nonsense as a basis for valuing shares is one of the remarkable features of modern finance.

The panic will subside.  Life must go on.  But the difficult times will continue, both in the economy and civic cohesion.