Is the Global Financial System Unstable?
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The good times seem to be rolling: stock valuations have defied gravity and interest rates have plummeted. The world is awash with liquidity. Financial markets seem to be in a sweet spot; not even a major pandemic could derail markets. Columnist Les Nemethy looks at what might be the downside risks.
While we should enjoy good financial markets while they last, we should also look around the corner at possible risk factors, particularly systemic risks. If a system is unstable, any number of triggers could cause the financial system to unravel, precipitating a recession or depression. This article summarizes five sources of systemic instability.
Global debt has increased at an accelerating rate to USD 277 trillion, some 364% of global GDP, according to axios.com, higher than any time since World War II. The quality of debt has diminished, with the percentage of total debt denominated as junk increasing from 33% to 36% during the past year alone, according to msn.com; during the pandemic, this trend is likely to continue.
High debt levels are inherently unstable, diminishing resiliency to absorb shocks and increasing likelihood of default in the case of interruption or diminution of revenues.
Stock Valuations at Historic Highs, Interest Rates at Historic Lows
Warren Buffet’s favorite indicator is the Market Capitalization to GDP ratio. Currently, the U.S. ratio is 72% over its historic average, higher than ever before, including before the 2008 crash, says currentmarketvaluation.com. Most other metrics, such as price/earnings ratios and CAPE ratios, are also frothy. Historic highs have typically been followed by crashes and multi-year periods where investor returns are low. Today, investors have reason be skittish, and may well opt to divest on signs of weakness and lock in gains.
There is a case that low interest rates may actually justify astronomic valuations. But what if interest rates start rising, say due to resurging inflation? Many governments and corporations would default, creating a wave of bankruptcies, triggering a recession or depression.
Central banks have been buying massive amounts of bonds, driving interest rates down. Hence, investors must invest in higher risk securities in order to achieve yield objectives. Lower interest rates encourage greater risk taking (higher debt levels, lower debt quality, etc.)
When the next crisis comes, to right the ship, far greater amounts of stimulus will be need than ever before. While stimulus will provide short-term relief, even the IMF admits “policymakers must weigh the pros of more stimulus today against the cons of higher financial stability risks in the future.”
The Fed owns an ever-larger share of treasuries. Other investors are becoming increasingly reluctant to invest in a treasury market so dominated by the Fed, constraining the government’s future policy options. Financing the deficit may become increasingly linked to printing money, potentially resulting in loss of confidence, weakening of the U.S. dollar, inflation, etc.
Given that the dollar is the global reserve currency, the United States must constantly furnish the global financial system with dollars, hence it must consistently run a trade deficit. No matter how many “deals” Trump tried to strike to reduce this, the U.S. deficit only grew further.
Economists have been writing for decades about the Triffin paradox, and the resulting instabilities in the global financial system. Forty or 50 years ago, when the States accounted for 40% of global GDP, 70% of world trade was in U.S. dollars, and the States was the world’s largest importer; then, America had the wherewithal to maintain the system.
Fast forward to today: the U.S. share of global GDP has diminished to 24%, only 37% of global payments are in dollars (with the euro catching up rapidly at 33%), according to globaltimes.cn. As U.S. dominance of the global economy diminishes, so too does the country’s ability to maintain global reserve currency status for the dollar, as investment strategist Lyn Alden argues in a December 6, 2020 article called “The Fraying of the US Global Currency Reserve System.”
The weakness of the dollar as a reserve currency is a global risk, because “treasuries are the biggest component of most countries’ foreign-exchange reserves,” Alden writes. Many countries are now attempting to diversify their reserves away from the U.S. dollar, which in turn risks accelerating the decline.
Warren Buffet has famously called derivatives “weapons of mass destruction.” During the 2008 crisis, according to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, “the existence of millions of derivatives contracts of all types between systemically important financial institutions – unseen and unknown in this unregulated market – added to uncertainty and escalated panic,” writes wallstreetonparade.com.
In 2016, the IMF concluded that Deutsche Bank’s links to other financial institutions, as related to derivatives, posed a greater risk to global financial stability than any other bank. In 2018, DB still had USD 43 tln of derivatives.
In a nutshell, there are many instabilities. Each of the five described above has the potential not only to degenerate into vicious circles, but also to fortify each other, creating a perfect storm.
According to Didier Sornette, an ETF Professor, the collapse is fundamentally due to the unstable position; the instantaneous cause of the crash is secondary. Unfortunately, after a crash, the debate tends to focus on why no one saw the trigger.
Les Nemethy is a former World Banker, CEO of Euro-Phoenix Financial Advisers Ltd. (www.europhoenix.com), a Central European corporate finance firm, author of Business Exit Planning (www.businessexitplanningbook.com) and a former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hungary.
This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of January 15, 2021.
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