For the Fed, where’s the worry?

Featured Image Credits: Dan Smith and “Dontworry” on Wikimedia Commons.

The past month or so, US equities have been zealously barreling towards past highs, buoyed by the most exceptional and exquisite of all financial drugs: forward guidance.

Mostly, however, the markets’ high originated far abroad in Europe; Portugal, to be precise. Mario Draghi’s dovish tone convinced investors of the ECB’s ability to use both the rates and quantitative easing mechanism to bolster growth. Given in the past decade or so that global developed-market rates tend to move synchronously with each other, the march upward of US equities wasn’t exactly surprising either.

Nothing in this saga after Draghi’s recent speech has come as all too unexpected, including Jerome Powell’s warnings on the global economic outlook. The proverbial sea of central bank governors is teeming with doves, eager to cut interest rates as soon as the slightest threat of a slowdown or (God forbid!) a recession rears its ugly head. It seems to make sense; who wants the music to stop?

Until you realise what the current US federal funds rate is.

2.5%.

One question springs up instantly from this: where’s the wiggle room? If things do go topsy turvy and then some, what can Powell do? You could say he could use quantitative easing. When you’re one of the biggest global players, though, and your best maneuver is a policy that’s efficacy is doubtful at best, you might indeed find yourself asking how you put yourself in that position.

Is it really worth exhausting your best shot on somewhat reduced growth from a large boom in the economic cycle? Yes, there are the fears of a trade war with China. Yes, concerns regarding Iran persist. And yes, we have no idea what Trump’s fellifluous self could conjure up at any moment. There are a lot of tailwind risks to the US and global economy right now, but my take is they don’t necessitate cutting interest rates by the expected 0.5%. Especially not when in the first quarter of 2019, the US grew at a more than healthy clip of 3.1% annualised.

We’re about a decade on from the Great Recession, a time where an investment banking behemoth collapsed, credit froze over and consumer confidence sunk faster than Rory Stewart’s hope of being Prime Minister. That (or at least something close to that) is when you suck the last drops of juice from the interest rate mechanism. In my opinion, a time where economic stimulus in the form of, for example, cuts in corporation tax have (perhaps unsustainably) bolstered growth is not a good time.

Recent dovishness has led the US two-year yield to drop to as low as 1.82%, and cuts in interest rate could potentially inflate further already huge equity valuations. A dollar of an American company’s earnings has gone from setting you back around $15 to setting you back $22 or $31, depending on the data which you use. When Netflix shares dropped significantly on the back of decreased US subscribers, it may have indeed been a sign that valuations are becoming increasingly optimistic (and perhaps superfluous). Not to preempt any sort of bubbles which may be occurring in equity and broader asset markets, but signs such as this don’t really point towards much else. As any five-year-old child will tell you, inflate too much and the bubble goes “pop!”. And when the bubble affects millions of people’s livelihoods and could pose a huge threat to pensions everywhere, you really don’t want to inflate too much.

While Powell brings about legitimate concerns regarding slowing global trade and inflation, I question the need for any substantive change in policy at the present moment. Growth was frequently demeaned as laggard in the years following the 2008 recession, and it seems when economic growth finally picked up meaningfully, he thought it would continue for far longer than it did. Moreso, forward guidance can backfire, in signalling to investors that there’s some sort of grave boogeyman ready to jolt the US economy any time soon. In fact, this is simply not the case. Powell should save his best for when we’re far nearer to the trough of an economic cycle, when growth is closer to 0% than 3%, and the US labour market isn’t adding nearly as many as 224,000 jobs in June. Otherwise, he might find himself out of ammo, just when he needs it the most.

 

Metro Bank and the challenges facing it

Featured image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Image author: Philafrenzy

As is often easy to forget, humanity never really progresses in a straight line. From unpredictable conflict to unexpected technological advancement, the road of history is far fuller with roundabouts and U-turns than we often feel in the modern day. That is why when the Financial Services Authority granted Metro Bank its license just over 9 years ago, some degree of apprehension would be appropriate regarding its future growth path. This would prove to be well-placed, as just a few months ago Metro was embroiled in an accounting scandal that rocked the firm to its very foundations.

The issue arose in Metro’s miscategorisation of some loans in its commercial loan portfolio. Many commercial property loans and loans to buy-to-letters were deemed as less risky than they actually were, when they should have been among the bank’s risk weighted assets. Around 10% of Metro’s loan book was affected. The significance of this cannot be understated; it implies that Metro had far lower capital ratios than initially thought, and so the firm was more prone to default risk. Even at the end of March, the company’s tier 1 capital ratio sat at 12.1%, only a tenth of a percentage point above the company’s self-imposed guidelines. The events triggered a 75% decrease in share price within a few months of the announcement of the miscategorisation. Metro’s share price currently sits at around £6.30 a share, having dropped to lows of £4.75.

The question, now, is what will become of the challenger bank, now that the dust of the cataclysm that befell them is somewhat settling on the horizon. Metro did indeed raise £375m in equity finance in the span of three hours to help them meet regulatory requirements, however to say the company has been unaffected would be a gross understatement. Deposits at the firm fell by 4% in the first quarter of 2019 to £15,095,000,000, and for a business in an industry that is so reliant on customer sentiment, that spells worrying news indeed. Although the raising of capital may assuage some of this fund outflow, it may take quite a while before the firm can recapture the confidence (and thus, the funds) of the public in the way in which it once did. Whether it is able to do this is soon to be seen, and if it does (as we can see from when its next quarterly results come out) we may be more confident of a turnaround.

Moreso, although a pioneering entrepreneur in his own right, Vernon Hill (the co-founder of Metro) does not exactly have a squeaky clean resumé. He has often been criticised for using Metro Bank funds to pay family members, and the recent fiasco will help convince no-one of his abilities to manage shareholder capital. Having already just recently survived a shareholder revolt, the 73-year-old is not the most popular man in any room. How he navigates this personal mini-crisis of investor confidence and whether he can convince existing shareholders that he is the man to lead the company into the future is a key issue to be wary of before investing in the firm. It should be noted that only 12% of shareholders opposed his re-election as chairman, indicating that this issue may not be as significant a factor to consider as the one that preceded it. However, in the event of another gaffe this would again come into the limelight, almost definitely with far more severity.

Finally, an existential issue to bring up relates to Metro’s customer service. The bank was set up to challenge existing paradigms of how retail banking “should” be in the UK. For an organisation like this you’d expect it to have pretty good customer service (at least in comparison to its rivals). This makes it all the more surprising that Metro Bank, along with Barclays, ranked lowest of all lenders on customer service and the propositions they offer. This issue is so serious because it fundamentally challenges the notion that Metro are executing their disruptive business model with any degree of success. Vernon Hill would be the first to tell you that acquiring fans is more important than making profits in the short run, however it’d be hard for him to be able to do either when customer service threatens both acquisition and retention of depositors. This is a key indicator of whether the bank can reverse its fortunes in the future; its customer service ratings will be a key barometer of whether it can successfully execute its business model in the long-term.

Overall, then, the loan misclassification fiasco at arguably the UK’s most prominent challenger bank has damaged its credibility with shareholders and depositors alike. The three factors described above, namely total deposit numbers, Vernon Hill, and customer service ratings are in my opinion the three biggest issues to consider when debating investment in the firm. At this critical juncture in Metro Bank’s history, all is to play for, however that can be as much a curse as a blessing.

 

Santander delivers a shock

The additional tier 1 (AT1) market for bonds is a relatively new addition into the world of finance. They are a mix between debt and equity, essentially meaning that when a bank’s capital ratio falls below a certain level, the AT1 bonds are converted to equity, or shares in the bank. They were introduced by regulators during the 2008 financial crisis, where worries about both banks’ solvency and liquidity brought the global financial system to its knees [1]. So far, coverage on them has been limited, given that fortunately we have yet to see another major event of the same proportions as the financial crisis. However, last week we saw a relatively unusual event, that had not been seen since more than a decade ago.

The first thing to note is that these AT1 bonds have perpetual maturity; in essence, there is no “maturity date” for these bonds so a sum needs to be paid each year, in theory, in perpetuity, unless the bank pays the whole amount in advance. However, a convention is in place whereby investors in these bonds acknowledge that they will be repaid at the earliest possible date, usually around 5 years after the bond has been sold [2]. However, last week Santander opted to roll over an AT1 bond, which is highly unusual given what has been happening for the past 10 years [3]. The news spooked investors in Santander as they sent Santander’s share price falling lower on Wednesday morning. While the decision makes sense for Santander for purely economical reasons, it jeopardises the global AT1 market as investors no longer can claim almost absolute certainty that these bonds will be called on their redemption date. The bond in question’s value fell two percent rapidly following the news, falling to 96.75 cents on the euro.

Moreso, the news sparks fear in some investors that banks are hoarding capital for longer durations due to falling liquidity. In addition, given that the assets and liabilities of investment banks, being so complex and interconnected, are very difficult to value (let alone quickly in a financial crisis), it is very difficult to determine if a bank is solvent in the event of a financial crisis. Given that Santander is such a large and systemically important bank in the financial system, concerns surrounding it inevitably turn to concerns regarding the financial system as a whole. Since the market for complex financial instruments may only have a few financial institutions in it to begin with, many of the assets and liabilities of major banks are interconnected. Hence concerns understandably amplify, explaining the decline in Santander’s share price but also explaining broader investor uncertainty, especially since we are a decade off the financial crisis and a recession is expected in major economies in the next few years, with Italy already having fallen into one [4].

Overall, then, this case represents an example of why always going for the most purely economical option may not always be the best thing to do for a firm. In their actions Santander upset global investors and, significantly, the AT1 bond market, as yields rose on AT1 debt with falling investor confidence in banks’ ability to repay. While the financial system in at least developed countries is in theory much safer (with more stringent capital requirements), the ability of financial institutions to create complex and murky assets knows no bounds. Given this, valuation of these is inevitably going to prove difficult and so caution still needs to be taken with regards to how banks finance themselves. The AT1 debt instruments were a noticeable step forward in handling this but it also goes to show how quickly the market for these sorts of instruments can change, even in seemingly calm conditions.

In future, given that it seems Santander has no actual issue with paying off their debt the impact of this news will be muted. However, whatever reaction there has been will prove an additional disincentive for other banks to undergo similar kinds of action, for fear of not only unsettling their own investor base but also unsettling the market for AT1 (or CoCo) debt instruments. The news enhances Santander’s own reputation for ruthless frugality but they may indeed regret the move in future.

Bibliography

[1] Euromoney. (2018). AT1 capital/CoCo bonds: what you should know. [online] Available at: https://www.euromoney.com/article/b12kqjlwvsz26k/at1-capitalcoco-bonds-what-you-should-know [Accessed 15 Feb. 2019].

[2] Ft.com. (2019). Santander shocks market with bond decision | Financial Times. [online] Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/8539f7b4-2ad9-11e9-a5ab-ff8ef2b976c7 [Accessed 15 Feb. 2019].

[3] Bloomberg.com. (2019). Santander’s CoCo Bond Creates All Kinds of Trouble. [online] Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-02-13/santander-s-coco-creates-all-kinds-of-trouble [Accessed 15 Feb. 2019].

[4] BBC News. (2019). Italy in recession amid sluggish eurozone. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-47068401 [Accessed 15 Feb. 2019].

This article, along with others from my peers, is on the LSE Business and Finance Guild website.

Is Donald Trump right in his assessment of Jerome Powell?

Featured image is in the public domain. Author: Federalreserve

As with so many of these “is Donald Trump right” type questions, you probably already know my answer! However, there is a great deal of nuance to the question at hand that concerns the impact of Jerome Powell’s projected 3 interest rate rises next year. Already in 2018 the Federal Reserve has raised the federal funds rate three times, and the financial markets expect another hike in December, making it a grand total of 7 rate rises in 2018-2019. Donald Trump has gone on record saying that he was “not even a little bit happy” with the selection of Powell as the Chairman of the Fed, primarily due to the number and pace of interest rate rises that are projected to occur under his watch. However, with interest rates still very low (the federal funds rate sits currently at 2.25%) relative to their post-financial crisis levels, one question remains: Is Donald Trump’s annoyance simply due to his spending-driven boom being stymied by Powell?

Looking at the argument from Trump’s perspective, you could make the argument that such quick rate rises are highly risky. This is due to the formation of asset price bubbles that have grown in size ever since the dramatic cuts in interest rates that happened during the financial crisis. Reportedly the US stock market is the most overvalued on record – more so than in 1929, 2000 or 2007. The metrics used for this are indicators such as price to earnings ratios, which are almost at the highest levels seen since 1870. Moreso, the “Buffett indicator”, or the total market capitalisation of the US stock market divided by US GDP, lies at 138%. This compares to a peak of 105.2% during the financial crisis and 136.9% during the dotcom bubble.

Low interest rates boost prices of asset such as stocks because they decrease the risk-free rate of return, leading to a greater incentive to invest in these riskier assets. Hence the prices of these assets (at least in theory) should rise in response to falling interest rates. The issue comes when rates rise again. If Powell is too quick in his rate rises the risk-free rate of return rises too quickly which potentially siphons funds away from stocks. Now, if stock prices drop too quickly then we see a rapid decline in the wealth of millions of Americans holding their funds, in some way or the other, in the stock market. As theory and practice have shown the likely outcome of this is then a rapid decrease in consumer spending, which leads to a decrease in business investment (through a decrease in retained earnings) and eventual recession. If this is what Trump is getting at, though, the question remains: how quick is too quick for Powell?

Taking a directly contrasting perspective, Powell also has a strong case for raising interest rates. Logically, the longer the period of time for which the risk-free rate of return is so low, the greater the asset price bubbles become in size. This indicates rapidly rising property and stock prices and thus high levels of inflation. With interest rates being one of the main tools the Federal Reserve has at its disposal to combat inflation, the most rational choice seems to be to stem the asset price bubbles before they get any bigger. If the bubbles pop, so be it: the alternative is to push the popping of these bubbles further down the line and eventually increase the severity of a recession. As mentioned before, given that we are already so far down the cycle, it makes sense economically to raise interest rates and cut the damage from a recession that may already be in the pipeline.

To summarise both arguments, the truth is that no one knows precisely how quick the Fed can raise rates before triggering a recession. However the heart of the matter lies in the rift between raising interest rates now or raising interest rates later. While true that raising rates now makes it far likelier for another recession to occur in the near term, the asset price bubbles that have built up across the US economy in asset classes such as stocks and property near guarantee another recession sooner or later. Trump’s dispute (in my opinion) exists because of his political self-interest; of course raising rates while he is in power dampens any economic boom currently existing, and thus his popularity. Economically, however, it remains the case that for me Powell is justified both in the existing rate rises he has carried out and also his forward guidance for the future. The decisions show prudence and responsibility, and whatever Mr Trump may think, I feel that this is what is best for the USA at this time.

How will Obama be remembered?

This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license – The photographer is Will White.

On January 20, 2009, the United States of America finally turned its back on George Bush and appointed Barack Hussein Obama as their 44th President. At the time, it was looked at as a landmark occasion; the first African-American President in the history of the most powerful country in the world. Many now say that this victory for equality has been overshadowed by backwards, regressive policy that has gone against the very agenda of progressivism that Obama stood for election for. However, others instead espouse the idea that Obama has laid the proverbial stepping stones for future progressives to unite America through economic policy. Regardless of whichever side you take, it’s undoubtable that the Obama administration has divided opinion like almost no other in contemporary politics and economics. Obama’s tax cuts for the wealthiest in society are something which have been campaigned for by many in the past, but some on the left side of the spectrum still regard him as far too business-friendly to be in any way compatible with the vision of equality for all Americans. In this regard, many of his policies have not necessarily been the most popular, yet it is still important to take into account the economic climate which the 55-year-old inherited from his Republican predecessor; the images of widespread depression and angst certainly add context to the debate, context that is needed when analysing any presidency from an economic perspective.

Today, in a global economic environment of stagnation and extraordinarily low interest rates, many are justified in claiming that we have never really escaped the proverbial wreckage of the Great Depression. Yet more economists than not claim that Obama’s Keynesian fiscal stimulus package to the tune of $787 billion, largely in the form of tax cuts to families, was instrumental in making sure that America did not stuck in a period of prolonged economic stagnation, amidst an environment of lesser trust in the prospects of the economy, and therefore less investment. According to James Feyrer and Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth College, the multiplier effect (the increase in final income arising from any new injection of spending) was between 1.96 to 2.31 for low-income spending, 1.85 for infrastructure spending, and finally in the range of 0.47 to 1.06 for stimulus as a whole. While this was not the only study carried out on Obama’s fiscal stimulus package, the methodology of the survey the two economists used is significant because they not only compared employment growth at state and county level, but they also compared month-by-month data to see how employment figures were changed at the point when the stimulus was injected into the economy. The significant upward trend generated by the stimulus here is thereby significant as it supports heavily the claim that the package was needed in order to usher America out of the stagnation that it previously endured; so Obama doesn’t seem to have done too badly so far.

The Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Bill also was a significant piece of legislation that Obama signed during his presidency. Described by the Washington Post as “the most ambitious overhaul of financial regulation in generations”, there’s no denying that the Bill has had and will continue to have significant effects on the way financial firms think about their operations going forward. However, it does not ameliorate the problem of the massive moral hazard which banks are allowed to possess when analysing whether to cut down on their portfolio risk or not. In the former Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King’s book “The End of Alchemy: Banking, the Global Economy and the Future of Money”, King argues that this is precisely what could lead to another catastrophic recession, and argues instead for a “pawnbroker for all situations” solution, one in which banks have to take significant measures before having any chance of being bailed out. Whilst I would suggest that one reads King’s book for more insight into this claim, the fundamental underlying principle is that banks will take risks if you allow them to, putting taxpayers at risk of having to bail them out once again, and for this reason, I argue that the legislation Obama approved has not gone anywhere near far enough.

And now we come to perhaps the most contentious issue of all: Obamacare. Although the program still has its glaring faults and areas where it should really be improved in order to improve the accessibility of healthcare for every American, it has to be said that the healthcare program has had overwhelmingly positive effect. For example, businesses with over 50 employees are required to have a health insurance program, with tax credits for these businesses also being put in place to help them finance this program. In my opinion, this strikes a near-perfect balance between stamping the need for increased healthcare coverage for the most vulnerable members of society and easing financial constraints on business, allowing these firms to flourish and expand their operations. If I had to summarise Obama’s economic policy in a few words, I’d use the phrase “getting there”. Whilst the African-American has made key policy moves that have steered America in the right direction, there are still large gaps that need to be filled and policy moves that need to be implemented to progress America’s economy further. He hasn’t done it all, but he’s definitely laid the foundations.

Shrey Srivastava, 16

What caused the demise of Lehman Brothers?

Till date, the biggest bankruptcy ever seen in US history is the crash of Lehman Brothers. The former fourth largest investment bank in the world filed for Chapter 11 Protection with more than $639 billion in assets 7 years ago. Images adorning the hallowed newspaper sheets in the days after its September 15, 2008 collapse were of its dejected employees leaving the company buildings, never to be seen again. However, opinions differ as to what actually caused this gargantuan crash. In truth, it is an amalgamation of many different factors that led to the collapse of the gigantic investment bank. Continue reading “What caused the demise of Lehman Brothers?”