Posts Tagged ‘assets’

Reader quiz: spot the error in long-term gearing logic

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

Today, we will try something a little different. Instead of doing the talking, we will pose a little investment quiz and let our readers do the talking. So, here it is…

Consider this flow of logic:

  1. In the long run, due to inflation, the price of assets (e.g. property, stocks, managed funds) will appreciate.
  2. Gearing (e.g. margin lending, line of credit, investment loans, geared managed share funds), will magnify the returns due to price appreciation.
  3. Therefore, one should use gearing to maximise one’s long term wealth

Long time readers of this publication may have already spotted the error in this flow of logic. But we have come across many people who are close to retirement applying this logic on their retirement funds!

So, our question to our readers are: what is the error with this logic?

Can the idea of retirement continue?

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

The global financial crisis (GFC) had brought many cans of worms for governments. One of them is the idea of funding your retirement through superannuation. The idea of retirement is relatively new in the entire history of human civilisation. Up till a 120 years ago, it is either you work till you drop or your children will look after you when you are too old to work. It was the German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, who introduced the idea of old-age social insurance program in 1889. Initially, the retirement age was set at 70. However, since life expectancy at that time was well below that, it was pretty much work-till-you-drop. You can imagine how cheap that program was for the government.

As the decades went by, people lived longer and longer. As a result, the public cost of old-age social insurance grew more and more prohibitive for governments. With the introduction of defined contribution schemes, the risk of funding retirement was transferred from the state/employer to the individual. That went well until…

With the financial panic of 2008, the retirement savings (actually, the word ‘savings’ is conceptually wrong- see The myth of financial asset ?investments? as savings) of many people were decimated because of major losses suffered by their superannuation funds in the stock markets. Some people had to contemplate postponing their retirement and returning to the workforce. To make matters worse for these people, they had to do so at a time when the whole world is facing a synchronised recession (or maybe even a depression) when jobs are becoming more scarce.

This put a very big question mark on the idea of compulsory superannuation. In June 2007, as we wrote Epic, unprecedented inflation, when the world was experiencing a synchronised boom in all asset classes in all regions of the earth, it seemed like a good idea. Today, with synchronised price deflation in most asset classes (except gold and US Treasury bonds) in all regions of the earth, does it mean that the whole idea of the superannuation system is a mistake?

With deflation, the tide turns and we all know who had been swimming naked. The problem is, it turned out that most people are swimming naked! It turned out that many of the ‘assets’ that we hold are not reliable store of wealth after all. Most of these assets are in the form of paper (financial) assets. From what was happening overseas, even physical, tangible and fixed assets (e.g. property) are suspect. In other words, there was a divergence between the nominal price of these ‘assets’  and the economic value of their underlying businesses and usefulness. What greased that divergence? The answer is, inflation of credit. In the days, months and years ahead, governments will try to inflate the supply of money and credit while the free market will wake up to the extent of the divergence between the price and value.

We suspect that for this current cohort of working people, the idea of retirement planning will be radically changed. Perhaps cultivation of relationships and friendships, networking with people of specific skills, reconciliation and sacrifice of independence will gain more prominence in your plans for retirement?

Jamming on brakes and accelerator simultaneously

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

A few years ago, we were chatting with our friends on the topic of personal finance and investments. Back then, it was a global financial bull market in which the savings (made compulsory by law in the form of superannuation) of millions of Australians were ploughed into ‘assets.’ Our friend’s attitude is that she will leave it all to the ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ to invest her savings and would not want to bother herself with it. The prevailing thinking was that, as we described in The myth of financial asset ?investments? as savings (in February 2007),

… there are some who argued that if we include financial asset ?investments? such as home equity, pension and managed investment funds, stocks and so on, the savings rate is actually positive.

As we elucidated in that article, we had strong reservations on this fallacious idea. In essence, many people’s savings were (and still are) thrown into chasing prices of intangible financial assets, which hardly result in real capital formation. By chasing and bidding prices upwards, it gave rise to the illusion that ‘wealth’ had increased when in actual fact, there were no corresponding accumulation in capital goods (see The myth of financial asset ?investments? as savings to understand the meaning of capital goods). The global financial crisis (GFC) is a correction to this grand illusion.

Think about it: Why is it that after the years of ‘prosperity’ (economic boom) the state of infrastructure is so poor and neglected that governments today have to spend billions in nation building to ‘stimulate’ the economy? After all these years of boom in ‘asset’ prices, wealth and prosperity, is that what our nation (including the US, UK and Australia) has to show for?

Where had all the money gone to?

Once you understand the Austrian Business Cycle Theory (see What causes economic booms and busts?), you will be able to see that limited resources in the economy are being mal-invested into wasteful and unproductive use. So, this bust is the period when mal-investments are in the process of liquidation (e.g. deflation in asset prices). Very unfortunately, governments are hell-bent in preventing this liquidation process and at the same time, trying to redirect resources into urgently needed area via central planning.

The governments’ actions are akin to jamming on the brakes and accelerator simultaneously. No prize for guessing what will happen to the car.

How much to pay for toxic debt?

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

Now that Henry Paulson has already announced of a plan to bail out the US financial system with a US$700 billion (to $1 trillion) slush fund, the next devil is the detail. In this plan, the US government will buy up unwanted toxic debts from financial institutions and then sell them to the market quietly in a few years time. Because these toxic debts are unwanted, no one wants to buy them and hence, their value are priced laughingly low. As a result, the solvency of these financial institutions are threatened.

The first problem is, how much should the US government pay for these toxic debts?

First, let’s refer to the hypothetically simplified bank balance sheet in our earlier article, Effect of write-down on bank balance sheet. As you can see from that article, depending on how highly leverage the bank is, even a small write-down means that it has to either raise that amount in the equity market or sell a lot of its remaining assets to keep itself within the right side of banking regulations.

What if the the government pays a price that is better than laughingly low but still quite a distance from the book value? Banks will still have to write down the value of its asset. Then it has to raise money to patch up that hole. Given that the credit market is quite frozen up, this is quite unlikely. Therefore, its only other choice will be to sell its other surviving assets.

What if other banks are in the same predicament? Then there will be mass selling in the markets, which will then depress prices of assets even further, which then… it’s depressing to repeat the vicious cycle here.

The basic idea is that banks will still fail anyway if the US government is not generous enough in opening its wallet to pay for junk assets. Our feeling is that $700 billion may turn out to be too conservative an estimate. The government may end up spending more money than it intends to.

Does bank asset write-down directly reduce the money supply?

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

There is a very common misconception that when a bank writes down the value of its asset (e.g. due to bad debts), money supply will shrink. To be honest, we had this misconception ourselves before and we are writing this article to address this issue. The reality is that when bank assets are written down, there is no direct contraction in money supply. The contraction in money supply will be an indirect effect.

To see why, a basic understanding of corporate accounting is required. Therefore, we will recommend that you read Introduction to banking corporate accounting and Effect of write-down on bank balance sheet before continuing. As you read these two articles, what do you notice when a bank writes down an asset? You will notice that bank deposits are untouched when that happens. Since bank deposits make up part of the supply of money, there is no direct contraction of it as a result.

But money supply can contract as an indirect effect when banks becomes much more cautious in issuing loans or stop re-issuing loans when they get repaid. This can happen as their minimum capital and reserve requirements are breached, which means they have to either sell their assets or raise more equity.

Since a severe and sudden contraction of money and credit supply can have a devastating effect on the economy, the central banks and government will do anything to help banks to continue issue more loans. This may mean changing the laws to reduce the minimum capital and reserve requirements, swapping suspect assets for government bonds and so on.

Is the credit crisis the end of the beginning?

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

We will introduce another character today- Satyajit Das. He is a world-leading expert in derivatives and risk management and has a good inside knowledge of the murky world of derivatives. He is best known as the author of the fascinating book, Traders, Guns & Money.

Unlike the mainstream media and market, Satyajit Das is under no illusion that the credit crisis is over. In fact, as he wrote in Nuclear De-Leveraging,

An alternative and, arguably, better view of the current state of the financial crisis is that stated by Winston Churchill: ?… this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.?

Why is it so?  The short answer is de-leveraging. As we said before in Why are fantastic stocks sold off in a bear market?,

Today, there are so much leverage in the financial system and by extension, the market. Both retail and institutional market participants borrow and employ leveraged derivates (e.g. options, CFDs, futures, etc). The problem with leverage is that, when the market goes against you, your losses are magnified and you find that you are suddenly short of cash (to repay the debts, obligation, margin calls, collateral, etc). Sometimes, the only way to increase your cash level is to liquidate whatever you have- the good investments along with the bad. If enough people are in the same situation as you, this will result in widespread indiscriminate selling in the market.

As long as the de-leveraging process is confined to only the financial markets, the sell-off in stocks presents an excellent buying opportunity. Unfortunately, according to Satyajit Das’s opinion, the de-leveraging process in the financial market is only the first phase of a much larger process. He believes that this process will spread to the real side of the economy (see Analysing recent falls in oil prices?real vs investment demand on the difference between the financial and real sides of the economy), which means that the person on the street will eventually feel the impact. As we said before in The Great Crash of 1929,

Also contrary to popular impressions, that Great Crash was not a one-day event. It was a series of events that marked the beginning of an even more devastating consequence?the Great Depression. In fact, it took a year after the Great Crash for the average person on the street to feel the effects of the ensuing Great Depression.

If Satyajit Das is right, then in the future, we will look back at the credit crunch as just the beginning events of a greater scheme of things.  Currently, from the looks of things, the first phase is over. The effect is that money has become more expensive (see Rising price of money through the demise of ?shadow? banking system).

Next, another process is currently under way- the returning of bad quality assets into the bank’s balance sheet. As we explained before in What is SIV?,

The recent deterioration in the credit market is severely disrupting the SIV funds because of the high cost of obtaining short-term funding. As a result, many of the lenders have to buy back the mortgage assets from the SIV, resulting re-loading those mortgage asset into its balance sheet.

As Satyajit Das said,

High inter-bank rates and the deceleration in bank lending reflect, in part, banks husbanding their cash resources to accommodate the involuntary increase in assets.

In addition to this return of bad assets to their balance sheet, the banks also have to contend with losses incurred by the write-down of bad debts. What will happen then? As we said before in Banking for dummies,

As you can see by now, the banking business is a balancing act of managing a portfolio of assets and liabilities. Since the banking industry is a highly regulated one, there are rules for them to follow in this balancing act.

Now that the banks’ balance between assets and liabilities are out of equilibrium, what will happen? To restore balance, banks will have to raise capital (i.e. issue shares for cash) and/or cut down on lending and/or sell assets. Indeed, central bankers and foreign sovereign wealth funds have been very ‘helpful’ in this balance restoration process (see Central banks & pawnshops and Why did the foreigners bail out cash-starved financial institutions?).

As Satyajit Das continues,

The new capital noted above will merely restore bank balance sheets. Growth in lending and assets will require additional capital. The banking system?s ability to supply credit is significantly impaired and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Credit is clearly being rationed in the global financial system. If the banks are not able to re-capitalise, then the contraction in credit supply will be sharper.

Guess what will happen when the supply of money and credit contracts sharply? This is what we call “deflation” (see What is inflation and deflation?). During deflation, businesses and individuals have to de-leverage. Already, this process is already under way in Australia. When reading the mainstream newspapers, you will get to read numerous reports that credit is tightening. For example, take a read at Debt down as rates hurt in the Sydney Morning Herald,

The value of debt taken on by consumers and businesses slumped in March as higher interest rates continued to bite, according to figures published yesterday.

An economist at Lehman Brothers, Stephen Roberts, said the decrease in credit use was further evidence of the global credit crunch rippling through the broader economy as companies and consumers wind back their exposure to debt.

In Australia, with total private debt to GDP ratio of around 170%,  you can be sure that there will be more de-leveraging in the private sector to go.

This is the beginning of the next phase where the real economy is affected. In the next article, we will show you how this phase will unfold.