Silver Smoking Gun to Stop Dishonest Dealing

Last week ZeroHedge reported on the amended London Silver Fixing Antitrust Litigation which included damaging chat logs provided by Deutsche Bank that reveal collusion between bullion bank traders to “shade”, “blade”, “muscle”, “job”, “spoof” and “snipe” the silver market.

While the amended complaint only provides selected examples from the 350,000 pages of documents and 75 audio tapes that the plaintiffs received as part of the settlement with Deutsche Bank, what has been provided shows cliques of traders who worked together against the interests of their clients.

Below is a network map of these cliques, which shows every trader mentioned in the complaint with the lines indicating who chatted with whom (view the map online here).

fixplayers

The key ringleader is DB Trader-Submitter A (submitter refers to their role submitting orders into the London Fix) and this sort of hub and spoke model is common in social networks. The two persons with a slash and two banks in their name indicate that they moved banks during the period of the complaint. This is not uncommon in bullion banking since it is a small industry and would increase the risk of collusion between former workmates, something the management of the banks should have been alert to.

The lack of connection between these groups is likely due to them being in different timezones. The group of four in the top left corner are most likely in Singapore, given the use of Singlish terms like “lah” in the chats. The larger group is based mostly in London with one in New York, based on references in the complaint. The group of three at the bottom may be in Dubai, although that is speculation.

The chats have a jovial feel with traders calling each other “bro”, “dude” and “mates” and show no care for clients on the other end of their schemes: for example, Deutsche Bank Trader B talks about  “wanna ramp it up like really just buy at mmkt and fk everyone so bad”. No doubt these chats will now be a lot more stilted as traders realise that collusive behaviour brings with it personal consequences like jail terms, as it did with LIBOR.

Nick Laird at goldchartsrus.com has collated all the chats in chronological order here with a chart of the silver price underneath to help put the chats in context of market price action at the time. In general, the chat logs show collusion to tactically/short-term manipulate the London Silver Fix and spot market (curiously, there is no mention of Comex futures, but the plaintiffs are only giving us a sample in this complaint).

With the Deutsche Bank chat logs showing a collusive network across banks, it would seem unlikely that the defendants will be able to refute the antitrust claim by the plaintiffs. The next question is that of damages. As it stands, the tactical nature of the manipulations means that the defendants are likely to argue that the members of the class action can only claim damages if they traded at the same time as the chat evidence shows market manipulation.

To cover the entire class and increase the damages, the plaintiffs need to show that the traders’ actions resulted in ongoing suppression of the silver price.

In the chats the traders do not explicitly indicate any plans to suppress the price on an ongoing, multi-day/month/year basis or reference having to manage a large naked futures short position (which many have said is necessary for ongoing price suppression to exist). Monetary Metals has written on the naked short theory in the past, noting that it is not supported by observation of prices as contracts approach first notice day. To implement such an ongoing suppression using futures, the bullion banks would need to roll their oversized short position by purchasing the expiring contract and shorting the next contract. Such massive buying of an expiring contract would cause the basis to rise, yet the opposite occurs – see here for more details.

Absent such explicit proof of suppression, the complaint masses a number of different econometric analyses to show that the London Silver Fix impacts other silver prices in the wider market.

The analysis does not start off well where, on page 40, the plaintiffs fall for the “correlation proves causation” fallacy claiming that “the prices of COMEX silver futures contracts are directly impacted by changes in the Fix price, which determines the value of the physical silver underlying each COMEX silver futures contract” on the basis of a regression analysis between futures closing prices and the Silver Fix of 99.85%. The defendants will be able to rebut such claims by referring to papers like London or New York: where and when does the gold price originate? which show that neither London (spot) nor New York (futures) are dominant in terms of price and that the dominant market switches from time to time.

We feel the plaintiffs are on stronger footing when comparing spot and futures price movements around the fix (see page 71 onwards, figures 24 to 28). The plaintiffs’ show a few charts demonstrating a spot to futures linkage but we would suggest that to win the case the analysis would benefit from looking the spread between spot and futures markets, or the basis, which we report on each week. For an example of the application of basis to forensic price analysis, see our November 13 report where we show that the drop of $30 in the gold price around the London Fix on November 11 was driven by selling of futures as the gold basis began to fall before the price did (see below).

letter-nov-13-gold-intraday-2

The final challenge for the plaintiffs is to prove that the impact of the banks’ manipulative actions persisted “well beyond the end of the Fixing Member’s daily conference call” (see pages 81-83). While the plaintiffs claim that this is proven because the mean of the cumulative unadjusted returns “on Down Days does not recover fully from the price drop that occurs at the start of the Silver Fix”, the very wide confidence interval implies that on a number of days it did recover. It will be interesting to see how the defendants respond to this crucial claim.

The Deutsche Bank chat logs have enabled the plaintiffs to get over the first huge hurdle of showing antitrust behaviour. The focus of media reports to-date on the colorful chats gives the impression this is a closed case but the lack of explicit chats discussing management of a large naked futures short position and/or plans to supress the price over months is unusual. One would expect that managing such a large ongoing supression would be the main focus of discussions between traders. It is possible that the plaintiffs may have withheld this evidence for strategic purposes but if not, this case may end up turning into a battle of the bookworms with academics arguing econometrics and questioning what does the “mean of the cumulative unadjusted returns” really mean.

Whichever way the case develops, bullion banks now have increased costs of supervising and managing the risks that precious metals trading desk “bros” might be looking to “fk” their clients. Combined with the potential that the “cost of doing business will jump – perhaps by 300% on one estimate” due to Basel 3 rules, some may decide to do a Deutsche Bank and pull out of the market. The result may be further consolidation in bullion banking and give regulators more justification to push those that remain out of “dark” OTC trading and on to “lit” exchanges.

Open Letter to the Banks

Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan Chase
Brian T. Moynihan, Bank of America
Michael Corbat, Citigroup

Gentlemen:

On Friday, I attended a digital money summit at the Consumer Electronics Show. I am writing to you to warn you about the disruption that is about to occur in banking. There are many startups (and larger companies too) that are gunning for you. Perhaps you have watched what Uber has done to the taxi business? Well, these guys are planning the same thing for the banking business.

Banks used to allow even a child with a $10 deposit to spread his risk across a large portfolio of loans. At the same time, banks made it possible for a corporate borrower to raise $10,000,000 from a large group of depositors. In short, the banking business is investment aggregation and risk management.

That business cannot be disrupted. The bigger it gets, the more difficult to displace. It’s like eBay, all the depositors come to the bank because that’s where they can earn interest. All the borrowers come, because that’s where they can get the money they need. The bigger the bank gets, at least in a free market under the gold standard, the safer it is for depositors.

Today, however, you are quite vulnerable to disruption. That’s because you are not really in the banking business any more.

Over three decades, you have worked with the Federal Reserve to eliminate interest. The end result is that you now offer depositors a return-free risk. Depositors cannot earn interest in a bank account (yes, I know that in the US the yield is technically not zero yet, but it’s getting there). However, a growing number are aware of the risks. For example, you have incalculable exposure to derivatives. You own sovereign debt which the world now knows is not risk-free. In fact, you have a large staff and churn through a lot of activity in order to deliver scant yield to your depositors.

I can tell you what I observed in the digital money program. People, especially Millennials, now think of banking in terms of features like ATMs, payment clearing, fraud prevention, and point of sale solutions. However, these are just add-on services, not the core of banking. You have abandoned that core, and only the add-ons remain.

Startups can take these businesses. They have lower costs. They are more focused. They have hip new brands, untainted by the financial crisis and the bailouts. They have developed an array of new technologies. And, of course, they are less regulated (before you think to lobby to impose more regulation on them, think about that taint to your brand).

You’re in a tight spot. After decades of smoking the drug known as falling interest, you’re now dependent on it. The thought of a return to a 5% yield on the 10-year Treasury is not pleasant. Nevertheless, I urge you to think about it. The alternative is to let the fintech disruptors carve up your retail business.

Sincerely,
Keith Weiner, PhD
The Gold Standard Institute

 

——–

We published this here, because it is germane to the Monetary Metals vision: it should be possible to earn a yield on one’s savings. The virtue of the gold standard is not that prices are fixed. That is neither possible nor desirable (see the price of crude oil, measured in ounces per barrel below). Its virtue is the stable interest rate. In paper, the rate of interest is unhinged, and has been in a slow motion descent into the black hole of zero (and apparently, once you get to the singularity in the center there is a wormhole that takes you to the dark matter universe of negative interest).

oil record low

Shopping Trolley / Grocery Cart Cut Out

Yield Purchasing Power: $100M Today Matches $100K in 1979

I wrote a story about poor Clarence who retired in 1979, and even poorer Larry who retired last year. I created these characters to challenge the notion of calculating a real interest rate by subtracting inflation. The idea is that the decline of a currency can be measured by the rate of price increases. This price-centric view leads to the concept of purchasing power—the amount of stuff that a dollar can buy. It’s the flip side of prices. When prices rise, purchasing power falls.

Recall in the story, Clarence retired in 1979. At the time, inflation was running at 14% but he could only get 11% interest. Real interest was -3%, and Clarence had a problem. He was losing his purchasing power.

Suppose Clarence bought gold. The purchasing power of gold held steady for the rest of his life (see this chart of oil priced in gold). Gold does solve this problem. However, gold has no yield. Clarence is only jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. Sure, he escapes dollar debasement, but then he gets zero interest.

Let’s look at how zero interest impacts Larry. He makes $25/month on his million dollars. Obviously he can’t live on that. So he gives up his nest egg, for eggs. For a year, he feasts on omelets. Since inflation was slightly negative, the same swap in 2015 nets him the same plus a few additional quiches.

Through the lens of purchasing power, we don’t focus on the liquidation of Larry’s wealth. We ignore—or take it for granted—that he’s trading his life savings for bread. We only ask how many loaves he got.

Shopping Trolley / Grocery Cart Cut Out

Shopping Trolley / Grocery Cart Cut Out

If you had a farm, would you consider trading it away, to feed your family for a year? I hope not. A farm should grow food forever. Its true worth is its crop yield, not the pile of bacon from a one-time deal.

How perverse is that? It’s nothing more than what zero interest is forcing Larry to do.

A dollar still buys about as much as it did last year. Larry’s purchasing power didn’t change much. However, debasement continues to wreak its destruction.  Steady purchasing power does not mean that the dollar is holding its value.

It means that prices are wholly inadequate for measuring monetary decay.

Our monetary disaster becomes clear when we look at the collapse in yield purchasing power. This new concept does not tell you how many groceries you can get by liquidating your capital. It tells how much you can buy with the return on it.

In 1979, Clarence’s $100,000 savings earned enough to support his middle class lifestyle. In 2014, Larry’s million dollars didn’t earn enough to pay his phone bill. To live in the middle class, Larry would need over a hundred million bucks. That’s a pitiful income to make on such a massive pile of cash. It reveals a hyperinflation in the price of capital, which has gone up 1100X in 35 years.

It also shows that the productivity of capital is collapsing. Back in Clarence’s day, businesses earned a high return on capital. It was high enough for Clarence to get 11% interest in a short-term CD. Unfortunately, the dollar rot is in the advanced stage now. There is scant interest to be earned. Return on capital is low, and so borrowers can’t pay much.

Retirees suffer first, because they can’t earn wages. Normally they would depend on interest, but now they’re forced to live like the Prodigal Son. They consume their wealth, leave nothing for the next generation, and hope they don’t live too long. Zero interest rates has reversed the tradition of centuries of capital accumulation.

Purchasing power may look fine, but yield purchasing power shows the true picture of monetary collapse.

 

This article is from Keith Weiner’s weekly column, called The Gold Standard, at the Swiss National Bank and Swiss Franc Blog SNBCHF.com.

Kids playing with hyperinflated paper currency

There’s Your Hyperinflation

Hyperinflation is commonly defined as rapidly rising prices which get out of control. For example, the Wikipedia entry begins, “In economics, hyperinflation occurs when a country experiences very high and usually accelerating rates of inflation, rapidly eroding the real value of the local currency…” Let’s restate this in terms of purchasing power. In hyperinflation, the purchasing power of the currency collapses. Before the onset, suppose one collapsar buys ten loaves of bread. Soon, it buys only one loaf. Shortly thereafter, it buys only one slice. Next, it can only purchase a saltine cracker. Pretty soon the collapsar won’t buy any bread at all. Stick a fork in it, it’s done.

Kids playing with hyperinflated paper currency

Many critics of the Federal Reserve, the European Central bank, and others have predicted that this end is coming soon. They have been frustrated as prices are clearly not skyrocketing. For example, the price of crude oil was cut almost in half (so far). There’s little to see if one looks at the purchasing power of the dollar, euro, Swiss franc, etc. Purchasing power, as conventionally understood, is doing just fine.

Fed apologists are happily cooing about this. Last month, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman said, “This is actually wonderful.” Last year, he was gloating, comparing people who predict runaway inflation to “true believers whose faith in a predicted apocalypse persists even after it fails to materialize.”

And yet, all is not well in the realm of the central banks. Krugman may be right about prices, but nothing is wonderful. The economic downturn, which began in 2008, has been so bad that central banks persist in their unprecedented monetary policies. So if purchasing power isn’t collapsing, where can one find evidence of the problem?

Yield Purchasing Power (YPP) shows how much you can buy, not with a dollar of cash, but with the earnings on a dollar of productive capital. No one wants to spend their life savings or inheritance. People are happy to spend their income, but not their savings.

To come back to the analogy of the family farm, people should think in terms of how much food it can grow, not how much food they can buy by selling the farm. The tractor is good for producing food, not to be exchanged for it. Why, then, do people think of the purchasing power of their life savings, in terms of its liquidation value?

If they want to live long and prosper, they should think of their yield purchasing power. Their hard-earned assets should provide income. And it is here, that hyperinflation has set in.

Previously, I compared two archetypal retirees. Clarence retired with $100,000 in 1979, and Larry retired with $1,000,000 in 2014. Clarence was able to earn 2/3 of the median income in interest on his savings. Larry was nowhere near that. He would need over $100 million to do the same. In 35 years, the YPP of a 3-month CD fell more than 1,000-fold.

The collapse in YPP suggests an analogy to hyperinflation. Look at how much capital you need to support a middle class lifestyle. Measured in dollars, the dollar price of this capital is skyrocketing.

This skyrocketing price of capital has the same effect as hyperinflation: it undermines savings and causes people to eat themselves out of house and home.

What does this mean for anyone with less than what they need to support themselves—$100M and rising? They must liquidate their capital, and live by consuming their savings. It’s terrifying to anyone in that position—which means anyone in the middle class.

This problem is not well understood, because it masquerades as rising asset prices. The first tractor to go to the block fetched $1,000. The second went for $2,000. The farmland may fetch a few million. Everyone loves rising asset prices, and so in their greed and euphoria they miss the point.

 

Keith is speaking at FreedomFest in Las Vegas this week.

This article is from Keith Weiner’s weekly column, called The Gold Standard, at the Swiss National Bank and Swiss Franc Blog SNBCHF.com.

pile of cash

They’re Coming to Take Away Your Cash

The stories are all over the Internet. Governments are forcing us into a cashless society. Supposedly the pretext is terrorism, and the real reason is to take more control. No doubt more power appeals to politicians, and banning cash seems like the next step after mandatory reporting of cash transactions. However, I think there is a more serious driver than simple power lust.

A more compelling case is that cash banning is the logical follow up to bail-ins. Most people think a bail-in is when banks steal your deposit. So it seems to make sense that governments want to force people to keep their cash in the bank. Then they are easy meat for the next bail-in.

However, a bail-in isn’t theft by your bank. There’s theft, alright, but the culprit is upstream. For example, in the case of Cyprus, the theft occurred in plain sight. The thief was Greece. That country sold instruments which it fraudulently called bonds, but it had neither means, nor the intent to repay. Those bonds are bogus paper. The Greek government stole the money, in the guise of borrowing it.

The Cypriot banks invested considerable deposits in Greek bonds. When depositors realized this, they began to withdraw their cash—a run on the banks. The banks were insolvent, so someone had to take losses. A bail-in shifts the losses from bondholders and other creditors to depositors.

It’s an example of how a corrupt monetary system causes corruption in banking. If government bonds are defined as the risk-free asset, then banks must hand depositors’ funds over to governments to spend. That can’t end well.

An honest bank will shut down operations before it burns through so much capital as to harm depositors. However, regulation obliges banks to buy government bonds (typically using short-term deposits). Thus the bail-in was devised to protect banks, though it violates law developed over centuries.

Neither control for its own sake, nor bail-ins, are the primary drivers of going cashless. Central banks don’t care about regulating the people, though they do support this new war on cash. Bail-ins are not a consideration in the US yet, though already American economists and bankers have expressed support for cash banning. So what’s really going on?

Citi’s Willem Buiter and Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff are quite explicit. Central banks are grappling with the limit to their planning. As they push down the interest rate, more people withdraw their cash. This squeezes the banks, which make money by borrowing from depositors and lending at higher interest. Banks cannot pay a positive rate in order to earn a negative rate. If the interest rate on the government bond is negative, then the bank must set the interest on deposits at an even lower negative rate.

For some odd reason, depositors don’t like paying the bank to deposit their cash. It’s weird, I know. Instead, they withdraw their deposits. Withdrawals reduce bank funding, forcing banks to sell bonds. This pushes interest up, contrary to the plans of the central bank. It’s worth noting that bank runs and interest rate pressure are the reasons why President Roosevelt outlawed gold in 1933.

This simple preference not to lose money is dangerous to central banks. It threatens the monetary system to its foundations, because it’s an escape hatch allowing people to opt out of the central plan. If central banks don’t respond, then they accept a hard limit to their power over people. They’re stymied in their desire to set negative interest.

Thus they’re coming to take away your cash. However, they had better be careful. People will react to the central bank response, which forces another policy response, to which people will react, and so on. Central banks risk the destruction of their currencies.

 

This article is from Keith Weiner’s weekly column, called The Gold Standard, at the Swiss National Bank and Swiss Franc Blog SNBCHF.com.

YPP

Think Different About Purchasing Power

The dollar is always losing value. To measure the decline, people turn to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), or various alternative measures such as Shadow Stats or Billion Prices Project. They measure a basket of goods, and we can see how it changes every year.

However, companies are constantly cutting costs. If we see nominal—i.e. dollar—prices rising, it’s despite this relentless increase in efficiency. This graphic illustrates the disparity (I credit Tom Selgas for a brilliant visualization, which I recreated from memory).

Hiden Debasement

CPI measures only the orange zone, the tip of the iceberg. Most people don’t see the gray zone, and that’s a result of the greatest sleight of hand ever.

We need an accurate way to measure monetary debasement. For example, in retirement planning it’s tempting to divide your net worth by the cost of consumer goods. This seems to show your purchasing power. For example, if you have $200,000 and the cost of groceries for a year is $20,000 then you can eat for ten years.

However, this approach is flawed. To see why, let’s briefly consider primitive times when there was no lending or banking. People had to set aside some of their income, to buy a durable good like salt or silver—hoarding. When they could no longer work, they sold a little bit every week to buy food—dishoarding. People accumulated wealth while working, and dissipated it in retirement.

Life got a lot better with the advent of lending, because interest enables people to live on the income generated by their savings. People no longer consumed their principal, worrying about outliving their savings.

Don’t think of capital assets as something to sell in order to eat. An old expression says, if you give a man a fish then he eats for a day, but if you teach a man to fish then he eats for a lifetime. Think of a productive asset like a fishery. It should produce for a lifetime. It should not be consumed as a mere fish.

Capital assets should be valued in terms of how many groceries they can buy, not by liquidation, but by production. Unfortunately, monetary policy is making this increasingly difficult. Interest rates have been falling for over three decades, and now there’s scant yield to be had anywhere. We are regressing to the dark ages of paying for retirement by dishoarding.

CPI understates monetary debasement, because companies are constantly becoming more efficient. Dividing wealth by CPI compounds the error, because asset prices are rising.

We need a different way of looking at monetary debasement. I propose Yield Purchasing Power (YPP).  YPP is the yield on assets divided by the Consumer Price Index (or other index). The idea is to look at the productivity of assets to see what you can really afford.

Let me explain YPP with a simple example. If hamburgers sell for $5 and interest is 10%, then $50 of capital lets you eat one burger per year. Suppose the price of the burger doesn’t change, but the interest rate falls to 0.1%. You now need $5,000 in capital to earn that burger. Unfortunately, if you still only have $50, then you only get one burger every 100 years.

CPI doesn’t show this collapse in purchasing power, but YPP does.

Let’s take a look at YPP since 1962. The graph is inverted, to make the trend easier to see.

YPP

It’s interesting that the drop in purchasing power (rising in this inverted graph) begins around 1984, when the conventional view said inflation was tamed. CPI may have slowed down, but interest was falling too.

YPP shows us a staggering monetary devaluation—a classic parabola. The problem isn’t skyrocketing prices, but collapsing yields.

You need more and more assets to afford the same lifestyle. If your assets don’t keep up, then you have to liquidate your capital.

 

I have moved my weekly column from Forbes to the Swiss National Bank and Swiss Franc blog. I don’t plan on posting most of those articles here (except those that may be relevant, as I think this one is). The column is somewhat outside the focus of Monetary Metals. So I encourage those interested to subscribe at that site to receive notification when new articles are up.

danger sign

Falling Interest Causes Falling Wages

Interest rates have been falling for over three decades. Conventional economics has two things to say about this. One, inflation expectations are falling. Monetarists believe that the interest rate is set based on bond traders’ predictions of future price increases. Two, if employment and GDP are weak, then the central bank should increase the money supply. By increasing the money supply, it will cause rising prices, and somehow that causes workers to get hired. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen wrote a paper defending this absurd claim (which I criticized).

Monetary policy is actually putting the hurt on labor. Let’s look at why.

danger sign

Workers are employed by businesses, so we must look at the incentives that push on businesses. Businesses constantly face a choice among several alternatives. They choose based on the desire to make profit and avoid losses. Monetary policy affects their decisions, because it distorts the profitability of every path.

Consider one common tradeoff: hiring labor versus buying expensive tools. Management decides based on which costs less. The more expensive a tool, the more attractive it becomes to hire workers and vice versa. Since most companies borrow when they buy tools, the most immediate cost of a tool is the monthly payment. When the rate of interest falls, the monthly payment falls as well. This puts downward pressure on employment and wages (I wrote about this here).

A falling interest rate impacts the wage by a subtler, but more powerful process. In a recent article, Professor Antal Fekete describes it:

“First we dwell a little longer on the problem of the present value of a cash flow (defined as the sum of individual payments discounted at the prevailing rate of interest, each for the period of time between now and when it becomes payable in the future.) Since the rate of interest is being cut, discount at a lower rate is involved. Therefore the present value of the cash flow is increased…

What does this mean for the terms of trade of those who need a cash flow for survival, such as all pensioners and all wage earners? Well, the price they have to pay for the cash flow is just its present value. Any cut in the rate of interest by the central bank affects them adversely. Their terms of trade deteriorates. For example, if the rate of interest is cut in half, then they have to pay twice as much for the same cash flow as before the cut. In practical terms this means that wage earners have to work roughly twice as hard to continue earning wages at the same level…”

Let’s take a step back and cover some essential background material and then we’ll get back to this point. One differentiator of Fekete’s economics is in his concept of the loan. Others think of it as an exchange of present goods for future goods, but he had an insight. The essential characteristic of a loan is that it involves an exchange of wealth and income. Fekete describes one party, often a retiree, as having cash but not income. The other party, typically an entrepreneur, has income but not cash. The deal benefits both.

The retiree needs the income to buy groceries, without consuming his life’s savings. Earning interest provides him an income for the rest of his life, without fear of outliving his savings. The entrepreneur wants to build a business without having to waste years saving up for the investment. Borrowed capital enables him to quickly build productive capacity. This new production will increase his income.

We can think of the loan as the purchase of an income stream. Cash up front is traded for an income paid over time. By definition, and by nature, the amount of cash paid is equal to the value of the stream of payments to be made in the future. The value of this series of future payment is not simply the arithmetic sum. It is the sum of the present values of those payments.

Let’s look at the concept of the present value of a future payment. Suppose someone will pay $500 one year from today. Do you value it at $500 right now? No, a future payment is always discounted, to compensate for locking up the cash for a year, and of course the risk of nonpayment. We need a way of determining how much $500 in one year is worth today. To calculate the discount, we use the prevailing interest rate. If the interest rate is 10%, then this $500 payment is discounted by $50. It is worth $450 today.

The value of a future payment rises if the interest rate falls. For example, if the interest rate falls 5%, then the discount is only $25. That makes the payment worth $475 today. If this is not clear, then it may help to think through a few examples. Consider payments due years in the future. This idea—that present value varies inversely with interest—is a key principle.

Changes in the value of a loan are zero sum. If the rate of interest falls, then the lender gains at the expense of the borrower. This conclusion is counterintuitive and thus controversial, but it should not be. The income stream is worth more. This is the loss suffered by the borrower, and the gain enjoyed by the lender.

For example, here is a 5-year loan at 10% interest. If payments are made annually, then each is $263.80.

Year 1 2 3 4 5
Start Balance $1,000.00 $836.20 $656.02 $457.82 $239.80
Interest $100.00 $83.62 $65.60 $45.78 $23.98

 

The straight arithmetic sum of five $253.80 payments is $1,319. However the present value of the loan is less than that, because each future payment must be discounted. Here’s what that looks like.

Year 1 2 3 4 5 Total
Payment $263.80 $263.80 $263.80 $263.80 $263.80 $1,319
Present Value $239.82 $218.02 $198.20 $180.18 $163.80 $1,000

 

The present value of the income stream works out to be exactly the amount of the loan. The first table shows the loan amortization, with an annual $263.80 payment covering current interest plus fully amortization. The second table shows the discounting of each payment. This is an elegant validation of the theory.

Now, let’s look at what happens if the prevailing interest rate drops to 5%. The loan payments don’t change. However, the present value of those payments does.

Year 1 2 3 4 5 Total
Payment $263.80 $263.80 $263.80 $263.80 $263.80 $1,319
Present Value $251.24 $239.27 $227.88 $217.03 $206.69 $1,142

 

Discounted at only 5%, the same payments have a higher net present value—14.2% higher.

A loan with a longer term is more sensitive to changes in interest rate. The present value of a 10-year loan, for example, increases by 25.6% with the same change in interest rate.

The great economist Ludwig von Mises was aware of the impact of interest on long duration loans. He looked at the combination of two extremes, zero interest and a perpetual income stream. He wrote:

“If the future services which a piece of land can render were to be valued in the same way in which its present services are valued, no finite price would be high enough to impel its owner to sell it. Land could neither be bought nor sold against definite amounts of money…”

In other words, at zero interest the present value of land is infinite (as land produces income in perpetuity). For a perpetual income, each halving of the interest rate doubles the present value.

Accounting shines a spotlight on this phenomenon. However, it’s no moot abstraction. The loss to the borrower is real. No one would argue that the capital gain of a bondholder is somehow unreal. They should not argue against the loss of the bond issuer. It is the loss of the latter which provides the gains of the former.

Proper accounting should always match reality. So what, in reality, is going on?

Another way of thinking of the present value is the burden of debt. The more the rate falls, the more the debt load bears down on the borrower. The present value of an income stream is what any investor would pay to buy it. It is also what the debtor must pay to liquidate it.

Sometimes the best return for the owners is to sell the firm. However, that often requires paying off the debt. If that’s impossible, then the best option is off the table. The inability to liquidate debt causes many problems. So long as an enterprise has a dollar of debt, it’s an overhang. The lower the interest rate falls, the larger the overhang grows.

Let’s tie this all back to the worker. We can now see the connection between the wage and the loan. Both are an income stream, a set of payments to be made in the future. As with the loan, the present value of wages rises when interest falls. The employer is doubly squeezed, once by the increasing burden of debt, and twice when burden of wages increases too.

Something has to give. Either the worker must work harder, or else the employer must cut his pay. It’s a simple matter of survival for the employer. No firm can remain in business for long, if it allows liabilities to rise unchecked.

If productivity cannot be increased, and wages cannot be decreased, then the business must cut costs elsewhere. Often this amounts to substituting one form of capital loss for another, such as neglecting maintenance or research.

Now we’re ready to revisit the tradeoff of labor and capital, and tie our thesis together. The wages of labor are a series of future payments, but the price of a machine is paid up front. As the interest rate falls, the present value of both rises. That is, the present value of wages rises and the present value of the machine rises also.

When interest falls, wages subtract from the enterprise value and machines add to it. How perverse is that? How would you respond, if you were managing a business?

The central banks may say that increasing the money supply causes rising wages and increased employment. However, they increase money supply via bond purchases. This pushes bond prices up, which is the same think as pushing the interest rate down. It causes irreparable harm to employers, and consequently, to workers.

SNB sign

The Swiss Franc Will Collapse

I have worked to keep this piece readable, and as brief as possible. My grave diagnosis demands the evidence and reasoning to support it. One cannot explain the collapse of this currency with the conventional view. “They will print money to infinity,” may be popular but it’s not accurate. The coming destruction has nothing to do with the quantity of money. It is a story of what happens when interest rates fall into a black hole.

 

Yields Have Fallen Beyond Zero

The Swiss yield curve looks like nothing so much as a sinking ship. All but the 20- and 30-year bonds are now below the water line.

Swiss Yield Curve Jan23

Look at how much it’s submerged in just one week. The top line (yellow) is January 16, and the one below it was taken just a week later on January 23. It’s terrifying how fast the whole interest rate structure sank. Here is a graph of the 10-year bond since September. For comparison, the 10-year Treasury bond would not fit on this chart. The US bond currently pays 1.8%.

Swiss 10-year history

The Swiss 10-year yield was as high as 37 basis points on Friday January 2. By the next Monday, it had plunged to 28, or -25%. By January 15—the day the Swiss National Bank (SNB) announced it was removing the peg to the euro—the yield had plunged to just 7 basis points. It has been nonstop freefall since then, currently to -26 basis points.

What can explain this epic collapse? Why is the entire Swiss bond market drowning?

Drowning is a fitting metaphor. In my dissertation, I describe several harbingers of financial and monetary collapse. The first is when the interest interest rate on the long bond goes to zero. I discuss the fact that a falling rate destroys capital, and that lower rates mean a higher burden of debt. If the long bond rate is zero then the net present value of all debt (which is effectively perpetual) is infinite. Debtors cannot carry an infinite burden. As we’ll see, any monetary system that depends on debtors servicing their debt must collapse when the rate goes to zero.

I think the franc has reached the end. With negative rates out to 15 years, and a scant 33 basis points on the 30-year, it is all over but the shouting.

Not Printing, Borrowing

Let’s take a step back for a moment, and look at how the recent chapter unfolded. It began with the SNB borrowing mass quantities of francs. Most people say printed, but it’s impossible to understand this unprecedented disaster with such an approximate understanding. It’s not printing, but borrowing.

Think of a homebuyer borrowing $100,000 to buy a house. He never gets the cash in his bank account. He signs a bunch of paperwork, and then at the end of the day he has a debt obligation to repay, plus the title to the house. The former owner has the cash.

It works the same with any central bank that wants to buy an asset. At the end of the day, the bank owns the asset, and the former owner of the asset now holds the cash. This cash is the debt of the central bank. It is on the bank’s balance sheet as a liability. The bank owes it.

This is vitally important to understand, and it can be quite counterintuitive. If one thinks of the franc (or dollar, euro, etc.) as money, and if one thinks that the central banks print money, then one will come to precisely the wrong conclusion: that there is nothing owed, and indeed there is no debtor. In this view, the holder of francs has cash, which is a current asset. End of story.

This conclusion could not be more wrong.

Certainly, the idea of the central bank repaying its debt is absurd. By law, payment is deemed made when the debtor pays in currency—i.e. francs in Switzerland. However, the franc is the very liability of the SNB that we’re discussing. How can the SNB pay off its franc liabilities using its own franc liabilities as means of payment?

It can’t. This is a contradiction in terms. Thus it’s critical to understand that there is no extinguisher of debt in the regime of irredeemable paper currency. You may get yourself out of the debt loop by paying in currency, but that merely shifts the debt. The debt does not go out of existence, because paying a debt with an IOU cannot extinguish it. Unlike you, the central bank cannot get itself out of debt.

However, it can service its debt. For example, the Federal Reserve in the U.S. pays interest on reserves. Indeed, the bank must service its debts. It would be a calamity if a payment is missed, if the central bank ever defaulted.

The central bank must also maintain its liabilities, which is what it uses to fund its assets. If the commercial banks withdraw their deposits—and they do generally have a choice—the central bank would be forced to sell its assets. That would be contrary to its policy intent, not to mention quite a shock to brittle economies.

Make no mistake, a central bank can go bankrupt. This may seem tricky to understand, as the law makes its liability legal tender for all debts public and private. A central bank is also allowed to commit acts of accounting (and leverage) that would not be tolerated in a private company. Regardless, it can present misleading financial statements, but even if the law lets it get away with that, reality will have its revenge in the end. The emperor may claim to be wearing magnificent royal robes, but he’s still naked.

If liabilities exceed assets, then a bank—even a central bank—is insolvent and the consequences will come soon enough. The cash flow from the assets will sooner or later become insufficient to pay the interest on the liabilities. No central bank wants to be in a position where it is obliged to borrow, not to purchase asset but to service a negative cash flow. That is a rapid death spiral. It must somehow push down the interest rate on its liabilities (which are typically short term) to keep the cost of financing its portfolio below the revenue generated on the assets.

This becomes increasingly tricky when two things happen. One, the yield on the asset goes negative. Thus, the even-more-negative (and even more absurd) one-day rate of -400 basis points in Switzerland. Two, the issuance of more currency drives down yields even further (described in detail, below).

Events force the hand of the central bank. It goes down a path where it has fewer and fewer choices. That brings us back to negative interest rates out to the 15-year bond so far.

The Visible Hand of the Swiss National Bank

So the SNB issued francs to fund its purchase of euros. Next, it spent the euros on whatever Eurozone assets it wished to buy, such as German bunds.

It’s well known that the SNB put on a lot of this trade to keep the franc down to €0.83 (the inverse of keeping the euro down to CHF1.2) l. It also helped push down interest rates in Europe. The SNB was a relentless buyer of European bonds.

That leads to the question of what it did in Switzerland. The SNB was trading new francs for euros. That means the former owner of those euros then owned francs. These francs have to stay in the franc-denominated domain. What asset will this new franc owner buy?

I frame the question this way deliberately. If you have a 100-franc note, you can put it in your pocket. If you have CHF100,000, you can deposit it in a bank. If you have CHF100,000,000 (or billions) then you are going to buy a bond or other asset (depositing cash in a bank just pushes it to the bank, who buys the asset).

The seller of the asset is selling on an uptick. He gives up the bond, because at its higher price (and hence lower yield) he now finds another asset more attractive on a risk-adjusted basis. Risk includes his own liquidity risk (which of course rises as his leverage increases).

As the SNB (and many others) relentlessly push up the bond price, and hence push down the yield, the sellers of the ever-lower yielding bonds have fresh new franc cash balances.

The Quantity Theory of Money holds that the demand for money falls as the quantity rises. If demand for money falls, then by this definition the prices of all other things—including consumer goods—rises. It is commonly held that people tradeoff between saving money vs. spending money (i.e. consumption). The prediction is rising consumer prices.

I emphatically disagree. A wealthy investor does unload his assets to go on an extra vacation if he doesn’t like the bond yield. A bank with a trillion dollar balance sheet does not dole out bigger salaries if its margins are compressed.

So what does trade off with government bonds? If an investor doesn’t want to own a government bond, what else might he want to own? He buys corporate bonds, stocks, or rental real estate, thus pushing up their prices and yields down.

And then, in a dysfunctional monetary system, you can add antique cars, paintings, a second and third home, etc. These things serve as surrogates for investment. When investing cannot produce an adequate yield, people turn to non-yielding non-investment assets.

The addition of a new franc at the margin perturbs the previous equilibrium of risk-adjusted yields across all asset classes. Every time the bond price goes up, every owner of every franc-denominated asset must recalculate his preferences.

The problem is that the SNB does not create any more productive investment opportunities when it spills more francs into the Swiss financial system. Those new francs have to chase after the existing assets.

Yields are falling. They necessarily had to fall.

An Increasing Money Supply and Decreasing Interest Rate

The above discussion describes the picture in every developed economy. Interest rates have been falling for 34 years in the U.S., for example.

In a free market, the expansion of credit would be driven by a market spread: available yield – cost of borrowing. If that spread is too small (or negative) there will be no more borrowing to buy assets. If it gets wider, then banks can spring into action.

However, central banks distort this. Instead of the cost of borrowing being a market-determined price, it is fixed by the central bank. This perverts the business model of a bank into what is euphemistically known as maturity transformation—borrowing short to lend long. It’s not possible for a bank to borrow money from depositors with 5-year time deposit accounts in order to buy 5-year bonds. The bank has to borrow a shorter duration and buy a longer, in order to make a reasonable profit margin.

If the central bank sets the borrowing cost lower and lower, then the banks can bid up the price of government bonds higher and higher (which causes a lower and lower yield on the long bond). This is not capitalism at all, but a centrally planned kabuki theater. All of the rules are set by a non-market actor, who can change them for political expediency.

The net result is issuance of credit far beyond what could ever happen in a free market. This problem is compounded by the fact that the central bank cannot control what assets get bought when it buys bonds. It hands the cash over to the former bond holders. It’s trying to accomplish something—such as keeping the franc down in the case of the SNB, or preventing bankruptcies, in the case of the Fed—and it has no choice but to keep flooding the market until it achieves its goal. In the US, the rising tide eventually lifted all ships, even the leaky old tubs. The result is a steeper credit gradient, and the bank can eventually force liquidity out to its target debtors.

The situation in Switzerland makes the Fed’s problems look small by comparison. Unlike the Fed, which had a relatively well-defined goal, the SNB put itself at the mercy of the currency market. It had no particular goal, and therefore no particular budget or cost. The SNB was fighting to hold a line against the world. While it kept the franc peg, the SNB put pressure on both Swiss and European interest rates.

Something changed with the start of the year. We can understand it in light of the arbitrage between the Swiss bond, and other Swiss assets. The risk-adjusted rate of return on other assets always has to be greater than that of the Swiss government bond (except perhaps at the peak of a bubble). Otherwise why would anyone own the higher-risk and lower-yield asset?

Therefore, there are three possible causes for the utter collapse in interest rates in Switzerland beginning 10 days prior to the abandonment of the peg:

1. the rate of return of other assets has been leading the drop in yields
2. buying pressure on the franc obliged the SNB to borrow more francs into existence, fueling more bond buying
3. the risk of other assets has been rising (including liquidity risk to their leveraged owners)

#1 is doubtful. It’s surely the other way around. It’s not falling yields on real estate driving falling yields on bonds. Bond holders are induced to part with their bonds on a SNB-subsidized uptick. Then they use the proceeds to buy something else, and drive its yield down.

One fact supports conclusion #2. Something forced the SNB to remove the peg. Buying pressure is the only thing that makes any sense. The SNB hit its stop-loss.

The rate of interest continued to fall even after the SNB abandoned its peg. Why? Reason #3, rising risks. Think of a bank which borrowed in Swiss francs to buy Eurozone assets. This trade seemed safe with the franc pegged to the euro. When the peg was lifted, suddenly the firm was faced with a staggering loss incurred in a very short time.

The overreaction of the franc in the minutes following the SNB’s policy change had to be the urgent closing of Eurozone positions by many of these players. The franc went from €0.83 to €1.15 in 10 minutes, before settling down near €0.96. For those balance sheets denominated in francs, this looked like the euro moved from CHF1.20 to CHF0.87, a loss of 28%. What would you do, if your positions instantly lost so much? Most people would try to close their positions.

Closing means selling Eurozone assets to get francs. Then you need to buy a franc-denominated asset, such as the Swiss government bond. That clearly happened big-time, as we see in the incredible drop in the interest rate in Switzerland. Francs which had formerly been used to fund Eurozone assets must now be used to fund assets exclusively in the much-smaller Swiss realm.

In other words, a great deal of franc credit was used to finance Eurozone assets. This is a big world, and hence the franc carry trade didn’t dominate it. When those francs had to go home and finance Swiss assets only, it capsized the market.

And the entire yield curve is now sinking into a sea of negative rates.

The Consequences of Falling Interest

Meanwhile, unnaturally low interest is offering perverse incentives to corporations who can issue franc-denominated liabilities. They are being forced-fed with credit, like ducks being fatted for foie gras. This surely must be fueling all manner of malinvestment, including overbuilding of unnecessary capacity. The hurdle to build a business case has never been lower, because the cost of borrowing has never been lower. The consequence is to push down the rate of profit, as competitors expand production to chase smaller returns. All thanks to ever-cheaper credit.

Artificially low interest in Switzerland is causing rising risk and, at the same time, falling returns.

The Swiss situation is truly amazing. One has to go out to 20 years to see a positive number for yield—if one can call 21 basis points much of a yield.

It’s not only pathological, but terminal. This is the end.

In Switzerland, there is hardly any incentive remaining to do the right things, such as save and invest for the long term. However, there’s no lack of perverse incentives to borrow more and speculate on asset prices detaching even further from reality.

Speculation is in its own class of perversity. Speculation is a process that converts one man’s capital into another man’s income. The owner of capital, as I noted earlier, does not want to squander it. The recipient of income, on the other hand, is happy to spend some of it.

We should think of a falling interest rate (i.e. rising bond market and hence rising asset markets) as sucking the juice (capital) out of the system. While the juice is flowing, asset owners can spend, and lots of people are employed (especially in the service sector).

For example, picture a homeowner in a housing bubble. Every year, the market price of his house is up 20%. Many homeowners might consider borrowing money against their houses. They spend this money freely. Suppose a house goes up in price from $100,000 to $1,000,000 in a little over a decade. Unfortunately, the debt owed on the house goes up proportionally.

With financial assets, they typically change hands many times on the way up. In each case, the sellers may spend some of their gains. Certainly, the brokers, advisors, custodians, and other professionals all get a cut—and the tax man too. At the end of the day, you have higher prices but not higher equity. In other words, the capital ratio in the market collapses.

To understand the devastating significance of this, consider two business owners. Both have small print shops. Both have $1,000,000 worth of presses, cutters, binding machines, etc. One owns everything outright; he paid cash when he bought it. The other used every penny of financing he could get, and has a monthly payment of about $18,000. Both shops have the same cost of doing business, say $6,000. If sales revenues are $27,000 then both owners may feel they are doing well. What happens if revenues drop by $3,500? The all-equity owner is fine. He can reduce the dividend a bit. The leveraged owner is forced to default. The more your leverage, the more vulnerable you are to a drop in revenues or asset values.

Falling interest, and its attendant rising asset prices, juices up the economy. People feel richer (especially if their estimation of their wealth is portfolio value divided by consumer prices) and spend freely. Unfortunately, it becomes harder and harder to extract smaller and smaller drops of juice. The marginal productivity of debt falls.

Think about it from the other side, the borrower. The very capacity to pay interest has been falling for decades. A declining rate of profit goes hand-in-hand with a falling rate of interest. Lower profit is both caused by lower interest, and also the cause of it. A business with less profit is less able to pay interest expense. Who could afford to pay rates that were considered to be normal just a few decades ago? It is capital that makes profit, and hence capacity to pay interest, possible. And it is capital that’s eroded by falling rates.

The stream of endless bubbles is just the flip side of the endless consumption of capital. Except, there is an end. There is no way of avoiding it now, for Switzerland.

How About Just Shrinking the Money Supply?

Monetarists often tell us that the central bank can shrink the money supply as well as grow it, and the reason why it’s never happened is, well… the wrong people were in charge.

I disagree.

To see why, let’s look at the mechanism for how a central bank expands the money supply. It issues cash to an asset owner, and the asset changes hands. Now the bank owns the asset and the seller owns the cash (which he will promptly use to buy the next best asset). A relentlessly rising bond price is lots of fun. It’s called a bull market, and everyone is making profits as they reckon them (actually consuming capital, as we said above).

How would a contraction of the money supply work? It seems simple, at first. The central bank just sells an asset and gets back the cash. The cash is actually its own liability, so it can just retire it. And voila. The money supply shrinks.

Not so fast.

There is an old saying among traders. Markets take the escalator up, but the elevator down. Central bank buying slowly but relentlessly bid up the price of bonds. Tick by tick, the bank forced it up. What would central bank selling do? What would even a rumor of massive central bank selling do?

Bond prices would fall sharply.

The problem is that few can tolerate falling bond prices, because everyone is leveraged. Think about what it means for everyone to borrow and buy assets, for sellers to consume some profits and reinvest the proceeds into other assets. There is increasingly scant capital base supporting an increasingly inflated—as in puffed-up with air, without much substance—asset market. A small decline in prices across all asset classes would wipe out the financial system.

Market participants have to be leveraged. Dirt cheap credit not only makes leverage possible, but also necessary. How else to keep the doors open, without using leverage? Spreads are too thin to support anyone, unlevered.

Banks are also maturity mismatched, borrowing short to lend long. The consequences of a rate hike will be devastating, crushing banks on both sides of the balance sheet. On the liabilities side, the cost of funding rises with each uptick in the interest rate. On the asset side, long bonds fall in value at the same time. If short-term rates rise enough, banks will have a negative cash flow.

For example, imagine owning a 10-year bond that pays 250 basis points. To finance it, you borrow at 25 basis points. Well, now imagine your financing cost rises to 400 basis points. For every dollar worth of bonds you own, you lose 1.5 cents per year. This problem can also afflict the central bank itself.

You have a cash flow problem. You are also bust.

The Bottom Line

The problem of falling rates is crushing everyone, but raising the rate cannot fix the problem. It should not be surprising that, after decades of capital destruction—caused by falling rates—the ruins of a once-great accumulation of wealth cannot be repaired by raising the interest rate.

I do not see any way out for the Swiss National Bank and the franc, within the system of irredeemable paper money. However, unless the SNB can get out of this jam, the franc is doomed. I can’t predict the timing, but I believe the fuse is lit and the powder keg could go off at any time.

One day, a bankruptcy will happen. Soothing voices will assure us it was unexpected. Then another will happen, perhaps triggered by the first or perhaps not. Then the cascading begins. One party’s liabilities are another’s assets. ABC’s bankruptcy wipes out DEF’s asset. Since DEF is leveraged, it cannot absorb much loss until it, too, is dragged under.

Somewhere in the midst of this, people will turn against the franc. Today, it’s arguably the most loved paper currency. However, I don’t think it will take too many capital losses in Switzerland, before there is a selling stampede. The currency will fall to zero, in a repeat of a pattern that the world has seen many times before.

People will call it hyperinflation (I don’t prefer that term). Call it what you will, it will be the death of the franc. It will have nothing to do with the quantity of money.

Two factors can delay the inevitable. One, the SNB may unwind its euro position. As this will involve selling euros to buy francs, the result will be to put a firm bid under the franc. Two, speculators will of course know this is happening and eagerly front-run the SNB. After all, the SNB is not an arbitrager buying when it can make a spread. It is a buyer by mandate (in this scenario) and must pay the ask price. Even if the SNB does not unwind, speculators may buy the franc and wait for it to happen. And of course, they could also buy based on a poor understanding of what’s happening, or due to other perverse incentives in their own countries.

Bankruptcies aside, the franc is already set on a hair-trigger. Something else could trip it and begin the process of collapse. There is little reason for holding Swiss francs in preference to dollars. The interest rate differential is huge. The 10-year US Treasury pays 1.8%. Compare that to the Swiss bond which charges you 26 basis points, and the difference is over 208 points in favor of the US Treasury. Once the risk of a rising franc is taken out of the market (by time or price action) this trade will commence. A falling franc against the dollar will add further kick to this trade. A trickle could become a torrent very quickly.

I would not be surprised if the process of collapse of the franc began next week, nor if it lingered all year. This kind of event is not susceptible to a precise prediction of when.

What is clear is that, once the process begins in earnest, it will be explosive, highly non-linear, and over quickly (I would guess a matter weeks).

 

I plan to publish a separate paper revisiting my Gold Bonds to Avert Financial Armageddon thesis in light of the Swiss crisis. I will save for that paper my assessment of whether or how gold bonds can provide a way out for the Swiss people trapped in the terminal phase of irredeemable paper money.

negative interestr

In America, Government Pays You Interest. In Switzerland, You Pay Government.

The old joke is, “(with a Russian accent) In America, you correct newspaper, but in Soviet Union, newspaper corrects you.” Switzerland is now experiencing the bond market equivalent. In America, the government pays you to borrow but in Switzerland you pay the government. All Swiss bonds have a negative yield out to 9 years. Negative means you pay them to lend them your money. The 10-year Swiss government bond has effectively zero yield. For comparison, the 10-year US Treasury is 1.8%.

Here is a graph of the Swiss yield curve.

Swiss Yield Curve

The interest rate in Switzerland—and in fact in most of the world—has been in a falling trend for decades. Many credit President Reagan and his Fed Chairman Paul Volcker with ending the massive inflation that plagued Nixon, Ford, and Carter. What they actually did in 1981 was spike up the interest rate, and set up the conditions for a falling rate that continues to this day, 34 years later.

A falling interest rate puts downward pressure on prices. I wrote about this in my theory of interest and prices, and recently in a short article. Reagan and Volcker may have ended one problem (I think it was an unsustainable trend that was coming to an end anyway), but they traded it for another. Monetary problems can exhibit enormous lags, so few understood it during Reagan’s time in office. Those early years of falling interest seemed good (well except for Black Monday 1987 when the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 23% in a day).

At first, a falling interest seems like great fun. Where debt can be refinanced, a lower rate reduces the monthly payment by a large amount. New borrowing can certainly occur, with a lower payment. The net result is that it juices up a heckuva boom. The boom may seem like a strong economy, but it is actually destroying precious capital. In the later phases, the boom sours. One reason is that the capital destruction continues apace, but the effect on the monthly payment is diminishing. Every halving of the rate causes a doubling of the net present value of the debt (assuming all debt, in aggregate, is perpetual under irredeemable paper currency). However, the drop from 4% to 2% does not reduce the monthly payment as much as the drop from 16% to 8%.

Many believe that the interest rate is cyclical, and will turn upwards soon. These folks need to look at a graph of the past 34 years of interest rates. Here is a graph of the 10 year US Treasury bond.

US 10-year yield

Others believe the central banks are in control of rates, but in reality, they are like the Wizard of Oz. While you are in front of the curtain, they seem omnipotent but once the curtain is pulled back, not so much. They had the power to set in motion forces bigger than themselves. Now those forces are in play, and the rate is still falling.

Any 8 year old boy knows about pushing a snowball downhill, in the spring when the snow is wet and sticky. At first, it is a lot of effort to push. It gets easier and easier for a while. Then there is a point, a moment of no return, when he is not pushing any more. The snowball, now quite heavy and moving faster, is beyond his limited strength and mass to stop. He can run with it for a while, keeping his hands hovering over it and pretending he has it under control. However, the fate of the snowball is governed by only two things at that point: gravity and whatever is at the bottom of the hill—window, car, or street.

The snowball is the interest rate, and the young boy is the central bank.

There was a brief correction in 2013, and since then the interest rate trend has accelerated with a vengeance. Last year at this time, the rate on the Swiss 10-year bond peaked at 1.25%. So far this year the avalanche has continued, and on close of business Friday it was 0.06%.

Every bond speculator understands something, and it’s time for debtors to understand it too. When the rate falls, the same stream of future payments has a higher net present value. The price of a bond goes up as the interest rate goes down. That’s because that set of payments that will occur in the future is worth more today. And that is because each payment is discounted to the present using the rate of interest.

The bond speculator makes a capital gain when he buys a bond and then the interest rate falls. This is uncontroversial. What’s controversial is that the bond issuer suffers a capital loss. It’s the issuer’s capital that ultimately provides the speculator’s gain. A change in interest rate is zero-sum.

For example, what is it worth today if someone will pay you $100 in a year? If the interest rate is 10%, the present value is $90. However, if the interest rate is 1%, the value is $99. Future payments are worth more today, at lower interest rates.

A bond is just the sum of a series of payments. A 10-year bond, for example, could be thought of as ten of these $100 payments. If the interest rate is 10%, then the present value is $90 + $81 + $72.90 … = $586. But as the rate falls, say to 1%, the present value climbs to $947.

The above assumes a 10-year payoff. However, a more accurate assumption is that all debt is perpetual. While one debtor may pay off his debt, in aggregate it is not possible to extinguish debt using irredeemable paper currency. The value of a perpetuity (bond of unlimited duration) doubles when the rate of interest is halved. Whether the rate is cut from 16% to 8% or whether it is cut from 0.1% to 0.05%, the net present value of the debt doubles.

Of course, cutting the rate from 16 to 8 is a significant reduction in the monthly payment. This fuels a huge boom. When it goes from 0.1 to 0.05 the change in the payment is negligible. In other words, the downside remains constant but the perceived benefit is diminishing.

And now the Swiss National Bank has fueled a ferocious rally in bond prices. It has issued mass quantities of francs to fund its mass purchases of euros. What it could not do is create productive ventures that needed to be financed with these additional francs. So the new holders of these new francs either deposit them in a bank—which buys government bonds—or buy government bonds directly.

These folks aren’t interested in financing a new venture anyway. Who are the new franc holders? Some may be citizens of peripheral countries, fleeing unsound local banking systems. They are unconcerned about a slight cost, which they are happy to pay to be safe from Greek banks stuffed to the gills with Greek government debt on the eve of what could be a historic default.

Others, hedge funds or individual traders, are speculating on the franc. They seek the sort of big-time capital gain that occurred when the SNB abandoned the peg. On their balance sheet, the franc went from €0.83 to €1.01, or a gain of 22%. A slight negative yield is just the cost of carry, nothing to worry about.

None of them are concerned about the challenges of the Swiss entrepreneur, the major Swiss corporations, or the Swiss economy. They are either looking for a safe haven in a storm, or trading a story to get rich.

The big news last Thursday was that the SNB cut the franc peg to the euro. This will slow or stop further issuance of francs, but a few hundred billion cats are already out of the bag. The SNB also lowered the sight deposit rate to -0.75%. The SNB may think that this eases monetary policy, in lieu of a euro peg.

In any case, it provides an incentive for people to choose the bond over a bank account balance. This may be what caused the 1-year bond to fall to -0.72% interest (representing a yield curve inversion).

What’s the bottom line? A rising franc means a rising liability for anyone who is short francs. Who would that be? The Swiss National bank, the Swiss commercial banks, Swiss pension funds, Swiss insurers, Swiss annuities, to name a few. Their liability just went up 22%, corresponding to the value of the asset that went up on franc holders.

In addition, the net present value of a debt is not simply the gross amount. It’s the discounted value of future payments. If the interest rate goes down, then the net present value goes up. This is a bigger impact than the change in the value of the franc itself. A rising burden of debt is a formula to crush debtors.

Even this early, a few have been crushed. Several currency brokers including FXCM have been wiped out by the move. The Everest Capital Global Fund took dreadful losses as well. Stories of collapsed businesses are coming.

It is important to realize that when a loss is realized on Jan 15, 2015, the damage did not occur on that day. It occurred in the long lead up prior to that. The losses were masked (or event encouraged) by the SNB when it temporarily manipulated the market price of the franc. Market prices are signals, and you distort a signal at grave peril of perversely discouraging prudence and encouraging destruction.

As with the Cyprus bank defaults, the actual losses occurred months or years prior, in an insidious process that went unnoticed. Until suddenly—catastrophically—a single event shines a spotlight on the loss. In other words, an entity’s liabilities may trade at par but that does not mean the entity is solvent. It could mean that governments are using their powers to conceal the truth from people.

The Swiss banks and many others have just taken dreadful losses. Perhaps the damage can be concealed for a while longer. Expect more defaults.

When the death of the franc occurs, it will be when creditors flee the currency as they now flee Greek banks. It is too soon to say if this is imminent, but it’s hard to believe that any currency can long survive the destructiveness of negative interest rates. A whole book could be written on the perverse incentives imposed by this unnatural condition. This is entirely separate from the losses already occurring and yet to come as the rate continues to move.

I can only conclude by offering my advice to the SNB. It is time to consider what would have been unthinkable. Issue gold bonds and begin the transition to the gold standard. I don’t think there is much time to waste.

bangladesh-building-collapse

A Signal of Coming Collapse

I proposed seven drivers of financial implosion in my dissertation. My recent writing has focused on two of them. One is the falling rate of interest on the 10-year government bond. As interest falls, the burden of debt rises. Since the falling rate incentivized more and more people to borrow, the number of indebted people, businesses, corporations, and of course governments is large. When the rate gets to zero, the burden of debt becomes theoretically infinite.

In the US, the downward trend is still in a deceptively mild phase (though there was a vicious spike down on Oct 15 to 1.87%). The rate on the 10-year Treasury is 2.3% today. In Germany, it is down to 0.82% and in Japan the metastatic cancer is much closer to causing multiple organ failures, with a yield of just 0.46%.

Two is gold backwardation, which has also been quiescent of late. Although it is worth noting that with these lower gold prices, temporary backwardation has returned. The December gold cobasis is over +0.2%).

I haven’t written much about a third indicator yet. What proportion of government bond issuance does the central bank have to buy? I theorized that when the central bank is buying all of the bonds issued by the government, that this is another sign of imminent collapse. I phrased it, as with the other indicators, as a value that is falling. Collapse happens when it hits zero, if not earlier. Here is what I wrote:

“the average amount of new Treasury bond issuance minus new central bank Treasury bonds falling towards zero (i.e. the central bank is buying a greater and greater proportion of Treasury bonds issued).”

Bloomberg recently published an article about the Bank of Japan’s announcement of a new bond-buying program. Bloomberg presents two facts. One, the Bank plans to buy ¥8 to ¥12 trillion per month. Two, the government is selling ¥10 trillion per month in new bonds. This is an astonishing development.

The Bank of Japan will buy 100 percent of the new government bond issuance.

Popular theory holds that a currency’s value falls as the quantity issued rises. In this view, the yen falls as the yen supply increases. While admittedly not scientific, here are graphs of the Japanese yen supply and the price of the yen in dollars from 1970 through present.

Japan m0 1970

jpy1970

The yen has been falling since 2012, but not because of its quantity. It has been falling because the market is questioning its quality. One way to do this is to borrow yen, trade the yen for another currency, and buy an asset in that currency. This carry trade is equivalent to shorting the yen. So long as the yen is falling, and the interest rate on the bond in the other currency is higher than the interest rate paid to borrow the yen, this is a good trade.

What happens as the yen falls faster? Contrary to populist economics, it’s not good for Japanese businesses. However, it is a free transfer of wealth to those engaged in the carry trade. They can repay the borrowed yen at a cheaper and cheaper cost. When the yen goes to zero (which may take a while to play out), their debt is wiped out.

That’s what a currency collapse is. It’s a total wipeout of debt denominated in that currency. Since the currency itself is just a slice of debt, the currency itself loses all value. While on the surface it may seem good for debtors, it’s a horrific catastrophe. No one who understands the human toll, the cost in terms of the lives wrecked (and lost) would look forward to this with anything but dread.

The objective of my writing is to try to prevent it from happening. We need a graceful transition to gold, not an abrupt collapse like 476AD. It may be too late for the hapless Japanese. I hope it’s not too late for the rest of the civilized world.