Niels C. Jensen of Absolute Return Partners isn’t buying the green shoots thing. He’s also thinks the huge market move is just a suckers’ rally. In ARP’s May letter, he notes that 1929-1932 saw four massive rallies of 20%+ and that such rallies are the hallmark of bear markets.
But Niels’ real problem is with debt. Specifically, the amount of debt the world is going to have to take on during the recovery from this crisis. This mountain of debt, Niels says, is likely to be vastly larger than the IMF, the US government, or anyone else is expecting.
Before we go to Niels, here’s a quote from the Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart study of financial crises that inspires some of Niels’ analysis. This study was widely cited after it appeared a few months ago.
Broadly speaking, financial crises are protracted affairs. More often than not, the
aftermath of severe financial crises share three characteristics.
First, asset market collapses are deep and prolonged. Real housing price declines average 35 per cent stretched out over six years, while equity price collapses average 55 per cent over a
downturn of about three and a half years.
Second, the aftermath of banking crises is associated with profound declines in output and employment. The unemployment rate rises an average of 7 percentage points over the down phase of the cycle, which lasts on average over four years. Output falls (from peak to trough) an average of over 9 per cent, although the duration of the downturn, averaging roughly two years, is considerably
shorter than for unemployment.
Third, the real value of government debt tends to explode, rising an average of 86 per cent in the major post–World War II episodes. Interestingly, the main cause of debt explosions is not the widely cited costs of bailing out and recapitalizing the banking system. Admittedly, bailout costs are difficult to
measure, and there is considerable divergence among estimates from competing studies.
But even upper-bound estimates pale next to actual measured rises in public debt. In
fact, the big drivers of debt increases are the inevitable collapse in tax revenues that
governments suffer in the wake of deep and prolonged output contractions, as well as
often ambitious countercyclical fiscal policies aimed at mitigating the downturn.
And now here’s Niels, as excerpted in John Mauldin’s Outside The Box.
Banking Crises Run and Run
Reinhart and Rogoff studied every banking crisis of the past generation and made some startling observations. One in particular caught my attention. It has to do with the subsequent rise in government debt which, according to Reinhart and Rogoff, has been “… a defining characteristic of the aftermath of banking crises for over a century”. According to the authors, governments inevitably underestimate the ultimate cost of a banking crisis, because the indirect costs (such as falling tax revenue in subsequent years) end up much higher than predicted.
The IMF estimates that the cost of the current crisis to the United States will eventually reach 34% of GDP or close to $5 trillion. However, the Obama administration, through its various implicit and explicit guarantees, is already using a number close to $9 trillion4. And Reinhart and Rogoff’s historical average of 86% of GDP implies an ultimate cost of over $12 trillion!
The IMF is too optimistic
I have a lot of respect for all the good work being produced by the people at the IMF; however, they are sometimes too politically correct for my taste; maybe too afraid of stepping on someone’s toes. So when they go public, as they did recently, with an estimate of how much the current crisis would ultimately cost, their projection will more than likely prove hopelessly inadequate.
The true cost is important, because it has to be financed through new bond issuance, and it is my thesis that the sheer size of this tsunami will eventually overwhelm the world’s bond markets. As you can see from chart 7, using the official IMF estimates, the twelve most industrialised of the world’s G20 countries (in my book known as the Dirty Dozen) will have to issue about $10 trillion worth of new bonds to cover the cost of the current crisis.
The final cost will be enormous
However, if you (like me) believe that IMF underestimates the true cost of this crisis, Reinhart and Rogoff offer a more realistic approach (see chart 8). Using their least costly case study (Malaysia 1997) as our best case scenario, the true cost comes to $15 trillion. If one uses the average of 86% instead, the cost jumps to a whopping $33 trillion. I didn’t even bother to produce a worst case scenario – it all got too depressing!
I need to put the $33 trillion into perspective, because it is so big that it is almost incomprehensible. According to Wikipedia (see chart 9), total private wealth across the world today is about $37 trillion less the losses incurred in 2007-09, so the real number is probably closer to $30 trillion now. Total global savings (loosely adjusted for the big losses in 2008) are probably somewhere in the region of $100 trillion. In other words, financing this crisis could absorb one-third of total global savings. No wonder Gordon Brown looks tired!
Where do we find the money?
Obviously, governments may buy a portion of these bonds themselves, but they cannot afford more than a fraction of the total unless they want to challenge Mugabe as the ultimate master of illusion. Neither should investors hold out for sovereign wealth funds to do the dirty work. As is clear from chart 9, the total amount of wealth accumulated in these funds is pocket money when compared to the projected bond issuance over the next few years.
Hence it comes down to the price at which governments can attract sufficient demand from people like you and me. One of two things may happen. Either this crisis will ignite such a bout of deflation that investors will happily own government bonds yielding 2-3% or the deflation scare goes away ultimately, the global economy recovers and bond investors demand much higher yields for taking sovereign risk. I am not yet sure which scenario will prevail, but I do know that both are quite bad for equities longer term. Take your profits!
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