Pretend for a second that you recently retired with a decent amount of money in the bank, and all you have to do is generate a paltry 5% to live in comfort for the rest of your days. But lately that’s been easier said than done. Your money market fund yields less than 1%. Your bond funds are around 3% and your bank CDs are are down to half the rate of a couple of years ago. Stocks, meanwhile, are down over the past decade and way too volatile in any event. If you don’t find a way to generate that 5% you’ll have to start eating into capital, which screws up your plan, possibly leaving you with more life than money a decade hence.
Now pretend that you’re running a multi-billion dollar pension fund. You’ve promised the trustees a 7% return and they’ve calibrated contributions and payouts accordingly. But nothing in the investment-grade realm gets you anywhere near 7%. If you come up short, the plan’s recipients won’t get paid in a decade or – the ultimate horror – you’ll have to ask the folks paying in to contribute more, which means you’ll probably be scapegoated out of a job.
In either case, what do you do? Apparently you start buying junk bonds. According to Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, junk issuance is soaring as desperate investors snap up whatever paper promises to get them the yield they’ve come to depend on. Here’s an excerpt:
U.S. companies issued risky “junk” bonds at a record clip this week, taking advantage of keen investor appetite for returns amid declining interest rates and tepid stock markets.
The borrowing binge comes as the Federal Reserve keeps interest rates near zero and yields on U.S. government debt are near record lows. Those low rates have spread across a variety of markets, making it cheaper for companies with low credit ratings to borrow from investors.
Corporate borrowers with less than investment-grade ratings sold $15.4 billion in junk bonds this week, a record total for a single week, according to data provider Dealogic. The month-to-date total, $21.1 billion, is especially high for August, typically a quiet month that has seen an average of just $6.5 billion in issuance over the past decade.
Size matters. And it particularly matters when the size of the financial system grossly exceeds the productive capacity of the underlying economy. Then problems arise. Surplus capital flows into paper assets triggering a boom. Then speculators pile in, driving asset prices higher. Margins grow, debts balloon, and bubbles emerge. The frenzy finally ends when the debts can no longer be serviced and the bubble begins to crumple, sometimes violently. As gas escapes, credit tightens, businesses are forced to cut back, asset prices plunge and unemployment soars. Deflation spreads to every sector. Eventually, the government steps in to rescue the financial system while the broader economy slumps into a coma.
The crisis that started two years ago, followed this same pattern. A meltdown in subprime mortgages sent the dominoes tumbling; the secondary market collapsed, and stock markets went into freefall. When Lehman Bros flopped, a sharp correction turned into a full-blown panic. Lehman tipped-off investors that that the entire multi-trillion dollar market for securitized loans was built on sand. Without price discovery, via conventional market transactions, no one knew what mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and other exotic debt-instruments were really worth. That sparked a global sell-off. Markets crashed. For a while, it looked like the whole system might collapse.
The Fed’s emergency intervention pulled the system back from the brink, but at great cost. Even now, the true value of the so-called toxic assets remains unknown. The Fed and Treasury have derailed attempts to create a public auction facility--like the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC)--where prices can be determined and assets can be sold. Billions in toxic waste now clog the Fed’s balance sheet. Ultimately, the losses will be passed on to the taxpayer.
Now that the economy is no longer on steroids, the financial system needs to be downsized. The housing/equities bubble was generated by over-consumption that required high levels of debt-spending. That model requires cheap money and easy access to credit, conditions no longer exist. The economy has reset at a lower level of economic activity, so changes need to be made. The financial system needs to shrink.
The problem is, the Fed’s "lending facilities" have removed any incentive for financial institutions to deleverage. Asset prices are propped up by low interest, rotating loans on dodgy collateral. While households have suffered huge losses (of nearly $14 trillion) in…
First, welcome to Michael Pettis. Michael is a professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management, where he specializes in Chinese financial markets. He is also Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Second, this is an excellent article that provides insight into the thoughts of the Chinese people. – Ilene
Three weeks ago China Daily published a pretty funny article about a recent survey on credibility that had taken place in China. According to the article,
At a time when shamelessness is pervasive, we are often at loss as to who can be trusted. The five most trustworthy groups, according to a survey by the Research Center of the Xiaokang Magazine, are farmers, religious workers, sex workers, soldiers and students.
A list like this is at the same time surprising and embarrassing. The sex business is illegal and thus underground in this country. The sex workers’ unexpected prominence on this list of honor, based on an online poll of more than 3,000 people, is indeed unusual.
It took the pollsters aback that people like scientists and teachers were ranked way below, and government functionaries, too, scored hardly better. Yet given the constant feed of scandals involving the country’s elite, this is not bad at all. At least they have not slid into the least credible category, which consists of real estate developers, secretaries, agents, entertainers and directors.
I am not sure what secretaries have done to get themselves such poor rankings (could they mean party secretaries?), and I am not sure what kind of directors they mean (movie directors? managing directors?) but not everyone found this survey funny. Last week a columnist in the People’s Daily had this to say about the same survey:
In recent years, China has already paid a high price for the prevailing credibility crisis. The annual losses caused by bad debts have reportedly amounted to about 180 billion yuan, and the direct economic losses induced by contract fraud each year is also up to 5.5 billion yuan. Besides, shoddy and fake products contribute to another great loss involving at least 200 billion yuan. Generally, credibility crisis would cost China as much as 600 billion…
The exceptional market conditions of the last couple of years are a reminder that we should regard stable markets as a pleasant interlude rather than the normal state of affairs. In general, of course, people tend to expect tomorrow to be much the same as yesterday and to behave as such. It’s little wonder, then, that when everything goes wrong people start to panic, assuming the world is coming to an end.
Of course, so far, the world hasn’t come to an end – although a lot of people have lost lots of money in the meantime. What we can see from history is not that market panics are exceptional but that they’re the norm.
Kindleberger on Economic History
Every investor should read and re-read Charles Kindleberger’s seminal “Manias, Panics and Crashes’ which details the course of market disasters over a near three hundred year period. Kindleberger was an economist of a different hue to many we’ve met before: an economic historian who relied not on mathematical models – about which he was enjoyably and pointedly vague – but on historical incident and anecdote. At the very least, he argued, the various competing economic schools have to explain the happenings of the markets rather than either ignoring them, or simply claiming that they shouldn’t happen so they’re going to stick their fingers in their ears and go “tra-la-la” until they go away.
Underpinning the concept is a simple idea – people are irrational, they do the irrational things which it suits them to do and the consequences are often very nasty. What he set out to show was that the mental behaviour of market participants that we’ve recently witnessed is a perfectly normal state of affairs. Indeed, based on the historical records one ends up wondering how anything ever works at all in the markets. Everything going wrong is what happens, all the time, it seems.
The Fallacy Of Composition
However, it’s not simple irrationality that drives the market. Underlying this is a sneaky human behavioural failing known as the fallacy of composition – a trait that sees every individual acting in their own self interests yet, at the same time, acting in a
A gang of 27 EU nations hit the UK with a parade of impossible demands. All the countries demand the UK grant free movement of people, but that is why the UK left.
In addition, Spain wants joint sovereignty over Gibraltar, Malta demands the UK get an “inferior” deal, the Czech Republic says “Four freedoms or no freedoms”, and Lithuania says the UK should “pay if they stay.”
For its part, the gang of 27 believe the UK has an impossible demand on immigration control that they cannot accept. If neither side gives, and that is increasingly likely, a hard Brexit looms, very hard.
Gang of 27 Demands
Four freedoms or no freedoms. The main sticking point is immigratio...
Despite all his cajoling and fearmongery, President Obama lost his veto-override virginity today... and is not happy. Speaking at a CNN town hall this evening, the president said that Congress "made a mistake," and, as The Hill reports, trotted out the tired old excuse that despte their noble intentions, this elimination of sovereign immunity could have unintended consequences.
In early 2009, the seven largest publicly traded college operators were worth a combined $51 billion. Today, they’ve been all but wiped out.
When Barack Obama took office, America’s seven largest publicly traded college operators were worth a combined $51 billion, with more than 815,000 students enrolled at campuses spread across the country. The schools were flooded with with people seeking shelter from the recession, returning to school to pick up new skills.
Almost eight years later, the industry has been decimated. The seven largest listed operators are worth just over $6 billion, and the most valuable co...
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Epizyme was founded in 2007, and trying to create drugs to treat patient's cancer by focusing on genetically-linked differences between normal and cancer cells. Cancer areas of focus include leukemia, Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and breast cancer. One of the Epizme cofounders, H. Robert Horvitz, won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2002 for "discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death."
Before discussing the drug targets of Epizyme, understanding epigenetics is crucial to comprehend the company's goals.
Genetic components are the DNA sequences that are 'inherited.' Some of these genes are stronger than others in their expression (e.g., eye color). Yet, some genes turn on or off due to external factors (environmental), and it is und...
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