Tag Archives: QE

What a time-travelling Austrian might think of today’s economy

16 Nov

The Austrian School’s theory of credit and capital has a reputation for being complicated, and some posit that the reason Keynes’ ‘General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money’ holds such weight with policymakers is that it draws on the psychology of lending. Keynes saw the amount of capital channelled into investment as being inherently uncertain, a product of employer confidence in demand for goods, which depended on wider factors like the level of employment, income distribution and wage levels.

Austrians have been caricatured as prophets of the ‘efficient markets’ hypothesis, which essentially holds that artificial credit injections mess with the natural pattern of investment. They believe investment should stem naturally out of normal saving behaviour, as this creates sustainable demand for the goods and services produced through borrowing; loans or debt instruments initiated by banks which are backed on margin and not fully offset by the bank’s stock of available capital represent ‘artificial’ credit whose long-term effect is to cause price increases.

Austrian School economists are sceptical about policymakers’ belief that they can engineer optimal market conditions, believing that artificial intervention causes market inefficiencies. Broadly speaking, the argument runs that inefficient loan allocation to companies which are not sufficiently equipped to use them, or for whose products there is not enough demand, may in the short-term stimulate ‘growth’ – employment and consumption.

But the consequence of this ‘growth’ – the increase in wages and concordantly prices – will be priced into existing and future loans. The unregulated growth of credit will eventually cause a systemic shock, as confidence fails and many of the riskier debt instruments shed as investors try to exit their positions en masse. The value of higher-risk instruments plummets further, as some of the underlying assets – e.g. homes in the case of sub-prime mortgages – undergo foreclosure and are sold at a discount at auctions. Sound familiar?…

Disciples of Haberler, who was more concerned with the structural allocation of credit across the ‘vertical’ chain of production – from commodity mining and production to equipment manufacture to the factories where this equipment is used – would focus more on the credit tied up in cap ex by companies investing in new technology or expansion.

The central bank is supposed to moderate growth, preventing unsustainable expansion and stimulating consumption and/ or investment. Setting a minimum interest rate is just one of many ways in which it does this. Asset purchase schemes, and quantitative easing, are two others. Note in support that the ‘inflation premium’ detailed by economist Irving Fisher is priced by default into interest rates by commercial issuers; the government traditionally just provided a benchmark.

These asset purchase and what we’re going to nickname ‘capital injection’ schemes (when the government creates bonds it then buys back from banks, creating liquidity but also increasing the public deficit) have the net result of more reserves ending up deposited with the central bank. As more capital is circulating, some of it inevitably ends up in current accounts with the banks and they are required to hold a certain ratio of this capital as reserves with the central bank for security.

If and when the central bank decides to raise interest rates, in fairness it must apply the policy rate to its own reserves, effectively paying interest on its own debt at the taxpayer’s expense. If it does not, this will act as an ‘opportunity cost’ – effectively a tax – to banks who could have invested the money elsewhere at a profit. This trend has been analysed in more depth by those such as Claudio Borio, Head of the Monetary and Economic Department of the BIS. For a brief introduction to the argument, see the speech given by him and the Bank of Thailand’s Mr Piti Disyatat on ‘Helicopter Money’.

One of those historical Austrian economists, transported to the present day, might find that their essential doctrine that when tampered with interest rates can have a distorting effect on growth, still has relevance. Unquestionably, QE has boosted spending, and new, sometimes innovative investment. But the cost has fallen on those financial institutions that must take the new risks, as they are forced to chase ever higher yields; pension funds which are struggling to climb out of their own deficits, as former ‘safe-haven’ assets provide insufficient income to meet their liabilities.

The rise of alternative finance seemed for some time to provide another option to the legislation-hampered banks, whose rigorous screening tests and core capital obligations prevented them from extending loans to all comers. But the marketplace lenders’ models which were heavily reliant on ‘diversifying’ the risks they did not properly analyse, by aggressively seeking new loan applicants to replace the loans that had gone bad, are now looking likely themselves to face the price of over-expansion.

The USA’s Lending Club is a prime example, and has suffered losses of $36.5m in the third quarter of this year – though up from $81.4m in the second quarter – as it confronts the need to tighten up its due diligence operations and tackle non-performing loans.

Reversing the secular and government-sponsored decline in interest rates may not be a painless process, but the alternative is to enshrine a borrowing climate which is not profitable for the majority of lenders, or investor in the resulting securities. Can the market rely forever on the government to prop it up, even as the government’s own debt must increase to fund its stimulus measures? Does this rhetorical question even need a response?…

 

Ludwig von Mises

The ‘Austrian’ Theory of the Trade Cycle

Borrowed the capital theory developed by Carl Menger and elaborated by Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk. Mises attempted to prove that when, in an unsustainable credit expansion, interest rates are forced down, capital is allocated inefficiently. Because loans are granted in an indiscriminatory fashion, the production process ties down capital for too long a period in relation to ‘the temporal pattern of consumer demand’. In the end, the discrepancy means the market for both consumer and capital goods (loans) readjusts to counteract the misallocation.

 

Friedrich A. Hayek

Can We Still Avoid Inflation?

Plotted series of right-angled triangles to show the two factors of time and money, as capital flows through the production process. It is agreed to have been overly simplistic in imagining capital as ‘tied down’ in development loans when in reality it still circulates fairly freely. But Hayek pioneered the use of time as a vital factor in analysing the boom-and-bust sequence.

 

 

 

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Why ‘Defined Benefit’ should become ‘Pre-Defined Benefit Re-Defined in Light of Changing Conditions’

4 Sep

 

A recent well-intentioned but technically inaccurate FT article laid out the pitfalls of employers continuing to offer Defined Benefit (DB) schemes, in light of the recent bout of QE and interest rate revisions. Briefly, in a separate article it reported that consultancy Hymans Robertson had conducted research analysis which hypothesised the BOE’s announcement of a £70bn QE programme would lead directly to another £70bn DB shortfall.

The BOE also announced it would cut interest rates by 0.25%, which will hit all fixed-income returns by reducing the value of gilts and ‘safe haven’ government securities, and correspondingly increase the demand for, and price of, riskier fixed-income products. Pension trustees had better make some shrewd investment choices.

The writer argued that in order to solve the deficit overhang, the government needed further legislation to prevent the proliferation and even the continuation of DB schemes. He stopped just short of saying they should be outright banned.

A Lighter Touch

What the government has done, under the 2014 Pensions Act, is more of a soft-touch approach which controls market incentives to withdraw money from schemes, and window-shop continually for better ones. This provides more security for scheme managers, in terms of the available capital for investment.

To issue a ban on Defined Benefit schemes would be a hostile move, which might be resisted by certain interest groups and create a conflict both sides are surely keen to avoid. When a legislator has a choice between prohibition measures and providing incentives for industry participants to behave a certain way, a collaborative approach is usually more effective.

Though that is not to say that the government hasn’t laid down some firm rules on scheme governance and providing Value for Money.

Can Members Leave a Scheme if they Want to?

Although members are technically free to leave the scheme at any time, there are a number of barriers which impede them from doing so. Many funds impose exit fees, to try and keep investments safely enclosed in the fund and prevent a deficit from occurring.

Another barrier is that administrative provisions for transfer of their pension pot might be insufficient or incomplete. Scheme member data storage and integrity has recently been the subject of widespread audits and reforms, because so much information was missing or compromised. For example, employees would be classed as ‘absent’ from the scheme and hence the records, when in fact they had a Personal Pension Plan that the employer made regular contributions to.

Pre-existing pension legislation held that if you had been in the scheme less than 2 years, and the scheme rules permitted it, you were entitled to a refund of the contributions already made. Though having received the refund you would not be entitled to any benefits for the period to which the refund relates. However, the Pensions Act 2014 made it harder to leave or withdraw money from a scheme in several new ways, one of which was the abolition of these ‘short service’ refunds, for people who leave a money purchase occupational pension scheme after the mandatory 30-day period, and within 2 years of entering the scheme.

Mandatory Disclosure

Money purchase schemes are simply Defined Contribution (DC) by another name, where an employee contributes an agreed percentage of their salary at set intervals, with no guaranteed level of return. Targets and benchmarks are shared with scheme members, and indeed it is a legal requirement that trustees provide members with an annual statutory money purchase illustration (SMP), which states the likely pension at retirement based on in-house assumptions about market conditions including inflation. Also with details of contributions credited (before deductions) to the member in the preceding scheme year.

So a major advantage of DC schemes is that the governing directors’ expectations and projections of expected returns are continually revised. In the current fixed-income investment climate, with the BOE still steering interest rates on a tight rein particularly in the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, to make the kind of gold-plated promise to employees which Defined Benefit schemes make does not seem… prudent.

This enhanced level of disclosure was also introduced in the recent reforms governing trustee accountability. Not that I’m biased, but the now fairly stringent requirements on trustees of money purchase schemes seem to make them the better option. Among the other provisions are that:

–              Investments made with each contribution should be documented, recording the date of each. Best practice is that every new contribution be invested within five working days; where a member’s contributions are invested in more than one fund, and “the total amount contributed in a period is recorded explicitly”, verify the sum of the individual transactions elements equals the total contribution.

–              To this end, there should be a record of every investment sold, date sold and amount realised. This does not have to be recorded separately for each contributor, but must be categorised by investment fund.

Reasons not to Shop Around

The 2014 Pensions Act contained a number of other measures relating to private pensions, many of which strengthen existing legislation. Many seem calculated to try and ring-fence the contributions to existing schemes. They include provision for:

  • a new power to make regulations to prohibit the offering of incentives to transfer pension scheme rights
  • the introduction of a new statutory objective for the Pensions Regulator, to minimise any adverse impact on the sustainable growth of sponsoring employers when exercising its functions relating to scheme funding
  • measures to restructure the Pension Protection Fund compensation cap to better protect long serving scheme members
  • an amendment to the Public Service Pensions Act 2013 to allow smaller public body pension schemes to transfer accrued rights into one of the larger public service schemes

So in conclusion, measures have been taken to make DB schemes vastly less attractive. But to outright ban them would itself be infringing on the rights of those existing DB scheme-holders whose right not to have their scheme fold due to insufficient funds these lobbyists are defending in the first place.

The important thing is for DB scheme managers to have the freedom to adjust their expectations and projected returns to a level which is compatible with their income stream and all their liabilities. Which I suppose would mean they were no longer ‘Defined Benefit’ but ‘Pre-Defined Benefit Re-Defined in Light of Changing Conditions’. If only someone would outline the circumstances in which this decision would be permissible.