(Un)Intended Consequences: Uncertainty, Inflation & Inflexibility

Present policies may be sowing the seeds for the next financial crisis. Despite recent market optimism, we believe present interventions could produce significant future adverse and unintended consequences.

Present policies may be sowing the seeds for the next financial crisis. Despite recent market optimism, we believe present interventions could produce significant future adverse and unintended consequences. Rather than curing the patient, the present initiatives may be overprescribing the patient with medication that cause significant side effects (and leave a bad taste in the mouth).

Prior steps taken by policy makers and central banks seem to have by and large succeeded in stabilizing financial institutions and avoiding a disorderly collapse in markets around the globe. That said, we take great issue with the continued level of intervention in the markets and the “spend at any cost” mindset that appears to predominate Washington and the Federal Reserve (Fed). In our minds, much of the present policies and initiatives, while well intentioned, will have significant unintended consequences and only serve to cause further dilemmas down the road.

Bad Businesses Saved at the Expense of Good

Incentives are sorely needed that reward responsible, efficient businesses, not policies that restrict them. In our opinion, present policies are inefficient and likely to foster a deterioration of “good” business models, a situation that may, in itself, precipitate further government spending to get the private sector functioning properly again. Intuitively, if we know the government will intervene regardless when an economy enters a downturn or recession, one would think the government would like resources to be re-allocated from inefficient market participants to more efficient ones.

Indeed, efficient markets ensure that in most economic downturns strong businesses tend to strengthen their industry position while weaker, less efficient players fall to the wayside. Yet there are many situations where we see the exact opposite currently taking place.

In Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s annual letter to shareholders, Warren Buffet bemoans the implications of government intervention within Berkshire’s competitive landscape. He notes that, perversely, those entities that receive government funding are at a distinct funding advantage over higher credit-rated businesses that did not. It appears we are now in a world where bad business models are rewarded with cheap government funding at the expense of those good businesses that never undertook the risky investment decisions their now-bailed-out counterparts did.

 By not relying on government funding, these “good” businesses now must raise capital in a risk-averse marketplace, where much of the liquidity has fled to “safe” government bonds and T-bills. As a consequence, these businesses are subject to much higher funding costs than those that receive government funding. To many, it is deplorable that bad business models should be saved at the expense of good businesses, but this is just one unintended consequence of present policies.

Uncertainty Breeds Heightened Risk Aversion

These unintended consequences create a heightened level of uncertainty in the marketplace that does not foster investment. Combined with a lack of clarity from the present Administration, it is no surprise that many investors seem to abstain: which industry is next to receive preferential treatment; which will suffer; who is next to be bailed out; which accounting standard is next to be reversed; what are the tax implications of such unprecedented spending?… the list goes on.

Without clarity, investors become risk-averse, curtailing investment and reinforcing any downturn. Yet the lack of clarity provided by the Administration is pervasive. Just observe any of their recent news conferences – call us cynical, but all we seem to hear is “we’re going to do this; we’re going to do that” with no definitive explanation of what “this” or “that” actually is.

More often than not, “this” or “that” is followed by rousing applause (almost appearing as if this were a queued applause track, or if some cryptic meaning were imbedded in the text that we’re not aware of). A classic is the perpetual reiteration that “we’ll go through the budget line-by-line”. Despite the lack of substance one thing seems crystal clear: the government is going to spend, whatever the cost. The problem is that “whatever the cost” quite rightfully scares the hell out of many, ourselves included, because “the cost” may transpire to be much higher than anticipated.

Not only are the government’s intended actions unclear, but many policies quite simply don’t make sense to us. Take the relaxation of mark-to-market accounting rules. Many financial institutions have been criticized (and quite rightfully so) for the opaqueness of their balance sheets; the lack of transparency being a key factor in creating risk-aversion amongst investors.

With low confidence in financial institutions prevalent throughout the marketplace, one would think it counterintuitive to allow these firms to lie about the true value of their holdings (perhaps lie is too strong a word – mislead, stretch the truth, “guess-timate”). Yet, ironically, the government now allows this opaqueness to proliferate through the relaxation of mark-to-market accounting rules.

Inflation and Inflexibility

Given that the Fed’s printing press has been working overtime, there has been a lot of foreboding talk around pent up inflationary pressures recently. The threat of inflation is definitely front of mind for us, but more worrying is the idea that the Fed may actually want to induce inflation, and moreover, should inflation break out, the Fed may be incapable of reining it in, in-light of its present initiatives.

Many consider Fed Chairman Bernanke’s speeches, publications and testimonies in Congress to be critical of the Fed’s actions in being too hesitant to allow inflation during the Great Depression. Indeed, Bernanke and the Fed may wish for inflation today. Inflation bails out those with debt, and by any measure U.S. consumers are saddled with it. We have touched on this topic before (please see our prior newsletters “Bailout Economics – Politics of Self Destruction” and “Reflation Investing – Which Currencies Benefit”).

Suffice to say, in our assessment, this would be a very dangerous route for the Fed to embark on. Should a rise in inflation happen to be greater than anticipated, we believe the Fed’s present initiatives will severely hamstring its ability to mitigate it.

The Fed’s announcement to purchase as much as $1.25 trillion dollars of agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) not only creates significant latent inflationary pressure (to put the massive size of this program into context, the total size of the Fed’s balance sheet before the crisis began was approximately $870 billion), but also inherently creates an unprecedented level of inflexibility at the Fed.

Should the level of inflation exceed expectations, we are concerned that the very purchase of MBS assets may render the Fed incapacitated in addressing such a situation. As opposed to traditional Fed purchases (and most recent initiatives), MBS assets are relatively illiquid and much longer-term. Hence the Fed will find it very difficult to unwind the positions it is presently building, not to mention the fact it has pledged to hold them until maturity. As such, we have growing concerns that the Fed will have its hands tied should inflation break out – especially if the rapidity of accretion is extreme – it seems unlikely the Fed could significantly tighten monetary policy without causing yet another collapse in economic spending, while large-scale sales of these assets may drive yields up, hampering a recovery in the housing market.

Another consequence of the Fed buying Treasury Bonds and agency securities is that the prices of these securities, in our opinion, no longer reflect free market dynamics. As a result, rational buyers may consider these securities overvalued and reduce their appetite to buy them. If foreign buying is reduced as a result of the Fed’s interference in the markets, it may have negative implications for the U.S. dollar. This threat does not only apply to foreign buyers. At a recent conference of institutional foreign exchange traders we attended, there was a discussion that U.S. based investors are increasingly seeking to protect against U.S. dollar currency risk. If U.S. investors progressively move assets abroad, that may obviously also have negative implications for the U.S. dollar.

We believe present actions create more questions than answers. While we don’t have a crystal ball, all these initiatives make us rather concerned about the future state of the U.S. economy. Present policies may very well portend the next financial crisis…