The hidden costs of cheap money
Earthquakes in Japan and Christchurch and conflict in Libya combined to test the resilience of investors in the March quarter, and although signs of stability in the global economy were decidedly absent, markets were able to digest the turmoil with relative calm. Cheap money would appear to have triumphed over shocks to sentiment in the short term.
Investor focus remains beyond the horizon of cheap money, and firmly on the spectre of inflation expected to result from it. Most hold no doubts as to its eventual arrival, and are focused on its threat and the ways in which one might offset its impact. The somewhat nebulous concept of inflation deserves further interrogation. Why has it suddenly reared its head after an extended period of ignorance? Inflation occurs when the quantity of money grows at a rate beyond that of available goods and services, requiring more money to purchase said goods and services. Austin Powers fans will recall Dr Evil’s demands for a ransom of $1m resulting in paroxysms of laughter. Ben Bernanke would be amongst those laughing. A couple of decades in the deep freeze does a bit of damage to purchasing power! Despite a combination of money supply and velocity over the past couple of decades which has never approximated the CPI, an army of observers have been trained to use the CPI as an accurate estimate of the damage being inflicted on purchasing power. Accurately determining the annual damage to purchasing power is not easy, but the fact that credit has grown at double digits for nearly every year in the past two decades gives us some confidence that actual inflation is not 2.5%! The reality of inflation is that most of the increased money supply has leaked into house and asset prices which are recorded as increments to wealth, and therefore gratefully accepted by citizens, whilst new home buyers are left wondering why the home their salary is buying is shrinking rapidly and moving closer to Broken Hill (you never know, there might be some copper underneath it and you can move back again). When the goods and services inflating in price shift in nature, so does the reaction. Rising energy and food prices have elicited an altogether different response. So what’s actually happened? The past couple of decades have been characterised by considerably increasing velocity of money, and although the monetary base has also been growing, the ability to find new and innovative ways to get money to move around the economy more quickly has seen velocity on a constant upward path. The variable which collapsed during the global financial crisis was velocity, not quantity. As banks have sought to reduce leverage and rebuild balance sheets since the crisis and consumers have responded similarly, velocity has remained subdued and central banks have sought to offset this collapse with increased quantity. It is the impact of the two combined which matters, which is why it is far from rational to panic now when we didn’t panic before. It’s not at all clear that the combination of the two is accelerating, it’s just that the inflation we’re seeing is the less popular kind.
If one could be confident that central bankers would introduce money supply only to offset the collapse in velocity, and then later withdraw it, there would almost certainly be no cause for concern. The fact that the European Central Bank (ECB) and Federal Reserve instil as much confidence as a Julia Gillard campaign promise, is why money is rushing to try and protect purchasing power. Renewing confidence that you’re on top of the situation is crucial at this point, but as the Irish joke goes, “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here”. As has been the case in housing, everyone plays their part. Lured by cheap money over recent decades, individuals and companies have borrowed, forcing up prices and cementing the belief that wealth is best protected through housing. As faith in these stalwarts dissipates and solace is sought in newly minted methods of protecting wealth, such as commodities and ‘hard assets’, supply demand imbalances dictate that the old favourites will work less well and the new ones will work like a charm, and an ever increasing number of lemmings will leap over the cliff. Central bankers may provide the fuel, but investors need to light the fire.
The energy sector dominated interest during the recent quarter as investors digested the impact of the nuclear crisis in Japan on longer term energy sources. Although over-reaction is likely in such circumstances, and the improvements in energy technology in recent decades massive, the lack of political palatability for progressing nuclear development is likely to override economic logic for some time. This political outcome is therefore likely to improve the medium term supply demand dynamics for suppliers of alternative energy such as LNG, particularly those with production available in the short to medium term. Given Woodside Petroleum’s expansion of production through the Pluto project, these industry developments will undoubtedly work in its favour.
Insurers were on the other side of the earthquake equation, with QBE IAG and Suncorp all suffering from the prospect of further short term hits to profitability from an unusually severe catastrophe year. We remain less concerned in the longer term as history would suggest the pricing improvements stemming from such events should compensate patient shareholders. Unfortunately policyholders can be expected to shoulder the burden of higher insurance and reinsurance costs, as there is no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to rebuilding. Those promoting the benefits of rebuilding as a fillip to economic growth would do well to remember that someone has to pay the bill. When you’re spending all your income reconstruction is likely to require an equal and opposite saving elsewhere.
Despite RBA attempts to maintain sanity, a global wall of cheap money creating demand in excess of supply has meant that almost every resource and energy project on earth has been rendered viable, and in this environment, costs will escalate quickly. An often ignored impact of the continued capital and operating cost blowouts plaguing Australia at present is the benefit accruing to those with capital already in place, rather than those trying to build it. The maths is simple. The return on capital earned through time on capital intensive projects is substantially dictated by their initial cost. If the capital cost doubles versus last year, all else equal, the return on capital halves. Locking costs in at the wrong time can be painful. The sixty four dollar question becomes the sustainability of higher costs. If cost structures rise permanently, time will cure capital expenditure blowouts. If not, there may be a veritable herd of white elephant projects.
The same issues are afflicting the NBN project. NBN heavyweights are currently spitting the dummy over the outrageous responses received to tenders for the construction phase. With government having spent some time getting used to construction companies performing charitable works for the public sector, or worse, donating substantial sums of their shareholder’s capital (Downer EDI’s Waratah Rail project and Leighton’s Airport Link in Brisbane), it’s unsurprising that they’re struggling with the concept of companies needing to make a profit on contracts and the government being the client from hell. The situation is made all the more laughable when the primary methodology for dealing with escalating costs is a government intent on reducing profitability of the private sector to pay for its own inefficiency, rather than trying to address it.
Democracies the world over are in a state which can only be described as parlous. Having stimulated unsustainable rates of economic growth for an extended period through artificially low rates, justified by inflation figures supported by goods produced in factories far from their own borders, the environment has turned less friendly. Import prices are no longer providing a spurious rationale for keeping rates artificially low, and the consumption brought forward through excessive borrowing is making consumption centric economies difficult to revive. The path to prosperity from here is not clear. However, it is clear that different regions are likely to pursue different courses of action. While the US remains intent on extremely stimulative policies, the ECB is showing signs of heading in the opposite direction. It is unlikely that both will prove successful.
The rationale for ultra stimulative policies over the past couple of years is obvious. The extent to which these policies need to be maintained is less obvious. The costs of excessive cheap money can be just as catastrophic as the opposite error, with artificially cheap capital supporting ill considered borrowing and building decisions, excessive capacity and increased global tension, as adjustments are forced onto others. Australia remains a pawn in the current global game. The now entrenched pressures on costs and exploding resource demand are symptoms of easy money used to artificially accelerate growth rates elsewhere, as is a currency level driven by a central bank attempting to behave responsibly whilst others aren’t. We’re not sure when and how more sustainable policies will return, however, we’re certain we shouldn’t capitalise the present. In the search for sustainable economies, we’re pretty sure we shouldn’t start from here. Just ask the Irish.
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