Peak Credit

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What I write here will not be rigorous.  We’ve heard about “peak oil.”  We’ve heard about other resources, and how production will decline over time.

But what of credit? It isn’t that hard to create, but it is hard to create well, particularly when debt levels are high, as in this environment.

It’s not just the US, debtor-friendly as it has been for most of its existence.  Most of the rest of the world has debt problems.

China has indebted municipalities and banks, and debts to many projects from Party members that will not pay off.  The EU is  overly indebted everywhere, not just the PIIGS, and finds its overall borrowing rates rising as lenders wonder what a Euro will be worth if the Eurozone dies.

In the US, government debt rises more than corporate and consumer debt falls.  We’ll pay the government debt off later.  Don’t worry. Peak Credit

The simple solution to every problem is to say the it is a liquidity problem, not a solvency problem.  How do does one solve a liquidity problem?  Get a loan.  If the assets are really worth more than the liabilities, there should be some unencumbered assets that you can secure a loan with, and pay off the liquidity squeeze.  But absent that, it’s insolvency, regardless of what notional price one places on the assets.

But what if the problem is really a solvency problem?  Will a loan help cure that? No.  You can’t solve a debt problem with debt.

There are generally few liquidity problems relative to solvency problems.  As an example, most corporate bonds don’t default on principal payments, but on interest payments.  For individuals, balloon payments on loans might be relatively more of a problem, but since most people finance their homes, etc., on relatively thin ratios of income to debt service, interruptions of income lead to insolvency more often than balloon payments.

Consider for a moment that every liability is the asset of someone else, but not vice-versa, because some assets are owned free and clear.  Now pretend that we take everything in the world (the same could be applied to a nation), and put it on a single balance sheet, but we don’t net out the liabilities that would cancel out.

Which system would be more stable?  One where the liabilities are roughly equal to the net worth, or one where they are roughly five times the net worth?  The former, of course.  Now, not all liabilities are the same — long-dated claims like pensions only claim a little bit of the assets of the world at a time, whereas a large number of short-dated liabilities would make the system less stable, or perhaps lead to inflation.  Many dollars chasing few goods, or assets, or both.

I’m not sure exactly where the boundary line is for “peak credit.”  It would depend on the structure of the liabilities in question.  But once the fuzzy limits get exceeded:

  • Growth can slow.  (Think of the book, “It’s Different This Time.”)
  • Debt deflation may arrive. (Extend, Compromise, Default)
  • Inflation may arrive for assets, goods, or both, depending on the propensity to save versus consume.
  • And, if the debt gets high enough, and immediate enough, any entity may hit the “tipping point” where the market concludes that it is no longer possible for the entity to pay off its debts.  Short-term rates skyrocket, and the prices on long debt discount expected recovery levels.  For countries with their own currency, it may involve a lot of inflation, though a negotiation with creditors might be simpler.

In general, if we were starting over again, there are a lot of things that we should have done differently:

  • Dividends would be deductible, and not interest.
  • This would apply to all personal and corporate interest, including mortgages.
  • We would eliminate the GSEs, and all government lending programs.
  • We would run balanced budgets as a nation, and live with the modest volatility that induces.  We would not engage in fiscal stimulus.
  • We would eliminate or constrain the Fed, such that it could never let the difference between ten and two year Treasury yields exceed 1.5%, or be less than -0.5%.  We would let recessions do their work of eliminating bad investments, because if you don’t, you end up with the debt deflation we are facing now.
  • Or, go back to a gold standard, after analyzing what the proper value for the dollar would be, so as to avoid inflation or deflation.
  • We would constrain banks to match assets and liabilities, and not engage in maturity transformation.

Banks would be a lot less profitable under such an arrangement, but it would prevent debt bubbles.  Besides, the banks would make up for it by charging for deposit/checking accounts.

Summary

We may be near “peak credit” at present, and that is true of much of the world.  Better we should have had a smaller financial sector, and avoided the financialization of the economy.  As it is, we face many years of slower growth ahead as we bleed debt out of the economy, or a number of years of inflation ahead, as we inflate away debts.  I suspect the former, but I can’t ignore the latter.

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About the Author

David Merkel
David J. Merkel, CFA, FSA — 2010-present, I am working on setting up my own equity asset management shop, tentatively called Aleph Investments. It is possible that I might do a joint venture with someone else if we can do more together than separately. From 2008-2010, I was the Chief Economist and Director of Research of Finacorp Securities. I did a many things for Finacorp, mainly research and analysis on a wide variety of fixed income and equity securities, and trading strategies. Until 2007, I was a senior investment analyst at Hovde Capital, responsible for analysis and valuation of investment opportunities for the FIP funds, particularly of companies in the insurance industry. I also managed the internal profit sharing and charitable endowment monies of the firm. From 2003-2007, I was a leading commentator at the investment website RealMoney.com. Back in 2003, after several years of correspondence, James Cramer invited me to write for the site, and I wrote for RealMoney on equity and bond portfolio management, macroeconomics, derivatives, quantitative strategies, insurance issues, corporate governance, etc. My specialty is looking at the interlinkages in the markets in order to understand individual markets better. I no longer contribute to RealMoney; I scaled it back because my work duties have gotten larger, and I began this blog to develop a distinct voice with a wider distribution. After three-plus year of operation, I believe I have achieved that. Prior to joining Hovde in 2003, I managed corporate bonds for Dwight Asset Management. In 1998, I joined the Mount Washington Investment Group as the Mortgage Bond and Asset Liability manager after working with Provident Mutual, AIG and Pacific Standard Life. My background as a life actuary has given me a different perspective on investing. How do you earn money without taking undue risk? How do you convey ideas about investing while showing a proper level of uncertainty on the likelihood of success? How do the various markets fit together, telling us us a broader story than any single piece? These are the themes that I will deal with in this blog. I hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University. In my spare time, I take care of our eight children with my wonderful wife Ruth.

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