Sing it Andy Xie

Central Banks, Arsonists and Playing with Fire
Every party ends sooner or later, and I see two scenarios for the next bust. First, every trader is borrowing dollars to buy something else. Most traders on Wall Street are Americans, British or Australians. They know the United States well. The Fed is keeping interest rates at zero, and the U.S. government is supporting a weak dollar to boost U.S. exports. You don't need to be a genius to know that the U.S. government is helping you borrow dollars for speculating in something else.

But these traders don't know much about other countries, particularly emerging economies. They go there once or twice a year, chaperoned by U.S. investment banks eager to sell something. They want to think everything other than the U.S. dollar will appreciate; Wall Street banks tell them so. Since there are so many of these traders, their predictions are self-fulfilling in the short-term. For example, since the Australian dollar has appreciated by 35 percent from the bottom, they now feel very smart while sitting on massive paper profits.

When a trade like this one becomes too crowded, a small shock is enough to trigger a hurricane. There must be massive leverage in many positions, but one just never knows where. When something happens, all these traders will run like mad for the exit, and that could lead to another crisis.

Surging oil prices could be another party crasher. This could trigger a surge in inflation expectation and crash the bond market. The resulting high bond yields might force central banks to raise interest rates to cool inflation fear. Another major downturn in asset prices would reignite fear over the balance sheets of major global financial institutions, resulting in more chaos.

Twice in recent years, oil prices surged into triple-digit territory, wreaking havoc on financial markets and the global economy. In 2006, surging oil prices toppled the U.S. property market, debunking the story that property prices never fall -- a premise upon which subprime lending was based. Oil prices fell sharply amid the subprime crisis period while the market feared collapse in demand. The Fed came to the rescue and, in summer 2007, began cutting interest rates aggressively in the name of combating the recessionary impact of the subprime crisis. Oil prices surged afterward on optimism that the Fed would rescue the economy and oil demand. It worked to offset the Fed's stimulus, accelerated the economic decline, and pulled the rug out from under the derivatives bubble. The ensuing fear of falling demand again caused oil prices to collapse.

Oil is a perfect ingredient for a bubble: Oil supplies cannot respond to a price surge quickly. It takes a long time to expand production capacity, and oil demand cannot decrease quickly due to lifestyle stickiness and production modes. Low-price sensitivities on both demand and supply sides make it an ideal product for bubble-making. When liquidity is cheap and easily obtained, oil speculators can pop up anywhere.

Oil speculators are no longer restricted to secretive hedge funds. Average Joes can buy exchange traded funds (ETFs) that let them own oil or anything else. Why not? Central banks have made clear their intentions to keep money supplies as high as possible, debasing the value of paper money to help debtors. It seems no good deed is unpunished in this world. If you speculate big, governments will offer a bailout when your bets go wrong and cut interest rates and guarantee your debts, allowing bigger bets. People who live within their means and save some for a rainy day see dreams shattered. Central banks can't wait to break their nest eggs.

It is better to be a speculator in this world. The powers that be are with you. Maybe everyone should be a hedge fund; ETFs give you this opportunity. As the masses are incentivized to avoid paper money while buying hard assets, the price of oil could surge to triple-digit territory again. Oil bubbles are easy to come and quick to go because the oxygen needed for its existence disappears after it kills other bubbles.
The boom-bust cycle, in a nut shell.

A word of caution for all would-be speculators: You'll want to run for your life as soon as the bond market takes a big fall. And the case for a double dip in 2010 is already strong. Inventory restocking and fiscal stimuli are behind the current economic recovery, and when these run out of steam next year, the odds are quite low that western consumers will take over. High unemployment rates will keep incomes too weak to support spending. And consumers are unlikely to borrow and spend again.

Many analysts argue that, as long as unemployment rates are high, more stimuli should be applied. As I have argued before, a supply-demand mismatch rather than demand weakness per se is the main reason for high unemployment. More stimuli would only trigger inflation and financial instability.

Stagflation in the 1970s discredited a generation of central bankers. They thought they could trade a bit more inflation for a lot more economic growth. Today's crisis will discredit a generation of central bankers who ignore asset inflation by sometimes trading asset inflation for a bit of economic growth. Those who play with fire often get burned, even when the arsonists don't.

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