One of the unintended consequences of a world of floating exchange rates has been the geometric growth of debt. The total amount of debt in the world currently sits at around $300 trillion, which is about three times the global GDP. That seems like an impossibility, but the value of all assets on earth is estimated to be around $300 trillion, which means every bit of potential collateral is pledged to someone, somewhere in some fashion. The world is literally drowning in debt, you could say.
Of course, those are just guesses. Some debt is actually listed as both an asset and a liability. Your mortgage is most likely in some sort of synthetic financial instrument as an asset against which there is some form of debt. Government bonds are used for collateral, as they are often considered the most reliable and trustworthy asset on earth. Banks soak up US debt, for example, because it is worth more to the bank than their cash deposits, as they can quickly package bonds into other financial transactions like repo agreements.
It’s also why the US government has no trouble finding willing lenders, despite having record debt and deficits. Those lenders are holding cash, which is not as valuable to them as the bonds. It’s not just the US government. The Germans also enjoy high demand for their debt. In Europe, the German Bund is the preferred collateral in finance transactions. In fact, it is so valuable, there is a shortage of it. The result is there is always pressure on the European Central Bank to not hold Germans bonds.
It is an important thing to understand about the world of modern finance. It is entirely driven by debt. When company X wants to do a deal, it does not reach into its cash reserves to finance the transaction. Instead, it will pledge an asset in a repurchase agreement. This is where it agrees to sell the asset to another party, but simultaneously agrees to buy it back at some point in the future at a fixed price. This is a modern form of pawning the wife’s wedding ring. The company gets the cash and the lender gets interest.
Of course, no tree grows to the sky, but the modern financial system is counting on debt being the exception.
Down in the depths of Europe’s financial system, a nasty blockage is building. The plumbers at the European Central Bank meet next week to try and fix it.
They may be four days too late. Italy’s referendum could just stretch the system to breaking point before then.
At stake is the health of the 5 trillion-euro ($5.3 trillion) securities lending market, which greases the wheels of all manner of derivative, short-selling and structured transactions. A crunch point has arrived in Europe. The last few days have seen an extreme spike in demand in particular for short-dated German government bonds.
These are among the few securities of high enough quality to be accepted as collateral in repurchase agreements. Cash is no good (well, not for the Bundesbank anyway). These agreements operate like high-quality loans whose proceeds are normally used for activities like financing the purchase of other securities. Without them, a lot of other everyday activities — such as bidding at bond auctions and hedging underwriting risk — could seize up.
The demand spike is from the usual year-end surge in demand for collateral getting pulled forward, and has exacerbated a shortage of securities that count as collateral.
In normal times, firms borrow the securities they need and quickly return them — there’s usually a flood of lending and borrowing going on, and the repo market operates silently in the background of Europe’s financial system.
But the ECB’s drive to jump start the economy has led it to buy up about 20 percent of the market for German bunds and other top-quality securities. Schatz — German government bonds of a two-year maturity — had become notably harder to come by. Firms can borrow them from the ECB, but only on the strictest of conditions. The Bundesbank has been even more resistant: it’s long been reluctant to accept any kind of collateral of lesser quality than German government bonds.
What all that means is the modern financial system has come to rely so heavily on government debt that governments cannot issue enough of it. The trouble is, government debt can take cash from the economy. This is fine when the economy is overheated or there is inflation. Central banks can step in and sell their bond holdings to soak up the excess cash. That’s not the case today anywhere in the world. Instead, governments are looking to boost the retail economy by getting more cash into the system.
The result is an unsolvable conflict. On the one had we have a financial system demanding ever more high quality debt, in order to drive growth in asset values. On the other hand, we have a retail economy demanding more cash moving around in the system in order to stimulate economic growth. It’s why smart guys like James Rickards see a financial crisis in the near future. The methods to paper over this inherent conflict are just a delaying action. At some point, the pressure exceeds the restraints and you get a crisis.
An organized unwinding of trillions in debt is never going to happen, so that means we will have a disorganized unwinding of trillions in debt. That’s the definition of a crisis. It is the unexpected, disorganized unraveling of something that probably should never have been allowed to happen. The mortgage crisis is the most recent example. Lending billions to people, who have no way to repay the loans, turned out to be a bad idea. In the fullness of time, the mortgage crisis will be seen as a warning, one everyone ignored.