George Soros Speech

>   (email exchange)
>   On Mon, Jun 21, 2010 at 6:31 AM, wrote:
>   Soros’s recipe, FYI
>   much about bubbles,
>   also about how bad can be deficit reductions at this time

I usually don’t read or comment on Soros, but comments below this one time only for you.


George Soros Speech

Institute of International Finance, Vienna, Austria
June 10, 2010

In the week following the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008 – global financial markets actually broke down and by the end of the week they had to be put on artificial life support. The life support consisted of substituting sovereign credit for the credit of financial institutions which ceased to be acceptable to counter parties.

As Mervyn King of the Bank of England brilliantly explained, the authorities had to do in the short-term the exact opposite of what was needed in the long-term: they had to pump in a lot of credit to make up for the credit that disappeared and thereby reinforce the excess credit and leverage that had caused the crisis in the first place. Only in the longer term, when the crisis had subsided, could they drain the credit and reestablish macro-economic balance.

Not bad, but he doesn’t seem to understand there is no ‘macro balance’ per se in that regard. He should recognize that what he means by ‘macro balance’ should be the desired level of aggregate demand, which is altered by the public sector’s fiscal balance. So in the longer term, the public sector should tighten fiscal policy (what he calls ‘drain the credit’) only if aggregate demand is deemed to be ‘too high’ and not to pay for anything per se.

This required a delicate two phase maneuver just as when a car is skidding, first you have to turn the car into the direction of the skid and only when you have regained control can you correct course.

It’s more like when you come to an up hill stretch you need to press harder on the gas to maintain a steady speed and if you get going too fast on a down hill section you need to apply the brakes to maintain a steady speed. And for me, the ‘right’ speed is ‘full employment’ with desired price stability.

The first phase of the maneuver has been successfully accomplished – a collapse has been averted.

But full employment has not been restored. I agree this is not the time to hit the fiscal brakes. In fact, I’d cut VAT until output and employment is restored, and offer a govt funded minimum wage transition job to anyone willing and able to work.

In retrospect, the temporary breakdown of the financial system seems like a bad dream. There are people in the financial institutions that survived who would like nothing better than to forget it and carry on with business as usual. This was evident in their massive lobbying effort to protect their interests in the Financial Reform Act that just came out of Congress. But the collapse of the financial system as we know it is real and the crisis is far from over.

Indeed, we have just entered Act II of the drama, when financial markets started losing confidence in the credibility of sovereign debt. Greece and the euro have taken center stage but the effects are liable to be felt worldwide. Doubts about sovereign credit are forcing reductions in budget deficits at a time when the banks and the economy may not be strong enough to permit the pursuit of fiscal rectitude. We find ourselves in a situation eerily reminiscent of the 1930’s. Keynes has taught us that budget deficits are essential for counter cyclical policies yet many governments have to reduce them under pressure from financial markets. This is liable to push the global economy into a double dip.

Yes, and this is an issue specific to govts that are not the issuers of their currency- the US States, the euro zone members, and govts with fixed exchange rates.

It is important to realize that the crisis in which we find ourselves is not just a market failure but also a regulatory failure and even more importantly a failure of the prevailing dogma about financial markets. I have in mind the Efficient Market Hypothesis and Rational Expectation Theory. These economic theories guided, or more exactly misguided, both the regulators and the financial engineers who designed the derivatives and other synthetic financial instruments and quantitative risk management systems which have played such an important part in the collapse. To gain a proper understanding of the current situation and how we got to where we are, we need to go back to basics and reexamine the foundation of economic theory.

I agree, see my proposals here.

I have developed an alternative theory about financial markets which asserts that financial markets do not necessarily tend towards equilibrium; they can just as easily produce asset bubbles. Nor are markets capable of correcting their own excesses. Keeping asset bubbles within bounds have to be an objective of public policy. I propounded this theory in my first book, The Alchemy of Finance, in 1987. It was generally dismissed at the time but the current financial crisis has proven, not necessarily its validity, but certainly its superiority to the prevailing dogma.

First we can always act to sustain aggregate demand and employment at desired levels across any asset price cycle with fiscal policy. No one would have cared much about the financial crisis if we’d kept employment and output high in the real sectors. Note that because output and employment remained high (for whatever reason) through the crash of 1987, the crash of 1998, and the Enron event, they were of less concern than the most recent crisis where unemployment jumped to over 10%.

Let me briefly recapitulate my theory for those who are not familiar with it. It can be summed up in two propositions. First, financial markets, far from accurately reflecting all the available knowledge, always provide a distorted view of reality. This is the principle of fallibility. The degree of distortion may vary from time to time. Sometimes it’s quite insignificant, at other times it is quite pronounced. When there is a significant divergence between market prices and the underlying reality I speak of far from equilibrium conditions. That is where we are now.

I’d say ‘equilibrium’ conditions are necessarily transitory at best under current institutional arrangements, including how policy is determined in Washington and around the world, and continually changing fundamentals of supply and demand.

Second, financial markets do not play a purely passive role; they can also affect the so called fundamentals they are supposed to reflect. These two functions that financial markets perform work in opposite directions. In the passive or cognitive function the fundamentals are supposed to determine market prices. In the active or manipulative function market prices find ways of influencing the fundamentals. When both functions operate at the same time they interfere with each other. The supposedly independent variable of one function is the dependent variable of the other so that neither function has a truly independent variable. As a result neither market prices nor the underlying reality is fully determined. Both suffer from an element of uncertainty that cannot be quantified.

Goes without saying.

I call the interaction between the two functions reflexivity. Frank Knight recognized and explicated this element of unquantifiable uncertainty in a book published in 1921 but the Efficient Market Hypothesis and Rational Expectation Theory have deliberately ignored it. That is what made them so misleading.

Reflexivity sets up a feedback loop between market valuations and the so-called fundamentals which are being valued. The feedback can be either positive or negative. Negative feedback brings market prices and the underlying reality closer together. In other words, negative feedback is self-correcting. It can go on forever and if the underlying reality remains unchanged it may eventually lead to an equilibrium in which market prices accurately reflect the fundamentals. By contrast, a positive feedback is self-reinforcing. It cannot go on forever because eventually market prices would become so far removed from reality that market participants would have to recognize them as unrealistic. When that tipping point is reached, the process becomes self-reinforcing in the opposite direction. That is how financial markets produce boom-bust phenomena or bubbles. Bubbles are not the only manifestations of reflexivity but they are the most spectacular.

Ok, also seems obvious? Now he need to add that the currency itself is a public monopoly, as the introduction of taxation, a coercive force, introduces ‘imperfect competition’ with ‘supply’ of that needed to pay taxes under govt. control. This puts govt in the position of ‘price setter’ when it spends (and/or demands collateral when it lends). And a prime ‘pass through’ channel he needs to add is indexation of public sector wages and benefits.

In my interpretation equilibrium, which is the central case in economic theory, turns out to be a limiting case where negative feedback is carried to its ultimate limit. Positive feedback has been largely assumed away by the prevailing dogma and it deserves a lot more attention.

Even his positive feedback will ‘run its course’ (not to say there aren’t consequences) for the most part if it wasn’t for the fact that the currency itself is a case of monopoly and the govt. paying more for the same thing, for example, is redefining the currency downward.

I have developed a rudimentary theory of bubbles along these lines. Every bubble has two components: an underlying trend that prevails in reality and a misconception relating to that trend. When a positive feedback develops between the trend and the misconception a boom-bust process is set in motion. The process is liable to be tested by negative feedback along the way and if it is strong enough to survive these tests, both the trend and the misconception will be reinforced.

Makes sense.

Eventually, market expectations become so far removed from reality that people are forced to recognize that a misconception is involved.

I’d say it’s more like the price gets high enough for the funding to run dry at that price for any reason? Unless funding is coming from/supported by govt (and/or it’s designated agents, etc), the issuer of the currency, that funding will always be limited.

A twilight period ensues during which doubts grow and more and more people lose faith but the prevailing trend is sustained by inertia.

‘Inertia’? It’s available spending power that’s needed to sustain prices of anything. The price of housing sales won’t go up without someone paying the higher price.

As Chuck Prince former head of Citigroup said, “As long as the music is playing you’ve got to get up and dance. We are still dancing.”

This describes the pro cyclical nature of the non govt sectors, which are necessarily pro cyclical. Only the currency issuer can be counter cyclical. Seems to me Minsky has the fuller explanation of all this.

Eventually a tipping point is reached when the trend is reversed; it then becomes self-reinforcing in the opposite direction.

The spending power- or the desire to use it- fades.

Typically bubbles have an asymmetric shape. The boom is long and slow to start. It accelerates gradually until it flattens out again during the twilight period. The bust is short and steep because it involves the forced liquidation of unsound positions. Disillusionment turns into panic, reaching its climax in a financial crisis.

The simplest case of a purely financial bubble can be found in real estate. The trend that precipitates it is the availability of credit; the misconception that continues to recur in various forms is that the value of the collateral is independent of the availability of credit. As a matter of fact, the relationship is reflexive. When credit becomes cheaper activity picks up and real estate values rise. There are fewer defaults, credit performance improves, and lending standards are relaxed. So at the height of the boom, the amount of credit outstanding is at its peak and a reversal precipitates false liquidation, depressing real estate values.

It all needs to be sustained by incomes. the Fed’s financial burdens ratios indicate when incomes are being stretched to their limits. The last cycle went beyond actual incomes as mortgage originators were sending borrowers to accountants who falsified income statements, and some lenders were willing to lend beyond income capabilities. But that didn’t last long and the bust followed by months.

The bubble that led to the current financial crisis is much more complicated. The collapse of the sub-prime bubble in 2007 set off a chain reaction, much as an ordinary bomb sets off a nuclear explosion. I call it a super-bubble. It has developed over a longer period of time and it is composed of a number of simpler bubbles. What makes the super-bubble so interesting is the role that the smaller bubbles have played in its development.

Fraud was a major, exaggerating element in the latest go round, conspicuously absent from this analysis.

The prevailing trend in the super-bubble was the ever increasing use of credit and leverage. The prevailing misconception was the believe that financial markets are self-correcting and should be left to their own devices. President Reagan called it the “magic of the marketplace” and I call it market fundamentalism. It became the dominant creed in the 1980s. Since market fundamentalism was based on false premises its adoption led to a series of financial crises.

Again, a financial crisis doesn’t need to ‘spread’ to the real economy. Fiscal policy can sustain full employment regardless of the state of the financial sector. Losses in the financial sector need not affect the real economy any more than losses in Las Vegas casinos.

Each time, the authorities intervened, merged away, or otherwise took care of the failing financial institutions, and applied monetary and fiscal stimuli to protect the economy. These measures reinforced the prevailing trend of ever increasing credit and leverage and as long as they worked they also reinforced the prevailing misconception that markets can be safely left to their own devices. The intervention of the authorities is generally recognized as creating amoral hazard; more accurately it served as a successful test of a false belief, thereby inflating the super-bubble even further.

‘Monetary policy’ did nothing and probably works in reverse, as I’ve discussed elsewhere. Fiscal policy does not have to introduce moral hazard issues. It can be used to sustain incomes from the bottom up at desired levels, and not for top down bailouts of failed businesses. Sustaining incomes will not keep an overbought market from crashing, but it will sustain sales and employment in the real economy, with business competing successfully for consumer dollars surviving, and those that don’t failing. That’s all that’s fundamentally needed for prosperity, along with a govt that understands its role in supporting the public infrastructure.

It should be emphasized that my theories of bubbles cannot predict whether a test will be successful or not. This holds for ordinary bubbles as well as the super-bubble. For instance I thought the emerging market crisis of 1997-1998 would constitute the tipping point for the super-bubble, but I was wrong. The authorities managed to save the system and the super-bubble continued growing. That made the bust that eventually came in 2007-2008 all the more devastating.

No mention that the govt surpluses of the late 90’s drained net dollar financial assets from the non govt sectors, with growth coming from unsustainable growth in private sector credit fueling impossible dot com business plans, that far exceeded income growth. When it all came apart after y2k the immediate fiscal adjustment that could have sustained the real economy wasn’t even a consideration.

What are the implications of my theory for the regulation of the financial system?

First and foremost, since markets are bubble-prone, the financial authorities have to accept responsibility for preventing bubbles from growing too big. Alan Greenspan and other regulators have expressly refused to accept that responsibility. If markets can’t recognize bubbles, Greenspan argued, neither can regulators–and he was right. Nevertheless, the financial authorities have to accept the assignment, knowing full well that they will not be able to meet it without making mistakes. They will, however, have the benefit of receiving feedback from the markets, which will tell them whether they have done too much or too little. They can then correct their mistakes.

Second, in order to control asset bubbles it is not enough to control the money supply; you must also control the availability of credit.

Since the causation is ‘loans create deposits’ ‘controlling credit’ is the only way to alter total bank deposits.

This cannot be done by using only monetary tools;

Agreed, interest rates are not all that useful, and probably work in the opposite direction most believe.

you must also use credit controls. The best-known tools are margin requirements

Changing margin requirements can have immediate effects. But if the boom is coming for the likes of pension fund allocations to ‘passive commodity strategies’ driving up commodities prices, which has been a major, driving force for many years now, margin increases won’t stop the trend.

and minimum capital requirements.

I assume that means bank capital. If so, that alters the price of credit but not the quantity, as it alters spreads needed to provide market demanded risk adjusted returns for bank capital.

Currently they are fixed irrespective of the market’s mood, because markets are not supposed to have moods. Yet they do, and the financial authorities need to vary margin and minimum capital requirements in order to control asset bubbles.

Yes, man is naturally a gambler. you can’t stop him. and attempts at control have always been problematic at best.

One thing overlooked is the use of long term contracts vs relying on spot markets. Historically govts have used long term contracts, but for business to do so requires long term contracts on the sales side, which competitive markets don’t allow.

You can’t safely enter into a 20 year contract for plastic for cell phone manufacturing if you don’t know that the price and quantity of cell phones is locked in for 20 years as well, for example. And locking in building materials for housing for 20 years to stabilize prices means less flexibility to alter building methods, etc. But all this goes beyond this critique apart from indicating there’s a lot more to be considered.

Regulators may also have to invent new tools or revive others that have fallen into disuse. For instance, in my early days in finance, many years ago, central banks used to instruct commercial banks to limit their lending to a particular sector of the economy, such as real estate or consumer loans, because they felt that the sector was overheating. Market fundamentalists consider that kind of intervention unacceptable but they are wrong. When our central banks used to do it we had no financial crises to speak of.

True. What the govt creates it can regulate and/or take away. Public infrastructure is to serve further public purpose.

But both dynamic change and static patterns have value and trade offs.

The Chinese authorities do it today, and they have much better control over their banking system. The deposits that Chinese commercial banks have to maintain at the People’s Bank of China were increased seventeen times during the boom, and when the authorities reversed course the banks obeyed them with alacrity.

Yes, and always with something gained and something lost when lending is politicized.

Third, since markets are potentially unstable, there are systemic risks in addition to the risks affecting individual market participants. Participants may ignore these systemic risks in the belief that they can always dispose of their positions, but regulators cannot ignore them because if too many participants are on the same side, positions cannot be liquidated without causing a discontinuity or a collapse. They have to monitor the positions of participants in order to detect potential imbalances. That means that the positions of all major market participants, including hedge funds and sovereign wealth funds, need to be monitored. The drafters of the Basel Accords made a mistake when they gave securities held by banks substantially lower risk ratings than regular loans: they ignored the systemic risks attached to concentrated positions in securities. This was an important factor aggravating the crisis. It has to be corrected by raising the risk ratings of securities held by banks. That will probably discourage loans, which is not such a bad thing.

My proposals, here, limit much of that activity at the source, rather than trying to regulate it, leaving a lot less to be regulated making regulation that much more likely to succeed.

Fourth, derivatives and synthetic financial instruments perform many useful functions but they also carry hidden dangers. For instance, the securitization of mortgages was supposed to reduce risk thru geographical diversification. In fact it introduced a new risk by separating the interest of the agents from the interest of the owners. Regulators need to fully understand how these instruments work before they allow them to be used and they ought to impose restrictions guard against those hidden dangers. For instance, agents packaging mortgages into securities ought to be obliged to retain sufficient ownership to guard against the agency problem.

One of my proposals is that banks not be allowed to participate in any secondary markets, for example

Credit default swaps (CDS) are particularly dangerous they allow people to buy insurance on the survival of a company or a country while handing them a license to kill. CDS ought to be available to buyers only to the extent that they have a legitimate insurable interest. Generally speaking, derivatives ought to be registered with a regulatory agency just as regular securities have to be registered with the SEC or its equivalent. Derivatives traded on exchanges would be registered as a class; those traded over-the-counter would have to be registered individually. This would provide a powerful inducement to use exchange traded derivatives whenever possible.

There is no public purpose served by allowing banks to participate in CDS markets and therefore no reason to allow banks to own any CDS.

Finally, we must recognize that financial markets evolve in a one-directional, nonreversible manner. The financial authorities, in carrying out their duty of preventing the system from collapsing, have extended an implicit guarantee to all institutions that are “too big to fail.” Now they cannot credibly withdraw that guarantee. Therefore, they must impose regulations that will ensure that the guarantee will not be invoked. Too-big-to-fail banks must use less leverage and accept various restrictions on how they invest the depositors’ money. Deposits should not be used to finance proprietary trading. But regulators have to go even further. They must regulate the compensation packages of proprietary traders to ensure that risks and rewards are properly aligned. This may push proprietary traders out of banks into hedge funds where they properly belong. Just as oil tankers are compartmentalized in order to keep them stable, there ought to be firewalls between different markets. It is probably impractical to separate investment banking from commercial banking as the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 did. But there have to be internal compartments keeping proprietary trading in various markets separate from each other. Some banks that have come to occupy quasi-monopolistic positions may have to be broken up.

Banks should be limited to public purpose as per my proposals, here.

While I have a high degree of conviction on these five points, there are many questions to which my theory does not provide an unequivocal answer. For instance, is a high degree of liquidity always desirable? To what extent should securities be marked to market? Many answers that followed automatically from the Efficient Market Hypothesis need to be reexamined.

Also in my proposals, here.

It is clear that the reforms currently under consideration do not fully satisfy the five points I have made but I want to emphasize that these five points apply only in the long run. As Mervyn King explained the authorities had to do in the short run the exact opposite of what was required in the long run. And as I said earlier the financial crisis is far from over. We have just ended Act Two. The euro has taken center stage and Germany has become the lead actor. The European authorities face a daunting task: they must help the countries that have fallen far behind the Maastricht criteria to regain their equilibrium while they must also correct the deficinies of the Maastricht Treaty which have allowed the imbalances to develop. The euro is in what I call a far-from-equilibrium situation. But I prefer to discuss this subject in Germany, which is the lead actor, and I plan to do so at the Humboldt University in Berlin on June 23rd. I hope you will forgive me if I avoid the subject until then.