In early 2009, roughly at the time when this blog was launched which coincided with the start of the greatest monetary experiment of all time, we warned that there are two ways it will end: either in hyperinflation, or a deflationary supernova, the failure of currency and, eventually, barter. Now, almost 8 years later, some of the world’s top hedge funds are in agreement, and they are worried.
As the WSJ reports, these prominent hedge fund managers join an increasingly bigger and louder chorus which says central bank bond buying programs that are pumping trillions of dollars into global markets will end badly.
In yesterday’s main event, the ECB said it would extend its asset purchase program to the end of next year, buying bonds at a reduced rate. As the following chart from BBG projects, at the ECB’s revised rate of bond purchases, its balance sheet will soon surpass that of the Fed.
So what happens next? Prominent managers have told The Wall Street Journal in recent interviews of their doubts about the endgame for quantitative easing around the world.
“There’s no non-messy way out of this,” said Luke Ellis, chief executive of Man Group, one of the world’s biggest hedge-fund firms with $80.7 billion in assets. “There’s two versions” of how this ends, he added. Either central banks could move to so-called ‘helicopter money,’ where they buy debt from the government, which then spends the proceeds or gives it to the population to spend. This “for a few years looks golden then leads to hyperinflation,” he said. Or the speed at which money circulates within the economy could grind to a halt. “Then you effectively have a barter economy,” he said.
In a series of exclusive interviews with the Journal, hedge-fund executives overseeing around $280 billion in total highlighted a range of problems created by quantitative easing. The problems they highlight are precisely those that QE was designed to solve, and are exactly the same problems we warned about since the 2009, for which we have been repeatedly branded some variation of “fake news.” Now the skepticism has become mainstream.
This is what, according to the hedge fund managers interviewed by the WSJ, will happen:
Damage to economic growth
Rather than kick-starting growth, quantitative easing may do the reverse. Some managers fear it distorts financial markets and undermines capitalism. That system relies on profit-hungry investors to differentiate between strong and weak companies—funding the strong while letting the weak die. QE, say some managers, doesn’t differentiate.
For instance, the Bank of England is buying the debt of firms it deems make “a material contribution” to the U.K. economy. That has led some investment banks and companies to create new debt especially for it to buy. The ECB has bought €48.2 billion ($51.2 billion) of corporate debt since June, but the hoped-for private-sector investment hasn’t materialized.
“What does a market do? It’s a voting mechanism,” said Michael Hintze, billionaire founder of hedge fund CQS, which runs around $12 billion in assets. “Instead you’ve got this 800-pound gorilla out there who’s hoovering up assets. “There’s a misallocation of capital and an opportunity cost to the real economy,” added Mr. Hintze, whose portfolio is up 30% this year, ranking it one of the world’s top-performing hedge funds. “It means GDP is not growing as much as it might.”
Some put it even more strongly. “It’s definitely destructive of economic growth,” said Crispin Odey, founder of Odey Asset Management, which runs $8.2 billion in assets.
“Capitalism dies a death,” said Mr. Odey, who sees government policy as the main factor influencing markets. His fund, a top performer after the credit crisis, is down sharply this year because of being too bearish. “It’s all policy. It’s the Kremlin. And I’m in the gulags.”
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Damage to society
In her speech to the governing Conservative Party conference in October, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May spoke of “some bad side effects” from quantitative easing as people with assets got richer while those without them suffered. U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has said low rates have robbed savers. Those side effects include “envy and distress” within society, “as people think ‘I can’t get out of where I am,’” said Andrew McCaffery, group head of solutions at Aberdeen Asset Management, who looks after $170 billion in assets.
Ultralow interest rates mean the large part of the population with few financial assets begins to despair of how to generate income to fund retirement, he said.
“People see a developing black hole,” he said. This “increases the sense of there being little to lose for many” people.
Andrew Law, chief executive of New York-based Caxton Associates LP, which runs around $7.8 billion, said quantitative easing averted economic depression after the financial crisis.
But he added: “The losers of QE are society, and democracy is also a loser, because central banks are not publicly elected officials.”
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Quantitative easing was also introduced as a way of increasing private-sector spending and raising inflation. Some investors even worried it would spark hyperinflation and rushed to buy gold. Instead, say some managers, it has led to deflation.
“It took me a long time to work it out,” said CQS’s Mr. Hintze. “It’s a very complex issue.” He said that massive amounts of liquidity mean that “liquidity’s not worth much anymore,” which leads to negative interest rates. “I do think it [QE] is a massive deflationary force. The reason is because money is worth less but the price of real assets goes up.”
Mr. Odey said quantitative easing leads to deflation because weaker competitors are kept alive by cheap debt as “zombie” companies.
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Finally, hedge-fund managers see difficulty in ending quantitative easing.
“Central banks are sadly helping to create the ‘black hole,’ and the sucking noise and pull is getting bigger,” said Aberdeen’s Mr. McCaffery, “but you just have to keep going as your alternative options as a central banker are just too unpalatable to consider.
Using an analogy we first came up with in 2009, McCaffrey slammed the use of a drug placebo to keep the system intact: “More methadone is not going to help, a form of cold turkey [is] needed, but no central bank is going to do that,” he added. He warns governments’ debt-to-GDP levels have risen.
“In the long term, it implies rates can never go up, as the damage will be extraordinary in nature,” he said, as they struggle with their debt loads. For now, however, the market which moments ago hit new all time highs, is blissfully ignoring all of the above.