Monthly Archives: March 2013

Wall of Liquidity

Once again a misconception is gaining currency. There is increased talk of a build up of cash just waiting to be converted into equities or other assets. I wrote about this years ago in cash on the sidelines, but apparently the financial commentariat did not read the post, so it is time to revisit the subject.

I believe that the reason the misconception is so widespread is that the subject is not discussed in technical terms, but in metaphors. Some of you have heard the phrase “the great rotation”, which refers to the idea that investors will shift en masse from cash and bonds to shares. It’s a compelling phrase, but it leaves one question unanswered: who will sell the shares to these rotating investors and, given that these sellers will be paid for their shares, what happens to the money they receive? It’s still cash after all. Likewise, if these rotators are selling their bonds, someone has to buy them. Post-rotation, there is still just as much cash in the system and just as many bonds. Cash and bonds don’t just magically turn into shares. Reality is messy…why spoil a good metaphor?

A simpler, more dramatic and more vacuous metaphor that has also made a reappearance is the “wall of liquidity”.

Wall of Liquidity

No one using this compelling phrase would be so crass as to explain what it means. Such is its power, it is assumed that we all know what it means. So, let’s have a look at “wall of liquidity” out in the wild. In an article about rising bank share prices, Michael Bennet wrote in The Australian:

But pump-priming by global central banks has created a so-called wall of liquidity looking for income that is flowing out of cash and into high-dividend-paying stocks, with banks attractive due to their fully franked dividends.

Here it certainly sounds as though “wall of liquidity” is just “cash on the sidelines” in a fancy suit. But let’s zero in for a moment on the other metaphor in this sentence, “pump-priming”. Doubtless, the author has the US Federal Reserve (Fed) in mind. The standard line runs something like this: with low interest rates and purchases of securities through the “QE” (quantitative easing) programs, the Fed has flooded the banks with liquidity. More prosaically, reserve balances (i.e. the accounts banks have with the Fed) have grown. So far so good, as the chart below shows.

The next step in this line of thinking is that as this cash builds, it is a “wall of liquidity” desperate to find somewhere to go and, in the quest for investments, it will push up asset prices.

But before we can accept this reasoning, there is an important point to note. Reserves with the Fed are assets of banks only. Contrary to a common misconception, these reserves cannot be lent, they can only be shuffled around from bank to bank. Nevertheless, there is a theory that, because in the US and some other countries, a certain percentage of bank deposits must be backed by reserve balances, there is a “money multiplier” which determines a fixed relationship between reserve balances and bank deposits*. If this theory is correct, bank deposits should have grown as dramatically as reserve balances. They have not.

M1 money

Taking the same chart and displaying it on a log scale shows that growth in deposit balances has been very steady over the last 20 years.

M2 - log scale

Whatever is going on in financial markets, it has nothing to do with a dramatic build up of cash which is poised to be converted into “risk assets”.

Yet another way to see this is to think about what is going on in Australian banks at the moment. Credit growth is slow in Australia. This is not because banks are reluctant to lend. Quite the contrary. Banks are looking at the slow credit growth and fretting about their ability to deliver the earnings growth that their shareholders have come to expect. The problem is that there is a lack of demand for credit as households and businesses continue to save and pay down debts. In response, banks have begun to compete aggressively on price and, in some cases, on terms to attempt to grow the size of their slice of a pie that is not growing. And yet these very same banks continue to compete for customer deposits. Australian banks are not sitting on vast cash reserves that are compelling them to lend. Rather it is simply renewed risk appetite that is driving banks to compete for lending.

The same is true around the world. Looking at cash balances as a sign that yields will fall and asset prices will rise is a pointless exercise. What is happening is much simpler. Animal spirits are emerging once more. Low interest rates (not cash balances) will help, but fundamentally it is risk appetite that drives markets.

The last time I heard people talking in terms of walls of liquidity was in 2005-2006 in the lead-up to the global financial crisis. These putative piles of cash were used to support a change of paradigm in which the returns for risk could stay low indefinitely. Of course this turned out to be dramatically wrong. The cash didn’t disappear, but risk appetite did. I am not predicting another crash yet, but I do foresee this nonsense being used to justify more risk-taking for lower returns. If that happens for long enough, then there will be another crash.

* As an aside, given that Australia has no minimum reserve requirements, if the money multiplier theory was valid, there should be an infinite amount of deposits in the Australian banking system. For the record, this is not the case.

Photo credit: AP

Cypriot sovereignty surrendered

Fingers Crossed

Here is a rant about events in Cyprus. Normal dispassionate service will resume here at the Mule in the next post.

Over the weekend, the European crisis took a sickening new twist in Cyprus. The government of Cyprus announced a “levy” on Cypriot depositors as part of a deal to secure a bailout of its ailing banks by international lenders. In doing so, it has dramatically demonstrated how completely Cyprus and other eurozone nations have surrendered their sovereignty to the technocrats of the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the IMF.

The president of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades has told his citizens, subject to getting the numbers in parliament, his government is about renege on past promises and appropriate the savings of pensioners to make good the failings of others. This is not the first time that the global financial crisis has claimed innocent victims, but it is perhaps the most striking example of this phenomenon.

Cyprus’s financial woes stem from the fact that their banks had significant investments in Greek government bonds. Back in March 2012, as part of the bailout of Greece, investors in these bonds suffered a “haircut” of 53.5%. Somewhat less euphemistically, holders of these bonds lost more than half of their investment. This left Cyprus’s banks in deep trouble and, while negotiations with Europe for a bailout continued, the ECB kept them afloat with emergency funding. The threat of suspending that ECB support was the gun to Anastasiades’s head that led him to agree to the disgraceful bailout scheme.

As the European crisis has rolled on, the European technocrats have become increasingly committed to “private sector involvement” (PSI). At face value, the principle is sound. The use of public money to rescue private sector banks leads to moral hazard. If lenders to banks expect to be bailed out, they may be tempted to allow banks to be ever more reckless in their risk-taking.

When a bank suffers losses, there is a hierarchy that determines who will suffer losses. The hierarchy typically works like this: investors in the bank’s shares are the first lose their investment; next to lose are investors in so-called “hybrid debt” (not quite lending, not quite equity, this includes things like preference shares); if the bank has issued “subordinated debt”, investors in these securities come next, followed by “senior debt” providers (typically in the form of bank-issued bonds). Depositors are the last to lose money and retail depositors with small balances typically have additional protection in the form of deposit protection provided by the government or a government agency*.

Depositor protection is extremely important. Despite being private companies, banks provide a critical role for the smooth running of an economy and so cannot be left at the mercy of the “creative destruction” of capitalism. In today’s society it is not really possible to opt out of the banking system and simply being paid a wage requires a bank account. It would be impractical, inefficient and unreasonable to expect every retail depositor to analyse the financial health of their bank before choosing where to deposit their money. When a bank collapses, shareholders should lose money. Wholesale investors should lose money. Retail depositors should be protected.

This reality is not lost on the lawmakers of Cyprus and for over 10 years, Cyprus depositors have supposedly been provided with deposit protection on balances under €100,000. The details of the levy have not yet been finalised, but the initial proposal involves a levy of 9.9% on all deposit balances over €100,000 and 6.5% on all deposits below €100,000. Anastasiades has effectively said, Oh, that deposit protection scheme? Well we had our fingers crossed when we made that promise. That explains the weasel word “levy” or “tax”. Of course your deposits are still protected against losses. You will not suffer a loss, it’s just that there’s a new tax we’re bringing in…

As if this dramatic breach of faith was not enough, there is no moral justice here either. Like Ireland before it (and indeed Australia), Cyprus did see rapid growth of private sector debt in the lead up to the crisis. So why not levy the tax on reckless borrowers not prudent savers?

Cyprus should rue the day that it surrendered its sovereignty by joining the euro zone in 2008. Cyprus would still be facing economic challenges today, but it would be free to determine its own fiscal policy, stimulate the economy (if it managed to keep politically-motivated deficit hawks at bay) and, of course, it would be able to honour its promise to protect retail depositors.

* Before the financial crisis, Australian depositors had no deposit protection. The assumption was that prudential oversight of banks provided sufficient protection for depositors. That changed after the crisis and now deposits below $250,000 are protected.

Account Keeping

I have been digging through some family archives and came across an old bank passbook belonging to my great grandfather, William Booth. He lived in Perthville in the central west of NSW. His account was with the Bank of New South Wales, Bathurst branch.


Pasted inside the front cover is a statement of the account keeping fees. I was born after decimalisation, so 5/- was not immediately meaningful to me. It turns out that the semi-annual fee is five shillings. To complicate matters further, the first transaction in the passbook is dated 1903, so these are British shillings. Australia did not introduce its own currency until 1910.

Passbook fees

Having worked out that much, I was interested to compare 1903 account keeping fees to account keeping fees today. So, the next step was to convert five 1903 British shillings into present day Australian dollars. The website Measuring Worth comes in handy for this purpose. The site’s banner features the following quote from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776).

The real price of every thing, what every thing really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it… But though labour be the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities, it is not that by which their value is commonly estimated… Every commodity, besides, is more frequently exchanged for, and thereby compared with, other commodities than with labour.

With that in mind, it provides a range of present day values for five 1903 shillings. Well, almost present day: their data series extend to 2011, so in 2011 terms five shillings is worth any one of the following

£22.00 using the retail price index
£26.00 using the GDP deflator
£86.80 using the average earnings
£134.00 using the per capita GDP
£200.00 using the share of GDP


Back in the day of William Booth, account keeping involved someone manually reconciling three columns of pounds, shillings and pence. These days the process is computer-assisted, so a retail price adjustment may be more appropriate than average earnings or any of the other measures.With UK inflation running at 2.6% over 2012, I can tweak £22.00 to £22.57. Using the current exchange rate, that amounts to A$33.33. Strictly speaking, even though Australia used British pounds in 1903, I should use an Australian retail index, but as Measuring Worth only has US, UK, Japanese and Chinese conversions at the moment, I will stick with the British approach.

So, Mr Booth was paying just over $5 per month in service fees for his banking. The Bank of New South Wales has since become Westpac. According to the Westpac website, the monthly service fee for the “Westpac Choice” transaction account is $5. Fees at other banks would be very similar. So, perhaps surprisingly, account keeping fees seem to have changed very little over the last 110 years!

Westpac fees

Given the level of automation in banking today, it would be reasonable to expect that fees would be lower than they are today. Certainly if the five shillings were adjusted based on average wages, the cost of Mr Booth’s account keeping would be more like $20 per month. Not only that, like every other bank, Westpac also offers a basic account option with zero account keeping fees. I am sure that would not have been an option in 1903.