From Foreign Policy:
4. Nouriel Roubini
for accurately forecasting the global financial pandemic.
Economist | New York University | New York
Sometimes it takes a crisis to turn a madman into a prophet. And that's just what has happened to New York University economist Nouriel Roubini, known fondly by economy-watchers as Dr. Doom. When he predicted back in 2006 that the bursting of the housing bubble would decimate global credit markets, causing a broad, international recession, he sounded crazy, IMF economist Prakash Loungani told the New York Times. Not so after 2007: "He was a prophet when he returned."
Today, "prophet" is certainly an apt word for the gloomy man who is perhaps the world's most sought-after economic advisor. Central bankers have come to appreciate his ability to peer around dark corners of the global economy, seeing potential busts where others see booms. As his NYU colleague Tunku Varadarajan put it, he's "the nearest thing to a rock star among the economists."
"Last year's worst-case scenarios came true. The global financial pandemic that I and others had warned about is now upon us. But we are still only in the early stages of this crisis. My predictions for the coming year, unfortunately, are even more dire: The bubbles, and there were many, have only begun to burst." --Roubini, Foreign Policy, January 2009
So what is behind this massive rally? Certainly it has been helped by a wave of liquidity from near-zero interest rates and quantitative easing. But a more important factor fuelling this asset bubble is the weakness of the US dollar, driven by the mother of all carry trades. The US dollar has become the major funding currency of carry trades as the Fed has kept interest rates on hold and is expected to do so for a long time. Investors who are shorting the US dollar to buy on a highly leveraged basis higher-yielding assets and other global assets are not just borrowing at zero interest rates in dollar terms; they are borrowing at very negative interest rates – as low as negative 10 or 20 per cent annualised – as the fall in the US dollar leads to massive capital gains on short dollar positions.
Let us sum up: traders are borrowing at negative 20 per cent rates to invest on a highly leveraged basis on a mass of risky global assets that are rising in price due to excess liquidity and a massive carry trade. Every investor who plays this risky game looks like a genius – even if they are just riding a huge bubble financed by a large negative cost of borrowing – as the total returns have been in the 50-70 per cent range since March.
People’s sense of the value at risk (VAR) of their aggregate portfolios ought, instead, to have been increasing due to a rising correlation of the risks between different asset classes, all of which are driven by this common monetary policy and the carry trade. In effect, it has become one big common trade – you short the dollar to buy any global risky assets.
Yet, at the same time, the perceived riskiness of individual asset classes is declining as volatility is diminished due to the Fed’s policy of buying everything in sight – witness its proposed $1,800bn (£1,000bn, €1,200bn) purchase of Treasuries, mortgage- backed securities (bonds guaranteed by a government-sponsored enterprise such as Fannie Mae) and agency debt. By effectively reducing the volatility of individual asset classes, making them behave the same way, there is now little diversification across markets – the VAR again looks low.
So the combined effect of the Fed policy of a zero Fed funds rate, quantitative easing and massive purchase of long-term debt instruments is seemingly making the world safe – for now – for the mother of all carry trades and mother of all highly leveraged global asset bubbles.
While this policy feeds the global asset bubble it is also feeding a new US asset bubble. Easy money, quantitative easing, credit easing and massive inflows of capital into the US via an accumulation of forex reserves by foreign central banks makes US fiscal deficits easier to fund and feeds the US equity and credit bubble. Finally, a weak dollar is good for US equities as it may lead to higher growth and makes the foreign currency profits of US corporations abroad greater in dollar terms.
The reckless US policy that is feeding these carry trades is forcing other countries to follow its easy monetary policy. Near-zero policy rates and quantitative easing were already in place in the UK, eurozone, Japan, Sweden and other advanced economies, but the dollar weakness is making this global monetary easing worse. Central banks in Asia and Latin America are worried about dollar weakness and are aggressively intervening to stop excessive currency appreciation. This is keeping short-term rates lower than is desirable. Central banks may also be forced to lower interest rates through domestic open market operations. Some central banks, concerned about the hot money driving up their currencies, as in Brazil, are imposing controls on capital inflows. Either way, the carry trade bubble will get worse: if there is no forex intervention and foreign currencies appreciate, the negative borrowing cost of the carry trade becomes more negative. If intervention or open market operations control currency appreciation, the ensuing domestic monetary easing feeds an asset bubble in these economies. So the perfectly correlated bubble across all global asset classes gets bigger by the day.
But one day this bubble will burst, leading to the biggest co-ordinated asset bust ever: if factors lead the dollar to reverse and suddenly appreciate – as was seen in previous reversals, such as the yen-funded carry trade – the leveraged carry trade will have to be suddenly closed as investors cover their dollar shorts. A stampede will occur as closing long leveraged risky asset positions across all asset classes funded by dollar shorts triggers a co-ordinated collapse of all those risky assets – equities, commodities, emerging market asset classes and credit instruments.
Why will these carry trades unravel? First, the dollar cannot fall to zero and at some point it will stabilise; when that happens the cost of borrowing in dollars will suddenly become zero, rather than highly negative, and the riskiness of a reversal of dollar movements would induce many to cover their shorts. Second, the Fed cannot suppress volatility forever – its $1,800bn purchase plan will be over by next spring. Third, if US growth surprises on the upside in the third and fourth quarters, markets may start to expect a Fed tightening to come sooner, not later. Fourth, there could be a flight from risk prompted by fear of a double dip recession or geopolitical risks, such as a military confrontation between the US/Israel and Iran. As in 2008, when such a rise in risk aversion was associated with a sharp appreciation of the dollar, as investors sought the safety of US Treasuries, this renewed risk aversion would trigger a dollar rally at a time when huge short dollar positions will have to be closed.
This unraveling may not occur for a while, as easy money and excessive global liquidity can push asset prices higher for a while. But the longer and bigger the carry trades and the larger the asset bubble, the bigger will be the ensuing asset bubble crash. The Fed and other policymakers seem unaware of the monster bubble they are creating. The longer they remain blind, the harder the markets will fall.
The writer is a professor at New York University’s Stern School
of Business and chairman of Roubini Global Economics
|Warning: More Doom Ahead|
“Because the United States is such a huge part of the global economy, there’s real reason to worry that an American financial virus could mark the beginning of a global economic contagion.” – Nouriel Roubini, March 2008
Last year’s worst-case scenarios came true. The global financial pandemic that I and others had warned about is now upon us. But we are still only in the early stages of this crisis. My predictions for the coming year, unfortunately, are even more dire: The bubbles, and there were many, have only begun to burst.
The prevailing conventional wisdom holds that prices of many risky financial assets have fallen so much that we are at the bottom. Although it’s true that these assets have fallen sharply from their peaks of late 2007, they will likely fall further still. In the next few months, the macroeconomic news in the United States and around the world will be much worse than most expect. Corporate earnings reports will shock any equity analysts who are still deluding themselves that the economic contraction will be mild and short.
Severe vulnerabilities remain in financial markets: a credit crunch that will get worse before it gets any better; deleveraging that continues as hedge funds and other leveraged players are forced to sell assets into illiquid and distressed markets, thus leading to cascading falls in asset prices, margin calls, and further deleveraging; other financial institutions going bust; a few emerging-market economies entering a full-blown financial crisis, and some at risk of defaulting on their sovereign debt.
Certainly, the United States will experience its worst recession in decades. The formerly mainstream notion that the U.S. contraction would be short and shallow—a V-shaped recession with a quick recovery like the ones in 1990–91 and 2001—is out the window. Instead, the U.S. contraction will be U-shaped: long, deep, and lasting about 24 months. It could end up being even longer, an L-shaped, multiyear stagnation, like the one Japan suffered in the 1990s.
As the U.S. economy shrinks, the entire global economy will go into recession. In Europe, Canada, Japan, and the other advanced economies, it will be severe. Nor will emerging-market economies—linked to the developed world by trade in goods, finance, and currency—escape real pain.
What constitutes a “recession” will depend on the country in question. For China, a hard landing would mean annual growth falls from 12 to 6 percent. China must grow by 10 percent or more each year to bring 12 to 15 million poor rural farmers into the modern world. For other emerging markets, such as Brazil or South Korea, growth below 3 percent would represent a hard landing. The most vulnerable countries, such as Ecuador, Hungary, Latvia, Pakistan, or Ukraine may experience an outright financial crisis and will require massive external financing to avoid a meltdown.
For the wealthiest countries, a debilitating combination of economic stagnation and deflation might happen as markets for goods go slack because aggregate demand falls. Given how sharply production capacity has risen due to overinvestment in China and other emerging markets, this drop in demand would likely lead to lower inflation. Meanwhile, job losses would mount and unemployment rates would rise, putting downward pressure on wages. Weakening commodity markets—where prices have already fallen sharply since their summer peak and will fall further in a global recession—would lead to still lower inflation. Indeed, by early 2009, inflation in the advanced economies could fall toward the 1 percent level, too close to deflation for comfort.
This scenario is dangerous for many reasons. A number of central banks will be close enough to setting interest rates of zero that their economies fall into a triple whammy: a liquidity trap, a deflation trap, and debt deflation. In a liquidity trap, the banks lose their ability to stimulate the economy because they cannot set nominal interest rates below zero. In a deflation trap, falling prices mean that real interest rates are relatively high, choking off consumption and investment. This leads to a vicious circle wherein incomes and jobs are falling, with demand dropping still further. Finally, in debt deflation, the real value of nominal debts rises as prices fall—bad news for countries such as the United States and Japan that have high ratios of debt to GDP.
As orthodox monetary tools become ineffective, policymakers will turn to unorthodox approaches. We’ll see traditional fiscal policy, in the form of tax cuts and spending increases, but also worldwide bailouts of lenders, investors, and financial institutions, as well as borrowers. Central banks will inject massive amounts of cash into financial systems to unclog the liquidity crunch. More radical actions, such as outright purchases of corporate and government bonds or subsidization of mortgage rates, might also be necessary to get credit markets functioning properly again.
This crisis is not merely the result of the U.S. housing bubble’s bursting or the collapse of the United States’ subprime mortgage sector. The credit excesses that created this disaster were global. There were many bubbles, and they extended beyond housing in many countries to commercial real estate mortgages and loans, to credit cards, auto loans, and student loans. There were bubbles for the securitized products that converted these loans and mortgages into complex, toxic, and destructive financial instruments. And there were still more bubbles for local government borrowing, leveraged buyouts, hedge funds, commercial and industrial loans, corporate bonds, commodities, and credit-default swaps—a dangerous unregulated market wherein up to $60 trillion of nominal protection was sold against an outstanding stock of corporate bonds of just $6 trillion.
Taken together, these amounted to the biggest asset and credit bubble in human history; as it goes bust, the overall credit losses could reach as high as $2 trillion. Unless governments move with more alacrity to recapitalize banks and other financial institutions, the credit crunch will become even more severe. Losses will mount faster than companies can replenish their balance sheets.
Thanks to the radical actions of the G-7 and others, the risk of a total systemic financial meltdown has been reduced. But unfortunately, the worst is not behind us. This will be a painful year. Only very aggressive, coordinated, and effective action by policymakers will ensure that 2010 will not be even worse than 2009 is likely to be.
Nouriel Roubini is professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business and chairman of RGE Monitor (www.rgemonitor.com), an economic and financial consultancy.