Andy Xie: Central bank “arsonists have been asked to put out the fire”

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Former Morgan Stanley economist Andy Xie joins other famed prognosticators like Nouriel Roubini in worrying about an incipient asset bubble. The Rosetta Stone Advisors board member sees the huge increase in money supply created by central banks as fuel to an asset bubble fire. He even goes so far as to call the central banks ‘arsonists.’

The financial crisis exposed gross inefficiencies in the massive amounts of money financial institutions received from central banks. Supplying so much money to the same people who caused the crisis — and with the same incentives — does not feel right. The argument in favor of this policy is that, when the house is on fire, you have to do whatever to extinguish the fire and find the culprit later. The problem is that, in this case, the arsonists have been asked to put out the fire. How can we be sure they won’t start another fire?

Most argue that the answer is not to limit the money supply but to reform the financial system. In this way, future demand for money would be efficient. But so far, no corrective reforms have been implemented in response to the financial crisis. Why? Because the global financial system became so big over the past decade that it has co-opted central banks, legislators and entire governments. Any reforms that do come will not address the main factors leading to the current crisis.

Even the best reforms will never resolve a problem based on the fact that financial professionals generally risk other people’s money: They get big rewards when bets go right and don’t have to pay when bets go wrong. The problem with this incentive system suggests the global financial system is structurally biased toward taking on more risk than what would be taken in an efficient market. The only way to counter this is for central banks to limit money supplies. Asset inflation over the past 10 years and the catastrophe incurred when it burst lend credibility to this argument.

Xie sees stagflation as a threat and a double dip coming, as a result. He warns bond market speculators, “you’ll want to run for your life” when the bond market tanks.

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A word of caution for all would-be speculators: You’ll want to run for your life as soon as the bond market takes a big fall. And the case for a double dip in 2010 is already strong. Inventory restocking and fiscal stimuli are behind the current economic recovery, and when these run out of steam next year, the odds are quite low that western consumers will take over. High unemployment rates will keep incomes too weak to support spending. And consumers are unlikely to borrow and spend again.

Many analysts argue that, as long as unemployment rates are high, more stimuli should be applied. As I have argued before, a supply-demand mismatch rather than demand weakness per se is the main reason for high unemployment. More stimuli would only trigger inflation and financial instability.

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The post is very entertaining, if scary. (“monetary growth is being used to support leverage, mostly in the financial sector.”) While I am not in the stagflation camp, I agree that money supply growth is fuelling unsustainable increases in asset prices globally. Xie concentrates on China where retail investors dominate the equity markets, operating under the assumption that government will not let assets prices fall. My view is that prices must eventually fall if they are too high relative to the income streams that underpin that price. The resultant crash in prices will be deflationary. Xie believes that this discrepancy between price and value will be closed via inflation.

However, you see it, I recommend reading this article. It asks some very important questions for investors, businesspeople and economists alike, the most important of which is a variation on theme of the Stephen Roach article:

While workers and businesses struggle, asset players are reaping substantial paper profits again. As the central bank’s monetary policy is behind the asset boom, we should ask whether the policy is achieving its goal by helping the real economy, or whether it is just helping speculators and hoping they have something left over for the real economy.

Much, much more here.

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