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Why central banks are becoming impotent

This is an edited interview between Russell Napier, a market strategist and historian, and Mark Dittli of themarket.ch

Mark Dittli: In summer of 2020, you predicted that inflation was coming back and that we were looking at a prolonged period of financial repression. What’s your assessment today?

Russell Napier: My forecast is unchanged: This is structural in nature, not cyclical. We are experiencing a fundamental shift in the inner workings of most Western economies. In the past four decades, we have become used to the idea that our economies are guided by free markets. But we are in the process of moving to a system where a large part of the allocation of resources is not left to markets anymore.

MD: Why is this shift happening?

RN: The main reason is that our debt levels have simply grown too high. Total private and public sector debt in the US is at 290% of GDP. It’s at a whopping 371% in France and above 250% in many other Western economies, including Japan. The Great Recession of 2008 has already made clear to us that this level of debt was way too high.

MD: How so?

RN: Back in 2008, the world economy came to the brink of a deflationary debt liquidation, where the entire system was at risk crashing down. We’ve known that for years. We can’t stand normal, necessary recessions anymore without fearing a collapse of the system. So the level of debt – private and public – to GDP has to come down, and the easiest way to do that is by increasing the growth rate of nominal GDP. That was the way it was done in the decades after World War II.

MD: What has triggered this process now?

RN: My structural argument is that the power to control the creation of money has moved from central banks to governments. By issuing state guarantees on bank credit during the Covid crisis, governments have effectively taken over the levers to control the creation of money. Of course, the pushback to my prediction was that this was only a temporary emergency measure to combat the effects of the pandemic. But now we have another emergency, with the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis that comes with it.

MD: You mean there is always going to be another emergency?

RN: Exactly, which means governments won’t retreat from these policies. Just to give you some statistics on bank loans to corporates within the European Union since February 2020: Out of all the new loans in Germany, 40% are guaranteed by the government. In France, it’s 70% of all new loans, and in Italy it’s over 100%, because they migrate old maturing credit to new, government-guaranteed schemes. Just recently, Germany has come up with a huge new guarantee scheme to cover the effects of the energy crisis.

This is the new normal. For the government, credit guarantees are like the magic money tree: the closest thing to free money. They don’t have to issue more government debt, they don’t need to raise taxes, they just issue credit guarantees to the commercial banks.

MD: And by controlling the growth of credit, governments gain an easy way to control and steer the economy?

RN: It’s easy for them in the way that credit guarantees are only a contingent liability on the balance sheet of the state. By telling banks how and where to grant guaranteed loans, governments can direct investment where they want it to, be it energy, projects aimed at reducing inequality, or general investments to combat climate change. By guiding the growth of credit and therefore the growth of money, they can control the nominal growth of the economy.

MD: And given that nominal growth consists of real growth plus inflation, the easiest way to do this is through higher inflation?

RN: Yes. Engineering a higher nominal GDP growth through a higher structural level of inflation is a proven way to get rid of high levels of debt. 

MD: What level of inflation would do the trick?

RN: I think we’ll see consumer price inflation settling into a range between 4 and 6%. Without the energy shock, we would probably be there now. Why 4 to 6%? Because it has to be a level that the government can get away with. Financial repression means stealing money from savers and old people slowly. The slow part is important in order for the pain not to become too apparent. We’re already seeing respected economists and central bankers arguing that inflation should indeed be allowed at a higher level than the 2% target they set in the past. Our frame of reference is already shifting up.

MD: Yet at the same time, central banks have turned very hawkish in their fight against inflation. How does that square?

RN: We today have a disconnect between the hawkish rhetoric of central banks and the actions of governments. Monetary policy is trying to hit the brakes hard, while fiscal policy tries to mitigate the effects of rising prices through vast payouts. An example: When the German government introduced a €200 billion scheme to protect households and industry from rising energy prices, they’re creating a fiscal stimulus at the same time as the ECB is trying to rein in their monetary policy.

MD: Who wins?

RN: The government. Did Berlin ask the ECB whether they can create a rescue package? Did any other government ask? No. This is considered emergency finance. No government is asking for permission from the central bank to introduce loan guarantees. They just do it.

MD: You’re saying that central banks are powerless?

RN: They’re impotent. This is a shift of power that cannot be underestimated. Our whole economic system of the past 40 years was built on the assumption that the growth of credit and therefore broad money in the economy was controlled through the level of interest rates – and that central banks-controlled interest rates. But now, when governments take control of private credit creation through the banking system by guaranteeing loans, central banks are pushed out of their role. 

MD: Would that apply to all Western central banks?

RN: Certainly to the ECB and definitely to the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan. These countries are already well on their path to financial repression. It will happen in the US, too, but we have a lag there. But there will come a point where it will be too much for the US as well. Watch the level of bond yields. There is a level of bond yields that is just unacceptable for the US, because it would hurt the economy too much.

MD: Walk us through how this will play out.

RN: First, governments directly interfere in the banking sector. By issuing credit guarantees, they effectively take control of the creation of broad money and steer investment where they want it to. Then, the government would aim for a consistently high growth rate of money, but not too high. Again, history shows us the pattern: The UK had five big banks after World War II, and at the beginning of each year the government would tell them by what percentage rate their balance sheet should grow that year. By doing this, you can set the growth rate of broad money and nominal GDP. And if you know that your economy is capable of, say, 2% real growth, you know the rest would be filled by inflation. As a third prerequisite you need a domestic investor base that is captured by the regulatory framework and has to buy your government bonds, regardless of their yield. This way, you prevent bond yields from rising above the rate of inflation. All this is in place today, as many insurance companies and pension funds have no choice but to buy government bonds.

MD: Won’t there come a point where the famed bond market vigilantes would step in and demand significantly higher yields on government bonds?

RN: I doubt it. First, we already have a captured investor base that just has to buy government bonds. And if push comes to shove, the central bank would step in and prevent yields from rising higher, with the ultimate policy being overt or covert yield curve control.

MD: What if central banks don’t want to play along and try to regain control over the creation of money?

RN: They could, but in order to do that, they would really have to go to war with their own government. This will be very hard, because the politicians in government will say they are elected to pursue these policies. They are elected to keep energy prices down, elected to fight climate change, elected to invest in defence and to reduce inequality. Arthur Burns, who was the Fed chairman during the Seventies, explained in a speech in 1979 why he lost control of inflation. There was an elected government, he said, elected to fight a war in Vietnam, elected to reduce inequality through Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs. Burns said it wasn’t his job to stop the war or the Great Society programs. These were political choices.

MD: And you say it’s similar today?

RN: Yes. People are screaming for energy relief, they want defence from Putin, they want to do something against climate change. People want that, and elected governments claim to follow the will of the people. No central banker will oppose that. After all, many of the things that are associated with financial repression will be quite popular.

MD: How do you mean that?

RN: Remember I said that financial repression means engineering an inflation rate in the area of 4 to 6% and thereby achieving a nominal GDP growth rate of, say, 6 to 8%, while interest rates are kept at a lower level. Savers won’t like it, but debtors and young people will. People’s wages will rise. Financial repression moves wealth from savers to debtors, and from old to young people. It will allow a lot of investment directed into things that people care about. Just imagine what will happen when we decide to break free from our one-sided addiction of having pretty much everything we consume produced in China. This will mean a huge homeshoring or friendshoring boom, capital investment on a massive scale into the reindustrialisation of our own economies. Well, maybe not so much in Switzerland, but a lot of production could move back to Europe, to Mexico, to the US, even to the UK. We have not had a capex boom since 1994, when China devalued its currency.

MD: So we’re only at the start of this process?

RN: Absolutely. I think we’ll need at least 15 years of government-directed investment and financial repression. Average total debt to GDP is at 300% today. You’ll want to see it down to 200% or less.

MD: What’s the endgame of this process, then?

RN: We saw the endgame before, and that was the stagflation of the 1970s, when we had high inflation in combination with high unemployment.

MD: What will this new world mean for investors?

RN: First of all: avoid government bonds. Investors in government debt are the ones who will be robbed slowly. Within equities, there are sectors that will do very well. The great problems we have – energy, climate change, defence, inequality, our dependence on production from China – will all be solved by massive investment. This capex boom could last for a long time. Companies that are geared to this renaissance of capital spending will do well. Gold will do well once people realise that inflation won’t come down to pre-2020 levels but will settle between 4 and 6%. The disappointing performance of gold this year is somewhat clouded by the strong dollar. In yen, euro or sterling, gold has done pretty well already.

 

Russell Napier is author of the Solid Ground Investment Report and co-founder of the investment research portal ERIC. He is also founder and director of the Practical History of Financial Markets course at Edinburgh Business School and initiator of the Library of Mistakes, a library of financial markets history in Edinburgh.

Mark Dittli is a financial journalist with Swiss digital finance platform The Market NZZ and this interview is reproduced with permission.

 


 

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