René Magritte La trahison des images 1929
“[Price discovery] is the process of determining the price of an asset in the marketplace through the interactions of buyers and sellers”, says Wikipedia. Perhaps not a perfect definition, but it’ll do. They add: “The futures and options market serve all important functions of price discovery.”
What follows from this is that markets need price discovery as much as price discovery needs markets. They are two sides of the same coin. Markets are the mechanism that makes price discovery possible, and vice versa. Functioning markets, that is.
Given the interdependence between the two, we must conclude that when there is no price discovery, there are no functioning markets. And a market that doesn’t function is not a market at all. Also, if you don’t have functioning markets, you have no investors. Who’s going to spend money purchasing things they can’t determine the value of? (I know: oh, wait..)
Ergo: we must wonder why everyone in the financial world, and the media, is still talking about ‘the markets’ (stocks, bonds et al) as if they still existed. Is it because they think there still is price discovery? Or do they think that even without price discovery, you can still have functioning markets? Or is their idea that a market is still a market even if it doesn’t function?
Or is it because they once started out as ‘investors’ or finance journalists, bankers or politicians, and wouldn’t know what to call themselves now, or simply can’t be bothered to think about such trivial matters?
Doesn’t a little warning voice pop up, somewhere in the back of their minds, in the middle of a sweaty sleepless night, that says perhaps they shouldn’t get this one wrong? Because if you think about, and treat, a ‘thing’, as something that it’s not at all, don’t you run the risk of getting it awfully wrong?
A cow is not a dinner table; but both have four legs. And “Art is Art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know”. And when you base million, billion, trillion dollar decisions, often involving other people’s money, on such misconceptions, don’t you play with fire -or worse?
This may seem like pure semantics without much practical value, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s essential. What comes to mind is René Magritte’s painting “La Trahison des Images”, better known as “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, (The Treachery of Images – this is not a pipe). People now understand -better- what he meant, but they were plenty confused in the late 1920s when he painted it.
An image of a pipe is not a pipe. In Magritte’s words: “The famous pipe! How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!”.
But isn’t that what the entire financial community is doing today? Sure, they’re making money right now, but that doesn’t mean there are actual markets. They don’t have to go through “the process of determining the price of an asset in the marketplace..” I.e. they don’t have to check if the pipe is a real pipe, or just a picture of one.
What killed price discovery, and thereby markets? Central banks did. What they did post-2008 is two-fold: they bought many, many trillions in ‘assets’, mortgage-backed securities, sovereign bonds, corporate bonds, etc., often at elevated prices. It’s hard to gauge how much exactly, but it’s in the $20+ trillion range. Just so all these things wouldn’t be sold at prices markets might value them at after going through that terrible process of ‘price discovery’.
Secondly, of course, central banks yanked down interest rates. Until they arrived at ultra low interest rates (even negative ones), which have led to ultra low yields and the perception of ultra low volatility, ultra low risk, ultra low fear, which in turn contributed to ultra low savings (in which increasing household debt also plays a major role). As a consequence of which we have ultra high prices for stocks, housing, crypto(?), and I’m sure I still forget a number of causes and effects.
People wanting to buy a home are under the impression they can get “more home for their buck” because rates are so low, which in turn drives up home prices, which means the next buyers pay a lot more than they would have otherwise, and get “less home for their buck”. In the same vein, ultra-low rates allow for companies to borrow on the cheap to buy back their own stock, which leads to surging stock prices, which means ‘investors’ pay more per share.
Numbers of the S&P 500 and its peers across the world are still being reported, but what do they really represent? Other than what central banks and financial institutions have bought and sold? There’s no way of knowing. If you buy a stock, or a bond, or a home, you no longer have a means of finding out what they are truly worth.
Their value is determined by central banks printing debt out of thin air, not by what it has cost to build a home, or by what a company has added to its value through hard work or investment in labor, knowledge or infrastructure. These things have been rendered meaningless.
Central banks determine what anything is worth. The problem is, that is a trap. And your money risks being stuck in that trap. Because you’re not getting any return on your savings, you want to ‘invest’ in something, anything, that will get you that return. And the only guidance you have left is what central banks purchase. That is a much poorer guidance than an actual market place. The one thing you can be sure of is that you’re paying more for ‘assets’ -probably much more- than you would have had central banks remained on the sidelines.
The Fed may (officially?) have quit purchasing ‘assets’, but the Bank of Japan and ECB took over with a vengeance (oh, to be a fly on the wall at the BIS); in Q1 2017 the latter two bought over $1 trillion in paper. The Bank of Japan has effectively become its nation’s bondmarket. The European Central Bank is not far behind that role in Europe.
And the ‘market’, or rather the 2-dimensional picture of a market, depends only on what they do. The one remaining question then is when will this end? Some say it can go on forever, or, you know, till these policies have restored growth and confidence. But can, will, anyone have confidence in a market that doesn’t function? Martin Armstrong recently addressed the issue:
While the majority keep bashing the Federal Reserve, other central banks seem to escape any criticism. The European Central Bank under Mario Draghi has engaged in what history will call the Great Monetary Experiment of the 21st Century – the daring experiment of negative interest rates. A look behind the scenes reveals that this experiment has been not just a failure, it has undermined the entire global economic structure.
We are looking at pension funds being driven into insolvency as the traditional asset allocation model of 60% equity 40% bonds has failed to secure the future with negative interest rates. Then, the ECB has exceeded 40% ownership of Eurozone government debt. The ECB realizes it can not only sell any of its holdings ever again, it cannot even refuse to reinvest what it has already bought when those bonds expire. The Fed has announced it will not reinvest anything.
Draghi is trapped. He cannot stop buying government debt for if he does, interest rates will soar. He cannot escape this crisis and it is not going to end nicely. When this policy collapses, forced by the free markets (no bid), CONFIDENCE will collapse rapidly. Once people no longer believe the central banks can control anything, the end has arrived. We will be looking at the time at the WEC. We will be answering the question – Can a central bank actually fail?
So where do you go from here? Everything you -think you- know about markets is potentially useless and doesn’t apply to what you see before you today. There are many voices who talk about similarities and comparisons with what happened to markets for instance in 1987, but what’s the value of that?
Back then, to all intents, constructions, and purposes, markets were functioning. There was price discovery. There were some ‘novel’ instruments, such as portfolio insurance, that you could argue influenced markets, but nothing on the scale or depth of what we see today with high-frequency trading, robots, Kurodas and Draghis.
The temptation is obvious, and large, to compare today’s financial world with that of any point in the past that seems to fit, even if not perfectly. But the lack of price discovery means any such comparisons must of necessity be way off the mark; you cannot stuff that 2-D pipe.
The BIS-designed unity in central bank policies is under threat, as Armstrong indicates. The Fed has moved towards quantitative tightening, not investing or even re-investing, and raising rates, but it doesn’t look like the ECB will be able to follow that change of direction. It can’t stop ‘investing’ because it has become too big a player. The Bank of Japan appears to be in that same bind.
Central bankers jumped into the markets to save them (or so goes the narrative), but they will instead end up killing them. In fact, they killed them the minute they entered the fray. Markets can’t survive without price discovery, and vice versa. The moment it becomes clear that Draghi MUST keep buying sovereign debt from countries with failing economies, the game is up.
All those trillions created by central banks, and the even much bigger amounts conjured up by the creation of loans by commercial banks, will have to be eradicated from the system before markets and price discovery can return. And return they will. There are lots of things wrong with our economic and financial machinery, but functioning markets are not wrong.
Things run off the rails when governments and central banks start interfering, not when markets are allowed to function. But it’s long turned into a giant game of whack-a-mole, in which economists and other know-it-betters are forced to plug one hole by digging another, and so forth.
The best we can hope for is some sort of controlled demolition, but the knowledge and intelligence required to make that happen don’t appear to be available. The political climate certainly isn’t either. A politician who campaigns on “let’s take this sucker down slowly” will always lose out to one who claims to know not only how to save it, but to let it bloat even more.
The Draghis of the world will continue to believe they are in control until they are not. At first, some people will start taking out their money while it’s still there, and then after that the rest will trample over each other in a bloody stampede on the way to the exits trying to save what’s left. After the first $100 trillion is gone, we’ll be able to survey the terrain, but by then we won’t, because we’ll be too busy trying to save ourselves.
And I know you’ve heard this before, and I know central banks bought us 10 years of respite. But it was all fake, it was all just a picture of a pipe. They had to pile on insane amounts of debt on your heads, kill off your pension systems and make markets a meaningless term, to achieve that respite.
They had to kill the markets to create the illusion that there still were markets. With the implied promise that they would be able to get out when they had ‘restored growth’.
But you can’t buy growth. And yet that is the only trick they have up their sleeves, and the only thing the emperor is wearing. Next up: a rabbit and a hat. And a pipe. And then the lights go out and someone shouts “FIRE!”.