Tag Archives: John Kay

Peak Uncertainty

As we face the peak weeks of the COVID19 virus in the major developed economies, one thing the current COVID19 outbreak should teach us is humility. As humans, we have become far too arrogant about our ability to shape the future. A new book by the economists John Kay and Mervyn King (a former Bank of England governor during the financial crisis) called “ Radical Uncertainty” argues that economists have forgotten the distinction between risk and uncertainty with an over-reliance on using numerical probabilities attached to possible outcomes as a substitute for admitting there are uncertainties we cannot know. How many one in a century events seem to be happening on a regular basis now? Their solution is to build more resilient systems and strategies to confront unpredictable events. Such an approach would have a profound impact on how we organise our societies and economies.

Currently, planning for events with a large impact multiplied by a small probability allows us to effectively continue as we have been after assigning the minimal amount of contingency. Imagine if sectors and industries were run based on been prepared for tail events. That would be a radical change. Very different from our just in time supply chains which minimise capital allocation and maximise return on investment. Our approach to climate change is an obvious case in point and how we have heretofore ignored the environmental externalities of our societies and economies. Given the financial costs this crisis is going to place on future generations, I would suspect that the needs of this cohort of our society will become ever more urgent in the aftermath of the COVID19 pandemic.

As many people grapple with the current uncertainties presented by this pandemic, we are currently at peak uncertainty in Europe and the US. We are only now getting a sense of how the outbreak is peaking in Europe given the lock down measures in place. How the virus reactions to the relaxation of current measures, how the outbreak will peak across the US and other continents, the economic impact of the outbreak, or the societal impact amongst many other issues are as yet unknown. We do know however that with time over the coming weeks some of these answers will become clearer. For example, as the graph below from the FT shows, we known the approximate path of the outbreak given the policies being pursued today.

A positive narrative could be that existing medications pass rushed COVID19 trials and prove they can blunt the impact of the virus thereby altering the shape of the curve. We can also speculate that once the first wave is contained, we will develop strategies on a combination of mitigation measures (e.g. reduced isolation methods, antibody and other testing to return sections of the population to work, immunity passports, etc) to slowly transition to the new normal. The logistics of such a phased return to normal will be complex and a nightmare to enforce, particularly if self-isolation measures are in force for lengthy periods and people believe any second wave can be well contained by battle hardened health systems. We can be confident that a vaccine will be developed, hopefully by early 2021, but it will take time to get the vaccine distributed and administered in bulk. Mid 2021 is likely the best we can realistically hope for.

At this stage, my rough guess at a base case scenario on the timing for European and US lockdown is 3 to 5 weeks with another 6 to 10 weeks to transition to a semi-new normal. That’s somewhere between mid-June and early August with Europe leading the way followed by the US. A more pessimistic case could be that discipline amongst the population gets more lax as the weeks drag on and a second wave gathers momentum with a second lockdown required over the summer followed by a more timid and gradual transition afterwards lasting until the end of the year. Obviously, these timings are pure guesses at this time and may, and hopefully will, prove way off base.

The economic impacts are highly uncertain but will become clearer as the weeks pass. For example, with just the first fiscal stimulus package passed in the US, the politicians are already listing their priorities for the second (and likely not to be the last either), Morgan Stanley expect the cyclically adjusted primary fiscal deficit to rise to 14% of GDP and the headline fiscal deficit at 18% of GDP in 2020, as per their graphic below. Given the unknown impact of the crisis on GDP numbers, these percentages could approach 15% to 20% with total debt of 110% to 120%. It’s depressing to note that prior to this crisis the IMF said the U.S. debt-to-GDP was already on an unsustainable path.

Although the euro zone comes into the crisis with less debt, last year it was 86% of GDP, Jefferies said in a ‘worse case’ outcome where nominal GDP falls 15% this year, the bloc’s budget gap would balloon to 17% of GDP from just 0.8% last year. They estimate in this scenario that the euro zone debt-GDP ratio could rise above 100% in 2021. As a percentage of GDP, Morgan Stanley estimated the G4+China cyclically adjusted primary deficit could rise to 8.5% of GDP in 2020, significantly higher than the 6.5% in 2009 immediately after the global financial crisis. Unemployment rates in the short term are projected to be mind boggling horrible at 20%+ in some countries. It seems to me that the austerity policies pursued after the financial crisis will not be as obvious an answer to repayment of this debt, not if we want western societies to survive. Addressing generational and structural income inequalities will have to be part of the solution. Hopefully, an acceleration of nationalism wouldn’t.

On the monetary side, the Fed’s balance sheet is now estimated to be an unprecedented $6 trillion, an increase of $1.6 trillion since the start of the Fed’s unprecedented bailout on the 13th of March. Bank of America estimates it could reach $9 trillion or 40% of GDP, as per the graphs below.

As to corporates and the stock market, dividends will undoubtably be under pressure as corporate delevering takes hold and without the crack cocaine of the bull market, share buybacks as the graph below shows, I fear there will be more pressure on valuations. The Q1 results season and forward guidance (or lack thereof), although it may have some surprises from certain firms in the communication, technology and consumer staples space, will likely only compound the negativity and uncertainty.

Using unscientific guesses on my part, I have estimated base and pessimistic operating EPS figures for the S&P500 as below. Based upon a forward PE (on a GAAP EPS) of 15 (approx. 12.75 on operating EPS basis), which is the level reached after the dot com bubble and the financial crisis, the resulting level for the S&P500 is 2,000 and 1,600 in the base and pessimistic scenarios respectively. That’s a further 20% and 35% drop from today’s levels respectively.

The coming weeks will likely be horrible in terms of human suffering and death across the developed world (one cannot even comprehend the potential suffering in the developing world if this insidious virus takes hold there). There is always hope and uncertainty will reduce over time. Major decisions will need to be made in the months and years ahead on the future of our societies. Learning from this pandemic to build more resilient societies and economies will be a task that lasts many years, possibility even generations. Major changes are coming after this health crisis subsides, hopefully they will be for the better.

Stay safe.

Pimping the Peers (Part 1)

Fintech is a much hyped term currently that covers an array of new financial technologies. It includes technology providers of financial services, new payment technologies, mobile money and currencies like bitcoin, robo-advisers, crowd funding and peer to peer (P2P) lending. Blockchain is another technology that is being hyped with multiple potential uses. I posted briefly on the growth in P2P lending and crowd-funding before (here and here) and it’s the former that is primarily the focus of this post.

Citigroup recently released an interesting report on the digital disruption impact of fintech on banking which covers many of the topics above. The report claims that $19 billion has been invested in fintech firms in 2015, with the majority focussed in the payments area. In terms of the new entrants into the provision of credit space, the report highlights that over 70% of fintech investments to date have being in the personal and SME business segments.

In the US, Lending Club and Prosper are two of the oldest and more established firms in the marketplace lending sector with a focus on consumer lending. Although each are growing rapidly and have originated loans in the multiple of billions in 2015, the firms have been having a rough time of late with rates being increased to counter poor credit trends. Public firms have suffered from the overall negative sentiment on banks in this low/negative interest rate environment. Lending Club, which went public in late 2014, is down about 70% since then whilst Prosper went for institutional investment instead of an IPO last year. In fact, the P2P element of the model has been usurped as most of the investors are now institutional yield seekers such as hedge funds, insurers and increasingly traditional banks. JP Morgan invested heavily in another US firm called OnDeck, an online lending platform for small businesses, late in 2015. As a result, marketplace lending is now the preferred term for the P2P lenders as the “peer” element has faded.

Just like other disruptive models in the technology age, eBay and Airbnb are examples, initially these models promised a future different from the past, the so called democratization of technology impact, but have now started to resemble new technology enabled distribution platforms with capital provided by already established players in their sectors. Time and time again, digital disruption has eroded distribution costs across many industries. The graphic from the Citi report below on digital disruption impact of different industries is interesting.

click to enlargeDigital Disruption

Marketplace lending is still small relative to traditional banking and only accounts for less than 1% of loans outstanding in the UK and the US (and even in China where its growth has been the most impressive at approx 3% of retail loans). Despite its tiny size, as with any new financial innovation, concerns are ever-present about the consequences of change for traditional markets.

Prosper had to radically change its underwriting process after a shaky start. One of their executives is recently quoted as saying that they “will soon be on our sixth risk model”. Marrying new technology with quality credit underwriting expertise (ignoring the differing cultures of each discipline) is a key challenge for these fledging upstarts. An executive in Kreditech, a German start-up, claimed that they are “a tech company who happens to be doing lending”. Critics point to the development of the sector in a benign default environment with low interest rates where borrowers can easily refinance and the churning of loans is prevalent. Adair Turner, the ex FSA regulator, recently stirred up the new industry with the widely reported comment that “the losses which will emerge from peer-to-peer lending over the next five to 10 years will make the bankers look like lending geniuses”. A split of the 2014 loan portfolio of Lending Club in the Citi report as below illustrates the concern.

click to enlargeLending Club Loan By Type

Another executive from the US firm SoFi, focused on student loans, claims that the industry is well aware of the limitations that credit underwriting solely driven by technology imbues with the comment that “my daughter could come up with an underwriting model based upon which band you like and it would work fine right now”.  Some of the newer technology firms make grand claims involving superior analytics which, combined with technologies like behavioural economics and machine learning, they contend will be able to sniff out superior credit risks.

The real disruptive impact that may occur is that these newer technology driven firms will, as Antony Jenkins the former CEO of Barclays commented, “compel banks to significantly automate their business”. The Citigroup report has interesting statistics on the traditional banking model, as per the graphs below. 60% to 70% of employees in retail banking, the largest profit segment for European and US banks, are supposedly doing manual processing which can be replaced by automation.

click to enlargeBanking Sector Forecasts Citi GPS

Another factor driving the need to automate the banks is the cyber security weaknesses in patching multiple legacy systems together. According to the Citigroup report, “the US banks on average appear to be about 5 years behind Europe who are in turn about a decade behind Nordic banks”. Within Europe, it is interesting to look at the trends in bank employee figures in the largest markets, as per the graph below. France in particular looks to be out of step with other countries.

click to enlargeEuropean Bank Employees

Regulators are also starting to pay attention. Just this week, after a number of scams involving online lenders, the Chinese central bank has instigated a crack down and constituted a multi-agency task force. In the US, there could be a case heard by the Supreme Court which may create significant issues for many online lenders. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency recently issued a white paper to solicit industry views on how such new business models should be regulated. John Williams of the San Francisco Federal Reserve recently gave a speech at a recent marketplace lending conference which included the lucid point that “as a matter of principle, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it should be regulated like a duck”.

In the UK, regulators have taken a gentler approach whereby the new lending business models apply for Financial Conduct Authority authorisation under the 36H regulations, which are less stringent than the regimes which apply to more established activities, such as collective investment schemes. The FCA also launched “Project Innovate” last year where new businesses work together with the FCA on their products in a sandbox environment.

Back in 2013, I asked the question whether financial innovation always ended in lower risk premia in this post. In the reinsurance sector, the answer to that question is yes in relation to insurance linked securities (ILS) as this recent post on current pricing shows. It has occurred to me that the new collateralised ILS structures are not dissimilar in methodology to the 100% reserve banks, under the so-called Chicago plan, which economists such as Irving Fisher, Henry Simons and Milton Friedman proposed in the 1930s and 1940s. I have previously posted on my difficulty in understanding how the fully collaterised insurance model can possibly accept lower risk premia than the traditional “fractional” business models of traditional insurers (as per this post). The reduced costs of the ILS model or the uncorrelated diversification for investors cannot fully compensate for the higher capital required, in my view. I suspect that the reason is hiding behind a dilution of underwriting standards and/or leverage being used by investors to juice their returns. ILS capital is now estimated to make up 12% of overall reinsurance capital and its influence on pricing across the sector has been considerable. In Part 2 of this post, I will look into some of the newer marketplace insurance models being developed (it also needs a slick acronym – InsurTech).

Marketplace lending is based upon the same fully capitalized idea as ILS and 100% reserve banks. As can be seen by the Citigroup exhibits, there is plenty of room to compete with the existing banks on costs although nobody, not yet anyway, is claiming that such models have a lower cost of capital than the fractional reserve banks. It is important not to over exaggerate the impact of new models like marketplace lending on the banking sector given its current immaterial size. The impact of technology on distribution channels and on credit underwriting is likely to be of greater significance.

The indirect impact of financial innovation on underwriting standards prior to the crisis is a lesson that we must learn. To paraphrase an old underwriting adage, we should not let the sweet smell of shiny new technology distract us from the stink of risk, particularly where such risk involves irrational human behaviour. The now infamous IMF report in 2006 which stated that financial innovation had “increased the resilience of the financial system” cannot be forgotten.

I am currently reading a book called “Between Debt and the Devil” by the aforementioned Adair Turner where he argues that private credit creation, if left solely to the free market under our existing frameworks, will overfund secured lending on existing real estate (which my its nature is finite), creating unproductive volatility and financial instability as oversupply meets physical constraints. Turner’s book covers many of the same topics and themes as Martin Wolf’s book (see this post). Turner concludes that we need to embrace policies which actively encourage a less credit intensive economy.

It is interesting to see that the contribution of the financial sector has not reduced significantly since the crisis, as the graph on US GDP mix below illustrates. The financialization of modern society does not seem to have abated much since the crisis. Indeed, the contribution to the value of the S&P500 from the financials has not decreased materially since the crisis either (as can be seen in the graph in this post).

click to enlargeUS GDP Breakdown 1947 to 2014

Innovation which makes business more efficient is a feature of the creative destruction capitalist system which has increased productivity and wealth across generations. However, financial innovation which results in changes to the structure of markets, particularly concerning banking and credit creation, has to be carefully considered and monitored. John Kay in a recent FT piece articulated the dangers of our interconnected financial world elegantly, as follow:

Vertical chains of intermediation, which channel funds directly from savers to the uses of capital, can break without inflicting much collateral damage. When intermediation is predominantly horizontal, with intermediaries mostly trading with each other, any failure cascades through the system.

When trying to understand the potential impacts of innovations like new technology driven underwriting, I like to go back to an exhibit I created a few years ago trying to illustrate how  financial systems have been impacted at times of supposed innovation in the past.

click to enlargeQuote Money Train

Change is inevitable and advances in technology cannot, nor should they, be restrained. Human behaviour, unfortunately, doesn’t change all that much and therefore how technological advances in the financial sector could impact stability needs to be ever present in our thoughts. That is particularly important today where global economies face such transformational questions over the future of the credit creation and money.