While data about our economic health has been improving rather consistently since the Crash of 2008, I’ve become very concerned that the patient might suffer an unexpected heart attack. The problem now is the same as the problem then. We still have not figured out how to intelligently regulate derivatives, which Warren Buffett described as “financial weapons of mass destruction”. But, heart attacks are often triggered by something exogenous, e.g., sudden exertion, surprises, etc. So, what would trigger our economic heart attack?
A few years ago, many economists fretted about the Yen-carry trade. At that time, investors were borrowing Yen in Japan at essentially zero interest rates and buying dollars in Australia or New Zealand, for example, which paid as much as 7%. They kept the difference in interest earned in Australia and interest paid in Japan as their profit. Their risk was that Japan might raise interest rates, which would cause the Yen to appreciate, which would then make it more expensive for the investors to buy enough Yen to repay their loans. This is the greatest risk to the investment strategy of “currency carry trades”. When the reversal happened, Japan paid a heavy price as the value of the Yen suddenly spiked, which made their exports un-competitive worldwide overnight.
Recently, famed pessimist Nouriel Roubini, who accurately predicted both the timing and the intensity of The Great Recession, claimed the Yen-carry trade was nothing compared to the new Dollar-carry trade, calling it “the mother of all carry trades”. I suspect he is right. The world is awash in dollars right now, borrowed at no cost and invested in more risky assets elsewhere, which has been a major factor driving up stock markets worldwide this year. However, when the market feels the Fed is ready to raise rates, we can expect a vast amount of more risky assets, such as international stocks, to be sold quickly, driving down their values. It will happen suddenly.
Will that trigger the heart attack I fear? Probably!
Will the patient be better prepared for a reversal of the Dollar-carry trade if we better regulate derivatives before then? Absolutely!
I wish it wasn’t so boring that Congress cannot pay attention . . . paging Dr. Bernanke!