Daily Commentary: On Financial Repression

A hedge fund friend of sent a link around to a bunch of us about financial repression. We had an interesting conversation, parts of which I want to pass on to you as my daily commentary. The article was by Financial repression fast becoming a reality by Tony Jackson in the FT. Jackson writes:

The concept of financial repression has been on the edge of investors’ minds for a while. It ought to move to the centre, for it is becoming a reality.

In essence, the process involves governments using their muscle to force down the real value of their debt. It can take many forms, but they boil down to two.

First, governments push down real interest rates, with or without the help of rising inflation. Second, they oblige domestic institutions such as banks or pension funds to soak up government debt at those lower rates.

To see this starting to happen, consider the UK – not because it is unique, but because it illustrates both parts of the phenomenon. Take interest rates first.

At present 10-year UK gilts yield 2.4 per cent, some way below retail price inflation of 3.9 per cent. It is always possible that inflation will fall. But it is worth recalling that the average UK rate over the past decade has been over 3 per cent.

Negative real interest rates are an important feature of repression. While it is not strictly essential for rates to be negative – they need only be lower than a country’s growth rate – it speeds the process along.

I think Jackson puts this well. Now a friend on this thread of the MMT persuasion wrote, saying:

If the Saudis were to flood the market with oil (as the major monopoly producer), and the price goes down, does this count as "repression" of the oil price?

The central bank is the monopoly supplier of the currency.  It can set term rates at whatever it wants.  I don’t see why this is viewed as "repression".   When you are the monopoly supplier of a currency, there is nothing "repressive" about it.  The people who use this term are rentiers who think "the market" can and should dictate rates and that he is owed a decent yield for the privilege of holding something yielding more than basic cash.

I agree that the central bank is the monopoly supplier of base money and it can set term rates as it sees fit. However, if it sets rates at a level that is still well below where rates would be if determined in the market place in the third year of an economic expansion, you should feel comfortable calling that repression. Moreover, I would call the Saudis repressing oil prices artificially too in the example above. My response was:

It is financial repression when the Fed tries to artificially suppress rates. It is and will continue to lead to a misallocation of resources and other unintended consequences like shifts into commodities which tax lower income workers. It’s bad policy. I should point out that pensioners are a major loser in this game. Where social security has stopped poverty for seniors, financial repression is bringing it back. There are millions of people just like my mom that find themselves living off of 2% CDs and ask themselves how they are going to make ends meet. They either eat into their savings or reach for yield.

I believe the rate of interest would be higher without the central planning of the Fed setting it low. To me that says projects and companies that depend on low cost or high risk funding are being given a second life they should not have as portfolios are reallocated. And this will misallocate resources and lead to a bust down the line. As for people like my mother, 5 and 10 years later, they are going to be poorer because of all of this.

But unfortunately, financial repression is here to stay.

That’s it. Here are the links.

P.S. Also see Chart of the Day: UK National Debt 1922 to Present. This is what it could look like for the US.

  • Financial repression fast becoming a reality – FT.com

    The concept of financial repression has been on the edge of investors’ minds for a while. It ought to move to the centre, for it is becoming a reality. In essence, the process involves governments using their muscle to force down the real value of their debt. It can take many forms, but they boil down to two.

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  • About 

    Edward Harrison is the founder of Credit Writedowns and a former career diplomat, investment banker and technology executive with over twenty years of business experience. He is also a regular economic and financial commentator on BBC World News, CNBC Television, Business News Network, CBC, Fox Television and RT Television. He speaks six languages and reads another five, skills he uses to provide a more global perspective. Edward holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. Edward also writes a premium financial newsletter. Sign up here for a free trial.