Thursday, October 29, 2009

Central Banks, Arsonists and Playing with Fire

Andy Xie: Money supply growth has sparked an asset market boom that supports the economy, not the other way around. Don't get burned.

Oct 28

(Caijing Magazine) Is money demand efficient? The answer could help decide what's best for monetary policy. Moreover, as financial institutions have demanded more money to support their leverage, money demand efficiency has become equivalent to financial system efficiency.

I think the answer is no. Monetary authorities and central banks have a responsibility to take this reality into account. Their best approach would be to limit the deviation of monetary growth from nominal GDP growth. In particular, sustained deviation should be corrected -- even if the underlying economy suffers in the short term.

This is a serious academic topic these days. Some of the world's most prominent economists hold different views. Why discuss it here? First, it's important to everyone. After all, retail investors dominate China's asset markets, and most base their investments or speculation decisions on expectations that the government will not let asset prices fall. The credibility of this expectation depends on whether money available for government spending is limited. A discussion on monetary expansion's limits can help Chinese investors assess the risks of their investment decisions.

Second, money supplies worldwide are rising much faster than nominal GDP growth rates. That is, monetary growth is being used to support leverage, mostly in the financial sector. Of course, the reason is central banks have responded to the financial crisis by cutting interest rates and sometimes force-feeding banks with liquidity in hopes more lending will boost the economy. But instead, money has flowed into and led to buoyancy in asset markets (stocks and bonds in developed economies, and almost everything in emerging economies).

Buoyant asset prices have stabilized the global economy. Most analysts say buoyant asset markets reflect correct expectations of a buoyant global economy. I don't think this is true. As we saw in the past decade, the latest asset market boom is supporting the economy, not the other way around. In other words, it's a bubble.

Even though the global economy is staging a modest recovery, mainly on inventory restocking and fiscal stimuli, the overall economic situation is still difficult. Unemployment rates in OECD countries are at record highs. Global trade is still at one-fifth its peak level. The small- and medium-sized economies that employ most of the world's people are struggling. We see a contrast – unprecedented in modern times -- between the asset market boom and real economic difficulties.

The gap is creating social tension around the world. While workers and businesses struggle, asset players are reaping substantial paper profits again. As the central bank's monetary policy is behind the asset boom, we should ask whether the policy is achieving its goal by helping the real economy, or whether it is just helping speculators and hoping they have something left over for the real economy.

The financial crisis exposed gross inefficiencies in the massive amounts of money financial institutions received from central banks. Supplying so much money to the same people who caused the crisis -- and with the same incentives -- does not feel right. The argument in favor of this policy is that, when the house is on fire, you have to do whatever to extinguish the fire and find the culprit later. The problem is that, in this case, the arsonists have been asked to put out the fire. How can we be sure they won't start another fire?

Most argue that the answer is not to limit the money supply but to reform the financial system. In this way, future demand for money would be efficient. But so far, no corrective reforms have been implemented in response to the financial crisis. Why? Because the global financial system became so big over the past decade that it has co-opted central banks, legislators and entire governments. Any reforms that do come will not address the main factors leading to the current crisis.

Even the best reforms will never resolve a problem based on the fact that financial professionals generally risk other people's money: They get big rewards when bets go right and don't have to pay when bets go wrong. The problem with this incentive system suggests the global financial system is structurally biased toward taking on more risk than what would be taken in an efficient market.

The only way to counter this is for central banks to limit money supplies. Asset inflation over the past 10 years and the catastrophe incurred when it burst lend credibility to this argument.

Stagflation in the 1970s spurred economists to study why monetary stimulus, over time, loses its punch. Demand is stimulated, but that leads to inflation. And it's led to development of the rational expectation theory to explain the average Joe's response to monetary policy. Its conclusion, although obvious to the uneducated, is that policymakers cannot fool people again and again. For that observation, many have won Nobel prizes. Milton Friedman advocated money supply growth targets as a guiding principle for central banking. Such an approach would put central banking on autopilot with a target of money growth and leave the market to decide interest rates.

The rational expectation theory was extended further to explain investor behavior. This led to the efficient market theory, which posits that, under some conditions, rational investors will lead to efficient asset prices that correctly anticipate the future. Academic jargon for efficient asset price says that it includes all useful information about the future. That laid the foundation for tearing down the regulatory structure built from the lessons of the Great Depression.

Stagflation of the 1970s led to central banking to focus narrowly on short-term inflation. The efficient market theory prompted central banks to completely accommodate financial institutions that demanded money for leverage funding. This combination of policy steps laid the foundation for the big bubble in the past decade. As globalization kept inflation low, Wall Street could source an unlimited amount of liquidity from central banks for bubble making.

Even though globalization has maxed out, and the global economy has now entered an inflation age, the bursting of the last bubble is a negative demand shock that's keeping inflation low for the time being. This has created another window for bubble-making. A last-train psychology means this bubble is growing quickly, totally oblivious of economic fundamentals. In addition to the usual misinformation from market makers who want to sucker people, government officials, financial professionals and the media are also saying what speculators want to hear. This is yet another episode of an inefficient market adventure.

Institutional investors dominate financial markets in western countries, while retail or individual investors are the main players in the east. Neither group is thinking or behaving rationally. Most institutional investors are benchmarked against market indexes quarterly, and with cash-holding limits. These constraints obviously have disadvantaged them and made it extremely hard to outperform the indexes. This is why most institutional investors are closet indexers. Extra management costs guarantee that most institutional investors under-perform market indexes and don't add to market efficiency.

Absolute performance funds or hedge funds are the biggest development in financial market in the past 10 years. But they have been amplifying market volatility rather than improving efficiency. The hedge fund industry has made managers rich, not investors, because managers are remunerated with a cut on the upside, and don't pay up for the downside. So they are structurally incentivized to long volatility while playing something like the coin-flip game "heads I win, tails you lose."

Regardless how one tries to improve the incentive structure for institutional investors, nothing could overcome the incentive distortions tied to the practice of managing other people's money. Institutionalization, once hailed as a great step forward in improving market efficiency, has proven to diminish efficiency. Developing countries that face highly volatile markets have been looking to institutionalization as a way to calm them. They should think twice. Institutionalization may decrease short-term volatility but make up for this advantage with a big crash.

Retail or individual investors routinely mistake volatility for trend. Their herd behavior creates self-fulfilling trends that are mainly temporary. From time to time, such herd behavior lasts a long time and leads to big bubbles, which in turn lead to major misallocations of resources.

To minimize chances of future financial crises, one could reform the financial system to make it less crisis-prone, or target both asset and CPI inflation when setting monetary policy. When the crisis began a year ago, policymakers around the world swore to reform the system while ridding it of corruption and excess leverage. After governments bailed out financial institutions with trillions of dollars, the impetus for reform waned. Reform bills in the U.S. Congress have been watered down so much that they would not prevent another major crisis.

Capital requirements and transparency are key elements to address in any effective financial reform. And unless reforms target problems in the derivatives market, they will not be effective. Over-the-counter derivatives carry hundreds of trillions of dollars in notional value, thriving in an opaque environment. Derivatives in theory help buyers decrease risk, but in practice they are merely tools for taking on more risk, hiding leverage through complex structuring. Market-makers can earn high profits by fooling buyers and regulators, overcharging while putting up little capital to warehouse such high-risk products. If the market is made transparent and capital requirements are reasonable, this business would shrink.

Every party ends sooner or later, and I see two scenarios for the next bust. First, every trader is borrowing dollars to buy something else. Most traders on Wall Street are Americans, British or Australians. They know the United States well. The Fed is keeping interest rates at zero, and the U.S. government is supporting a weak dollar to boost U.S. exports. You don't need to be a genius to know that the U.S. government is helping you borrow dollars for speculating in something else.

But these traders don't know much about other countries, particularly emerging economies. They go there once or twice a year, chaperoned by U.S. investment banks eager to sell something. They want to think everything other than the U.S. dollar will appreciate; Wall Street banks tell them so. Since there are so many of these traders, their predictions are self-fulfilling in the short-term. For example, since the Australian dollar has appreciated by 35 percent from the bottom, they now feel very smart while sitting on massive paper profits.

When a trade like this one becomes too crowded, a small shock is enough to trigger a hurricane. There must be massive leverage in many positions, but one just never knows where. When something happens, all these traders will run like mad for the exit, and that could lead to another crisis.

Surging oil prices could be another party crasher. This could trigger a surge in inflation expectation and crash the bond market. The resulting high bond yields might force central banks to raise interest rates to cool inflation fear. Another major downturn in asset prices would reignite fear over the balance sheets of major global financial institutions, resulting in more chaos.

Twice in recent years, oil prices surged into triple-digit territory, wreaking havoc on financial markets and the global economy. In 2006, surging oil prices toppled the U.S. property market, debunking the story that property prices never fall -- a premise upon which subprime lending was based. Oil prices fell sharply amid the subprime crisis period while the market feared collapse in demand. The Fed came to the rescue and, in summer 2007, began cutting interest rates aggressively in the name of combating the recessionary impact of the subprime crisis. Oil prices surged afterward on optimism that the Fed would rescue the economy and oil demand. It worked to offset the Fed's stimulus, accelerated the economic decline, and pulled the rug out from under the derivatives bubble. The ensuing fear of falling demand again caused oil prices to collapse.

Oil is a perfect ingredient for a bubble: Oil supplies cannot respond to a price surge quickly. It takes a long time to expand production capacity, and oil demand cannot decrease quickly due to lifestyle stickiness and production modes. Low-price sensitivities on both demand and supply sides make it an ideal product for bubble-making. When liquidity is cheap and easily obtained, oil speculators can pop up anywhere.

Oil speculators are no longer restricted to secretive hedge funds. Average Joes can buy exchange traded funds (ETFs) that let them own oil or anything else. Why not? Central banks have made clear their intentions to keep money supplies as high as possible, debasing the value of paper money to help debtors. It seems no good deed is unpunished in this world. If you speculate big, governments will offer a bailout when your bets go wrong and cut interest rates and guarantee your debts, allowing bigger bets. People who live within their means and save some for a rainy day see dreams shattered. Central banks can't wait to break their nest eggs.

It is better to be a speculator in this world. The powers that be are with you. Maybe everyone should be a hedge fund; ETFs give you this opportunity. As the masses are incentivized to avoid paper money while buying hard assets, the price of oil could surge to triple-digit territory again. Oil bubbles are easy to come and quick to go because the oxygen needed for its existence disappears after it kills other bubbles.

A word of caution for all would-be speculators: You'll want to run for your life as soon as the bond market takes a big fall. And the case for a double dip in 2010 is already strong. Inventory restocking and fiscal stimuli are behind the current economic recovery, and when these run out of steam next year, the odds are quite low that western consumers will take over. High unemployment rates will keep incomes too weak to support spending. And consumers are unlikely to borrow and spend again.

Many analysts argue that, as long as unemployment rates are high, more stimuli should be applied. As I have argued before, a supply-demand mismatch rather than demand weakness per se is the main reason for high unemployment. More stimuli would only trigger inflation and financial instability.

Stagflation in the 1970s discredited a generation of central bankers. They thought they could trade a bit more inflation for a lot more economic growth. Today's crisis will discredit a generation of central bankers who ignore asset inflation by sometimes trading asset inflation for a bit of economic growth. Those who play with fire often get burned, even when the arsonists don't.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Xie: For Economic Stimuli, a Revolving Exit Door

Can interest rate adjustments, currency devaluation and zigzag policymaking help unwind economic stimuli? It depends.

(Caijing Magazine) Australia recently raised its policy interest rate 25 bps, becoming the first major economy to do so since the financial crisis a year ago prompted all major economies to rapidly cut interest rates to historical lows.

Financial markets had been chattering about economic stimuli exits for about a month before Canberra's move. The consensus was that central banks would keep rates extremely low through 2010, and possibly beyond, on grounds that the economic recovery is still shaky.

Central banks also have been discussing the subject. Their messages are, first, that they know how to exit and will exit before inflation becomes a problem and, second, that they don't see the need to exit anytime soon. They try to assure bond inventors not to worry about their holdings, despite low bond yields, while trying to persuade stock investors they need not worry about high stock prices, as liquidity will remain strong for the foreseeable future. So far, central banks have made both groups happy. But Australia's action is likely to raise concern among financial investors who hold expensive stocks and bonds.

Each economy will exit at its own pace, according to local conditions. First, the United States and Britain, where property bubbles have burst and could not be revived through low interest rates, will increase rates next year at a pace in line with the speed of inflation expectation. Their goal is to keep real interest rates as low as possible to support financial institutions still sitting on mountains of bad assets. They don't want to stop inflation, but want to limit the pace of its increase. Through low real interest rates, their economies could decrease debt leverage. I think the Fed would raise interest rate by 100 bps in 2010, 150 bps in 2011, and 200 bps in 2012. The United States could be stuck with an inflation rate of 4 to 5 percent by 2012 – and for years to come.

Second, China's stimulus program will zigzag mainly through its lending policy. China's currency will be pegged to the U.S. dollar for the foreseeable future, which determines the end point for China's monetary policy. Its inflation and interest rates will likely be similar to those in the United States.

Third, due to their strong currencies, countries in the euro zone and Japan will have higher real interest rates, lower nominal interest rates, and lower real economic growth rates. They will raise interest rates more slowly than the United States, and will have lower inflation rates as well.

My central point is that the global economy is cruising toward mild stagflation with a 2 percent growth rate and 4 percent inflation rate. This scenario is the best that the central banks can hope to achieve; it combines an acceptable combination of financial stability, growth and inflation. But this equilibrium is balanced on a pinhead. It requires central banks to constantly manage expectations. The world could easily fall into hyperinflation or deflation if one major central bank makes a significant mistake.

In modern economics, monetary stimulus is considered an effective tool to soften the economic cycle. While there are many theories about why monetary policy works, the dirty little secret is that it works by inflating asset markets. By inflating risk asset valuation, it leads to more demand for debt that turns into demand growth. In other words, monetary policy works by creating asset bubbles.

It is difficult to reverse this kind of stimulus. A complete reversal requires that household, business and government sectors decrease debts to pre-stimulus levels. This is why national ratios of indebtedness-debt to GDP have been rising over the past three decades while central bankers smoothed economic cycles through monetary policy. It led to a massive debt bubble that burst, leading to the ongoing slump.

The current stimulus round is different in terms of its effects. Despite low interest rates, household and business sectors in developed economies have not been increasing indebtedness; falling property and stock prices have diminished their equity capital for supporting debt. The public sectors have rapidly ramped up debt to support failing financial institutions and increase government spending to cushion the economic downturn. Neither is easy to unwind.

By some estimates, US$ 9 trillion has been spent to shore up failing financial institutions. A big chunk of that money was borrowed against illiquid and problematic assets on bank balance sheets. As the debt market refused to accept that collateral, governments and central banks stepped in. Today, it is impossible for banks to liquidate such assets without huge paper losses. Hence, if central banks call the loans, they are likely to go bankrupt.

Of course, central banks can suck in money from elsewhere to substitute money that's tied up in non-performing loans. They are unlikely to do so, however, as it would depress a good part of the economy in order to support the bad. And that could easily lead to another recession.

The bottom line is that, regardless what central banks say and do, the world will be awash in a lot more money after the crisis than before -- money that will lead to inflation. Even though all central banks talk about being tough on inflation now, they are unlikely to act tough. After a debt bubble bursts, there are two effective options for deleveraging: bankruptcy or inflation. Government actions over the past year show they cannot accept the first option. The second is likely.

Hyperinflation was used in Germany in the 1920s and Russia in late 1990s to wipe slates clean. The technique was essentially mass default by debtors. But robbing savers en masse has serious political consequences. Existing governments, at least, will fall. Most governments would rather find another way out. Mild stagflation is probably the best one can hope for after a debt bubble. A benefit is that stagflation can spread the pain over many years. A downside is that the pain lingers.

If a central bank can keep real interest rates at zero, and real growth rates at 2.5 percent, leverage could be decreased 22 percent in a decade. If real interest rates can be kept at minus 1 percent, leverage could drop 30 percent in a decade. The cost is probably a 5 percent inflation rate. It works, but slowly.

If stagflation is the goal, why might central banks such as the Fed talk tough about inflation now? The purpose is to persuade bondholders to accept low bond yields. The Fed is effectively influencing mortgage interest rates by buying Fannie Mae bonds. This is the most important aspect of the Fed's stimulus policy. It effectively limits Treasury yields, too. The Fed would be in no position to buy if all Treasury holders decide to sell, and high Treasury yields would push down the property market once again.

The Fed hopes to fool bondholders or lock them in by quickly devaluing the dollar. Foreign bondholders have already realized losses. The dollar index is down 37 percent from its 2002 peak. A significant portion of this devaluation is a down payment for future inflation.

I think Britain is pursuing devaluation for the same reason. Among all major economies, Britain's is the most dependent on global finance. It benefited greatly during the global financial boom that began in the mid-1990s. The British currency and property values appreciated dramatically, pricing out other economic activities. But now that the global financial bubble has burst, its economic pillar is gone. Other economic activities cannot be brought back to Britain without major cost cuts. But it can't cut taxes to improve competitiveness, as fiscal revenues depend on the financial sector and already face a major shortfall. Another option is to let property prices fall, as they have in Japan. But that choice might sink Britain's entire banking sector. Hence, devaluing the pound is probably the only available option for stabilizing the British economy.

Some may argue that Britain is not expensive anymore. The problem is that being less expensive is not good enough. Prices have to be low enough to attract non-financial economic activities despite a rising tax burden. The pound's value must be very low to achieve that goal. Five years ago, I predicted the pound and euro would reach parity. It seems the day is finally here. But I'm not sure parity would be enough; the pound may have to be cheaper.

Of course, the euro zone is a mess, too. With high unemployment rates, a stagnant economy and imploding property markets in southern Europe, shouldn't the euro's value decline, too? Yes, it should. But it won't. The European Central Bank was structured solely to maintain price stability. With so many governments and one central bank, ECB is unlikely to change anytime soon. Hence, it won't respond to a strong euro quickly. A strong euro and low inflation could form a self-generating spiral, as we see in Japan. Even as interest rates in other economies rise, the euro zone's real interest rate could be higher still, supporting a strong euro.

At some point, euro zone monetary policy may change. It would require governments in the zone's major economies come together and change the ECB. That may come in three years, but not now. The trigger could be one country threatening to exit the euro. Italy and Spain come to mind.

Meanwhile, Japan is an enigma. It has been locked in a vicious cycle of economic decline with a strong yen and deflation. Most Japanese people have a strong yen psychology. Politicians and central bank leaders reflect this popular sentiment, which is based on an aging population. Wealth is concentrated among voting pensioners for whom a strong yen and deflation theoretically improve their purchasing power. But I think various theories that explain Japan's behavior are not good enough. The best explanation is that Japan is run by incompetents, and some are downright stupid. They have locked Japan in an icebox and refuse to come out.

Japan is a giant debt bubble. Its zero interest rate, supported by a strong yen and deflation, has turned the debt bubble into an iceberg. You don't have to worry -- until it melts. Unfortunately, when the temperature reaches a critical point, the iceberg will melt suddenly, all at once. That turning point will come when Japan begins to run a significant current account deficit. The day may be near.

For Japan to avoid calamity, it should deal with deflation and skyrocketing government debt now. The only way forward is for the central bank to monetize Japanese Government Bonds. That would lead to yen devaluation and inflation. Pensioners will complain, but it's better than a complete meltdown later.

Japan's new ruling party DPJ has no vision like that. It doesn't have the guts to go against popular preference for a strong yen. Without a growing economy, though, the DPJ has little to play with. The whole country has sworn to debt, led by a government with a massive fiscal deficit. The DPJ may only reallocate some spending, which would make no difference for the economy. It seems Japan will remain in the icebox until the day of reckoning.

These snapshots of Britain, the euro zone and Japan suggest everyone needs a weak currency. Those that don't have one simply don't know yet. They'll come around eventually. One outcome could be rotating devaluations and high inflation for the global economy.

Developing countries with healthy banks have a different problem on their hands. By responding to falling imports with stimuli, they inflated their property markets. China, India, South Korea and Hong Kong have inflated property bubbles in spite of slower economic growth rates. The contradictions between a property bubble and a weak economy can lead to zigzags in policymaking.

As China is one-third of the emerging economy bloc -- and exerts a great deal of influence over commodity prices that other emerging economies depend upon -- its monetary policy has a big impact on global financial markets. Its monetary stimulus in the first half of 2009 went disproportionately into property, stock and commodity markets. As profitability for the businesses that serve the real economy remain weak, little monetary stimulus went into private sector capital formation.

The state sector ramped up investment somewhat for policy, not profit, concerns. Thus, China is experiencing a relatively weak real economy and red hot asset markets. Government policy is being pushed by both concerns. Cooling the asset bubble would cool the economy further. Not to cool the bubble could lead to a catastrophe later. Monetary policy zigzags, shifting according to concerns that arise, has the up hand.

It seems limiting credit growth is the current policy focus. But if the economy shows further signs of weakness in the fourth quarter 2009 and first quarter 2010, the policy may revert to loose bank lending again. The zigzagging will stop when China's loan deposit ratio is high enough, i.e. when increased lending increases interest rates. As the yuan is pegged to the dollar, China's monetary policy would become much less flexible after excess liquidity in the banking system is gone.

I think Australia is raising interest rates ahead of others for a unique set of concerns. Australia has been experiencing property and household debt bubbles similar to those in the United States and Britain. Its bubbles are probably larger than America's. But because its commodity exports have performed well, its economy has fared better than others. Hence, its property market has seen less of an adjustment. A relatively good economy could embolden Australia's household sector to borrow more and continue the game. This is why it needs to increase interest rates -- to prevent the bubble from re-inflating. The United States and Britain don't have this problem; their household sectors are convinced that the game is finished and they must change.

A review of unique factors and institutional biases around the world shows that exiting a stimulus would be quite different in different economies. The United States and Britain, the euro zone and Japan, and China and India are three blocs that face varying challenges and will handle stimuli exits in different ways.

Most analysts think a benchmark for exiting a stimulus is robust economic recovery. That's not so. Loose monetary policy cannot bring back a strong economy due to the supply-demand mismatch formed during the bubble. Re-matching takes time, and no stimulus can bring a quick solution.

The main purpose of monetary policy ahead is facilitating the deleveraging process, either through negative real interest rates and-or income growth. Preventing runaway inflation expectation is a key constraint on monetary policy. One key variable to watch is the price of oil, with its major impact on inflation expectation. If oil prices take off again, the Fed could be pushed to raise interest rates sooner and higher than expected.


Thursday, October 01, 2009

Xie: Why One Bubble Burst Deserves Another

As always, its all in the timing...

Andy Xie: Why One Bubble Burst Deserves Another
09-28 Caijing

The financial crisis taught crucial lessons about the dangers of bubbles, loose regulation and debt. It's a pity we didn't learn.

Lehman Brothers collapsed one year ago. The U.S. government refused a bailout and warned other financial institutions to be careful. The government felt other institutions had already severed their dealings with Lehman's investment network, and that a collapse could be walled in.

Little did the government realize that the whole financial system was one giant Lehman. The securities firm borrowed short-term money to punt in risky and illiquid assets. The debt market supported the financial sector, believing the government would bail out everyone in a crisis. But when Lehman was allowed to collapse, the market's faith was shaken.

The debt market refused to roll over financing for financial institutions. Of course, financial institutions couldn't unload assets to pay off debts. The whole financial system started teetering. Eventually, governments and central banks were forced to bail out everyone with direct lending or guarantees.

The Lehman collapse strategy backfired. Governments were forced to make implicit guarantees explicit. Ever since, no one has dared argue about letting a major financial institution go bankrupt. The debt market is supporting financial institutions again only because they are confident in government guarantees. The government lost in the Lehman saga, and Wall Street won.

So Lehman died in vain. Today, governments and central banks are celebrating their victorious stabilizing of the global financial system. To achieve the same, they could have saved Lehman with US$ 50 billion. Instead, they have spent trillions of dollars -- probably more than US$ 10 trillion when we get the final tally -- to reach the same objective. Meanwhile, a broader goal to reform the financial system has seen absolutely no progress.

First, let's look at the most basic objective of deleveraging the financial sector. Top executives on Wall Street talk about having cut leverage by half. That is actually due to an expanding equity capital base rather than shrinking assets. According to the Federal Reserve, total debt for the financial sector was US$ 16.5 trillion in the second quarter 2009 -- about the same as the US$ 16.6 trillion reported one year earlier. After the Lehman collapse, financial sector leverage increased due to Fed support. It has come down as the Fed pulled back some support, creating the perception of deleveraging. The basic conclusion is that financial sector debt is the same as it was a year ago, and the reduction in leverage is due to equity base expansion, partly due to government funding.

Second, financial institutions are operating as before. Institutions led in reporting profit gains in the first half 2009 during a period of global economic contraction. When corporate earnings expand in a shrinking economy, redistribution plays a role. Most of these strong earnings came from trading income, which is really all about getting in and out of financial markets at the right time. With assets backed up by US$ 16.5 trillion in debt, a 1 percent asset appreciation would lead to US$ 16.5 billion in profits. Considering how much financial markets rose in the first half, strong profits were easy to imagine.

Trading gains are a form of income redistribution. In the best scenario, smart traders buy assets ahead of others because they see a stronger economy ahead. Such redistribution comes from giving a bigger share of the future growth to those who are willing to take risk ahead of others. Past experience, however, demonstrates that most trading profits involve redistributions from many to a few in zero-sum bubbles. The trick is to get the credulous masses to join the bubble game at high prices. When the bubble bursts, even though asset prices may be the same as they were at the beginning, most people lose money to the few. What's occurring now is another bubble that is again redistributing income from the masses to the few.

Third, financial supervision has not changed. After the Lehman crash, most governments were talking about strengthening financial regulations and regulatory agencies, and possibly establishing an international regulatory body. The developments in the past year have actually made financial supervision worse. To support financial institutions, the U.S. government suspended mark-to-market accounting rules for assets on the books of financial institutions, which has allowed them to report profits.

Revamping the financial system has been reduced to political moves over regulating banker salaries. If this could be done, incentives for financial institutions to manufacture bubbles would be removed. But it can't be done. Financial professionals can be based anywhere in the world, and there will always be some countries willing to host them. Because of such competitive concerns, a global consensus on regulating pay for financial professionals is unlikely.

I think the ultimate objective for financial reforms is to make leverage transparent. There are many reasons that a bubble forms. Debt leverage, however, is always at the center of a property bubble -- the most damaging kind. Leverage within a financial system's assets-to-equity capital ratio is a driving force for an asset bubble. Complex accounting rules and varying treatment of different financial institutions make it difficult to measure leverage. The international standard for a bank's capital is 8 percent, which allows 12 times leverage. How off-balance sheet assets are treated can make a huge difference. A lot of big banks had 30 times leverage at the beginning of the crisis due to off-balance assets.

Other institutions such as finance companies are harder to regulate. Some industrial companies such as General Electric and General Motors took advantage of loopholes and created finance companies that are essentially banks. Hedge funds, mutual funds, private equity firms, etc., are even more lightly regulated. When they purchase securitized debt securities and engage in lending, they are like banks.

One interesting phenomenon is how money market funds wreaked havoc after Lehman crashed. These funds are supposed to be ultra safe for buying triple-A, short-term, liquid debt instruments. The problem was their demand for liquidity. Self-manufactured liquidity provided a false sense of security despite the risks of underlying securities, such as short-term paper issued by investment banks. When that false sense of security was jolted by the Lehman collapse, all rushed to exit at the same time. Without government support, they wouldn't have been able to get their money back.

The problem with financial regulation is not the banking system per se, but the shadow banking system. It provides leverage with much less capital than the banking system. When leverage in the economy is rising, asset prices rise, too. Rising asset prices boost collateral value and, hence, more borrowing. A surge in earnings among financial institutions usually accompanies such a spiral of rising leverage and rising asset prices.

It is extremely difficult for an established regulatory regime to stop such a spiral. Usually new financial institutions or products come on the scene, and then a new leverage game begins. It would be impossible for an existing regime to be comprehensive enough to anticipate future institutions and products. Governments may need to install principle-based, not just rule-based, regulatory agencies that could take action to control new financial creations.

The U.S. government is proposing a consumer protection agency for financial products. Such an agency could at least respond to new financial products sold to consumers and, therefore, could be an effective mechanism for stopping some future bubbles. The proposal has met vehement opposition from the financial industry. It may not get through.

What can we speak for after spending trillions of dollars? Not much. Few major players went to jail. The U.S. government sent many more to prison in the 1980s after the junk bond bubble burst. This bubble is 10 times bigger. Yet, apart from the most obvious criminals such as Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford, who ran multibillion-dollar Ponzi schemes, none of the big shots have landed behind bars. Indeed, a lot of the big shots who brought down the world are still out there running things. The lesson from the Lehman collapse seems to be, "Take whatever you can and, when it crashes, you get to keep it." How governments and central banks have dealt with this bubble will encourage more people to join bubble making in the future.

Since governments have failed to take advantage of the crisis and build a better financial system, it will become very difficult to push it forward now. The sense of urgency is gone. One may argue that, since markets are stable now, there is no need for radical reforms. This is exactly the wrong conclusion. Trillions of dollars have been spent to buy today's stability. If the money isn't spent in vain, serious reforms should take place to decrease the possibility of a catastrophe like this in the future.

The big change that happened is a rapid increase in the U.S. household savings rate. It happened much more quickly than I expected and has the potential to change the global economy. The economic explanation is negative wealth effect. U.S. household net wealth declined 20 percent, or nearly 100 percent of GDP. The rule of the thumb is that it would lead to a 5 percent reduction in spending. The U.S. household savings rate has increased more than that -- and continues to rise. It could rise above 10 percent next year. Because of rising savings, the U.S. trade deficit has already halved from the peak. It could halve again next year. This is why I have turned positive on the dollar.

Financial markets are still maximum bearish on the dollar. Liquidity is being channeled out of dollar into all other assets. This is why there is such a high correlation between the dollar and other assets. I think this is the most crowded trade in the world. When the dollar reverses, the short squeeze could cause a global crisis.

Because no meaningful financial reforms have occurred, bubble-making rapidly came back in fashion. The drivers are faith in an ever-depreciating dollar and, later, inflation. Stocks, commodities, and even property values in some cities have skyrocketed this year. It is happening amid a synchronous global recession.

Of course, bulls would argue the market recovery is forecasting a strong global economy ahead. I seriously doubt it. With savings and unemployment rising, the OECD bloc is unlikely to stage a strong recovery from the recession. This view is not the market's consensus, which assumes all stimuli will lead to a strong and sustained recovery. As I have argued before, supply and demand become misaligned during a big bubble. When it bursts, the economy must restructure supply and demand before the economy can be fully employed. Government stimulus can't solve the problem. Realignment will take time.

Because policymakers mistakenly think stimulus spending can bring back growth, they are pushing too hard. The eventual consequences are inflation and bubbles along the way. These bubbles will be short-lived. The current boom market is a good example. At the beginning of the year, I predicted such a bubble from March to September. I still hold to this belief. China's stock market peaked in August and the U.S. market is peaking in September. The reason for the shortness of the bubble is its limited impact on real demand.

How long a bubble lasts depends on the size of its multiplier effect on the economy. A large multiplier effect leads to an economic boom that boosts asset returns. Market watchers can make a plausible case that high asset prices reflect a revaluation rather than a bubble. Strong fundamentals and rising asset prices could sustain each other for a period. The dotcom bubble began in 1996 and lasted five years. The global property bubble began in 2002 and lasted five years, too.

A technology bubble can be extended by cutting costs and boosting profits. A property bubble stimulates demand in many parts of demand and can boost corporate earnings, benefiting financial institutions, retailers, construction companies and material suppliers. This large multiplier effect is why a property bubble usually lasts many years.

Only a multiplier effect from the current bubble is stopping financial institutions from going under. However, weighed down by trillions of dollars in non-performing assets, they cannot lend with abandon again, which makes it impossible to revive property bubbles. Besides, American households won't join the "borrow-and-spend" game again. Essentially, the main short-term impact of the current bubble is preventing the financial system from collapsing. It won't lead to substantial demand creation.

Many investors today think a bubble is inevitable and, when it bursts, another can be created quickly to keep on going with life as usual. What has occurred over the past six months seems to validate this viewpoint. History, however, is not kind to this view. Serial bubble making leads to a bigger economic crisis later. What occurred in the United States in the 1930s and Japan over the past two decades are good examples in that regard. If a new bubble were always available for bailouts, we'd have the ultimate free lunch. But there is no free lunch.

Our serial bubble making began 10 years ago with the Asian Financial Crisis. It led to loose monetary policy in developed economies, especially in the United States, and undervalued exchange rates in developing economies. The inflationary force from this loose monetary policy was kept down by excess capacity or capacity creation in developing economies. The environment for tolerating such a loose monetary environment ends when inflation surges in emerging economies first and developed economies second.

When inflation becomes a political problem and policymakers are forced to respond, money supplies will be cut. After that, no more bubbles.