[email protected],000 – How RBI Played a Part in Creating the Stock Market Bubble

The BSE Sensex, India’s premier stock market index, crossed 50,000 points today in intra day trading. It has risen by more than 80% from around the end of March, when it had fallen to 27,591 points, in the aftermath of the covid pandemic hitting India.

This astonishing rise has now got the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) worried. The RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das, writing in the foreword to the latest Financial Stability Report, pointed out:

“The disconnect between certain segments of financial markets and the real economy has been accentuating in recent times, both globally and in India.”

People who run central banks are not always known to talk in simple English. Das is only following tradition here. The statement basically refers to stock prices. Das feels they have risen too fast in the recent past and have become disconnected from the overall economy.

While the overall Indian economy is expected to contract this year, the stock market has rallied by more than 80%. How is this possible? Or as you often get to hear these days, if the economy is doing badly, why is the stock market doing so well.

Theoretically, a possible explanation is that the stock market discounts the future and the stock market investors think that the future of the Indian economy is bright. Another explanation offered often by the stock market investors is that corporate profits this year have been at never seen before levels.

But even after taking these reasons into account, the current high level is really not justified. As Das put it in his foreword: “Stretched valuations of financial assets pose risks to financial stability.” One way to figure out whether valuations are stretched is to look at the price to earnings ratio of the stocks that constitute the Sensex index.

In January 2021, the price to earnings ratio has been at around 34. This means that investors are ready to pay Rs 34 as price, for every rupee of earning of the companies that make up for the Sensex. Such a high level of the price to earnings ratio has never been seen before. Not even in late 2007 and early 2008, when stock prices rallied big time or the first half of 2000, when the dotcom bubble was on.

Clearly, stock prices are in extremely bubbly territory. The current jump in corporate earnings isn’t sustainable for the simple reason that corporates have pushed up earnings by cutting employee costs as well as raw material costs. This means the incomes of those dealing with corporates from employees to suppliers and contractors, have fallen.

This fall in income has limited the ability of these individuals to spend money. This will lead to lower private consumption in the months to come, which, in turn, will impact corporate revenues and eventually profits. A sustainable increase in profits can only happen when people keep buying things and corporate revenues keep going up.

This brings us back to the question as to why stock prices are going up, when the overall economy is not doing well. A part of the reason is the RBI, though the central bank, rather expectedly, glosses over this totally in the latest edition of the Financial Stability Report.

Since February 2020, the RBI has pumped in a massive amount of money into the financial system through various measures, some of which involve the printing of money. By flooding the financial system with money, or what central banks refer to as liquidity, the RBI has ensured that interest rates in general and bank deposits in particular, have fallen.

The idea here is threefold. A drop in interest rates allows the government to borrow at lower interest rates. This became necessary because thanks to the pandemic, the tax collections of the government have dropped during this financial year. Between April and November 2020, the gross tax revenue stood at Rs 10.26 lakh crore, a drop of 12.6% in comparison to the same period in 2019.

Secondly, lower interest rates ensured that the interest costs of corporates on their outstanding loans, came down. Also, the hope was that at lower interest rates, corporates will borrow and expand.

Thirdly, at lower interest rates, the hope always is that people will borrow and spend more, and all these factors will lead to a faster economic recovery.

But there is a flip side to all this as well. A fall in interest rates has got people looking for a higher return. This has led to many individuals buying stocks, in the hope of a higher return and thus driving up prices to astonishingly high levels.

This can be gauged from the fact that in 2020, the number of demat accounts, which are necessary to buy and sell stocks, went up by nearly a fourth to 4.86 crore accounts. One of the reasons for this is the rise of Robinhood investing in India. This term comes from the American stock brokerage firm Robinhood which offers free online trading in stocks. India has seen the rise of similar stock brokerages offering free trading.

What has added to this is the fact that many unemployed individuals have turned to stock trading to make a quick buck. All it needs is a smartphone, a cheap internet connection and a low-cost brokerage account.

Of course, this search for a higher return isn’t local, it’s global. Hence, foreign institutional investors have invested a whopping $31.6 billion in Indian stocks during this financial year, the highest ever. This stems from the fact that Western central banks, like the RBI, have printed a huge amount of money to drive down interest rates.

This has pushed more and more investors into buying stocks despite the fact that the global economy isn’t doing well either.

A slightly different version of this column appeared in the Deccan Herald on January 17, 2021. It was updated after the Sensex first crossed 50,000 points during intra day trading on January 21, 2021.

Bitcoin is a bubble, a way to speculate and not the future of money

The actual writing of this piece took around six hours, though I have been thinking on this issue for at least the past nine years since I started writing my Easy Money book. I have been told that the backlash from the bitcoins believers will be huge. All feedback is welcome, as long as you don’t abuse. And if you choose to abuse at least read the piece first. You will be able to abuse better.

 Bulbulon ko abhi intezar karne do. (Let the bubbles wait for now).
— Gulzar, Vishal Bhardwaj, Usha Uthup and Rekha Bhardwaj in 7 Khoon Maaf.

Let’s start this one with a small story.

Salvador Dalí was a famous painter who lived through much of the twentieth century. He was a pioneering figure in what is known as Surrealism.

Other than being a fantastic painter, Dalí was also a sharp businessman. The story goes that once Dalí had treated some friends at an expensive New York restaurant. When the time to pay for the meal came, Dalí instead of paying in dollars, like anyone else would have, decided to carry out a small experiment.

On the back of the cheque Dalí had signed to pay for the expensive meal, he drew a sketch in his inimitable style. He signed it and handed it to the waiter. The waiter passed it on to the manager.

The manager realised the value of what Dalí had given him and decided to frame the cheque and hang it on the wall, making sure that anyone who came to the restaurant saw it.

Of course, this meant that Dalí’s cheque wasn’t encashed and he didn’t really have to pay in dollars for the expensive meal he had taken his friends out for.

This trick worked for Dalí. He was delighted and he used the same trick at different New York restaurants to pay for meals. The managers of all these different restaurants framed the cheque and hung it on one of the walls in their restaurants, so that everybody who came to the restaurant could see and realise that the famous painter Salvador Dalí had dined at the same place as they were.

This interesting story is recounted by Mauro F Guillén in his book 2030—How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything: “

Now what was happening here? If I can state this in simple English, Salvador Dalí, had turned his art into money. As Guillén writes:

“The money offered to pay for the meals was never deposited, as the cheques were transformed into artworks and took on a separate life. For Dalí, this maneuver was a stroke of genius. He could print his own money (his drawings had value), and people were willing to accept it as a form of payment.”

The trouble was Dalí went overboard and paid for one too many meals using this trick. In the end, the restaurant managers wised up and Dalí probably had to start paying real dollars for the expensive meals he took his friends out for.

What’s the moral of this story? Anyone can create his or her own money as long as others are willing to accept it, though one thing needs to be kept in mind. As Guillén writes: “As with national currencies, any money can be felled by the laws of supply and demand, as an excessive supply depreciates its worth and reduces people’s willingness to use it.”

What Dalí ended up doing in a very small way, governments have done over and over again, over the centuries. They have gone overboard with printing money and spending it, created high inflation, as too much has chased the same set of goods and services, and in the process destroyed the prevailing form of money. (If you are interested in details, I would suggest that you read my Easy Money trilogy).

Dear Reader, you must be wondering by now why am I recounting this story in a piece which is headlined to be about the bitcoin bubble. Have some patience, everything will become clear very soon. Read on.

*****

Bitcoin is a digital currency that does not use banks or any third party as a medium or at least that is how it is conventionally defined. It is governed by a string of cryptographical codes, which are believed to be military grade and very tough to break.

The price of a bitcoin has rallied big-time over the last few months. It rose from a little over $10,000 per bitcoin in early September to more than $40,000 per bitcoin in early January. As of January 8, 2021, the price of bitcoin touched an all-time high of $40,599.

One of the core selling points of bitcoins as well as its raison d’être is that unlike paper money they cannot be created out of thin air. The number of bitcoins is finite and the code behind it is so written that they cannot go beyond a limit of 21 million tokens.

Interestingly, mining, or the generation of a bitcoin, happens when a computer solves a complex algorithm. Anyone can try to mine bitcoins, but with a finite number being generated at regular intervals and with an increase in the number of people joining the mining race, it has become increasingly difficult to solve the algorithm and generate bitcoins.

As of January 11, 2021, the number of bitcoins in circulation stood at 18.6 million units. The rate at which bitcoins are being created has slowed down over the years and the last fraction of the 21 millionth bitcoin will be created only in 2140.

The larger point here is that unlike the paper money system (or to put it slightly more technically the fiat money system) which can be manipulated by central banks and the governments, the bitcoin system can’t.

Hence, there is an overall limit to the number of bitcoins that can be created. This is the main logic offered in support of buying and owning bitcoins. Unlike central banks or governments or Salvador Dalí (in case you are still wondering why I started with that story), money in the form of bitcoin cannot be created out of thin air and beyond a certain limit.

In fact, this core idea/message at the heart of the bitcoin was built into the first fifty coins, now known as the genesis block, created by Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious inventor behind it. The beauty of bitcoin is that even not knowing who really Nakamoto is, doesn’t impact the way the system he created, works.

The genesis block contained a headline from The Times newspaper published in London dated January 3, 2009. The headline was: “Chancellor on brink of second bail-out for banks”. The headline and the date are permanently embedded into the bitcoin data.

As Nakamoto wrote on a message board in February 2009: “The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that’s required to make it work… The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve. We have to trust them with our privacy, trust them not to let identity thieves drain our accounts.”

Bitcoin was supposed to be this grand idea meant to save the world from the way the central banks and governments manipulate the paper money system. As William Quinn and John D Turner write in Boom and Bust—A Global History of Financial Bubbles: “To its advocates, bitcoin was the money of the future: it could not be devalued through inflation by a central bank, you could spend it on anything without having to worry about government interference or taxes, and it cut out the middleman, namely commercial banks.”

The question is, in these times of easy money, has bitcoin reached anywhere near its original goal or is it just another way of pure speculation.

Let’s look at this pointwise.

1) Here is a chart of the price of bitcoin in dollars since July 18, 2010 (I couldn’t find the price of bitcoin before this in the public domain, hence, the random date).


Source: https://in.investing.com/crypto/bitcoin/historical-data

It doesn’t take rocket science to understand that if you have been a long-term investor in bitcoin, you would have made shitloads of money by now. But the fundamental question is, is bitcoin money or even the future of money, as it is made out to be, by those who are in love with it, or is it simply another form of speculation.

One of the key characteristics of money is that it is a store of value. The recent rally in bitcoin has led to many bitcoin believers telling us that bitcoin is a store of value. This comes from a very shaky understanding of what the term store of value actually means.

A store of value basically means that something has a stable value over time. As Jacob Goldstein writes in Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing: “If $100 buys your family a week’s worth of groceries today, there is a very good chance it will buy approximately a week’s worth of groceries a year from now. The dollar is a good store of value (it tends to lose about 2 percent of its value every year).”

Let’s look at what has happened to bitcoin over the last few months. It rose from a little over $10,000 per bitcoin in early September 2020 to more than $40,000 per bitcoin in early January 2021.

As of January 8, 2021, the price of bitcoin touched an all-time high of $40,599. As I write this early in the morning on January 14, 2021, the price of a bitcoin is around $37,329. The price has fallen by 8% in a little over five days’ time. So, where is the stability of value? And this isn’t a one-off event. Bitcoin has moved rapidly up and down on many occasions.

But this is a very simple point. Here’s the more complicated point . The price of a bitcoin as of September 5, 2020, was $ 10,092. On January 8, 2021, it reached $40,599, a rise of 302% in a matter of a little over four months.

If bitcoin really was money, using which we could make and receive payments and borrow and lend, the recent rally would have created a havoc in the economy.

What does the rise in the value of any form of money really mean? It means that the price of everything that money can buy is falling. And in this case prices would have fallen big-time. As Goldstein puts it: “This rise in the value of bitcoin would have caused a deflation far worse than the one in the Great Depression.” Deflation is the scenario of falling prices and is deemed to be dangerous because people keep postponing their consumption in the hope of getting a lower price. This hurts businesses and the overall economy.

Now take a look at the following chart which plots the price of a bitcoin in dollars between December 2017 and December 2018.

Source: https://in.investing.com/crypto/bitcoin/historical-data

The price of a bitcoin as on December 16, 2017, was $19,345. A year later on December 15, 2018, it had fallen by 83% to around $3,229. What would this have meant if bitcoin really was money? It would mean that the price of money has fallen and hence, the price of other things has gone up. In this case, it would mean very high inflation, even hyperinflation.

In its current form, bitcoin is no store of value. If it was to be used as money, the world would hyperventilate between deflation and inflation.

2) Another key characteristic of money is that it is a medium of exchange or to put it in simple English, it can be used to buy things (like Dalí bought meals at expensive restaurants).

According to financial services company Fundera 2,352 American businesses, accept bitcoins as a payment. The United States is the mecca of bitcoin believers. As per the US Census Bureau there were around 7.7 million companies in the US with at least one paid employee. This statistic doesn’t inspire much confidence. Barely anyone takes payments in bitcoins even in the United States.

Of course, it takes time for any new form of money to be adopted, but for something that has been around for 12 years, the rate of adoption seems quite poor.

Personally, I don’t know of any business that accepts bitcoin as a payment in India. Maybe, there is some coffee shop in Bengaluru that does. Dear reader, if you know of it, do let me know.

3) The bitcoin believers like to compare it with gold. The reason gold has acted as a hedge against the proclivity of the governments and central banks to create paper money out of thin air, is that it cannot be created out of thin air. While alchemists, which included Isaac Newton as well, have tried this over the centuries, no one has been successful in developing a chemical formula that converts other metals into gold. Bitcoin works because of a similar dynamic, the believers tell us. There is a limit to the number of bitcoins that can be created and as time passes by it becomes more and more difficult to mine bitcoins. That’s how the code behind bitcoin is written.

But the thing is that the code behind bitcoin is freely available. Anyone can take it and tweak it and come up with a new kind of money. Over the years this has happened and many of these new forms of money have ended up as shitcoins.

As Quinn and Turner write:

“In August 2016, one bitcoin was trading at $555; in the next 16 months its price rose by almost 3,400 per cent to a peak of $19,783.3 This was accompanied by a promotion boom, as a mix of cryptocurrency enthusiasts and opportunistic charlatans issued their own virtual currencies in the form of initial coin offerings, or ICOs. These coins had, on the face of it, no intrinsic value – to entitle their holders to future cash flows would have violated laws against issuing unregistered securities – but they nevertheless attracted $6.2 billion of money from investors in 2017 and a further $7.9 billion in 2018.”

A lot of this money never came back to the investors. There is no way to make sure that this won’t happen in the future.

Also, at a broader level, a free market in money is a bad idea. The United States went through this situation sometime in the nineteenth century (Something I discuss in detail in the first volume of Easy Money). It was very easy to get a banking license and banks could print their own money.

As Goldstein writes: “Not all banks were shady. Not even most banks were shady. But the notes printed by the shady banks looked as legit as the notes printed by the honest banks. And there were a lot of notes—at one point, the Chicago Tribune reported that the country had 8,370 different kinds of paper money in circulation.” Imagine the confusion this would have created.

It was also easy for counterfeiters to manufacture their own paper money. In this scenario, a guide called Leonori’s New York Bank Note List, Counterfeit Detector, and Wholesale Prices Current was published once a month. An issue of this guide, dated 18 November 1854, shows that 1,276 such banks were in operation in various states and 825 different kinds of forged notes were in circulation. The financial system was in a total anarchy.

While it is easy to make a case for a non-government decentralised money system, what may lie in store isn’t something we may want in the first place. The sad part is very little thinking has happened on this front. Saying, let the best money win is a very insensitive way to go about it.

4) The bitcoin code which limits their number to 21 million units is written in C++. As Sean Williams writes on Fool.com: “Last I checked, code can always be erased and rewritten. While it’s unlikely that a community consensus would be reached to increase the circulating supply of bitcoin, the possibility of this happening isn’t zero.” Anyway this possibility isn’t going to arise until 2140, when the last fraction of the bitcoin will be mined, and by then you and I, won’t be around. So, it doesn’t really matter.


5)
Let’s talk a little more about paper money. Why do others accept it as money? Because they know that the government bank/central bank deems it to be money and hence, still others will accept it as money as well.

As L Randall Wray writes in Modern Money Theory – A Primer on Macroeconomics for Sovereign Monetary Systems:
The typical answer provided in textbooks is that you will accept your national currency because you know that others will accept it. In other words, it is accepted because it is accepted. The typical explanation thus relies on an ‘infinite regress’: John accepts it because he thinks Mary will accept it, and she accepts it because she thinks Walmart will take it.”

While this sounds correct there is a slightly more nuanced answer to the question.

There are three main powers that any government has: 1) The right to “legal” violence. 2) The right to tax. 3) The right to create money out of thin air by printing it.

As Wray writes:

“One of the most important powers claimed by sovereign government is the authority to levy and collect taxes (and other payments made to government, including fees and fines). Tax obligations are levied in the national money of account: Dollars in the United States, Canada, and Australia; Yen in Japan; Yuan in China; and Pesos in Mexico. Further, the sovereign government also determines what can be delivered to satisfy the tax obligation. In most developed nations, it is the government’s own currency that is accepted in payment of taxes.”

What does this mean?

As Wray puts it:

“Ultimately, it is because anyone with tax obligations can use currency to eliminate these liabilities that government currency is in demand, and thus can be used in purchases or in payment of private obligations. The government cannot easily force others to use its currency in private payments, or to hoard it in piggybanks, but government can force use of currency to meet the tax obligations that it imposes… It is the tax liability (or other obligatory payments) that stands behind the curtain.”

Hence, the government creates demand for paper/fiat money by accepting taxes in it. This has ensured that the paper money system has kept going despite its weaknesses.

What this also means is that for bitcoin to become popular and move beyond the nerds, it needs a use case as solid as paying taxes in what government deems to be money, is.

It is worth remembering here what Wray writes: “For the past 4,000 years (“at least”, as Keynes put it), our monetary system has been a “state money system”. To simplify, that is one in which the state chooses the money of account, imposes obligations (taxes, tribute, tithes, fines, and fees), denominated in that money unit, and issues a currency accepted in payment of those obligations.”

This is not to say that governments haven’t destroyed money systems in the past. The history of money is littered with examples of kings, queens, rulers, dictators, general secretaries and politicians, representing governments in different eras, having destroyed different money systems at different points of time. But the government has always comeback and controlled the money system the way it has wanted to.

And unless governments and central banks start taking a liking to bitcoin, there is no way its usage is going to spread to a level where it can hope to challenge the prevailing paper money system. It is worth remembering that if governments start taking interest in bitcoin, it in a way beats the entire purpose behind its creation.

Also, every government will want to protect its right to create money out of thin air. Right now bitcoin is too small in the overall scheme of things for governments to be bothered about it and hence, they have largely humoured it (not in India though).

The market capitalisation of bitcoins (number of coins multiplied by the dollar price) as of January 8, peaked at around $759 billion. The global GDP in 2019 was around $88 trillion. So the price of bitcoin even at its peak was lower than 1% of the global GDP.

Hence, the bitcoin story is like that of a rich Indian father basically allowing his son to play around, until he thinks that the son now needs to grow up.

6) There is another point that needs to be made here regarding the paper money system. This is something I realised while writing the third volume of Easy Money  and it makes me sceptical of anyone who wants to write off the paper money system in a hurry. (Before you jump on me for being a blanket supporter of the paper money system, I am not, but then that doesn’t mean I don’t see logical arguments when they are offered).

Many years back, in one of my first freelancing assignments, I happened to interview the financial historian Russel Napier. He explained to me the link between paper money and democracy. As he told me on that occasion:

“The history of the paper currency system, or the fiat currency system is really the history of democracy … Within the metal currency, there was very limited ability for elected governments to manipulate that currency. And I know this is why people with savings and people with money like the gold standard. They like it because it reduces the ability of politicians to play around with the quantity of money. But we have to remember that most people don’t have savings. They don’t have capital. And that’s why we got the paper currency in the first place. It was to allow the democracies. Democracy will always turn towards paper currency and unless you see the destruction of democracy in the developed world, and I do not see that, we will stay with paper currencies and not return to metallic currencies or metallic-based currencies.”

Back then bitcoin wasn’t really on the radar. The reason people with savings liked gold back then, is why many of them like bitcoins now.

The twentieth century saw the rise of both paper money and democracy. Pure paper money started coming into being after the First World War. The reason for this is very straightforward. In a democracy whenever there is a crisis, the politicians and the technocrats advising them need to be seen to be doing something.

As an ex-RBI Governor once told me, do nothing cannot be a strategy. And this need to be seen to be doing something, can most easily be fulfilled by manipulating the paper money system that prevails in a democracy. It gives central bankers the option of printing money and driving down interest rates in the hope that people will borrow and spend more and businesses will borrow and expand.

Of course, this has its own problems (as I keep highlighting in my pieces over and over again). But then, the prevailing system does really allow politicians to show that they are trying. Any other system would take this option away from politicians. Hence, the paper money system is not going to be replaced in a hurry. No government is going to let go of this privilege.

7) This is a slightly technical point, but I think it needs to be made. As I have mentioned through this piece, over the years it has become more and more difficult to mine bitcoins. Now bitcoin farms with giant racks of mining computers, are needed to mine bitcoins. The days when bitcoins could be mined using the processing power of a PC are long gone.

The bitcoin farms, as they are known as, need a lot of electricity. Hence, mining operations have moved to countries where electricity is cheap. They have moved to countries like Iceland, Mongolia and primarily, China.

This has created another problem. As Goldstein writes: “By the beginning of 2020, Chinese miners had grown so large that they controlled most of the processing power on the bitcoin network. And the way the code for bitcoin was written gave them control over the system.”

While, bitcoin might be a decentralised democratic system running on code, but it’s people who ultimately control the mining of bitcoins and hence, can direct its future.

So, will the future of bitcoin be driven by China? And if that turns out to be the case, what does this do to its chances of spreading as actual money, used in the selling and buying of things? There are no easy answers to these questions.

8) One of the key points of bitcoins was that it was a non-government decentralised money system which promised freedom from the middlemen. But that hasn’t really happened. As Quinn and Turner write: “[Bitcoin] had promised freedom from middlemen, but trading it without a third party was cumbersome unless the user was expert in cybersecurity.”

If you are using a broker to trade bitcoin it beats the entire idea of freedom from middlemen. Also, the moment you convert your money into fiat money and the money comes into your bank account, the entire idea of remaining unknown and the government not knowing what you are doing goes for a toss. Hence, you may have your reasons to buy bitcoins, but basically you are speculating.

9) You might want to ask why you haven’t heard all this in the mainstream media. The reason for that lies in the fact that the incentives of the media are misaligned these days. Most investment related news is presented as a money-making opportunity. Hence, in this case the bitcoin believers have gotten more space and screen time in the media.

Many of the bitcoin believers are like the original investors in a Ponzi scheme. They have an incentive to talk up bitcoin, get more investors into it, drive up its price and make more money in the process. (In fact, these are precisely the kind of stock market investors that you get to see on TV and read in the media most of the time, but that is another topic for another day).

Also, given the extremely short attention spans that people have these days, the written word doesn’t find much of an audience. As Quinn and Turner put it: “More fundamentally, the move away from the written word to television financial news, docusoaps and social media may corrode the ability of investors to think clearly and understand the complexities of the financial system.”

You cannot understand economic history and the complexities of the financial system by watching TV or watching stuff over the internet or even listening to extremely detailed podcasts (podcasts can just give you a flavour of things and a feeling that you are actually learning a lot). The only way to understand complex issues is to read, read and read more.

In an era of short attention spans, bitcoins are just the right asset to speculate on. Their price goes up or falls even before you can say Virat Kohli. (This is another reason to support my writing).

10) We live in an era of easy money. Central banks have printed trillions of dollars during the course of 2020 to drive down interest rates in the hope of encouraging people to borrow and spend and businesses to borrow and expand. Interest rates are in negative territory in some of the European nations.

In this scenario of very low interest rates, investors are desperate to earn returns. Hence, a lot of money has been invested into stock markets all over the world, driving them to levels not justified by earnings that companies are expected to earn in the years to come.

Some money has also found its way into bitcoins. As The Economist puts it: “The current surge seems to have been spurred by interest from the financial establishment, most of which had long scorned it.” In simple English, hedge funds are buying bitcoins. Given that bitcoins are thinly traded, this has driven up prices by astonishing levels. Hence, like stock markets, bitcoin is also in bubble territory.

And as we have seen over the past few decades, hedge fund money can be quite mercurial. They can drive down prices faster than they drove them up.

To conclude, the fact that the price of bitcoin is so volatile tells us that most people investing in it aren’t really bothered about the long-term story of bitcoin as money, the bitcoin believers try selling all the time. If they did believe in this story they would have bought bitcoin and held on to it. But as the crash of 2018 showed that is clearly not the case.

As Saifedean Ammous writes in The Bitcoin Standard, the bible of the bitcoin believers:

“Buying a Bitcoin token today can be considered an investment in the fast growth of the network and currency as a store of value, because it is still very small and able to grow many multiples of its size and value very quickly. Should Bitcoin’s share of the global money supply and international settlement transactions become a majority share of the global market, the level of demand for it will become far more predictable and stable, leading to a stabilization in the value of the currency.”

(Ha ha, this is to show that I also read stuff I don’t really agree with).

I am not clairvoyant. This may happen. This may not happen. My reading of economic history tells me it won’t. But then I might turn out to be wrong. What do they say about history not repeating itself but rhyming? But what if it doesn’t rhyme as well?

There are no guarantees when it comes to economics. The trouble is that while you are waiting for all this to happen, the price of a bitcoin is at the level of a very very very very expensive large cap stock and its volatility is that of a small cap penny stock.

So, if you do invest in bitcoin, do understand that you are taking a punt, you are speculating, you are hoping that the price goes up and does not fall. Also, don’t go looking for fundamental reasons for investing in it.

Given that investing in bitcoin is equal to taking a punt, please don’t bet your life on it. As the old cliché goes, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

PS: This doesn’t mean I don’t believe in digital money. I do. But I also believe that it will be controlled by large corporations and the governments.

Why is the stock market going up when the economy is going down?

The total collections of the goods and services tax (GST) between March and July stood at Rs 2.73 lakh crore. This is 34.5% lower than what the government earned during the same period in 2019.

The stock market index Nifty 50 has rallied by 53% to 11,648 points between March 23 and August 28. It had touched this year’s low of 7,610 points on March 23.

So, what’s the point in comparing the Nifty 50 with GST collections? The GST is basically a tax on consumption. If the GST collections are down by more than a third, what that basically means is that private consumption is down majorly.

When consumption is down, the company earnings are bound to take a beating. Take the case of two-wheelers and cars. When people don’t buy as many of them as they used to, their production takes a beating. When that happens, it has an impact right down the value chain. It means lower production of steel, steering, glass, tyres, etc. A lower production of tyres means a lower demand for rubber.

A lower production on the whole means lower demand for power. Industrial power largely subsidises farm power and home power (where power is stolen). If industrial power consumption goes down, the losses of state electricity boards go up. When this happens, their ability to keep paying power generation companies goes down. When these companies don’t get paid, they are in no position to repay loans they have taken from banks. So, the cycle works.

Many people buy two-wheelers and cars on loans from banks and non-banking finance companies. When the buying falls, the total amount of loans given by banks also comes down. When banks don’t get enough loans, they need to cut the interest rate on their fixed deposits.

When this happens, people who are saving towards a goal, need to save more. This means they need to cut down on their consumption. Further, people who are largely dependent on interest from bank deposits will see their incomes fall. This means they need to cut down on their consumption as well.

This cycle will also lead to a fall company earnings. A Business Standard results tracker for 1,946 companies reveals that the sales of these companies for April to June 2020 were down 23.1% in comparison to the same period in 2019. The net profit for these companies was down 60.8%.

The stock market does not wait for things to happen. It discounted for this possibility and the Nifty fell by 32.1% between end February and March 23. The market was adjusting for an era of falling company earnings. But it didn’t stay at those low levels and has rallied by more than 50% since then.

The trouble now is that the valuations are way off the chart. The price to earnings ratio of the Nifty 50 index, as of August 28, stood at 32.92. This means that investors are ready to pay close to Rs 33 for every rupee of earning for stocks that make up the Nifty 50 index. Such a level has never been seen before. Not during the dotcom bubble era and not even during early 2008 when the stock market rallied to its then highest level.

Why has the stock market jumped as much as it has? Does this mean that the company earnings will jump big time in the near future? Not at all. The covid-induced recession is not going to go anytime quickly. Also, the pandemic is now gradually making its way into rural India.

So, why is the stock market rallying? The Western central banks led by the Federal Reserve of the United States, the American central bank, have printed a lot of money post February, in order to drive down interest rates and get people and businesses to borrow and spend. The Federal Reserve has printed more than $2.8 trillion between February 26 and August 5. Some of this money has made it into India.

During this financial year, the foreign institutional investors have net invested a total of Rs 83,682 crore into Indian stocks, after going easy on investing in India over the last few years. This is clearly an impact of the easy money policies being run in much of the Western world.

Further, the participation of the retail investors in the stock market has increased during the course of this year. Between December 2019 and June 2020, the number of demat accounts has gone up by 39 lakhs or 10% to 4.32 crore accounts. In fact, between March end, after a physical lockdown to tackle covid was introduced, and up to June, the number of demat accounts has gone up by 24 lakhs.

The latest monthly bulletin of Securities and Exchange Board of India, the stock market regulator, points out: “We have seen a huge surge in participation of retail investors in the equity market in the last few months. The fact that there is also a surge in opening up of demat accounts suggests that many of these retail investors are perhaps first time investors in the stock market.”

With after tax return on bank fixed deposits down to 4-5% when inflation is close to 7%, these investors are coming to the stock market, in search of higher returns.

The question is, with the stock market at all time high valuations, will their good times continue? Or once the dust has settled, is another generation of investors ready to equate stock market investing to gambling? On that your guess is as good as mine.

This article originally appeared in the Deccan Herald on August 30, 2020.

Is Federal Reserve Getting Ready for an ‘Easy Money’ Confrontation with Donald Trump?

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We were at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, attending the Equitymaster conference over the last two days. Overlooking the dark waters of the Arabian Sea and the Gateway of India, as we ate, talked and heard, we also sat back and thought about how the end of the easy money era would play out.

As we heard Marc Faber and Ajit Dayal lay out their ideas, we got more ideas. And we came to an old conclusion, all over again: forecasting, especially about the future, is a difficult business. But then someone’s got to take a shot at it. Everyone in the investing world cannot be cautiously optimistic. We have clearly have had enough of that term.

So how is this end of the era of easy money, likely to play out? The Federal Reserve of the United States, the American central bank, has started shrinking its massive balance sheet from October 2017 onwards. Between October 3, 2017 and January 29, 2018, the Federal Reserve has shrunk its balance sheet by around $40 billion, we can see that from the Fed documents. But there is still a long way to go, given that the size of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet is still more than $4.4 trillion.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis that started in September 2008, once the Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest investment bank on Wall Street went bust, and many other financial institutions in the Western world almost went down with it, the Federal Reserve decided to print a lot of money. But just printing money wasn’t enough, this money, had to be pumped into the financial system as well.

This printed money (or rather created digitally) was pumped into the financial system by buying American treasury bonds and mortgage backed securities. American treasury bonds are bonds issued by the American government in order to finance its fiscal deficit, or the difference between what it earns and what it spends.

Mortgage backed securities are essentially securitised financial securities which are derived from mortgages (i.e. home loans). As of September 1, 2008, the Federal Reserve had assets worth $905 billion. As it got around to buying treasury bonds and mortgaged backed securities, it expanded its balance sheet very quickly. The size of Federal Reserve’s balance sheet peaked at $4.51 trillion, towards the end of December 2016.

The idea was that all this money floating around in the financial system would drive interest rates low and keep them there. This happened. Over and above this, the hope was that the companies would use low interest rates as an opportunity to borrow, invest and expand. This would create jobs and employment, would lead to spending and create faster economic growth.

The companies didn’t quite behave the way they were expected to. Yes, they did borrow. But they borrowed to buyback their shares and reduce the number of outstanding shares, and hence, pushed up their earnings per share.

These buybacks essentially benefitted the rich Americans who owned shares. The benefits were two-fold. First, they had an opportunity to sell their shares back to the companies buying them. And second, as the stock market rallied because of improved earnings and all the money floating around, those who owned shares benefitted.
But this wasn’t really what the Federal Reserve had hoped. The consumers were also supposed to borrow and spend at low interest rates. But that didn’t quite play out the way the Federal Reserve had hoped.

What happened instead was that large financial institutions borrowed money at very low interest rates and invested them in stock and bond markets all over the world, including India. These trades are referred to as the dollar carry trade. This led to stock markets rallying all over the world, irrespective of the fact whether the earnings of the companies were improving or not.

The Federal Reserve has decided to gradually start withdrawing all the money that it has put into the global financial system. Between October and December 2017, it planned to sell treasury bonds and mortgage backed securities worth $10 billion. Between January and March 2018, this will go up to $20 billion a month. Between April and June 2018, this will go up to $30 billion a month. Between July and September 2018, the Federal Reserve plans to sell bonds worth $40 billion a month. After that the amount will rise to $50 billion a month.[i]

How does the actual evidence look like? As mentioned earlier in the piece, the Federal Reserve had managed to shrink its balance sheet by $40 billion between October 3, 2017 and January 29, 2018. From the looks of it, the Federal Reserve seems to be doing what it said it would do. Nevertheless, these are early days.

In 2018, the Federal Reserve is expected to shrink its balance sheet by $420 billion and 2019 onwards, the balance sheet is expected to shrink by $600 billion a year. With the Federal Reserve taking money out of the financial system, there will be lesser money going around, this is likely to push up interest rates. In fact, the yield (i.e. return) on the 10-year treasury bond has crossed 2.85%. This yield acts as a benchmark for other kinds of lending, simply because lending to the American government is deemed to be the safest form of lending. With interest rates expected to go up, the carry trades are expected to become unviable. This will lead money being withdrawn from stock and bond markets all over the world.

In fact, regular readers would know that we have already discussed a large part of what has been written up until now. But now comes the completely crazy part. The United States government is expected to borrow $955 billion, during the course of this year, to meet its expenses. It is further expected to borrow a trillion dollars, in each of the next two years. Basically, the American government needs to borrow close to $3 trillion between 2018 and 2020.

During the same period, the Federal Reserve is working towards withdrawing more than $1.6 trillion ($420 billion in 2018 + $600 billion in 2019 + $600 billion in 2020) from the financial system. In this scenario, when the Federal Reserve is withdrawing money from the financial system and the government needs to borrow a huge amount of money, it is but logical that the interest rates in the United States are going to go up.

This will impact the carry trades. Hence, stock markets and bond markets will have a tough time all over the world. Of course, all this comes with the assumption that the Federal Reserve will continue doing what it is. The question is will it continue to withdraw the printed money it has pumped into the financial system?

Now this is where things get really interesting. The American society as a large is a highly indebted one. The total household debt of the Americans as of September 30, 2017, stood at $12.96 trillion. The debt has been going up for 13 consecutive quarters now. This debt includes, home loans, auto loans, student loans, credit cards outstanding, etc.
Hence, rising interest rates will hurt the average American as the EMIs will go up. It will also hurt the American government which is in the process of borrowing more, in the years to come. Governments, because they borrow as much as they do, as a thumb rule, like low interest rates.

In this scenario, if the Federal Reserve continues withdrawing the printed money, it is more than likely to run into a confrontation with the American president Donald Trump. Trump has only recently chosen Jerome Powell as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, after Janet Yellen. One school of thought seems to suggest that Powell, given that he has been appointed by Trump, is likely to bat for Trump and go easy on withdrawing money from the financial system, and allowing interest rates to go up. But it is not just up to him. The American monetary policy is decided by the Federal Monetary Policy Committee (FOMC), which has Powell and 12 other members.

In fact, even if that Powell does not bat for Trump, the FOMC might still vote to go slow on allowing interest rates to rise. Ultimately, the Federal Reserve has to ensure that the American economy continues to remain on a stable footing. If rising interest rates end up hurting the American economy, the FOMC will have to react accordingly. No Federal Reserve decisions are written in stone and can always be changed.

The question is how quickly is this likely to happen? Now that is a very difficult question to answer. But my best guess (and I use the word very very carefully here) is that during the second half of the year, the Federal Reserve might have to reverse its policy of taking out all the money that it has put into the global financial institution.

Up until then, a lot of damage will be done to the stock and bond markets around the world. The funny thing is that though the Federal Reserve is now pulling out money to let interest rates rise, the European Central Bank continues to buy bonds issued by its member governments and the 10-year government bond yields of European countries, is significantly lower than that of United States.

What does this mean in an Indian context? Unless, the American Federal Reserve reverses its current policy, the Indian stocks are going to have a tough time. That is a given. What happens next, if and when Federal Reserve changes track? Will another easy money start? On that your guess is as good as ours.
Let’s watch and wait!
[i] https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/pressreleases/monetary20170614a.htm

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on February 12, 2018.

The Old-New Investment Lessons from the Recent Stock Market Crash

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It took the BSE Sensex, India’s premier stock market index, a period of nine months (from late April 2017 to late January 2018), to go from 30,000 points to higher than 36,000 points. This meant a return of more than 20% in a period of just nine months.

In an era when fixed deposits give a post-tax return of 5% per year, a return of 20% in less than a year, has to be fantastic. Of course, there are many listed stocks which have given more than 20 % returns, during the same period.

Between January 29 and February 6, 2018, the BSE Sensex has fallen by around 5.8% and wiped out one-third of the gain between April 2017 and January 2018. A week’s fall has wiped off one-third of the gain over a period of nine months.

When the stock market falls, a new set of investors learn, the same set of lessons all over again. What does this mean?

The price to earnings ratio of the BSE Sensex crossed 26 in late January 2018. This basically means that an investor was willing to pay Rs 26 for every one rupee of earning for the stocks that make up the Sensex.

Between April 2017 and January 2018, the price to earnings ratio of the Sensex had moved from 22.6 to 26.4. This meant that while the price of the stocks kept going up, the profit of the companies they represent, did not move at the same speed. Ultimately, the price of a stock is a reflection of the profit that a company is expected to make.

The price to earnings ratio of NSE Nifty touched 27 in late January 2018. The midcap stocks were going at a price to earnings ratio of 50. And the small caps had touched a price to earnings ratio of 120.

Such price to earnings ratios, or what the stock market likes to call valuation, were last seen in 2000 and 2008. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that at both these points of time, the stock market was in a bubbly territory.

In fact, all the occasions when the price to earnings ratio of the stock market was greater than in the recent past, were either between January and March 2000, when the dotcom bubble and the Ketan Parekh stock market scam were at their peak, or between December 2007 and January 2008, when the stock market peaked, before the financial crisis which finally led to many Wall Street financial institutions going more or less bust, broke out.

Nevertheless, the stock market experts told us that this time is different because there was no bubble in the United States of the kind we saw in 2000 or that the financial crisis that broke out in 2008, was a thing of the past. Hence, there was no real reason for the stock market to fall. (Of course, to these experts, the lack of earnings growth did not matter).

The trouble is that when the markets are in bubbly territory, there typically is no reason for them to fall, until some reason comes along. The first reason came in the form of the finance minister Arun Jaitley, introducing a long-term capital gains tax of 10% on stocks and equity mutual funds. This tax will have to be paid on capital gains of more than Rs 1 lakh, starting from April 1, 2018.

Investors took some time to digest this, and the stock market fell by 2.3%, a day after the budget. If this wasn’t enough, the yield on the 10-year treasury bond of the American government came back into the focus.

This yield jumped by around 40 basis points to 2.85%, in a month’s time. This yield sets the benchmark interest rates for a lot of other borrowing that takes place. In the aftermath of the financial crisis that broke out in September 2008, the central banks of the Western world, led by the Federal Reserve of the United States, printed a lot of money to drive down interest rates.

This was done in the hope of people borrowing and spending money and the economies recovering. That did not happen to the extent it was expected. What happened instead was that large financial institutions borrowed money at low rates and invested them in stock markets all across the world. This phenomenon came to be known as the dollar carry trade.

All this money flowing in drove up stock prices. The problem is that as the 10-year treasury bond yield approaches 3 %, dollar carry trade will become unviable in many cases. Given this, many carry trade investors are now selling out of stock markets, including that of India.

The larger point here is that nobody exactly knows when the stock market will reverse. The way the market has behaved over the last few days, has proved that all over again.

The sellers are not selling out because the valuations are too high (they were too high even a month or two back). They are selling out because of an entirely different reason all together; investors are selling out because they are seeing other investors selling out. The herd mentality that guides investors to buy stocks when everyone else is, also forces them to sell when everyone else is.

Also, the stock market, when it falls can fall very quickly. The last generation of stock market investors learnt this when the BSE Sensex fell by close to 60 % between January 9, 2008 and October 27, 2008.

Is it time for this generation of stock market investors to learn the same lesson all over again? On that your guess is as good as mine.

Stay tuned!

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on Feb 6, 2018.