This nonlinearity of leverage is a function of similar positioning and contagion. We do not believe that the system today is any safer than it was when it failed in 2007 and 2008. Global leverage is up, not down, contrary to the popular misconception. Private debt is unchanged from 2007 levels, but public debt has risen globally from $70 trillion to $100 trillion. It appears that a number of major American financial institutions have de-risked themselves somewhat, although this is impossible to discern from publicly available filings (which is why rumor and conjecture will govern the way markets perceive large financial institutions in the next market crisis). European financial institutions still maintain more leverage and bigger derivatives books than their American counterparts, as well as large holdings of sovereign debt that they were coerced into buying as part of the “save-the-euro” panic.
In fact, the global financial system is arguably less safe than it was in 2008. The unquestioned creditworthiness of the Developed World governments ended the most intense phase of the 2008 crisis, as the financial system was ultimately all but guaranteed by governments. A catalyzing force for the next crisis might be a failure of confidence in one or more of those major governments or in China. Such a failure alone could cause major stress in markets, as either currencies or bond markets could experience sudden collapses. Also potentially impactful is one of the major lessons of 2008: It is wise to move assets and sell claims and securities immediately if a debtor or counterparty is perceived to be in trouble. This maxim could make the next market crisis play out on a hair-trigger, with a stressful lead-in and then a simultaneous rush to the exits.
Those who think the scenario above is an exaggeration should ask themselves the following question: After decades of advancements in human knowledge and purported innovations in the global financial system, why did 2008 turn into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression? The answer is that the system was unsound, largely due to excessive leverage and the complexity of financial instruments. In the 80-plus years since the 1929 crash and the subsequent Depression, there clearly have been a large number of geopolitical and financial events, yet none of them caused financial collapse until 2008. Of course, we understand that a combination of public and private errors and misconceptions led to the financial crisis, but it was the unfettered use of leverage that made the episode pass over the line into systemic collapse.
We do not think policymakers have learned anything much from the financial crisis, but that fact can truly be demonstrated only as time passes. In our view, monetary policy extremism has papered over (no pun intended) the lack of fundamental reforms that would enable the Developed World to grow faster and more sustainably with financial institutions that are solid and robust enough to withstand the next periods of economic and financial stress. We believe the world’s financial institutions are still essentially dependent on governments, but the Developed World governments themselves are hopelessly insolvent. The insolvency may not be manifested in a market reaction tomorrow or even next year, but the numbers are obvious and compelling, not conjectural or fanciful. Markets focus on something when they want to, not when “visionaries” think they should.