Not Printing, Borrowing
Let’s take a step back for a moment, and look at how the recent chapter unfolded. It began with the SNB borrowing mass quantities of francs. Most people say printed, but it’s impossible to understand this unprecedented disaster with such an approximate understanding. It’s not printing, but borrowing.
Think of a homebuyer borrowing $100,000 to buy a house. He never gets the cash in his bank account. He signs a bunch of paperwork, and then at the end of the day he has a debt obligation to repay, plus the title to the house. The former owner has the cash.
It works the same with any central bank that wants to buy an asset. At the end of the day, the bank owns the asset, and the former owner of the asset now holds the cash. This cash is the debt of the central bank. It is on the bank’s balance sheet as a liability. The bank owes it.
This is vitally important to understand, and it can be quite counterintuitive. If one thinks of the franc (or dollar, euro, etc.) as money, and if one thinks that the central banks print money, then one will come to precisely the wrong conclusion: that there is nothing owed, and indeed there is no debtor. In this view, the holder of francs has cash, which is a current asset. End of story.
This conclusion could not be more wrong.
Certainly, the idea of the central bank repaying its debt is absurd. By law, payment is deemed made when the debtor pays in currency—i.e. francs in Switzerland. However, the franc is the very liability of the SNB that we’re discussing. How can the SNB pay off its franc liabilities using its own franc liabilities as means of payment?
It can’t. This is a contradiction in terms. Thus it’s critical to understand that there is no extinguisher of debt in the regime of irredeemable paper currency. You may get yourself out of the debt loop by paying in currency, but that merely shifts the debt. The debt does not go out of existence, because paying a debt with an IOU cannot extinguish it. Unlike you, the central bank cannot get itself out of debt.
However, it can service its debt. For example, the Federal Reserve in the U.S. pays interest on reserves. Indeed, the bank must service its debts. It would be a calamity if a payment is missed, if the central bank ever defaulted.
The central bank must also maintain its liabilities, which is what it uses to fund its assets. If the commercial banks withdraw their deposits—and they do generally have a choice—the central bank would be forced to sell its assets. That would be contrary to its policy intent, not to mention quite a shock to brittle economies.
Make no mistake, a central bank can go bankrupt. This may seem tricky to understand, as the law makes its liability legal tender for all debts public and private. A central bank is also allowed to commit acts of accounting (and leverage) that would not be tolerated in a private company. Regardless, it can present misleading financial statements, but even if the law lets it get away with that, reality will have its revenge in the end. The emperor may claim to be wearing magnificent royal robes, but he’s still naked.
If liabilities exceed assets, then a bank—even a central bank—is insolvent and the consequences will come soon enough. The cash flow from the assets will sooner or later become insufficient to pay the interest on the liabilities. No central bank wants to be in a position where it is obliged to borrow, not to purchase asset but to service a negative cash flow. That is a rapid death spiral. It must somehow push down the interest rate on its liabilities (which are typically short term) to keep the cost of financing its portfolio below the revenue generated on the assets.
This becomes increasingly tricky when two things happen. One, the yield on the asset goes negative. Thus, the even-more-negative (and even more absurd) one-day rate of -400 basis points in Switzerland. Two, the issuance of more currency drives down yields even further (described in detail, below).
Events force the hand of the central bank. It goes down a path where it has fewer and fewer choices. That brings us back to negative interest rates out to the 15-year bond so far.
The Visible Hand of the Swiss National Bank
So the SNB issued francs to fund its purchase of euros. Next, it spent the euros on whatever Eurozone assets it wished to buy, such as German bunds.
It’s well known that the SNB put on a lot of this trade to keep the franc down to €0.83 (the inverse of keeping the euro down to CHF1.2) l. It also helped push down interest rates in Europe. The SNB was a relentless buyer of European bonds.
That leads to the question of what it did in Switzerland. The SNB was trading new francs for euros. That means the former owner of those euros then owned francs. These francs have to stay in the franc-denominated domain. What asset will this new franc owner buy?
I frame the question this way deliberately. If you have a 100-franc note, you can put it in your pocket. If you have CHF100,000, you can deposit it in a bank. If you have CHF100,000,000 (or billions) then you are going to buy a bond or other asset (depositing cash in a bank just pushes it to the bank, who buys the asset).
The seller of the asset is selling on an uptick. He gives up the bond, because at its higher price (and hence lower yield) he now finds another asset more attractive on a risk-adjusted basis. Risk includes his own liquidity risk (which of course rises as his leverage increases).
As the SNB (and many others) relentlessly push up the bond price, and hence push down the yield, the sellers of the ever-lower yielding bonds have fresh new franc cash balances.
The Quantity Theory of Money holds that the demand for money falls as the quantity rises. If demand for money falls, then by this definition the prices of all other things—including consumer goods—rises. It is commonly held that people tradeoff between saving money vs. spending money (i.e. consumption). The prediction is rising consumer prices.
I emphatically disagree. A wealthy investor does unload his assets to go on an extra vacation if he doesn’t like the bond yield. A bank with a trillion dollar balance sheet does not dole out bigger salaries if its margins are compressed.
So what does trade off with government bonds? If an investor doesn’t want to own a government bond, what else might he want to own? He buys corporate bonds, stocks, or rental real estate, thus pushing up their prices and yields down.
And then, in a dysfunctional monetary system, you can add antique cars, paintings, a second and third home, etc. These things serve as surrogates for investment. When investing cannot produce an adequate yield, people turn to non-yielding non-investment assets.
The addition of a new franc at the margin perturbs the previous equilibrium of risk-adjusted yields across all asset classes. Every time the bond price goes up, every owner of every franc-denominated asset must recalculate his preferences.
The problem is that the SNB does not create any more productive investment opportunities when it spills more francs into the Swiss financial system. Those new francs have to chase after the existing assets.
Yields are falling. They necessarily had to fall. Read more: http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-01-28/swiss-franc-will-collapse