Cut Out The Middleman If You Dare

We are living during an economic revolution wherein the “middleman” is being eliminated. In most cases this is good news. If you need a cab you now call Uber where both the driver and the passenger benefit. Cab companies no longer have a monopoly on who can drive and, most importantly, who can obtain a license (medallion) to do so. Uber opened the industry to millions of people who wanted to drive a cab and earn some money on the side but for whom obtaining a license was cost prohibitive and oftentimes a political impossibility.

Airbnb is another example of a company that has so benefited. Historically, if you needed a place to stay in a town you were unfamiliar with you had to go through a hotel booking site. No longer. Airbnb opened that market by allowing homeowners to rent out rooms and, in many cases, their whole house.

There are many other such examples but its not always the case.

Within the field of institutional finance it has been a disaster. Investment banks use to act as the middleman when it came to clearing transactions; but, with the advent of Dodd-Frank and the elimination of investment banks, there are no middlemen to clear trades. Nowhere is this more disastrous than in the bond market.

In life, the things we know are dwarfed by the things we don’t.  The bond market is boring to most people as they feel it has little consequence in their lives. In fact, the bond market greatly affects all of our lives. In 2008, it was the collapse of bond market that almost precipitated the entire destruction of our financial system. Therefore, its safe to say the bond market is something we should definitely try to understand.

Let’s do a basic primer.

The bond market is really the main determinate of what sets the rate for money.  Any time you need to buy a car, a house or apply for a credit card, the rate that applies is determined by current bond market rates. Thus the speed, quality and efficiency of the bond market affects all consumers in a variety of economic activities.

Prior to the bond market collapse of 2007-2008, investment banks would act as an intermediary for all bond transactions. When the market was selling off, bond traders at investment banks would come in and buy the bonds and act as a stabilizing effect on the markets. They did so because the market would reward them for assuming this risk.

However, after the collapse of 2008, investment banks ceased to exist, They were transformed into commercial banks. Under regulatory oversight and applicable law, commercial banks can’t use depositors’ monies for speculative purposes. In addition, the banks were further prohibited from taking speculative positions and could only transact when they had an available buyer and available seller on the other side.

Since these changes have been implemented, very little secondary trading takes place. Mutual funds and pension funds now know that when they buy a bond there is a good chance they will have to hold that instrument until maturity. They know it will be very hard to sell their bond holdings. These investment funds have very little turnover in their portfolios and are assuming greater and greater risk as a result.

Currently, with low volatility and low yields, nobody seems to be worried too much about this problem; but, crisis always hits the financial markets and what’s ahead will be no different. Although there has not been a financial crisis since 2008,  during the previous ten years there were four major shocks to the system: dot com bust in 2000; the Russian crisis in 1998; Long Term Capital bust in 1998, and the Asian crisis in 1997. The fact is: booms and busts are part of, and natural to, the credit cycle.

We have already seen a glimpse of what is to come with the collapse of the Third Avenue Focused Credit Fund in 2015. Given the problems the fund endured, it had to unwind. However, it took over two years to get the investors their money back. Why? Because the investors were trapped. There were no ready and willing buyers to buy those distressed assets. The fund was not huge. It had about five billion in assets. Imagine the problems that will come when a much larger funds needs to be liquidated. Now think about those investors who could not get their money out and had to raise liquidity to meet their own obligations in other ways.

What happens when you cut out the middleman out of the bond market is that panic ensues.

Here in the U.S., we have been quick to embrace many of the new technologies that eliminated the need for a middleman. But let’s be clear. Investment banks did very well for years clearing bond trades. Now that mechanism no longer exists. We are entering uncharted territory and this lack of a middleman should worry us all. What happens when a large pension fund is forced to sell off some of its assets and isn’t able to meet its redemption needs?  Are we going to tell the retirees to wait two years for their liquidity?

The technocrats point to Uber and Airbnb as companies that have benefited us all by cutting out the middleman. But, uh oh!, very few if any of these companies are making any money. The bet on these companies is that one day they will make money. Even titans like Amazon, Netflix and Tesla have struggled to make money because they have had to spend a fortune on growth. Such companies could only exist in an environment like the current one… where the financial markets are so distorted they can borrow unlimited amounts of money to fuel their growth.

Before the markets become rational again, and they will, there will be blood on the streets. Then, once again, markets will reward companies that make money and punish those that don’t. This is the way it has always been during rational times. We will again see the value of companies based upon the merits of their ideas and the profits those ideas generate. We will even see the error of government regulators in taking away the role of investment banks to naturally provide liquidity in the financial markets. Until then, buckle up.

Steve

sleeclark@gmail.com

Amazon on Steroids

If Amazon was a country, the U.S would place trade restrictions on it for illegal dumping. Illegal dumping in trade occurs “when manufacturers export a product to another country at a price either below the price charged in its home market or below its cost of production.”

We permit Amazon to do what other countries are denied the right to do: dump their products into the U.S. Why? Because it would kill many of our industries. Often times, foreign companies receive massive assistance from their governments. One example, Airbus in Europe is subsidized by government funds which helps it stay competitive with Boeing. If we allowed these private/state owned companies to operate freely here in the U.S, domestic companies would not be able to compete.

Amazon is not owned by the government; however, due to the nature of capital markets, it has massive advantages over its competitors. The genesis of this advantage stems from the banking  crisis in 2008.

During 2008, many banks were shut down and/or merged. As part of the bailout and mergers, terms set by the Federal government barred banks from continuing to carry risky assets on their balance sheets. Then, the Federal Reserve infused the banks with billions of dollar in bailout money. The regulations put in place restricting trading by banks while loading them with money, caused the banks to begin buying and investing in things that were “government approved.” The banks bought billions of dollars in government bonds and other “approved investments” that would not raise the ire of the federal regulators.

What happened as a result?

Many legitimate small businesses and startups were frozen out. Why lend one million dollars to a startup if the regulators were going to complain? So the banks stopped lending to smaller firms and only invested in “sure things.” Asset managers and fund managers figured out the game and started mimicking what the banks were buying, thus only buying the safest and surest of investments.

Enter Amazon.

Recognizing that it had the opportunity to raise billions of dollars, Jeff Bezos went on a buying spree…buying out Amazon’s competitors and making massive investment in its infrastructure. It wasn’t that Amazon was making a ton of money. It wasn’t. What it had was access to the capital markets, something its competitors did not have.

Infused with cash, Amazon kept on tightening its profit margins lower and lower which was effective in driving its competitors out of business. Amazon is literally killing the retail industry and the malls that support those retailers. Malls across America are dying and some analysts have estimated that 50% of all malls will be closed within ten years.

Here’s the point. Many of these retailers are small business owners and have no access to the capital markets and, therefore, must make a profit.  In contrast Amazon, which has access to billions of dollars of capital, is not pressured to make any money and so lowers its margins to the point where it freezes out its competitors.  As stated earlier, the U.S. would never allow a country to operate so brazenly knowing the goal to be crushing domestic competition in order to make more money and monopolize the industry. But the rules appear to be different for Bezos and Amazon.

Larry Kudlow once said “profits are the mothers milk of all business” yet we obviously live in a time where the rules no longer apply. At some point this anomaly that allows Amazon to operate on minuscule margins with access to unlimited capital will end. The market will turn rational at some point and demand a return on the billions that was invested into Amazon. However, by that point, all serious competitors to Amazon will have been wiped out and it will be free to charge you whatever it wants.

I am a capitalist and a libertarian at heart; but what Amazon is doing is mercenary and illegal…or needs to be. Amazon is skirting the laws barring monopolies and participating in the perversion of our current capital markets, which have not been fixed since the 2008 crisis.  Amazon should be reigned in and broken up before its too late. We are literally letting one company destroy the fabric of our economy by rapidly destroying the retail industry in order to assure its own survival.

Many Amazon supporters claim that Walmart was guilty of many of the same things that Amazon is doing. I disagree. Sam Walton started with one store, limited access to capital and built has empire one store at a time. His success was based on profits and reinvesting those profits back into his company to buy more stores.

What Walton did was something available and accessible to all Americans. He had no special advantage or received no special treatment. Amazon currently has an advantage shared by only a handful of companies: unlimited access to capital. With this advantage, those few are literally laying waste to the American retailer and, to a greater extent, the personal liberty and equality of access inherent in free market choices.

Steve

sleeclark@gmail.com