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Negative Interest Rates

  • MichaelMedici
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2 years 7 months ago #1 by MichaelMedici
Negative Interest Rates was created by MichaelMedici
Personally, I am absolutely fascinated by Negative Interest Rates.

I think this fascination stems from the fact that negative interest rates lie at the intersection of Macroeconomics and Behavioral Finance, which are two of my passions.

What I mean when I say negative interest rates are related to behavioral finance is that investors willingness to lend at negative interest rates seems to be counter intuitive and relies heavily on sentiment of investors rather than actual economic theory.

I think negative interest rates are to 2016 what MBS were to 2003-2017. It is the most misunderstood concept of the current market. And, as such, presents possibly the greatest opportunity to make money for those that truly understand it while others are trying to figure it out.

I've spent a decent amount of time thinking about negative interest rates and their implications, and was curious as to your thoughts on what I've essentially named the "double carry trade".

In a typical carry trade, one borrows at the risk free rate in one country, converts to another currency and invests, then converts back essentially earning a risk less profit (holding exchange rates constant).

The profit on this trade will be (IR country B - IR Country A - Appreciation in Currency A) * Notional Principal.

So, if Japan's IR is 1% and US IR is 3% and Ex rates are constant you will earn 3 -1 - 0 = 2%.

Now, what if interest rates are negative? It seems to follow, that if Japan's IR was -1% instead of 1%, you be getting paid to borrow AND be getting paid to lend, essentially earning carry on BOTH SIDES of the carry trade.

So you would borrow Yen at -1%, convert to USD, lend at 3%, convert back to Yen and collect your 1%.

The total return on this, barring Ex Rate change, would be 4%, double what it was in a typical carry trade.

And, given the current and projected monetary policy of both countries, it seems likely that the Yen will not be appreciating against USD, in fact, USD might appreciate against Yen earning you even more money on this trade.

So my question is, where is my logic off? I feel like I must be missing something on this trade. I've considered that futures prices would already have this baked in, but I wouldn't be using futures and instead would be accepting Exchange rate risk betting that the Yen does not depreciate.

So @eriktownsend and others, any thoughts?

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2 years 7 months ago #2 by JohnnyMac
Replied by JohnnyMac on topic Negative Interest Rates
I too have been fascinated by Negative Interest Rates and the relation between Behavioral Finance and Macro,

I've been mostly fascinated with the real world observations as humans react to central bank policy that you can't find in any economic text book. Japan goes negative. Japanese people buy safes. Europe goes negative. Large bank notes are banned. ect. It will be interesting as we go forward in a world of low economic growth how negative rates impact main street. One factor i'm particularly paying attention to is the demographic story. If retirees aren't getting a reasonable return on their accumulated savings where will they put all that cash? How will they vote when their standard of living gets slashed when inflation picks up? Without history to guide us, it it will interesting to see what happens.

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2 years 7 months ago #3 by ErikTownsend
Replied by ErikTownsend on topic Negative Interest Rates
Great topic, @MichaelMedici!

First, my only comment on your "double" carry trade is that everything is relative. I don't really see a profound difference in borrowing at -1% and investing in another market at 2% (meaning a 3% return) vs. borrowing at 2% and re-investing at 5%, also a 3% return. The carry trade works because the differential exists, and its profitability is measured by the extent of the differential. Whether or not one of the numbers happens to be negative doesn't strike me as particularly important.

On the other hand, I see a LOT of behavioral issues relating to negative rates and what they create incentive for. The biggest and most important one is the risk of a literal failure of the entire fractional reserve banking system after a world-wide bank run. That would take substantially negative rates, which we don't have yet, but that seems to be the direction. The risk is simply that as rates get substantially negative, the smartest actors withdraw their savings and store it in safe deposit boxes, home safes, or under a mattress. The system isn't designed to tolerate more than a very small % of assets being taken out of the banking system - that's the whole fractional reserve concept.

Of course if a national or global bank run started, regulators would halt it with withdrawal limits, banning cash, cash transaction fees, etc. But still, the notion that central bankers are experimenting with negative rates without first banning cash says to me they are playing with fire.

There are plenty of other oddball knock-on effects. Historically, the notion of shorting bonds has always been a short-term, tactical trade. After all when you sell bonds short, you become responsible for paying the interest, so it would never make sense to "short and hold"... Unless, that is, you're actually being PAID to be short! At current negative interest rates, the cost of maintaining the position still outweighs any "reverse carry cost" that you would be paid by receiving the negative yield. But who knows what could happen.

But perhaps most important is your own comment that investors' willingness to lend at negative rates is counter-intuitive and sentiment-reliant. What happens when the sentiment changes, investors wake up, and decide that if the "risk free" yield on treasuries is negative, it's no longer the most sensible risk-averse store of value? The whole reason Gold has been ridiculed by the mainstream for years is that "it produces no yield". That also means it cannot produce a negative yield! For now, the "barbaric relic" propaganda is winning the day, and the vast majority of institutional investors don't think of gold as a serious alternative to treasuries. How far negative does the T-Bond yield have to go before they wake up and change their tune? And when they do, what will it take to change their mind back again?

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2 years 7 months ago - 2 years 7 months ago #4 by bizkitgto
Replied by bizkitgto on topic Negative Interest Rates
> If retirees aren't getting a reasonable return on their accumulated savings where will they put all that cash?

This is what I am most interested in. Aside from following the crowd mentality, where is the safe place to go during a deflationary spiral? Gold?
Last edit: 2 years 7 months ago by bizkitgto.

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  • MichaelMedici
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2 years 7 months ago #5 by MichaelMedici
Replied by MichaelMedici on topic Negative Interest Rates
Retirees? How about Pensions.

One of the biggest trends i see over the next 30 years is improved health and longevity, for all ages. This includes retiree population. People will be living longer, no doubt. This, combined with the fact that birth rates are declining, and the largest generation in history is on the brink of retirement means that pension liabilities of these companies will be much larger than estimated.

How in the world are they going to continue to pay pension benefits when their expected return on fixed income assets is <3%. They're not.

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2 years 6 months ago #6 by MichaelMedici
Replied by MichaelMedici on topic Negative Interest Rates
So I've been working on familiarizing myself with the central bank policy of other countries and decided to take a look at Australia simply based on my interest in traveling there and their ties to energy related commodities.

I came across their yield curve and noticed it had an interesting shape, with the 3 YR and 4 YR rates being lower than their 2 YR rate.

I'm admittedly not as strong as yield curve analysis as other areas so I was hoping someone, possibly @eriktownsend, could explain why something like this would occur.

I know there are yield curve theories regarding investor preference for certain maturities, and my working theory is that investors are demanding more of 3 YR - 4 YR bonds, possibly because they do not believe they will be able to match the 1 year rate 2 years from now.

If anyone has any insight it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

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2 years 6 months ago - 2 years 6 months ago #7 by ErikTownsend
Replied by ErikTownsend on topic Negative Interest Rates
That's a fascinating question you pose @MichaelMedici, and I wish I knew a better answer. I'm not a yield curve guru myself, so I'm only guessing here. In general, I think you have the right idea - the dip in the curve makes sense when you consider how many countries around the world are moving toward negative short-term interest rates. So investors don't want to buy 1-year paper now and have to roll it into negative yielding paper a year from now. So instead they accept a lower yield on 2- or 3-year paper, to lock in "at lease SOME positive yield" over time time horizon they fear negative rates.

The only problem with that thesis is that the subsequent upslope in the chart you posted is pretty steep. So why are the investors who are accepting lower yields to lock in a 2- or 3-yr positive return not willing to buy the 10-yr maturity paper to get a better yield than they'd get on the 1-yr option? Presumably they think the situation will have changed and we'll be "back to normal interest rates" in far less than 10 years? If so I hope they're right but I'm not so optimistic. I suppose another explanation is they cannot tolerate the maturity risk because they need very low price vol?

Bottom line, I'm as puzzled as you are. If we get a guest on the show with the right background for this question, I'll pose it to them.

Last edit: 2 years 6 months ago by ErikTownsend.
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2 years 6 months ago #8 by bigqueue
Replied by bigqueue on topic Negative Interest Rates

bizkitgto wrote: > If retirees aren't getting a reasonable return on their accumulated savings where will they put all that cash?

This is what I am most interested in. Aside from following the crowd mentality, where is the safe place to go during a deflationary spiral? Gold?

Seems to me you need to do something productive that does NOT require / generate inventory. (which would lose value as it sits) So perhaps a productive service ...or I suppose a product with a very short supply chain.

In terms of "investing".....I am thinking that playing the spreads and some level of arbitrage is about it.....but again, there has to be some stability else you will get ground up akin to being thrown up against the rocks by ocean waves if you guess (plan) wrong. I don't think you will be alone....so the competition will be fierce and the yields thin.

BTW: In a deflationary spiral...it seems to me that cash preservation is enough to keep you ahead.....just having cash and not losing it (and by that I am thinking of it being taxed into oblivion) would be enough.

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2 years 5 months ago - 2 years 5 months ago #9 by Pepe le Moko
Replied by Pepe le Moko on topic Negative Interest Rates
I thought I would show what the actual negative interest rate issue is right now. We hear a lot about negative interest rates in Asia and Europe, but basically negative interest rates have just started in Europe. This is Japan:

Interest rates are frequently negative in Japan and were strongly negative for most of the seventies. It just doesn't seem to be an issue.

This is Germany:

As you can see they just went negative this year.

I pulled down a dataset from the ECB for this next one and hit plot. This is what is on the collective mind of the ECB:

If that doesn't prove something I don't know what would ;-)

This is a breakdown of euro-zone 10 year debt:

It is a little difficult to make out, but basically without Germany everybody is positive.

this is a blow-up of the last few years:

I got this data from here:

It sure doesn't look all that intimidating when you see it like this. The spread doesn't look right, but that is about it.
Last edit: 2 years 5 months ago by Pepe le Moko. Reason: oops! missspelled ECB

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2 years 5 months ago #10 by ErikTownsend
Replied by ErikTownsend on topic Negative Interest Rates
Fantastic charts, @pepe! Thanks so much for posting them!

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2 years 5 months ago - 2 years 5 months ago #11 by Pepe le Moko
Replied by Pepe le Moko on topic Negative Interest Rates
I think the entire idea of Spread is kind of confusing. The thread is about carry trade, but we don't consider "carry spread". Why is that? Banks of course are not limited to buying US treasury debt. They can and do buy all over the world.
This is the spread of AAA debt in Europe:

but if we look at the perceived yield of a 10 year bond we would see ... What? Something like this maybe:

That is to say, what yield ( in dollars) a US bank or private individual would see if they bought a "European" AAA bond.

I think I did that right. I subtracted the year-on-year change in EUR/USD from the average AAA 10 year bond in Europe. I get confused trying to track what an appropriate measure for this would be.
Last edit: 2 years 5 months ago by Pepe le Moko. Reason: incoherent statement

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2 years 5 months ago #12 by Pepe le Moko
Replied by Pepe le Moko on topic Negative Interest Rates
The more I think about it, it seems like it is more important to know the daily cost of the bond rather than the yield. How do I get that? I guess I could look at an index fund.

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2 years 5 months ago - 2 years 5 months ago #13 by Pepe le Moko
Replied by Pepe le Moko on topic Negative Interest Rates
Nominal versus "Real"

Thoughtful economists are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with traditional measures of inflation. What does it mean to "adjust for inflation"? I was going to write something here but Keith Weiner said it better.


Real vs. Nominal Interest Rates
August 9, 2016

What is the real interest rate? It is the nominal rate minus the inflation rate. This is a problematic idea. Let’s drill deeper into what they mean by inflation.

You can’t add apples and oranges, or so the old expression claims. However, economists insist that you can average the prices of apples, oranges, oil, rent, and a ski trip at St. Moritz. This is despite problems that prevent them from agreeing on what should be included.

One problem is that we no longer need buggy whips. If buggy whips had been in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) before the advent of the car, what do you do when it goes out of general use? Substitute driving gloves (which most people don’t use)?

Another problem is that cars are vastly superior today than they were 50 years ago. Having had a chance to drive a classic 1965 Mustang with drum brakes, I can tell you it was scary to drive on the highway at 55 mph. I didn’t dare drive it faster, as the stopping distance felt like it would probably be half a mile. But, of course, every car on the road was whizzing past me at +20mph. Cars today cost more. How much do we attribute to inflation, and how much to the fact that they are better and contain many more gadgets?

Worse still, the process of determining which items to include in CPI is politicized. Pensioners and union workers want CPI to rise as much as possible, because their income is tied to it. Pension fund managers want CPI to rise as little as possible, because their obligation is tied to it. Government officials also want a low CPI, as high inflation may be viewed as a measure of their mismanagement of the economy.

Finally, the effort to calculate the cost of living assumes that we can agree on what living means. To some, it may mean a rural lifestyle, cooking simple meals in a paid-off trailer. To others it may mean a rented urban rent loft, eating at hip foodie restaurants every night. To a large group of baby boomers, it means owning a large house, driving a BMW, and sending the kids to private school.

The very theory of measuring the CPI as an indicator of inflation is flawed. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the government from compiling a CPI, and helpfully providing it to the economics and finance professions.

One use for the CPI is to adjust the interest rate. Let’s look at how this works.

There is an actual rate at which actual lenders actually lend and actual borrowers actually borrow. Most days, the government conducts billions of dollars of transactions at this rate. Private parties conduct billions more.

So in keeping with the Orwellian character of our era, we’ll call this price observed in the market, the nominal rate.

Economists adjust this nominal rate. Guess what you get, if you subtract the CPI from the nominal rate of interest.

The real interest rate.

Got that? The nominal rate is the real market price and the real rate is when you subtract a controversial construct.

I often think that modern monetary economics has no redeeming virtue. However, whenever I think that’s too harsh, I come across a notion like real vs. nominal rates.
Last edit: 2 years 5 months ago by Pepe le Moko. Reason: goofed up the link

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2 years 4 months ago - 2 years 4 months ago #14 by Pepe le Moko
Replied by Pepe le Moko on topic Negative Interest Rates
I have been contemplating the negative interest rate puzzle for a few weeks. This is from a few months ago, but it seems to hit all the high points:

Tuesday, June 07, 2016
The Money Cult

Previously, I have written about the progression from positive interest rates to zero interest rates (since 2008) and finally to negative interest rates. And I asked my readers a simple question: How will negative interest rates blow up the financial system? And apparently none of you knew the answer. Now, I must confess that to start with I didn’t know the answer either, which is why I asked the question, and my first attempts at finding it were somewhat tentative. But now, having thought about it, I do seem to have found the answer, and it is that…

But first let us back up a bit and answer several preliminary questions:

1. Why did zero interest rates become necessary?
2. Why are negative interest rates now necessary? and,
3. Why are negative interest rates a really excellent idea?*

* if you ignore certain unintended consequences (which is what everyone does all the time, so let’s not worry about them just yet).

1. Interest rates went to zero because economic growth went to zero. If you are just now wondering why that happened, just google “Limits to Growth” by clicking this link. (A public notice about the scheduled end of growth has been on display at your global planning office for four decades now. It is not anyone else’s fault if people of this planet don’t take an interest in their global affairs. I mean, seriously…)

Interest rates and rates of growth are related: a positive interest rate is little more than a bet that the future is going to be bigger and more prosperous, enabling people to pay off the debts with interest. This is an obvious point: if your income increases, it becomes easier to repay your debts; if it stagnates, it becomes harder; if it shrinks, it eventually becomes impossible.

Yes, you can nitpick and split hairs, and claim that there was still some growth, but in the developed economies most of this growth has been in financial shenanigans, fueled by an explosion in debt, and most of the benefits of this last bit of growth accrued to the wealthiest 1%, and did next to nothing for anyone else. Did this growth help support a large, stable and prosperous middle class? No, it didn’t.

In fact, wages in the US, which was once the world’s largest economy, have been stagnant for generations. In response, the Federal Reserve has been continuously reducing interest rates, until they hit zero in 2008. And there they have stayed ever since. But now, it turns out, that’s not good enough. If the Federal Reserve wants to keep the party going, they have to do more, because…

2. Once you are faced with a continuously shrinking economy, just holding interest rates at zero is not sufficient to forestall financial collapse. The interest rates must go negative.

Here are just a couple of particularly striking examples.

Australia has amassed a huge pile of debt—over 120% of GDP—and most of it is mortgage debt on overvalued real estate. Now that Australia’s economy, which was driven by commodity exports to China, has tanked, a lot of this debt is being turned into interest-only loans, because Australians no longer have the money to repay any of the principal. But what if they can’t make the interest payments either? The obvious solution is to refinance their mortgages as interest-only at zero percent; problem solved! Of course, as conditions deteriorate further, the Australians will become unable to afford taxes and utilities. Negative interest rates to the rescue! Refinance them again at a negative rate of interest, and now the banks will pay them to live in their overpriced houses.

Another example: energy (oil and gas) companies in the US have accumulated a fantastic pile of debt. All of this money was sunk into developing marginal and very expensive resources such as shale oil and deep offshore. Since then, energy prices have fallen, making all of these investments unprofitable and dramatically reducing revenue. As a result, energy companies in the US are a few months away from having to spend their entire revenue on interest payments. The solution, of course, is to allow them to roll over their debt at zero percent, and if you want them to ever start drilling again (their production has been falling by around 10% annualized) then please make that interest rate negative.

3. Are you starting to see how this works? Whereas before you had to be careful about taking on debt, and had to have a plan for how you will repay it, with negative interest rates that is simply not a consideration. If your debt pays you, then more debt is always better than less debt. It no longer matters that the economy continuously shrinks because now you can get paid just for twiddling your thumbs!

But are there any unintended consequences of negative interest rates? Unintended consequences are hard to think about, and most people get a headache even trying. How can it be that clean, plentiful nuclear energy will eventually pollute the whole planet with long-lived radionuclides, resulting sky-high cancer rates? How can it be that wonderful genetically modified seeds will render us sickly and infertile in just a few generations? And how can it be that ingenious mobile computing technology has turned our children into zombies who are constantly twiddling their smartphones as they sleepwalk through life? It’s hard to think about any of this without taking some happy pills; and how can it be that taking those happy pills has… you get the idea.

The unintended consequence of negative interest rates is that they destroy money. This is true in an entirely trivial sense: if you deposit x dollars at -ρ% annual, then a year later you will only have x(1-ρ) dollars because xρ dollars has been destroyed. (In case you prefer to count on your fingers and toes, if you deposit $10 at -10% annual, then a year later you will only have $9 because $1 has been destroyed.) But what I mean is something slightly more profound: negative interest rates erode the very concept of money.

To get at the reason for this, we have to ask a slightly more profound question: What is money? I think that money is the cult of the god Mammon. Look at the following symbols:

€ $ ¥ £

Don’t they resemble religious symbols? In fact, that’s what they are: they are symbols of faith in money. They are also units—dimensionless units, of a peculiar kind. There are quite a few dimensionless units in math and science, such as π, e, %, ppm, but they are all ratios that relate physical quantities to other, identical, physical quantities. They are dimensionless because the units cancel out. For instance, π is the ratio between a circle’s circumference and diameter; length over length gives nothing. But monetary quantities do not directly relate to any physical quantity at all. It can be said that some number of monetary units (let's call them "yarbles") is equivalent to some number of turnips, but that, you see, is a matter of faith. Should the turnip farmer turn out to be an unbeliever, he would be within his rights to say, “I am not taking any of your damn yarbles!” or, if he were a polite turnip farmer, “Your money is no good here, Sir!”

Of course, if our turnip farmer were to do that, he’d land in quite a bit of trouble because, you see, the cult of Mammon is a state cult. You have no choice but to be a believer, because only by worshiping Mammon can you earn the money to pay your taxes, and if you don’t pay your taxes you get jailed. Nor can you produce money on your own, because that right is reserved for Mammon’s high priests, the bankers. Making your own money makes you a heretic, and gets you the modern equivalent of being burned at the stake, which is a $250,000 fine and a 20-year prison sentence.

But it goes beyond that, because the state insists that just about everything there is must be valued in units of its money. And the way everything must be valued is through a mystical legitimizing process that is central to the cult of money: Mammon’s “invisible hand” makes itself apparent within the “free market,” which is Mammon's virtual temple. The “invisible hand” sets the price of everything as a mystical revelation and, as with any revelation, it is beyond criticism. It is a redemptive ritual, in which people acting out of their basest, most antisocial instincts—greed and fear—manage, through Mammon's divine intervention, to serve the common good. The “free market” is also believed to have all sorts of miraculous properties, and as with all miracles it is all a matter of smoke and mirrors and suspension of disbelief. For example, the “free market” is said to be “efficient.” But it sets the price of turnips, and the result is that fully 40% of the food in the US ends up being wasted. That’s definitely not efficient.

This sort of inefficiency can be tolerated while resources are plentiful. Should throwing away 40% of the turnips cause a shortage of turnips develop, turnip producers can grow more turnips and sell them at prices that turnip consumers can still afford. But when resources are no longer plentiful, this trick stops working, and what you end up with is something called market failure. The current state of the global oil industry is a good example: either the price is so high that marginal consumers cannot afford it (as was the case until quite recently), or the price is so low that the marginal producers can’t break even (as is the case now).

And so a bout of supply destruction follows a bout of demand destruction, and then the pattern repeats. Everybody loses, plus this is terribly inefficient. It would be far more efficient to appoint some central planner to calculate the optimum price of oil once a month. Then all the marginal producers would jump out the window, all the marginal consumers would slit their wrists, and equilibrium conditions would prevail. As the oil supply dwindled (it is depleting at around 5% per year), some additional number of producers and consumers would need to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, and so on until the last barrel is produced and burned, leaving whatever producers and consumers still remained lying in pools of their own blood.

As natural resources dwindle, our faith in the cult of Mammon is being sorely tested. But what alternatives are there? Well, there is an even older, ancient cult that’s based on idolatry: the worship of precious metals. Gold has some industrial and aesthetic uses, but it is primarily useful for making a golden calf for you to worship (or, if you are former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, a golden toilet). Economists tell us that gold is a “pet rock” or a “barbarous relic,” and they are right, but what is one to do when there is a Götterdämmerung (twilight of the gods) going on? Nature abhors a vacuum, and in a Götterdämmerung older pagan deities sometimes emerge and demand virgin sacrifices—such as poisoning entire river ecosystems by mining gold using mercury, or squandering prodigious amounts of fossil fuels in mining, crushing and sifting through millions of tons of hard rock to get at just 3 parts per million of gold.

Negative interest rates are Mammon’s Götterdämmerung. The money cult is bolstered by the idea that its huge and all-powerful deity will be even more huge and all-powerful tomorrow; if the opposite is demonstrably the case, then people’s faith in it begins to falter and fade. Negative interest rates are like an icy-cold bath for Mammon, causing its godhead to shrink a little more with every dip. People see that, and think, “I don’t want to worship his shrinking yarbles.” Then they go and spend their own yarbles on anything they can find—fallow land, vacant houses, golden calves, boxes of brass knobs... They don’t bother investing their yarbles in growing turnips, because what’s the use of turnips if all you can do with them is sell them for even more shrinking yarbles?

Negative interest rates are an excellent idea—and perhaps the only way to keep the financial game going a bit longer—but, given these unintended consequences, they are also a terrible idea. The bankers know that. They want to preserve their cult’s status, and constantly talk about raising interest rates. But they haven’t yet, because they also know that just a small increase will result in trillions of dollars of losses, triggering widespread business failures and ushering in the Greatest Great Depression Ever. This is not a problem for them to solve; this is a predicament. They will delay and pray, and make pronouncements loaded with keywords designed to please the high-frequency trading algorithms that are in charge of artificially levitating the “free market” with judiciously timed injections of “free money.” But in the end all they can do is act brave, wait for a distraction and then… run for the exits!

And your job is to make it to the exits before they do.

Dimitry Orlov is a funny and perceptive guy. I am never quite sure if he is serious or just making fun of us or maybe he is not sure himself. In any case he would make a great interview.
Last edit: 2 years 4 months ago by Pepe le Moko.

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