Friday, August 01, 2008

The danger of paper profits

The unregulated financial organizations (UFOs) have one after the other stopped paying out monthly amounts to participants, starting with Cash Plus last year. What is even more evident is that many of the over 20 UFOs, identified by the FSC, seems to be “genetically” linked, leading to the collapse of many at one time. This no doubt has led to significant fall off in the income levels of many Jamaicans, and will no doubt affect industries such as the motor vehicle and real estate sectors.

I have been speaking with some people who have been severely affected by the fallout, as many have not only placed the great majority of their savings in these schemes, but also borrowed money to secure assets based on the income flow they expected to continue in perpetuity. The decision to rely on “risky” investments to maintain a lifestyle of course is one grounded in stupidity, as even if a risky investment is legitimate the fact that it is such a high risk means that one cannot prudently expect it to continue forever.

Foreign currency trading
I have always indicated that foreign currency trading is a well established trading activity, and people do make significant returns from trading currency. Within the global context, foreign exchange trading accounts for over US$2 Trillion traded daily, and is much larger than any single traditional investment type. On the other hand I have always been at pains to point out that there is a high degree of risk associated with this type of activity, and just as one wins big, one can lose big also. So even if high risk investments are regulated in many instances they will make huge losses and go out of business, causing much pain to those who have invested. In fact one legitimate hedge fund in the US last week reported that it was going out of business as it had lost some US$3.2 billion on oil longs when the price of oil futures significantly fell off.

There are of course methods that can be used to minimize losses but on average a hedge fund may last for around five years and then usually suffers significant losses because of its risky nature. The lesson though is that anyone who significantly upped their lifestyle based on risky returns should not only see a psychiatrist but also a neuro surgeon to see what part of their brain was not functioning when they made that decision.

The bigger picture for Jamaica though is that these returns were nothing more than paper profits. And the problem with paper profits is that there is no productive asset to back it up, so what it creates is a fall sense of wealth for the country with no productive base. As a country this is not a strange phenomenon for us, as in the 1990s because of a high interest rate policy we did create a “paper profit” economy also, which effectively killed the productive sector, and on its way helped to create that monstrosity we call FINSAC.

What paper profits do is that it creates a notional return that cannot be backed by the creation of any goods for consumption. So wealth is created by means of money on paper, and is unsupported by an increase in assets, which eventually leads to inflationary pressures. When these inflationary pressures are created it has the effect of either pushing up prices or in order to keep prices stable we will have to either (i) push up interest rates; (ii) borrow money to be able to buy more goods for consumption; or a combination of both. So when paper profits were being created by high rates of interest on government paper in the 1990s in order to prevent the inflationary pressures from pushing prices up we borrowed money to create an illusion that there was real stability when all the time we were only setting up ourselves for the pain that comes with debt repayment. This was not the result of any unregulated scheme, but was the design of legitimate government policy, which had the same effect as the collapse of the UFOs. The only difference was that in the 1990s taxpayers bailed out those that would have lost their investments and today those that invested directly will lose out.

Pyramid economy
So in the 1990s we created a regulated “pyramid economy”, which we are still suffering from today. The following simple example shows the effect that paper profits have on the economy.

1) Assume that the value of goods in the economy is at $100 and income levels are at $100, then there is a 1:1 relationship between goods and income.
2) We can also assume that the savings rate is 20%, so that $20 out of the total income of $100 is in savings accounts and $80 is used for consumption. So that the relationship between goods and income is $80 divided by $100, resulting in each unit of good being valued at $0.80.
3) If one invested in a piece of paper (government instrument or UFO) paying 10% per month, by using the savings of $20, then you would theoretically generate an additional $2 per month, and in a year one would generate an additional $24 of income ($2 times 12 months using simple interest for ease of calculation).
4) If this additional $24 goes into consumption then consumption income increases to $104.
the effect of this is:
a) The price of goods goes up, as no new goods are produced, as the returns are just based on paper profits. So price per unit moves from $0.80 to $1.04 ($104 / $100). In contrast if $24 worth of goods were created price would only go to $0.83 each.
b) There is no new investment in the economy as the savings, which in economics equals investments, is gone into paper.
c) Because the investment is in paper then what is being used to pay the investors are the savings of $20 and in addition $4 must be borrowed by the government or the pyramid to pay the investor. This will mean getting new monies in from new entrants, who are outside of the economy as the entire income of the country will have been used in consumption.

It is this effect that helped to create the financial crisis in the economy in the 1990s and that contributes to inflation, low productivity, and low economic growth. The positive from the fallout of the UFOs is that inflationary pressures will be eased, as the price of items such as motor vehicles and real estate will fall, as the total income falls and more goods are now available for consumption as the secondary market for goods grow. What it also means though is that growth will be negatively affected (the quantum to be determined) as there is less savings for investment purposes.

This dilemma is at the heart of Jamaica’s problem. It is the inability to grow productivity that has caused the lack of economic growth. In fact what we have seen is that productivity has been declining. Unless we can turn around this problem then there will be no meaningful growth and creation of real wealth. In the immediate future, with current global conditions, and our own local situation, the best bet for us is to reduce consumption activities especially in relation to energy. This of course means that fiscal measures will have to be a key ingredient of our near term economic strategy.

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