albert edwards economy Markets

Albert Edwards: ‘This Is Exactly What The Ice Age End-Game Always Was’

"The veil is finally being lifted".

“This is exactly what the Ice Age end-game always was”, Albert Edwards writes, in his latest weekly missive.

If Edwards has been “early” over the course of his career, he’s been right on time when it comes to the world’s decisive pivot to overt (as opposed to covert) debt monetization.

Back in February, Edwards said “The Ice Age” (his long-standing thesis describing western markets’ date with deflation) was near its end. We are, he said, on the verge of transitioning to “The Great Melt”, which will be catalyzed by the adoption of helicopter money (or some derivation thereof) across the developed world. The policy response to the pandemic sealed the deal.

Read more: ‘The Great Melt’ Is Coming. But ‘Outright Deflation’ Is Here Now

I’ve argued that the supposed distinction between helicopter money and debt monetization is meaningless in a world where QE is calibrated almost precisely to the size of the government’s borrowing needs.

At the same time, note that the complete unwind of central bank balance sheets (i.e., “total normalization”) is a distant prospect at best, and impossible at “worst”. Even if, at some point years from now, central banks do allow assets to mature without reinvesting the principal, equities don’t “mature”. That means the BoJ would have to become an active seller in a “full normalization” scenario. That’s actually not “impossible” in a mechanical sense, but it probably is in the sense that it would upend markets. If other central banks follow Japan down the road to buying stocks, the same quandary will present itself in other locales.

In any case, the point is that what you see in the visual is not going to be unwound. Not fully, anyway.

As a quick aside, some folks pointed recently to a decline in the Fed’s balance sheet and attempted to make a connection between that and a fleeting wobble in US equities two Thursdays ago.

I certainly hope most readers are apprised of why that is not a good argument. In the top pane is the bar chart which served as fodder for a couple of misleading Fed takes.

The bottom pane shows you why this is nothing to be “concerned” about (i.e., nothing that should shake anyone’s faith in the notion that the Fed is determined to support risk assets).

The decline was largely due to a drop in swaps, as the dollar liquidity crunch which necessitated the enhancement and expansion of swap lines has now abated. It’s also possible folks were making room for other kinds of cheap funding (e.g., TLTROs across the pond). The point is: The drop in swaps is actually a good thing to the extent it reflects less stress.

Getting back to the matter at hand, SocGen’s Edwards quotes his colleague Kit Juckes who, in a note dated June 16, wrote the following:

As for the Fed, what concerns is me is that of the reasons I can think of for extending QE, only one makes sense now. The original case for QE was that if private sector investors are too cautious, putting their money only in ‘safe’ assets, then the central bank can/should crowd them out of those and into something more useful. That made sense during the financial crisis, but risk aversion isn’t today’s problem. Another argument for QE is that, in tandem with low/negative rates, it can deliver a weaker currency, as it has at times for the ECB and BOJ. But the US economy is less open than either of these. The third argument for QE is that it can spread the cost of the fiscal reaction to the current pandemic over many years. That’s an argument made by BOE Governor Andrew Bailey. But why go through the charade of buying bonds in the market, providing an incentive for companies to issue debt and buy back more equity. And sending share prices to unstable levels? Partnering with government to provide short-term cash to stressed households and companies makes more sense. The current policy will weaken the dollar over time, but that’s not a policy goal, even if it’s important for the FX market!

Regular readers will note that this is, to my mind, one of the most pressing economic questions of our time.

When Juckes asks, “Why go through the charade of buying bonds in the market, providing an incentive for companies to issue debt and buy back more equity…sending share prices to unstable levels?”, the answer from my perspective is “We shouldn’t”. That charade is the proximate cause for many of the undesirable side effects of QE.

Of course, the term “undesirable” depends on who you are in this equation. If you’re capital, that arrangement is just fine, as it makes you richer. If, on the other hand, you’re labor, it means that trillions in digitally-conjured dollars ostensibly meant to bolster your economic prospects instead end up trapped on what amounts to a carousel of inequality creation, with only a fraction trickling down to the real economy.

The idea is simply to cut out the middleman by having the central bank coordinate directly with the government, as opposed to the central bank buying the government’s bonds from a third party. Once you do that, you open the door for money we’re printing anyway to directly fund fiscal forays that would bolster the economic prospects of the lower- and middle-class via generous initiatives, whether it’s something as “radical” as free college or something that has broader appeal and bipartisan support, such as a massive infrastructure program.

Getting back to Edwards, he reiterates a point he’s made on countless occasions — namely that in its current incarnation, the “only effective transmission mechanism for QE to stimulate the economy” is through driving down one’s own currency. In that regard, he suggests that to the extent yield-curve control (YCC) actually ends up entailing less in the way of asset purchases (e.g., the “stealth taper” in Japan), implementing YCC could amount to shooting oneself in the foot.

Regardless, Albert notes that the US, like Australia, is on track to follow the Japanese down the road to YCC. In addition, America is poised to follow in Japan’s footsteps on the path to huge government debt piles that are effectively monetized by a central bank which corners the market, enabling ever more borrowing.

And that brings us neatly to the concluding passage from Edwards’s latest missive.

“I have consistently said that Japan leads the way, not just in their own Ice Age unfolding a full decade before the west, but in terms of policy”, he writes, adding the following:

Hence, I note that the must-read Heisenberg Report picked up on the comments coming out of the BoJ about the need for close cooperation between the monetary and fiscal authorities being essential – very much in line with Kit’s comments above.

The comments he references are these:

Edwards continues:

And this is exactly what the Ice Age end-game always was. ‘Co-operation’ here is a euphemism for full blown monetization of the government deficit. The end game is in sight as we transition to The Great Melt. The veil is finally being lifted and once again, Japan leads the way.


Read more: ‘Creeping Into The Unconventional’ And Why Everything You Thought You Knew Is Wrong

15 comments on “Albert Edwards: ‘This Is Exactly What The Ice Age End-Game Always Was’

  1. You must’ve been pretty happy about the call out by Edward’s at the end of his note.

  2. Really good Post H………Edwards is so intuitively logical… The disconnect (even after two readings) comes from the fact that we are in a box canyon and the alternatives are appearing unworkable… I think these scenarios have occurred in History before and the World didn’t come to an end so I conclude it is workable….by default that is !?

  3. However Cooperation is anything but in the lexicon of the right wing of our country. If no cooperation, what then?

    Additionally Japan’s manupulations are not done in a vacuum. What happens different if the largest economy heads down an equivalent path? Is the outcome the same?

    Some questions I suggest cannot be answered.

  4. I really like this thought provoking article. It exercises my neurons.

  5. What he foresees and what MMT advocate seem congruent. D Price makes a good point, can it be equivalent to Japan. I have been telling people for years we are turning Japanese, but can we remain reserve currency also.
    May not matter.

    • I suspect that we remain the reserve currency as long as we are the ones with globe spanning military power projection capabilities and a navy which dominates the oceans. In many ways the USD reserve status is just fancy Tribute payments to the empire who maintains sufficient order for commerce. Once that goes away the status gets a lot less stable but keep it in place and I am guessing MMT will just be the path everyone takes.

      • Recent military action in Libya which scales were tipped by Turkish hardware is one data point indicating major changes in military hardware are a coming and may tip balance away from major economies much like the AK-47 has.

  6. Congratulations, Heisenberg! Great shout-out by Edwards to you there.

  7. This is really not such new stuff. Keynes argued that the most effective use of monetary policy was when it was combined with government spending/fiscal deficits to stimulate the economy out of a depression. And Edwards’ posts see things correctly- if this is done correctly, it should make nominal growth pick up. If nominal growth takes off, and employment and incomes grow faster than the accumulation of debt down the road, Debt/GDP declines. This happened after WW2. It can happen again. But the burden is really on the fiscal side of things. Will the Congress and President backstop low and moderate income folks with progressive programs such as univeral health care, aid to states and localities, increased aid to education, infrastructure spending and increased minimum wages and earned income credits? Not likely right now but there is always Novermber – maybe? Low to moderate income folks spend their aid- upper income save more of it. Most bang for the fiscal buck this way, and this will address the poor income distribution currently around.

  8. congrats on the well deserved acknowledgement !

  9. Very impressive, Prof H

  10. the “only effective transmission mechanism for QE to stimulate the economy” is through driving down one’s own currency. In that regard, he suggests that to the extent yield-curve control (YCC) actually ends up entailing less in the way of asset purchases (e.g., the “stealth taper” in Japan), implementing YCC could amount to shooting oneself in the foot.

    I wonder how the above paragraph squares with Ray Dalio’s earlier account of how YCC helped tame debt after WW2 in conjunction with inflation?

  11. Albert Edwards is 100% right, the Heisenberg Report is a must read, come Ice Age or Melt Down.

  12. Anonymous

    The great melt will not be kind to long duration assets………..

    It is all just a giant ponzi scheme.

    We never address the core problems.

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