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Has Monopoly forecast a new GFC?

14 October 2016
There is a big storm brewing for house prices and the global economy. The best way to look at it is by thinking about the board game Monopoly.

At the beginning of a game, people can’t always afford to buy the properties they land on. Mayfair looks pretty expensive at $400. Over time things change. You pass Go a few times, maybe you win second prize at a beauty contest, collecting $10, and the amount of money in circulation goes up.

Properties left on the board start looking cheap — and then all of a sudden your sister is demanding $900 to onsell you the rights to Old Kent Road and you know if you say no the price will only go up even more.

This is also how asset prices work in reality. The more money in circulation, the higher asset prices go. And the world is awash with money right now. There has never been so much money chasing so few good assets.

If you’ve tried to buy a house in Sydney or London, or if you’ve tried to buy shares in Google, you have seen the influence of loose global monetary policy. Prices of commercial real estate and government bonds are also frightening the horses.

Looser and looser monetary policy has been a feature of the Australian economy since 2010. That means more money sloshing round in the local economy. It is intended to boost the real economy, and it does, somewhat. But a big side effect is rising asset prices.

The long run of cuts means plenty of young asset managers have had very fruitful careers without ever having to experience an Australian interest rate hike.

It is not just Australia. Since the GFC, the whole developed world has had low interest rates. The USA got interest rates to zero and then started pumping yet more money into the economy. Interest rates are currently below zero in Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, etc.

Credit is out there in massive quantities, pumping up the prices of stocks, houses and bonds all over the world. It is possible the global economy will manage to deal with this just fine. But plenty of experts see things differently. Warnings have been sounded time and again — by central banks, economics professors and Nobel laureates.

My favourite warning comes from the Bank of International Settlements — the central bank for central banks. They speak of impending disaster in a typically dry style:

“The benefits of unusually easy monetary policies may appear quite tangible, especially if judged by the response of financial markets; the costs, unfortunately, will become apparent only over time and with hindsight.”

What happens when the loose monetary policy ends? There is no equivalent example in the game of Monopoly — probably because it wouldn’t be much fun.

We may be about to find out just how sour the process will be in reality. The USA is looking at tightening monetary policy very soon.

The US Federal Reserve first lifted interest rates from years and years at zero last December. Notably the hike was followed by a sharp fall in share prices — exactly what you’d expect given the link from monetary policy to asset prices. Shares bounced back until it looked likely the next rate cut was in the offing, then got wobbly again.

It is potentially going to raise rates again. Australia’s RBA has also shifted position, hinting, for now, no more rate cuts are needed. Eventually rates could rise at home as well.

The impact of this tighter monetary policy is easy to see when it comes to individual homeowners: some will tighten their belts and pay the higher mortgage rate. Others won’t be able make it and may need to sell up at a time when prices look less than impressive. That can spark a vicious cycle.

The same kind of process is likely to affect every asset type, all over the world. And many of these assets have been bought with cheap borrowed money. Debt is rising all over the world, just as it is in Australia.
If this debt has to be paid back when the prices of the assets have fallen, we’re back where the whole GFC started — with oversized debt on some pretty ordinary assets. Except this time it’s not just some houses in Florida. It covers pretty much the whole world.
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