This post first appeared on 8percentpa.substack.com. We also provide for monthly investment ideas for paid subscribers.
The last few months saw the spectacular collapses of financial institutions across different sectors and geographies starting with FTX, the crypto-exchange that was a fraud. Sooner than we know, Silicon Valley Bank went into trouble and Credit Suisse needed to be bailed out by its arch-rival UBS. These crises are still unfolding as the repercussions are being felt worldwide. In this post, we hope to highlight the dangers involved and hopefully provide some differentiated advice for investors at the end of the post as we walk through how global financial system came to the current dire situation today based my understanding.
1. In Government We Trust
The modern global financial system today is built on trust. Before that, we used gold. Trust is not easily earned. Bank runs used to be a thing even in Singapore and my grandparents and parents did not put monies in banks until recent times but kept them under their pillows and cookie tins in their homes. My mum still do this today.
From the end of WWII to the 1970s, the financial system was pegged to gold in what was called the Bretton Woods system. The system dictated that all currencies were pegged to the USD and the USD was pegged to gold at USD35 per ounce. This was supposedly sacrosanct and built on centuries of human’s adoration for gold but it came to an end when the US government overspent on the Vietnam War and governments around the world abandoned the pegs which subsequently cumulated in Bretton Woods’ collapse in 1976.
Since then, our currencies are backed by nothing except the promises from governments of the world that the currencies they issued are worth something. Technology then connected the global financial systems via computers and later the internet in the 1980s and the 1990s. This allowed for global transactions to take pace with major banks in their respective countries as the gatekeepers. To summarize, the global financial system today stands on:
i) the trust in our governments and financial institutions
ii) the global interconnected financial web with banks as key intermediaries
2. Financial Web & Contagion
The interconnectedness of this global financial web brings about problems because the whole network is only as strong as the weakest link. Trust is easily broken (which is usually the case) and banks as well as other financial institutions can fail. In the late 1990s, it was believed that a hedge fund called LTCM would cause the collapse of the global financial system if it went bust. The Fed engineered a rescue to prevent that doomsday scenario from playing out. Then in 2008-09, the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) saw how the fall of Lehman Brothers almost brought the whole system down.
Lehman's bankruptcy in September 2008 triggered the acceleration of the GFC which led to AIG, the insurer going under, forcing the Fed to take over the firm. A few days later, money markets and credit funds saw unprecedented withdrawals which again forced the Fed to underwrite everything that people wanted to sell. US Congress authorising a USD700bn fund to buy toxic assets finally stabilized the ship. It was believed that if the Fed and the US government did not use the fund to backstop, the global financial system would collapse. Thousands of banks would fail, just like they did during the Great Depression and unemployment could hit 30%. Millions could be homeless and starve.
It was Armageddon avoided.
But the negative impact still reverberated into Europe causing the economic crisis in Greece, Italy and Iceland. Icelandic banks did go down and required IMF’s intervention. China responded by creating a CNY4trn economic stimulus package which subsequently led to other issues. Lehman’s collapse also hit Asia with the now infamous Lehman mini-bonds hurting retail investors in Hong Kong and Singapore. Retirees invested their life savings with banks that they opened their first and lifetime accounts into these financial products thinking that their monies were safe!
Breaking the weakest link can create contagion across the global system that could bring about the end of modern finance as some believed. Today, we have different pockets of failure that is threatening the system yet again.
Armed with experiences above, powers at be today know that they have to stop contagion because the whole system is built on trust and the system can collapse when the weakest link breaks and brings everything down with it. This is why the US will insure all deposits in all banks big and small and why the Swiss National Bank forced UBS to buy Credit Suisse. There can be no contagion.
3. Unintended Consequences
Despite the best of intentions, we may not be able to prevent all unintended consequences. The Fed chose to save Merrill Lynch and not Lehman Brothers back in 2008 because they believed they could handle the aftermath of Lehman going down as it was smaller. Today, we face similar issues. Credit Suisse chose to gave up on AT1 bondholders which could be disastrous (we will come back to this). FTX’s debacle indirectly led to the issues at Silicon Valley Bank which then impacted Signature and First Republic Bank. Both are in trouble now.
Most of the time, danger lurks in places no one is looking at. No one heard about Silicon Valley Bank until a few weeks ago. Who knows what can go wrong next? Back to Credit Suisse’s AT1 bonds, this is a special type of bonds that is a hybrid between equity and debt. They came about after the GFC to allow banks to issue this special type of instrument to beef up their balance sheet. They were known as co-co bonds back then. Co-co comes from contingency convertible bonds. They provide investors with higher interest (at c.6-9%) but will convert to equity when things go rough.
AT1 or coco-bonds ranked higher than equity but ranked junior to all other debt (see above). But still, they are debt. All finance students know that equity goes to zero first before debt is impacted. But in Credit Suisse’s case, the Swiss decided to write down AT1 to zero but a lifeline is provide to equity holders, turning finance rules on their heads. As such, the USD260bn global AT1 market is going down globally. AT1 is mainly held by Asian investors and banks from Stanchart, HSBC to Japanese banks are seeing their share prices collapsing.
4. How to Navigate from here?
With market valuations still high (see previous post in Dec 2022) and the current woes still ongoing, we are definitely not out of the woods, in fact, we are deep in the forest with no exit path in sight. It is not the time to buy anything. I would sell before buying. Investment ideas should be very well studied which reminds me of my mother’s nagging during school days. The best ideas should then be bought with prudence at a 2-3% or max 5% position of the portfolio each, making sure everything is diversified. But the more important diversification is about putting investments with different intermediaries (or different cookie tins if you like) i.e. different brokers and banks because you do not know if they might go down some day. No one thought Credit Suisse would fail last year.
I think this could be the important takeaway for today. It is a simple rule that has been forgotten over time as the global financial system evolved and we put so much trust into old and new entities without doubt. Back in the days when money in the bank isn’t as safe, my mum (yup her again) would diversify and split her savings into various banks and simply hold fixed deposits and no other types of financial investments. As mentioned, she would also keep some cash at home and buy gold and tangible assets of value.
Today we mindlessly buy structured products thinking they are safe (like Lehman’s mini-bonds) and invest in Bitcoin via exchanges with no proven track record. Maybe moms do know best even in investing and finance!
To end this post, here’s mom’s list of advice:
i) Study your ideas well
ii) Diversify your funds across banks and brokers
iii) Don’t buy structured products, just go for the simplest stuff like T-bills, stocks and fixed deposits
iv) Buy gold and tangible assets of value
v) Cash on hand is king!