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Peak collateral – a strange attraction

I wonder if we are reaching what we might call ‘Peak Collateral’?  That state when the creation of assets, which the market will accept as collateral, is insufficient to sustain the demand for credit.

It’s funny isn’t it, how the terms we use, or are encouraged to use, have such an influence on how an analysis unfolds. So much of the eventual conclusion is already encoded in them. Especially the terms we are encouraged to choose as our starting place. Our leaders and the bankers have been so very concerned that every analysis begin and end with liquidity. But I think it is becoming clearer by the month that collateral is a more revealing term.

When Lehman Brothers and AIG collapsed was it just a shortage of liquidity? No of course not. That’s like saying a man with the plague died of a high temperature. Certainly he had a temperature when he died but it was a symptom not a cause. Both Lehmans and AIG were running out of collateral and without collateral for the oxygen of repo and short term funding, they began to suffocate. Once those two began to choke, the money ran out for others. The collapse of Depfa and Hypo in Germany/Ireland, for example, was a direct result of them not being able to get the funding they relied upon from their sugar-daddy funder, AIG. That created a domino effect. AIG had run out of assets that it could pledge as collateral. It could not raise money that it could then use to lend to HYPO/Depfa. Hypo in turn had such poor assets they too had little or no chance of anyone accepting them as collateral.

It seems to me we are moving back to a similar situation.  You might ask, out of sheer exasperation, how it could be, given all the tough talk and all the new requirements for capital and risk management? How, after all the bailing outs and now ins, all the endless and global QE, all the new rules and capital buffers, that we do not seem to have really got anywhere?

The image that comes to my mind is of the strange attractors which govern the lives of any non-linear system. And global finance is certainly made of many such non-linear systems.

This is the Lorenz attractor that governs convection in liquids and is thus one of the attractors which makes our weather both unpredictable and relatively stable. And it is this unpredictability within parameters which is one hall-mark of non-linearity.

Within an attractor, trajectories appear to jump around, taking hair-pin turns, reversing and re-reversing without warning, or rhyme or reason. Yet for all their unpredictability they are always orbiting within the shape of the attractor. The attractor is simply a map of all the possible states the system can be in. Each point on the attractor is the state of the entire system at one moment.

It turns out that non-linear systems which are massively unpredictable from moment to moment, are nevertheless still bounded. Map all the possible states the system can be in, and you find a shape. That shape is the attractor. All the system’s many states exist within its bounds. Every trajectory, no matter how alarming in its twists and turns, collapses and recoveries, is some complex orbit within this shape – this attractor. And this, I think, is what we have been following for the last 5 years since that first set of dislocations occurred – another orbit of the attractor we have never left nor attempted to alter or escape from.

Our political leaders and their financial masters have made it clear that they will not really countenance any real change to the system. They were always willing to talk of ‘better’ rules or ‘tighter’ regulations but never of systemic changes. And thus, I would argue, nothing that has been done has changed the underlying nature of the global financial system nor, therefore, of the attractor or coupled attractors which govern it. We, therefore, have been careening round the same attractor as before, mistaking the gyrations and permutations inherent in it, for  signs of change.

Every attractor has a central region where the non-linearity resides. In the Lorenz attractors it is on the central saddle. For the last 5 years we have simply been passing through this region and being flung about as we did so.

Of course a system like the financial one is not governed by a single attractor. There are surely many. I am interested in the role and trajectory of ‘collateral’.

There are conflicting forces pushing and pulling at the route collateral takes. On the one hand everyone is desperate for yield. They want assets which give as high a return as they can find and that generally means assets that are unsafe and full of risk. Such assets are lucrative but, because they are risky, are not easily pledged as collateral themselves, and in fact require a lot of regulatory capital (other assets) held against them.

On the other hand, the same people who want risky assets,  also want assets which are as AAA safe as possible. These are not lucrative themselves but can be used as collateral for short term funding and/or as regulatory capital against the riskier assets.

The more risky the assets you have, the higher your VaR (Value at Risk) and your Counterparty Risk ( the risk that you may lose money because the  businesses to whose fortunes you are linked, via you assets, may themselves lose money)  which are two of the main things that determines how much regulatory capital you need to find and hold.

You may well look at these two conflicting desires and wonder what the problem is. Surely it is just a matter of a prudent balance which can be adjusted as times and needs change? And of course you are right. In the ‘normal’ course of events one person wants to re-balance in one direction, another the other way and the market is there to facilitate.

Two problems arise however when times are not normal. And ours are not.

That neat notion of the market facilitating people wanting to re-balance one way or another presupposes that people’s needs are evenly distributed. Some need more risk others less, some more collateral others less. But what happens to this happy picture if everyone has too many risky assets and wants fewer, all at the same time? Or when everyone wants solid assets to hold as collateral all at the same time? The market is useless at those times because the market is only the pairing of seller and buyer. If there is no balance then there is no market. The invisible hand becomes palsied.

What people really want is assets that are both high yielding and safe enough to pledge as collateral. And where there is a desire the market will provide. And what it provides, seen from the outside, is a bubble. A bubble of unreasoning and unreasonable exuberant make-believe that something that is risky is also safe.

In 2007 risky and lucrative but still safe and pledge-able was mortgage backed securities. Today the same role is played by sovereign debt. Our lords and master did nothing to alter the system and the desires and distortions it demands/creates, they have merely found a new way of satisfying and sustaining the system. That it has jerked and convulsed back to life, they are keen to call ‘fixed’ and ‘recovered’. Re-animation is perhaps better. Nothing has been fixed. Certainly nothing changed.

Where ratings agencies rated any old securitized tat as AAA, today governments and international bail out funds make extravagant claims of being willing to do ‘whatever it takes’ to ensure that government debt is risk free.  This has opened a wonderful world where nations can be kept in a state of permanent poverty and panic, forcing yields on their debt up to very lucrative levels, while also allowing them to be held as risk free and therefore perfect collateral.  How quickly do you think the banks want to see those nations ‘fixed’? I would hazard that they would prefer that nations are held in this perfect state of fiscal impotence for as long as it takes to arrange the fire sale of its real assets.

All of which, to my mind, describes where we are. A seeming victory for the banks and financial class.

And yet…

As I have written before, the real risk of assets cannot be magicked away. It can be traded, as it is being, in magic sounding new trades to new people, who assure you they can contain and manage the risk in your assets in return for a fee. You keep the assets, they take the risk.

Believe the soothsayers of regulatory arbitrage, and the risk which used to weigh upon your balance sheet, disappears out of sight out of mind. Gone to some mathematical null space from which we are told it cannot escape. But we all know it can and will.

Where is this regulatory capital trade putting the risk really?  As far as I can trace it, it is being bought by hedge funds. And who owns those hedge funds (owns their shares)? Pension funds. Ooops! Once again the market’s answer to those who say too much risk is systemically suicidal, is not to reduce risk but to put it where the regulators are not looking.

At the same time as risk is once again accumulating out of sight and mind, collateral too is once again becoming a problem. The problem is no one is creating new assets which really are safe and solid. They aren’t because everyone is labouring under such an overhang of debt and bad debt that the organic growth of wealth producing activity (researching and developing and then making and selling stuff) is too slow.

Everyone wants yield now, if not sooner. And when I say everyone, I mean the financial world and those Treasury parts of businesses which are more a part of the financial world than they are a part of the manufacturing company whose name they carry.  Think of the financial arm of GE or GM.

Everyone wants collateral. They want it in order to pledge to central banks in order to get those AAA rated sovereign bonds. They want it to pledge for short term funding so they can keep breathing at night. They need it in order to be declared safe with adequate capital held against their loans.

But no one wants it really, not from the yield point of view. Better to say they are forced to ‘want’ it. If they can find a way to have collateral that is somehow also high yielding they would much rather have that. Which is at least part of why Cypriot and Greek banks held so much Greek debt and why MF Global kept buying Greek and Italian debt rather than safe German debt, till it all blew up and everyone but Joe Corzine got hurt.

Collateral is getting scarce. What truly is safe, has long ago been pledged mainly to the central banks. The rest has been ring-fenced into covered bonds and other super-safe investments. None of it also pledged elsewhere or re-hypothecated onwards to prop up other loans – honest! Even the central banks have had to relax and further relax their rules about what they  will accept as safe enough to act as collateral for a central bank loan. Once it was genuinely AAA rated assets. Now if you have a beach towel from a Club Med holiday you once took, it’ll do.

Once we had fiat money. Today we have super fiat. ultra fiat and super ultra zero-content fiat.

Why do you think China is buying more and more gold? I wonder if China isn’t preparing for a contingency of a currency implosion and is making sure it has the necessary gold reserves to market the Yuan as the only ‘gold’ backed global currency.  Just a thought.

Anyway, I shall bring this ramble to a close. This is what happens when I don’t write for a while. My apologies.

Peak collateral is just a notion. The notion that at the time we want yield and growth we are running out of collateral which is supposed to underpin the high yielding assets and loans. Such a shortage would cause the ponzi-like growth that is necessary to sustain a bubble, to stall and then implode. I think our lords and rulers know this and have decided that it must not be allowed. And this – the need for collateral – is the reason for the endless QE. If this is even close to the mark, then recent murmurings about the Fed tailing off its bond buying will prove to be hollow. The Fed will quickly find it cannot exit QE without precipitating precisely the disorderly collapse, to which it was supposed to be  the solution.

The replacement for AAA rated, yet very risky/lucrative mortgage backed securities is AAA yet junk sovereign debt that can never default but sometimes does.

What all this is enabling is the looting of those nations that are already upon the debt rack. Will it sustain? No of course not. But what does that matter to those enriching themselves in the mean time.

Sorry this has been such a ramble.  I just needed to write something, anything, to prove to myself I still can.

Whether I still should is another matter.

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41 Responses to Peak collateral – a strange attraction

  1. Bardo May 13, 2013 at 7:16 pm #

    David, welcome back! Your ‘rambles’ are why I return to this blog time after time. They help economic layman like me get clearer about the grubby workings of this world, and what may be coming our way. I am richer for it — in the healthiest sense of the word.

    • Golem XIV May 13, 2013 at 7:18 pm #

      Thank you Bardo. I am just sorry I was away for so long.

  2. Margaret May 13, 2013 at 8:22 pm #

    Please do not wonder whether you still can write. To most who frequent this site, you can and do write very well and simply on matters which are really beyond comprehension and sometimes belief.
    I look in on this site at least once or twice a day, because even if you are not making new comments, others, equally concerned, and often very knowledgeable (to my untutored self) .
    I am the humble pensioner in Crete (where last week yet another civil servant, having suffered a 30% cut in salary , and with a wife and family to support) decided to end it all by jumping off a ten storey building (the hospital where he was being treated for depression).
    Your facts concerning the Latsis family have been very helpful in exposing the ignominious depths to which the extremely rich Greek family will go to protect itself and feed off the Greek state. The Eurobank fiasco, for instance;the buying the The Mall at a knockdown price; Its involvement with the gold issues in the north of Greece.
    Please do not think that your contribution to keeping some of us sane in a lunatic world is not worthwhile. It is literally invaluable.
    My respects to you and to the others whose contributions are considered and thoughtful.

  3. steviefinn May 13, 2013 at 8:35 pm #

    I have been wondering about a potential stock market bubble, there seems to be a fair bit of opinion that says yes, with the usual cheerleaders saying no. I am not qualified to venture an opinion, but the fact that the market does not reflect the real economy seems suspicious to me.

    Is not the collateral out there made up, amongst other things, the elites assets & as you say overvalued crap some of which is the bits of skin leftover from earlier burst bubbles ? Maybe the Fed’s have painted themselves into a corner & it will be QE eternity into the Twilight Zone. A bit like a boat with a rotten hull somehow staying afloat on a sea of wishful thinking.

    The diagram reminds me of Hubble pics of galaxies colliding or merging – Is it the same principle ? I am enjoying this ramble, but unlike you David I am under no pressure – Nobody cares if I get it wrong because I am only a student here. I consider you to be an educator; who has an eager class who look forward to whatever scraps of wisdom you might throw at us. No pressure from us I think, keep it forever flowing & fuck the vultures.

  4. Golem XIV May 13, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

    Margaret, Stevie,

    You are kind the both of you. Thank you. As for the wickedness that is underway in Greece. It is bleak.

    But for all that bleakness there is hope. I promised my children I would fight and so would others.

  5. Buck Turgidson May 13, 2013 at 9:40 pm #

    It seems to my simple mind that as long as you can produce tanks, bombs and missiles and have the will to use them,you will never reach ” Peak Collateral” on your sovereign debt.

    • Golem XIV May 13, 2013 at 10:09 pm #

      You have a dark mind Buck. Sadly I see your point.

  6. desmond May 13, 2013 at 10:11 pm #

    nice to hear from you again Golem. To me it seems that the ‘debt cannibal’ or debt cancer has ran out of good flesh to feed on and is now trying to eat itself. for each of us the value has to be appreciated and found in our own breath for as long as we can.. we are alive and that is invaluable..

  7. patma2003 May 14, 2013 at 1:00 am #

    It’s a blog. Blogs are good for a ramble. I am nearly certain it must be one of a blogs primary functions. Cathartic I’d say. I wouldn’t be disheartened though, removing the wool from the eyes of the few who are ready (like I was, we all were at some point) is a pretty noble pursuit…even if that was never an intended goal.

    More will be ready for reality soon enough I imagine.

  8. GeoWaveRider May 14, 2013 at 1:25 am #


    Great to see you back, with a very interesting analogy and you didn’t mention the c word once :-).


  9. Wirplit May 14, 2013 at 3:08 am #

    It is good to read your rambles Golem…suddenly made me think of Richard Feynman there was a programme on BB4 about him and the way he redrew the way of looking at Quantum mechanics.. his playful questioning of how things are looked at …the new perspective opening up a new reality…and producing a breakthrough which was essentially a new conception….and it seemed you were almost thinking of the possibility of a kind of physics of finance. Its an interesting analogy with non linear systems.
    If a bubble say could be induced to somehow last for a very long time…imagine centuries… instead of a few years…entire lives could be lived quite happily within it… mad thought …perhaps whole civilisations are kind of solid bubbles…they certainly rise and then fall away and there seem to have been many more than was once thought…
    well off topic I know…but we seem to have been living with an endlessly extended car crash since 2007… something one first imagined would be over in a few months and yet we are still in our slow motion trajectory through the windscreens years later it seems accumulating our wounds in such a gradual fashion…a weird feeling … as you say an non linear event, unpredictable yet somehow within a contained reality…

  10. bill40 May 14, 2013 at 11:05 am #

    @ wirplit,

    Strangely I had exactly the same thoughts about the wonderful Prof. Feynman. A true genius indeed. The inventors within the financial system are merely evil twin robot doubles, who could have gotten away with it ‘cept for those meddling bloggers.

    On the article please keep rambling David we need to know you’re still here too. Collateral is risky stuff because everyone generally wants it back at the same time. How much collateral sustains the shadow banks and their improbable deriatives? Not a lot is many peoples educated guess. You have to laugh at the idiots who claim it all nets out.

    I didn’t call the crisis but I read the blogs that did. I think it was Michael Hudson describing fake AAA collateral citing Greek bonds. German security for Greek interest rates. He then went on the give the highly unsung criminals in the ratings agencies a bit of a dressing down.

    A final note on gold, I believe I have mentioned a few times on here that China is indeed preparing a new reserve currency backed by PMs and REMs. I was hoping to start a blog called Chinese Whispers but have, alas been “discouraged”.

    Oh well stiff upper lip chaps.

    • Golem XIV May 14, 2013 at 11:26 am #

      Hello Bill40,

      Would you drop me a line? Something to discuss.

    • Hawkeye May 14, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

      Hi Bill

      Yes there has been some recent chatter on this strategy:


      I’ve always presumed that China is playing the long game here, quietly getting it’s ducks in a row (acquiring gold, obtaining mining rights on raw materials throughout the world, creating a modern navy and airforce etc.).

      Something big is brewing, much as the situation 100 years ago.

    • harold wilson's pipe May 15, 2013 at 11:22 am #

      Another Feynman-related post, if I may (and thanks to Wirplit and bill40 – what a pleasant surprise).

      BBC in the UK has just shown/repeated an hour and a half of a 2013 drama-doc [1] on Feynman’s role in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster inquiry. It’s highly recommended viewing, whether or not you’re a Feynman or NASA follower, and if it leads to wanting to know more about Feynman and his life and work, so much the better.

      Anyway, where this leads to is: where is the Feynman in the financial sector today? There are plenty of Morton Thiokols and other dubious players and managers in the sector (and in other sectors too), maybe there’ll be an inquiry or two, but I’m not seeing a Feynman in the financial sector. Is there one?

      [1] Available on BBC iPlayer till this weekend, then look elsewhere

      • Jason May 15, 2013 at 2:27 pm #

        Agree, an excellent documentary and demonstrated what a selfless man Feynman was (he was dying of cancer but still wanted to do the right thing in relation to the shuttle disaster).

        There are simply too many vested interests in the West to countenance any major change, if it comes it will be forced onto the establishment, maybe at the point of a Russian/Chinese gun.

  11. Bearbonez May 14, 2013 at 12:42 pm #

    I’d like to take this pause in financial revelations to say how much I enjoyed last nghts documentary on Marie Curie, thought it was your voice all the way through and confirmed it when the credits rolled. Nice one David

    • Golem XIV May 14, 2013 at 1:31 pm #

      Thanks. I only did the voice though. The real credit goes to the Producer.

  12. David Sheegog May 14, 2013 at 6:01 pm #

    This is the first time I’ve seen the term Peak Collateral. I like it. This creative, descriptive term made me think of your blog post a few months ago in which you were wondering out loud where your ideas come from and concluded they came from outside yourself, out of the ether or waking dreams, or something…

    I contested your modesty in that post. And still do. You simply have a mind that can do analytic and synthetic thinking at the same time. Yes, like Feynman, as others have mentioned, but focused on a different part of the puzzle. That’s all. And we do appreciate it.

    The relation of “peak collateral” to bubbles and sovereign debt deserves plenty of discussion. You’ve given us, yet again, a new frame that may enable us to better decipher the shit storm that is engulfing the world. I had a teacher who once told me, “Approach is everything”. Well, framing is what tells us the “approach”.

  13. John Souter May 14, 2013 at 6:15 pm #

    The banks and their financial shamans are moving into the commodity markets.

    In the last few months, wheat. maize and soya have jumped between 17.5% and 25%. It’s also the marketeers who are backing the shale oil extraction and fracking developments.

    They claim the price hikes are not down to them but are due to the devaluation of currency due to the central banks printing fiat money to cover their deficits.

    Clever men these financial psychopaths they’d make the case for cancer being a health cure for athlete foot.

    Unfortunately when you peddle a myth and the gullible accept it collateral doesn’t come into it.

    • Golem XIV May 14, 2013 at 10:00 pm #

      Didn’t know that about the commodities. Worrying for Egypt and the other grain importers.

      hanks John.

  14. Jamie_Griff May 14, 2013 at 9:47 pm #

    If we liken the financial system to a weather system – one which has been hurricane free for 5 years – can we liken QE to CO2 emissions? Slowly cranking up the energy in the system, increasing the likelihood and ferocity of extreme events?

    Rambling is fun. Good to have you back Golem.

  15. ch-ch-changes May 14, 2013 at 11:31 pm #

    If the “science” behind this is the algorithms written by the physicists, then perhaps it’s no surprise at the connections made here.

    The role of technology in the explosion of the shadow banking is immense – but it hasn’t driven any paradigm shifts in reality, has it?

    That same technology allows us to at least have something, and somewhere, where we can fight back. I see no signs of promise outside of blogs, yet, but these forums do help de-bunk the constant neo-con mantras of the mass media. Awareness across the fairly wide range of people I meet is certainly increasing.

    Your ability to write from the heart and the mind inspires me as a reader, and many others clearly feel the same from all the illuminating and educated comments I’ve read over the years here. Good to see you back David; it was getting long enough to be concerning, despite not knowing you at all in person.

    I look forward to reading the next article which I see you’ve already posted.

    Hope you’re ok


  16. Chris May 15, 2013 at 2:25 pm #

    Great to have you back David.

    Have you had the chance to read Positive Money’s “Modernising Money”? I seem to recall one of the PM team offering you a free copy a few months ago.

    I for one would be absolutely fascinated to hear your thoughts on Positive Money’s proposals.

    • Golem XIV May 15, 2013 at 4:35 pm #

      They did indeed send me a copy. I owe them a review. I am reading it. Though I got side-tracked by Hilary Mantel. What a writer!

  17. Karalan May 15, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    Happy to have you back, your absence from ‘ramblings’ has been noted and missed. As a current resident of China, should I hang on to my yuan for a while longer?

  18. 46Martman May 17, 2013 at 9:04 am #

    I don’t think it a ramble David. I think it makes perfect sense.
    This article in the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2013/mar/14/private-equity-financial-crisis-bank-of-england
    Seems to highlight exactly the problems lack of collateral could have.
    We are nowhere near the out of the woods position, the politicians would have us believe.
    So as always I’ll keep coming back to read your rambles.
    Because the offer me lucid explanations of the problems we face and our politicians refuse to address.

    • GB May 17, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

      Re “rambling” reminded me of another rambler, David:

      — “The commercial world is very frequently put into confusion by the bankruptcy of merchants who assumed the splendour of wealth only to obtain the privilege of trading with the stock of other men, and of contracting debts which nothing but lucky casualties could enable them to pay; until after having supported their appearance a while by tumultuary magnificence of boundless traffic, they sink at once, and drag down into poverty those whom their equipages had induced to trust them.” —Samuel Johnson: ‘The Rambler’ (a series of essays); January 7, 1752

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, David. They have been of value as I try to make sense about what has occurred and appears to be ongoing.

  19. Eric May 20, 2013 at 11:17 am #

    It is only the second time i have read this blog. But what you have written so far is more intelligent that what i have ever read in the mainstream press here in switzerland or other places. Thank you very much. And i can handle your ramble, so don’t worry about it as long as you provide intelligent analysis.

  20. Ral May 28, 2013 at 11:18 am #

    Peak collateral and strange attractors, an interesting combination

    I am curious to find out if you have followed Prof Keen’s work eg here :

    and whether you have given an further thought to analysis?

    • Golem XIV May 28, 2013 at 4:07 pm #

      Hello Raj,

      Sorry not to reply sooner. I have been away and will be away again at the end of this week.

      I think Steven Keen is one of the best minds looking at this whole problem. That is a really interesting article and puts the mis-match between economic theory and the non-linear world clearly.

      Thanks for pointing it out. I hadn’t read it till you did.

      I have given further thought to aspects of theory but since I am neither a good mathematician nor as good as Keen is on the economy I feel I should tread carefully.

  21. Blackhawk May 28, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

    Brilliant ramblings and the analogy makes perfect sense.
    In my opinion, collateral is in asset that a majority of participants in the market assigns a certain value. This value could go up or down according to the level of participants’ trust in the respective asset. Now all the assets that entered the markets over long periods of time have built their trust and therefore their value on the oldest and most trusted asset on this planet, namely GOLD. This asset has been for more than 3000 years the point of reference in all market based systems and it proved to be the most enduring element, regarding material exchanges, in the collective unconscious.
    The current crisis is about the melting of this trust at global level, trickling in an inverted pyramid fashion, trough all the asset classes, all the way down to gold.
    What I see happening now, in my opinion, it is a war to remove from the collective mind the belief that gold represents the ultimate value and it is the instrument which measures people’s mistrust in all the other asset classes. For the elites any outcome of this war is favourable because the removal of gold would open the doors to a valuation based on thin air, and on the other hand, a failure would see a huge scramble from all other classes of assets to their base, namely gold, which is by the way held mainly by the same elites through their proxies governments and central banks.
    It was just a thought that I considered worth sharing. If anyone has some feedback, I would warmly encourage sharing it here.

  22. venbar May 28, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

    Very good commentary..but the question is on just one statement you made in the above blog.
    “And this – the need for collateral – is the reason for the endless QE”.
    Didn’t understand how QE – where central banks are buying assets – will help need for collateral ?


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