September 2008 | By Ignacio de la Torre, Professor of Finance and Academic Director of IE’s Master in Finance.
Except for the odd diehard, nobody is denying that we are facing a credit crisis that is affecting the mainstream economy. The question is: Where do we go from here?
In the city of Boston in the 1920s, an Italian immigrant, Roberto Ponzi, convinced hundreds of people that investing in Spanish and Italian stamps with guaranteed profitability levels was a better option than buying traditional products, such as bonds and shares, whose high prices had rendered them less profitable. Of course, the promised levels of profitability came from the revenue generated by those who were the last to buy the stamps, which is why the English term for this type of con trick is “Ponzi scheme”, which made Roberto eternally famous.
Does this sound familiar?
A scenario of economic expansion with controlled inflation, as took place in the 1920s or, more recently, since 2004, eventually leads to a heavy increase in the money supply. This leads to increases in the real prices of assets (fixed assets, stock exchanges, bonds), dampening their implicit profitability. Investors look for alternative products that can give them greater profitability, causing successive “bubbles” in said assets as they attract investments (in 2006, the JP Morgan index for emerging bonds offered profit levels that were only 1.3% higher than the North American bond). Paradoxically, as pointed out by the economist Hyman Minski in the 1970s, trust in the central bank´s success can involve a disproportionate expansion of credit, which, in turn, brings about greater falls in default (since the refinancing of the debt is easy in this kind of environment), giving rise to a vicious circle. The circle is blown to pieces when a significant event (such as the non-payment of the subprime mortgages) leads the market to reconsider its appetite for risk and this reconsideration brings about a fall in credit, which is quickly transferred to the real economy with the threat of a possible recession (which is where we are today).Details