Soros’ Alchemy – Chapter 4

by on March 30, 2016  •  In George Soros

Seth Klarman of Baupost wrote in a 1996 Letter that one should always be cognizant of whether seemingly different investments are actually the same bet in order to avoid risk of concentrated exposures. In other words, the task of risk management involves identifying (and if necessary, neutralizing) common risks underlying different portfolio holdings.

One such “common denominator” risk that comes to mind (in today’s yield-hungry environment) is the availability of credit and its impact on asset and collateral values, which in turn greatly influences returns available to investors holding different securities across the capital structure. Below are some musing on the topic of credit reflexivity / boom and bust cycles from George Soros, derived from his book Alchemy of Finance – Chapter 4: The Credit and Regulatory Cycle.

Macro, Intrinsic Value, Psychology, Risk

“…special affinity between reflexivity and credit. That is hardly surprising: credit depends on expectations; expectations involve bias; hence credit is one of the main avenues that permit bias to play a causal role in the course of events…Credit seems to be associated with a particular kind of reflexive pattern that is known as boom and bust. The pattern is asymmetrical: the boom is drawn out and accelerates gradually; the bust is sudden and often catastrophic…

I believe the asymmetry arises out of a reflexive connection between loan and collateral. In this context I give collateral a very broad definition: it will denote whatever determines the creditworthiness of a debtor, whether it is actually pledged or not. It may mean a piece of property or an expected future stream of income; in either case, it is something on which the lender is willing to place a value. Valuation is supposed to be a passive relationship in which the value reflects the underlying asset; but in this case it involves a positive act: a loan is made. The act of lending may affect the collateral value: that is the connection that gives rise to a reflexive process.”

“The act of lending usually stimulates economic activity. It enables the borrower to consume more than he would otherwise, or to invest in productive assets…By the same token, debt service has a depressing impact. Resources that would otherwise be devoted to consumption or the creation of a future stream of income are withdrawn. As the total amount of debt outstanding accumulates, the portion that has to be utilized for debt service increases.”

“In the early stages of a reflexive process of credit expansion the amount of credit involved is relatively small so that its impact on collateral values is negligible. That is why the expansionary phase is slow to start with and credit remains soundly based at first. But as the amount of debt accumulates, total lending increases in importance and begins to have an appreciable effect on collateral values. The process continues until a point is reached where total credit cannot increase fast enough to continue stimulating the economy. By that time, collateral values have become greatly dependent on the stimulative effect of new lending and, as new lending fails to accelerate, collateral values begin to decline. The erosion of collateral values has a depressing effect on economic activity, which in turn reinforces the erosion of collateral values. Since the collateral has been pretty fully utilized at that point, a decline may precipitate the liquidation of loans, which in turn may make the decline more precipitous. That is the anatomy of a typical boom and bust.

Booms and busts are not symmetrical because, at the inception of a boom, both the volume of credit and the value of the collateral are at a minimum; at the time of the bust, both are at a maximum. But there is another factor at play. The liquidation of loans takes time; the faster it has to be accomplished, the greater the effect on the value of the collateral. In a bust, the reflexive interaction between loans and collateral becomes compressed within a very short time frame and the consequences can be catastrophic. It is the sudden liquidation of accumulated positions that gives a bust such a different shape from the preceding boom.

It can be seen that the boom/bust sequence is a particular variant of reflexivity. Booms can arise whenever there is a two-way connection between values and the act of valuation. The act of valuation takes many forms. In the stock market, it is equity that is valued; in banking, it is collateral.”

“Busts can be very disruptive, especially if the liquidation of collateral causes a sudden compression of credit. The consequences are so unpleasant that strenuous efforts are made to avoid them. The institution of central banking has evolved in a continuing attempt to prevent sudden, catastrophic contractions in credit. Since a panic is hard to arrest once it has started, prevention is best practiced in the expansionary phase. That is why the role of central banks has gradually expanded to include the regulation of the money supply. That is also why organized financial markets regulate the ratio of collateral to credit.”

“Financial history is best interpreted as a reflexive process in which there are two sets of participants instead of one: competitors and regulators…It is important to realize that the regulators are also participants. There is a natural tendency to regard them as superhuman beings who somehow stand outside and above the economic process and intervene only when the participants have made a mess of it. That is not the case. They also are human, all too human. They operate with imperfect understanding and their activities have unintended consequences.”


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