The MoneyWeek Podcast with Russell Napier at the Library of Mistakes

Merryn talks to Russell Napier about Edinburgh’s Library of Mistakes, the age of debt and financial repression, plus why he has never invested in China and what he’d buy now.

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Merryn: Hello, and welcome to the MoneyWeek magazine podcast. I am Merryn Somerset Webb, editor-in-chief of the magazine. Today, we have something slightly different. A few weeks ago in Edinburgh, John came up, and we went together to the Library of Mistakes in Edinburgh, which I insist that you visit if you ever do come up to Edinburgh, although, of course, some of you live here already. I know that because you came to the event, and thank you very much for doing so.

Anyway, at the Library of Mistakes, which is recently opened in a larger premises, we met with Russel Napier, and we talked to him a little bit about the library and about what he is seeing at the moment. Russell, as I know many of you will know, is a market strategist and market historian, financial historian, should I say. He’s written a couple of books, one of which we’ve written about a lot in the past, Anatomy of the Bear, published back in 2006.

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It forecast, at the time, a major correction for the US stockmarket, which, of course, we saw. And he then, using what he had learnt from writing the book, his conclusions, he wrote a major report for his then employer, CLSA, in the first quarter of 2009, called Finding the Bottom, that told us the market had bottomed.

So, this is an excellent time for us to be talking to Russell. Now, what you’re about to hear is an edited version of our conversation, partly because our conversation was very long and quite varied, and partly because the audio wasn’t great. So, I’ve taken out bits that weren’t absolutely perfect, although, it’s not completely true, because bits I’ve left in aren’t absolutely perfect either. But I do think it’s a very valuable conversation to listen to. So, here we go.

Russell, thank you so much for joining us. Let’s start by talking a little bit about the library. Tell us about the library.

Russell: Well, this is your library, because it is a public library. That’s the first thing you have to know, so you can come here whenever you like. Let me explain how you do that, just in case I forget to do that while I’m getting so enthusiastic about the library itself. So, we have a website called, and then there’s also a tab there for Arrange a Visit. Miracles of modern science, you will appear at the door, I’ll see you, and you will be here alone. There is no staff.

So, that’s why we take your details, so we know where you live. And you will be… We open from 9 AM to 5 PM Monday to Saturday. And if we build it and nobody comes, that would be a complete waste of time and money, so please come.

And if you think all the books here are too boring, then bring your own book, and use the space, and that’s what this week is about. So, we run a series of events this week, called the Festival of Mistakes. Trying to encourage more people to come. We had an old library. It was much smaller, and it wasn’t used as well as it should have been, so we’re trying to get everyone to use this library. Now, the idea behind the library is, it is primarily business and financial history, but if I called it the Edinburgh Business and Financial History Library, nobody would come.

So, it’s called the Library of Mistakes, and that seems to get us quite a lot of publicity and lets people know that we’re here. But the serious point behind all of this is, it’s possible to go to university now, it’s possible to get a degree in finance, investment and even economics, and not know any economic history, which just, to me, seems bizarre, but it’s true. So, we’ve created the resource for those people. A lot of the people who come here are professionals, professional investors, and this is where they get their information.

But I think a lot of you are having to make big decisions about your own money and your own investments and where you’re putting them. So, the resource is here for you as well. And as Yogi Berra, the famous baseball coach, once said, you can learn a lot just by watching, and that’s what financial history is.

So, the final little plea for financial history is that finance today is very mathematised. There’s lots of numbers in it, and all those numbers are distillations really. It’s a distillation of something. So, we’ve thrown lots and lots of things away to get to the distillation, and we’re trying to put them back. And some of those things are pretty important, like politics. I think we’ve just realised that politics are pretty important. Geopolitics are pretty important. Sociology’s pretty important. Psychology’s pretty important.

And I’m not saying that the professional lecturers have abandoned all of that, but they’ve really distilled most of it away. And on the whole, I’m quite a big fan of distillation. Nothing wrong with it, but we’re trying to put some of that back. I wanted to…

Actually, I just remembered, there’s a nice quote in here, not me, by somebody else, explaining why this library exists. John Kenneth Galbraith, I don't know if you’ve heard of him, he’s a beautiful writer, one of the best writers in the English language, in my opinion, even though he’s Canadian. And this is what he wrote to the preface of his 1975 edition of this famous The Great Crash 1929.

He said, the story of the boom and crash of 1929 is worth telling for its own sake. Great drama joined in those months with a luminous insanity. But there is the more sombre purpose as protection against financial illusion or insanity. Memory is far better than law. When memory of the 1929 disaster failed, law and regulation no longer sufficed for protecting people from the cupidity of others and their own. History is highly utilitarian. So, that’s why we’re here.

I’m not sure we’re making any progress, based on what’s going on in the markets, but anyway, that’s why we’re here.

Merryn: Tell us about the new book. You call the Asian crisis “the dawn of the age debt”, which it seems it was, but I’m interested in one of the first things you did when you arrived at Aged Workers and Analysts and something you write about in your new book. You wrote a sign to put above your desk, saying, “No Extrapolation”.

Russell: I worked very hard. I actually wrote a huge sign that said “No Extrapolation Allowed”, and put it behind my head at my desk on a board behind me, and every single person who sat down in front of me at the desk started extrapolating. So, for those of you who don’t know the history of the Asian financial crisis, just to put it into context, if you’d invested in the MSCI index, so that’s just a broad index of Asian stocks, in, let’s say, 1996, by 1998, you’d lost 75% of all your money.

Now, that’s a lot. That’s more than you lost from 2007 to 2009 and 2000 to 2003. If you’d invested in Thailand, you lost 89% of your money. Now, that’s just money. Over 1,000 people died in Indonesia in riots that came from the financial and economic crisis. There were people who died in Malaysia. The Suharto regime toppled, and this was all going from 1996 to 1998, and I was living out there in the middle of it.

So, the stockmarket was part of it, but the stockmarket was a catalyst for something that was much, much bigger.

So, the thing that I thought people were getting wrong was, they were extrapolating growth, and they didn’t care about the quality of growth. So, any growth was good. Didn’t really matter what it was. Now, companies don’t make money from growth. That’s not what companies make money from. Companies make money from allocating capital wisely. And we were living in this bonanza where companies were really doing very stupid things with capital, building all sorts of crazy projects that there was no real prospect of getting returns from.

And more importantly, they were doing it all on debt. So, the extrapolation was, how can you not make money out of something that grows? And the answer to that became apparent, and then you lost 75% of your money. Now, the reason it became unapparent is that every single one of these countries was managing their currency, relative to the dollar. So, this is going to sound quite technical, but it’s not dissimilar to what happened in the euro crisis.

And when you manage your currency against somebody else’s currency, you accept somebody else’s monetary policy, maybe the level of interest rates or maybe the quantity of money, much as we did in the ERM. For those of you old enough to remember the ERM, you’ll remember that horrible day when, suddenly, interest rates started going up in the United Kingdom. Well, that’s what began to happen in Asia because they followed similar policies. But they were just a lot more geared and leveraged than we were.

So, what was the catalyst? What was the one thing that I saw and wrote about that nobody else was writing about?

It was the quality of the capital inflow that was funding all of this. it wasn’t long-term investment, digging holes in the ground, building plant machinery and equipment, building productive capacity. It was people buying shares. And as long as they came in, everything would be fine. And as soon as they started to go out, interest rates were going to go up. It wasn’t just by selling the shares, the shares went down.

By selling the shares, you got the Thai baht. And when you sold the Thai baht, because they wouldn’t let the Thai baht fall, you actually pushed up interest rates. And when you pushed up interest rates, you forced down the stockmarket. When you forced down the stockmarket, then you forced up interest rates as people sold. So, you got stuck. Greece went through this in a fairly spectacular way. So, that’s what it was. So, the extrapolation was, anything that grows must go up. And financial history is one of the clearest lessons.

We have 122 years of data now that suggests there is no relationship between the return on equities and GDP growth. Despite all the time we spend talking about it, there is no relationship. So, to show you how extreme it was, when I was in Asia, the British pension fund industry, so you’ll be familiar with indices, and everybody manages against an index, and the weighting of Asia ex-Japan in the Global Equity Index was 6%. British pension funds had 25%.

And they had 6% in America. Now, we know what’s happened since the mid-1990s to American equities and Asian equities, and if you sat down with them and said, look, why aren’t you invested in America? Why have you invested in Asia? They said, Asia’s going to grow, and America isn’t. And what they missed was a technological revolution, a new form of industrial revolution that was pioneered by American companies.

And it was those companies that made you money, not the level of GDP growth in America, but the level of innovation in corporations, return on capital. So, that’s how we extrapolated the wrong way, and we have books here somewhere, and there’s one just over there, called The Asian Economic Miracle. So, when I arrived in Asia, everyone was writing books called The Asian Economic Miracle, and within a year, it went bankrupt, including the IMF. They also wrote one called The Asian Economic Miracle.

Merryn: Did they?

Russell: They did. One year later, they were bailing out Asia.

Merryn: There were some contrarian voices, of course.

Russell: So, 1990, Peter Tasker comes to our office. I worked for Baillie Gifford here, and the market was at just below 40,000. And the person who brought him in said, now, we think Peter’s slightly insane. We think he’s slightly mad, but we’re prepared to allow him to talk to the clients anyway. Peter, tell them what you think.

And Peter said, well, I think it’ll go to 12,000. And then everybody laughed, and do you remember where it went? It went below 12,000, didn’t it?

John Stepek Aye, he was too optimistic, yes. It ended up at eight, yes, or something like that.

Russell: Yes. So, in this extrapolation thing, sometimes, there are people who say, no, this is going to end, and he was one of them. He was spectacularly right, but assumed, at the time, to be slightly insane. It’s Hans Christian Andersen, the King has no clothes.

Merryn: OK. How, then, did the Asian crisis turn into the age of debt, the one we are living in, and possibly the endgame of right now?

Russell: So, when this begins, I was just trying to do this from memory now, but basically, the world’s debt/GDP ratio when the Asian crisis comes along is probably about 150%. So, that’s the stock of all the debt. That’s the government, the household sector and the corporate sector, relative to a flow, GDP as a flow. It was about 150%. And now, we are, basically, very close to 300%. We’ve never seen anything like this in human history before, even warfare. We didn’t, in terms of the whole of society, get to that level.

Now, nobody that I know really ever sat down and came up with a comprehensive reason as why did something happen that never happened in human history before?

But I suggest, in this book, it was because of what happened after the Asian crisis, that the Asians were determined not to find themselves in the same position again. And they undervalued their exchange rates. So, just to go through the mechanics of that, if I was, let’s pick the Bank of Thailand, I would enter the currency market every day, and there would be more buyers than sellers of my currency. So, I would intervene to buy that, and I would create a new Thai baht.

I would print up some currency that didn’t exist that day, and I would receive, basically, US dollars. And then I would be in receipt of the dollars, and I would put them into the treasury market. Now, from 1998, they all did this again. They would not let their currencies go up. And China, of course, was the main culprit. And they put trillions. And I have it in the book, and I can’t remember it, but I think it’s six trillion of, basically, US Treasuries, all bought because some policymaker in Asia made a choice, not because they thought these were good investments, not because they thought they were the right interest rate, but because that was the only way you can stop your currency from going up.

So, you’re now holding down interest rates in America, and you’re freeing up Americans. They don’t have to buy the stuff anymore, so they can go and buy all sorts of other stuff. And, my goodness, they did. All sorts of stuff. And then the central bankers get terrified because Asia’s got undervalued exchange rates now, and it’s exporting deflation. And the central bankers are terrified of deflation, so they keep cutting interest rates every time there’s deflation.

So, you’ve got all this going on, and debt, why not? Debt looks fantastic, and it looks like the central banker is always there to bail you out as well. Every time there’s a crisis, the central banker cuts rates because he’s terrified, or she is terrified, of deflation. And there’s no downside to taking on more and more debt. That’s what happened, so in my opinion, that’s why we are where we are today, which is the highest level of debt/GDP ever in human history.

Merryn: Can I take you back a step? A lot of people listening today will be asking the same question, what’s wrong with deflation? Aren’t falling prices in lots of contexts actually quite a good thing?

Russell: So, I think there’s good deflation and bad deflation, but I think they just thought deflation is bad. And the reason they thought all deflation was bad was because of what happened from 1929 to 1932. And when Friedman was still alive, at his 90th, Milton Friedman’s 90th birthday party, Ben Bernanke did the speech, and he got up, and he said, Milton, you were right. It was our fault, and we’ll never let it happen again.

In other words, it was the fault of the central bank that allowed this banking crisis to become deflation. So, that’s hardwired into them that they must never do that again. But when you’re importing deflation, what’s the problem? The deflation they’re frightened of would be if everybody’s wages in this room started going down, and if corporate profits started going down and you started defaulting on your debt.

So, the reason they’re frightened of it is because it does tend to force people to default on their debt. Your interest payments are fixed, but your revenue goes down. You’ll start defaulting. But the form of deflation that we were getting was actually because the Asians were making stuff incredibly cheaper in this great industrial revolution, the biggest in human history, which was China mobilising its people.

So, in my opinion, they were wrong. They just said, all deflation is bad – but some deflation is good.

Merryn: So, should interest rates have been higher in, say, the 1990s? should the inflation target have been lower?

Russell: So, I wouldn’t have been targeting inflation. I know why we started targeting inflation. With the benefit of hindsight, we should have been targeting the growth of credit, because that was creating the instability within the system, and we paid absolutely no attention to that. The problem with an inflation – the problem with any – target, is if you give somebody one target, then they ignore everything else. So, we ignored everything else, and we should have been, maybe, targeting aggregate credit growth or at least keeping an eye on this.

And if it was really getting out of kilter, despite having inflation at zero or minus one, I wouldn’t have hesitated to raise rates to try and contain the credit boom at all. And that’s called taking the punch bowl away just as the party gets going. It’s an old quote from central bankers, but it wasn’t done.

And the party was evident, absolutely evident. It’s this great dichotomy, that the economy was doing X, the markets were going ballistic, but nothing was done. In 1995, Greenspan tried to do something, because he used this famous irrational exuberance phrase, but then he did absolutely nothing about it, and the markets just roared on. So, they avoided credit. I think, giving them that target was a mistake, with the benefit of hindsight.

Merryn: This is what gave us the house price bubbles across the world as well, right?

Russell: Well, I said this once to a billionaire. I said, when debt grows twice as fast as GDP, any idiot can make money, to which he replied, yes, that explains it. But it’s true. If debt’s growing twice as fast as GDP, it’s clearly being targeted on assets. And if you own the assets, and that’s what’s happened, and that’s one of the reasons we have such great inequality in the country, because those who happened to own assets at the outset or borrow lots of money to buy the assets, did spectacularly well out of all of this.

Merryn: This is a dynamic that’s been in place for a long time now, a few hiccups along the way. But we have constantly reverted from every crisis of any kind to loose monetary policy and rising asset prices. But maybe not any more. It feels like the turn really is now upon us.

Russell: We should start with how you solve the problem, because there actually only are five ways to solve the problem.

So, each of us is trying to work out what the government’s going to do to solve the problem. And then we’re going to put our savings where they’re best protected if the government attempts to do this. So, we’re starting record high debt/GDP. And why is that a problem? Because when you have a recession, you tend to have debt default. You tend to have depressions. So, the government doesn’t want this, so what’s it going to do about it?

Well, here we have the list of things that you can do about it. One’s called austerity, which is, you stop borrowing, and you pay back your debt. Now, you will know that that was tried by George Osborne, which is why he’s an ex-chancellor of the exchequer. You won’t hear much from politicians these days, so it’s a possibility, but it’s very unlikely.

The second one is just default. Simply just don’t pay it back at all. Now, the problem with that is, one person’s liability is somebody else’s asset. And savers will lose out. The Bank of England worked out, you knock GDP by about 7% if you default on your debt, so it’s not painless. It’s pretty painful. Then there’s the bullish way, really high levels of real growth, that we grow out of this, but at the current levels, we’d be looking at a productivity revolution to do that. So, it’s not out of the question, but it’s unlikely.

Then there’s hyperinflation, which solves the problem really quickly, but hyperinflation’s, kind of, a lottery.

You don’t know where the money ends up, and historically, not good political things follow hyperinflation. And then there’s what I call financial repression, which I think we’re going to come on to talk about. But that’s it. There isn’t seven, eight, nine or ten. So, if this is a unique problem, we are path-dependent now. And to work out that path, all you’ve got to do is work out which way the governments will try to go.

And in my opinion, they’ve now found the magic money tree, and that’s why I changed my opinion, because I think they found a way of getting the inflation. You could argue, they tried to do it from 2009 with quantitative easing, but they didn’t generate any inflation, and if you want, we can talk about that. But now, I think, they’ve found a way of generating inflation.

So, if you can get nominal GDP growth of ten, that’s inflation plus real growth, and you can stop any growth in debt, or marginal growths in debt, then, next thing you know, your debt/GDP ratio is going to go down. But if you’re holding bonds and stuff like that, you’re going to lose out.

Merryn: Is there an optimistic take? Can we grow our way out of this, and roaring 20s for the UK? Or given that most of the great productivity booms or industrial revolutions of the past were really driven by cheap energy, is that just not possible?

Russell: I look at history of all of the great productivity revolutions, I think cheaper energy, mainly because we learned how to transport it or find it, was at the core of that.

So, we have to rely on human ingenuity, and sometimes that happens. But also, none of us can predict it, because if we could predict it, we’d probably be doing it. but John hit on a good one. I think nuclear fusion would be, if that works, then suddenly, there is something. But, and I have to put the but in, my friend, Jamie Dannhauser, who’s an economist at Ruffer, has got a chart of the history of productivity growth going back 200 years, so he freely admits that maybe some of this data is a bit dodgy.

We would have to get the highest level ever recorded, given our working age population growth, to begin to solve this the good way. We’re looking for something pretty exceptional.

Merryn: OK, let’s talk about financial repression, number five. It’s not that bad, is it?

Russell: It’s not that bad if you’re a citizen, but it’s pretty bad if you’re a saver. So, this is the thing. If, given the five choices, you’d probably take that choice as a politician as well. You’d say, on average, for citizens, that’s the least bad outlook. But for savers, it’s just straightforward bad. And it’s a wealth transfer. It’s a wealth transfer from savers to debtors. So, I think most people are here, presumably, because they are savers or want to be savers. So, that’s the problem with it.

Merryn: And how does it work?

Russell: Right, well, I’ll put it in broad terms, and then there’s a myriad of policies that come with it. but the important thing in a financial repression is to, one way or another, force you to own investments that produce a yield below the rate of inflation. And if we do that for long enough and growth that’s high in nominal terms, so that’s inflation plus real growth, then the debt/GDP ratio comes down. But we’re working on the basis that you wouldn’t choose to do that. You wouldn’t choose to invest on a yielding one if inflation was seven.

So, the repression bit is, ultimately, we have to force you to do it. and I spoke about this at a MoneyWeek conference years and years ago. And I’ll never forget, the first question that the lady asked me was, afterwards, you spoke about financial repression. What is it? And I thought, well, that wasn’t a very… Obviously, I didn’t do a very good… I thought, well, how can I explain it? And I just said, it’s stealing money from old people slowly. That’s what financial repression is. It has to be slow.

Merryn: It’s like, yield by yield, your wealth falls because your yield is lower than…

Russell: Yes, but it has to be slow, otherwise you bolt, and you run away. And it has to be at a pace that you don’t really, particularly, notice it. So, I’ve got a 90-minute lecture on financial repression. That was the 90-second version of what financial repression is, but it’s the element of compulsion forcing you to buy certain assets.

And that’s already happening. You may not know this, but if you run a life insurance fund, this is already happening. You’re already being forced to own government bonds by regulation. And if you’re investing in a life insurance fund, you’re already being repressed.

Merryn: And in the end, we’re all going to be coerced into this, right?

Russell: The old one was, which is bizarre, because we’ve only just got rid of it, forcing you to buy an annuity. An annuity is a government… it just bases all your money into government bonds. And if we were doing that today, given the rate of inflation and the yield in government bonds, that’s the classic repression, and we’ve just got rid of that, but that was a remnant from the old repression.

So, there are many, many mechanisms, and this book room is full of books on the various mechanisms. And there are people here who probably remember it. It didn’t end until 1979, and 1979’s when we lifted exchange controls. So, until then, there were lots of ways in which the government was stealing money from old people slowly.

Merryn: So, there is nothing we can do. Move our money to other countries, but if everyone is indebted, is there to be repression everywhere?

Russell: There are countries that have got really low debt/GDP, but they’re all emerging markets. So, you’re right, every developed world country has got this problem. The only exception, actually, is Germany, and that really isn’t relevant, because it’s handed over its monetary policy to France.

Merryn: Would you invest in China? Can you see anything in China passing, for example, a reasonable ESG screen?

Russell: Well, every major company in China has a committee of the Communist Party close to the board. I don't know where the governance is on that, but I would say that’s probably a black mark in terms of governance. I don't know how you go investing. Personally, I’ve never invested a penny of my own money in China, ever, out of principle, because there’s no rule of law, in my opinion.

And as an ex-lawyer, because I’ve got no formal qualifications in any of this stuff, the rule of law’s pretty important, and we’re discovering that in China. So, I’ve advised my clients that the terminal value of their investment in China will be zero, and that’s because of capital controls. It’s not because the actual value of the shares will go to zero. It’s because, at some stage, we’ll put a barrier between the free flow of capital between China and the rest of the world.

And you won’t be able to get it out, and that’s exactly what’s happened if you’re in Russia. The same thing will happen in China. So, obviously, I don’t get the whole China enthusiasm thing, but I never have. Morgan Stanley launched a China index in 1992. I remember, I was there when the first Chinese B share was listed. So, this was the first time since the War that you were able to buy a Chinese share. And the Morgan Stanley MSCI index priced in dollar terms for China is, today, below where it was in 1992.

Now, we all know what’s happened in the Chinese economy. You can just go there, and you can see this exponential growth, but you managed to lose money, investing in those particular shares in the index. And I think one of the reasons was just overproduction, but another reason is the rule of law. It’s not clear where you rank as a company, as an investor, in terms of getting money and where the taxman ranks, where the government ranks.

So, those things are important, and one of the things I learnt in the Asian financial crisis is that, I remember, when everything was going down, some companies were on the verge of bankruptcy, and people started phoning me up and saying, what is the bankruptcy law of Thailand? And I would say, well, just bear with me a minute. I’ll just go and speak to our Thai analyst, and then we would phone a lawyer in Thailand. And the thing was, there wasn’t really an effective bankruptcy law in Thailand. But of course, in the bull market, nobody…

Merryn: Nobody cared.

Russell: Nobody cared. Nobody cared about property rights, but when things get tough, this stuff really matters.

Merryn: So, no China, no US, possibly some friendly emerging countries. Anything else?

Russell: Yes, so I actually am pretty upbeat about this, because I think it’s not really to do with countries, and that’s what we’ve been discussing all night. It’s not really about the countries you’re in.

It’s about the companies you’re in. So, it’s old economy: steel, shipbuilding, chemicals, maybe mining. It’s all the stuff that went to China, because it’s coming back. And it can’t come back quickly. If this country wanted to be self-sufficient in steel, for instance, that would take a long time. So, the remaining steel mills will probably do quite well. There’s a big aluminium smelter for sale in Lochaber, powered by a hydro plant.

John If we all chip in…

Merryn: How much? Can we club together?

Russell: Well, it may well end up being owned by the Scottish government, so you might get it quite cheaply.

No, seriously, we have come to rely on China, we’re in a cold war with China, so just think of everything we have to invest in to deal with that. And there’ll be massive levels of investment. So, I realise the consumer is hurting because of higher energy prices, but we’ve, I think, grossly underestimated just how big our capital expenditure boom will be for national defence, for healthcare, for inequality, for climate change, for friend-shoring. So, there’s lots of things you can invest in.

Merryn: And that, I think, is where we’re going to leave that. There are other bits to this recording that you may be able to see some of it up online at some point, possibly with some video, but the recording wasn’t perfect, so that may not happen. But I do want to say a huge thank you to Russell: and a huge thank you to the Library of Mistakes and for hosting so many MoneyWeek readers during their inaugural week. Hugely grateful, and please do all visit the Library of Mistakes if you come up. It is an absolutely fantastic resource. Thank you.