"Ireland is in a death spiral" -FT

"After the November President election the U.S. is facing a fiscal cliff" -Federal Reserve staff

"Eurogeddon!" -The PolyCapitalist

On and on go the warnings of cataclysm and pending financial doom.

One frustration among some of us with economics training is with the financial collapse scare mongering that has gone on over the past several years. Technical jargon and existential risks are bandied about in frightening fashion, leaving the general, non-economically trained public with very little ability to understand what's actually happening or just how bad things could really get if say Greece leaves the Eurozone, or another country defaults, or something like this occurs.

This blog is not entirely innocent of this criticism, so this post is a brief attempt to quickly address the question of whether our global financial system is on the precipice of a financial collapse if say something 'really bad' happens in Europe?

The short answer is no.

Now before I answer that, let me clarify something very important: this post is about financial collapse and not about the extremely high levels of unemployment, which have reached approximately 50% for young people in countries such as Greece and Spain. The youth and general unemployment problems today are serious and something to be very concerned about. But this post is not about that but instead about whether another Lehman-style event could occur where the world's financial system risks implosion if say a country like Greece pulls out of the euro, the current 'bank jog' in Spain accelerates, etc.

So why isn't the risk of financial collapse as bad as some would have use believe?

For starters, we have to keep in mind that our financial world is a virtual world. Today, money is largely a set of numbers on a computer. This means that even in the most extreme scenario of financial disorder, where policymakers completely blow it and the ATMs stopped working and the stock market tanked, that everything that is real and tangible - the houses, the food that is farmed, the physical assets - none of this goes away and will all be here the next day when you wake up in the morning.

Now having said that, a financial implosion would definitely have a major impact on our lives, particularly for those with fewer resources or who are unprepared. But life will go on for nearly everyone and could actually rebound quite quickly given other historical cases. For example, Argentina began recovering within months following its utterly complete financial meltdown in 2001 even though the country achieved the relatively rare trifecta of a currency collapse, a banking crisis, and a sovereign default all at once. Iceland has had a relatively quick turnaround following its 2008 financial implosion. And other Asian countries in the late-90s also turned the corner pretty quickly following major financial crises.

In the case of Argentina, dozens of people died in Dec. 2001 riots, so I don't want to minimize the very real suffering and dislocation which comes with a financial collapse. But Argentina's experience is a far cry from the level of suffering of say a war or severe natural disaster. In short, a 'cataclysm', it was not.

A further point needs to be made about the above examples, which is that they were all relatively isolated, contained crises that did not threaten a systemic collapse. But this leads me to point number two, which is that a systemic collapse is extremely unlikely, particularly given two facts:

  1. what was learned from the recent Lehman-experience in 2008 by the current crop of policymakers
  2. the world's central banks, especially the Federal Reserve, still have loads of financial ammunition.

Regarding what was learned with the 2008 Lehman experience, current policymakers got a first-hand glimpse of just how interconnected the world's financial system is and how the failure of a seemingly small cog in the wheel could threaten to topple the whole system. So while yes, Greece's financial implosion could lead to a chain reaction that threatens the entire global financial system, it is utterly inconceivable in the wake of the Lehman crisis that policymakers would sit back and let that happen given what they learned and how they responded in 2008-2009.

So I hear you asking whether all our problems are solved then because central banks like the Federal Reserve are all powerful, financially speaking, and able to contain any crisis which comes its way? Over the long-term, I would say no, they are not all powerful financially. But in the short-term, meaning right now and over the next few months at least, they are all powerful financially, and here's why.

Central banks like the Fed, ECB, Bank of Japan, and Bank of England which operate fiat currencies have an extraordinary power, which is that they can create an unlimited amount of money.

'Unlimited', meaning a truly infinite amount of money? Yes

What this means is that even if, for example, all the depositors in Spain and Greece withdrew every last euro from their local banks the ECB can supply all the notes that citizens want to hide under their bed mattresses. In short, the ATMs should never, ever run out of money in a fiat money system which is being managed by competent professionals.

But earlier I alluded to the fact that even though central banks can print an unlimited amount of money that they were not in fact financially omnipotent over the long-term, so what did I mean by that?

With the magic that is the computer a central bank could literally go and create and infinite amount of money. But there are side effects with central banks creating a lot of money, namely inflation. Without getting technical, simply put inflation is a rise in prices. Hyperinflation is a very large, sudden rise in prices.

But here is the crucial point to remember: rising inflation acts as a brake on a central bank's ability to create money. In other words, a rise in inflation is perhaps the key to understanding when central banks would be constrained in any effort to bail out the financial system.

Today, most of the world's advanced economies (North America, Europe) have relatively modest inflation, meaning low single digit annual percentage increases in official measures of core inflation. And even though they would say otherwise, the central banks in these advanced countries would be more than willing to trade an increase in inflation to stem the risk of a systemic financial collapse.

So how much more inflation would central banks be willing to tolerate as a tradeoff for not risking financial collapse? As the Bank of England has demonstrated in the past couple years, inflation creeping up towards 5% is not enough of a concern to prompt a significant deviation in policy. So my guess (it is a guess) is that at the extreme central banks like the Fed could tolerate up to 10% if they perceived the risks of collapse to be great enough before they would think twice about pulling another post-Lehman style bailout of the world's financial system. And since we're still in low single digit inflation this gives the Fed a decent amount of runway to maneuver.

This room to maneuver is what is meant when it is said that the Fed, which controls the world's most important reserve currency, and other central banks still have lots of ammunition.

The existence of this ammunition is likely a factor behind why given all the current distress in Europe that the stock markets haven't fallen further. In other words, the markets expect central banks to step in and flood the financial system with money if Greece leaves the euro or a banking run accelerates. Even the supposedly hemmed in by the Germans/hard-money crowd ECB. After LTRO and all the sovereign bond debt purchases, anyone who still thinks the ECB won't step in to save the system if things go completely pear shaped by creating a lot money is living in a fantasy. And this flood of central bank money would likely be very bullish for stocks in the short-term.

Should inflation increase significantly, then the ability of central banks to rush in and save the day could be diminished. But for now, they have the power to act, and that's why (for now) a general financial collapse is not on the immediate horizon.

So in sum, if you want to understand when it might be time to get worried, keep an eye on official measures of core inflation, particularly if it starts creeping up near the 5% level as that is about the time a proper central banker will begin to twitch.

Now, in terms of how you want to position your investment portfolio given the above, the very first post on this blog just over two years ago argued for allocating some of your portfolio into gold, which is arguably the best hedge against excessive central bank money printing. Even though the price of gold has gone up significantly in the last two years this blog still stands by that recommendation for long-term investors.