We all know that software is eating the world.
For better or worse, that statement applies to the financial world as well. It is said today that 75% of all financial market volume is automated, though there are lower and higher estimates out there depending on the report.
The bottom line is that algorithmic trading is the dominant market player – and this has benefits and drawbacks for average investors. On the upside, markets are less volatile and presumably more rational because they are driven by computers instead of fallible humans.
On the other hand? Sometimes algos just go rogue and do something unpredictable.
When the British pound flash crashed earlier this month, it was exactly this latter thing that happened.
Explaining the October Flash Crash in the British Pound
The following infographic from Top 10 Forex VPS shares a play-by-play breakdown of how the British pound crashed a whopping 8% in just two minutes.
It’s interesting because it helps give a sense of how the piping works behind these trading algorithms. It’s also a cautionary tale of algos gone wild, showing how market momentum can be swung in a particular direction even without your average market participants being involved.
In the aftermath of Brexit, the British pound has subsequently morphed into a “political” currency that seems to get most of its trading action based on commentary and speculation about the country’s eventual withdrawal from the EU.
On October 6, 2016, François Hollande said that the UK must “pay the price” for Brexit. Trading algorithms reacted to this news that they deemed to be negative, and it triggered a GBP selloff. Once a massive knock-out option was opened and a certain price broke, it triggered a number of automated stop-loss sellers.
After a few other algorithms kicked in, the British pound went from $1.26 to $1.1491 in a matter of just two minutes in USD terms. That’s a 8% slide in a globally significant currency.
Just 30 minutes later, the pound recovered to more normal trading levels.
The flash crash was just that – temporary. However, this does raise the question: what could have happened in a more extreme case of algos gone wild?
The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years
Interest rates sit near generational lows — is this the new normal, or has it been the trend all along? We show a history of interest rates in this graphic.
The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years
Today, we live in a low-interest-rate environment, where the cost of borrowing for governments and institutions is lower than the historical average. It is easy to see that interest rates are at generational lows, but did you know that they are also at 670-year lows?
This week’s chart outlines the interest rates attached to loans dating back to the 1350s. Take a look at the diminishing history of the cost of debt—money has never been cheaper for governments to borrow than it is today.
The Birth of an Investing Class
Trade brought many good ideas to Europe, while helping spur the Renaissance and the development of the money economy.
Key European ports and trading nations, such as the Republic of Genoa or the Netherlands during the Renaissance period, help provide a good indication of the cost of borrowing in the early history of interest rates.
The Republic of Genoa: 4-5 year Lending Rate
Genoa became a junior associate of the Spanish Empire, with Genovese bankers financing many of the Spanish crown’s foreign endeavors.
Genovese bankers provided the Spanish royal family with credit and regular income. The Spanish crown also converted unreliable shipments of New World silver into capital for further ventures through bankers in Genoa.
Dutch Perpetual Bonds
A perpetual bond is a bond with no maturity date. Investors can treat this type of bond as an equity, not as debt. Issuers pay a coupon on perpetual bonds forever, and do not have to redeem the principal—much like the dividend from a blue-chip company.
By 1640, there was so much confidence in Holland’s public debt, that it made the refinancing of outstanding debt with a much lower interest rate of 5% possible.
Dutch provincial and municipal borrowers issued three types of debt:
- Promissory notes (Obligatiën): Short-term debt, in the form of bearer bonds, that was readily negotiable
- Redeemable bonds (Losrenten): Paid an annual interest to the holder, whose name appeared in a public-debt ledger until the loan was paid off
- Life annuities (Lijfrenten): Paid interest during the life of the buyer, where death cancels the principal
Unlike other countries where private bankers issued public debt, Holland dealt directly with prospective bondholders. They issued many bonds of small coupons that attracted small savers, like craftsmen and often women.
Rule Britannia: British Consols
In 1752, the British government converted all its outstanding debt into one bond, the Consolidated 3.5% Annuities, in order to reduce the interest rate it paid. Five years later, the annual interest rate on the stock dropped to 3%, adjusting the stock as Consolidated 3% Annuities.
The coupon rate remained at 3% until 1888, when the finance minister converted the Consolidated 3% Annuities, along with Reduced 3% Annuities (1752) and New 3% Annuities (1855), into a new bond─the 2.75% Consolidated Stock. The interest rate was further reduced to 2.5% in 1903.
Interest rates briefly went back up in 1927 when Winston Churchill issued a new government stock, the 4% Consols, as a partial refinancing of WWI war bonds.
American Ascendancy: The U.S. Treasury Notes
The United States Congress passed an act in 1870 authorizing three separate consol issues with redemption privileges after 10, 15, and 30 years. This was the beginning of what became known as Treasury Bills, the modern benchmark for interest rates.
The Great Inflation of the 1970s
In the 1970s, the global stock market was a mess. Over an 18-month period, the market lost 40% of its value. For close to a decade, few people wanted to invest in public markets. Economic growth was weak, resulting in double-digit unemployment rates.
The low interest policies of the Federal Reserve in the early ‘70s encouraged full employment, but also caused high inflation. Under new leadership, the central bank would later reverse its policies, raising interest rates to 20% in an effort to reset capitalism and encourage investment.
Looking Forward: Cheap Money
Since then, interest rates set by government debt have been rapidly declining, while the global economy has rapidly expanded. Further, financial crises have driven interest rates to just above zero in order to spur spending and investment.
It is clear that the arc of lending bends towards ever-decreasing interest rates, but how low can they go?
The World’s Most Powerful Reserve Currencies
Here are the reserve currencies that the world’s central banks hold onto for a rainy day.
The World’s Most Powerful Reserve Currencies
When we think of network effects, we’re usually thinking of them in the context of technology and Metcalfe’s Law.
Metcalfe’s Law states that the more users that a network has, the more valuable it is to those users. It’s a powerful idea that is exploited by companies like LinkedIn, Airbnb, or Uber — all companies that provide a more beneficial service as their networks gain more nodes.
But network effects don’t apply just to technology and related fields.
In the financial sector, for example, stock exchanges grow in utility when they have more buyers, sellers, and volume. Likewise, in international finance, a currency can become increasingly entrenched when it’s accepted, used, and trusted all over the world.
What’s a Reserve Currency?
Today’s visualization comes to us from HowMuch.net, and it breaks down foreign reserves held by countries — but what is a reserve currency, anyways?
In essence, reserve currencies (i.e. U.S. dollar, pound sterling, euro, etc.) are held on to by central banks for the following major reasons:
- To maintain a stable exchange rate for the domestic currency
- To ensure liquidity in the case of an economic or political crisis
- To provide confidence to international buyers and foreign investors
- To fulfill international obligations, such as paying down debt
- To diversify central bank portfolios, reducing overall risk
Not surprisingly, central banks benefit the most from stockpiling widely-held reserve currencies such as the U.S. dollar or the euro.
Because these currencies are accepted almost everywhere, they provide third-parties with extra confidence and perceived liquidity. This is a network effect that snowballs from the growing use of a particular reserve currency over others.
Reserve Currencies Over Time
Here is how the usage of reserve currencies has evolved over the last 15 years:
|🇺🇸 U.S. Dollar||🇪🇺 Euro||🇯🇵 Japanese Yen||🇬🇧 Pound Sterling||🌐 Other|
Over this timeframe, there have been small ups and downs in most reserve currencies.
Today, the U.S. dollar is the world’s most powerful reserve currency, making up over 61% of foreign reserves. The dollar gets an extensive network effect from its use abroad, and this translates into several advantages for the multi-trillion dollar U.S. economy.
The euro, yen, and pound sterling are the other mainstay reserve currencies, adding up to roughly 30% of foreign reserves.
Finally, the most peculiar data series above is “Other”, which grew from 2.0% to 8.4% of worldwide foreign reserves over the last 15 years. This bucket includes the Canadian dollar, the Australian dollar, the Swiss franc, and the Chinese renminbi.
There have been rumblings in the media for decades now about the rise of the Chinese renminbi as a potential new challenger on the reserve currency front.
While there are still big structural problems that will prevent this from happening as fast as some may expect, the currency is still on the rise internationally.
What will the composition of global foreign reserves look like in another 15 years?
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