In The New Monetary Ballgame, the Game Is Rigged for US Treasuries (Part 2)

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Every financial debacle that takes banks down is an open invitation for governments to impose regulation with the aim of preventing a reoccurrence. The financial crisis of 2008 was no exception.

Unfortunately, revisions in the banking environment generally end up with unintended consequences, and they are far-reaching.

The regulation in question are designed to reduce a banking system vulnerably to being caught with insufficient liquidity in a market-driven flight to cash. (It’s something that Deutsche Bank no doubt should be thinking about at this time.) All this is explained in Part 1 of The New Monetary Ballgame, which is a deep dive for those most interested.

But in brief summary, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) — the central bank for central banks — is imposing liquidity and solvency criteria on the banks for all member countries of the G-20. This is being imposed because the financial crisis of 2008 was worldwide, and now all member governments have accepted the BIS’ dictates.

The immediate thrust of these regulations is to impose substantially higher liquidity requirements on banks. The purpose is to allow banks to retire all bank claimants who want out if a bank run à la 2008 were to occur. Liquidity means being prepared with cash. And if not, banks are forced to sell assets en masse. This could create a far-reaching financial selling crisis, which in turn forces governments into the financial rescue business.

In this new monetary ballgame, banks can choose from a menu of assets set out by the BIS to satisfy the new and higher liquidity requirements. Obviously, cash on hand or deposited with a central bank (not necessarily their own) qualifies. In addition, the BIS wants these assets to be interest-bearing so as not to sacrifice bank profitability in the quest for more liquidity. As a result, some marketable interest earning assets also qualify for the liquidity requirement. But which?

In general, the preference is for banks to hold interest-earning assets for which there is a robust secondary market that could turn those assets into cash with little discounting during a financial crisis.

This narrows the potential candidate assets very quickly because most assets substantially decline in value in secondary markets in the midst of a financial crisis. Hence, what banks need in a selloff is what market traders refer to as “flight to quality assets.” In regulatory jargon, this is now being expressed as High Quality Liquid Assets (HQLA).

Certainly highest in the pecking order among HQLA would tend to be sovereign bonds and perhaps highest quality corporate or muni bonds, with the regulators permitting.

And that is the way the discussion rolled out with the European members nominating their own country bonds to be considered HQLA.

But you can image what followed when, for example, Greek sovereign bonds with a Moody’s Rating of Caa3 would have become eligible to meet the HQLA requirement. As could be expected, the US objected. In its opinion, only US Treasury securities qualify to be HQLA for all countries’ banks.

While on the surface this appears to be an argument about bond quality, at the Machiavellian level this is an argument over whose bonds will be imposed on the banks of all the G-20 countries. Result? The US won. Banks from all G-20 countries can now satisfy their BIS liquidity requirements by holding US Treasuries.

So when the global bank regulator can, under the guise of “safety and soundness,” impose an incentive to hold US Treasury obligations, it has established a mechanism to finance US government debt at lower yields than would otherwise be the case. That comes just in time if you ask me, as the US structural deficit has widened to $0.6 trillion/year with decades of rising baby boomer entitlements staring us straight in the eye.

So you can see the advantages involved from winning the Machiavellian jostle and be deemed, the king of sovereign debt issuers. The US sovereign bond prices will be higher and the yields will be lower. Indeed, over the summer, the 10-year US Treasury yield fell to its all-time low of 1.37% just as banks across the G-20 were approaching the September 30th deadline to fulfill their new liquidity requirements.

In comparison, the BIS allowed US investment corporate grade debt to be counted as bank liquidity but with only a 50% weight. That is to say, anticipate that corporate debt would sell in the market during times of stress at a 50% discount. Not bad when you realize that even investment-grade US municipal bonds receives a haircut of 100% in the calculation of its contribution to bank liquidity. Thus municipal bonds clearly lost out in the Machiavellian jostle as none of it counts for bank liquidity.

As a result of this weighting, the market yield spread has widened between assets classes such as US Treasury bonds and investment-grade muni bonds. With muni debt having less regulatory value, their yields have risen relative to those of the US Treasury that does have regulatory value.

What is yet to come over the next two years is higher ratios of equity capital for commercial banks. This means banks will need a larger amount of their own banks’ stock on their balance sheet to increase their net worth and ability to take asset losses without going insolvent.

But every additional share sold dilutes existing stockholders’ claim on banks’ profits. When substantial increases in bank equity capital need be raised, especially at times of very low market pricing of bank equity, it will take a lot of shares at low prices to raise the required amount of additional bank capital. This will dilute existing shareholders into a nothingness.

But in this rigged game, there is an alternative to bank stockholder dilution: Hold larger proportions of US Treasuries as assets and, since they are anointed by the regulatory to be “riskless,” a bank has less need to protect itself from losses as the regulator claims those assets will not deteriorate in value. Hence, the regulatory mandate for higher equity capital is waived against those assets by holding more US Treasury obligations!

The result is that yet more G-20 country banks, especially weaker European banks, will add to their holdings of US Treasuries rather than dilute their existing stockholders via the sale of a ton of additional bank stock.

It’s so obvious, one doesn’t need to take a step backwards to get perspective. When assets must be bought and held by developed world banks which are a very large asset pool (a multiple larger than central bank assets), it generates considerable demand for that asset that doesn’t go away. It becomes a rigged game because the price of the issuers’ debt is supported in the market and the issuer’s borrowing costs decline.

In turn, it encourages the subsided issuer to keep issuing more debt.

Therefore, it’s no great surprise that we find ourselves at a point where the developed world countries are talking about issuing yet more country debt and spend the proceeds as the way to generate more aggregate demand.  This would constitute a shift toward fiscal policy and away from monetary policy to manage a depressed economy.

Another major implication is that the textbook treatment of interest rate determination based on investor queasiness from inflation and default still remain. But those influences on interest rates pale by comparison to the fiat demand generated by G-20 commercial banks for US Treasury securities.

Stay tuned. It’s a new ballgame, and we’re going to have to relearn many of the things we thought academics and history had taught us. 

 

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It’s a Whole New Ballgame: The Fed Has Been Stymied: (Part 1)

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As a result of the 2008 financial meltdown, The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) was tasked by the G-20 countries to change the global rules of commercial banking in order to prevent a re-occurrence. Their mandate was: no déjà vu again, if you please.

The snuffing-out of future financial crises comes via regulation, and because regulation tinkers with the equations of the “system,” it changes the built-in reactions. This requires us to rethink what we presume will occur.

For example, it turns out that when the BIS tinkers with things to make banks more resilient to meltdown, it also makes them more resilient to monetary expansions. So this explains, in part, why even though the Fed increased its balance sheet by 500% since 2008, US commercial bank balance sheets have increased by only 45%. And since commercial banks provide credit directly to businesses and individuals, the (lack of) banking and in turn economic expansion has disappointed most observers — including the Fed itself.

Before getting around to explaining how that can happen, first, some background on the dynamics of a bank meltdown. This will provide you with an understanding of what the regulators are tinkering with and why, and then what the consequences will be.

Bank runs follow a typical scenario, and 2008 was a classic example. It starts with a loss of confidence in the banking system’s assets sufficient to cause bank depositors and other providers of short-term bank funding (deposits and loans) to exercise their right to exchange their claims on the bank for immediate cash.

This, in turn, forces banks to sell assets into the market to obtain cash in order to be able to “cash out” these bank claimants. The selling of bank assets must meet the pace of the demanded cash, and if the depositors and lenders aren’t mollified, it can turn into an asset fire-sale in order to obtain the needed cash quickly.

Cash is king in a bank run, and banks in need are willing to swap assets at a discount in order to obtain it — which is what causes a banking crises to become a financial crisis. These twin crises are two sides of the same coin.

It quickly occurs to depositors and claimants (even those affiliated with banks thought to be “solid”) that their banks’ assets are being compromised in market value by these fire-sales. This, in turn, causes the depositors of the “solid” banks to become jilted out of their comfort zones and to demand cash as well — just in case.

From there, the run affects those banks thought to be doing well.

Note that the first sparks in the financial meltdown are due to obtaining liquidity, but it quickly turns into a question of “is my bank still solvent?”

Solvency is the basic issue of whether my bank’s assets now exceed its liabilities so that it can cash out all claimants if need be. If not, the regulator might even beat the depositors to the punch and seize the bank in anticipation of an insolvency, which they can do. And they can be quick on the trigger because they suffer the residual losses if they guarantee the bank’s debt.

In that case, claimants then worry whether the resolution and liquidation of the bank calls for their claims on the bank to be bail-out or “bailed-in,” with the latter occurring more frequently these days.  All this increases the uncertainty and fear by bank claimants as to whether they will be made whole.  This then increases their propensity to more quickly cash out their bank claims when questions of illiquidity or insolvency arise.

For any reader that saw The Big Short, this should sound familiar. That movie depicted the moment in 2008 when investor and regulator focus turned to the solvency of Bear Stearns. Its stock price went into free-fall, and its claimants wanted their cash back. It was immediately over for Bear Stearns (forced merger with JP Morgan Chase), and the only remaining question as a claimant was, would you be bailed-out or bailed-in?

So it’s with this background that one could imagine the importance of reducing the vulnerability of the trifecta of risks: bank runs, financial meltdown, and an economy that gets sucked down by the implosion of the market value of wealth.

As you now see, bank and financial crashes are the result of depositors running to cash out, so perhaps you can imagine what the BIS is requiring of banks in the G-20 countries: Hold a higher proportion of cash or assets that can quickly be sold with little discount in a period of financial distress.

These requirements are spelled out in the new lexicons of banking called Liquidity Coverage Ratio or LCR. It defines the amount of cash and cash-type assets that banks must hold. The LCR is specific to each bank and is intended to cover the bank’s 30-day forward net cash needs in the course of doing business under financial stress.

To have adequate liquidity in financial distress, there is a greater emphasis on cash as the asset of regulatory choice, so there is no need to actually sell an asset to obtain cash during a financial crisis. Actually, the emphasis is even more narrow on cash in excess of what banks would be required to hold under country-specific banking laws.

It turns out that holding excess cash deposited with a central bank has great appeal to the banks as well to satisfy its BIS liquidity requirement. But let’s be clear: For the cash to be available to cash out a bank’s claimants, it must be in excess of the minimum cash amounts that country banking laws already requires banks to hold.

The BIS liquidity requirement is on top of the Fed’s cash requirement.

But there is a problem with holding excess cash to meet the liquidity requirement. In several G-20 countries, excess cash deposited at its central bank has a net charge called a negative deposit rate. For example, the European Central Bank deposit rate for its banks is -40 basis points, and marginal excess reserve deposits in Japan are at -10 basis points. The required liquidity comes at a high cost because negative deposit rates do not produce positive earnings.

One should quickly realize that because the Federal Reserve Bank pays a positive 50 basis points on cash reserves, banks across the G-20 would prefer to hold excess cash at the US Federal Reserve instead of at their own central banks — and foreign banks can do that by making deposits at the Fed via their US subsidiaries.

Here’s the implication: There is a substantial need and incentive for banks not only in the US but also across the G-20 to hold excess US dollar cash reserve deposits at the US Federal Reserve Bank.

Below is shown total cash reserves at the Fed and its division between required and excess cash amounts, starting just prior to the financial meltdown. The total cash owned by banks rose starting with post-financial crisis QEs. Total cash derives from the Fed buying assets and paying in currency (or claims that can be converted to currency) and that cash, in turn, being deposited by the seller at his or her own bank.

By US banking law, the portion of cash from that transaction that is required is a rather small proportion of the deposit. So in total, the new cash becomes divided between required cash (shown as the narrow strip in brown at the bottom of the graph) and the “excess” of what is required.

The amount of excess cash, shown in blue, is large in absolute and relative terms ($2.37 trillion, presently) as compared to a normal level of zero held for many prior decades.  That is, banks were fully loaned up given the cash amounts provided by the Fed and all cash was required.

It’s a Whole New Ballgame

This condition of excess bank cash has, since Keynes’ time, been characterized as a “liquidity trap.” It was taken as synonymous with depressionary circumstances where borrowers did not wish to borrow and lenders did not wish to lend, causing high proportions of excess cash.

But now, there is a new incentive for banks (and not just US banks) to hold excess US cash. It meets the BIS liquidity requirement while also being paid 50 basis points by the Fed. From the bank’s perspective, that is a decent return on riskless paper that cannot depreciate due to falling bond prices, which typically occurs when they need the cash most — i.e., in a financial meltdown. It’s a reasonable way to meet the LCR requirement.

So if an individual commercial bank needs to meet its LCR, it sells assets and deposits the proceeds with the Fed. It would not be putting the cash into loans and paying for the loan with deposits (the usual commercial bank money expansion method) because the deposit would create the need for the bank to use some of its new cash as required reserves and it would not contribute to its LCR requirement.

This is hardly a prescription for monetary policy to generate lending and spending to achieve the macroeconomic objectives of job growth and inflation.

So now, hopefully you see the irony. Though the Fed has embarked on multiple quantitative easing operations of expanding its balance sheet in order to stimulate commercial bank lending and spending, it’s not happening to the extent it would have formerly occurred.

It is the increased need to hold cash, as dictated by the BIS liquidity requirement, that causes banks to hold excess cash rather than lend it out. This is what is creating the liquidity trap. And it’s not just true for US banks: Cumberland Advisors estimates that 44% of the excess US bank cash held at the Fed is in accounts belonging to US subsidiaries of foreign banks.

It used to be that the money supply multiplier concept gave testimony to the importance and strength of monetary policy. It had been the case that when the central bank printed money and bought assets, credit availability would get a boost from these central bank purchases, but the far greater boost came from commercial banks’ subsequent expansion of loans. This has been called the money supply multiplier because banks expanded credit in amounts 8 to 9 times the Fed’s increase in its asset purchase.

That is quite a money supply multiplier.

This multiplier gave the Fed and its monetary policy an extraordinary influence on credit availability and a much greater impact on the economy than it would have had through its own direct purchase of assets.

It’s a Whole New Ballgame

Thus, in today’s discussion of why the Fed’s expansionary policy is not reviving the economy, one need look no further than the banks’ muted response to it. The accompanying graph shows the growth of US commercial bank assets since 2008.

The Federal Reserve balance sheet has expanded 500% since the pre-financial crisis times of 2008 via Fed QEs, while the combined bank balance sheets have increased only 45%. Or to put it another way, if the responses of commercial banks to the Fed expansion were in the same proportion as the pre-financial crisis relationship of commercial banks and Fed balance sheets, the combined commercial bank assets today would be $55 trillion vs. its actual level of $l6 trillion.

To understand how under-expanded and under-loaned banks are, realize that half of the commercial bank expansion is not due to additional loans but rather to banks holding the additional cash the Fed spent on assets that then became deposited at the sellers’ bank.

So the Fed’s influence on growing credit and on the economy has largely been stymied by the new required liquidity amounts — all with the goal of averting the next financial crisis. And the press hoopla about what the Fed will do next has become a carnival sideshow that embarrasses the Fed because when it steps on the monetary accelerator, very little happens.

What the Fed needs is a low PR profile for its own good when it comes to its ability to restore full employment and inflation. It creates false expectations that can’t be realized while there is a BIS liquidity requirement that’s neutralizing its expansionary policy.

What we have is a situation in which regulators with different mandates are working at cross purposes with each other, with the BIS forcing cash holdings (and other liquid assets) to prevent illiquidity in a crisis, and the Fed providing cash with the hope that banks lend it and borrowers spends it.

The Fed giveth, and the BIC taketh away.

The bottom line is that the Fed (and other central banks) have supplied cash, but much of it has been hoarded to make sure bank runs and financial crises are a thing of the past. So if the Fed were to provide economic stimulus consistent with its objectives, it needs further expansion rather than the “normalization” of its balance sheet to 2008 levels.

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The House of Cards: EU Edition

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It’s been an implicit theme of this blog that ultra-low interest rates, even into negative territory, pursued by economically failing developed countries, are more a problem than a solution.

Allow me to make that explicit.

The policy derives from a complete and exclusive focus on Keynesian thinking: The lower the cost of credit, the more of it will be sought and used to finance spending for consumer durables and capital equipment. This in turn might generate income and jobs. With capital investment prospects being painfully limited (which is the problem not being addressed), the enticement of low interest rates, even at subsided (negative) rates has had a meager advantage.

However, negative rates are undercutting financial intermediaries. This will only create major disasters that governments will have to underwrite.

Basically, no financial intermediary would seek to place a loan or purchase a fixed income instrument at a negative rate unless they were forced to do so. That force is called financial regulation. Simply put, negative rates do not generate investment income. Therefore, the financial intermediaries — be they banks, credit unions, pension funds, or insurance companies — will be unable to perform on their obligations to their customers.

That is, insurance companies will be unable to service annuities; banks will be faced with insufficient income to generate income for themselves or pay a positive deposit rate; depositors will flee; pension funds will need to revise upward pension contributions (and they are in the process of doing so) and will, in addition, roll-back promised pension benefits.

With all these private contracted benefits being challenged and ultimately being unmet, there becomes an enormous pressure on governments, not just from countries ruled by social democrats, to save the majority of voters who are adversely affected.

This then becomes an additional burden on government finance for countries already being supported by their central banks. In fact, the European Central Bank, despite an explicit treaty provision not to monetize government debt, is already doing so in earnest. Additional challenges to cover financial intermediary failures puts the ECB farther into unchartered waters for the use of the printing press.

Another source of funding would be to lean upon other governments to bail out depositors, as was done with Greece and Cyprus. However, this only strengthens pro-exit political parties in the countries financing the bailouts.

What one can expect next in these circumstances is capital flight because of the ultra-low returns-to-fixed-income investment and bank deposits becoming risky. This turns into full throttle capital flight at advanced stages, as the capital outflow continues to make the currency relatively cheaper. And wealth owners will flee that.

At that stage, financial prices reflect a flight to quality – a preference for currencies and debt instruments of countries not facing these issues – and precious metals.

The downer in economic circumstances becomes so great that countries then seek to reinvent themselves in a political-economy dimension. For European governments, compromises made in the context of the benefit of unification are re-appraised, seeking some advantage to go it alone. Going it alone allows a country its own rules and its own currency that cheapens with capital flight. The cheap currency becomes an equilibrating device as exporting becomes more promising.

That is the house of cards the EU has built, now falling one by one — and the latest unstable card in Europe are the Italian banks. They aren’t only suffering depleted investment income from low rates available on their investments but also from a backlog of defaulting loans. Italy is attempting to infuse €40 billion into its banking system with the pretense of covering losses well exceeding that. However, to do so violates the very responses that were agreed upon by the EU just two years ago.

At that time, the banking system was bolstered by an EU deposit insurance commitment that was never funded.

Instead, the EU decided to build a firewall around its banking problems to keep them from being met by the government. They mandated that their banks sell “CoCo” (contingent convertible) bonds. These bonds convert to stockholder shares when the banks admit losses. The question then becomes who takes the losses. In this case, the CoCo bond holders were set up to automatically take the hit ahead of depositors and protect the government from being called upon for a depositor bailout.

Well, things have become bad, and it’s time to convert the CoCo bonds to stock. However, the banks sold the CoCo bonds to retail clients seeking the high positive returns that such a risk should command. Now retail investors, among others, are in line to sacrifice their positions to protect the banks’ losses, which, in turn, protects the government from the need to cover those bank losses — but there is a catch. No self-respecting social democrat government will allow retail bond holders to take a hit on behalf of the banks, even if they were paid to do so.

So this is where the matters stands: the Italian government is attempting to raise €40 billion, despite a reported €360 billion of nonperforming loans, to provide a pretense of a capital infusion for the banks. This is despite the objections of the EU, as it varies from the “plan” of private capital backstops. And no other country, as you might expect, dares to step up at this time to aid Italy.

In the meantime, the market reflects a flight to quality in the prices, especially of US, German, and Swiss government bonds, the prices of silver and gold, and the sale of private personal safes. The market is just awaiting the next chapter of the soap opera called The House of Cards.

The only question is how far will disintegration go this round? And if not this round, the next?

 

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The Mad Genius of the Zero-Forever Bond

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That the developed world governments are accumulating debt shouldn’t be news to anyone. To give you an idea of the proportions involved, during the Obama administration, US government debt has risen from approximately $8 trillion, accumulated over the previous 218 years of the US’s existence, to above $19 trillion and counting.

This is a 137% increase in merely seven and a half years.

Furthermore, we have now reached the point in time when Baby Boomer-related entitlements are adding to the outstanding cumulative debt. It is projected that the present value of unfunded federally obligated benefits is somewhere between $55 and $222 trillion — currently serviced by an undersized income stream of only $17 trillion.

In this state of indebtedness, the interest bill alone becomes an impediment to being able to fund entitlements (as well as everything else) unless there are some tricks up the government’s sleeves — and they are tricksters.

And here is the trick: Central banks of the developed world are pursuing ultra-low interest rates to reduce the interest burden of their governments’ debt. Indeed, Germany’s effective borrowing rate on the entirety of its debt has declined to .43 of 1 percent, and is now able to come to the market with a 10-year, zero-rate offering that will reduce it even further.

Another means to reduce the debt burden is to play games, not just with reducing interest carry but also with debt maturities. With interest expense being so cheap, there is the natural inclination by the debt managers in the US Treasury and all highly indebted countries to lock in the low rates for as long as possible.

Hence, government bond maturities are being reconsidered. The longest maturity bond of fiscally solid governments that could be sold in markets to private wealth sources had been 30 years, and few governments were able to extend debt that far out.

Or not? First, the 30-year bond maturity was stretched to 50 years in Spain and Italy, neither of which should be considered investment grade. And now France, Belgium, and Mexico have introduced “Century Bonds” — a quaint title — for debt that won’t come due for 100 years.

So the issue of how the interest cost of the debt will be handled is being settled by the mad geniuses in the world’s treasury departments. Expect to see governments placing debt maturities as far out into the future as they can. Selling debt maturities of 30 years, 50 years, or even 100 years is amateurish. The ultimate goal is to stretch the maturity into perpetuity.

And combining a zero-interest rate with a maturity of forever makes for what might be called the “Zero-Forever Bond,” which means no interest or principal will ever be owed or paid.

And here are some of the implications.

The appeal to the government issuer is that debt refinanced as a Zero-Forever Bond is the functional equivalent of a repudiation of its debt. The debt remains on the government balance sheet in perpetuity but with no consequence for the issuing government, as neither interest nor principal is ever paid. At the same time, the Zero-Forever Bond remains an asset for its owner, who never receives interest or principal.

But who would possibly purchase a Zero-Forever Bond?

To answer that question, realize that the great majority of government debt is typically placed with financial institutions that are in the business of store-housing private savings. Their combined balance sheets are well more than that of the central bank.

But without economic incentives for a private financial institution to purchase the Zero-Forever Bond, the governments would need to create some.

This is easily accomplished by financial regulation — and, in fact, it’s already underway. Just require financial institutions to appear “safe and sound,” by requiring them to purchase government debt instead of holding “risky” debt.

In addition, enticements are being given to the money market mutual funds (MMMFs) that must hold significant proportions of Treasury bonds in order to receive government insurance against shares declining to less than “a buck.”

Similarly, insurance companies are generally required to hold conservative portfolios (for which Treasuries fit the bill) and additionally Treasuries offset insufficient surplus in order to remain in regulatory capital compliance. The regulatory presumption that Treasuries are safe and sound is also used for pension fund compliance to be eligible for Federal Pension Benefit Guarantees. The Zero-Forever Bond fits the regulatory bill for all.

Basically, the Zero Forever has two sides to it: It saves the government from an actual default no matter how large its debt relative to tax proceeds because it pays nothing. But if held by private financial intermediaries as described above, they will be challenged to make good on their commitments to private savers because they won’t earn investment income on those assets held as Zero Forever Bonds (and yet, they’d be required to hold them to be in compliance).

The Zero-Forever Bond is not unlike achieving ultimate zero in other fields that causes relationships to be reversed.

In paraphrasing physicist and economist Gary Shilling, who, while commenting in his Insight publication on the central bank pursuing zero short term rates in September 2011, noted:

“….there is an analogy between interest rates near zero and temperatures near absolute zero where all activity of sub-atomic particles ceases…. Near that temperature, strange things happen [italics added]. Thermal energy arises from the motion of atoms and molecules as they collide, but at low temperatures, they don’t and atoms act identically like a single super atom. Substances that are magnetic at higher temperatures become nonmagnetic, and vice versa. Some nonconductors become super conductors — that’s why some computers are kept very cold. Others become super fluids that seem to defy gravity by crawling up the sides of their containers. Near absolute zero, a gas becomes a super liquid that can leak through solid objects….”

Well, the Zero-Forever as a perpetuity bond, which bears no interest and is crammed down on financial institutions that hold private savings, must be considered a change in nature, and in Shilling’s words would cause strange things to happen.

This effectively cancels government debt and thereby increases the net wealth of the government sector. This is done at the expense of the wealth of the financial institutions entrusted with private savings because they must hold an asset that produces absolutely nothing, compromising institutions’ obligations to private savers.

This is how governments’ prospective default is shifted to the private sector. And it’s already happening.

This is being accomplished by some Mad Geniuses in the Treasury Departments of various debt-strapped governments. It requires no public discussion, no legislation, no warnings, and no apologies. It is all quietly slipped under the rug, so to speak.

You will never hear much about it until your insurance company, pension fund, bank, or money market mutual fund is unable to deliver on its contractual obligations to you. And these institutions, not the government, will be held accountable.

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Bond Refugees Flee to Stock Lands

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Tension is building among stock investors.

Stock prices have levitated, but the most fundamental determinant of stock price support — an uplift in corporate earnings — has gone soft.  The S&P 500 earnings actually declined 7.1% year-over-year and the US and moreover global economies that support it are sputtering on all cylinders.

Additionally, given the economic recovery from the Great Recession’s lows, wages are rising modestly — but with zero productivity, there is not much to offset these costs suggesting that profit margins will not hold up.

This comes on top of a seven-year run of stock prices that has outpaced the recovery of corporate earnings (as shown below), making for a relatively high price/earnings ratio as compared to historical benchmarks. All this concerns stock mavens and for good reason.

But on the other side of the ledger is the resolve of the central bank to provide a wealth effect for consumers to keep on consuming. While it’s quite clear that ultra-expansionary monetary policy carried out via bond purchases has elevated bond valuations and, in turn, produced low market yields, what support does monetary policy have for stock prices?

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Since the onset of Fed QE, there’s been a relationship between the money base and a broad stock price index (see below), but what’s the link that caused them to move together- as they have?

First, and most fundamentally, a central bank purchase of bonds from private parties is financed by new money. Hence, the other side of the bond purchase is liquidity in the hands of a portfolio manager, who then scans the financial landscape for a replacement asset that includes stocks. This is the process by which bond buying, paid for with new money, ripples out to affect prices of other assets.

From there, internal portfolio dynamics lead to increased stock purchases in the following way. When bond appreciation generates a wealth effect for investors’ portfolios (particularly institutional investors), then managers must re-balance assets and, in the process, redistribute the bond gains to other risk assets not purchased by the Fed.

Institutional rebalancing is further motivated these days when ultra-low-yield bonds create pressure to generate investment income somewhere else in the markets. This hunt for investment income can take the form of stock dividends or stock appreciation, both of which have generated total returns over the last seven years.

This is say, there is pressure to switch to assets that have become known as “alternatives,” and this has included equities, real estate, and (for a time) commodities. In essence, income investors have become bond migrants who have been forced from their preferred habitat to other asset classes.

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However, there is a simpler way to look at this process of spreading out the price increase. There is a cross-elasticity of demand among alternative assets in a portfolio — much like when a government supports meat prices, the price of fish also rises, even though the government didn’t actually buy any fish. This occurs because the expensive meat drives consumers to purchase more fish, which in turn causes fish prices to increase as well.

To an economist, this so called cross-price elasticity of demand, causes more intensive buying of substitutes when one item becomes expensive.

Another factor that leads to stock demand and levitated prices is a lower discount rate in the market. Institutional investors are not indifferent as to when income arrives: they discount future income to present day terms by discounting at the rate that could be earned on the asset if it were in-hand today — that is, what they are giving up when income arrives later in time.

In this regard, eight years of depressed yields has likely caused the discount rate applied to future earning to be reduced, which, in turn, causes the present value of future income to rise.

As an example, for a single dollar of corporate earnings that is projected to arrive in 10 years, if discounted by today’s low yields of 2%, would have a present value of 81 cents, whereas the same dollar discounted at a 5% rate would, in present value terms, be reduced to 62 cents. Hence, lower market yields boost the valuation of future income even if the future income is not projected to grow. In this case, there is a 31% increase in today’s value for 10-year out income when yields fall as far as they have.

The ultra-low interest rates further work to support stock prices as they induce companies to issue bonds with low yields and apply the proceeds to purchasing their own equity shares. While this doesn’t generate future corporate income, it does increase income per share and enhance stock prices as long as investors ignore adverse effects from a more leveraged future.

Equity share repurchases recently got a further boost when the European Central Bank took up the practice of purchasing corporate bonds at issuance, even for Euro subsidiaries of US companies.  This is likely to add to the pool of additional buy-backs of US-issued company stock. And why not when McDonald’s was able to place a 12-year maturity at a .75% rate that would make the US Treasury Department envious?

Last, in this description of stock price levitation, one should muse on the thought that maintaining stock prices at high levels has occurred despite an absence of Fed bond purchases since October 2014.

While foreign central banks keep at it (and, in the case of Japan and China, actually purchase stocks in addition to bonds), something else must be providing stock price support in the absence of additional Federal Reserve buying.

Not much thought has been given to relative scarcity as a result of bonds being purchased by central banks and stock being purchased by the issuing corporation. These assets will not see the light of day again as there is no way for them to be offered (without a change in policy) on secondary markets.

Hence, with stock and bond issues being locked up, relatively higher prices do not elicit as much of a supply response that would reduce market prices. The historical description for this is a market “cornering,” implying control over price from collecting a significant proportion of an asset — and the central banks are cornering the government bond issues. Thus scarcity allows prices to continue to be levitated thought the Fed buying has stopped.

Indeed, with this in mind, the central banks have vowed to purchase no more than 70% of any government bond issue so as to allow some private suppliers to establish a market price without being able to put much of a dent in its level.

All this is not to say that the unease felt by the stocks mavens can’t bring more supply to the market than the bond migrants will absorb if their expectations go sour.

This would push stock prices downward. But the pent-up demand by the bond migrants for stocks, together with relatively more scarce corporate shares, has changed what we think of as the fundamental yardstick for pricey risk assets.

Thus, historical stock P/E ratios as a metric for an expensive market needs revision, as we are in a whole new history of a higher ratio of money relative to asset values along with more restrictive supplies of both high quality bonds and stocks.

 

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Negative Interest Rate Neverland

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For any good or commodity, if supply increases and there are too few takers, the price will fall.

If supply increases further and demand is still low, prices can fall all the way to zero.

If supply increases thereafter, and there are still too few takers, the supplier can offer a cash incentive to those willing to take the accumulated goods off their hands.

This is a negative price, so it turns out that zero is not a lower-bound price for anything.

The implication for the supplier is that the good generates negative revenues and earnings, so doing business at negative prices dissolves the supplier’s net worth. Offering products at negative prices is not a good business to be in, and if you are, you won’t be for long.

As absurd as it might seem, this has become the business model for banks in countries that are persevering under negative interest rates, primarily in Europe and Japan — and the US is not far off.

Banks and other financial institutions supply credit within the credit markets, and if there is great supply and soft demand, the interest rate (as the price of credit) can fall to zero, as in the example above.

The US and most developed countries have been at the borderline zero price of credit since the Great Recession. But it turns out that zero is not a lower bound in financial markets either.

In a sense of desperation, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Bank of Japan are pushing the interest rate into negative territory because they are supplying credit at a negative rate to their governments and banks. That is, they are offering the borrower a zero interest rate and, in addition, paying the borrowers to borrow by requiring less repayment for the funds loaned.

So, given the need for financing ever-expanding government debt accumulation, and being scarcely able to afford its already existing interest carry, the interest meter for government borrowing goes into negative territory thanks to central bank generosity. This means governments receive more cash with each borrowing than they are required to pay back on the bonds originally purchased by the central bank.

And those terms are also being extended to private borrowers by their banks.

From the central bank’s point of view, negative rates are in vogue because they seemingly kill two birds with one stone: First, they are seen to revive a weak economy (if only the economy behaved as in Keynesian textbooks) and second, it reduces the government’s interest carry, which is great news for debt-strapped governments.

But think what that does to the lenders who are caught in the middle. Earning a negative interest rate on their assets is a net cost for lenders, so instead of receiving investment income, they are instead subsidizing borrowers.

Hence, negative interest rates are an unlegislated wealth transfer from lenders to borrowers, something, no doubt, The Bern would approve of.

In this upside down world of negative interest rates, you might ask why banks lend money with the certainty of getting less in return. This is compelled to some extent via bank asset regulation and central bank pressure to hold government bonds and deposit at the central bank at negative interest rates.

The net of it is that lenders are resisting as bank shrinkage is taking place and bank capital is being run off the books — and the equity market, understanding this, has marked down European bank stocks by 25% since the beginning of this year.

This is a financial extremum, and it doesn’t just undermine banks.

Banks are on the pathway to insolvency, and the same calculus affects all financial institutions that generally live on investment income. In addition to banks, this includes: savings banks, insurance companies, pension funds, endowment funds, and a variety of trusts (both government and private), all of which are being force-fed very low and even negative returning assets.

So you should now see the larger picture of what’s unfolding before our very eyes.

Low and negative interest rates have become the new means to subsidize broke governments and broke businesses with debt outstanding.

Now then, why have central bankers (Draghi of the European Central Bank and Kuroda of the Bank of Japan) recently renewed the pledge for yet a deeper plunge into negative interest rate Neverland?   And Yellen is studying it.

Negative Interest Rate NeverlandIs their loyalty to government subsidization above their responsibility to their own central banks’ balance sheets and the commercial banks they regulate? Or are they fools who have been seduced by Keynesian central bank ideology in which lower interest rates are seen as always better for the economy? And that includes Ben Bernanke.

There is a mindlessness going on ­— a failure to pay attention to the blatant damage to financial institutions that investors in bank stocks more clearly see. Where are the thinkers who can think beyond the dusty textbooks of the post-WWII era in which lower interest rates are applied but fail to result in the usual positive multipliers of bank credit, investment expenditures, and job creation?

Moreover, do the central banks — responsible for driving the negative market interest rates — warn the governments that all stripes of lenders will not be able to survive on such low rates on invested assets and, furthermore, expect they will come knocking on the door for major bailouts that cannot be afforded by already debt strapped governments?

This is the road we are on, and it’s a road that leads to promises made and never delivered by commercial banks, by insurance companies, by pension funds, by saving banks, and by trust funds.

When citizens come to realize that their bank deposits or pension fund payments or insurance annuities are worthless pieces of paper, will they not take to the streets in anger? From there, will not the military be called in to contain the destructive anger of its citizens and, in turn, suspend statutes and Constitutional law and place the country under a military dictatorship? It’s happened before — not in the US, but in many places in the Americas. The alternative would be to merely fire up the printing presses and satisfy those private obligations with more printed money.

So when the history book is written, who will be seen as the villain for devising negative interest rate Neverland? Will the mad genius be seen as a Treasury official of a broke government seeking an interest cost subsidy, or will it be the misguided central bankers for being enablers with their zeal for Keynesian orthodoxy?

Those are the issues and stakes involved. However, there is a positive way out, and that is for the government to change the economic environment (via regulation, taxation, or by winning the globalism competitive battle as a national goal). Sufficient economic incentives and the elimination of barriers can bring about an environment in which businesses are born and prosper and become viable borrowers and employers that can pay off loans at positive interest rates as in the good old days of yore.

These changes are within the domain of the government — not the central bank — so the upcoming elections are of extreme importance to the future of the economy, financial institutions, and the government as we know it.

Incenting and allowing businesses to be able to borrow and repay with positive rates needs to be the new operational objective of public policy. No more, “Let’s reduce the interest rate, even if already negative, as long as there are some remaining unemployed.”

Central bankers stuck in negative interest rate Neverland are naively undermining the very foundation of governments, retirement promises made, and even democracy in the process. This is darn profound stuff and well beyond being merely a Keynesian fix that has been overcooked so that it generates major adverse side effects.

The only constructive thing left for central bankers is to stand up in unison and in public and let the government know that they have done all they can and the ball is in their court. Only the legislative and executive branches can change economic incentives and remove impediments to business success so that business borrowers are once again willing and able to pay positive interest rates.

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The US Growth Machine is Red Taped to Death

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With the onset of the Great Recession, the revival tools of monetary and fiscal policy were applied in the extreme to resuscitate spending and return solvency to the banking system. All textbook Keynesian approaches to restoring demand levels to previously attained aggregate supply.

That much has been accomplished. But now seven years later, the realisation has sunk in that a return to the economy’s past high water mark is not the same as causing the high water mark to continue to grow at rates the US economy had been accustomed to. Keynesianism did its job of restoring aggregate demand to already existing aggregate supply levels.

But resuming economic growth from there requires growing a globally competitive supply capability as well.

Certainly the Fed’s obsession with holding interest to near zero is not doing the job because as cheap as the Fed can make credit there are too few takers to translate that cheap credit into business investment that leads to spending, productivity, competitiveness, jobs, wage growth and wealth.

While the price of credit factors into that chain of events, that, in itself, is not sufficient to do the job because credit cost is but one side of the market and business borrowers’ and their capex motivations is the other.

We can chastise the Federal Reserve either for being unable to get itself to move off of a zero cost of credit, as it does have harmful side effects, or we can chastise the Fed for a lack of growth but the Fed has no other way to influence the growth machine.

Only Congress and a President do and the Fed would be doing a public service if they stated so publicly, instead of putting the onus on the back of a central bank that can’t influence the desire for business investment capable of producing growth.

Essentially, it all goes back to William McChesney Martin’s observation that monetary policy is “pushing on a string.” That is, the central bank is better in reining in business adventurism than motivating it.

Just why nearly free credit is not causing businesses to jump on investment opportunities certainly has to do with confidence and taxation but mostly its red tape that inhibits the instinct to take the cheap money and invest in new, real things.

Regulatory red tape whether calculated by the costs to fathom how to build and shape your businesses adventure and be aware of its legal exposure, sometimes criminal, seems to be inhibiting the instinct to take the near zero money.

And without a healthy investment response to credit availability there are poor economic outcomes. Indeed, the decline in Real Median Family Income did not gone unnoticed in the first Democratic Party debate which showed interest in the issue of red tape so much as it ultimately relates to income distribution, but nary a mention at the Republican debates.

But to do something about red tape that binds businesses would require some focus and measurement without which it is not easy to highlight its adverse influence on growth. What we are talking about is measuring the opportunity cost (the loss of) new goods, and output and jobs due to red tape constraining business from undertaking projects and new businesses to enter markets. There is obviously a major problem with a declining census of the number of businesses in America.

But how does one measure what was lost when we never had it to begin with, in order to understand the significance of the red tape constraint to economic opportunity and growth.

Instead we are left with arguments of logic or measurements of tell-tale signs of red tape to attempt to make a convincing argument of it smothering effects such as how many pages are there of Federal Regulation (174,000 as of 2010) or how many feet tall is the pile of the Code of Federal Regulations volumes, if piled one on top of another (24 feet) or the total number of restrictions that contain language of “shall” or “will” (over a million by 2012) or what is the multiplier of regulations that emanate from the average piece of Federal legislation (27).

Or what percent of Federal government revenues are spent on regulatory bodies that ostensibly read fedand act on the regulatory reports or what is the dollar cost of corporate and personal compliance to regulation? Does that make the argument?

All those numbers are large but still do not accurately convey what is lost in terms of output and goods and firms and the employees of firms that either didn’t survive or were still-born because of the constraints and the cost of fathoming and adopting to the rat maze of regulation.

While we can’t totally give up hope for a return to free enterprise as it has happened before. During the Jimmy Carter Administration every regulation was looked upon with disdain and many, many regulations and even regulatory bodies were dispatched.

But alas hope is on the horizon.

The Mercatus Institute at George Mason University’s efforts at documentation of the regulatory load is bringing some measure of the cost of regulation to attention. Furthermore there is the Simon Frasier University country indices of economic freedom.

And now the World Bank is involved in lending credibility to the issue and ranking the US in the global spectrum of regulation. It’s all published in its annual “Doing Business” where the World Bank counts the opportunity cost in days lost to start a business such as for obtaining a construction permit, the registration of a property, paying taxes, obtaining an export or import license or enforcing a contract as measures of time lost.

In this regard the World Bank finds that in most countries, days lost to regulatory matters are generally declining but for a group of 20 countries, the cost of regulatory days lost is rising. As you could guess that group includes the US which is ranked sixth among those countries with an 18% increase in regulatory days lost since 2000.

Now we are starting to get somewhere in terms of defining the size of the regulatory overhead but that measure still doesn’t carry the authenticity that interest rate multipliers do. So the Fed’s ultra-low interest rates still gets all the attention as if it would take care of the economic growth problem while de-regulation remains a step child in the policy domain.

Probably the best way to appreciate the problem is to contemplate being an entrepreneur in today’s regulatory environment and think of the number of regulations required to be navigated and the number of times per day you are exposing yourself, not just to fines but criminal indictments and the billable legal hours that go with it. Apparently, it is taking its toll as the number of corporate “deaths” exceed the number of corporate “births” each year.

Whatever the “multiplier” effect from de-regulation, it has to be greater than the stimulus effect of continuing to keep interest rates about 200 basis points below all-time lows and keeping it there for almost seven years.

It’s time for the Federal Reserve to go public with a direct enough SOS for Congress and a President to hear and understand because they can’t do the job of promoting economic growth with credit cost and availability alone. Accomplishing growth also needs unshackled, ready willing and able users of the credit to produce economic vitality with the credit being offered.

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The Next Leg of Globalism

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In 1993, there was a great debate carried live on national TV between then-Vice President Al Gore and Dallas entrepreneur Ross Perot. The issue was the pros and cons of going global — that is, whether the U.S. should allow foreign-made goods to be sold in the U.S. without tariffs or other barriers if, in turn, barriers were eliminated for U.S.-made goods. And if you can believe it, the decision that required landmark legislation was rendered thanks to a public opinion poll that provided guidance to the politicians.

Even more unusual by today’s political environment, the case for opening trade was presented by the Democrat, Al Gore. His argument was that the elimination of trade barriers would, on balance, be to the U.S.’s advantage because it would unshackle its producers so they could export and outcompete foreign producers (tires made in Tennessee and shipped to Mexico was his example).

Equally unusual in terms of today’s political alignment was the right-leaning Perot (as the Donald Trump of his time) arguing against globalism. His position was that the lower wages abroad would result in a “giant sucking sound” of jobs lost to lower-wage countries.

Well two decades later, there is no doubt who got it right.

Yes, globalism did open foreign markets to U.S.-made goods and created jobs, but on balance, the “giant sucking sound” was the demand being sucked out of U.S. labor markets.

If the Democrats look at this as a victory, it’s because it created a lot of future Democratic voters who wanted to respond to the sapping of jobs, wages, and income. Simply put, globalism has undercut the real median household income, which is today lower than it was in 1990s, and created the Bernie Sanders Democrats we hear from today.

So it’s been a rough adjustment, not just for the U.S. but also for the other countries that called themselves “developed.” This included Europe and Japan and a few others that had relatively higher wages at the time.

Now in 2015, two decades removed from the debate and probably three decades from the general loosening of trade barriers in one form or another, we find ourselves in a world in which the old dichotomy of developed countries vs. less-developed countries is no longer applicable. Those less- developed morphed into being emerging for a time and have now emerged, and they have undercut developed nations in the process.

This a watershed moment in time when a post-Communist country like China has virtually run the table on developed world manufacturing to shift to their economy.

It has been a process of meeting in the middle with most countries now, more or less, equally developed. China has risen from nowhere to be second to the U.S. in GDP and in number of millionaires. This is the logical conclusion of the opening of trade in a two-wage-rate world.

But in the race to economic development, China’s economy was driven by a roughly 50 percent share of GDP spending in the form of plant and equipment, which has now created an oversupply of manufacturing capacity.

And the same applies to commodity producers, whether from emerging markets, Canada, or Australia. During the last decades, their capacity to meet manufacturing and infrastructure demands grew dramatically, but now they find themselves in a state of oversupply while demand moderates.

Thus, we are in a Kondratieff world in which the long cycle of building generated excess supply — in this case, manufacturing and commodity capability. What follows are falling prices and slack future demand, causing plants to close and new ghost towns to pop up. And I’m not describing Muncie, Indiana, or the U.S. rustbelt but rather Chengdu, China when it recently closed its steel plant.

Globalism has reached its logical conclusion: Over-supply and cheaper goods, but at least it’s an end to the leakage of U.S. manufacturing abroad. It’s been a 30-year uphill battle for the developed world.

At this stage, it takes down the financing of the manufacturing and commodity expansion and all those who financed it. It takes down demand for new plant and equipment substantially, and it takes down the governments’ tax revenues and country credit ratings for those who formerly succeeded.

And there is a strong currency component to this as well: U.S. dollars borrowed during the expansion are being repaid while dollar revenues earned from the export of manufactured goods and commodities are slack.

All in all, this is the dynamic that played out in 1997, known then as the Asian contagion. However in this go-round, the U.S. is not in a tech boom as it was then, so keeping up growth in the developed world will be more difficult.

This leaves the old-time developed world still floundering with continued over-reliance on QEs that don’t do much to stimulate the economy, nor do they produce inflation (no matter how hard their central banks try). But all in all, from here on out at least, the China leakage is over, and there will be benefits from expending a lower proportion of income for the same imported products.

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Country Debt Enablers and the Greek Conundrum

For a country such as Greece with little penchant to tax and a greater penchant to spend, financing its fiscal deficit is an ongoing chore. But when it comes to financing those deficits, governments have tricks up their collective sleeves — ones not available to the private sector.

What makes it relatively easy is that most government debt “sales” are not a sale at all. There is no counter-party buyer that is able to judge the value of the debt being accepted into its portfolio and price it accordingly. Rather, government debt placement tends to be crammed down onto some balance sheet, either private or public, rather than “sold” on a market.

Put another way, governments seek to eliminate the market test and, as a result, their debt is placed at yields that doesn’t reflect the risk that a market would ordinarily require. This accounts in part for the trivial “market” yields on deeply indebted government debt across the world. For example, for ten year durations, Spain and Italy’s government debt yields are well those of the U. S. which themselves are suppressed.

This ability to cram debt down cheaply enables the accumulation of government debt to the point that the only deterrent to doing more so has become the willingness to tax sufficiently to be able to pay the suppressed interest cost. And when that market test can’t be met, all hell breaks loose — as it has in Greece.

Here is how the government debt enablers work:

The first trick is for governments to encourage its citizens to regularly purchase government debt via a “payroll savings plan.” That is, convert private savings immediately into non-marketable government debt much like the U.S. did with large-scale Savings or War Bond programs during WWII.

These programs are initially voluntary but morph into mandates. For example, during WWII, the U.S. government required 100 percent compliance among employees of defense-related businesses — to participate, or risk losing your government contract.

During Vietnam, a more egregious cram-down occurred when the arms most easily twisted into participating in “voluntarily” government debt purchases were those of the soldiers themselves. Those conscripted to military service bore the dubious distinction of both fighting and financing the war via mandatory saving bonds in lieu of pay.

But “voluntary” government efforts to lock into private savings are not just for wartime. Recently, for example, the Middle Class Task Force of the Obama White House proposed to “strengthen middle class finances” via voluntary savings funneled into a “Safe Investment Choices” program (p. 25). Of course, with the government acting as your investment manager, to them there would be no conflict of interest in funneling your private savings into wonderful “riskless” U.S. Treasuries, which is what was proposed.

Much the same regularly occurs for government “trust” funds, whether they are part of social insurance or for other future services such as Medicare, Medicare, or the highway trust fund.

From there, public capital markets are tapped though the sale of government bonds but with either a whiff of coercion or special enticement, so the market test is deeply biased.

For example, a factor in the marketability of government bonds at yields attractive to the issuer depends on the currency in which the bond’s payments are denominated.

From an investor perspective, Greece’s bonds — payable in Euros — are considerably more desirable than if they were denominated in Greek Drachma. This is because the Euro’s value is supported by the demand for Euro currency to purchase the goods of more successful European exporters. However, the ability to piggyback off the relative strength of the Euro currency to sell Greek bonds doesn’t require Greece to remain in the Euro currency. Countries, for example, regularly finance their debt denominated in the U.S. dollar without being part of the U.S.

So the importance of remaining in the Eurozone for Greece is to court the purchases of their debt by the European Central Bank (ECB) and other Euro government’s intent on defending the benefits of European economic integration as a means to provide disincentives for European conflicts, as occurred in the past.

Another consideration regarding a government’s ability to finance its debt and contain its cost is the credit rating of its sovereign debt. Hence, governments regularly pressure private credit rating agencies to issue pristine ratings whether or not their debt is pristine. Here, too, Greece benefits from being in the Eurozone.

Getting the Euro sovereign ratings under control is important because the ECB purchases of country debt require investment-grade ratings. When it appeared that private rating agencies would not deliver the necessary investment-grade ratings, the ECB contemplated creating its own rating system to produce whatever rating it wanted.

Apparently a way has been found to elevate Euro sovereign debt ratings because, as the ECB notes, Euro sovereign debt ratings have seen a “persistent upward trend for counties with weaker fiscal fundamentals.” Clearly, ratings are being manipulated to Greece’s and other countries’ benefit to allow ECB purchases.

But there are more tricks in the tool chest to sell government debt. When sovereign debt can’t stand on its own two feet and be sold in amounts and affordable yields to finance a fiscal short fall, then governments must get more creative. And they do.

Under the guise (or, rather, the subterfuge) of insuring the “safety and soundness” of financial institutions, government-styled financial regulation requires those institutions to purchase and hold government debt as a “riskless” asset — which, ostensibly, protects the investing public.

The way this is done is to define general categories of assets that financial institutions must own — a requirement that is virtually only met by government bonds.

For example, “risk-based” capital requirements motivate financial institutions to include a larger proportion of “riskless” government debt in their portfolios, which allows banks to operate with less capital. This mutually convenient arrangement (facilitating government debt issuance to banks that are thus able to reduce its capital requirement) at this stage of the Greek game is haunting bank depositors.

They see the banks holding overly generous amounts of wobbly Greek government debt and (correctly) fear the banks don’t have the assets left to make good on their deposits. This is what led to Greece’s bank deposit runs, causing depositors to get in line and withdraw their money as quickly as possible. In these circumstances, the government deposit insurance guarantees that would supposedly cover their losses are vacuous, which further intensifies the panic.

The need to provide the cash to feed the bank deposit run from Greek banks has been funded via emergency “liquidity” loans from the ECB, though the banks have now run out of eligible assets to pledge as collateral against these cash loans as required by ECB rules. As a result, the banks have been in the process of pilfering cash held in individuals’ private safe deposit boxes and replacing it with a bank IOU.

The next step of obtaining other people’s money to keep the government afloat is for governments to borrow from each other. For the U.S., this is relatively easy because the U.S. dollar is still a reserve currency, and those foreign governments that wish to hold foreign exchange reserves translate their dollars into interest-bearing U.S. Treasuries. But Greece is not equally fortunate. Its bonds don’t qualify as a foreign reserve.

So in the category of borrowing from sovereigns, Greece has had to lean further on the IMF, the EU, and the ECB to (once again) forgive past debt and (again) refinance the rest on cheaper terms and longer durations and to seek additional cash. But it’s clear with Greece’s economy laboring to carry its existing debt that additional debt would no more be serviced than its past debt obligations. Greece is beyond the “bang point” — the point at which the debt prevents the economy from attaining a growth rate sufficient to generate needed tax revenues to service the interest on existing debt.

Having run out of resources and lenders, the issue is this: Is it in the interest of the Eurozone to keep Greece afloat? On this matter, Greece has resorted to upping the ante by threatening to ally itself with the Russians, playing off its strategic geopolitical position at the southeast corner of the Eurozone. It’s Europe’s first line of defense. This is perhaps what has caused some sentiment within the Eurozone to continue supporting Greece, but the amount of tribute is not trivial. The forgiveness of a portion of the 186 billion Euro debt and an additional 86 billion Euro loan have been discussed.

The alternative for Europe, which is growing in favor, is the therapeutic value of finally saying no to additional Greek financings. This would mean absorbing the default on 186 billion Euro of loans made to Greece and to cut Greece off from further Eurozone or ECB borrowing. Cutting off access to the Euro currency and ECB loans would force Greece to return to its own currency. This has been cleverly dubbed “Grexit,” and would result in Greece providing banks with Drachma to satisfy bank deposit withdrawals.

By cutting off additional financial assistance to Greece, the goal here would be for Greece to serve as a model of what happens to governments whose penchant to spend exceeds its penchant to collect taxes, for which Greece is not alone.

Ironically, this tough love is in Greece’s best interest because with its own currency, Greece can make its olives, shipping, tourism and anything else as cheap as it wishes for the global markets. By also defaulting, this would greatly diminish the taxes needed to pay interest and principle on the mountain of past debt.

The Catch 22 is that Greece would need to run a balanced fiscal budget even if it were to be debt free (via default). That is, government spending in the future would be limited to tax proceeds because the market would not touch Greek debt denominated in either Euro or Drachma for years to come.

So the Greek endgame is as follows: unemployment of 25 percent, negative economic growth four years running amounting to a depression, a private banking and wealth meltdown, significant emigration of its youth, who face a 50 percent unemployment rate, and a likely need to go back to a post-WWII square-one to reestablish its economy based on its own currency while living on its own resources. This has become Greece’s fate for debt overindulgence.

But if Europe offers more debt assistance, Greece’s debt load only mounts. As a consequence, Greece will be worse off because it is well beyond the “bang point” — the ratio of the country’s debt to income is rising to nearly 200 percent given the very recent collapse in GDP. And as a consequence, European lenders have almost no chance of collection.

Upon reflection, Greece’s switching to the Euro currency in 2002 only facilitated its ability to borrow more than it could handle and ultimately begot greater pain and suffering. Not much different from private parties that leverage off of connections and overdose on debt and end up with lower income and a cram-down of assets when bankruptcy is reached.

Will Greece’s debt demonstration project influence populations not to elect populist leaders who are ultimately unable to deliver as promised and accept the adverse consequences from trying?

Or will they go further left and be unable to finance themselves any longer — even when using their tricks of the trade — and seize the last remaining sources of private wealth and party until they, too, are spent? We shall soon see.

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On Saving the Economy: Plan B

The antidote to a troubled macro environment since Keynes wrote the book in the 1930s has been the dual demand-side sledgehammers of government deficit spending and monetary expansion.

Both were thought to induce private spending with multipliers that would generate output and absorb the unemployed. Well, that’s how the theory went.

When it was first applied, it was not a theoretical experiment but rather the necessity of paying for and financing WWII.

At that time, the twin necessities of fiscal and monetary policy jolted the economy forward with such force that the unemployment rate was driven down to 1.2%. It appeared to provide validation of what fiscal and monetary policy could do, and economists and policymakers around the globe embraced it (and they still do).

After all, it simply required legislation for spending, raising the debt ceiling, and the Fed’s Open Market Committee’s agreement to go along with it. Basically, it was Bureau of Engraving and Printing policy that printed both the Treasury securities to pay for the deficit spending and the dollars to purchase them.

It was the easy way out, which became Plan Ain times of economic distress, whether they’re related to shortfalls of income or jobs. And now it’s also intended to rebuild wealth, save banks, and cheapen the dollar as well.

But for these macroeconomic sledgehammers to work, they are not cheap. US Government debt to GDP has increased from 62.7% to 101.6% in the last eight years. The relative size of the Fed’s wartime quantitative easing was a 50% expansion of its balance sheet — as opposed to a 300% expansion in the modern day reincarnation of QE. But alas, unemployment has been driven down to but a narrowly measured 6.7%.

So it’s obvious that something else is afoot, and it has to do with the question of why the twin sledgehammers are not working as well anymore. And furthermore, what is the “something else” that policy makers are now turning to? That is to say, what is Plan B?

The basic answer to why the sledgehammers are not working is that both monetary policy and fiscal policy are debt-financed spending, either by the government or the private economy. The problem is that it works as a cyclical remedy, as long as the debt doesn’t accumulate — which implies that in the prosperities that follow, debt reduction should take place. That is what George W. did not do, but Bill Clinton did.

The need to avoid accumulating debt was forgotten as the economic high just induced a greater desire for prosperity with mindless expansion of the debt-to-income ratio.

Basically, debt-driven spending — whether public or private — is a cyclical policy that is not meant to be a long-term secular fix. If a government and the Fed keep at it as a secular fix, it has offsetting effects when a greater share of income is required to service debt.

This is not lost on the private economy, as consumer debt relative to income has been worked down since it peak in 2007, which in turn continues to slow the economy today. Nor was it lost on Keynes himself. But governments didn’t get the memo, and they keep on piling up debt, which restricts the economy by creating a need for more revenues to service that debt.

The twin forces of stimulus from debt-financed spending and the subsequent need to service or retire debt is becoming evident today. As an example, in Japan since the last election, Abonomics has employed the macro sledgehammers with great force but has followed up with a national consumption tax that offsets Plan A. Much the same is happening in Europe and in the U.S. with QE tapering and fiscal sequester reining in the expansion of Plan A.

So what becomes Plan B when Plan A is being made to face the facts — specifically that secular debt accumulation is ultimately counterproductive?

Politicians are now doing what is pragmatic to attract business to their geographical location without the benefit of Ivy League economic theory. This is being done city against city, state against state, and now country against country. Plan B at the country level was the subject of the recent G-20 meetings as a response to the Fed’s tapering of QE, so it’s going global.

Plan B takes the form of reducing taxes as compared to your competitor, enacting less costly and burdensome regulations, and even underwriting business start-up expenses. It also takes the form of job training and infrastructure development. Those and other efforts are supply-side efforts to be relatively more competitive.

Some of them are outliers by historical example. That would include Michigan, which became a right-to-work state in 2012, and others in the Midwest are following.

There is a significant difference in the public perception of Plan B as compared to Plan A. In B there is little accompanying press and no photo opps for the politicians or the Fed Chairman, and hence fewer images to drive Wall Street expectations. But these low-profile policies are relentless, albeit slow. On the surface they appear to be policies that do more in totality than merely change the location of business. The benefits come in the form of greater efficiency (measured by output per worker) and less debt accumulation, either public or private.

Are they enough to offset the unintended debt consequences of previous demand stimulus? That we shall see, but at least this is a move in the right direction toward offsetting the ill effects of secular debt accumulation.

A major question is: Can these policies that are associated with the Right Wing be implemented by Left Wing majorities in many places? Well, if Liberals are in political control, they are also responsible for economic outcomes. So they will find ways to implement typical conservative platforms packaged as inspired liberal genius.

 

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