A Tiger by the Tail: The Fed and QE3

With the third round of Quantitative Easing (QE3) last fall, the Fed grabbed a tiger by the tail and, for obvious reasons, it cannot let go: Agitated tigers come after you.

The story behind why the Fed created the risks that are now haunting them is a revealing one, and it has perverse implications for the future.

QE3 is a monetary extremum. It arose out of frustration from years of unsuccessfully stimulating the economy the old-fashioned way — by purchasing securities that resulted in mountains of cash being deposited at banks at record low rates with the unfulfilled expectation that the cash would be loaned and spent.

Lead by Bernanke, a still-determined Fed embarked on a policy tweak that they hoped would cause banks to lend, encourage businesses to borrow and invest in plant and equipment, and drive consumers to spend on durables. The scheme also encouraged investors to drive up financial prices, hence creating a wealth effect that would provide the resources for more spending.

The idea was to tweak expectations that arose out of the simple notion that people invest in physical plant or financial shares based on their probabilistic expectations of the cash flows from future economic growth. Key to that projection is what they believe policymakers will do to maintain growth. Inside of academia, this notion became known as rational expectations, a theory that has been glorified with the award of at least two Nobel prizes.

So as it stood last fall, expectations were “rationally” priced into economic activity and market securities, but the rational level of activity was not very satisfying to the body politic or to the Fed. Given the impasse and the mounting fears of a further setback from the looming fiscal cliff, the Fed decided on a Hail Mary policy play. Fortified by the academic acclaim of rational expectations, they thought it clever to manipulate existing expectations to cause agents to do what they wanted them to do, which was to generate more real investment spending.

In rational expectation logic, in order for the policy change to have an effect on the outcome, it needed to be a policy surprise, otherwise the outcome was already reflected in existing activity and prices. Hence, it can be said that the Fed sought to create irrational expectations of growth. What especially makes it irrational is earlier QEs have already revealed that growth doesn’t necessarily follow more money. But if the market believes and acts on it, expectations can become self-fulfilling.

In the good old days of pre-government debt distress and Great Recessions in which commercial banks would take excess cash and actually lend it, the policy options were spoken of as either Open Market or Open Mouth. Open Market means the Fed shapes market prices by actually going to the open market and buying, whereas with Open Mouth, they merely imply they will be buyers, which causes front-running investors to change the prices for them without the need to load up their own balance sheet.

In todays world of the Great Quagmire after more than five years and counting in which at least two other predecessor QEs did not do the trick of extracting the economy the Fed believed the only way to generate some traction would require both Open Mouth and Open Market with breathtaking amounts of monetary increase never previously witnessed, anticipated or priced in.

To do so they needed to oil up the printing press and but also ramp up Bernanke’s Open Mouth skills to exude some confidence in order to move the expectations needle — not an easy task for a rather dry academician. To do this, it is reported that Bernanke hired a media coach and scheduled unprecedented press conferences never before conducted by a central bank Chairman in the manner of King George VI of Great Britain, who needed to announce his country’s entry and progress through WWII.

What was most important in the Fed’s announcement of QE3 was the notion that they would not take their foot off the monetary accelerator until we were out of the Quagmire, however long that would take, in an open-ended commitment. This is something akin to the wartime philosophy, “We do not stop until unconditional surrender.”

And while its way too early to determine the extent of the success of the gambit as it relates to jobs, economic growth, and a little bit of inflation, these effects only occur after a bit of time, which even in less challenging times would require 18 months to be noticeable.

But rather than waiting that long to judge the leading edge of the results, after only about 8 or 9 months or so of QE3, the Fed hinted that it would throw in the towel on Quantitative Easing. To lay the groundwork for exiting, it backed off the timeless open-ended commitment by defining targets of unemployment and inflation that would allow them to exit, and more recently it forecasted time limits for reaching those targets which now is but a fuzzy time limit for QE3. Gone is the open-ended commitment, replaced by a strong hint that they wish to back out.

So now we have it as to why the Fed started QE3 — but why are they now backing off the strategy known in Bernanke (and speech coach) gibberish as “tapering,” which was met with a disconcerting thud in the financial markets.

Basically to date, while there is no clear evidence that real investment is taking place as a result of the policy, but it is clear that financial market participants took the Fed’s promise of growth along with cheap money and ran with it. Given their “do not fight the Fed” culture, they responded to the Fed’s unanticipated announcement in minutes, not the months or years the real economy requires to assess the response.

Basically the financial investors salivated at the ultra-low rates offered to borrow and purchase financial assets — a process known as leveraging — which drives a wedge between financial pricing and the underlying economic income streams they were purchasing. It is also known as an asset bubble, which tends to collapse.

Well, the asset bubble pricing started to collapse on its own weight, prior to the Fed hinting that it will be exiting earlier than planned. That occurred because of a new monetary phenomenon that is important to understand. It involves new realities of global financial intermediation.

QE3, with its eager financial market participants, enabled a great deal of low-quality debt to be not just sold but scooped up by financial leveragers with borrowed funding. Leveragers do, after all, live off the difference in the yields of the assets they purchase less what they pay for the borrowed funds required to purchase the assets. This is known as spread.

So while low-quality debt assets were flying off the shelf into the hands of the leveragers, generally known as the shadow banking system, outstanding amounts of high-quality debt securities in the form of U.S. Treasuries were being scarped up by the Fed in its QE3 operation.

Ironically, this ended up limiting the amount of low-quality assets the shadow banks could purchase, because they are required by their funding sources to collateralize their borrowings with high-quality debt.

The critical nature of the availability of high-quality debt is amplified when they don’t simply borrow once against the high-quality debt, but they instead use their high-quality collateral repeatedly to borrow yet more funds and purchase yet more assets making available Treasuries in the secondary markets the defining limit of their balance sheet size.

It would be like you or I pledging our same house over and over again as collateral to succeeding lenders to borrow yet more funds for unrestricted uses. Yes, borrowing over and over again against the same collateral might not be legal for you or I, but it is legal up to a point in the shadow banking system.  The extent to which this can happen is called the re-hypothecation multiplier.

In this way, by removing Treasury collateral from the available asset pool, the Fed’s QEs caused the shadow banking system to contract. Because the shadow banks are at least twice the size of commercial banks and the only eager lenders at this time, this greatly squeezed credit.

The contraction of the shadow banks showed up in the markets a number of ways: The prices of risky debt fell as shadow bank portfolios shrunk; the prices of the funding currency (cheapest source of funds) such as the Yen and the Dollar rose as leveragers were repaying their funders as they unwound their portfolios; and the leveragers closed shop on expansion by only accepting funds if the funder was willing to pay them for the transaction.

That is, negative funding rates occurred when the funders needed to pay shadow banks to accept their funds, rather than having the shadow banks pay for them.  This is the equivalent of walking into your friendly bank, asking the rate they offer on CDs and being notified that your money will only be accepted for a CD if you agree to pay the bank to take your money! Such is the surrealism in today’s markets.

That surrealism includes the commercial banking system with free cash to lend some great multiple of the available cash — yet they do not lend it, and the larger shadow banking system runs out of Treasuries to expand off. All in all, it is de facto restrictive credit conditions, despite the QEs.

So where are we now? For one, the above has revealed that maximum money is not optimal money. QE, at some point, makes credit conditions worse off. In fact, credit is restrictive. Another way to put it is that we have backward-bending reaction functions that are definitely not part of the Keynesian or monetarist textbook of how more money produces higher prices and improved economic conditions.

The Fed’s ability to move the dial on real investment and financial prices has been shown to have reached an upside limit, and their announcement effects in financial markets are now met with cynicism instead of awe as they vacillate back and forth on QE3.

The recent crumbling of debt and equity prices embarrassed the monetary authority and revealed that Open Market operations do not have the desired effect. This negates their power to move the markets with Open Mouth policy, as there are precious few left who believe the Fed will stick to an announced expansion.

Of course, not wanting to admit to impotence, the Fed claims mysterious “headwinds” prevent the effects they are seeking as a face-saver for those who question monetary policy. They clearly would like to put QE3 in the rear-view mirror and have vacillated between statements of tapering and then damage control to their reputation (and financial market wealth) by dispatching various Fed bank presidents to claim they are still in it until victory. They have the QE3 Tiger by the Tail, and they are afraid to let loose as they know their reputation will plunge on a scale equal to the market plunge that would follow.

Bernanke is lucky as his term as chairman (but not as a member of the board) is over in January. He might even leave earlier, as the president already publicly closed the door on a re-nomination when he said: “He’s already stayed a lot longer than he wanted, or he was supposed to.”

The irony is that he is being chastised for backing off of QE3 by the administration despite it being a doomed and embarrassing policy. One sort of graceful way out is to declare victory and leave, a strategy not without precedent in both war and peace.

The far larger issues ahead are not the future of QE3, or of Bernanke or the stock market, but rather the Fed. The salad days of hard-earned market confidence that allowed Open Mouth Policy to have an effect have been built on 70 years of performance since the Great Depression. That confidence has been sacrificed, and it will not just return with the appearance of a new Fed Chairman in January.

Divining the short list of candidates to replace Bernanke has been tasked to Treasury Secretary Lew, so whoever it is will very likely be a Democrat, not just because of who is nominating but also because the appointment requires an advice and consent majority from a Democratic Senate. So whoever replaces Bernanke is likely to try it all over again in the faint hope that mega QEs both dazzle the financial markets and still provide economic uplift. Good luck to whoever that might be!

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Is the Printing Press Engaged for the Duration?

spell1A  printing press is a handy thing to have. When a government or central bank can fund itself with money or claims on money, it can buy a lot of things and solve a host of problems, all without the need to tax. I wish I had one.

Developed world governments have lots of problems these days and hence are using the printing press overtime. And with lots of problems comes the thought, at least to an orderly mind, to somehow prioritize the buying. Or, if there is no order, than the disorder of whatever comes next is the order.

This Great Recession experience of the past five years has been an epic chapter of buying in the nearly 100-year history of the Federal Reserve.

In the modern era, economy-wide sustainable growth has been the Fed’s guiding light. It worked quite well for some 50 years to temper the oscillations of the business cycle, both the highs and the lows. And the modern business cycles orthodoxy and Keynesian upbringing is causing the Fed to turn on the printing press to achieve an unemployment rate of 6.5% in this Great Recession, so they claim.

While defining success in terms of unemployment brings clarity as to what Fed policy is about, it opens up monetary policy to an unintended exit if factors other than economic recovery were to reduce unemployment. And financial markets in a bubble state as a result of the Fed’s buying fear that outcome.

As it happens, labor force dropout due to demographics or inadequate skills is occurring. Furthermore, work is being reorganized and parceled out so employees do not exceed 30 hours per week, lest their employers become subject to the Obama Health Care tax. All these factors are bringing down the unemployment rate more quickly than fundamental economic improvement.

Each month, there is a dread fear in financial markets that unemployment will decline sufficiently to cause the Fed to exit QE as they have pledged. Indeed it is the major risk to investors holding positions in an asset bubble market, whether it be in debt, equity, commodities or real estate.

spell2So as we approach the target unemployment rate without much economic recovery, the question is, can and will the target be redefined to be the unspoken necessity of supporting Treasury debt obligations? 

The last time the priority of Fed buying switched from supporting banks and the economy to supporting the government effort to sell Treasury bonds was at the beginning of WWII.

In the three months following Pearl Harbor, given the expectations of the size of wartime debt issuance and with some inflation expectations thrown in, long Treasury yields ratcheted up.

The Fed then approached Treasury (not the other way around) indicating its willingness to enter an agreement to support Treasury bond prices at the March 1942 level for the “duration” of the war.

The Fed did this by buying enough Treasuries along the yield curve to prevent their prices from falling and the market yields from rising — a policy that became known as the Fed’s interest rate peg. It took a tripling of the Fed balance sheet in four years to do the job, which is roughly in the same league as the Fed balance sheet growth since the commencement of the Great Recession.

When the war concluded, federal government deficits turned into surpluses, and there was no longer pressure for the Fed to be the buyer of net new government debt.  And furthermore, there was high inflation. This caused the Fed to claim the “duration” had arrived and that it was time to exit (there’s that word again).  But there was a catch.

To Treasury Secretary John Snyder, exit in the name of economic stabilization was all academic heresy or a potentially expensive distraction from the core responsibility of a government to finance its debt at the most affordable rates. That is, he didn’t care for the idea that Treasury bonds would not be supported ad infinitum at par in the primary and secondary debt markets. Furthermore, he was backed by a gentleman in the White House by the name of President Harry S. Truman. Such is the core concern of a government as to the cost of its interest expense.

The Fed’s post-WWII exit attempt spilled over into widely followed Congressional hearings conducted by Senator Paul Douglas before the Joint Economic Committee. The core question was, did the Fed’s responsibility for full employment and controlling inflation trump the need for propping up the price of Treasuries so interest rates would not rise?

Despite Congressional support for the Fed to exit, it still took years until the Fed became determined to pursue a path independent of Treasury dictates, as inflation soared at the commencement of the Korean War.

While the brouhaha concerning exit continued from 1946 until 1951, an opportunity to back out of the Treasury bond support agreement occurred in 1951 (almost six years after the “duration”). At that time Treasury Secretary John Snyder was incapacitated and in the hospital and his next-in–line at the Treasury, William McChesney Martin, negotiated an exit agreement with the Fed at the White House with the President presiding. The agreement became known as the Accord and was the monumental turning point that allowed Fed independence to foster economic growth without inflation for the next half century.

However, there was a catch. The Accord set the Fed free to pursue economic stabilization so long as there continued to be a strong tilt to Treasury bond support. To accomplish that, Martin suggested, or perhaps insisted (as the folklore goes) that he be installed as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors to represent Treasury’s interests in monetary policy — which required a resignation of the existing Fed Chairman. This was all accomplished before Snyder left the hospital. Such is the difficulty of Fed exit when the government’s ability to sell debt and service the interest expense is at stake. (For a revealing account of that history go here.)

What was most interesting about the 1951 exit is that after becoming Fed Chairman, Martin had a Beckett moment, or more like a Beckett career. In his almost 20 years as Fed Chairman he constantly tilted in the direction of containing inflation and would not peg Treasury rates below market even during the Vietnam War, which caused Lyndon Johnson to unsuccessfully seek his resignation.

In the context of today’s financing strains that will grow over the next four decades due to Boomer entitlements, consider the following: The U.S. gross debt-to-income ratio is in excess of 100%, and the CBO projects that ratio to reach 400% in the out years of entitlement growth. Hence, each hundred-basis-point increase in the average interest rate the U. S. pays to service its debt (above the present 2 percent average carrying cost) requires additional taxes to drain another percentage point from the income stream — a drain we can ill afford. You can do the math for the required tax drain when the debt-to-income ratio approaches 200% or 300% and if interest rates were allowed to reflect sovereign or inflation risk.

The CBO has estimated that in the out years of  Boomer entitlements, tax revenues will need to be as much as 25% of annual income as compared to today’s 2% to merely service the projected interest expense on the debt, (even if market yields were to remain at average historical levels).

spell3Today there is a de facto peg already in place. It goes under the title of zero interest rate policy (ZIRP). It is also known as financial repression, which includes ZIRP along with positive inflation causing real yields to go negative all the way out to almost 20 year maturities and has become the explicit policy of the Japan and implicitly of Europe as well.

Given the perspective of the machinations at the end of WWII, is it reasonable to expect that Treasury (and the President and Congress) will allow the Fed to exit its already existing de facto peg? The new “duration” is the length of the entitlements.

Hence, the only likely exit for Fed QEs is an exit from the pretense that QE is an economic stabilization policy that can go away if unemployment hits the Fed’s target. It’s a cover story that is about to be uncovered. Fed buying is the supporting backbone of the Treasury bond market with $500 billion in annual purchases which, in turn, promotes foreign central bank currency wars. With the proceeds, they are investing as much as the Fed is in U. S. Treasuries.

Hence, current Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will have an important say as did John Snyder, in the selection of the next Fed Chairman (if he doesn’t wish to stand in himself). The change of guard will likely occur before the year’s end, when Bernanke returns to Princeton to write his account of the Great Recession.

Hence, what needs to be built is a graceful institutional transition for the Fed to exit stated economic stabilization priorities in favor of Treasury debt priorities without actually exiting its asset purchase program. Otherwise the Fed will morph from one pretense to another as they have done with a loss of their credibility.

So relax, bond market, interest rates will be pegged until inflation is no longer containable at the 2.5% level and that could well not stop them.

 

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Milton Friedman and the Monetarist Reflex: Can the Fed create inflation?

These are complicated times, especially when it comes to inflation.

An excess of debt, both private and public, has retarded the spending stream, resulting in sluggish economic growth. Given the Fed’s legislated commitment to prevent financial implosion and unemployment, rounds of central bank monetary responses have followed. The intuition of more money in our pockets chasing a limited supply of goods, as well as our long intellectual history of monetarism, sets off the reflex that printing results in inflation. That hasn’t appreciably happened yet, but multiple rounds of QE keep markets on edge given the teaching of Milton Friedman,

To add to the inflation paradox, last January, for the first time, the Fed committed to producing moderate inflation (2 percent) “over the long run“. However, as recently reported by David Rosenberg, inflation at the producer level was flat over the last quarter, and given the Euro recession and continued U.S. sluggishness, it appears likely that the inflation goal might not be reached. Indeed, many credible sources are forecasting long-run deflation, a la the trend in Japan.

On top of that there is the conjecture, mentioned in a recent post that in the (likely) event of an uncontrolled government deficit, the role of the central bank would be to generate actual inflation that exceeds the expected inflation premium that had been priced into interest rates. The purpose would be to reduce the real cost of government debt. This seems to suggest that the long-term Fed inflation target is to keep expectations anchored at a number the Fed hopes to exceed.

But in the longer run, while accumulating four decades of baby boomer entitlement debt, it would take one surprise after another to exceed expected and priced inflation. And each would have to be larger than the last to continuously have actual inflation exceed that which is priced by the market. This is the implied path to what is journalistically called “runaway inflation.”

The Fed inflation targeting in the long run is one thing, but the real question is whether the Fed can deliver when it so far has not.

The paradox of strong growth in the monetary base without the inflation implied by monetarism first surfaced when the first Federal Reserve balance sheet leap occurred in 2008. At the time, many people believed that a doubling of central bank money chasing a short term fixed supply of goods would bring about a doubling of the price level.

Obviously, that didnt happen. The question is why not.

First off, at that time, the commercial banking system did not have the requisite regulatory solvency (an excess of asset values relative to deposits) to expand balance sheets if they had the risk tolerance. That is, today’s excess cash reserves of $1.5 trillion held by banks and a commercial bank money supply multiplier of say 10 would normally result in $15 trillion of lending and spending. A surge in bank-financed spending could roughly double the present $15 trillion annual flow rate of GDP and, with it, inflation.

The predicted proportionality of prices to money didn’t occur, as spending not only failed to increase appreciably with more central bank base money, but fell short of the economy’s supply potential so that deflationary forces from excess capacity still exist today. (This same phenomena to monetarists would be the explanation for the decline in the velocity of money.)

So the issue of inflation depends to a large extent on the ability and willingness of commercial banks to run with the base money given to them. The most recent reading of that is not encouraging to either the growth of spending or inflation, as the graph above shows.

Despite having been given a stealth capital buildup via an essential zero cost of funding program (in addition to the TARP subsidy), the commercial bank books claim solvency, but lending contracted in the first quarter. The Keynesian notion of the liquidity trap is still alive and festering with banks pointing to a lack of borrowers and borrowers pointing to a lack of willing lenders. The problem, more than loan risk analytics, is likely behavioral. As aptly discussed by Kevin Flynn:

“For the last 50 years banks have been behaving the same way — turning a profitable sector into a credit fad and then drowning it in the name of market share, management bonuses, takeover avoidance, or whatever. Once they blow a sector up, nobody wants to hear about lending to it again for another generation of CEO management, which runs for about five to 10 years (the last thing that managers brought in to replace disgraced managers want to do is more of what got their predecessors sacked). Banks finally got around to blowing up housing, so now we have a generation of bank executives in place whose unifying feature is the determination to avoid a housing bust that won’t happen again for another 70 years or so. The Fed can’t do anything about it.”

Given these impediments to produce monetary expansion and lending through banks, there are other routes by which the Fed might reach its inflation objective. Without bank follow-through, the impact of monetary expansion is limited to the Fed’s first round of financial purchasing power. This limitation of its firepower is what turned the Fed to large scale QEs, since there would be no commercial bank follow–through: They had to do the job themselves. But since the Fed is not a commercial lender, it mainly relies on what is known as a Pigou effect — a generalized market value of wealth spreading from bonds to equities and other assets that in turn induces limited spending but not at a rate sufficient to create inflation.

Another approach to inflation (which the Fed scoffs at) is un-lovingly called helicopter money. This was the first thing done when the financial meltdown occurred, in the form of the Fed putting money more directly into the hands of spenders (as opposed to financial asset markets). That is, rather than just continuing more of the same Fed expansion, helicopter money delivers fresh spending power directly to the end user (the consumer) over the heads of the moribund banks.

Believe it or not, this was implemented in the dark days of 2008, when the Fed purchased Treasury bonds that enabled the Treasury department to mail out an equal amount of government green checks directly to spenders. It flew under the radar screen as the checks were called tax rebates, and few knew the source of the funding. However, a wider distribution of government green checks coming from the Fed or the Treasury would require a more obvious money gift that would create contentious comparisons of need. To further rule out more green checks to consumers (especially voters), the Republican Party platform is now at odds with at grossly expansionary Fed tendencies, and the Fed is not likely to expose itself to legislative constrains to its independence.

If the government wishes to depreciate its debt and consumer debt with inflation, a more likely inflation alternative would be for the Treasury Department to turn to treasury currency, the United States Note. As previously explained, the government used this tactic to pay its bills during the Civil War.

In this case, the financing of government spending is facilitated by Treasury currency printing rather than Federal Reserve printing. Treasury currency would have a greater inflationary impact as it directly finances spending in goods markets. In this case, inflation would be a fiscal byproduct rather than a central bank contrivance.

Treasury currency would be more effective as it goes over the heads of the blocked banking system and reluctant spending units, and on behalf of the taxpayers, goes directly into the spending stream when the government pays for entitlements such as Medicare. As such it is a kind of super-helicopter money delivered to the goods markets rather than the financial markets or even to the consumer to be used for debt reduction as the new currency is injected into the spending and income stream.

When political leaders are pressed to “do something, it seems that this would be the “something” that could simultaneously finance entitlement spending, reduce the size of the fiscal cliff, and reach a desired inflation target. This is a something for nothing policy solution that politicians who take the path of least resistance would find difficult to ignore–and its in the law.

What an irony.  Despite the accusations being made, the Fed in these circumstances is only able to produce inflation expectations whereas Fed generated inflation is dependent upon a generational replacement of commercial bankers.

It seems the notion of an inflationary future one way or another is still alive and ticking. Recently, inflation adjusting assets including energy pipelines, gold, income producing real estate and infrastructure are now moving up in the markets and fixed income assets are moving downward. Though the Fed has struck out on the inflation front, the bet has switched at least at the margin to the government doing “something” in the long run to ultimately reach an inflation target. Keep tuned to see how these improbable policies and events work out.

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The Bond Market Rocket and Fiscal Unsustainability Are On a Collision Path

Recently, the bond market has been in rocket mode. It has achieved liftoff and slipped the surly bonds of earth. And some believe it will keep going.  The price of the U.S. Treasury 10-year bond recently reached an all-time high, generating yields at all-time lows. Moreover, the market yield on the British perpetual bond is reportedly at a 300-year low.  Bond mania has even spread to the sovereign debt of Denmark and Singapore and others where negative yields exist.  More astonishing is the ability of France to issue short-term sovereigns with negative yields!

The U.S. has eclipsed the record interest rates that prevailed when the 1930s Depression era came to an end with the onset of World War II, as shown in the chart to the right.

To get to the previous low yields of early December 1941, the U.S. economy had experienced a decade of depression with cumulative deflation of 30 percent.  With that decade-long trend influencing expectations, the future seemed to call for more of the same.  In that environment, investors favor long-term fixed income that appreciates in real terms as a result of deflation if the long bond is successfully paid and retired despite depression circumstances.  Hence the asset category of choice in a deflationary depression is survivable high quality debt.  In the ’30s, this also included surviving corporate debt that appreciated along with Treasuries, and the AAA-Treasury spread narrowed over the depression years.

Since we presently are in an era of Federal Reserve QEs, you might suspect that the Fed was possibly behind the rising Treasury prices and lowest yields of that era.  However logical it might seem in today’s context, the Fed was nowhere to be found on the buy side of the Treasury market during the depression (something Bernanke seeks to not repeat). Indeed, the money supply declined by 30 percent over the course of the depression, so the bond market did it all on its own, without Fed support. Indeed, being in a pre-Keynesian world, the rationale or desire for manipulating the interest rate or credit conditions was not part of the Fed’s understanding of how to run a central bank.

Then as now, the private market participants price the expected risks and costs of holding a debt instrument over its life, and they require additional yield for each risk and cost they anticipate will materialize.  They generally make this assessment of risk by extrapolating previous trends or by finding a similar historical episode to benchmark the likely gains or losses in value that might take place. Today we find many forecasts (even on this blog) citing the withering force of deleveraging due to over–indebtedness, which takes down an economy and softens demand and prices for goods.  Hence, today’s natural historical model for bond pricing would seem to be the 1930s.

However, while there are similarities, there are also big differences. Today it is the government that is over–leveraged, whereas in the l930s it was the corporate debt sector which makes today’s long Treasury yields suspect.   Though the economy is weak today, we are not in a decade-long depression, and while inflation is low, it is not in a cumulative deflation.  And while the Fed held back this week, they still have a commitment to positive inflation.

The greatest difference is today’s checkmated body politic, which is unable to resolve an ultimately un-financeable Federal deficit. This week we had another episode of kicking the can down the road, with the agreement to run the debt meter another six months before facing the music. This is all in sharp contrast to a much lower government debt load and an obsession to run a balanced fiscal budget despite the depression that prevailed in the 30s.

While the growth/inflation profile is different in the two eras, it is more important to note the difference in long-term fiscal sustainability.  Somewhere during the unfolding drama there will be an unspoken need (not mentioned in legislation or treaties) for the Fed to pull a “Super Mario” Draghi — who, last week, signed up to “do whatever it takes,” which apparently meant ignoring the ECB mandate and directly supporting Spain’s bank and government debt because the market no longer will.

Indeed, in the U. S. at the outset of WWII, the Fed presented the patriotic idea of wartime bond support to the Treasury, not the other way around. Central banks are not shy in the ultimate moment of money needs.

In what should be considered a “white paper,” the Fed’s role in these dire circumstances is recently discussed by Renee Haltom and John A. Weinberg in the Richmond Fed Annual Report, 2011, titled Unsustainable Fiscal Policy: Implications for Monetary Policy. In a rare Fed admission they indicate that “a central bank can reduce the government’s debt burden by creating inflation that was not anticipated by financial markets.  Inflation allows all borrowers, the government included, to repay loans issued in nominal terms with cheaper dollars than the ones they borrowed.”

Indeed, if the Fed were to create inflation, it would not be totally unanticipated.  This is the outcome seen by many observers, including Bill Gross of PIMCO.

And Bill Gross is not alone, as the bond-buying public seems to believe little of the fiscal sustainability story.  Indeed, the flow of funds data, at least for 2011, indicates that the private sector purchased a minority of net new government debt issuance.  Hence, private investors are not the leading purchasers of U.S. Treasuries, causing the all-time depressed bond yields. The graph indicates that the Federal Reserve is buying the lion’s share of net new Federal debt, and foreign investors are in second place. That market thrust no doubt represents a flight from European sovereign exposure, which is in a more advanced state of fiscal decay at the moment.

No doubt some have bought the1930s deflationary depression story as a model outcome to justify buying and holding sovereigns, but this time around it doesn’t lead to the necessary conclusion that sovereigns will appreciate from here.  At today’s entry point of taxable low nominal yields and negative real yields, betting on both a deflationary depression with fiscal sustainability is not only a long shot but is mutually inconsistent.

A deflationary depression doesn’t generate government tax revenues to reach fiscal sustainability unless the voting public is willing to accept a substantial entitlement haircut. Moreover, if the low bond yields were to be maintained it would systemically cause defined-benefit pension plans to underperform.  They would become forced sellers of sovereign bond holding to meet payouts — as is now finally occurring with Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund.

The bond market rocket can glide for a time, perhaps years, until it collides with fiscal unsustainability. At that time it will be revealed plain enough for all to see when the private demand evaporates, much as it did with Spain this week. At that time, the U.S. Treasury is no longer a riskless debt instrument, nor is it immune from inflation.

(That being said, it leaves open the question of whether intentional inflation is bravado in the absence of bank lending, which will be addressed in a subsequent blog.)

When the market comes to understand that sovereign bond strength from a central bank is a mixed blessing — as it both purchases government bonds but also intentionally seeks to create “unanticipated” inflation —the bond market rocket is susceptible to the gravitational pull of Earth.

When that happens, there will be a large debris field for those who entered this untenable crowded trade (or stuck with it) so late in the game, supported not by the bond-buying public but only by a central bank wishing to do its patriotic duty — which includes inflation generation.

This indeed is not the 1930s.

 

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The Stock Market, QE3 and Voodoo Finance

As we look across the economic landscape there is an abundance of reason to anticipate a global economic slowdown. It is already well in the works as reflected in anticipatory data. It would not be a garden-variety recession emanating from some lull in spending but rather the grinding process of over-indebtedness and uncertainty due to tax and health care issues.

At the same time, over-indebtedness also creates a withering of financial valuations, which sets off another chain reaction called systemic financial meltdown.  This reduces the value of assets held by individuals and institutions such as banks, which in turn further dissolves financial wealth when assets are dumped in order to pay off fleeing depositors.

As a result, financial intermediation withers so that the process of matching of savers, if there are any, with investments is impeded. This in turn negates future growth. For example, systemic financial forces causing a recession visited the U.S.  in the late 1980s. At that time large commercial banks were overburdened with Latin American loan defaults and simultaneously savings and loan associations (remember them?) were decimated when inflation depreciated their book of long-term mortgages.  This limited systemic financial event resulted in a prolonged 1990 recession.

Hence whether the over-indebtedness first strikes spending or financial intermediation, it is difficult to discern as they interact and both income flows and financial valuations suffer, whichever occurs first.

Today, the developed world’s over-indebtedness reactions of the combined recessionary forces and bank runs are emanating from Europe’s southern tier. Unemployment numbers in Greece and Spain rival those of the Great Depression.

But the question on the table is the ability of Northern Europe and the U.S. (and, for that matter, the rest of the world) to escape at least temporarily the ill effects of the above degenerative process.

To gauge that, the market looks to the ability of monetary and fiscal policy to come to the rescue, and if the rescue is attempted will it work? Given the succession of bailout funds established but without the means to fund them, it is not a realistic option. To the extent country debt has been carried by other contributing countries, it is extremely limited and if, indeed, the Spanish bank bailout takes place, it exhausts all bailout funds from the Eurozone’s willing contributing countries.

Nonetheless, the contributing countries keep promising more and more, with the latest being a bank deposit insurance fund — and the market somehow believes it.

If fiscal resources from other contributing countries are extraordinary limited, what is the extent of monetary funding to aid both a recession and systemic financial meltdown? Well, there is some defense to the systemic financial event as long as the Fed and the ECB and other central banks are willing to keep expanding their balance sheets. There is no theoretical or legal limit to how much can be purchased to keep financial asset valuations afloat in order to prevent imminent financial meltdown, but to go overboard they are willing to give up all discipline of monetary control, and with it, holders of the currency go elsewhere.

Given the vulnerabilities present, how then can one explain stock price buoyancy? Since the beginning of the year the S&P 500 index is up approximately 6% and FTSE 100 index is up 2 percent despite the onset of recession and bank runs.

If there is any logic to it, it seems to be resting on less than a firm foundation. While equity investors rely on current known information such as earnings, they also project forward the value of the claims they are purchasing, hence making financial pricing a mixture of facts and a learned history to project forward.

What you often hear these days is a general awareness of the economic and debt problems but a faith that the bigger the problem, the bigger the government response will be. That is to say, any investor citing “in my 25 years’ experience” is a candidate to be projecting a future based on the Great Moderation Period of Greenspan Puts and currency solidarity in Europe.

Financial prices are inherently an extrapolation of a history, but it’s certainly not the Great Moderation, though that was the dominant influence in the thinking of the 25-year U.S. veteran stock market investor.

But then there is a newer history called the Bernanke Put, best characterized as a succession of QEs or other outside-the-box monetary stimulus, the latest of which is operation twist.

It’s now a common attitude that if the situation becomes bad enough there will be a response equal to the task needed to keep financial values afloat. Now being cited is the above chart showing how equity markets respond to QEs. It seems that the Fed has well trained stock market investors in Voodoo financial logic. The worse the economic problem, the better it is for stocks despite declines in earnings.

As a side note, QE faith stock valuations are throwing noise into the long term relationship of stock prices to earnings and as an early indicator of a recession. This is one of many structural changes that are occuring which implies that one must be careful of which history is chosen to extrapolate.

Before one relies on Voodoo finance and a faith-based QE3, one should note that additional Fed stimulus is almost certain in the face of a systemic financial institution collapse but is less certain and will be less dramatic due to a softening economy. Systemic financial defense was the raison d’etre for the Fed and remains its number one policy objective, but some token form of monetary aid has now become necessary to prevent a collapse of the Voodoo expectations the Fed has created. If that occurs, expectations have become self-fulfilling.

 

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