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Another Look at Helicopter Money

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helicopter-money

As President Obama wraps-up his second term, people are looking back to reassess his handling of the Great Recession. During his first year in office, our Disappointer-In-Chief introduced his own version of “trickle-down economics” by way of a bank bailout scheme called the Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP or “pee-pip”).

Despite his July 15, 2008, campaign promise that if he were elected, there would be “no more trickle-down economics”, the President and the Federal Reserve embarked on a course of bailing out the banks, rather than distressed businesses or the taxpayers themselves.

As this writer pointed out on Sept. 21, 2009, Australian economist Steve Keen published a report from his website explaining how the “money multiplier” myth, fed to Obama by the very people who facilitated the financial crisis, would be of no use in the effort to strengthen the economy.

On Aug. 26, 2016, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at the annual rate of just 1.1% during the second quarter of 2016. This graph illustrates the faltering rate of annual GDP expansion since the end of 2014, after the conclusion of the Fed’s quantitative easing program.

Concerns that the United States could be doomed to a Japan-like addiction to monetary stimulus gimmicks have amped-up enthusiasm for the Fed to become more aggressive about raising interest rates. Meanwhile, many economists contend that tightening monetary policy before the economy reaches a robust state could plunge the nation back into recession.

In April 2016, former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke advocated the use of “helicopter money” as a last-resort strategy to jump-start a stalled economy. This provoked a response from economist Steve Keen emphasizing that Bernanke and other mainstream economists have shared a flawed belief that the public’s expectations for a healthy rate of inflation could cause such inflation to occur. In other words: “Inflationary expectations cause inflation.”

Steve Keen consistently emphasizes the need to understand how excessive private debt causes severe economic contraction and financial crises. Specifically, when the level of private debt exceeds GDP by 150% and that level continues to grow – disaster awaits.

So what can be done to keep the debt-to-GDP ratio in check? In this video, Steve Keen and Edward Harrison of the Credit Writedowns website explain how Ben Bernanke’s helicopter could be sent on a debt reduction mission.



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Don’t Fear the Taper

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You can’t avoid reading about it.  The stock market is sinking  . . .  Treasury bond yields are spiking   .  .  .  The TAPER is coming!

The panic began in the wake of Jon Hilsenrath’s May 10 Wall Street Journal  report (after the markets closed on that Friday afternoon) concerning a new strategy by the Federal Reserve to “wind down” its quantitative easing program.  The disclosure was carefully timed to give investors an opportunity to process the information and get used to the idea before the next opening bell of the stock market.

By the time the stock market reopened on Monday, May 13 – the first trading day after Jon Hilsenrath’s article – there was a surprising report on April Retail Sales from the Commerce Department’s Census Bureau.  The report disclosed that retail sales had unexpectedly increased by 0.1 percent in April, despite economists’ expectations of a 0.3 percent decline.  As a result, the Taper report had no significant impact on stock prices – at least on that day.

The Wall Street Journal report carried plenty of weight because of Jon Hilsenrath’s role as de facto “press secretary” for Ben Bernanke, as I discussed in my last posting.  Since the WSJ article’s publication, there has been a steady stream of commentary about the threats posed by the Taper.  Nevertheless, the word “taper” was never used in Hilsenrath’s article.  In fact, the article included an explanation by Philly FedHead (and FOMC member) Charles Plosser, that the Fed has “a dial that can move either way”.  The dial could be set to a particular level with either an increase or a decrease.

Regardless of whatever the Fed may have planned, the flow of commentary has focused on the notion that the Fed is about to taper back on its bond buying.  The current incarnation of quantitative easing (QE 4) involves the Fed’s purchase of $45 billion in bonds and $40 billion in mortgage-backed securities every month.  We are supposed to believe that the Fed will gradually ease back on the bond purchases – whether it might begin with a reduction to $40 billion or $35 billion in monthly purchases  . . .  the Fed will gradually taper the amount down to zero.

Despite what you may have read or heard about the taper, it’s not going to work that way.  Beyond that, taper is not really an appropriate way to describe the Fed’s plan.  In other words:

Don’t fear the taper.

Josh Brown interviewed Jon Hilsenrath for CNBC on May 22.  Here is what Josh Brown had to say about the interview:

There was one thing Jon Hilsenrath did say in my interview with him on TV last night that I think is very important and clears up a big misconception. He explained that Bernanke himself will not be using the term “taper” that everyone else is bandying about. The reason why is that the Fed does not want to create the impression that one policy move will necessarily be attached to three or four others. In other words, suppose the Fed were to drop its rate of monthly asset purchases from $85 billion to some less number in one of the next meetings. This could be a one-off action with nothing else behind it, designed to temper the market’s expectations and gauge the effects.

I’d remind you that what Bernanke, as a self-styled “student of the Depression” fears the most, is a premature tightening a la FDR in 1937-1938, just as the nation was finally on the mend. If you think that this central bank, which has just spent the last six years patiently reflating the economy, is about to yank the rug out from under it at the last moment, then you haven’t been paying attention.

The wave of panic which followed Jon Hilsenrath’s May 10 article about the Fed’s plans for its quantitative easing program has yet to be calmed by Hilsenrath’s clarification about how the Fed’s new strategy is likely to proceed.  As Napoleon once said:

“Men are Moved by two levers only: fear and self interest.”


 

Bernanke Taper Caper

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On May 11, Bruce Krasting expressed outrage about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s use of The Wall Street Journal’s Jon Hilsenrath as his “point man” for leaking out the latest news from the Fed.  Hilsenrath’s Friday afternoon report (after the markets closed) that the Federal Reserve is working on a strategy to taper back its quantitative easing program was carefully orchestrated to avoid roiling the stock market.

We recently saw a demonstration of how important the quantitative easing program has been to investors.  On Thursday, May 9, both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 fell from intraday record highs during the last 90 minutes of the session.  Philadelphia Federal Reserve president Charles Plosser announced that he would join forces with Kansas City FedHead Esther George to advocate attenuation of the quantitative easing program at the June 18 FOMC meeting.  The news definitely spooked the stock market.

Friday’s report from Hilsenrath/Bernanke gave investors a chance to process what was being disclosed and to get comfortable with the idea that quantitative easing will not go on forever.  The leak was obviously timed to provide a decent interval before the stock market opened again.  There is no definite plan in place to end the quantitative easing program by any particular date, nor is there a planned date for the inception of the wind-down being discussed.  Here is a bit of how Hilsenrath explained what is taking place:

Officials are focusing on clarifying the strategy so markets don’t overreact about their next moves.  For example, officials want to avoid creating expectations that their retreat will be a steady, uniform process like their approach from 2003 to 2006, when they raised short-term interest rates in a series of quarter-percentage-point increments over 17 straight policy meetings.

Hilsenrath’s quote of Dallas FedHead Richard Fisher’s explanation of the plan was beautiful:  “I don’t want to go from wild turkey to cold turkey“.

Bruce Krasting was the first to begin spreading panic and misinformation about Hilsenrath’s report.  Here’s an example:

The Fed’s new plan is to taper off QE over the balance of the year.

Of course, the foregoing statement is completely untrue.  Hilsenrath never said that.  Does Bruce Krasting have his own source on the Federal Reserve Board, who is leaking secret information to him? 

Perhaps we might see some of Bernanke’s foes initiate a Congressional inquiry into the “Tapergate scandal”.  What did Jon Hilsenrath know and when did he know it?

For a long time, Hilsenrath’s role as Ben Bernanke’s de facto press secretary has been a subject of cynical commentary.  Many have joked that Hilsenrath will replace Bernanke when he retires.  At Bernanke’s press conferences which follow the FOMC meetings, I keep expecting to hear the moderator announce that the next question will come from Jon Hilsenrath of The Wall Street Journal  .   .   .   Hilsenrath would then take the microphone and say:

You know, Ben – that last question just reminded me of another matter which would be really important to these people   .  .  .

Meanwhile, back in the real world, stock market investors are being confronted with the challenge of taking baby steps toward the idea of life without quantitative easing.  At the same time – as Jon Hilsenrath explained – the Fed is attempting to reach a decision on when to begin such a tapering effort.


 

Y2 Cliff

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Have you become sick of hearing about it?  The Mayan End of the World is less than three weeks away and the people on the teevee keep talking about the Fiscal Cliff.  I’m still waiting for Comet Kohoutek.  For those of you who are too young to remember, here is what Wikipedia tells us about Comet Kohoutek:

Before its close approach, Kohoutek was hyped by the media as the “comet of the century”.  However, Kohoutek’s display was considered a let-down, possibly due to partial disintegration when the comet closely approached the sun prior to Earth flyby.

Our next media-hyped non-event was the infamous Y2K story.  Thousands of people started hoarding canned food, building shelters and preparing for a Cro-Magnon lifestyle because the computers thought that every year began with the two digits 1 and 9.  Yeah, that happened.

This week, everyone is talking about the Fiscal Cliff.  By now, there have been enough sober reports (and lawsuits by the Mayans) to force people into the realization that the world will not end on the 21st day of this month.  The country has found a better focus for its consensual panic:  The Cliff.  Concerns voiced by Ben Bernanke and others brought our attention to the possibility that if our government resumes its budget standoff – after the can was kicked down the road last summer – our government’s credit rating could face another cut.  As a result, Bernanke invented the cliff metaphor and everyone ran with it – despite the fact that it is not appropriate.

The best Fiscal Cliff Smackdown came from Barry Ritholtz, who wrote a great piece for The Washington Post entitled, “How important is the fiscal cliff for investors?  Hint: Not very.”  The explanation of the cliff contained in the article was quite helpful for those unfamiliar with the details:

Let’s start with a definition:  The term refers to the deal that Congress made in late 2011 to temporarily resolve the debt ceiling debate.  The “sequestration,” as it is known, calls for three elements:  tax increases, spending cuts and an increase to the payroll tax (FICA).  The Washington Post’s Wonkblog has run the numbers and finds “$180 billion from income tax hikes, $120 billion in revenue from the payroll tax, $110 billion from the sequester’s automatic spending cuts and $160 billion from expiring tax breaks and other programs.”

*   *   *

The term “fiscal cliff,” popularized by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, is really a misnomer.  As several analysts have correctly observed, the effects of sequestration are not a Jan. 1, 2013, event.  The impact of the spending cuts and tax hikes would be phased in over time.  A fiscal slope is more accurate. Additionally, as students of history have learned, single-variable analysis for complex financial issues is invariably wrong.  Because of the inherent complexity of economies and markets, we cannot adequately explain or predict their behavior by merely looking at just one variable.

Ritholtz brought our attention to a great article about the fiscal cliff hype, written by Ryan Chittum for the Columbia Journalism Review.  Chittum blamed CNBC’s “Rise Above” publicity campaign as the primary force driving fiscal cliff anxiety:

Any time you see Wall Street CEOs and CNBC campaigning for what they call the common good, it’s worth raising an eyebrow or two.

*   *   *

You’ll note that CNBC has not Risen Above for the common good on issues like stimulating a depressed economy, ameliorating the housing catastrophe, or prosecuting its Wall Street sources/dinner partners for the subprime fiasco.  But make no mistake:  even if it had, it would have been stepping outside the boundaries of traditional American journalism practice into political advocacy.  And that’s precisely what it’s doing here, at further cost to its credibility as a mainstream news organization instead of some HD version of Wall Street CCTV.

*   *   *

Last but not least is the hypocrisy of CNBC in talking about Rising Above politics.  This is the network, after all, that kicked off the Tea Party, an austerity push that was one of the more damaging political movements in recent memory.

*   *   *

It’s just not CNBC’s job, institutionally, to campaign for anything. Cover the news, as they say, don’t become it.

December 21 will come and go with nothing happening.  It will be January 1, 2000 all over again.  The fiscal cliff “deadline” – January 1, 2013 – will come and go with nothing happening.  The budget can will be kicked down the road again by the “lame duck” Congress.

In the mean time we can entertain ourselves by learning how celebrities are preparing for Armageddon.  After all, they’re here to entertain us.


 

Manifesto

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For the past few years, a central mission of this blog has been to focus on Washington’s unending efforts to protect, pamper and bail out the Wall Street megabanks at taxpayer expense.  From Maiden Lane III to TARP and through countless “backdoor bailouts”, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department have been pumping money into businesses which should have gone bankrupt in 2008.  Worse yet, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless have expressed no interest in bringing charges against those miscreants responsible for causing the financial crisis.  The Federal Reserve’s latest update to its Survey of Consumer Finances for 2010 revealed that during the period of 2007-2010, the median family net worth declined by a whopping thirty-eight percent.  Despite the massive extent of wealth destruction caused by the financial crisis, our government is doing nothing about it.

I have always been a fan of economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, whose Weekly Market Comment essays are frequently referenced on this website.  Professor Hussman’s most recent piece, “The Heart of the Matter” serves as a manifesto of how the financial crisis was caused, why nothing was done about it and why it is happening again both in the United States and in Europe.  Beyond that, Professor Hussman offers some suggestions for remedying this unaddressed and unresolved set of circumstances.  It is difficult to single out a passage to quote because every word of Hussman’s latest Market Comment is precious.  Be sure to read it.  What I present here are some hints as to the significance of this important essay:

The ongoing debate about the economy continues along largely partisan lines, with conservatives arguing that taxes just aren’t low enough, and the economy should be freed of regulations, while liberals argue that the economy needs larger government programs and grand stimulus initiatives.

Lost in this debate is any recognition of the problem that lies at the heart of the matter:  a warped financial system, both in the U.S. and globally, that directs scarce capital to speculative and unproductive uses, and refuses to restructure debt once that debt has gone bad.

Specifically, over the past 15 years, the global financial system – encouraged by misguided policy and short-sighted monetary interventions – has lost its function of directing scarce capital toward projects that enhance the world’s standard of living. Instead, the financial system has been transformed into a self-serving, grotesque casino that misallocates scarce savings, begs for and encourages speculative bubbles, refuses to restructure bad debt, and demands that the most reckless stewards of capital should be rewarded through bailouts that transfer bad debt from private balance sheets to the public balance sheet.

*   *   *

By our analysis, the U.S. economy is presently entering a recession.  Not next year; not later this year; but now.  We expect this to become increasingly evident in the coming months, but through a constant process of denial in which every deterioration is dismissed as transitory, and every positive outlier is celebrated as a resumption of growth.  To a large extent, this downturn is a “boomerang” from the credit crisis we experienced several years ago.  The chain of events is as follows:

Financial deregulation and monetary negligence -> Housing bubble -> Credit crisis marked by failure to restructure bad debt -> Global recession -> Government deficits in U.S. and globally -> Conflict between single currency and disparate fiscal policies in Europe -> Austerity -> European recession and credit strains -> Global recession.

In effect, we’re going into another recession because we never effectively addressed the problems that produced the first one, leaving us unusually vulnerable to aftershocks.  Our economic malaise is the result of a whole chain of bad decisions that have distorted the financial markets in ways that make recurring crisis inevitable.

*   *   *

Every major bank is funded partially by depositors, but those deposits typically represent only about 60% of the funding.  The rest is debt to the bank’s own bondholders, and equity of its stockholders.  When a country like Spain goes in to save a failing bank like Bankia – and does so by buying stock in the bank – the government is putting its citizens in a “first loss” position that protects the bondholders at public expense.  This has been called “nationalization” because Spain now owns most of the stock, but the rescue has no element of restructuring at all.  All of the bank’s liabilities – even to its own bondholders – are protected at public expense.  So in order to defend bank bondholders, Spain is increasing the public debt burden of its own citizens.  This approach is madness, because Spain’s citizens will ultimately suffer the consequences by eventual budget austerity or risk of government debt default.

The way to restructure a bank is to take it into receivership, write down the bad assets, wipe out the stockholders and much of the subordinated debt, and then recapitalize the remaining entity by selling it back into the private market.  Depositors don’t lose a dime.  While the U.S. appropriately restructured General Motors – wiping out stock, renegotiating contracts, and subjecting bondholders to haircuts – the banking system was largely untouched.

*   *   *

If it seems as if the global economy has learned nothing, it is because evidently the global economy has learned nothing.  The right thing to do, again, is to take receivership of insolvent banks and wipe out the stock and subordinated debt, using the borrowed funds to protect depositors in the event that the losses run deep enough to eat through the intervening layers of liabilities (which is doubtful), and otherwise using the borrowed funds to stimulate the economy after the restructuring occurs.  We’re going to keep having crises until global leaders recognize that short of creating hyperinflation (which also subordinates the public, in this case by destroying the value of currency), there is no substitute for debt restructuring.

For some insight as to why the American megabanks were never taken into temporary receivership, it is useful to look back to February of 2010 when Michael Shedlock (a/k/a“Mish”) provided us with a handy summary of the 224-page Quarterly Report from SIGTARP (the Special Investigator General for TARP — Neil Barofsky).  My favorite comment from Mish appeared near the conclusion of his summary:

Clearly TARP was a complete failure, that is assuming the goals of TARP were as stated.

My belief is the benefits of TARP and the entire alphabet soup of lending facilities was not as stated by Bernanke and Geithner, but rather to shift as much responsibility as quickly as possible on to the backs of taxpayers while trumping up nonsensical benefits of doing so.  This was done to bail out the banks at any and all cost to the taxpayers.

Was this a huge conspiracy by the Fed and Treasury to benefit the banks at taxpayer expense?  Of course it was, and the conspiracy is unraveling as documented in this report and as documented in AIG Coverup Conspiracy Unravels.

On January 29 2010, David Reilly wrote an article for Bloomberg BusinessWeek concerning the previous week’s hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  After quoting from Reilly’s article, Mish made this observation:

Most know I am not a big believer in conspiracies.  I regularly dismiss them.  However, this one was clear from the beginning and like all massive conspiracies, it is now in the light of day.

David Reilly began the Bloomberg Business Week piece this way:

The idea of secret banking cabals that control the country and global economy are a given among conspiracy theorists who stockpile ammo, bottled water and peanut butter.  After this week’s congressional hearing into the bailout of American International Group Inc., you have to wonder if those folks are crazy after all.

Wednesday’s hearing described a secretive group deploying billions of dollars to favored banks, operating with little oversight by the public or elected officials.

That “secretive group” is The Federal Reserve of New York, whose president at the time of the AIG bailout was “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  David Reilly’s disgust at the hearing’s revelations became apparent from the tone of his article:

By pursuing this line of inquiry, the hearing revealed some of the inner workings of the New York Fed and the outsized role it plays in banking.  This insight is especially valuable given that the New York Fed is a quasi-governmental institution that isn’t subject to citizen intrusions such as freedom of information requests, unlike the Federal Reserve.

At least in the Eurozone there is fear that the taxpayers will never submit to enhanced economic austerity measures, which would force the citizenry into an impoverished existence so that their increased tax burden could pay off the debts incurred by irresponsible bankers.  In the United States there is no such concern.  The public is much more compliant.  Whether that will change is anyone’s guess.


 

When the Music Stops

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Forget about all that talk concerning the Mayan calendar and December 21, 2012.  The date you should be worried about is January 1, 2013.  I’ve been reading so much about it that I decided to try a Google search using “January 1, 2013” to see what results would appear.  Sure enough – the fifth item on the list was an article from Peter Coy at Bloomberg BusinessWeek entitled, “The End Is Coming:  January 1, 2013”.  The theme of that piece is best summarized in the following passage:

With the attention of the political class fixated on the presidential campaign, Washington is in danger of getting caught in a suffocating fiscal bind.  If Congress does nothing between now and January to change the course of policy, a combination of mandatory spending reductions and expiring tax cuts will kick in – depriving the economy of oxygen and imperiling a recovery likely to remain fragile through the end of 2012.  Congress could inadvertently send the U.S. economy hurtling over what Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently called a “massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases.”

Peter Coy’s take on this impending crisis seemed a bit optimistic to me.  My perspective on the New Year’s Meltdown had been previously shaped by a great essay from the folks at Comstock Partners.  The Comstock explanation was particularly convincing because it focused on the effects of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing programs, emphasizing what many commentators describe as the Fed’s “Third Mandate”:  keeping the stock market inflated.  Beyond that, Comstock pointed out the absurdity of that cherished belief held by the magical-thinking, rose-colored glasses crowd:  the Fed is about to introduce another round of quantitative easing (QE 3).  Here is Comstock’s dose of common sense:

A growing number of indicators suggest that the market is running out of steam.  Equities have been in a temporary sweet spot where investors have been factoring in a self-sustaining U.S. economic recovery while also anticipating the imminent institution of QE3.  This is a contradiction.  If the economy were indeed as strong as they say, we wouldn’t need QE3.  The fact that market observers eagerly look forward toward the possibility of QE3 is itself an indication that the economy is weaker than they think.  We can have one or the other, but we can’t have both.

After two rounds of quantitative easing – followed by “operation twist” – the smart people are warning the rest of us about what is likely to happen when the music finally stops.  Here is Comstock’s admonition:

The economy is also facing the so-called “fiscal cliff” beginning on January 1, 2013.  This includes expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the payroll tax cuts, emergency unemployment benefits and the sequester.  Various estimates placed the hit to GDP as being anywhere between 2% and 3.5%, a number that would probably throw the economy into recession, if it isn’t already in one before then.  At about that time we will also be hitting the debt limit once again.   U.S. economic growth will also be hampered by recession in Europe and decreasing growth and a possible hard landing in China.

Technically, all of the good news seems to have been discounted by the market rally of the last three years and the last few months.  The market is heavily overbought, sentiment is extremely high, daily new highs are falling and volume is both low and declining.  In our view the odds of a significant decline are high.

Charles Biderman is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of TrimTabs Investment Research.  He was recently interviewed by Chris Martenson.  Biderman’s primary theme concerned the Federal Reserve’s “rigging” of the stock market through its quantitative easing programs, which have steered so much money into stocks that stock prices have now become a “function of liquidity” rather than fundamental value.  Biderman estimated that the Fed’s liquidity pump has fed the stock market “$1.8 billion per day since August”.  He does not believe this story will have a happy ending:

In January of ’10, I went on CNBC and on Bloomberg and said that there is no money coming into stocks, and yet the stock market keeps going up.  The law of supply and demand still exists and for stock prices to go up, there has to be more money buying those shares.  There is no other way in aggregate that that could happen.

So I said it has to be coming from the government.  And everybody thought I was a lunatic, conspiracy theorist, whatever.  And then lo and behold, on October of 2011, Mr. Bernanke then says officially, that the purpose of QE1 and QE2 is to raise asset prices.  And if I remember correctly, equities are an asset, and bonds are an asset.

So asset prices have gone up as the Fed has been manipulating the market. At the same time as the economy is not growing (or not growing very fast).

*   *   *

At some point, the world is going to recognize the Emperor is naked. The only question is when.

Will it be this year?  I do not think it will be before the election, I think there is too much vested interest in keeping things rosy and positive.

One of my favorite economists is John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  In his most recent Weekly Market Comment, Dr. Hussman warned us that the “music” must eventually stop:

What remains then is a fairly simple assertion:  the primary way to boost corporate profits to abnormally high – but unsustainable – levels is for the government and the household sector to both spend beyond their means at the same time.

*   *   *

The conclusion is straightforward.  The hope for continued high profit margins really comes down to the hope that government and the household sector will both continue along unsustainable spending trajectories indefinitely.  Conversely, any deleveraging of presently debt-heavy government and household balance sheets will predictably create a sustained retreat in corporate profit margins.  With the ratio of corporate profits to GDP now about 70% above the historical norm, driven by a federal deficit in excess of 8% of GDP and a deeply depressed household saving rate, we view Wall Street’s embedded assumption of a permanently high plateau in profit margins as myopic.

Will January 1, 2013 be the day when the world realizes that “the Emperor is naked”?  Will the American economy fall off the “massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases” eleven days after the end of the Mayan calendar?  When we wake-up with our annual New Year’s Hangover on January 1 – will we all regret not having followed the example set by those Doomsday Preppers on the National Geographic Channel?

Get your “bug-out bag” ready!  You still have nine months!


 

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More Great Thoughts from Jeremy Grantham

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I always look forward to Jeremy Grantham’s Quarterly Letter.  Grantham is the Co-founder and Chief Investment Strategist of Grantham Mayo Van Otterloo (GMO), an investment management firm, entrusted to oversee approximately $97 billion in client assets.

Unlike many asset managers, Jeremy Grantham has a social conscience.  As a result, during the past few years we have seen him direct some sharp criticism at President Obama, Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke and – of course – Goldman Sachs.  Grantham fell behind schedule when his Third Quarter 2011 Letter was delayed by over a month.  As a result, Grantham’s Fourth Quarter 2011 Letter was just released a few days ago.  At 15 pages, it earned the title “The Longest Quarterly Letter Ever”.  As usual, Grantham has provided us with some great investment insights – along with some pointed criticism of our ignorant legislators and mercenary corporate managers.  What follows are some selected passages.  Be sure to read the entire letter here (when you have time).

To leave it to capitalism to get us out of this fix by maximizing its short-term profits is dangerously naïve and misses the point: capitalism and corporations have absolutely no mechanism for dealing with these problems, and seen through a corporate discount rate lens, our grandchildren really do have no value.

To move from the problem of long time horizons to the short-term common good, it is quickly apparent that capitalism in general has no sense of ethics or conscience.  Whatever the Supreme Court may think, it is not a person.  Why would a company give up a penny for the common good if it is not required to by enforced regulation or unless it looked like that penny might be returned with profit in the future because having a good image might be good for business?  Ethical CEOs can drag a company along for a while, but this is an undependable and temporary fix.  Ethical humans can also impose their will on corporations singly or en masse by withholding purchases or bestowing them, and companies can anticipate this and even influence it through clever brand advertising, “clean coal” being my favorite.  But that is quite different from corporate altruism. Thus, we can roast our planet and firms may offer marvelous and profitable energy-saving equipment, but it will be for profit today, not planet saving tomorrow.

It gets worse, for what capitalism has always had is money with which to try to buy influence.  Today’s version of U.S. capitalism has died and gone to heaven on this issue. A company is now free to spend money to influence political outcomes and need tell no one, least of all its own shareholders, the technical owners.  So, rich industries can exert so much political influence that they now have a dangerous degree of influence over Congress.  And the issues they most influence are precisely the ones that matter most, the ones that are most important to society’s long-term well-being, indeed its very existence.  Thus, taking huge benefits from Nature and damaging it in return is completely free and all attempts at government control are fought with costly lobbying and advertising.  And one of the first victims in this campaign has been the truth.  If scientific evidence suggests costs and limits be imposed on industry to protect the long-term environment, then science will be opposed by clever disinformation.

*   *   *

Capitalism certainly acts as if it believes that rapid growth in physical wealth can go on forever.  It appears to be hooked on high growth and avoids any suggestion that it might be slowed down by limits.  Thus, it exhibits horror at the thought (and occasional reality) of declining population when in fact such a decline is an absolute necessity in order for us to end up gracefully, rather than painfully, at a fully sustainable world economy.  Similarly with natural resources, capitalism wants to eat into these precious, limited resources at an accelerating rate with the subtext that everyone on the planet has the right to live like the wasteful polluting developed countries do today.  You don’t have to be a PhD mathematician to work out that if the average Chinese and Indian were to catch up with (the theoretically moving target of) the average American, then our planet’s goose is cooked, along with most other things.  Indeed, scientists calculate that if they caught up, we would need at least three planets to be fully sustainable.  But few listen to scientists these days.  So, do you know how many economic theories treat resources as if they are finite?  Well, the researchers at the O.E.C.D say “none” – that no such theory exists.  Economic theory either ignores this little problem or assumes you reach out and take the needed resources given the normal workings of supply and demand and you can do it indefinitely.  This is a lack of common sense on a par with “rational expectations,” that elegant theory that encouraged the ludicrous faith in deregulation and the wisdom of free markets, which brought us our recent financial fiascos.  But this failure in economic theory – ignoring natural limits – risks far more dangerous outcomes than temporary financial crashes.

*   *   *

As described above, the current U.S. capitalist system appears to contain some potentially fatal flaws.  Therefore, we should ask what it would take for our system to evolve in time to save our bacon.  Clearly, a better balance with regulations would be a help. This requires reasonably enlightened regulations, which are unlikely to be produced until big money’s influence in Congress, and particularly in elections, decreases.  This would necessitate legal changes all the way up to the Supreme Court.  It’s a long haul, but a handful of other democratic countries in northern Europe have been successful, and with the stakes so high we have little alternative but to change our ways.

*   *   *

Capitalism, by ignoring the finite nature of resources and by neglecting the long-term well-being of the planet and its potentially crucial biodiversity, threatens our existence.  Fifty and one-hundred-year horizons are important despite the “tyranny of the discount rate,” and grandchildren do have value. My conclusion is that capitalism does admittedly do a thousand things better than other systems:  it only currently fails in two or three.  Unfortunately for us all, even a single one of these failings may bring capitalism down and us with it.

Keep in mind that the foregoing passages were just from Part II of the Quarterly Letter.  Part III is focused on “Investment Observations for the New Year”.  Be sure to check it out – it’s not as bearish as you might expect.  Enjoy!



 

Once Upon A Crisis

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As the 2012 Presidential election campaign heats up, there is plenty of historical revisionism taking place with respect to the 2008 financial / economic crisis.  Economist Dean Baker wrote an article for The Guardian, wherein he debunked the Obama administration’s oft-repeated claim that the newly-elected President saved us from a “Second Great Depression”:

While the Obama administration, working alongside Ben Bernanke at the Fed, deserves credit for preventing a financial meltdown, a second great depression was never in the cards.

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The attack on the second Great Depression myth is not simply an exercise in semantics.  The Obama Administration and the political establishment more generally want the public to be grateful that we managed to avoid a second Great Depression. People should realize that this claim is sort of like keeping our kids safe from tiger attacks.  It’s true that almost no kids in the United States are ever attacked by tigers, but we don’t typically give out political praise for this fact, since there is no reason to expect our kids to be attacked by tigers.

In the same vein, we all should be very happy we aren’t in the middle of a second Great Depression; however, there was never any good reason for us to fear a second Great Depression.  What we most had to fear was a prolonged period of weak growth and high unemployment.  Unfortunately, this is exactly what we are seeing.   The only question is how long it will drag on.

Joe Weisenthal of The Business Insider directed our attention to the interview with economist Paul Krugman appearing in the current issue of Playboy.  Krugman, long considered a standard bearer for the Democratic Party’s economic agenda, was immediately thrown under the bus as soon as Obama took office.  I’ll never forget reading about the “booby prize” roast beef dinner Obama held for Krugman and his fellow Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz – when the two economists were informed that their free advice would be ignored. Fortunately, former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was able to make sure that pork wasn’t the main course for that dinner.  Throughout the Playboy interview, Krugman recalled his disappointment with the new President.  Here’s what Joe  Weisenthal had to say about the piece:

There’s a long interview with Paul Krugman in the new Playboy, and it’s excellent.

We tend to write a lot about his economic commentary here, but he probably doesn’t get enough credit for his commentary on politics, and his assessment of how things will play out.

Go back and read this column, from March 2009, and you’ll see that he basically called things correctly, that the stimulus would be too small, and that the GOP would be emboldened and gain success arguing that the problem was that we had stimulus at all.

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At least as Krugman sees it, the times called for a major boost in spending and so on, and Obama never had any intention to deliver.

What follows is the prescient excerpt from Krugman’s March 9, 2009 essay, referenced by Joe Weisenthal:

The broader public, by contrast, favors strong action.  According to a recent Newsweek poll, a majority of voters supports the stimulus, and, more surprising, a plurality believes that additional spending will be necessary.  But will that support still be there, say, six months from now?

Also, an overwhelming majority believes that the government is spending too much to help large financial institutions.  This suggests that the administration’s money-for-nothing financial policy will eventually deplete its political capital.

So here’s the picture that scares me:  It’s September 2009, the unemployment rate has passed 9 percent, and despite the early round of stimulus spending it’s still headed up.  Obama finally concedes that a bigger stimulus is needed.  But he can’t get his new plan through Congress because approval for his economic policies has plummeted, partly because his policies are seen to have failed, partly because job-creation policies are conflated in the public mind with deeply unpopular bank bailouts.  And as a result, the recession rages on, unchecked.

In early July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Second Stimulus”, in which I observed that President Obama had already reached the milestone anticipated by Krugman for September of that year.  I made a point of including a list of ignored warnings about the inadequacy of the stimulus program.  Most notable among them was the point that there were fifty economists who shared the concerns voiced by Krugman, Stiglitz and Jamie Galbraith:

Despite all these warnings, as well as a Bloomberg survey conducted in early February, revealing the opinions of economists that the stimulus would be inadequate to avert a two-percent economic contraction in 2009, the President stuck with the $787 billion plan.

Mike Grabell of ProPublica has written a new book entitled, Money Well Spent? which provided an even-handed analysis of what the stimulus did – and did not – accomplish.  As I pointed out on February 13, some of the criticisms voiced by Mike Grabell concerning the programs funded by the Economic Recovery Act had been previously expressed by Keith Hennessey (former director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush) in a June 3, 2009 posting at Hennessey’s blog.  I was particularly intrigued by this suggestion by Keith Hennessey from back in 2009:

Had the President instead insisted that a $787 B stimulus go directly into people’s hands, where “people” includes those who pay income taxes and those who don’t, we would now be seeing a stimulus that would be:

  • partially effective but still quite large – Because it would be a temporary change in people’s incomes, only a fraction of the $787 B would be spent.  But even 1/4 or 1/3 of $787 B is still a lot of money to dump out the door.  The relative ineffectiveness of a temporary income change would be offset by the enormous amount of cash flowing.
  • efficient – People would be spending money on themselves. Some of them would be spending other people’s money on themselves, but at least they would be spending on their own needs, rather than on multi-year water projects in the districts of powerful Members of Congress.  You would have much less waste.
  • fast – The GDP boost would be concentrated in Q3 and Q4 of 2009, tapering off heavily in Q1 of 2010.

Why did the President not do this?  Discussions with the Congress began in January before he took office, and he faced a strong Speaker who took control and gave a huge chuck of funding to House Appropriations Chairman Obey (D-WI).  I can think of three plausible explanations:

  1. The President and his team did not realize the analytical point that infrastructure spending has too slow of a GDP effect.
  2. They were disorganized.
  3. They did not want a confrontation with their new Congressional allies in their first few days.

Given the fact that the American economy is 70% consumer-driven, Keith Hennessey’s proposed stimulus would have boosted that sorely-missing consumer demand as far back as two years ago.  We can only wonder where our unemployment level and our Gross Domestic Product would be now if Hennessey’s plan had been implemented – despite the fact that it would have been limited to the $787 billion amount.


 

Niall Ferguson Softens His Austerity Stance

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I have previously criticized Niall Ferguson as one of the gurus for those creatures described by Barry Ritholtz as “deficit chicken hawks”.  The deficit chicken hawks have been preaching the gospel of economic austerity as an excuse for roadblocking any form of stimulus (fiscal or monetary) to rehabilitate the American economy.  Ferguson has now backed away from the position he held two years ago – that the United States has been carrying too much debt

Henry Blodget of The Business Insider justified his trip to Davos, Switzerland last week by conducting an important interview with Niall Ferguson at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.  For the first time, Ferguson conceded that he had been wrong with his previous criticism about the level of America’s sovereign debt load, although he denied ever having been a proponent of “instant austerity” (which is currently advocated by many American politicians).  While discussing the extent of the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, Ferguson re-directed his focus on the United States:

I think we are going to get some defaults one way or the other.  The U.S. is a different story.  First of all I think the debt to GDP ratio can go quite a lot higher before there’s any upward pressure on interest rates.  I think the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve realized that there are good analogies for super powers having super debts.  You’re in a special position as a super power.  You get, especially, you know, as the issuer of the international reserve currency, you get a lot of leeway.  The U.S. could conceivably grow its way out of the debt.  It could do a mixture of growth and inflation.  It’s not going to default.  It may default on liabilities in Social Security and Medicare, in fact it almost certainly will.  But I think holders of Treasuries can feel a lot more comfortable than anyone who’s holding European bonds right now.

BLODGET: That is a shockingly optimistic view of the United States from you.  Are you conceding to Paul Krugman that over the near-term we shouldn’t worry so much?

FERGUSONI think the issue here got a little confused, because Krugman wanted to portray me as a proponent of instant austerity, which I never was.  My argument was that over ten years you have to have some credible plan to get back to fiscal balance because at some point you lose your credibility because on the present path, Congressional Budget Office figures make it clear, with every year the share of Federal tax revenues going to interest payments rises, there is a point after which it’s no longer credible.  But I didn’t think that point was going to be this year or next year.  I think the trend of nominal rates in the crisis has been the trend that he forecasted.  And you know, I have to concede that. I think the reason that I was off on that was that I hadn’t actually thought hard enough about my own work.  In the “Cash Nexus,” which I published in 2001, I actually made the argument that very large debts are sustainable, if your borrowing costs are low. And super powers – Britain was in this position in the 19th century – can carry a heck of a lot of debt before investors get nervous.  So there really isn’t that risk premium issue. There isn’t that powerful inflation risk to worry about.  My considered and changed view is that the U.S. can carry a higher debt to GDP ratio than I think I had in mind 2 or 3 years ago.  And higher indeed that my colleague and good friend, Ken Rogoff implies, or indeed states, in the “This Time Is Different” book.  I think what we therefore see is that the U.S. has leeway to carry on running deficits and allowing the debt to pile up for quite a few years before we get into the kind of scenario we’ve seen in Europe, where suddenly the markets lose faith.  It’s in that sense a safe haven more than I maybe thought before.

*   *   *

There are various forces in [the United States’] favor. It’s socially not Japan.  It’s demographically not Japan. And I sense also that the Fed is very determined not to be the Bank of Japan. Ben Bernanke’s most recent comments and actions tell you that they are going to do whatever they can to avoid the deflation or zero inflation story.

Niall Ferguson deserves credit for admitting (to the extent that he did so) that he had been wrong.  Unfortunately, most commentators and politicians lack the courage to make such a concession.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman has been dancing on the grave of the late David Broder of The Washington Post, for having been such a fawning sycophant of British Prime Minister David Cameron and Jean-Claude Trichet (former president of the European Central Bank) who advocated the oxymoronic “expansionary austerity” as a “confidence-inspiring” policy:

Such invocations of the confidence fairy were never plausible; researchers at the International Monetary Fund and elsewhere quickly debunked the supposed evidence that spending cuts create jobs.  Yet influential people on both sides of the Atlantic heaped praise on the prophets of austerity, Mr. Cameron in particular, because the doctrine of expansionary austerity dovetailed with their ideological agendas.

Thus in October 2010 David Broder, who virtually embodied conventional wisdom, praised Mr. Cameron for his boldness, and in particular for “brushing aside the warnings of economists that the sudden, severe medicine could cut short Britain’s economic recovery and throw the nation back into recession.”  He then called on President Obama to “do a Cameron” and pursue “a radical rollback of the welfare state now.”

Strange to say, however, those warnings from economists proved all too accurate.  And we’re quite fortunate that Mr. Obama did not, in fact, do a Cameron.

Nevertheless, you can be sure that many prominent American politicians will ignore the evidence, as well as Niall Ferguson’s course correction, and continue to preach the gospel of immediate economic austerity – at least until the time comes to vote on one of their own pet (pork) projects.

American voters continue to place an increasing premium on authenticity when evaluating political candidates.  It would be nice if this trend would motivate voters to reject the “deficit chicken haws” for the hypocrisy they exhibit and the ignorance which motivates their policy decisions.


 

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Harsh Reality

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Several years ago, at one of the seven Laurie Anderson performances I have attended, Ms. Anderson (now Mrs. Lou Reed – although I seriously doubt whether she uses that moniker) described her first meeting with Philip Glass.  Immediately after meeting Glass, she anxiously asked him:  “Are things getting better or are things getting worse?”

These days, that same question is on everyone’s mind.  It appears as though the mainstream news media are hell-bent on convincing us that everything is just fine.  Nevertheless, many of us remember hearing the same thing from Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson during the summer of 2008.  As a result, we ponder the onslaught of rosy prognostications about the future of our economy with a good degree of skepticism.  Regardless of whether there might be some sort of conspiracy to convince the public to go out and spend money because everything is all right  . . . consider these remarks by Steve Randy Waldman from a discussion about market monetarist theory:

Self-fulfilling expectations lie at the heart of the market monetarist theory.  A depression occurs when people come to believe that income will be scarce relative to prior expectations and debts.  They nervously scale back expenditures and hoard cash, fulfilling their expectations of income scarcity.  However, if everybody could suddenly be made to believe that income would be plentiful, everyone would spend freely and fulfill the expectations of plenty.  The world is a much more pleasant place under the second set of expectations than the first.  And to switch between the two scenarios, all that is required is persuasion.  The market-monetarist central bank is nothing more than a great persuader:  when “shocks happen”, it persuades us all to maintain our optimism about the path of nominal income.  As long as we all keep the faith, our faith will be rewarded.  This is not a religion, but a Nash equilibrium.

The persuasion described by Steve Waldman has been drowning out objective analysis lately.  Obviously, the sovereign debt crisis in Europe has created quite a bit of anxiety in the United States.  The mainstream media focus is apparently targeting that consensual anxiety with heavy doses of “feel good” material.  One must search around a bit before finding any commentary which runs against that current.  I found some and I would like to share it with you.  The first item appeared in Bloomberg BusinessWeek on November 22:

Pacific Investment Management Co.’s Chief Executive Officer Mohamed A. El-Erian said U.S. economic conditions are “terrifying” as the nation struggles to recover from recession.

The odds of the U.S. returning to recession are as much as 50 percent, El-Erian said during an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “In the Loop” with Betty Liu.  U.S. economic growth was worse than expected and congressional policy makers are gridlocked over what to do about the economy and the deficit, which risk exacerbating an already weak recovery, he said.

“We have less economic momentum than we thought we had and we have no policy momentum,” said El-Erian, who also serves as co-chief investment officer with Pimco founder Bill Gross at the world’s largest manager of bond funds.

“What’s most terrifying,” he said, “we are having this discussion about the risk of recession at a time when unemployment is already too high, at a time when a quarter of homeowners are underwater on their mortgages, at a time then the fiscal deficit is at 9 percent and at a time when interest rates are at zero.”

Let’s not forget that all of this is happening at a time when we are plagued by the most dysfunctional, stupid and corrupt Congress in our nation’s history.  President Obama is currently preoccupied with his re-election campaign.  His own leadership failures are conveniently re-packaged as products of that feckless Congress.  As a result, Americans have plenty of justification for being worried about the future.

One of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, recently shared some information with us, which he acquired by attending an InvestmentNews Round Table, as well as from reading Gary Shilling’s expensive newsletter:

Get it? Main Street America, you should “expect very slow growth” in 2012.  That was the response when asked what “scenarios are you painting for your clients?”  The panelist at a recent InvestmentNews Round Table then added:  “It’s going to be ugly and violent.”  Why?  Because the politicians “are driving things” and they are “capricious, which leads to volatility.”  And clients are “not really happy,” but “they lived through ‘08 and ’09,” so 2012 will be “just a little bump in the road.”

*   *   *

So don’t kid yourself folks, recent economic and market “ugliness and violence” not only won’t end soon, it’ll get meaner and meaner for years after 2012 elections … no matter who wins.  Only a fool would believe that a new bull market will take off in 2013.  Ain’t going to happen.  That’s a Wall Street fantasy.  Fall for that, and you’re delusional.

In fact, you better plan on a very long secular bear the next decade through 2020.  With the European banks, credit and currency on the edge of a global financial meltdown, there’s a high probability that a black swan virus, a contagion will sweep the world, making all investing “uglier” and more “violent” for Americans in 2013, indeed for the rest of the decade.

*   *   *

Shilling sees “a secular bear market really started in 2000 and may persist for a decade as a result of slower GDP growth,” yes, persist till 2020 “with 2% to 3% deflation.”  He warns:  “Nominal GDP might not gain at all,” like recent flat-lining.  Which coincides with the expectations of America’s professional financial advisers.

Are you still feeling optimistic?  Consider the closing thoughts from a piece by Karl Denninger entitled, “The Game Is About Done”:

30+ years of lawless behavior has now devolved down to blatant, in-your-face theft.  They don’t even bother trying to hide it any more, and Eric “Place” Holder is too busy supervising the running of guns into Mexico so the drug cartels can shoot both Mexican and American citizens.

What am I, or anyone else, supposed to do in this sort of “market” environment?  Invest in…. what?  Land titles are worthless as they’ve been corrupted by robosigning, margin deposits have been stolen, Madoff’s clients had confirmations of trades that never happend and proved to worthless pieces of paper instead of valuable securities and while Madoff went to prison nobody else has and the money is still gone!

Without enforcement of the law — swift and certain — there is no deterrent against this behavior.

There has been no enforcement and there is no indication that this will change.

It will take just one — or maybe two — more events like MF Global and Greek CDS “determinations” before the entire market — all of it — goes “no bid” as participants simply stuff their hands in their pockets and say “screw this.”

It’s coming folks, and I guarantee you this:  Whatever your “nightmare” scenario is for such an event, it’s not bearish enough.

Keep all of this in mind as you plan for the future.  I would not expect that you might hear any of this on CNBC.


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