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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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Another Great Idea From Ron Paul

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Congressman Ron Paul is one of the few original thinkers on Capitol Hill.  Sometimes he has great ideas, although at other times he might sound a little daft.  He recently grabbed some headlines by expressing the view that the United States “should declare bankruptcy”.  A June 28 CNN report focused on Paul’s agreement with the contention that if bankruptcy is the cure for Greece, it is also the cure for the United States.  However, as most economists will point out, the situation in Greece is not at all relevant to our situation because the United States issues its own currency and Greece is stuck with the euro, under the regime of the European Central Bank.  Anyone who can’t grasp that concept should read this posting by Cullen Roche at the Seeking Alpha website.

Nevertheless, economist Dean Baker picked up on one of Congressman Paul’s points, which – if followed through to its logical conclusion – could actually solve the debt ceiling impasse.  The remark by Ron Paul which inspired Dean Baker was a gripe about the $1.6 trillion in Treasury securities that the Federal Reserve now holds as a result of two quantitative easing programs:

“We owe, like, $1.6 trillion because the Federal Reserve bought that debt, so we have to work hard to pay the interest to the Federal Reserve,” Paul said. “We don’t, I mean, they’re nobody; why do we have to pay them off?”

In an article for The New Republic, Dr. Baker commended Dr. Paul for his creativity and agreed that having the Federal Reserve Board destroy the $1.6 trillion in government bonds it now holds as a result of quantitative easing “is actually a very reasonable way to deal with the crisis”.  Baker provided this explanation:

Last year the Fed refunded almost $80 billion to the Treasury.  In this sense, the bonds held by the Fed are literally money that the government owes to itself.

Unlike the debt held by Social Security, the debt held by the Fed is not tied to any specific obligations.  The bonds held by the Fed are assets of the Fed.  It has no obligations that it must use these assets to meet.  There is no one who loses their retirement income if the Fed doesn’t have its bonds.  In fact, there is no direct loss of income to anyone associated with the Fed’s destruction of its bonds.  This means that if Congress told the Fed to burn the bonds, it would in effect just be destroying a liability that the government had to itself, but it would still reduce the debt subject to the debt ceiling by $1.6 trillion. This would buy the country considerable breathing room before the debt ceiling had to be raised again.  President Obama and the Republican congressional leadership could have close to two years to talk about potential spending cuts or tax increases.  Maybe they could even talk a little about jobs.

Unfortunately, the next passage of Dr. Baker’s essay exposed the reason why this simple, logical solution would never become implemented:

As it stands now, the Fed plans to sell off its bond holdings over the next few years.  This means that the interest paid on these bonds would go to banks, corporations, pension funds, and individual investors who purchase them from the Fed.

And therein lies the rub:  The infamous “too-big-to-fail” banks could buy those bonds with money borrowed from the Fed at a fractional interest rate, and then collect the yield on those bonds – entirely at the expense of American taxpayers!  Not only would the American people lose money by loaning the bond purchase money to the banks almost free of charge – we would lose even more money by paying those banks interest on the money we just loaned to those same banks – nearly free of charge.  (This is nothing new.  It’s been ongoing since the inception of “zero interest rate policy” or ZIRP on December 16, 2008.)  President Obama would never allow his patrons on Wall Street to have such an opportunity “stolen” from them by the American taxpayers.  Banking industry lobbyists would start swarming all over Capitol Hill carrying briefcases filled with money if any serious effort to undertake such a plan reached the discussion stage.  At this point, you might suspect that the grifters on the Hill could have a scheme underway:  Make a few noises about following Baker’s suggestion and wait for the lobbyists to start sharing the love.

In the mean time, the rest of us will be left to suffer the consequences of our government’s failure to raise the debt ceiling.


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The Monster Is Eating Itself

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Back on February 10, 2009 – before President Obama had completed his first month in office – two students at the Yale Law School, Jeffrey Tebbs and Ady Barkan, wrote an article which began with the point that the financial crisis was caused by the recklessness and greed of Wall Street executives.  Tebbs and Barkan proposed a “windfall bonus tax” on those corporate welfare queens of Wall Street, at the very moment when budget-restrained states began instituting their own economic austerity measures so that The Monster could be fed:

Last week, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposed a state budget that slashes crucial public services, including deep cuts to health care for kids and pregnant women, higher education and consumer protection.  She says that the cuts are necessary to close our state’s budget shortfall, but she’s apparently unwilling to increase taxes on Connecticut’s millionaires.

That is to say, while your hard-earned tax dollars are funding Christmas bonuses for Wall Street’s jet-set, Connecticut’s government will be cutting the programs and services that are crucial to your health and safety and to the vitality of our communities.

Since that time, “reverse Robin Hood” economic policies, such as the measures proposed by Governor Rell, have become painfully widespread.  As an aside:  Despite the fact that Governor Rell announced on November 9, 2009 that she would not seek re-election, the conservative Cato Institute determined that Rell was the only Republican Governor worthy of a failing grade on the Institute’s 2010 Fiscal Policy Report Card.

The entity I refer to as “The Monster” has been on a feeding frenzy since the financial crisis began.  Other commentators have their own names for this beast.  Michael Collins of The Economic Populist calls it “The Money Party”:

The Money Party is a very small group of enterprises and individuals who control almost all of the money and power in the United States.  They use their money and power to make more money and gain more power.  It’s not about Republicans versus Democrats.  The Money Party is an equal opportunity employer.  It has no permanent friends or enemies, just permanent interests.  Democrats are as welcome as Republicans to this party.  It’s all good when you’re on the take and the take is legal.  Economic Populist

*   *   *

The party is also short on compassion or even the most elementary forms of common decency.  It’s OK to see millions of people evicted, jobless, without health care, etc., as long as short term profits are maintained for those CEO bonuses and other enrichment for a tiny minority.  It’s perfectly acceptable for this to go on despite available solutions.  If you don’t look, it’s not there should be their motto.

Beyond that, The Monster’s insensitivity has increased to the point where it has actually become too numb to realize that the tender morsel it is feasting on happens to be its own foot.  Until last year, The Monster had nearly everyone convinced that America would enjoy a “jobless recovery”, despite the fact that the American economy is 70 percent consumer-driven.  Well, the “jobless recovery” never happened and the new “magic formula” for economic growth is deficit reduction.  As I discussed in my last posting, Bill Gross of PIMCO recently highlighted the flaws in that rationale:

Solutions from policymakers on the right or left, however, seem focused almost exclusively on rectifying or reducing our budget deficit as a panacea. While Democrats favor tax increases and mild adjustments to entitlements, Republicans pound the table for trillions of dollars of spending cuts and an axing of Obamacare.  Both, however, somewhat mystifyingly, believe that balancing the budget will magically produce 20 million jobs over the next 10 years.

Simon Johnson, who formerly served as Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund, conducted a serious analysis of whether such “fiscal contraction” could actually achieve the intended goal of expanding the economy.  The fact that the process has such an oxymoronic name as “expansionary fiscal contraction” should serve as a tip-off that it won’t work:

The general presumption is that fiscal contraction – cutting spending and/or raising taxes – will immediately slow the economy relative to the growth path it would have had otherwise.

*   *   *

There are four conditions under which fiscal contractions can be expansionary.  But none of these conditions are likely to apply in the United States today.

*   *   *

The available evidence, including international experience, suggests it is very unlikely that the United States could experience an “expansionary fiscal contraction” as a result of short-term cuts in discretionary domestic federal government spending.

Economist Stephanie Kelton explained that the best way to lower the federal budget deficit is to reduce unemployment:

The bottom line is this:  As long as unemployment remains high, the deficit will remain high.  So instead of continuing to put the deficit first, it’s time get to work on a plan to increase employment.

Here’s the formula:  Spending creates income.  Income creates sales.  Sales create jobs.

If you think you can cut the deficit without destroying jobs, dream on.

Dr. Kelton has identified the problem:  Deficit reduction schemes which disregard the impact on employment.  Nevertheless, The Monster is determined to press ahead with a “deficits first” agenda, regardless of the consequences.  The Monster will have its way because its army of lobbyists has President Obama under control.  As a result, we can expect increased unemployment, a diminished tax base, less consumer spending, less demand, decreased corporate income, lower GDP and more deficits.  The Monster’s gluttony has placed it on a course of self-destruction.  Perhaps that might be a good thing – if only it wouldn’t cause too much pain for the rest of us.


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