Same Old, Same Old…

broken-ladder

From the WSJ:

Spurring faster growth ought to be the main goal of Washington policy, but instead President Obama continues to rely solely on the Federal Reserve. The Fed’s Open Market Committee didn’t disappoint him on Wednesday, voting as expected to continue its taper of bond purchases but promising to keep interest rates near-zero as far as the eye can see. This should be good news for stocks and other asset prices, if not necessarily for growth and real middle-class incomes.

Religion and Politics

I am quite sure now that often, very often, in matters concerning religion and politics a man’s reasoning powers are not above the monkey’s.

– Mark Twain

Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.

My politics is my religion, my religion is my politics.

– Mahatma Gandhi

Quoted from

IGWT-Kindle-Cover

The 1% Conundrum

Worshiping_Greenspan_2From the WSJ:

Liberals Love the ‘One Percent’

The left has a strange affection for Federal Reserve policy that has turbocharged inequality.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has said the central bank’s goal is “to help Main Street not Wall Street,” and many liberal commentators seem convinced that she is advancing that goal. But talk to anyone on Wall Street. If they are being frank, they’ll admit that the Fed’s loose monetary policy has been one of the biggest contributors to their returns over the past five years. Unwittingly, it seems, liberals who support the Fed are defending policies that boost the wealth of the wealthy but do nothing to reduce inequality. This perverse outcome is not the Fed’s intent. It has kept interest rates near zero in an effort to combat the great recession of 2008-09 and nurse the weak economy back to health. Many analysts will argue that the recovery might have been even worse without the Fed’s efforts. Still, the U.S. economy has staged its weakest recovery since World War II, with output up a total of just 10 percentage points over the past five years. Meanwhile, the stock market has never been so high at this point in a recovery. This is the most powerful post-recession bull market in postwar history, with the stock market up by a record 135% over the past five years.The Fed can print as much money as it wants, but it can’t control where it goes, and much of it is finding its way into financial assets. On many long-term metrics, the stock market is now at levels that fall within the top 10% of valuations recorded over the past 100 years. The rally in the fixed-income market too is reaching giddy proportions, particularly for high-yield junk bonds, which are up 150% since 2009.It’s no secret who owns most of these assets. The wealthiest 1% of households, according to a study by Edward Wolff (National Bureau of Economic Research, 2012), now owns 50% of all financial wealth in the U.S., and the top 10% owns 91% of the wealth in stocks and mutual funds.

Over the past decade, easy-money policies also have fueled the rise of an industry that transforms raw commodities—from soybeans to steel and oil—into financial products, such as exchange-traded funds, that can be traded like stocks. Hundreds of billions of dollars have poured into these products. In many cases, large investors hold the commodities in storage, driving up demand and the price.

On average, prices for commodities from oil to coffee to eggs are up 40% since 2009, double the typical commodity-price rebound in postwar recoveries. Though rising prices for staples such as these are inconsequential expenses to the rich, they are burdens for the poor, who spend about 10% of their income on energy and a third of it on food. Meanwhile, since bottoming in 2011, median house prices have risen four times faster than incomes, putting homes out of reach for many first-time buyers.

Leading Wall Street figures such as Stanley Druckenmiller and Seth Klarman are warning that the Fed is blowing dangerous asset-price bubbles. These warnings—given political suspicion of the financial community—seem only to confirm liberal faith in the Fed. Economists including Joseph Stiglitz and Brad DeLong cling to the hope that at least some of the easy money helps to create growth and jobs. Yet the abnormally low cost of capital is giving companies another incentive to invest in technologies that replace workers, rather than hiring more workers.

Some liberals are skeptical even of the basic premise that easy money is fueling higher asset prices. As Paul Krugman put it, “for the most part” the money printed by the Fed is piling up in bank reserves and cash. While banks are generally reluctant to lend, the fact is that commercial and industrial loans in particular are increasing rapidly, and much of that credit is reportedly going to financial-engineering projects, like mergers and share buybacks, which do more to increase stock prices than to create economic growth.

There is no doubt that easy money is boosting the stock market. Low interest rates are driving investors out of money-market funds and into stocks, while they also allow wealthy investors to borrow money cheaply to buy more stocks. In the U.S., margin debt has more than doubled in the past five years to a record $438 billion.

Many liberal economists note that dire warnings of how the Fed’s money printing would lead to runaway inflation have not come true. Overall consumer prices are indeed contained and the mandate of a central bank has traditionally been to control consumer prices. But that target is out of date. In a global economy, rising competition has a restraining effect on consumer prices because producers can shop around for the lowest-cost country in which to make goods like clothes or flat-screen TVs. The effect on asset prices is the opposite, as the supply of houses and stocks is relatively limited, and because demand is rising, as investors seek higher returns than the near-zero interest rates they can get at the bank. That is why investors are bidding up asset prices, even as consumer prices remain stable.

There is a fundamental shift in the challenge facing central bankers, everywhere. Top Fed officials including former Chairman Ben Bernanke have argued that rising asset prices are less a risk than a plus, because the rising value of houses, stocks and bonds makes families feel wealthier, so they spend more and boost the economy. But monetary policy should encourage investments that will strengthen the economy and create jobs in the long term—not conjure an illusory “wealth effect” that is for now lifting mainly the wealthy.

Mr. Sharma is head of emerging markets and global macro at Morgan Stanley Investment Management and the author of “Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles” ( Norton, 2012).

The Danger of Too Loose, Too Long

bernanke-hands-over-control

At least we may have one Fed member who’s stopped drinking from the punch bowl. From the WSJ:

With an improving labor market and an uptick in inflation, the danger now is to wait too long to tighten.

I have grown increasingly concerned about the risks posed by current monetary policy.First, we are experiencing financial excess that is of our own making. There is a lot of talk about “macroprudential supervision” as a way to prevent financial excess from creating financial instability. But macroprudential supervision is something of a Maginot Line: It can be circumvented. Relying upon it to prevent financial instability provides an artificial sense of confidence.Second, I believe we are at risk of doing what the Fed has too often done: overstaying our welcome by staying too loose, too long. We did a good job in staving off the deflationary and depression risks that were present in the aftermath of the 2007–09 financial crisis. But we now risk fighting the last war.

Given the rapidly improving employment picture, developments on the inflationary front and my own background as a banker and investment and hedge fund manager, I am increasingly at odds with some of my respected colleagues at the policy table of the Federal Reserve as well as with the thinking of many notable economists. The economy is reaching the desired destination faster than we imagined.

Third, should we overstay our welcome, we risk not only doing damage to the economy but also being viewed as politically pliant.

The Fed has been running a hyper-accommodative monetary policy to lift the economy out of the doldrums and counteract a possible deflationary spiral. Much of what we have paid out to purchase Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities has been put back to the Fed in the form of excess reserves deposited at the Federal Reserve banks. As of July 9, $2.517 trillion of excess reserves were parked on the 12 Fed banks’ balance sheets, while depository institutions wait to find eager and worthy borrowers to lend to.

But with low interest rates and abundant availability of credit in the nondepository market, the bond markets and other trading markets have spawned an abundance of speculative activity.

There are some who believe that “macroprudential supervision” will safeguard us from financial instability. I am more skeptical. Such supervision entails the vigilant monitoring of capital and liquidity ratios, tighter restrictions on bank practices and subjecting banks to stress tests. All to the good. But whereas the Federal Reserve and banking supervisory authorities used to oversee the majority of the credit system by regulating depository institutions, depository institutions now account for no more than 20% of the credit markets.

I am not alone in worrying about this. In her recent lecture at the International Monetary Fund, Fed Chair Janet Yellen said, “I am also mindful of the potential for low interest rates to heighten the incentives of financial market participants to reach for yield and take on risk, and of the limits of macroprudential measures to address these and other financial stability concerns.” She added that “[a]ccordingly, there may be times when an adjustment in monetary policy may be appropriate to ameliorate emerging risks to financial stability.”

I believe that time is fast approaching.

Some are willing to tolerate the risk of financial instability because the Fed has yet to fulfill the central bank’s mandate of “promot[ing] effectively the goals of maximum employment and stable prices.” Where do we stand on those two fronts? Answer: closer than many think.

While it is difficult to define “maximum employment,” labor-market conditions are improving smartly, quicker than the principals of the Federal Open Market Committee expected. The commonly cited household survey unemployment rate has arrived at 6.1% a full six months ahead of the schedule predicted only weeks ago by the central tendency of the forecasts of FOMC participants. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ so-called Jolts (Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey) data indicate that job openings are trending sharply higher, while “quits” as a percentage of total separations continue to trend upward—a sign that workers are confident of finding new and better opportunities if they leave their current positions.

Wages are beginning to lift. Median usual weekly earnings collected as part of the Current Population Survey are now growing at a rate of 3%, roughly their pre-crisis average. In short, the key variable of the price of labor, which the FOMC feared was stagnant, is beginning to turn upward. It is not doing so dramatically, but wage growth is an important driver of inflation.

The FOMC has a medium-term inflation target of 2% as measured by the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index. The 12-month consumer-price index (CPI), the Cleveland Fed’s median CPI, and the so-called sticky CPI calculated by the Atlanta Fed have all crossed 2%, and the Dallas Fed’s Trimmed Mean PCE inflation rate has headline inflation averaging 1.7% on a 12-month basis, up from 1.3% a few months ago. PCE inflation is clearly rising toward our 2% goal more quickly than the FOMC imagined.

I do not believe there is reason to panic on the price front. But given that the inflation rate has been accelerating, this is no time for complacency either. Some economists have argued that we should accept overshooting our 2% inflation target if it results in a lower unemployment rate. But the notion that we can always tighten policy to bring down inflation after overshooting full employment is dangerous. Tightening monetary policy once we have pushed past sustainable capacity limits has almost always resulted in recession, the last thing we need.

So what to do? My sense is that ending our large-scale asset purchases this fall will not be enough. The FOMC should consider tapering the reinvestment of maturing securities and begin incrementally shrinking the Fed’s balance sheet. Some might worry that paring the Fed’s reinvestment in mortgage-backed securities might hurt the housing market. But I believe the demand for housing is sufficiently robust to continue improving despite a small rise in mortgage rates. Then early next year, or potentially sooner depending on the pace of economic improvement, the FOMC may well begin to raise interest rates in gradual increments.

Those of us who are the current trustees of the Fed’s reputation—the FOMC—must be especially careful that nothing we do appears to be politically motivated. In nourishing the growth of the economy and employment, we must avoid erring on the side of coddling inflation to compensate for the inability of fiscal and regulatory policy makers in the legislative and executive branches to do their job. We must continue to protect the independence of the Fed.

Mr. Fisher is president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. This article is excerpted from his speech on July 16 at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

The Lingering, Hidden Costs of the Bank Bailout

pigs

Bravo. Reprinted from the WSJ:

Why is growth so anemic? New economic activity has been discouraged. Here are some ways to change that.

The rescue of incumbent investors in the government bailout of the largest U.S. banks in the autumn of 2008 has been widely viewed as unfair, as indeed it was in applying different rules to different players. The bailout through the Troubled Asset Relief Program has been justified by the Federal Reserve and Treasury as preventing a financial collapse of the economy.The rescue, however, had a hidden cost for the economy that is difficult to quantify but can be crippling. New economic activity is hobbled if it is not freed from the burden of sharing its return with investors who bore risks that failed. [‘Heads we win, tails you lose’ is also immoral by any traditional definition of the concept.] The demand for new economic activity is enlarged when its return does not have to be shared with former claimants protected from the consequences of their risk-taking. This is the function of bankruptcy in an economic system organized on loss as well as profit principles of motivation.Financial failure and the restructuring of assets and liabilities motivates new capital to flow directly into new enterprise activity at the cutting edge of technology—the source of new products, output and employment which in turn provide new growth and recovery. Requiring new investment to share its return with failed predecessors is tantamount to having required Henry Ford to share the return from investment in his new horseless carriage with the carriage makers, livery stables and horse-breeding farms that his innovation would render obsolete.This burden on new investment helps explain the historically weak recovery since the “Great Recession” officially ended in June 2009, and the recent downturn in gross-domestic-product growth. The GDP growth rate for all of 2013 was just 1.9%, and in the first quarter of 2014 it declined at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 2.9%.

With only two balance-sheet crises in the U.S. in the past 80 years, 1929-33 and 2007-09, we have little experience against which to test alternative policies and economic responses. Japan and Sweden are examples of economies that followed distinct pathways after crises in the early 1990s. In Japan the economy floundered in slow growth for over two decades; Sweden recovered much more quickly. The difference can be attributed to following different policies in the treatment of severe bank distress.

Japan’s real-estate market suffered a major decline in the early 1990s. Home prices peaked in the fall of 1990 and fell by 25% in two years. By 2004 they had fallen 65%. Meanwhile, nonperforming loans continued to escalate throughout this 14-year period.

Japanese policy permitted banks to carry mortgage loans at book value regardless of their accumulating loss. Loans were expanded to existing borrowers to enable them to continue to meet their mortgage payments. This response could be rationalized as “smoothing out the bump.” Bank investors were protected from failure by stretching out any ultimate return on their investment, relying on a presumed recovery from new growth that never materialized. This accounting cover-up was coupled with government deficit spending—tax revenues declined and expenditures rose—as a means of stimulating economic growth that was delayed into the future.

From the beginning Japan was caught in the black hole of too much negative equity. The banks, burdened with large inventories of bad loans, geared down into debt reduction mode, reluctant to incur more debt, much as their household mortgage customers were mired in underwater mortgages and reluctant to spend. The result was a decade of lost growth that stretched into and absorbed a second decade of dismal performance. The policy cure—save the banks and their incumbent investors—created the sink that exceeded the pull of recovery forces.

Sweden’s response to deep recession in the early 1990s was the opposite of Japan’s: Bank shareholders were required to absorb loan losses, although the government financed enough of the bank losses on bad assets to protect bank bondholders from default. This was a mistake: Bondholders assumed the risk of default, and a bank’s failure should have required bondholder “haircuts” if needed. Nevertheless, the result was recovery from a severe downturn. By 1994 Sweden’s loan losses had bottomed out and lending began a slow recovery that accelerated after 1999.

The political process will always favor prominent incumbent investors. They are visible; they contribute to election campaigns; they assist in the choice of secretaries of Treasury and advisers and they suffer badly from balance-sheet crises like the Great Recession and the Great Depression. Invisible are the investors whose capital will flow into the new economic activity that constitutes the recovery.

Growth in both employment and output depends vitally on new and young companies. Unfortunately, U.S. firms face exceptionally high corporate income-tax rates, the highest in the developed world at 35%, which hobbles growth and investment. Now the Obama administration is going after firms that reincorporate overseas for tax purposes. Last week Treasury Secretary Jack Lew wrote a letter to the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee urging Congress to “enact legislation immediately . . . to shut down this abuse of our tax system.”

This is precisely the opposite of what U.S. policy makers should be doing. To encourage investment, the U.S. needs to lower its corporate rates by at least 10 percentage points and reduce the incentive to escape the out-of-line and unreasonably high corporate tax rate. Ideally, since young firms generally reinvest their profits in production and jobs, such taxes should fall only on business income after it is paid out to individuals. As long as business income is being reinvested it is growing new income for all.

There are no quick fixes. What we can do is reduce bureaucratic and tax barriers to the emergence and growth of new economic enterprises, which hold the keys to a real economic recovery.

Mr. Smith, a recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, is a professor at Chapman University and the author, along with Steven D. Gjerstad, of the new book “Rethinking Housing Bubbles” (Cambridge University Press).

The City of Man

Of the two first parents of the human race, Cain was the first born, and he belonged to the city of men; After him was born Abel, who belonged to the city of God.
And this founder of an earthly city was a fratricide.
Overcome with envy, he slew his own brother, A citizen of the eternal city.

– Augustine of Hippo, City of God, XV, 1,5
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(click on cover)

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Unemployment or Financial Stability?

see-sawI think I’d opt for some more stability to encourage fundamental growth in the real economy rather than virtual growth in the money economy. Again, zero interest rates are a sign of a debilitating sickness in the economy – the patient is not recovering.

Reposted from the WSJ:

Investors Heed the Fed at Their Peril

If booming asset prices go bust, the central bank’s credibility would be severely damaged. 

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen in her testimony on Capitol Hill this week was candid, as she has been in the past, in telling lawmakers that the biggest economic risk she sees facing the country is the possible emergence of a new permanent class of unemployed workers.

To head off this possibility, the Fed is holding monetary policy accommodative longer than traditional monetary models would recommend. Opinions on the wisdom of this policy are split, but the Fed’s openness about its policy is heralded almost universally as a desirable development.

We are not so sure.

In today’s world the heads of the central bank determine what is immediately deemed common knowledge, and only investors with long time horizons (and a strong stomach) can resist their pronouncements. Ms. Yellen sees considerable labor-market slack, believes this will hold down inflation, and therefore pronounces that the Fed’s near-zero interest-rate policy will continue far into the future. The conventional wisdom is that low rates and low inflation are consistent with an environment in which asset prices rise, so that is what has happened.

This is now the third episode in the past 15 years in which asset-price growth has significantly outstripped income growth. From 1997 to 2000, the net worth of American households rose 40% while national income grew 20%, and in 2002-07, net worth grew 60% as national income grew 30%. Asset prices corrected after each of these rapid increases.

Over the past two years, net worth has grown more than 20% (a similar annual pace as the past two episodes) during a period when national income struggled to grow 6%—and interest rates are still near zero. When the Federal Reserve signals that monetary conditions will remain easy, behavior shifts and a self-fulfilling rise in asset prices is the result.

On Tuesday the Fed stated in its semiannual Monetary Policy Report that valuations were “substantially stretched” in some sectors like biotechnology and social media. Ultimately, however, asset prices should reflect expectations of future income, making them vulnerable to correction when they become too high relative to income.

A problem of having too much certainty on monetary policy is that once the market has come to accept the Fed’s views, changes in the story can be unnecessarily disruptive. Harvard economist Jeremy Stein, a former Fed governor and its leading thinker on financial stability before returning to teaching at the end of May, articulated in his final speech why the Fed’s change in rhetoric in the spring of 2013 was so disruptive.

Mr. Stein noted that a number of investors perceived that quantitative easing would essentially last forever, and they repositioned abruptly when then Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke suggested the program could be finished in a year’s time. The Fed is not responsible for investors who take losses, but the centrality of monetary policy to investment returns leads people to put too much weight on their predictions of Fed actions and too little on fundamental analysis of individual investments.

Mr. Stein warned that “the market is not a single person” and that there might be a similar event if the Fed alters its view on interest rates. This is the big risk for the market now. Ms. Yellen has successfully defined conventional wisdom as a future in which the Fed keeps overnight rates near zero even while inflation and employment approach their respective targets. Indeed, the success of the Fed’s communications in convincing investors that rates will remain low has contributed to low volatility across asset classes, encouraging yet higher valuations. If there is less slack than the Fed believes, monetary accommodation will reverse at a more rapid pace than markets expect.

Imagine a swimmer drifting easily with an ocean current who suddenly discovers he is a long way from shore. Asset prices could be in for a sharp correction. If the U.S. economy were to go through another asset bust cycle, the Fed’s credibility would be severely damaged, and its strategy on reducing unemployment would backfire.

Many monetary experts refer to the 2000 equity crash as a benign event. But the unemployment rate rose by 2½ percentage points after the decline, and the monetary policy response to that rise in unemployment contributed to the housing bubble and the 2008 financial crisis. The Fed will not achieve the stability that it seeks until financial stability concerns are given an equal weight when determining monetary policy.

Financial Crisis Amnesia

 

AENeumann

Alex Pollock, quoted from the WSJ:

It is now five years since the end of the most recent U.S. financial crisis of 2007-09. Stocks have made record highs, junk bonds and leveraged loans have boomed, house prices have risen, and already there are cries for lower credit standards on mortgages to “increase access.”

Meanwhile, in vivid contrast to the Swiss central bank, which marks its investments to market, the Federal Reserve has designed its own regulatory accounting so that it will never have to recognize any losses on its $4 trillion portfolio of long-term bonds and mortgage securities.

Who remembers that such “special” accounting is exactly what the Federal Home Loan Bank Board designed in the 1980s to hide losses in savings and loans? Who remembers that there even was a Federal Home Loan Bank Board, which for its manifold financial sins was abolished in 1989?

It is 25 years since 1989. Who remembers how severe the multiple financial crises of the 1980s were?

Full article (subscription req’d.)

Central banking and inflation.

inflation

Quoted in WSJ:

From an interview with former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker (Class of 1949) in the Daily Princetonian, May 30:

DP: [D]oes high inflation matter as long as it’s expected?

PV: It sure does, if the market’s stable. . . . The responsibility of the government is to have a stable currency. This kind of stuff that you’re being taught at Princeton disturbs me. Your teachers must be telling you that if you’ve got expected inflation, then everybody adjusts and then it’s OK. Is that what they’re telling you? Where did the question come from?

DP: Okay. Could you talk a little bit about the justification behind the Volcker Rule and the effect you think it’s had on the market?

PV: The rule is that institutions that are protected by the government, implicitly or explicitly, should not be engaged in speculative activities that bear no real relationship to the purposes for which banks are protected. Banks are protected to make loans, they’re protected to keep the payments system stable. They’re protected so you have a stable place to put your money. That’s why banks are protected. They’re not protected to engage in speculative activities which led to risk and jeopardized the banking system. That’s the basic philosophy. I think it’s pretty well-accepted. . . .

DP: Okay. And to get back to the central banking a little bit, given the trade-off between inflation and unemployment—

PV: I don’t believe that. That’s my answer to that question. That is a scenario and a delusion, which economists have gotten Nobel Prizes twenty years ago to disprove.

Free People, Free Markets

freedomQuote from the WSJ celebrating its 125th anniversary:

The answer to our current slow growth and self-doubt isn’t a set of magical “new ideas” or some unknown orator from the provinces. The answer is to rediscover the eternal truths that have helped America escape malaise and turmoil in the past.

These lessons include that markets—the mind of free millions—allocate scarce resources more efficiently and fairly than do committees in Congress; that the collusion of government with either big business or big labor stifles competition and leads to political cynicism; that government will be respected more when it does a few things well rather than too many poorly; and that innovation and human progress spring not from bureaucratic elites but from the genius of individuals.

Above all, the lesson of 125 years is that whatever our periodic blunders Americans have always used the blessings of liberty to restore prosperity and national confidence. A free people have their fate in their own hands.

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