Recovery?

QE

We have enough data and David Stockman nails it on the head here…

Q4 Obliterates The Case For QE And ZIRP

by  • February 27, 2015

The most important number in today’s Q4 GDP update was 2.3%. That’s the year/year change in real final sales from Q4 2013. As an analytical matter it means that the Great Slog continues with no sign of acceleration whatsoever.

Indeed, the statistical truth of the matter is that this year’s result amounted to a slight deceleration—–since the Y/Y gain in real final sales for Q4 2013 was 2.6%.  But beyond the decimal point variation the larger point is this: Take out the somewhat jerky quarterly impacts of inventory stocking and destocking, and view things on a year/year basis to eliminate seasonal maladjustments and data collection and timing quirks, such as the double digit gain in defense spending during Q3 and the negative rate for Q4, and what you get is a straight line slog since the recession ended in 2009.

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Why You Should be INTERESTed

fed-rate-zero

My policy primer, Common Cents, explains why the interest rate(s) is the most important price in a free market economy. Distorting it has far-reaching consequences, as David Stockman explains in this post from his blog, Contra Corner, from which I quote below:

The single most important price in all of capitalism is the money market interest rate. That is the price of poker in the Wall Street casino; it is the cost of production for the carry traders and gamblers who provide the marginal “bid” for risk assets.

By supplanting free market price discovery with an artificially pegged price of zero, the Fed is unleashing the furies of greed and reckless speculation in the financial system once again. So it has truly become a serial bubble machine headed by a babbler who apparently believes in make pretend.

Read full article here.

 

Somebody Loan Me a Dime…

Loan me a dime

…as Boz Scaggs sang (as Duane Allman burned on guitar).

Debt as a Share of GDP

This graph (compiled by McKinsey) shows the levels of debt by sector across several significant countries as a percentage of their GDP. This is the relevant measure because it tells us how much bang countries are getting for their borrowed ‘buck’  (in their home currency).

An analogy would be if you were borrowing money on your household account that did not increase your income over time, but instead increased the burden of interest you had to pay on the debt, which would reduce the share of your income for other purchases, like vacations or retirement savings. It makes sense to borrow to earn a degree that will increase your earning potential; it makes less sense to borrow money to take a vacation or buy a car you can’t afford.

A rising debt to GDP ratio means the excessive borrowing is not paying off with increased income (national GDP). We can compare countries on the chart below and see that the US has greatly increased government debt, which according to the effects of our monetary policies, has been used to retire private debt. In other words, we’ve shifted private debt, much of it from the financial sector, to taxpayers. Japan is not included, but would show that just government debt as a share of GDP is well over 200%. All this debt has not bought Japanese citizens much in terms of real wealth. One could argue it has just prevented the Japanese economy from imploding.

Another risk factor not displayed here is the effect of financial repression on the service of this debt. US debt is being financed at historically low interest rates that do not reflect the time value of money or the risk premium of lending. When interest rates rise, as they must eventually, all this debt will need to be rolled over at higher rates, meaning the service on the debt will explode, driving out other spending priorities while driving balance sheets toward insolvency. (If we can’t pay, we won’t pay.)

All in all, this is not a pretty picture. Be afraid.

World debt

Currency Wars (and more…)

QE Forever

This article explains in greater detail a subject I addressed in a recent comment in the Wall St. Journal:

“…our macroeconomic models are wholly incapable of incorporating operational measures of uncertainty and risk as variables that affect human decision-making under loss aversion. We’ve created this unmeasurable sense of uncertainty by allowing exchange rates to float, leading to price volatility in asset markets because credit policy is unrestrained.

The idea of floating exchange rates was that currency markets would discipline fiscal policy across trading partners. But exchange rates don’t directly signal domestic voters in favor of policy reform and instead permit fiscal irresponsibility to flourish. Lax credit policy merely accommodates this fiscal fecklessness. The euro and ECB were tasked with reining in fiscal policy in the EU, but that has also failed with the fudging of budget deficits and the lack of a fiscal federalism mechanism.

The bottom line is that we do NOT have a rebalancing mechanism for the global economy beyond the historic business cycles of frequent corrections that are politically painful. The danger is we now may be amplifying those cycles.”

From Barron’s:

Currency Wars: Central Banks Play a Dangerous Game

As nations race to reduce the value of their money, the global economy takes a hit.”

Feb. 13, 2015
It’s the central banks’ world, and we’re just living in it. Never in history have their monetary machinations so dominated financial markets and economies. And as in Star Trek, they have gone boldly where no central banks have gone before—pushing interest rates below zero, once thought to be a practical impossibility.At the same time, central bankers have resumed their use of a tactic from an earlier, more primitive time that was supposed to be eschewed in this more enlightened age—currency wars.
The signal accomplishment of these policies can be encapsulated in this one result: The U.S. stock market reached a record high last week. That would be unremarkable if central bankers had created true prosperity.
But, according to the estimate of one major bank, the world’s economy will shrink in 2015, in the biggest contraction since 2009, during the aftermath of the financial crisis. That is, if it’s measured in current dollars, not after adjusting for inflation, which the central bankers have been trying desperately to create, and have failed to accomplish thus far.
Not since the 1930s have central banks of countries around the globe so actively, and desperately, tried to stimulate their domestic economies. Confronted by a lack of domestic demand, which has been constrained by a massive debt load taken on during the boom times, they instead have sought to grab a bigger slice of the global economic pie.Unfortunately, not everybody can gain a larger share of a whole that isn’t growing—or may even be shrinking. That was the lesson of the “beggar thy neighbor” policies of the Great Depression, which mainly served to export deflation and contraction across borders. For that reason, such policies were forsworn in the post–World War II order, which aimed for stable exchange rates to prevent competitive devaluations.

Almost three generations after the Great Depression, that lesson has been unlearned. In the years leading up to the Depression, and even after the contraction began, the Victorian and Edwardian propriety of the gold standard was maintained until the painful steps needed to deflate wages and prices to maintain exchange rates became politically untenable, as the eminent economic historian Barry Eichengreen of the University of California, Berkeley, has written. The countries that were the earliest to throw off what he dubbed “golden fetters” recovered the fastest, starting with Britain, which terminated sterling’s link to gold in 1931.

This, however, is the lesson being relearned. The last vestiges of fixed exchange rates died when the Nixon administration ended the dollar’s convertibility into gold at $35 an ounce in August 1971. Since then, the world has essentially had floating exchange rates. That means they have risen and fallen like a floating dock with the tides. But unlike tides that are determined by nature, the rise and fall of currencies has been driven largely by human policy makers.

Central banks have used flexible exchange rates, rather than more politically problematic structural, supply-side reforms, as the expedient means to stimulate their debt-burdened economies. In an insightful report last week, Morgan Stanley global strategists Manoj Pradhan, Chetan Ahya, and Patryk Drozdzik counted 12 central banks around the globe that recently eased policy, including the European Central Bank and its counterparts in Switzerland, Denmark, Canada, Australia, Russia, India, and Singapore. These were joined by Sweden after the note went to press.

In total, there have been some 514 monetary easing moves by central banks over the past three years, by Evercore ISI’s count. And that easy money has been supporting global stock markets (more of which later).

As for the real economy, the Morgan Stanley analysts write that while currency devaluation is a zero-sum game in a world that isn’t growing, the early movers are the biggest beneficiaries at the expense of the late movers.

The U.S. was the first mover with the Federal Reserve’s quantitative-easing program. Indeed, it was the initiation of QE2 in 2010 that provoked Brazil’s finance minister to make the first accusation that the U.S. was starting a currency war by driving down the value of the dollar—and by necessary extension, driving up exchange rates of other currencies, such as the real, thus hurting the competitiveness of export-dependent economies, such as Brazil.

Since then, the Morgan Stanley team continues, there has been a torrent of easings (as tallied by Evercore ISI) to pass the proverbial hot potato by exporting deflation. That has left just two importers of deflation—the U.S. and China.

The Fed ended QE last year and, according to conventional wisdom, is set to raise its federal-funds target from nearly nil (0% to 0.25%) some time this year. That has sent the dollar sharply higher, resulting in imported deflation. U.S. import prices plunged 2.8% in January, albeit largely because of petroleum. But over the past 12 months, overall import prices slid 8%, with nonpetroleum imports down 1.2%.

China is the other importer of deflation, they continue, owing to the renminbi’s relatively tight peg to the dollar. The RMB’s appreciation has been among the highest since 2005 and since the second quarter of last year. As a result, China has lagged the Bank of Japan, the ECB, and much of the developed and emerging-market economies in using currency depreciation to ease domestic deflation.

The bad news, according to the Morgan Stanley trio, is that not everyone can depreciate their currency at once. “Of particular concern is China, which has done less than others and hence stands to import deflation exactly when it doesn’t need to add to domestic deflationary pressures,” they write.

But they see central bankers around the globe being “fully engaged” in the battle against “lowflation,” generating monetary expansion at home and ultralow or even negative interest rates to generate growth.

The question is: When? Bank of America Merrill Lynch global economists Ethan Harris and Gustavo Reis estimate that global gross domestic product will shrink this year by some $2.3 trillion, which is a result of the dollar’s rise. To put that into perspective, they write, that’s equivalent to an economy somewhere between the size of Brazil’s and the United Kingdom’s having disappeared.

Real growth will actually increase to 3.5% in 2015 from 3.3% in 2014, the BofA ML economists project; but the nominal total will decline in terms of higher-valued dollars. The rub is that we live in a nominal world, with debts and expenses fixed in nominal terms. So, the world needs nominal dollars to meet these nominal obligations.

A drop in global nominal GDP is quite unusual by historical standards, they continue. Only the U.S. and emerging Asia are forecast to see growth in nominal-dollar terms.

The BofA ML economists also don’t expect China to devalue meaningfully, although that poses a major “tail” risk (that is, at the thin ends of the normal, bell-shaped distribution of possible outcomes). But, with China importing deflation, as the Morgan Stanley team notes, the chance remains that the country could join in the currency wars that it has thus far avoided.

WHILE ALL OF THE central bank efforts at lowering currencies and exchange rates won’t likely increase the world economy in dollar terms this year, they have been successful in boosting asset prices. The Standard & Poor’s 500 headed into the three-day Presidents’ Day holiday weekend at a record 2096.99, finally topping the high set just before the turn of the year.

The Wilshire 5000, the broadest measure of the U.S. stock market, surpassed its previous mark on Thursday and also ended at a record on Friday. By Wilshire Associates’ reckoning, the Wilshire 5000 has added some $8 trillion in value since the Fed announced plans for QE3 on Sept. 12, 2012. And since Aug. 26, 2010, when plans for QE2 were revealed, the index has doubled, an increase of $12.8 trillion in the value of U.S. stocks.

The Swiss Bail

Swiss-National-Bank-Chappatte_200115

This is a good, succinct explanation of the significance of the Swiss National Bank action to cease printing money and what’s in store for the central bank policies of the world.

Quote from asset manager Axel Merk:

Ultimately, central banks are just sipping from a straw in the ocean. I did not invent that term. Our senior economic advisor, Bill Poole, who is the former president of the St. Louis Federal Reserve taught us this: that central banks are effective as long as there is credibility.

What central banks have done is to try to make risky assets appear less risky, so that investors are encouraged or coerced into taking more risks. Because you get no interest or you are penalized for holding cash, you’ve got to go out and buy risky assets. You’ve got to go out and buy junk bonds. You have to go out and go out and buy equities.

The equity market volatility, until not long ago, has been very low. When volatility is low, investors are encouraged to buy something that is historically risky because it is no longer risky, right?

But as the Swiss National Bank has shown, risk can come back with a vengeance. The same thing can happen of course, in any other market. If the Federal Reserve wants to pursue an “exit” to its intervention, if it wants to go down this path, well, volatility is going to come back.

Everything else equal, it means asset prices have to be priced lower. That is the problem if you base an economic recovery exclusively on asset price inflation. We are going to have our hands full trying to kind of move on from here. In that context, what the Swiss National Bank has done is it is just a canary in the coal mine that there will be more trouble ahead.

Gerrymandering Our Demise

The_Gerry-Mander_Edit

The graphic above is an historically famous newspaper illustration of the first application of redistricting based upon choosing voters likely to vote for one party over the other, thereby assuring the election of a favored candidate. The map is of Massachusetts’ counties in 1812 and how they were cobbled together by redistricting to elect congressional candidates favored by Governor Elbridge Gerry. Newspaper wags thought the result looked like a salamander and dubbed the creature a “gerrymander.”

A recent exchange I had with a Political Science colleague over some electoral studies we’ve conducted separately illuminated for me how redistricting, or gerrymandering, is contributing greatly to our national political polarization and governing dysfunction.

After the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 I became quite curious about the red state-blue state narrative promoted by the media to explain the election results. The narrative keyed on subcultural stereotypes across America that served to define political preferences. Most of us are familiar with such stereotypes (guns and religion vs. Priuses and lattes), but it struck me then that the differences had to be  more correlated with geography than cultural identity. After all, red-blue was a geographic pattern, so it had to incorporate a geographic explanation. I conducted an empirical study of those elections that compared county voting with county census demographics. The results revealed that the most significant factors determining party preferences were population density and household formation. Other census characteristics–such as race, gender, age, income–added no explanatory power. (In 2005, I published an op-ed explanation here.)

To bring us up to date, I read another study last week (titled, The 2014 House Elections: Political Analysis and The Enduring Importance of Demographics) that analyzed the 2008, -10, -12, -14 elections in the same manner, comparing census demographic data with congressional district results. The author found that the two most important factors were population density and race/ethnicity of minority vs. white voters. At first I wondered why our results differed, as I suspected nothing much had changed in the electorate beyond a presidential candidate who was the first African American in US history. After some discussions I realized the differences between counties and Congressional districts (CDs) is because county lines, like state lines, are not redrawn to influence electoral outcomes while CDs are deliberately redrawn to favor those outcomes.

Below are some examples of tortuously drawn CDs that are intended to bind racial and ethnic communities together to elect racial and ethnic representatives in a white majority nation.

Worst GerryMandered districts

It didn’t take long to figure out that the difference between the results of the two studies can be traced to the unit of analysis: counties vs. congressional districts. Counties reflect a cross-section of lifestyle preferences based upon geography and demographics versus congressional districts that are carved out to achieve a desired electoral outcome based solely on race or ethnicity.

Underlying this policy objective is the assumption that only a racial or ethnic minority candidate can adequately represent a racial or ethnic community. We can debate whether this assumption holds true or not, but the unfortunate result is that gerrymandering reinforces the bias. In other words, if we’re looking for racial bias and then organize our electoral system to reinforce racial and ethnic divisions, is it any wonder that we then find a correlation between race and political outcomes?

There are other pernicious effects of redistricting along racial and ethnic demographics. First, it reduces electoral competition, and this works equally well for both parties. As non-whites get carved out of white districts, the remaining districts are more purely white. In effect, we are sectioning our electorate into white and non-white political entities. This goes against our long-running public battle to integrate communities, but reducing electoral competition also means parties and candidates can become less responsive to voters’ demands and not suffer for it. This translates into democratic governance that is anything but “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Second, democracy is founded on the process of compromise, but how does a political group defined by biological identity compromise? It becomes impossible to compromise one’s racial, ethnic or sexual identity, so we get much less compromise on issues that go beyond biology. This inability to compromise has greatly hampered our democratic governance. We have basically yielded our politics to a class of elites who are highly motivated to secure and wield power and wealth in their favor: the 99% governed by the 1%.

Taken in total, regardless of the political benefits, what gerrymandering and redistricting has done is weaken our commitment to one of the founding tenets of the American experiment, expressed in the Latin words, e pluribus unum: Out of One, Many.

Instead we’ve allowed ourselves to  become too easily divided and conquered.

 

 

Concentrating Equity and Wealth

 Pumped-CEOs

This author rightly criticizes the concentration of corporate wealth away from new public equity toward existing ownership shares, but fails to identify the key role that low-priced subsidized debt has played in this story. 0-1% real interest rates encourage any smart financial officer to issue new debt to buy back equity and improve corporate performance by reducing the weighted cost of capital. The Fed did this, not the regulatory reforms.

That said, there are regulatory reforms that could enhance the broader accumulation of capital through public corporations by rebalancing the tax treatment between debt and equity. Equity “shares” wealth (and risk), debt leverages and concentrates wealth while shifting the risk to the lenders.

From The Atlantic:

Stock Buybacks Are Killing the American Economy

        By Nick Hanauer

President Obama should be lauded for using his State of the Union address to champion policies that would benefit the struggling middle class, ranging from higher wages to child care to paid sick leave. “It’s the right thing to do,” affirmed the president. And it is. But in appealing to Americans’ innate sense of justice and fairness, the president unfortunately missed an opportunity to draw an important connection between rising income inequality and stagnant economic growth.

As economic power has shifted from workers to owners over the past 40 years, corporate profit’s take of the U.S. economy has doubled—from an average of 6 percent of GDP during America’s post-war economic heyday to more than 12 percent today. Yet despite this extra $1 trillion a year in corporate profits, job growth remains anemic, wages are flat, and our nation can no longer seem to afford even its most basic needs. A $3.6 trillion budget shortfall has left many roads, bridges, dams, and other public infrastructure in disrepair. Federal spending on economically crucial research and development has plummeted 40 percent, from 1.25 percent of GDP in 1977 to only 0.75 percent today. Adjusted for inflation, public university tuition—once mostly covered by the states—has more than doubled over the past 30 years, burying recent graduates under $1.2 trillion in student debt. Many public schools and our police and fire departments are dangerously underfunded

The answer is as simple as it is surprising: Much of it went to stock buybacks—more than $6.9 trillion of them since 2004, according to data compiled by Mustafa Erdem Sakinç of The Academic-Industry Research Network. Over the past decade, the companies that make up the S&P 500 have spent an astounding 54 percent of profits on stock buybacks. Last year alone, U.S. corporations spent about $700 billion, or roughly 4 percent of GDP, to prop up their share prices by repurchasing their own stock.

In the past, this money flowed through the broader economy in the form of higher wages or increased investments in plants and equipment. But today, these buybacks drain trillions of dollars of windfall profits out of the real economy and into a paper-asset bubble, inflating share prices while producing nothing of tangible value. Corporate managers have always felt pressure to grow earnings per share, or EPS, but where once their only option was the hard work of actually growing earnings by selling better products and services, they can now simply manipulate their EPS by reducing the number of shares outstanding.

So what’s changed? Before 1982, when John Shad, a former Wall Street CEO in charge of the Securities and Exchange Commission loosened regulations that define stock manipulation, corporate managers avoided stock buybacks out of fear of prosecution. That rule change, combined with a shift toward stock-based compensation for top executives, has essentially created a gigantic game of financial “keep away,” with CEOs and shareholders tossing a $700-billion ball back and forth over the heads of American workers, whose wages as a share of GDP have fallen in almost exact proportion to profit’s rise.

To be clear: I’ve done stock buybacks too. We all do it. In this era of short-term-focused activist investors, it is nearly impossible to avoid. So at least part of the solution to our current epidemic of business disinvestment must be to discourage this sort of stock manipulation by going back to the pre-1982 rules.

This practice is not only unfair to the American middle class, but is also demonstrably harmful to both individual companies and the American economy as a whole. In a recent white paper titled “The World’s Dumbest Idea,” GMO asset allocation manager James Montier strongly challenges the 40-year obsession with “shareholder value maximization,” or SVM, documenting the many ways that stock buybacks and excessive dividends have reduced business investment and boosted inequality. Almost all investment carried out by firms is financed by retained earnings, Montier points out, so the diversion of cash flow to stock buybacks has inevitably resulted in lower rates of business investment. Defenders of SVM argue that investors efficiently reallocate the profits they reap from repurchased shares by investing the proceeds into more promising enterprises. But Montier shows that since the 1980s, public corporations have actually bought back more equity than they’ve issued, representing a net negative equity flow. Shareholders aren’t providing capital to the corporate sector, they’re extracting it.

Meanwhile, the shift toward stock-based compensation helped drive the rise of the 1 percent by inflating the ratio of CEO-to-worker compensation from twenty-to-one in 1965 to about 300-to-one today. Labor’s steadily falling share of GDP has inevitably depressed consumer demand, resulting in slower economic growth. A new study from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development finds that rising inequality knocked six points off U.S. GDP growth between 1990 and 2010 alone.

It is mathematically impossible to make the public- and private-sector investments necessary to sustain America’s global economic competitiveness while flushing away 4 percent of GDP year after year. That is why the federal government must reorient its policies from promoting personal enrichment to promoting national growth. These policies should limit stock buybacks and raise the marginal rate on dividends while providing real incentives to boost investment in R&D, worker training, and business expansion.

If business leaders hope to maintain broad public support for business, they must acknowledge that the purpose of the corporation is not to enrich the few, but to benefit the many. Once America’s CEOs refocus on growing their companies rather than growing their share prices, shareholder value will take care of itself and all Americans will share in the benefits of a renewed era of economic growth.

The Sinister Evolution Of Our Modern Banking System

Fed

Repost from Peak Prosperity blog. (Link to podcast and blog here.)

Because we’re all about those banks, ’bout those banks…
Saturday, January 31, 2015

I quit Wall Street and decided that it was time to talk more about what was going on inside it, as it had changed. It had become far more sinister and far more dangerous. ~ Nomi Prins

Today, the ‘revolving door’ connecting our political and financial systems is evident to anyone with eyes. But this entwined relationship between Washington DC and Wall Street is nothing new, predating even the formation of the Federal Reserve.

To chronicle the evolution to where we find ourselves today, we welcome Nomi Prins, Wall Street veteran turned financial industry reformist, and author of the excellent expose All The Presidents Bankers.

In this well-detailed interview, Nomi goes into depth of the rationale and process behind the creation of the Federal Reserve, and more important, how its mandate — and the behavior of the banking system overall — metastasized into the every-banker-for-himself regime of sanctioned theft we now live with.

Chris Martenson:   To me, it couldn’t have been more obviously obscene then in 2010, and I believe maybe 2009, right after the big banks had been handed just vast, huge, very favorable handouts and bailouts during the Great Recession — and then they handed themselves record bonuses. I thought optically that was just horrible. As somebody who was inside the banking system: Are they that tone deaf? What’s behind that sort of behavior?

Nomi Prins:   Indeed, they have become very isolated.

It began with the period before the 1970s when different people were rising to leadership in banks, and worsened in the 80s when we started seeing people who had more sociopathic tendencies or less ability to appreciate the idea of the public’s economic stability being beneficial to growing their institutions. They no longer viewed it as necessary.

And with the advent of the larger futures market, the options market, the derivatives market, and all the off-shore elements of banking that were able to be developed, so much capital was now available and off of the books that the idea of maintaining some sort of a connection to stability policy — or even to whatever the Presidency might want — dissolved. At the same time, all the Presidents that were involved in running the country around that time didn’t ask or require accountability towards financial stability from them.

So there was a bunch of things that were happening at the same time, and that’s why the media does a poor job of critiquing this because they’re not looking at all the strands. None of this is simple. A lot of things happened at the same time to create these kinds of shifts. On the one hand, you have no restraint: you don’t have the Gold Standard anymore, so you have less of a strain on having something physical be reserved against your leverage. You now have this ability of petrodollars being recycled. You have the ability to leverage more debt. You have less humility. You have a more technologically-advanced, less transparent global financial system, so you can make and hide money easier. And then you have ascendancies of leadership in banks and in the government that are OK with all this, and allow it to fester.

It’s all defended as some sort of example of a free market and competition — “the best gets the best”, and so forth — when the reality is it just destabilizes the entire system and creates an artificiality. We see central banks supporting all of this mess, as opposed to figuring out what the exit policy is — which none of them have a clue about. That’s really where we’ve evolved to.

Listen to the entire podcast.

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