Everything is Broken

A couple of excellent articles that give the long-tailed, big picture of how the global economy has gotten itself between a rock and a hard place. Mostly due to political and financial mismanagement. The consequences were not inevitable, but Mauldin explains how we’re beyond the point of no return.

We have arrived. Any choice the government and central banks of the US and the rest of the world make will ultimately lead to a crisis. Just as the choices that Greenspan and Bernanke made about monetary policy created the Great Recession, Yellen and Powell’s choices will eventually lead us to the next crisis and ultimately to what I call The Great Reset.

I believe we have passed the point of no return. Changing policy now would create a recession as big as Paul Volcker’s in the early ‘80s. There is simply no appetite for that. Further, the national debt and continued yearly deficits force monetary policy to stay accommodative.

John Mauldin, Inflation is Broken.

Everything is Broken.

Inflation is Broken.

Broken Credit
Broken Retirement
Broken Stocks
Broken Data
Broken Unemployment System
Puerto Rico, Vaccines, and Some Good News

Broken lines, broken strings,
Broken threads, broken springs,
Broken idols, broken heads,
People sleeping in broken beds

—Bob Dylan, “Everything is Broken” from the album Oh Mercy, 1989

Was Quantitative Easing the Father of Millennial Socialism?

If you’ve been reading these pages for the past 8 years you know that central bank policy has been a constant refrain. The financial policies of the Fed for the past generation under both Greenspan and Bernanke have created a historic asset bubble with cheap credit. This has greatly aggravated wealth inequality and invited greater risks of both economic catastrophe and political chaos. We’re still experiencing where it leads. The eventual correction will likely be more painful than the original problem…

From the Financial Times:

Is Ben Bernanke the father of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Not in the literal sense, obviously, but in the philosophical and political sense.

As we mark the 10th anniversary of the bull market, it is worth considering whether the efforts of the US Federal Reserve, under Mr Bernanke’s leadership, to avoid 1930s-style debt deflation ended up spawning a new generation of socialists, such as the freshman Congresswoman Ms Ocasio-Cortez, in the home of global capitalism.

Mr Bernanke’s unorthodox “cash for trash” scheme, otherwise known as quantitative easing, drove up asset prices and bailed out baby boomers at the profound political cost of pricing out millennials from that most divisive of asset markets, property. This has left the former comfortable, but the latter with a fragile stake in the society they are supposed to build. As we look towards the 2020 US presidential election, could Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s leftwing politics become the anthem of choice for America’s millennials?

But before we look forward, it is worth going back a bit. The 2008 crash itself didn’t destroy wealth, but rather revealed how much wealth had already been destroyed by poor decisions taken in the boom. This underscored the truism that the worst of investments are often taken in the best of times. Mr Bernanke, a keen student of the 1930s, understood that a “balance sheet recession” must be combated by reflating assets. By exchanging old bad loans on the banks’ balance sheets with good new money, underpinned by negative interest rates, the Fed drove asset prices skywards. Higher valuations fixed balance sheets and ultimately coaxed more spending and investment. [A sharp correction and reflation of solvent banks would have given asset speculators the correct lesson for their imprudent risks. Prudent investors would have had access to capital to purchase those assets at rational prices. Instead, we rewarded the profligate borrowers and punished the prudent.]

However, such “hyper-trickle-down” economics also meant that wealth inequality was not the unintended consequence, but the objective, of policy. Soaring asset prices, particularly property prices, drive a wedge between those who depend on wages for their income and those who depend on rents and dividends. This wages versus rents-and-dividends game plays out generationally, because the young tend to be asset-poor and the old and the middle-aged tend to be asset-rich. Unorthodox monetary policy, therefore, penalizes the young and subsidizes the old. When asset prices rise much faster than wages, the average person falls further behind. Their stake in society weakens. The faster this new asset-fuelled economy grows, the greater the gap between the insiders with a stake and outsiders without. This threatens a social contract based on the notion that the faster the economy grows, the better off everyone becomes. What then? Well, politics shifts.

Notwithstanding Winston Churchill’s observation about a 20-year-old who isn’t a socialist not having a heart, and a 40-year-old who isn’t a capitalist having no head, polling indicates a significant shift in attitudes compared with prior generations. According to the Pew Research Center, American millennials (defined as those born between 1981 and 1996) are the only generation in which a majority (57 per cent) hold “mostly/consistently liberal” political views, with a mere 12 per cent holding more conservative beliefs. Fifty-eight per cent of millennials express a clear preference for big government. Seventy-nine per cent of millennials believe immigrants strengthen the US, compared to just 56 per cent of baby boomers. On foreign policy, millennials (77 per cent) are far more likely than boomers (52 per cent) to believe that peace is best ensured by good diplomacy rather than military strength. Sixty-seven per cent want the state to provide universal healthcare, and 57 per cent want higher public spending and the provision of more public services, compared with 43 per cent of baby boomers. Sixty-six per cent of millennials believe that the system unfairly favors powerful interests.

One battleground for the new politics is the urban property market. While average hourly earnings have risen in the US by just 22 per cent over the past 9 years, property prices have surged across US metropolitan areas. Prices have risen by 34 per cent in Boston, 55 per cent in Houston, 67 per cent in Los Angeles and a whopping 96 per cent in San Francisco. The young are locked out.

Similar developments in the UK have produced comparable political generational divides. If only the votes of the under-25s were counted in the last UK general election, not a single Conservative would have won a seat. Ten years ago, faced with the real prospect of another Great Depression, Mr Bernanke launched QE to avoid mass default. Implicitly, he was underwriting the wealth of his own generation, the baby boomers. Now the division of that wealth has become a key battleground for the next election with people such as Ms Ocasio-Cortez arguing that very high incomes should be taxed at 70 per cent.

For the purist, capitalism without default is a bit like Catholicism without hell. But we have confession for a reason. Everyone needs absolution. QE was capitalism’s confessional. But what if the day of reckoning was only postponed? What if a policy designed to protect the balance sheets of the wealthy has unleashed forces that may lead to the mass appropriation of those assets in the years ahead?

The Asset Divide

Below is a recent article explaining the growing wealth inequality based on asset ownership and control. This shouldn’t even be phrased as a question as our easy credit policies, massive RE debt leverage, and favored housing policy has created an almost insurmountable wealth divide between the asset-rich and the asset-poor. Who and what policies do we think those left behind are going to be voting for? Non-gender bathrooms? See also Thomas Edsall’s article in the NYT.

Is Housing Inequality the Main Driver of Economic Inequality?

Richard Florida

A growing body of research suggests that inequality in the value of Americans’ homes is a major factor—perhaps the key factor—in the country’s economic divides.

Economic inequality is one of the most significant issues facing cities and entire nations today. But a mounting body of research suggests that housing inequality may well be the biggest contributor to our economic divides.

Thomas Piketty’s influential book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, put economic inequality—and specifically, wealth inequality—front and center in the global conversation. But research by Matthew Rognlie found that housing inequality (that is, how much more expensive some houses are than others) is the key factor in rising wealth.

Rognlie’s research documented that the share of wealth or capital income derived from housing has grown significantly since around 1950, and substantially more than for other forms of capital. In other words, those uber-expensive penthouses, luxury townhomes, and other real estate holdings in superstar cities like London and New York amount to a “physical manifestation” of Piketty’s insights into wealth inequality, as Felix Salmon so aptly puts it.

More recent research on this topic by urban economists David Albouy and Mike Zabek documents the surge in housing inequality in the United States. Their study, published as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, charts the rise in housing inequality across the U.S. from the onset of the Great Depression in 1930 through the great suburban boom of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, to the more recent back-to-the-city movement, the 2008 economic crash, and the subsequent recovery, up to 2012. They use data from the U.S. Census on both homeowners and renters.

Over the period studied, the share of owner-occupied housing rose from less than half (45 percent) to nearly two-thirds (65 percent), although it has leveled off somewhat since then. The median cost of a home tripled in real dollar terms, according to their analysis. Housing now represents a huge share of America’s total consumption, comprising roughly 40 percent of the U.S. total capital stock, and two-thirds of the wealth held by the middle class.

What Albouy and Zabek find is a clear U-shaped pattern in housing inequality (measured in terms of housing values) over this 80-year period. Housing inequality was high in 1930 at the onset of the Depression. It then declined, alongside income inequality, during the Great Compression and suburban boom of the 1950s and 1960s. It started to creep back up again after the 1970s. There was a huge spike by the 1990s, followed by a leveling off in 2000, and then another significant spike by 2012, in the wake of the recovery from the economic crisis of 2008 and the accelerating back-to-the-city movement.

By 2012, the level of housing inequality in the U.S. looked much the same as it did in the ’30s. Now as then, the most expensive 20 percent of owner-occupied homes account for more than half of total U.S. housing value.

Data by Albouy et al. Design by Madison McVeigh/CityLab

Rents show a different pattern. Rent inequality—or the gap between the cost of rent for some relative than others—was high in the 1930s, then declined dramatically until around 1960. Starting in about 1980, it began to increase gradually, but much less than housing inequality (based on owner-occupied homes) or income inequality. And much of this small rise in rental inequality seems to stem from expensive rental units in very expensive cities.

The study suggests this less severe pattern of rent inequality may be the result of measures like rent control and other affordable housing programs to assist lower-income renters, especially in expensive cities such as New York and San Francisco.

That said, there also is an additional and potentially large wealth gap between owners and renters. Homeowners are able to basically lock in their housing costs after purchasing their home, and benefit from the appreciation of their properties thereafter. Renters, on the other hand, see rents increase in line with the market, and sometimes faster. This threatens their ability to maintain shelter, while they accumulate no equity in the place where they live.

***

But what lies behind this surge in housing inequality? Does it stem from the large housing-price differences between superstar cities and the rest, or does it stem from inequality within cities and metro areas—for instance, high-priced urban areas and suburban areas compared to less advantaged neighborhoods?

The Albouy and Zabek study considers three possible explanations: The change over time from smaller to larger housing units; geographic or spatial inequality between cities and metro areas; and economic segregation between rich and poor within metro areas.

Even as houses have grown bigger and bigger, with McMansions replacing bungalows and Cape Cods in many cities and suburbs since the 1930s (as the size of households shrunk), the study says that, at best, 30 percent of the rise in housing inequality can be pegged to changes in the size of houses themselves.

Ultimately, the study concludes that the rise in both housing wealth and housing inequality stems mainly from the increase in the value of land. In other research, Albouy found that the value of America’s urban land was $25 trillion in 2010, roughly double the nation’s 2016 GDP.

But here’s the kicker: The main catalyst of housing inequality, according to the study, comes from the growing gap within cities and metro areas, not between them. The graph below shows the differences in housing inequality between “commuting zones”—geographic areas that share a labor market—over time. In it, you can see that inequality varies sharply within commuting zones (marked “CZ”) while it remains more or less constant between them.

In other words, the spatial inequality within metros is what drives housing inequality. Factors like safety, schools, and access to employment and local amenities lead individual actors to value one neighborhood over the next.

Data by Albouy et al. Design by Madison McVeigh/CityLab

All this forms a fundamental contradiction in the housing market. Housing is at once a basic mode of shelter and a form of investment. As this basic necessity has been transformed over time into a financial instrument and source of wealth, not only has housing inequality increased, but housing inequality has become a major contributor to—if not the major overall factor in—wealth inequality. When you consider the fact that what is a necessity for everyone has been turned into a financial instrument for a select few, this is no surprise.

The rise in housing inequality brings us face to face with a central paradox of today’s increasingly urbanized form of capitalism. The clustering of talent, industry, investment, and other economic assets in small parts of cities and metropolitan areas is at once the main engine of economic growth and the biggest driver of inequality. The ability to buy and own housing, much more than income or any other source of wealth, is a significant factor in the growing divides between the economy’s winners and losers.

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A Financial Crisis Is Coming?

A provocative article in USNWR. We’ve been warning about unsustainable asset prices built on unsustainable debt leverage for the past 8 years (which only means we were waaaaay too early, but not necessarily wrong!) For all this time we’ve been focused on growing total debt to GDP ratios, which means we’re not getting much bang for all that cheap credit, trying to borrow and spend our way to prosperity.

The PE ratios of equities and housing reflect a disconnect with fundamental values based on decades of market data. For example, one cannot really pay 8-10x income on residential housing for long, or pay near to 50% of income on rents, as many are doing in our most pricey cities.

Nose-bleed asset prices on everything from yachts to vacation homes to art and collectibles to technology stocks and cryptocurrencies are indicative of excessive global liquidity. Soaking up that liquidity to return to long-term trend lines will be a long, jarring process. Nobody really knows whence comes the reckoning since we have perfected a particularly successful strategy of kicking the can down the road.

A Crisis Is Coming

All the ingredients are in place for a catastrophic economic and financial market crisis.

By Desmond Lachman Opinion Contributor USNWR, Feb. 14, 2018, at 7:00 a.m.

MY LONG CAREER AS A macro-economist both at the IMF and on Wall Street has taught me that it is very well to make bold macroeconomic calls as long as you do not specify a time period within which those calls will occur. However, there are occasions, such as today, when the overwhelming evidence suggests that a major economic event will occur within a relatively short time period. On those occasions, it is very difficult to resist making a time-sensitive bold economic call.

 

So here goes. By this time next year, we will have had another 2008-2009 style global economic and financial market crisis. And we will do so despite Janet Yellen’s recent reassurances that we would not have another such crisis within her lifetime.

 

There are two basic reasons to fear another full-blown global economic crisis soon: The first is that we have in place all the ingredients for such a crisis. The second is that due to major economic policy mistakes by both the Federal Reserve and the U.S. administration, the U.S. economy is in danger of soon overheating, which will bring inflation in its wake. That in turn is all too likely to lead to rising interest rates, which could very well be the trigger that bursts the all too many asset price bubbles around the world.

A key ingredient for a global economic crisis is asset price bubbles and credit risk mispricing. On that score, today’s financial market situation would appear to be very much more concerning than that on the eve of the September 2008 Lehman-bankruptcy. Whereas then, asset price bubbles were largely confined to the U.S. housing and credit markets, today, asset price bubbles are more pervasive being all too much in evidence around the globe.

 

It is not simply that global equity valuations today are at lofty levels experienced only three times in the last one hundred years. It is also that we have a global government bond market bubble, the serious mispricing of credit risk in the world’s high yield and emerging market corporate-bond markets and troublesome housing bubbles in major economies like Canada, China, and the United Kingdom.

 

Another key ingredient for a global economic crisis is a very high debt level. Here too today’s situation has to be very concerning. According to IMF estimates, today the global debt-to-GDP level is significantly higher than it was in 2008. Particularly concerning has to be the fact that far from declining, over the past few years Italy’s public debt has risen now to 135 percent of GDP. That has to raise the real risk that we could have yet another round of the Eurozone debt crisis in the event that we were to have another global economic recession.

 

Today’s asset price bubbles have been created by many years of unusually easy global monetary policy. The persistence of those bubbles can only be rationalized on the assumption that interest rates will remain indefinitely at their currently very low levels. Sadly, there is every reason to believe that at least in the United States, the period of low interest rates is about to end abruptly due to an overheated economy.

The reason for fearing that the U.S. economy will soon overheat is not simply that it is currently at or very close to full employment and growing at a healthy clip. It is rather that it is also now getting an extraordinary degree of monetary and fiscal policy stimulus at this very late stage of the cycle.

Today, U.S. financial conditions are at their most expansionary levels in the past 40 years due to the combination of very low interest rates, inflated equity prices and a weak dollar. Compounding matters is the fact that the U.S. economy is now receiving a significant pro-cyclical boost from the unfunded Trump tax cut and from last week’s two-year congressional spending pact aimed at boosting military and disaster-relief spending.

 

Today, in the face of an overheated U.S. economy, the Federal Reserve has an unenviable choice. It can either raise its interest rate and risk bursting the global asset price bubble, or it can delay its interests rate decision and risk incurring the wrath of the bond vigilantes who might sense that the Federal Reserve is not serious about inflation risk. In that event, interest rates are apt to rise in a disorderly fashion, which could lead to the more abrupt deflating of the global asset bubble.

 

This time next year, it could very well turn out that today’s asset price bubbles will not have burst and we will not have been thrown into another global economic recession. In which event, I will admit that I was wrong in having been too pessimistic about the global economic outlook. However, I will fall back on the defense that all of the clues were pointing in the opposite direction.

QE Pains and Gains

Reprinted from Bloomberg.

The Unintended Consequences of Quantitative Easing

Asset inflation doesn’t have to be bad. Flush governments could invest in education and infrastructure.
August 21, 2017, 11:00 PM PDT

Quantitative easing, which saw major central banks buying government bonds outright and quadrupling their balance sheets since 2008 to $15 trillion, has boosted asset prices across the board. That was the aim: to counter a severe economic downturn and to save a financial system close to the brink. Little thought, however, was put into the longer-term consequences of these actions.

From 2008 to 2015, the nominal value of the global stock of investable assets has increased by about 40 percent, to over $500 trillion from over $350 trillion. Yet the real assets behind these numbers changed little, reflecting, in effect, the asset-inflationary nature of quantitative easing. The effects of asset inflation are as profound as those of the better-known consumer inflation.

Consumer price inflation erodes savings and the value of fixed earnings as prices rise. Aside from the pain consumers feel, the economy’s pricing signals get mixed up. Companies may unknowingly sell at a loss, while workers repeatedly have to ask for wage increases just to keep up with prices. The true losers though are people with savings, which see their value in real purchasing power severely diminished.

John Maynard Keynes famously said that inflation is a way for governments to “confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.” Critically, inflation creates much social tension: “While the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security, but at the confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth.”

Asset inflation, it turns out, is remarkably similar. First, it impedes creative destruction by setting a negative long-term real interest rate. This allows companies that no longer generate enough income to pay a positive return on capital to continue as usual rather than being restructured. Thus the much-noted growth of zombie companies is one consequence of asset price inflation. Thus also the unreasonable leverage and price observed in real estate, with the credit risks it entails for the future.

Second, it also generates artificial winners and losers. The losers are most found among the aging middle class, who, in order to maintain future consumption levels, will now have to increase their savings. Indeed, the savings made by working people on stagnant wages effectively generates less future income because investable assets are now more expensive. The older the demographics, the more pronounced this effect. Germany, for instance, had a contraction of nearly 4 percent of gross domestic product in consumer spending from 2009 to 2016.

The winners are the wealthy, people with savings at the beginning of the process, who saw the nominal value of their assets skyrocket. But, as with consumer inflation, the biggest winner is the state, which now owns through its monetary authority, a large part of its own debt, effectively paying interest to itself, and a much lower one at that. For when all is accounted for, asset inflation is a monetary tax.

The most striking similarity between consumer price inflation and asset inflation is its potential to cause social disruption. In the 1970s workers resorted to industrial action to bargain for wage increases in line with price increases.

Today, the weakened middle class, whose wages have declined for decades, is increasingly angry at society’s wealthiest members. It perceives much of their recent wealth to be ill-gotten, not resulting from true economic wealth creation [and they are correct], and seeks social justice through populist movements outside of the traditional left-right debate. The QE monetary disruption almost certainly contributed to the protest votes that have been observed in the Western world.

The central banks now bear a large responsibility. If they ignore the political impact of the measures they took, they will exacerbate a politically volatile situation. If, on the other hand, the gains made by the state from QE can be channeled to true economic wealth creation and redistribution, they will have saved the day.

This is entirely possible. Rather than debating how and how fast to end quantitative easing, the central bank assets generated by this program should be put into a huge fund for education and infrastructure. The interest earned on these assets could finance real public investment, like research, education and retraining. [That’s fine, but it does little to compensate for the massive transfer of existing wealth that is causing the political and social dislocations, such as unsustainable urban housing costs.]

If the proceeds of QE are invested in growth-expanding policies, the gain will help finance tomorrow’s retirements, and the government-induced asset inflation can be an investment, not simply a tax.

Why…

…Aren’t Presidential Candidates Talking About the Federal Reserve?

Yes, why? Much of our economic and financial lives are being guided by an unelected board of Federal Reserve governors who have been flying blind for about 8 years now…manipulating interest rates and asset markets to what end? Nobody seems to know, except to try to prevent a financial reckoning for previous misguided policies. A less charitable interpretation is the financial industry’s desire to keep the casino open as the only game in town.

By Jordan Haedtler

In an election fueled by populist anger and dominated by talk of economic insecurity, why aren’t any of the presidential candidates talking about the Federal Reserve?

After nearly a decade of high unemployment, severe racial and gender disparities and wage stagnation, voters are heading to the ballot box in pursuit of a fairer economy with less rampant inequality. In California and New York, low-wage workers are celebrating historic agreements to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. And the economy and jobs consistently rank among the top concerns expressed by voters of all political stripes.

One government institution reigns supreme in its ability to influence wages, jobs and overall economic growth, yet leading candidates for president have barely discussed it at all. The Federal Reserve is the most important economic policymaking institution in the country, and it is critical that voters hear how candidates plan to reform and interact with the Fed.

Related: The Federal Reserve Bank, Explained [Well, kind of.]

The Fed too often epitomizes the problems with our economy and democracy over which voters are voicing frustration: Commercial banks literally own much of the Fed and are using it to enrich themselves at the expense of the American working and middle class. When Wall Street recklessness crashed the economy in 2008, American families paid the price.

At the time, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon sat on the board of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, which stepped in during the crisis to save Dimon’s firm and so many other banks on the verge of collapse. Although the Fed’s actions helped Wall Street recover, that recovery never translated to Main Street, where jobs and wage growth stagnated.

Commercial banks should not govern the very institution that oversees them. It’s a scandal that continues to threaten the Fed’s credibility. An analysis conducted earlier this year by my parent organization, The Center for Popular Democracy, showed that employees of financial firms continue to hold key posts at regional Federal Reserve banks and that leadership throughout the Federal Reserve System remains overwhelmingly white and male and draws disproportionately from the corporate and financial world.

Yellen-and-Rate-Hike-cartoon

When the Fed voted in December to raise interest rates for the first time in nearly a decade, the decision was largely driven by regional Bank presidents — the very policymakers who are chosen by corporate and financial interests. In 2015, the Fed filled three vacant regional president position, and all three were filled with individuals with strong ties to Goldman Sachs; next year, 4 of the 5 regional presidents voting on monetary policy will be former Goldman Sachs insiders. Can we trust these blue-chip bankers to address working Americans’ concerns?

Yet despite the enormous power it wields and the glaring problems it continues to exemplify, the Fed has received little attention this election cycle. As noted by Reuters last week, two of the remaining candidates for president, Hillary Clinton and John Kasich, have been mute on what they would do about the central bank. Donald Trump’s sporadic statements about the Fed have been characteristically short on details, prompting former Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Narayana Kocherlakota to call for Clinton, Trump and all presidential candidates to clarify exactly how they plan to oversee the Fed’s management of the economy. Ted Cruz has piped up about the Fed on a few occasions, although his vocal endorsement of “sound money” and other policies that contributed to the Great Depression warrant clarification. [One expects that none of the candidates really understand the arcana of central banking and prefer to leave well enough alone.]

The most detailed Fed reform proposal from a presidential candidate to date was a December New York Times op-ed in which Bernie Sanders wrote that “an institution that was created to serve all Americans has been hijacked by the very bankers it regulates,” and urged vital reforms to the Fed’s governance structure.

On Monday, Dartmouth economist Andy Levin, a 20-year Fed staffer and former senior adviser to Fed Chair Janet Yellen and her predecessor Ben Bernanke, unveiled a bold proposal to reform the Federal Reserve and make it a truly transparent, publicly accountable institution that responds to the needs of working families. [That’s pretty vague, as the interests of all are best served by a monetary policy that insures the stability of the price level and value of the currency as a unit of exchange and store of value. Employment growth is best addressed through fiscal policy.]

The New York primary provides a perfect opportunity for the remaining presidential candidates to tell us what they think about the Federal Reserve. Candidates in both parties should specify whether they support Levin’s proposals, and if not, articulate their preferred approach for our federal government’s most opaque but essential institution.

As Trump, Cruz and Kasich gear up for a potentially decisive primary, they would do well to respond to the many calls for clarity on the Fed. And on Thursday night, Sanders and Clinton will have the chance to clarify their stances on the Fed when they debate in Brooklyn, just a few miles away from Wall Street and the global financial epicenter that is the New York Federal Reserve Bank.

As New York voters get ready to decide which of the remaining candidates would make the best president, they will be asking themselves which candidate will better handle the economy. The candidates’ positions on the Fed must be part of the equation.

Over Fed

Bernanke Spinning the Roulette Wheel

The central bank did its job. What about everyone else?

In today’s Wall St. Journal, former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke offered up this generous performance review of his stint leading monetary policy after the financial crisis (appended below).

Bernanke assertions regarding unemployment and inflation are questionable on both fronts. First, misguided monetary policy has made a mess of full productive resource utilization. Fed policies such as ZIRP and QE4ever distort relative prices and lead to uncertainty of fundamental valuations over time. Thus, investment time horizons and commitments are shortened (who lends out 30 years now at a fixed rate of interest?). Second, the misallocation of resources leads to increased malinvestment (see housing), portending even more dislocations and corrections in the future. The Fed’s fantasies are further aided by distorted statistical measures like “core inflation” and unemployment. The labor participation rate is weak and weakening and the real growth rate is anemic – that is a true lasting drag on Americans’ well-being. All of this will eventually be borne out by empirical studies, proving the ineffectiveness of global central bank policy.

What the Fed has really accomplished is to let the politicians off the hook by accommodating their dereliction of duty over productive fiscal policy. If economic headline statistics had threatened re-election chances, maybe the executive and legislatures would have stopped playing petty power games and gotten down to the business of governing the nation. This is Washington D.C. at work.

How the Fed Saved the Economy

Full employment without inflation is in sight. The central bank did its job. What about everyone else?

By Ben S. Bernanke

Oct. 4, 2015

For the first time in nearly a decade, the Federal Reserve is considering raising its target interest rate, which would end a long period of near-zero rates. Like the cessation of large-scale asset purchases in October 2014, that action will be an important milestone in the unwinding of extraordinary monetary policies, adopted during my tenure as Fed chairman, to help the economy recover from a historic financial crisis. As such, it’s a good time to evaluate the results of those measures, and to consider where policy makers should go from here.

To begin, it’s essential to be clear on what monetary policy can and cannot achieve. Fed critics sometimes argue that you can’t “print your way to prosperity,” and I agree, at least on one level. The Fed has little or no control over long-term economic fundamentals—the skills of the workforce, the energy and vision of entrepreneurs, and the pace at which new technologies are developed and adapted for commercial use.

What the Fed can do is two things: First, by mitigating recessions, monetary policy can try to ensure that the economy makes full use of its resources, especially the workforce. High unemployment is a tragedy for the jobless, but it is also costly for taxpayers, investors and anyone interested in the health of the economy. Second, by keeping inflation low and stable, the Fed can help the market-based system function better and make it easier for people to plan for the future. Considering the economic risks posed by deflation, as well as the probability that interest rates will approach zero when inflation is very low, the Fed sets an inflation target of 2%, similar to that of most other central banks around the world.

How has monetary policy scored on these two criteria? Reasonable people can disagree on whether the economy is at full employment. The 5.1% headline unemployment rate would suggest that the labor market is close to normal. Other indicators—the relatively low labor-force participation rate, the apparent lack of wage pressures, for example—indicate that there is some distance left to go.

But there is no doubt that the jobs situation is today far healthier than it was a few years ago. That improvement (as measured by the unemployment rate) has been quicker than expected by most economists, both inside and outside the Fed.

On the inflation front, various measures suggest that underlying inflation is around 1.5%. That is somewhat below the 2% target, a situation the Fed needs to remedy. But if there is a problem with inflation, it isn’t the one expected by the Fed’s critics, who repeatedly predicted that the Fed’s policies would lead to high inflation (if not hyperinflation), a collapsing dollar and surging commodity prices. None of that has happened.

It is instructive to compare recent U.S. economic performance with that of Europe, a major industrialized economy of similar size. There are many differences between the U.S. and Europe, but a critical one is that Europe’s economic orthodoxy has until recently largely blocked the use of monetary or fiscal policy to aid recovery. Economic philosophy, not feasibility, is the constraint: Greece might have limited options, but Germany and several other countries don’t. And the European Central Bank has broader monetary powers than the Fed does.

Europe’s failure to employ monetary and fiscal policy aggressively after the financial crisis is a big reason that eurozone output is today about 0.8% below its pre-crisis peak. In contrast, the output of the U.S. economy is 8.9% above the earlier peak—an enormous difference in performance. In November 2010, when the Fed undertook its second round of quantitative easing, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble reportedly called the action “clueless.” At the time, the unemployment rates in Europe and the U.S. were 10.2% and 9.4%, respectively. Today the U.S. jobless rate is close to 5%, while the European rate has risen to 10.9%.

Six years after the Fed, the ECB has begun an aggressive program of quantitative easing, and European fiscal policy has become less restrictive. Given those policy shifts, it isn’t surprising that the European outlook appears to be improving, though it will take years to recover the growth lost over the past few years. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is enjoying a solid recovery, in large part because the Bank of England pursued monetary policies similar to the Fed’s in both timing and relative magnitude.

It is encouraging to see that the U.S. economy is approaching full employment with low inflation, the goals for which the Fed has been striving. That certainly doesn’t mean all is well. Jobs are being created, but overall growth is modest, reflecting subpar gains in productivity and slow labor-force growth, among other factors. The benefits of growth aren’t shared equally, and as a result many Americans have seen little improvement in living standards. These, unfortunately, aren’t problems that the Fed has the power to alleviate. [Does Mr. Bernanke really think Fed policies have had a benign effect on these trends?]

With full employment in sight, further economic growth will have to come from the supply side, primarily from increases in productivity. That means that the Fed will continue to do what it can, but monetary policy can no longer be the only game in town. Fiscal-policy makers in Congress need to step up. As a country, we need to do more to improve worker skills, foster capital investment and support research and development. Monetary policy can accomplish a lot, but, as I often said as Fed chairman, it is no panacea. New efforts both inside and outside government will be essential to sustaining U.S. growth.

Bernanke prayer

Economic Thrill Rides

volatility-cartoon

The following is excerpted from an editorial in Barron’s by Thomas Donlan. (Full article Barrons. Subscription req’d)

Central planning that is intended to eliminate chaos eventually creates it. As Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom, state economic planning is unavoidably arbitrary: “The more the state plans, the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.”

Among many examples of this principle: If a government tweaks money supply to hit targets for interest rates and exchange rates, it will provide stability in those things, but the economy will fluctuate. Or, if the government tries to guarantee general economic growth, as measured by employment, gross domestic product, consumer confidence, business investment, or all of them, rates of interest and exchange will fluctuate. Either way, the economy will be under control of an unstable, unpredictable thing that seeks order instead of liberty, and so can deliver neither.

We should see in the recent market chaos the economic chaos created by planning — not just in China but in the U.S. and Europe, as well. Markets are trying to follow political orders. In China, the government wanted to let markets have more influence over the value of money, until it observed the results and ordered a devaluation. In Europe, the promise to do “whatever it takes” to stabilize a rickety monetary union has perpetuated chaos.

Naturally, markets gyrate under pressure of the sort generated by the president of the New York Federal Reserve. From one side of his desk, he said he still hopes that the Fed will raise interest rates this year, while from the other side, he observed that the case for a rise “seems less compelling.”

The great danger in a market tremor is what people do about it. China, the U.S., and Europe have given too much power to their monetary authorities, relying on central bankers to sail against the winds of economic change. They believe economies respond predictably to tinkering with money markets.

Actually, economies respond to stimuli with booms and to tightening with busts, unless they don’t. As economist Ed Yardeni suggested at midweek, perhaps with tongue in cheek, “Another 2008 crisis is imminent eventually.”

All over the world, there are people who imagine themselves to be masters of the material universe. They are the greatest threat to liberty and prosperity.

I have been arguing for some time that this is how we should understand economic policy over the past 30+ years, often referred to as the Great Moderation. We’ve tried to guarantee economic growth as measured by nominal GDP, interest rates, employment, and price stability as measured by the CPI. The result has caused asset prices such as commodities, exchange rates, real estate, and precious metals to fluctuate quite widely and wildly.

Asset price fluctuations impose their own costs on people, often with arbitrary effects, like when you are forced to buy or sell a house (see chart below). Asset price support by the Fed has also greatly enriched those who own more assets, widening the economic inequality gaps. It is hardly an ideal state of affairs, nor one that can easily be justified on philosophical grounds.

Housing index

Welcome to the Fed’s Casino

WallStreetCasino1

“What Happens in the Fed’s Vegas …Spreads Everywhere.”

The article below focuses on the role of traders as the middle men between buyers and sellers of financial securities and the inefficiencies they generate from excessive churning. But trading volatility occurs in the context of a much larger issue of winners and losers in capital markets and society at large. Not only is trading excessive, but the swings in asset prices are creating massive winners and losers with arbitrary outcomes while enriching a winner-take-all circle of financial wealth that can buy up and shape our politics and regulatory policy.

These are the kinds of things that raise hackles among average Americans, but if we wish to fix the problem the more important question is how and why this has happened. It is a direct result of the Fed’s monetary policy and our governments’ fiscal policies in the face of a changing global economy. As I have explained in a previous post, Banking Vegas-Style, the focus of all macroeconomic policy on stabilizing headline statistics such as GDP growth, unemployment, and inflation has led to much greater price volatility in asset markets.

Economists refer to the past 35 years as The Great Moderation, denoting the reduction in the volatility of business cycle fluctuations starting in the mid-1980s. But to stabilize GDP growth with monetary liquidity means that excess liquidity must lead to productive investment. This is predominantly what happened with technology investment during the 1990s. But eventually excess credit leads to malinvestment and the misallocation of resources (Pets.com?). This is reflected in the volatility of asset prices, as we saw reflected in currency crises, the dotcom crash,  commodity and housing bubbles during this same period we refer to as The Great Moderation. Others mark this time as the transition to the Bubble Economy.

The  data that most reveals what has happened has been the explosion in trading and the transformation of capital markets into asset price casinos dominated by hedge funds, private equity, and big banking conglomerates. In other words, our policies created the hedge fund industry with currency volatility, credit bubbles and crunches, housing bubbles and crashes, commodity bubbles and crashes, and Too Big to Fail banks.

Think about it. If prices don’t move in wild gyrations, there is almost no money to be made from constant trading. Instead we’ve turned such markets into casino gambling dens.

So, should this all be a surprise to our policymakers?

Legendary Fund Manager John Bogle Calls Wall Street’s Number—–99% Of Trading ($32 Trillion/Year) Is A Waste

by MITCH TUCHMAN @  • July 30, 2015

An astonishing $32 trillion in securities changes hands every year with no net positive impact for investors, charges Vanguard Group Founder John Bogle.

Meanwhile, corporate finance — the reason Wall Street exists — is just a tiny slice of the total business. The nation’s big investment banks probably could work for less than a week and take the rest of the year off with no real effect on the economy.

The job of finance is to provide capital to companies. We do it to the tune of $250 billion a year in IPOs and secondary offerings,” Bogle told Time in an interview. “What else do we do? We encourage investors to trade about $32 trillion a year. So the way I calculate it, 99% of what we do in this industry is people trading with one another, with a gain only to the middleman. It’s a waste of resources.”

Rent seekers

It’s a lot of money, $32 trillion. Nearly double the entire U.S. economy moving from one pocket to another, with a toll-taker in the middle. Most people refer to them as “stock brokers,” but let’s call them what they are — toll-takers and rent-seekers.

Rent-seeking as an occupation is as old as the hills. In exchange for working to build up credentials and relative fluency in the arcane rules of an industry, one gets to stand back from actual work and just collect money.

Ostensibly, the job of a financial adviser is to provide advice. Do you actually get that from your broker? It is worth anything?

Research shows, over and over, that stock brokers can’t do much of anything demonstrably valuable. They don’t know which stocks will go up or down and when. They don’t know which asset classes will outperform this year or next.

Nobody knows. That’s the point. If you’re among that small cadre of extremely high-level traders who can throw loads of cash at a short-term fluke, fantastic. If you have a mind for numbers like Warren Buffett that allows you to buy companies on the cheap and hold them forever, excellent.

If you’re a normal retirement investor trying to get from A to B and retire on time, well, you have a really big problem to face: The toll-taker wants your money.

Dead weight

So he needs you to trade — a lot. Because that’s how stock brokers make money. Not by doling out retirement advice, but by ensuring that your account is active and churning commissions on behalf of them and their employers.

What’s a highway with no traffic on it? If you’re a toll-taker, it’s a money loser. So Wall Street’s rent-seekers need traffic in the form of regular trading. An account that sits invested for months at a time with no trades is dead weight to them.

Nevertheless, as Bogle maintains, doing nothing is the key. “Don’t do something, just stand there!” he has often said.

A portfolio indexing approach to investing codifies Bogle’s time-tested and effective way of investing for retirement — without lining the pockets of toll-taking stock brokers along the way.

The Greek Tragedy Enters the 3rd Act

stock_market_bubbleDavid Stockman will be wrong until he’s right.

The only thing in this utterly broken “market” which is really priced-in is an unshakeable confidence that any disturbance to the upward march of asset prices will be quickly, decisively and reliably countermanded by central bank action.

It Is NOT Priced-In, Stupid!

by  • July 6, 2015

Among all the mindless blather served up by the talking heads of bubblevision is the recurrent claim that “its all priced-in”. That is, there is no danger of a serious market correction because anything which might imply trouble ahead—-such as weak domestic growth, stalling world trade or Grexit——is already embodied in stock market prices.

Yep, those soaring averages are already fully risk-adjusted!

So the “oxi” that came screaming unexpectedly out of Greece Sunday evening will undoubtedly be explained away before the NYSE closes on Monday. Nothing to see here, it will be argued. Today’s plunge is just another opportunity for those who get it to “buy-the-dip”.

And they might well be right in the very short-run. But this time the outbreak of volatility is different. This time the dip buyers will be carried out on their shields.

Here’s why. The whole priced-in meme presumes that nothing has really changed in the financial markets during the last three decades. The latter is still just the timeless machinery of capitalist price discovery at work. Traders and investors in their tens-of-thousands are purportedly diligently engaged in sifting, sorting, dissecting and discounting the massive, continuous flows of incoming information that bears on future corporate profits and the present value thereof.

That presumption is dead wrong. The age of Keynesian central banking has destroyed all the essential elements upon which vibrant, honest price discovery depends. These include short-sellers which insure disciplined two-way markets; carry costs which are high enough to discourage rampant leveraged speculation; money market uncertainty that is palpable enough to inhibit massive yield curve arbitrage; option costs which are burdensome enough to deny fast money gamblers access to cheap downside portfolio insurance; and flexible, mobilized interest rates which enable imbalances of supply and demand for investable funds to be decisively cleared.

Not one of these conditions any longer exists. The shorts are dead, money markets interest rates are pegged and frozen, downside puts are practically free and carry trade gambling is biblical in extent and magnitude.

So a vibrant market of atomized competition in the gathering and assessment of information relevant to the honest pricing of financial assets has been replaced by what amounts to caribou soccer. That is, the game that six-year old boys and girls play when the chase the soccer ball around the field in one concentrated, squealing pack.

The soccer ball in this instance, alas, is the central banks. Until Sunday the herd of speculators was in full rampage chasing the liquidity, word clouds and promises of free money and market “puts” with blind, unflinching confidence.

The only thing in this utterly broken “market” which was really priced-in, therefore, was an unshakeable confidence that any disturbance to the upward march of asset prices would be quickly, decisively and reliably countermanded by central bank action. But now an altogether different kind of disturbance has erupted. It is one that does not emanate from short-term “price action” of the market or an unexpected macroeconomic hiccup or lend itself to another central bank hat trick.

Instead, the Greferendum amounts to a giant fracture in the apparatus of state power on which the entire rotten regime of financialization is anchored. That is, falsified financial prices, massive, fraudulent monetization of the public debt and egregious and continuous bailouts of private speculator losses, mistakes and reckless gambling sprees.

What has transpired in a relative heartbeat is that one of the four central banks of the world that matter is suddenly on the ropes. In the hours and days ahead, the ECB will be battered by desperate actions emanating from Athens, as it struggles with a violent meltdown of its banking and payments system; and it will be simultaneously stymied and paralyzed by an outbreak of public confusion, contention and recrimination among the politicians and apparatchiks who run the machinery of the Eurozone and ECB superstate.

Yes, the Fed will reconfirm its hundreds of billions of dollar swap lines with the ECB, and the BOJ and the Peoples Printing Press of China will redouble their efforts to prop-up their own faltering stock markets and to contain the “contagion” emanating from the Eurozone.

But this time there is a decent chance that even the concerted central banks of the world will not be able to contain the panic. That’s because the blind confidence of the caribou soccer players will be sorely tested by the possibility that the ECB will be exposed as impotent in the face of a cascading crisis in the euro debt markets.

Here are the tells. If the Syriza government has any sense it will nationalize the Greek banking system immediately; replace the head of the Greek central bank with a pliant ally; refuse to heed any ECB call for collection of the dubious collateral that stands behind its $120 billion in ELA and other advances; and print ten euro notes until the plates on the Greek central bank’s printing presses literally melts-down.

If the Greeks seize their banking system and monetary machinery from their ECB suzerains in this manner—- out of desperate need to stop the asphyxiation of their economy—– those actions will trigger, in turn, pandemonium in the PIIGS bond markets. From there it would be only a short step to an existential crisis in Frankfurt and unprecedented, fractious conflict between Berlin, Paris, Rome and Madrid.

Either all of the Eurozone governments fall in line almost instantly in favor of a massive up-sizing of the ECBs bond buying campaign to stop the run on peripheral bond markets, or the Draghi “whatever it takes” miracle will be obliterated in a selling stampede that will expose the naked truth. Namely, that the whole thing since mid-2012 was a front-runners con job in which the ECB temporarily rented speculator balance sheets in order to prime the PIIGS bond buying pump, thereby luring the infinitely stupid and gullible managers of bank, insurance and mutual fund portfolios into loading up on the drastically over-valued public debt of the Eurozone’s fiscal cripples.

Needless to say, there is likely to emerge a flurry of leaks and trial balloons from the desperate precincts of Brussels, Berlin and Frankfurt. These will be designed to encourage the Greeks to leave their banking system hostage to “cooperation” with their paymasters, and to persuade traders that Draghi has been greenlighted to buy up the PIIGS debt hand-over-fist——-and to do so without regard to the pro-rata capital key under which the current program is straight-jacketed.

But that assumes that the Germans, Dutch and Finns capitulate to an open-ended and frenzied bond-buying campaign that would make the BOJ’s current madness look tame by comparison. Yet if they do, its only a matter of time before the euro goes into a terminal tail-spin. And if they don’t, collapsing euro debt prices will infect the entire global bond market in a tidal wave of contagion.

Either way, its not priced-in. That’s been the real stupid trade all along.