Central Banks

 

Waiting Until 2158

All over the world stocks are rising. In the US, the S&P 500 rose over the 2,000 mark for the first time in history. The Dow is over 17,000. And if you want to buy a share of online TV network Netflix, Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX), you will pay $144 for every dollar the company earned over the last 12 months.

 

world

 

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The Current Path of ECB Policy

While the ECB keeps talking about what it might possibly do, its actual policy choice is a rather odd mixture, as Sharmila Whelan of Asianomics recently pointed out. On the one hand, it is evident that a policy of internal deflation has been embarked upon in the euro area.

However, on the other hand, this is combined with a policy of “pain avoidance”, which we can see by the frequent reactive ECB decisions to temporarily inject liquidity again with instruments such as its LTROs (and their new bastard child TLTRO) and keeping administered rates at ridiculously low levels, as well as by the continued increase in government debt. As we have previously noted in these pages, to the extent that credit expansion has taken place in the euro area in recent years, it has been focused almost exclusively on the funding of more government spending.

The private sector by contrast continues to slowly deleverage (see our previous article “Euro Area Credit and Money Supply”, which contains a recent update of the most important data points in this context).

Naturally, this combination of policies makes little sense, as it simply serves to prolong the pain of the adjustment. If the ECB and other policymakers in Europe were to let market forces make short shrift of the remaining bubble activities in the euro area, there would be a sharp, but short recession. This would indeed be quite painful, but it would also lay the foundation for a sustainable upswing. However, one would have to be politically prepared to endure the considerable short term pain associated with this approach, and a great many impediments to price and wage adjustments would have to be removed beforehand.

The current period of relative calm is likely to soon give way to a more “interesting” time period again, in the Chinese curse sense. This is so, because money supply growth in the euro area is recently decelerating significantly.

 

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No “Inflation Worries”

Ahead of the Jackson Hole pow-wow, where a bunch of central bankers and establishment-approved intellectuals advising them will soon meet, it may be worth taking a look at what motivates the policies of the new Fed chair. On August 12, Bloomberg reported – employing its inimitable style of headlines construction -  that “Yellen resolved to avoid raising rates too soon, fearing downturn”. Bloomberg elaborates:

 

“Approaching a historic turn in U.S. monetary policy, Janet Yellen has staked her tenure as chair of the Federal Reserve on a simple principle: she'd rather fight inflation than another economic downturn.

Interviews with current and former Fed officials indicate that Yellen and core decision-makers at the U.S. central bank are determined not to raise interest rates too early and risk hurting the fragile U.S. economy.

It's a commitment that will be vigorously tested in coming months as pressure builds inside the Fed, among Republicans on Capitol Hill, and perhaps even in financial markets, for the Fed to acknowledge a strengthening U.S. economy with its first interest-rate increase in more than eight years. A global central bankers' conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming next week will give Yellen a major stage on which to press her case.”

 

(emphasis added)

To this it must be kept in mind that the definition of “inflation” has been twisted over time to represent one of its possible effects rather than the thing itself. Prices obviously cannot be “inflated” – they can either rise or fall. What can be inflated is the money supply, and until large parts of the science of economics began to retrogress from the late 1930s onward, this was precisely what economists held to be the meaning of the term. In short, “inflation” once designated the increase in the money supply. However, Bloomberg, Ms. Yellen and her fellow Fed members use the term “inflation” to refer to the mythical “general price level”, specifically the rate of change of consumer prices.

Why is there no such thing as the “general price level”? Even our largely disembodied digital money is essentially a good with its own supply-demand characteristics. If one compares the array of price ratios it forms with other goods against which it is exchanged, there are two problems:

Firstly, since both money and the goods one exchanges it for are subject to the laws of supply and demand, there exists no fixed yardstick – if one e.g. looks at the money price of oil, it is simply not possible to know to what extent its height is influenced by the supply of and demand for money, or the supply of and demand for oil.

The second problem is that by adding up an entire array of money prices of disparate goods, one arrives at a number that is devoid of logic.

To see why consider the following sentence: “1/25,000 of a car, plus one movie ticket, plus two pounds of potatoes, plus one fifth of a massage, plus ½ of a haircut, plus 1/500 of a personal computer, equals….” -  when it is put in this way, it should be immediately obvious what the problem is. An “average” of cars, potatoes, haircuts, etc. is inherently meaningless.

 

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How Can the State Bank of India Pay Interest in Gold?

An article caught my eye this week. The Tirumala Tirupati Temple in India has deposited gold at the State Bank of India, and is getting paid interest on their deposit. There is something unique about this.The interest is paid in gold.

To understand why no one else is paying interest in gold, let’s first look at how one can use any asset class to make a dollar income: speculation. Buy something. Wait. Sell it at a higher price. You can use bonds, stocks, real estate, artwork, or classic Ferraris. By the way, no matter what you use, you are converting what had been someone else’s capital into your own income. This is capital destruction on a massive scale.

Using gold to produce a dollar income is simple. Just sell a covered call with a strike price a little higher than the current market price. You get paid a premium immediately. If the gold price does not rise, then you can repeat the trick and sell another call. If it does rise, you must sell the gold at the strike price. This earns you a profit, as it is above what you paid. Then just buy more gold and do it again.

If you keep your books in dollars, and trade for dollar gains, you don’t really care how much gold you have. You only care about how many dollars. If the gold price doubles, you may end up with about half the gold. But who cares, at least you’re making a steady stream of dollarst hat you can consume.

Making a gold income is something else.

You can’t just sell calls, or sell the gold itself. If you do, and the gold price rises, you will have to buy the gold back. However, the same dollars you have will get you less gold at the higher price. For example, you start with 100oz gold. Today the price is about $1,300 per ounce, and you sell a December call option. It has a strike price of $1,325 and you get paid immediately $25 per ounce or $2,500 for the contract.

Unfortunately — yes this is unfortunate as we shall see in a moment — the gold price jumps in September. It goes to $1,500 and holds steady there. In December, you deliver the gold and per your contract you are paid $1,325 per ounce. Now you have $1,325 × 100oz = $132,500 + the option premium of $2,500 = $135,000.

When you go to buy your gold back, you discover the catch. At the new price, you can only get $135,000 ÷ $1,500 = 90oz. Even after picking up almost two ounces worth of pennies in front of the steamroller, it still squeezed 10 ounces out of you. Your 100oz shrunk to 90oz.

 

TirumalatempleThe Golden Tirumala Tirupati Temple, which is reportedly the richest temple in the world.

(Photo credit: Raj Srikanth)

 

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When One Central Bank Slows its Destructive Policies, Another Must Step Into the Breach …

We could call this the summary of Lorenzo Bini Smaghi's views, who frets in a recent FT editorial about the effects the Fed's decision to 'taper' its 'QE' operations may have on the moribund euro area economy.

In about two thirds of the editorial, Bini Smaghi lists the ways in which a slowdown in monetary largesse across the pond might impact financial markets in Europe. There is nothing wrong with this analysis, in fact, a similar impact will likely also be felt in the US and elsewhere. After burdening the economy with the biggest money printing and deficit spending orgy in post WW2 history, we must expect all the economic errors these policies have induced to become visible as soon as the inflationary policy is actually slowed down sufficiently.

However, the problem is that Bini Smaghi thinks that therefore, we need more of the same, only this time, the ECB is supposed to take upon itself the role of chief money printer. Naturally, there is not a single word about the causes of the last crisis, which was caused by a boom triggered by the very same loose monetary policies Smaghi once again supports. Smaghi not only thinks the ECB should print money in reaction to the turbulence the Fed's tapering may cause, but it should do so “preemptively”.

An excerpt:

 

“The only way to avoid such a scenario is for the ECB to counteract the restrictive effects produced by the combination of a US monetary tightening and renewed market turbulence. The measures announced so far do not seem to be sufficient, as their effectiveness largely relies on the prevailing demand for bank financing coming from European companies, which currently seem to have little incentive to invest and still need to deleverage. The ECB’s balance sheet might thus continue to shrink, while the economic recovery slows down. Forward guidance, which aims primarily at short-term policy rates, may lose credibility as it is unable to prevent the rise in long-term rates.”

 

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Loans to the Private Sector Keep Declining, Money Supply Growth Slows

We want to briefly update the most important credit and monetary data of the euro area, which we last briefly discussed in March (see: “Overview of Recent Monetary Trends”, which focused however more on the US than on Europe).

In spite of the ECB cutting interest rates to the bone and offering new “targeted long term refinancing operations” to banks (see “European Credit Dirigisme” for background information), neither lending to the private sector nor money supply growth have so far picked up in the euro area as a whole (there are of course differences between the individual member nations).

Generally we would regard this as a positive development, insofar as it should help to minimize capital malinvestment. Unfortunately, we can infer from the fact that money supply growth remains in positive territory, that lending to the private sector has been replaced with lending to governments, so the economy continues to be exposed to the burden of deficit spending by governments. This is probably not particularly surprising, but we would be remiss not to mention it.

Below we show three charts, consumer credit, loans to non-financial corporations and the euro area's true money supply (currency plus demand deposits). The red lines show the absolute numbers in millions of euro, the blue lines show the annual rate of change in percent.

 

chart-1-Euro area consumer credit

Consumer credit has taken a dive, and the slump has recently slightly accelerated again – click to enlarge.

 

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Party Stress

Everybody is under pressure here. Elizabeth has planned a big party at our place in western France to welcome daughter Sophia and her husband, Ryan, into the local community. Two hundred people are scheduled to gather on the lawn.

 

RoadSignPerfection

(Image via depositphotos.com)

 

But what’s this? We just checked the weather forecast; it’s supposed to rain! Too late to get a tent. Too late to call it off. Oh là là!

“Everything is so nice here,” says our mother, clearly not paying attention. “It’s perfect …”

The family is gathering. This is where the younger children grew up. It is the place they regard as home. Which is a bit strange to their father, who never expected to stay for more than a few years and has never really felt at home here.

But we’ve now been here, off and on, for nearly two decades. And it looks like more will follow. That’s both the trouble and the charm of life – you never know exactly where it will lead you.

 

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The Fed's Mortgage Bond Purchase Announcements

Fed/QE followers know the Fed has been publishing its  Agency MBS Transaction Summary weekly, on Thursdays.  This is a detailed summary of everything the Fed has purchased for the week, broken down by type, while netting out sales.

The link will also connect the reader to archived transactions dating back to the origins of QE3. Recently, the Fed started pre-announcing what it would be doing for the week with the Tentative Outright Agency Mortgage-Backed Securities Operation Schedule.

In addition, at every FOMC meeting, they have already told the world how much they are tapering by.  It is not as if the transaction amounts could be a surprise to anyone.

Then what is the purpose of this transparency?

I think the Feds are either stupid, or they think the market is stupid.  Having given them too much benefit of the doubt hitherto, I have concluded that it is the former.  

This transparency is Ms. Yellen's version of Fed jawboning, hoping that with the help of pre-announcements, she can somehow micro manipulate interest rates.  

 

Mortgage-backed securities held by FedThe Fed's holdings of mortgage-backed securities: from zero to almost $1.7 trillion – via St. Louis Federal Reserve Research, click to enlarge.

 

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A Case of Jitters

What was that sound? Did you feel a little bump? Nah… don’t worry about it. Go back to your cabin and have a good sleep.

Just when things were going so well! With all that GDP growth! All those new jobs! We were all set to believe that the US economy really had recovered from the shock of 2008.

 

Titanic_iceberg

(Photo taken by the  Chief Stewad of the Prinz Adalbert)

 

What does the stock market know that these happy numbers aren’t telling us? On Thursday, the Dow dropped more than 300 points. Gold fell $14 an ounce. There may be nothing more to this than a case of the jitters.

Or could it be something more?

 

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It Can't Be A Bubble!

Articles claiming that the current situation in financial markets does not deserve the epithet “bubble” are a dime a dozen – we come across several every week since at least late 2013. Before continuing, we should point out that there is a big difference between recognition of a bubble and forecasting the timing of its actual bursting. For instance, we were well aware that there was a bubble in the late 1990s, but not only did it still take a good while before it hit its peak (a peak that was then retested in terms of the broader market half a year later), it also expanded considerably further before it did so, and only started collapsing in earnest in late 2000.

It is important to realize in this context that this particular bubble – the one in technology stocks that peaked in early 2000 – is not some sort of “standard measure” for what constitutes a bubble. It was certainly the most extreme stock market bubble in all of history in a major developed market (in terms of valuation expansion in this particular sector) – beating even the Nikkei's famous 1989 blow-out by a huge margin. Again, only if one compares the tech sector's then trailing P/E of more than 300 to the Nikkei's trailing P/E of more than 80 in 1989.

In terms of the broader market's valuation, the bubble peak in 2000 was less than half as spectacular as the Nikkei's, but it was still the top of the greatest valuation expansion ever experienced in the US stock market. We merely want to point out here that it would be wrong to claim that “well, the year 2000 was a bubble, and therefore anything that doesn't look quite as extreme as this one outlier isn't”.

We came across another article of this type recently and want to discuss what we believe the flaws in its arguments are. The article in question is “Bubble paranoia on S&P 500 is a storm in a teacup”, which was posted at Saxo's tradingfloor.com by Mr. Peter Garnry. Note here that we don't want to make an argument about the likely timing of the bubble's bursting or its potential for further expansion (that is a different subject) – we only want to discuss whether a bubble actually exists or not.

 

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Legal Tender Renders Planning Impossible

There is much confusion over what the legal tender law does. I have read articles, written by people who are otherwise knowledgeable about economics, claiming that legal tender forces merchants to accept dollars under threat of imprisonment. Recently, I wrote a short article for Forbes clarifying how legal tender law works in the US.

Legal tender law has nothing to do with merchants. If you want to sell steak dinners in your restaurant for silver, you may legally have at it. Unfortunately, the tax code discourages your would-be customers as I wrote in another article.

The legal tender law targets the lender. It grants to debtors a right to repay a debt in dollars. In practice, this means that if you lend gold, the debtor gets a free put option at your expense. If the gold price rises, he can repay in dollars. If it falls, of course he will be happy to repay in gold. It’s a rotten deal for the lender.

The relationship between lender and borrower is mutually beneficial, or else it would not exist. The parties are exchanging wealth and income, creating new wealth and new income in the process. The government is displeased by this happy marriage, and busts it up by sticking a gun in the lender’s face. His right to expect his partner to honor a signed agreement is violated.

Because no lender will lend gold under such circumstances, gold is relegated to hoarding and speculation only. This strikes a blow to savers, because the best way to save is to lend and earn interest. Savers are forced to choose betweenhoarding gold, getting no yield, or holding dollars and getting whatever yield crumbs are dropped by the Fed.

If there’s no lending in gold, what takes its place? The Fed force-feeds credit in ever-larger amounts, and at ever-falling interest rates.

The Fed is supposed to make its credit decisions in order to optimize two variables. First, employment shouldn’t be too high or too low. Second, consumer prices shouldn’t rise too quickly or too slowly. The Fed has little ability to predict employment and prices, and even less control over them.

 

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Equal Opportunity Offender

Let us begin with some criticism from a reader:

 

“What you said about Janet Yellen is disrespectful to All Women. You said you meant no disrespect, and then you go ahead and say most women her age are baking cookies for their grandchildren and saying she has soft shoulders.

You would not make the same kind of sexist comment about a man holding the position that she does. You should grow up… your comments are so old fashioned and out of touch. If you are going to put someone down because you don’t agree with what they are doing, resorting to sexist commentary as a metaphor only makes you look like the fool.”

 

Ouch! We thought we headed off this kind of complaint with our frank alert a few weeks ago. Didn’t we warn readers?

 

260px-Symbol_venus.svg_

 

Sexist … ageist … religionist … racist … abilityist … intelligencist. We are an equal opportunity offender. We disrespect all groups without favor or distinction. Especially those we like.

Besides, didn’t we advise those with delicate feelings and hypersensitivities to cover their ears and eyes, lest they discover some calumny?

The dear reader says she speaks for “All Women.” We don’t know if she’s polled them all… but wow! We offended half the world’s population in a single paragraph. And without even breaking a sweat.

And we stick by our point: It’s better to bake cookies than to wreck the world’s biggest economy! So, let us divert the conversation, from our personal failings to the coming disaster.

 

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There Could be Some Bubble Risk Somewhere … Maybe …

Ms. Yellen has inter alia shared her insights about financial markets with the Senate Banking Committee – while wearing her bubbly dress, no less!  According to her, there may be a “risk of bubbles” in leveraged loans and low grade debt – to which we say, it is way too late to worry about whether there “may” be such a risk. That horse has left the barn long ago. We have the biggest bubble in low grade debt ever, and central banks are 100% responsible for it.

Interestingly, she thinks that stocks at the third highest CAPE in all of history are just fine, valuation-wise (CAPE or Shiller P/E at 25,5 currently, approximately at the 92nd percentile of the 1602 data points in this series according to Doug Short). Note here that there are some measures by which stocks are actually valued at the second highest level since the 2000 mania peak (e.g. price/revenues).

Our guess? She is probably consulting the long-discredited “Fed model” when she is trying to divine whether stocks are overvalued. 

Bloomberg reports:

 

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Europe's Cage is Rattled a Bit

The little disturbance in Portugal's banking landscape hasn't been entirely overcome yet. New management has been installed at Banco Espirito Santo, but the problem is that the bank apparently sits on quite a few dubious assets, and the new management cannot wish them away. BES appears to have sunk a lot of money into former Portuguese colony Angola, and these loans are the subject of growing concern. On Tuesday, the stock of BES collapsed to a new low, but the losses have been recovered in Wednesday's trading session.

In parallel with the still growing worries about BES, Germany's ZEW institute issued its economic confidence indicator, which showed the 7th monthly decline in a row. Wasn't there supposed to be a recovery?

A few excerpts from a Reuters summary:

 

“European stocks and the euro fell on Tuesday after shares in Portugal's biggest listed bank hit a record low, while a plunge in German economic sentiment pushed up borrowing costs for some peripheral euro zone countries.

Global stock markets have recently been supported by dovish policy measures from major central banks and signs that economies are recovering, though worries persist over the pace of growth in Europe and the health of the region's banks.

[…]

The banking sector was a sharp underperformer, with Portugal's Banco Espirito Santo  slumping 17.5 percent to a fresh record low. Traders blamed concerns over the bank's Angolan loan portfolio and the sale of a stake at a low price by the bank's founding family on Monday.

[...]

"The key takeaway is that the banking sector globally continues to struggle despite time having been bought, and policy being tremendously supportive," said Jeremy Batstone-Carr, head of private client research at Charles Stanley.

"The sector feels like a minefield."

 

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Critical Lessons

When we left off yesterday, we were explaining how the feds had unlearned the three critical lessons of more than 2,000 years of market history:

 

1) Make sure the money is backed by gold (otherwise it loses its buying power).
2) Don’t let the government spend too much money it doesn’t have (otherwise it will cause havoc).
3) Don’t try to centrally plan an economy… especially not with fixed prices (or you’ll soon have a wealth-destroying mess on your hands).

 

 

bullions-154931_640-copy-300x150

 

The US took gold out of the global monetary system through two closely related measures: the first, taken by President Johnson, in 1968, when he removed the requirement of the dollar to be backed by physical gold; the second, taken by President Nixon, in 1971, when he ended the direct convertibility of the dollar to gold.

 

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