Rushing Toward the Limits
“It’s the end of the great debt cycle,” says hedge fund manager Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates, taking the words out of our mouth. Bond fund manager Bill Gross adds context:
In the past 20 to 30 years, credit has grown to such an extreme globally that debt levels and the ability to service that debt are at risk. […] Why doesn’t the debt supercycle keep expanding? Because there are limits.
Neither Mr. Dalio nor Mr. Gross nor we know precisely where those limits are. But the Europeans and the Japanese are rushing toward them.
Photo credit: William Stark
A Poke in the Eye for Lenders
In Europe, bond yields are lower than they’ve ever been. Between $2 trillion and $3 trillion in sovereign and corporate bonds now trade at negative nominal yields. We don’t need to tell you that it is unnatural and perverse for lenders to accept a poke in the eye for giving up their valuable savings.
But that’s just part of the perversity of the present system – no real savings are involved. The money never existed in the first place. Getting a negative yield seems almost appropriate, if nevertheless incomprehensible. Today, banks create “money” from thin air, in the form of new deposits, when they make loans.
As our friend Richard Duncan explains in his book The New Depression: The Breakdown of the Paper Money Economy, by the turn of the new millennium the reserve requirement – whereby banks are forced to hold some cash or gold in reserve against new loans – was so low that it played “practically no role whatsoever in constraining credit creation.”
That means as long as banks meet regulators’ capital adequacy requirements, they can create as much new money (loans) as they want. No risk of mining accidents. No need for anyone to sweat or strain. No self-discipline or forbearance required. Savers can eat their cake. And borrowers can have it too.
Mr. Duncan is correct about the fact that so-called “reserve requirements” have been utterly meaningless to the expansion of the credit and money supply. Reserves only rose sharply after the 2008 crisis, as a balance sheet item created by QE. QE also vastly increased the money supply (more than doubling it between early 2008 and early 2015) when banks temporarily slowed down their inflationary lending – click to enlarge.
Doomed Public Finances
Economists who still have their wits about them – if there are any left – are baffled. The lowest bond yields in history… and along comes the European Central Bank with a plan to drive them lower by way of €1.1 trillion ($1.2 trillion) of QE. What is the sense of it?
No one can say. Rather, no one wants to admit that the real motive is to relieve banks of their bad debt. Banks bought the debt of bankrupt European governments. Everybody knows there is no way governments will pay it back. Fortunately, when central banks buy government debt, it is effectively canceled – forgotten forever. So, the ECB helpfully exchanges this bad debt for new bank reserves before the public catches on.
Over in Japan the government has been running budget deficits for 25 years – funded largely by Japanese “salary-men” who think they are saving money for their retirements. What a disappointment it will be when they discover that the money was not saved at all, but spent by their government.
And now, Tokyo’s debts have grown so large that 43% of tax receipts are required just to service its debt, to say nothing of the amounts needed for current and future deficits. You can imagine how far you’d get if you tried this at home. Try living on 57% of what you earn (the rest goes to pay your creditors)… while still spending more than your income. See how long that would last…
The Japanese are too polite to mention it, but their public finances are doomed. And it can only be a matter of months – okay, maybe years – before the entire Ponzi scheme blows up.
Tokyo … Then Harare
Since 2009, we’ve been saying that our itinerary was likely “Tokyo… then Harare.”
By that, we meant that we were probably going to experience a Japan-like deflationary slump… and then a Zimbabwe-like hyperinflation.
We are now in year six of that slumpy, lumpy, bumpy ride. The US economy has been growing, but it is the weakest postwar “recovery” on record. And what little growth we saw was in asset prices. And it was bought with about $4 trillion in central bank stimulus. Few people realize it, but this also retarded real economic growth.
You can see that by looking at the difference between what has happened in the financial markets and what has happened in the real economy. Wall Street is as bubbly as ever. But Main Street is still struggling. Real wages and real business investment, for example – things that mark and measure genuine prosperity – are as limp as a Tokyo noodle. Why?
Prosperity depends on savings and capital formation. You have to devote real resources to new output capacity. You have to hire people and find new and better ways of doing things. But business investment has gone down since 2007. Based on fourth-quarter figures from 2007 and 2014 and annualized, $400 billion was invested in business development in 2007 against only $300 billion in 2014.
Although this chart by Smithers & Co is slightly dated by now, it does get the point across …
Meanwhile, businesses borrowed about $3 trillion more. Where did all this money go? It appears to have gone into share buybacks, mergers and acquisitions, bonuses, fees and other speculator payoffs. These things benefit the 1% of the 1% – the insiders who are in on the deals. They do nothing for the real economy, except deprive it of the capital it needs to make real progress.
In 2000, we had a bubble in tech stocks. In 2007, we had bubbles in finance and housing. Now, we have bubbles in corporate bonds ($14 trillion)… securitized auto loans ($20 billion)… and student loans ($1.2 trillion).
Pop … pop … pop – that’s what will happen to these bubbles. And when it does, it will complete our travel to Tokyo. That is when our slumpy ride turns into a terrifying train wreck. Yes, Tokyo deflation before we get to Harare hyperinflation.
Exponential growth in money supply inflation and its effect on prices in Zimbabwe.
You may have noticed that our so-called “semiannual” funding drive, which started sometime in the summer if memory serves, has seamlessly segued into the winter. In fact, the year is almost over! We assure you this is not merely evidence of our chutzpa; rather, it is indicative of the fact that ad income still needs to be supplemented in order to support upkeep of the site. Naturally, the traditional benefits that can be spontaneously triggered by donations to this site remain operative regardless of the season - ranging from a boost to general well-being/happiness (inter alia featuring improved sleep & appetite), children including you in their songs, up to the likely allotment of privileges in the afterlife, etc., etc., but the Christmas season is probably an especially propitious time to cross our palms with silver. A special thank you to all readers who have already chipped in, your generosity is greatly appreciated. Regardless of that, we are honored by everybody's readership and hope we have managed to add a little value to your life.
Bitcoin address: 1DRkVzUmkGaz9xAP81us86zzxh5VMEhNke
Most read in the last 20 days:
- Speculative Blow-Offs in Stock Markets – Part 1
Defying Expectations Why is the stock market seemingly so utterly oblivious to the potential dangers and in some respects quite obvious fundamental problems the global economy faces? Why in particular does this happen at a time when valuations are already extremely stretched? Questions along these lines are raised increasingly often by our correspondents lately. One could be smug about it and say “it's all technical”, but there is more to it than that. It may not be rocket science, but...
- Speculative Blow-Offs in Stock Markets – Part 2
Blow-Off Pattern Recognition As noted in Part 1, historically, blow-patterns in stock markets share many characteristics. One of them is a shifting monetary backdrop, which becomes more hostile just as prices begin to rise at an accelerated pace, the other is the psychological backdrop to the move, which entails growing pressure on the remaining skeptics and helps investors to rationalize their exposure to overvalued markets. In addition to this, the chart patterns of stock indexes...
- India: Still the Fastest Growing Large Economy?
India’s Currency Ban - Part X It has now been four months since Narendra Modi declared about 86% of monetary value of currency illegal. Linked here is the last in my series of updates, which was written soon after the deadline to deposit the demonetized currency. Most of the banned currency was eventually deposited, making a mockery of Modi, who had claimed that unaccounted money would not reach the banks. Perhaps 3% of the cash never reached the banks. A cunning plan...
- Gold Sector: Positioning and Sentiment
A Case of Botched Timing, But... When last we wrote about the gold sector in mid February, we discussed historical patterns in the HUI following breaches of its 200-day moving average from below. Given that we expected such a breach to occur relatively soon, the post turned out to be rather ill-timed. Luckily we always advise readers that we are not exactly Nostradamus (occasionally our timing is a bit better). Below is a chart of the HUI Index depicting the action since the January...
- They're Worried You Might Buy Bitcoin or Gold - Precious Metals Supply and Demand
Bitcoin Mania The price of gold has been rising, but perhaps not enough to suit the hot money. Meanwhile, the price of Bitcoin has shot up even faster. From $412, one year ago, to $1290 on Friday, it has gained over 200% (and, unlike gold, we can say that Bitcoin went up — it’s a speculative asset that goes up and down with no particular limit). Bitcoins are a lot less tangible than this picture implies, but they are getting a lot of love recently...
- Welcome to Totalitarian America, President Trump!
Trump vs. the Deep State If there had been any doubt that the land of the free and home of the brave is now a totalitarian society, the revelations that its Chief Executive Officer has been spied upon while campaigning for that office and during his brief tenure as president should now be allayed. Image adapted from the cover of “Deep State #5” - depicting an assassin from the future President Trump joins the very crowded list of opponents of the American...
- The Long Run Economics of Debt Based Stimulus
Onward vs. Upward Something both unwanted and unexpected has tormented western economies in the 21st century. Gross domestic product (GDP) has moderated onward while government debt has spiked upward. Orthodox economists continue to be flummoxed by what has transpired. What happened to the miracle? The Keynesian wet dream of an unfettered fiat debt money system has been realized, and debt has been duly expanded at every opportunity. Although the fat lady has so far only...
- Boosting Stock Market Returns With A Simple Trick
Systematic Trading Based on Statistics Trading methods based on statistics represent an unusual approach for many investors. Evaluation of a security's fundamental merits is not of concern, even though it can of course be done additionally. Rather, the only important criterion consists of typical price patterns determined by statistical examination of past trends. Fundamental considerations such as the valuation of stocks are not really relevant to the statistics-based trading...
- Searching for Truth
Heresy or Truth? RANCHO SANTANA, NICARAGUA – In the fifth century, Christian scholars counted 88 different heresies. Arianism. Eutychianism. Nestorianism. If there was a way to “offend” God, they had a name for it. One group of “heretics” argued that there was no such thing as “original sin.” Another denied the trinity. And another claimed Jesus was not divine. Which one had the truth? Depiction of the first Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, convened by Emperor...
- Why the 21st Century Sucks - Turtles All the Way Down
A Truly Sucky Century BALTIMORE – What an awful century! Worst we’ve ever seen. Household incomes are down. Employment is down, with 7 million people in the U.S. of working age without jobs. Productivity growth is down. GDP growth is down – to only about 0.5% per capita last year. Even life expectancies are down. Drug overdoses are up. Suicides are up. One out of every eight children lives in a family getting food stamps. One of out every eight adults takes psychoactive drugs...
- Gold and the Fed's Looming Rate Hike in March
Long Term Technical Backdrop Constructive After a challenging Q4 in 2016 in the context of rising bond yields and a stronger US dollar, gold seems to be getting its shine back in Q1. The technical picture is beginning to look a little more constructive and the “reflation trade”, spurred on further by expectations of higher infrastructure spending and tax cuts in the US, has thus far also benefited gold. From a technical perspective, there are indications that the low at $1045.40,...
- India: The next Pakistan?
India’s Rapid Degradation This is Part XI of a series of articles (the most recent of which is linked here) in which I have provided regular updates on what started as the demonetization of 86% of India's currency. The story of demonetization and the ensuing developments were merely a vehicle for me to explore Indian institutions, culture and society. The Modimobile is making the rounds amid a flower shower. [PT] Photo credit: PTI Photo Tribal cultures face...