Markets Post FOMC – The Rebound Begins
Today's FOMC statement was widely expected to contain some announcement that would help to 'stabilize the markets', but we would note that it contained actually no such thing. The market was so severely oversold that it would have rebounded soon anyway – whether on Tuesday or on Wednesday was not really very relevant.
As we wrote yesterday:
“[…] that the 'probability of a short term rebound has increased' is even more true today than it was yesterday. We acknowledged yesterday that there were some disturbing signs that indicated there could be even more crash-like behavior in store and offered this chart showing a range of possible paths. Alas, this is not something that can be forecast with any degree of certainty. All that is certain is that the more oversold the market becomes, the more likely a short term rebound becomes (usually a violent one followed by more downside action).”
We speculated that we might see some early selling, followed by a rebound into positive territory. As it turned out, the actual sequence was slightly different, but not by much. In the end, the DJIA had managed a gain of over 400 points on the day, after having been down more than 200 points on one occasion. More on this particular outcome follows further below.
The S&P 500 rebounds strongly on slightly lower, but still quite chunky volume than on Monday. Although this has been a huge one day gain, it has not yet managed to recapture all the territory that was lost on Monday – click for higher resolution.
The FOMC Statement – Translation and Commentary
You can read the FOMC statement in its entirety here. As well-trained Kremlinologists, we will attempt a short and sweet translation of its major messages:
1. The economy sucks even more than we thought last time around. We're shocked, shocked at all that incoming doubleplus-ungood information. Who could have known? Lettuce all be duly puzzled.
2. Nevertheless, we shall once again fantasize a bit about the 'recovery', albeit a 'slower one'. Blah, blah, blah, dual mandate, blah, blah [please note: not even a 'single mandate' is in the realm of the achievable of a central economic planning organization, never mind a 'dual' one. This is why we there is no need to translate any references to it. They are just vapid bureaucratese gobble-dee-gook]
3. There is no inflation, and no-one expects any [you wish; broad money supply TMS-2 has inflated at a 16.1% annualized rate last month – just saying]
4. We will continue to attempt the impossible, namely centrally plan the economy in such a way via monetary pumping measures as to 'foster low unemployment' [we swear, one of these days this phrase is going to become part of a stand-up comedian's routine] and 'low inflation' [please refer exclusively to government's laughable CPI calculations and let's ignore the exploding money supply]. Inflation monster, we are watching thee!
5. To achieve the above ends, we're trying a new trick this time, while leaving the door as ajar as is humanly possible in terms of adding other tricks from the famous 'deflation fighting cookbook'. This time, let it be known that real interest rates shall be kept negative until at least mid 2013. Moreover, rest assured that there isn't a snowball's chance in hell that our bloated balance sheet will shrink anytime soon.
6. We will now retire to wait for more doubleplus-ungood information to trickle in.
For readers who feel the urge to read a more deferential and polite interpretation of what the central planners are up to, please consult some of the 'serious people' out there. :)
Amazingly, there were three dissenters this time around – all from the district Federal Reserve banks which have four votes on the FOMC on a rotating basis. The entire board of governors from Washington – i.e., the politically appointed clique of Keynesian academics – voted in favor. The district presidents dissenting were, not surprisingly, Richard Fisher, Charles Plosser and Narayana Kocherlakota, all of whom have previously expressed strong reservations about the ultra-loose monetary policy pursued by the Fed and its alleged ability to 'create jobs'. While all three dissenters have a slightly different take on the whys and wherefores of the economic depression and unemployment it is noteworthy that they hail from the district banks, where the rules allow for banking industry insiders and businessmen to be appointed as presidents. Generally we would judge that the district envoys to the FOMC have their ear closer to the ground and have an attitude that is shaped somewhat more by real world conditions than by what is allegedly supposed to happen according to the theories of certain famous inflationists and interventionists. The previous lone dissenter in 2010 was also a district president, Thomas Hoenig, who continues to take barbed potshots at the Fed's policy-making from his perch in Kansas City before he retires in October. Of all the Fed board members of recent vintage, Hoenig is the one who is in our opinion really deserving of a measure of respect, even though we have tended to disagree with his economic forecast and even though he obviously believes in the central planning of money per se. At least he has tried to make the best of a bad situation and his speeches show a clear understanding of the limits and drawbacks of interventionism that many of his colleagues lack. It is worth noting in this context that Congressman Barney Frank – whom we regard as a leftist authoritarian statist who is secretly in bed with Wall Street while officially pretending to be its 'chief enemy' – is busy the FOMC vote of the district presidents on the grounds that their appointments are allegedly 'undemocratic' – which actually really means that they lie outside the influence of politicians. This would be the central banking rules equivalent to the 17th amendment to the constitution – the extension of unrestrained mob rule. We are not surprised that Frank is in favor of it.
The Manic-Depressive Spiral Toward Oblivion
When we read the FOMC statement shortly after publication on Tuesday afternoon, the first thought that came to mind was 'damp squib'. We thought the market wouldn't like this mixture of admission (that the 'recovery' is sputtering badly) and somewhat halfhearted inflationary measures (committing to a time table for ZIRP). Initially the robots agreed with us and a wave of heavy selling ensued. Interestingly, gold continued its recent negative correlation with equities and shot right back to the overnight high in the $1770 region. This is actually new – that gold likes an FOMC statement the stock market hates and vice versa. Then something seemed to click ('what, free money for a minimum of another two years? Not so bad, is it?') and the robots proceeded to buy everything back. When we say 'robots' we are not referring to the handful of human beings who still contribute a little to daily trading volume, but the computer algorithms who contribute to the vast bulk of it. Their participation in trading these days is what constantly produces enormous price swings as well as incredibly skewed 'market internals', such as yesterday's 77:1 decline/advance ratio – apparently a 'first' in the past eight decades, and almost twice the hitherto worst ratio recorded during the 1987 crash. Yes, the market was evidently 'oversold'.
We should mention here what it actually means, per experience, when the market manages to advance by over 400 DJIA points in a single day. It doesn't mean anything good as it were. So far – since the March 2000 top in the Nasdaq – every single time the DJIA has risen by 400 points or more in a single day, the market has not long after made new lows below the low whence the rally sprang from. On every occasion but one – the 2010 summer correction, which was comparatively mild – did the market subsequently suffer a larger decline than the one preceding the 400+ points single day rally. Obviously, the sample size is quite small and there is no guarantee of a repeat performance. The fact remains however that bull market rallies are just not that fast and big.
The intraday action in the SPX on Tuesday – right after the FOMC release everybody apparently went 'What? No QE3? Sell everything!'. Half an hour later, everybody went 'Wait a minute…free money for two more years? Buy it all back!' – click for higher resolution.
Interestingly, the bond market appears to have concentrated on the 'the economy sucks' part of the FOMC statement. In a departure of its usual positive correlation with stocks, the yield on the ten year note continued to collapse with great gusto (making a reversal even more likely of course, but this is rather disquieting action nonetheless):
We thought it was close to a reversal, but the ten year note yield hasn't complied and instead has continued its collapse, falling even below what we thought was an obvious support level in Tuesday's trading – right back to the 2008 panic lows. The bond market evidently sees nothing good ahead. This makes Tuesday's rally in stocks even more dubious than it already is – click for higher resolution.
We recently mentioned the 'references to 1931' that have begun to pop up even in mainstream bank research, and were once again reminded today via the comments of 'Mr. Skin', who often relates technical commentary at Bill Fleckenstein's site, of how relevant the decade of the 1930's remains to today's stock market environment as well. In fact, the only time in modern history when stock markets have seen volatility that is even remotely equal to the volatility we have seen over the past 11 to 12 years was the period 1929 to 1942. Both rallies and declines were similarly compressed and vast, even though no computer algos were involved (instead, market liquidity steadily declined – e.g. at the 1932 low in the DJIA, trading volume had shrunk to roughly 10% of the volume recorded in 1929).
This is no coincidence in our opinion. Then as now, the banking system as well as sovereign debtors found themselves in a deep and enduring crisis of such proportions that the global 'monetary architecture' simply swirled down the drain. Then as now, people in charge of preserving and if possible enlarging capital entrusted to them were often at a loss as to what to do to ensure they wouldn't get caught in the ever more obvious systemic collapse.
This leads to strange, often seemingly contradictory behavior as Dick Bove observed in a to a CNBC reporter on Tuesday morning. After amusingly comparing the debt of the US government to 'junk' and discussing the woes befalling the banking industry after the treasury debt downgrade, he delivered the pertinent passage we quote below:
“AR Sorkin – You suggest that the market is going to continue to fall, there have been comparisons made to 2008 and yet I think you're saying the banks are much stronger. How much more does it have to fall in your estimation?
Dick Bove – I can't give and you specific number. I think basically I still would expect to see 1,000 point down day at some point in this market as people come to realize that, in fact, there has been a complete change in the financial structure of the world. In other words, we're operating in a world which is based upon structures that were set up by the North Atlantans and yet they don't have the money. All the money is in the far east or Latin America. We're building a reserve currency around a country which is bankrupt, that can’t pay its debts. How can you in essence be aggressive and say I know where the bottom is or I know how this thing is going to adjust. We have people buying Treasury securities because they're worried about the Treasury and as I said earlier, we've got people selling bank stocks, taking the cash and putting it into the banks for safety. It doesn't make sense. What you're seeing is this adjustment is occurring and people are not sure how to react to this adjustment.”
This confusion is symptomatic of an ongoing systemic collapse. Where shall we put our funds? What is still safe? No wonder that gold is lately rising in $50 increments daily. Note please that when we say 'systemic collapse' we are not saying that everything will implode tomorrow. It is at present a process rather than an event, although it could well morph into an 'event' at some point.
We have often mentioned in these pages that the fiat money experiment of the past four decades in conjunction with fractional reserves banking has created an edifice of unproductive debt that is unsurpassed in human history. In spite of the no doubt enormous amount of real wealth that has been created over the same span, we know for a certainty – there is no need to try and second-guess this conclusion – that massive amounts of previously accumulated capital were malinvested and consumed in a series of artificial booms.
The 'real economy' has lagged way behind the buildout of the financial superstructure and its associated mountains of debts and derivatives. When the decisive juncture was reached in 2007-2008 – the moment when the whole edifice first began to totter on the very edge of the abyss and threatened to implode – the last line of defense was called into action: the State itself, with its coercive powers of taxation and inflation.
Alas, now the State has become the sorry owner of a large portion of this mountain of unsound debt – and with it, the tax payers who are now pressed into the service of bondholders who should by rights have taken the losses on their investments. Not to mention, every user of the state-sanctioned media of exchange has seen the purchasing power of his income and savings disappear into the blue yonder at astonishing speed (even if official 'consumer price index' data pretend otherwise) – which necessitates that people take risks they would normally not be inclined to take if they want to preserve said purchasing power. And to what end? The markets can not be conned for long as we have just seen. Households have wisely refused to be taken to the cleaners again and have removed a lot of capital from the stock market, but whatever they do – whether they keep their money in cash or invest it, the risks are large and it is always unknowable when exactly and in which financial asset class the next catastrophe will strike.
Given the State's role as the system's last line of defense, it is a rather unsettling development that a number of sovereigns now find themselves in the clutches of insolvency, with others threatening to follow suit.
Desperate Policymakers and the Dangerous Orthodoxy
The activities of policymakers are increasingly marked by panic and confusion as well. The 'independent' supranational ECB has become a handmaiden of politics with its decision to buy up government paper in order to manipulate bond markets. ECB president Trichet tells us that 'the ECB is not buying bonds from governments directly' – and as we explained in our article on the mechanics of quantitative easing, this does indeed make a difference with regards to the amount of bank reserves that are created – and we are likewise informed of how 'uneasy' the ECB is with its role as a buyer of government bonds. Alas, as one journalist wrote in the German-speaking press: 'whether one buys lemons from the lemon farmer or the wholesaler, one still ends up in possession of the lemons'.
Of course everybody knows that the eurocracy as a whole has long ago abandoned any pretense of sticking to its own rules. It is as though they didn't exist. Citizens are on the other hand expected to fully comply with an ever growing thicket of rules and regulations emanating from the very same eurocracy. Quod licet Iovis, non licet bovis, as the old Romans used to say (literally this means 'What Jupiter may do, the cattle is not allowed to do', in other words, double standards are applied. The literal translation is mainly of interest because it explicitly mentions cows, in our case, tax cows).
In a further sign of officialdom's growing desperation, Greece and South Korea both have resorted to the futile introduction of short selling bans on their stock exchanges – as we have often noted, this is usually a very bad sign. By depriving traders of important hedging strategies, stock market declines are often accelerated. In fact, some of the most impressive stock market collapses in history occurred right after short selling bans were introduced, most recently in 2008, but for example also in 1932, when the DJIA lost nearly 70% of its value in the four months following the introduction of such a ban.
Helicopter Ben meanwhile is well on his way to trying out every single one of the crazy monetary experiments he listed in his 2002 speech. In this he has allies among his friends and colleagues in academe, especially those hailing from the hallowed halls of that hotbed of Keynesianism in the US, Princeton (any of our readers who had the misfortune to have their minds poisoned in economics courses at that place are hereby congratulated for their likely evolution of thought). One of those is Kenneth Rogoff, who currently teaches at Harvard and has actually written a useful book together with Carmen Reinhart on the public debt problem now engulfing the developed nations.
Alas, the man evidently believes in the magic of the printing press and got stock traders' hopes up when he was interviewed on Tuesday morning. As Bloomberg reports:
“Federal Reserve policy makers are likely to embark on a third round of large-scale asset purchases, moving “more decisively” to secure the U.S. recovery, said Harvard University economist Kenneth Rogoff.
“They certainly should do something right away,” said Rogoff, a former International Monetary Fund chief economist who attended graduate school with Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke. It’s “hard to know” if Bernanke would immediately be able to gain the support of Federal Open Market Committee members, Rogoff said in an interview today on Bloomberg Television.
The FOMC meets today in Washington a day after the worst day for U.S. stocks since December 2008. Bernanke last month outlined policy options including additional asset purchases or strengthening the commitment to low interest rates after the first two rounds of so-called quantitative easing failed to keep the unemployment rate below 9 percent.
“Out-of-the-box policies are called for, especially much more aggressive monetary policy, however unpopular that may be,” said Rogoff, 58, a former Fed economist who like Bernanke earned a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Fed is “going to move more decisively,” Rogoff said.
“Rogoff recommended the Fed say in “very clear statements” that it’s trying to create “moderate inflation.” “In the classic classroom QE, it’s open-ended,” Rogoff said. “You say, ‘I’m trying to create inflation of, let’s say 2 or 3 percent, and I’m going to do whatever it takes.’”
The Fed should also avoid repeating that officials are trying to boost stocks, Rogoff said, calling that a “bad idea.”
Well, good freaking grief. The idea that one can inflate oneself back to prosperity is evidently firmly ingrained in the minds of the foremost US economists (and many European ones, for that matter). This is not exactly a surprise to us, but we nevertheless find it a thoroughly depressing fact. We always thought that there was really nothing of essence left to prove after Ludwig von Mises published his 'Theory of Money and Credit' in 1912, followed by some refinements in 'Human Action' in the late 1940's. It is simply not possible to create a single iota of wealth by printing an additional amount of money. In fact, it can be shown that nothing but negative results can be expected, even if they often do not become obvious right away. There shouldn't even be a debate about this – and yet, it is evident that a debate is more urgently needed today than ever.
Anyone familiar with the theories of inflationism on which modern policy-making rests and the most trenchant criticisms of these theories, many of which were already lobbed – successfully so, it was then held – at Keynes' ideological predecessors whose nonsense he systematized, should be aware that all the arguments in its favor can be destroyed with great ease. Yes, one may be able to avoid short term pain by inflating – but only at the price of forfeiting long term gain and inviting the build-up of what will eventually be a total catastrophe.
As Mises notes in 'The Inflationist View of History' (best read all of it) in Human Action, ch. 17:
“The question is whether the fall in purchasing power was or was not an indispensable factor in the evolution which led from the poverty of ages gone by to the more satisfactory conditions of modern Western capitalism. This question must be answered without reference to the historical experience, which can be and always is interpreted in different ways, and to which supporters and adversaries of every theory and of every explanation of history refer as a proof of their mutually contradictory and incompatible statements. What is needed is a clarification of the effects of changes in purchasing power on the division of labor, the accumulation of capital, and technological improvement.
In dealing with this problem one cannot satisfy oneself with the refutation of the arguments advanced by the inflationists in support of their thesis. The absurdity of these arguments is so manifest that their refutation and exposure is easy indeed. From its very beginnings economics has shown again and again that assertions concerning the alleged blessings of an abundance of money and the alleged disasters of a scarcity of money are the outcome of crass errors in reasoning. The endeavors of the apostles of inflationism and expansionism to refute the correctness of the economists' teachings have failed utterly.”
“Let us think of a world in which the quantity of money is rigid. At an early stage of history the inhabitants of this world have produced the whole quantity of the commodity employed for the monetary service which can possibly be produced. A further increase in the quantity of money is out of the question. Fiduciary media are unknown. All money-substitutes — the subsidiary coins included — are money-certificates.
On these assumptions the intensification of the division of labor, the evolution from the economic self-sufficiency of households, villages, districts, and countries to the world-embracing market system of the 19th century, the progressive accumulation of capital, and the improvement of technological methods of production would have resulted in a continuous trend toward falling prices. Would such a rise in the purchasing power of the monetary unit have stopped the evolution of capitalism?
The average businessman will answer this question in the affirmative. Living and acting in an environment in which a slow but continuous fall in the monetary unit's purchasing power is deemed normal, necessary, and beneficial, he simply cannot comprehend a different state of affairs. He associates the notions of rising prices and profits on the one hand and of falling prices and losses on the other. The fact that there are bear operations too and that great fortunes have been made by bears does not shake his dogmatism. These are, he says, merely speculative transactions of people eager to profit from the fall in the prices of goods already produced and available. Creative innovations, new investments, and the application of improved technological methods require the inducement brought about by the expectation of price rises. Economic progress is possible only in a world of rising prices.
This opinion is untenable. In a world of a rising purchasing power for the monetary unit everybody's mode of thinking would have adjusted itself to this state of affairs, just as in our actual world it has adjusted itself to a falling purchasing power of the monetary unit. Today everybody is prepared to consider a rise in his nominal or monetary income as an improvement of his material well-being. People's attention is directed more toward the rise in nominal wage rates and the money equivalent of wealth than to the increase in the supply of commodities. In a world of rising purchasing power for the monetary unit they would concern themselves more with the fall in living costs. This would bring into clearer relief the fact that economic progress consists primarily in making the amenities of life more easily accessible.
In the conduct of business, reflections concerning the secular trend of prices do not play any role whatever. Entrepreneurs and investors do not bother about secular trends. What guides their actions is their opinion about the movement of prices in the coming weeks, months, or at most years. They do not heed the general movement of all prices. What matters for them is the existence of discrepancies between the prices of the complementary factors of production and the anticipated prices of the products. No businessman embarks upon a definite production project because he believes that the prices, i.e., the prices of all goods and services, will rise. He engages himself if he believes that he can profit from a difference between the prices of goods of various orders. In a world with a secular tendency toward falling prices, such opportunities for earning profit will appear in the same way in which they appear in a world with a secular trend toward rising prices. The expectation of a general progressive upward movement of all prices does not bring about intensified production and improvement in well-being. It results in the "flight to real values," in the crack-up boom and the complete breakdown of the monetary system.”
From this one can easily guess where we're headed if the current orthodoxy continues to be allowed free rein.
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