Few words are slipperier than ‘ethos’ to grasp.
Even the best translation of the word – essence – is hard to get your arms around. Perhaps that is why so many of us were blissfully unaware until recently that the very essence of the American Dream was slipping through our fingers. Though the phrase, which captures the very, yes essence, of the American thirst for adventure, dates back to the hopes and spirit that emboldened prospectors to ‘Go West,’ those who first engaged in California Dreaming, it was James Truslow Adams’ popularization of the term that cemented the ideal into our collective psyche.
“But there has been also the American Dream, that dream of a land in which life should be richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order and in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
It is sweeter still, in the annals of our proud U.S. history that these words were written in 1931, during the thick of the most ravaging economic devastation this country has ever known. And still hope defeated despair, reigning supreme, inviting the lowliest of street urchins to achieve greatness in this country of endless possibilities. Were that only still the case today.
The housing crisis has long stopped commanding headlines. According to ATTOM Data Solutions, the new parent company of RealtyTrac, default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions slid to 933,045 last year, the lowest tally since the 717,522 reported in 2006. Is the final chapter written? Not if you live in judicial foreclosure states such as New York, New Jersey and Florida where ‘legacy’ foreclosures take years to clear. At the end of last year, 55 percent of mortgages in active foreclosure were originated between 2004 and 2008. Factor in what’s still in the pipeline and one in ten circa 2006 homeowners will have lost their homes before it is all said and done.
That helps explain one part of the chart below which was generously shared with me by one Dr. Gates. Longtime readers of these missives will recognize the nom de plume of my inside-industry economic sleuth. His first take on this sad visual, was that, “The heart of the American Dream has stopped beating.” Did that stop your heart as it did my own?
As you can see, after a steady 40-year build, owner-occupied housing has stagnated and sits at the lowest level since 2004. This has sent the homeownership rate crashing to 63.4 percent, the lowest since 1967. It would be nice to think that things were looking up for would-be homeowners. But it’s difficult to be overly optimistic when the local newspaper reports that house flipping in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area rose 21 percent in 2016, seven times the national rate.
In all, 193,000 properties nationwide were flipped for a quick inside-12-months profit last year, a 3.1 increase to a nine-year high. Moreover, the median age of a flipped home rose to a two-decade high of 37 years, about double the median age of homes flipped before the crisis hit. That translated into a median gross profit of $69,624 on a median selling price of $189,900 in 2016, a neat 49.2 percent margin, the highest on record. Awesome!
That is, unless we’re still talking about the American Dream. But then maybe homeownership isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
At least you can still hang a shingle in this country. Right?
You may note that the decline in self-employed is appreciably more dramatic than the fade among the ranks of owner-occupied homes.
You see, it took more than even the cruelest recession to wipe out two decades of ingenuity, to decimate a trend, to shift a culture. Think of the financial crisis as merely the initial catalyst, the first nail in the coffin.
Then came access to capital, which was dealt a once in a century body blow. Seemingly overnight, credit cards and home equity lines of credit disappeared as a source of operating income. Arguably these two growth governors spread the lack of wealth evenly across the country. But it was the heartland that suffered the most as the number of community banks in the six years ending 2013 sank by 14 percent. Federal Reserve data found that this shrinkage resulted in a 40 percent decline in the number of people with access to community banks. (No, Dr. Bernanke, zero interest rates do not benefit the little guy. They just make it cheaper to borrow for those who have never and never will lose their entree to the credit markets.)
Note that neither ‘Dodd’ nor ‘Frank’ were mentioned in that last paragraph. The awful Act did indeed further impinge access to credit, but let’s say that falls under a different heading, the most insidious of the plagues unleashed on small businesses.
To that end, it’s the last nail in the coffin, the one that’s left behind the most difficult stain to eradicate, as we are beginning to find out the hard way as the GOP tears itself asunder on the public stage. Of course, we speak of the imposition of a regulatory burden that knows no precedent. It’s all but inconceivable to fathom an additional $100 billion in annual regulatory costs but that’s the reality, the legacy of the last administration.
More than anything else, even the Federal Reserve’s assigning of the have’s and have not’s among us, this suffocation of the ability to succeed that raised the hackles of middle-income Americans, bitter that they’ve lost the right to what once was every American’s birthright. The hope is that the nascent rebound off 2014 lows in self-employment continues as red tape is rightly slashed back to where it belongs, that is countries where capitalism doesn’t exist, that the 40-year low in new business formation is squarely in the rearview mirror. The prayer is that recession is not around the corner, an unwelcome development that would undo what little progress has been made.
“My hope is for our current President to turn this tide. Lord knows the last President didn’t do anything to get us back on track, and neither did the Fed,” Dr. Gates observed. “At least we still have baseball, hot dogs and apple pie.”
It goes without saying, ‘tis the season for all three of those National Treasures. Thank you, Dr. Gates.
As for yours truly…shall we dispense with the niceties for just a moment? Like it or not, part of what’s happened in housing is a natural Darwinian outgrowth of the ridiculous zero interest rate policy that’s set profit-seeking scavengers on one another. What we’re witnessing is a mere reflection of a world in which rational investments have been whittled down to nothing.
Still, might we at least raise an eyebrow to the schadenfreude that’s infected the housing market? Should we truly take pride in crowding out those who would rather own than rent a home in the name of hard-to-come-by profits in a low rate world? And what good have we done, allowing our feckless politicians to snuff out a proud history of entrepreneurship that put our country on the map? Will the one percent be capable of lifting all boats, or even care to do so, in order to reestablish our national pride?
It was later in life that James Truslow Adams placed a punctuation mark on his written legacy with the following:
“The American dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.”
No more elegant words were ever written to ensure our ethos would never be endangered. And yet it is at risk of extinction today. It is high time we stand up for what is rightly ours and take back the American Dream for one and for all.
Of all virtues to which we must ultimately aspire, forgiveness demands the most of our souls. In our naivety, we may fancy ourselves man or woman enough to absolve those who have wronged us. But far too often, we find our pool of grace has run dry. So deeply burdened are we by our emotions that grace to us is lost. How many of us have the strength of resolve to let bygones be gone for good? Those of the cloth recognize the damage self-inflicted scars sear into our souls as they seek to guide us through life’s most difficult journeys. They pray for our deliverance from a painful inner turmoil and with it the peace only forgiveness can convey.
None who have ever heard Don Henley’s The Heart of the Matter could be blamed for thinking divine inspiration itself came down from the heavens to spawn those longing lyrics. But it isn’t just the words that scorch their way into your memory, it’s Henley’s tone, the raw pain that pierces every time you’re caught off guard by the mournful ballad released in 1989. Henley sings of our feeble struggle as no other, grasping for our collective release in humility. “The more I know, the less I understand. All the things I thought I’d figured out, I have to learn again.” In the end, Henley hands down the cruelest of convictions: If you truly want to vanquish your demons, you must find the strength within to forgive.
Astute policymakers might be saying a few prayers of their own on fixed income investors’ behalves. The explosion in corporate bond issuance since credit markets unfroze in the aftermath of the financial crisis is nothing short of epic. Some issuers have been emboldened by the cheap cost of credit associated with their sturdy credit ratings. Those with less than stellar credit have been prodded by equally emboldened investors gasping for yield as they would an oasis in a desert. Forgiveness, it would seem, will be required of bond holders, possibly sooner than most of us imagine.
For whatever reason, we remain in a world acutely focused on credit ratings. It’s as if the mortgage market never ballooned to massive proportions and imploded under its own weight. In eerie echoes of the subprime mania, investors indulge on the comfort food of pristine credit ratings despite what’s staring them in the face – a credit market that’s become so obese as to threaten its own cardiac moment. It may take you by surprise, but the U.S. corporate bond market has more than doubled in the space of eight years. Consider that at year end 2008, high yield and investment grade bonds plus leveraged loans equaled $3.5 trillion. Today we’re staring down the barrel of an $8.1 trillion market.
The age-old question is, and remains: Does size matter?
Ask yourself, did size matter as it pertained to the mortgage market way back in 2006, when it peaked in size at $13 trillion? (That was rhetorical in the event you weren’t on Planet Earth at the advent of all modern times’ meltdowns.) Still, it’s the why behind the growth of any given market that matters most. In the case of both markets, the credit rating agencies have helped investors sleep at night, a fact that might now keep you up at night.
First, a disclaimer. Of course, speculative grade debt is riskier than its investment grade brethren. The vast majority of investors in the go-go junk market know this and are hopefully buckled up as such, especially if a true rate-hiking cycle is about to test their mettle – more on this later.
Still, it’s the blind abandon with which issuance has risen among investment grade (IG) issuers that should, but has yet to, give supposedly conservative investors pause. Consider that in 2011, a (then) record $741 billion was sold into the IG market. As an endless encore, in every single year that followed, issuance has shattered the prior 12-month record. Last year alone witnessed $1.28 trillion in issuance. As for all the rate hike anxiety permeating the airwaves, 2017 also appears to be in it to win it — $254 billion was sold in the first two months of the year, $20 billion more than the same period in 2016. Investors might soon have to call upon Archimedes’ concept of exponentiation to sufficiently capture how very large the numbers have become.
You might wonder how the health of the corporate bond market is faring as it bulks up. As Bloomberg reported last week, you’d have to time travel back to 2002 to get back to the last time IG issuers were carrying more debt vis-à-vis their profits. The sticking point is leverage ratios tend to peak as an economy is just emerging from recession, as companies’ revenue streams hit their nadir.
Today, though, as we’ve been told in tsk-tsk fashion, the economy is at the precipice of an accelerating trend. That’s a good thing as companies have sold a heck of a lot more debt than their profit growth justifies, leaving their rainy-day cash to cover their massive, mounting obligations at the lowest levels since 2009.
The good news is that on the surface, the chances of a hiccup appear to have diminished. According to credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s (S&P), 2016 ended on a relatively better low note: Some 68 global IG issuers were at risk of being downgraded speculative grade, five fewer than the last time the data were compiled at the end of the third quarter.
S&P refers to these envelope-pushing issuers as ‘potential fallen angels,’ with ratings at the cusp of crossing over into junk-land. Though you might be thinking one notch on a ratings scale is just that – one measly notch – crossing that line in the sand makes a huge difference for borrowing costs. The yield ‘spread’ above Treasuries paid by junk issuers is typically about double that of what IG issuers pay.
The not so good news is that the universe of potential fallen angels remains at historically high levels. The latest read of 68 potential fallen angels is identical to what it was last summer and appreciably higher than as recently as 2015’s first quarter when 42 issuers were at risk of downgrade to spec grade. Moreover, the divide that began to open between potential rising stars – those with the potential to be upgraded into the IG sphere – and potential fallen angels remains at the current cycle’s wides.
Perhaps most worrisome is the sector at the greatest risk of downgrades — that is, financials. Years ago, a high yield strategist remarked that declining commodities prices would take their toll in two waves – first, the actual commodities producers, and second, the financials who banked them as the initial commodities cycle became super-sized in magnitude. Bank balance sheets are highly susceptible to a nasty contagion effect.
And yet, here we sit watching those oil prices Janet Yellen lectured us would be at ‘transitory’ lows (several years ago) decline anew. God help us if crude’s latest swoon presages a broader downturn. Precisely because leverage is rising among IG borrowers, economic growth literally has to hang in there. If growth even slows, or worse, contracts, all this ballyhooed record issuance among IG issuers will devolve into unprecedented levels of potential-to-actual fallen angels. It will be as if the heavens have opened up as their wings burn and they tumble back to earth.
Of course, downgrades don’t necessarily denote defaults. The Start of the Matter may nevertheless require forgiveness in some form as refinancing needs are also now at record levels and must be met. If the Federal Reserve does not intervene, markets are likely to revert back to pure price discovery mechanisms; they will be brutally agnostic to the rate environment to say nothing of the economic backdrop.
Investors have begun to smell a rat. IG exchange-traded funds (ETFs) have slid more in price compared to their high yield ETF peers since the surprise U.S. election that set rates rising. But unlike junk’s magnificent rebound since then, IG has yet to stage a return rebound.
It all comes down to refinancing risk. According to S&P’s competition down the block, Moody’s, the refinancing needs of both IG and spec grade issuers will hit record levels over the next five years.
Spec grade issuers’ five-years-out refinancing needs have officially crossed the trillion-dollar threshold. Some $1.06 trillion will come due between now and 2021, up from $947 billion in last year’s refinancing risk study and double what they were ten years ago. In the event you’re concerned spec risk has been overly downplayed in this missive, rest assured, the same dynamics that propel record fallen angel levels will be the mother of all default-rate cycle accelerants. File that one away in the ‘actual forgiveness’ to come file.
As for the IG space, $944 billion comes due in the five years through 2021. But here’s the kicker – the need to roll over debt is going to come on much more quickly for IG. Maturities are roughly evenly distributed over the next five years as opposed to the needs in spec grade, whose rollover risk gains speed and crescendos in 2021 with a record $402 billion in refinancing coming due.
Is that why junk is trading more richly than IG? The yield at which spec trades vs. its Treasury equivalent has only been wider 13 percent of the time over the past 17 years (2007 should provide you comfort because…?). IG on the other hand has traded this ‘tightly’ in only 25 percent of the times records have been kept.
Would the start of the matter – the prospects for debt forgiveness and debilitating defaults – be threatening so were it not for central bankers’ meddling ways in markets designed to determine their own damn prices? The ashes will indeed scatter. They will let us know.
Of course, comic legend Jackie Gleason was no schlep in the world of thespians. Odds were high he would deliver a handsome return on stuntman cum director Hal Needham’s investment. And while it’s no secret there would have been no directorial debut for Needham had his close friend Burt Reynolds not agreed to be in the film, it was Gleason’s improvisation that made the Smokey and the Bandit the stuff of legends.
Though Gleason’s character’s name screams ‘surreal,’ the stranger than fiction fact is that Reynolds’ father was the real life Chief of Police in Jupiter, Florida who just so happened to know a Florida patrolman by the name of Buford T. Justice. The treasure trove of quotes from the film’s tenacious Texas Sherriff Buford T. Justice, who so tirelessly pursues the Bandit in heedless abandon over state lines, elicited nothing short of laugh-out-loud elation from anyone and everyone who has ever feasted on the 1977 runaway hit (it was the year’s second-highest grossing film after Star Wars).
Gleason’s most famous ad-lib moment occurs at a roadside choke-n-puke where Justice unwittingly strikes up a conversation with the same Bandit he’s chasing. “Let me have a diablo sandwich, a Dr. Pepper, and make it quick. I’m in a goddamn hurry,” Justice barks at a waitress after which point he explains to an innocent-faced Reynolds that he’s in such a hurry because he’s chasing a ‘maniac.’ As for yours truly’s favorite, there’s simply nothing funnier than Justice’s rant to his witless son: “There’s no way, no way, that you came from my loins. Soon as I get home, first thing I’m gonna do is punch yo mamma in da mouth.”
As much as Justice wants to score one for the good guys — “What we have here is a complete lack of respect for the law” — in the end, the ‘bad guy’ eludes capture. By the time the credits roll, the audience has no choice but to feel a little sorry for Justice and his habit of acting, and speaking, before he thinks, which inevitably leads to his downfall.
Far from 1977, a new sheriff is in town, and a certain White House occupant is in equally hot pursuit of, not a Bandit, but a strong job market to indelibly leave his mark on history. For the moment, it looks like he’s going to get exactly what he’s asking for using brutish Buford T. Justice-style tweets. At least that’s the causality guaranteed to be drawn.
Something is for certain. The job market is not behaving as one would expect in an economic recovery that’s nearing its eight-year anniversary. And it’s not just one aberrant indicator we’re talking about here.
Forget that we’ve just enjoyed one of the mildest winters on record. The 106,000 goods-producing jobs created in February is officially one for ADP’s record books in data that stretches back to 2002. In all, companies added 298,000, the most in nearly three years. This report alone will quickly silence all the whining we’ve heard of late about soft data being stronger than hard data.
As ‘soft’ as the survey data may be, one indicator within the most recent ISM report is plenty hard. Care of one of the buyside’s best and brightest, whose name has to remain outside the public purview, ISM customers’ inventories at a 10-month low necessitate a period of catch-up on companies’ parts.
A quick primer: The ISM report is a composite index of five diffusion indexes – employment, production, inventories, new orders and supplier deliveries – gathered from surveying over 300 manufacturing firms. A reading of greater than 50 signals those at the forefront of a company’s supply chain anticipate accelerating economic activity; a sub-50 reading signals the opposite. A reading of 65 or higher on the most forward-looking ISM new orders index pushes manufacturing into technical ‘bubble’ territory. As for 70, if it’s reached, look out below as the economy will have officially overheated. The most recent two episodes of 70 being hit occurred before most of us can remember, in 1973 and 1983. The pullback in activity that followed was, shall we say, swift and not so neat.
The current 65-reading on the ISM new orders sub-index, coupled with depleted stockpiles, indicate economic activity could well boil over. Companies will try to get ahead of tight supplies by paying up; delivery times should rise alongside this impulsiveness. Surprise, surprise — the sell side will feed the frenzy, which will push purchasing managers to go one step further and pile on supplies in anticipation of future demand.
Inventory builds, you will recall from Econ 101, are GDP-friendly. So set aside the Atlanta Fed’s Debbie Downer first-quarter GDP forecast of a paltry 1.3 percent. The second quarter looks set to stage a raging comeback. And it looks to be widespread. Of the 18 industries surveyed by the ISM last month, 17 reported improving conditions, up from just 12 in January.
But here’s the catch (does there always have to be one?). This from the ISM: “Comments from the panel largely indicate strong sales and demand, and reflect a positive view of business conditions (but) with a watchful eye on commodities and the potential for inflation.”
In other words, firms are a wee bit concerned a margin squeeze is on the horizon. If that’s the case and the job market is gaining momentum, they should add tightening financial conditions to their worry list.
Pop back into that econ class for a moment. The unemployment rate is the most lagging of all indicators. That means Fed officials should be hard-wired to underreact to job market data. What’s more likely is that they will be compelled to play a bit of catch-up of their own, chasing the curve they’re woefully behind with all their might.
Look no further than the follow through in the bond market from the blowout ADP report. At 1.36 percent, the two-year Treasury note yield is near an eight-year high, which has grabbed investors’ attention by the short hairs. Meanwhile, back over at the Bloomberg Terminal, the following headline just crossed: “Jobs Data May Fuel Bets on Four Rate Hikes in 2017.” Three hikes are darn near baked into the cake, as in a one-handle on the fed funds rate by September. Imagine that.
Like it or not, the Fed’s chase is likely to end just as badly as Buford T. Justice’s did.
Crash landings tend to follow the unemployment rate when it overshoots to the downside, which is exactly what households suggest is in the offing. The last time this many folks were predicting the unemployment rate would be lower 12 months hence was the early 1980s. What followed? Not just overheating, but a 10 percent correction in the S&P 500 over those same next 12 months.
What if, just maybe, just sayin….these extreme readings indicate that firms are sticking like glue to their employees out of a sense of panic that they’re irreplaceable in a world bereft of sufficient skill setters? What if the true, underlying job market is not gaining strength.
That would certainly seem to be the case in the message delivered via gauntlet in the Conference Board’s latest online help wanted postings. Before the howls of, “One month never makes for a trend!” begins, bear in mind that new job postings peaked in November 2015 while those of re-postings (new net of old) peaked a month later.
Up until this latest data set from February, the decline in demand for new employees had been steady but orderly. All that changed last month with the record 364,000 decline in new help wanted ads. The only month that was anywhere near as ugly was January 2009 in the thick of the last recession. Not only that, all 50 states saw declines as did all 52 metro areas tracked.
The one-month move was so striking the Conference Board released the following note with its report: “Recently, the HWOL (Help Wanted Online) Data Series has experienced a declining trend in the number of online job ads that may not reflect broader trends in the U.S. labor market. Based on changes in how job postings appear online, The Conference Board is reviewing its HWOL methodology to ensure accuracy and alignment with market trends.”
You gotta give the number crunchers credit where it’s due – at least they admit to their potential fallibility. That’s more than can be said of the arbiters of the inflation data favored by Fed officials.
We will soon enough know if all this inventory building meets a happy ending. If today’s reported demand is still red hot come Labor Day, well then, the labor market’s current signals could bode well for one Donald J. Trump’s first year in office.
If that’s not the case, if this is a massive head fake, well then manufacturers could be warily eyeing bloated stockpiles come August, stockpiles built on hope. Those keeping the nation’s factories up and humming might even be disenchanted enough to strike out against Trump’s attempts to jawbone the U.S. manufacturing sector back to its halcyon days. The exchange that follows could echo the following from Smokey and the Bandit, one that took place between a peeved fellow sheriff and Sheriff Justice, who had crossed uninvited into the other’s jurisdiction:
U.S. Manufacturers: The fact that you are President is not germane to the situation.
DJT (in a tweet): The goddamn Germans got nothin’ to do with it!
Oh, and please pardon the slight artistic license taken with the cast of characters. Think you get the message about what can be lost in translation loud and clear.
It’s no secret that these bigger than life baseball players are all Hall of Fame legends. But what about Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels? Or the Pittsburg Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen or Carlos Gomez of the Texas Rangers? What do all six of these greats have in common?
If you guessed that none of them were pitchers, you would definitely be on to something. If you’ve really been doing your homework in the preseason, you would patiently explain that all six were “complete ballplayers,” with above-average capabilities in hitting, hitting for power, fielding, throwing and running. If you wanted to show off, you could elaborate that each has at least three qualified recorded data points in one season in each of the five areas rendering them “five-tool players.” These are the well-rounded players of field scouts’ dreams.
The idea of this quintessential, albeit exceedingly rare player, harkens to another picture of perfection – the bond market. After peaking above 15 percent in 1981, the yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury fell in July of last year to a record low of 1.36 percent. That there is what we call the rally of a lifetime. A major contributor to the mountains of wealth that bonds have generated include the venerable inflation-fighting of one Paul Volcker. The three subsequent boom and bust cycles, largely engineered by Volcker’s successors at the Federal Reserve, each made their own contribution and brought greater and greater degrees of intervention to bear on the market and helped push yields lower and lower. In bondland, that translates to prices soaring higher and higher.
Over the years, the castigators were cast aside time and again. As for the few with steel constitutions, who quickly drew parallels between Japan’s intrusions and those of the Federal Reserve, let’s just say they can retire and rest in peace. They bought 30-year Treasury Strips and buried them, giving new meaning to the beauty of buy and hold. To keep the analogy alive, let’s say that at that juncture, the bond market was a four-tool player.
But then suddenly, last summer, something gave way.
Since July, the conventional wisdom has held that bond yields have finally troughed, bringing a denouement to the 35-year bull run. Of course, those comprising the consensus collided in arriving at their conclusions.
Market technicians, aka the chart-meisters, provide the simplest explanation. In 2016, the 10-year yield sunk below 2015’s low of 1.64 percent and rose above its high of 2.50 percent. Technicians refer to such boomerang behavior in short spaces of time as “outside events” that mark the beginning of the end of a cycle.
The reflationists point to the pronounced uptick in the industrial metals complex as proof positive that inflation has seen its lows of the cycle. Everything from nickel to rebar to copper and back validated the notion that pipeline and margin pressures were building, especially if you had building a pipeline in mind.
And then we have the bullish economist cabal who insist that gross domestic product is set to accelerate into some sublimely sustainable hyper-drive mode. The increase off the lows in interest rates purely reflects the markets being forward-looking mechanisms and sniffing out the bevy of incendiary economic accelerants. In the event you’ve just emerged from a medically induced coma, we’re talking about small business formation, tax cuts galore and repairing every crumbling bridge and filling every pothole from Bangor to Baja. Oh, and by the way, delivered care of our cuddly Congress, in full, tomorrow.
Lastly, there’s the camp with which yours truly would most likely be associated: The Skeptics. As the ridiculous veered into the surreal last year, as nearly a quarter of a trillion in global debt yielded from somewhere south of one percent into deeply negative territory, some of us skeptics began to ask the ye-of-great-faith-in-omnipotent-central-bankers if they grasped the implications of policymakers’ intrusions. Did they really believe Mario Draghi could vacuum up a corporate bond market lock, stock and barrel, and his counterpart Hiroki Kuroda an entire stock market and live to tell? Or was exhaustion overcoming exertion?
At the end of the trading day, all four camps’ arguments are moot. At least, that’s the message the 10-year Treasury is communicating in no uncertain terms. If there is one thing the 10-year can be called upon to deliver, it’s consistency, as in behaving in the same way over time so as to be fair and accurate in anticipating the future. Lest you etymologists, pundits and, dare say, traders in our midst be tripped up, try not to confuse consistency with what you believe to be predictability, as in behaving in an expected manner.
You can carry this much, though not all the way to the bank — the bond market should have corrected long ago if history was any judge. Inflation, heck hyperinflation, should have ignited and burned our currency to the ground by now. But that hasn’t happened, has it? Unlike so many of you who do indeed deliver on the expectations front (yawn), the bond market has consistently surprised those with cocky certitude calling for sea changes.
You’re forgiven if it’s been difficult to incorporate a once-in-a-century outlier factor into your decision-making framework. The entrant of over a billion workers into the global workforce, coupled with the building out of the equivalent of the United States in its glorious industrial age, introduced a deflationary impetus that simply doesn’t exist in any economics textbook in print today. The weighty subsequent suppressant on yields, combined with the artificiality of central banks butting their way into bond pricing, held rates lower than logic or any econometric models dictated, confounding the esteemed doctorate community.
As for the here and now, worry thee not about the chartists, the inflation worrywarts, the optimists and even the skeptics. The decline in the 10-year yield tells you everything you need to know, and probably more than you’d like to acknowledge.
The simple fact is, the current economic recovery has peaked and rolled over. It’s one thing if some subprime auto lender you’ve never heard of is whining about regulators clamping down on premature repossessions. It’s quite another when the data tell you that car inventories are up nearly 10 percent over last year, GM is choking on incentives of its hottest selling pickups and State Farm has just swallowed $7 billion in auto loan underwriting losses (gulp!). Last check these were not hot-money, private-equity-backed fly-by-nighters.
In the event you require yet more proof that the bond scare was just that – scary — Behold! The yield curve flattens! After hitting a wide of 136 hundredths-of-a-percentage-point (basis point) in mid-December – which just so coincided with global bond losses hitting a cool $3 trillion — the difference between the 2-year and 10-year Treasury has narrowed to 112 basis points. Finance 101 tells us that the slimmer the divide between short and long rates, the closer we are to crossing into the netherworld, otherwise known as recession.
This precarious position posits a pondering pause: Exactly where does the Fed fit into the equation? By the looks of things, the post-election Fed has morphed into its answer to Dirty Harry. Odds of a March rate increase have catapulted to 70 percent in the space of three trading days, a tidy trek for academics more apt to move at the pace of molasses in January. And yet, their tough talk is borderline brash.
Take this from New York Fed President William Dudley three whole days before the onset of the blackout period ahead of next week’s Federal Open Market Committee Meeting begins: “I just think it makes the risks to the outlook a little bit tilted to the upside at this point.” When further queried whether the next rate hike should come, ‘sooner rather than later,’ Dudley replied. “I think that’s fair.”
As benign as his comments may read, make no mistake, they’re fighting words for a Fed that’s given new meaning to skittish for the better part of three decades. It’s as if Fed officials were contenders within reach of that five-tool status save one that last qualifier – hitting for power with a home run distance of 425 feet or more. Recall that Dudley is Vice Chairman of the Federal Open Market Committee. In other words, his conceding to a ‘go’ in March cleared the ball way over the fences.
Rather than delve into any (deeply political so as to throw economy into recession) motivations, let’s look beyond the next recession, inadvertently induced by an overly aggressive Fed, to the next question: How do policymakers wage that next battle?
Since you ask, this is where baseball reenters the equation, in its positively perfect form, in all its five-tool glory. Fighting the next recession is theoretically where the academics shine brightest and hit their collective pleasure threshold. This is where the bond yields steal home. There’s one word for it. Wait for it… “MONETIZATION.” The debt doth disappeareth.
It wasn’t until a recent and very heated public debate, at which a friendly colleague attempted to put your fearless writer in her place (a mistake), that the height of the stakes became apparent. For starters, we both agreed that the overabundance of debt, not just in the United States, but globally, was problematic. Fair enough. The solution to such an intractable problem was thus by its very definition, tricky bordering on tempestuous.
The good news, he insisted, was that in the end, boys would be boys and men would be men. The overly indebted developed-world economies would march off into the great blue yonder and not return until a gentlemen’s agreement has been secured. Pray tell, what form would that take?
In short, not in the neatest of forms. A blanket propaganda campaign would have to be launched educating the clueless public about the virtues of negative interest rates and a cashless society. Upon that sturdy foundation, we could then construct a full-blown monetization of the bloated debt we carry today, one in the same with what we’re told is technically irrelevant because models dictate it can be wished away.
Lest you be led astray, there’s no cathartic Kumbaya that conveniently follows before the credits roll. Milton Friedman was, and remains to this day, spot on in his observation that there is no such thing as a free lunch. My undaunted debater conceded that there would be losers, mainly emerging nations shouldered with boatloads of dollar-denominated debt and developed nations that were naïve enough to not be burdened with excessive debts. But so be it.
In global credit markets that exceed $200 trillion in outstanding securities, dominated by dollar-denominated debt, I deign to accede that the losers have much to lose indeed. Whether they will take their lumps lying down like lambs, however, remains a much wider, open and heated debate than that which played out on a stage in Austin, Texas. My greatest fear is that the war we will eventually face is of the all-too-real variety, precipitated by the greatest income divide since the years that preceded the Great Depression and the Second World War.
Rather than focus on such dire potential outcomes, take comfort in the adage that history doesn’t precisely repeat itself, but rather merely rhymes. Between now and Sunday, April 2nd, baseball’s opening day, relish in the welcome distraction to come. Count your blessings as we count down to the day we hear, “Play Ball!” and spectate with hope for the next five-tool player to make us once again believe.
Wiser words were never spoken on the big screen than those of The Shawshank Redemption’s main character Andy Dufrense. We are none of us beyond redemption, so we are taught by this banker from Maine, even when we are punished for crimes we did not commit. In briefly researching the movie, one comes to learn that it is based on Stephen King’s 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. No doubt, Hayworth’s role in the movie stands out in all our minds, which is saying something as the superstar was no longer with us.
Dig deeper and you learn that King’s longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel, was part of a series called, Different Seasons, subtitled Hope Springs Eternal. How reassuring if enigmatic. More perplexing still is this master of the horror genre’s inspiration — Leo Tolstoy’s God Sees the Truth, But Waits. It would seem that Carrie has met Anna Karenina.
Clearly, it’s easier to judge those who write books by their most famous covers. But why not set such preconceived notions aside. You too can bask in King’s gorgeous prose from Shawshank and even Tolstoy’s beautiful words of inspiration: “If you want to be happy, be.” And redemption: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
These words resonate so against the backdrop of a country that remains intent on fomenting division, on splitting itself at the seams, bent on self-destruction. Perhaps it will have to come down to one man and his ability to change himself, to draw in more than his avid followers but his doubters as well.
For yours truly, it has thus been curious, nay fascinating that on matters of the Federal Reserve one Donald J. Trump has been silent as a mouse whose paws cannot bang out 140-character rants. Perhaps, just maybe, he is busy doing late night reading on the foundations of this venerable institution. If that’s the case, maybe he came across this little gem that was passed along recently:
“In selecting the members of the Board, not more than one of whom shall be selected from any one Federal Reserve district, the President shall have due regard to a fair representation of the financial, agricultural, industrial, and commercial interests, and geographical divisions of the country.”
Maybe that’s why the media has begun to dispense with the labels “hawk” and “dove” and is beginning to replace the aviary with simple human beings who have been there and done that, who have been on the receiving end of Fed policy for their entire careers. Take this from Kate Davidson at the Wall Street Journal:
“After his campaign criticism of the central bank’s low-interest-rate policies, many observers speculated he would seek more “hawkish” candidates who would favor higher borrowing costs. But his choices may be driven less by these issues and more by their practical experience, judging from his early picks for other top economic policy posts in the administration—drawn from investment banking, private equity and business—and the pool of early contenders for the Fed jobs.”
Meanwhile, the Financial Times’ Gavyn Davies had this to say:
“The last four Fed Chairs have all been clearly on the economist side of the line, and because they have all bought into the Fed’s economic orthodoxy, their actions have been considered somewhat predictable by the markets. A business person or banker might be less predictable, at least initially, and more prone to shake up the Fed’s orthodoxies, for good or ill.”
With deference to Mr. Davies, there can be no ‘for ill’ in shaking up the Fed’s orthodoxies, if you can call them that. Orthodoxy, from the Greek word orthodoxia, implies officials are cleaving to a correct creed. But what if policymaking has devolved from correct to simply accepted?
That would imply a good dose of heterodoxy, also Greek from heterodoxos, was in order, as in a departure from the official position. To be crystal clear, heterodoxy does not equate to heretical, from the Greek hairetikos, (pardon the digression but who gave the Greeks a monopoly on multisyllabic, cool words?). Even so, a bit of heresy would also do the Fed a world of wonders. The literal Greek translation means ‘able to choose.’
A recent study determined the study of economics in academia had itself become incestuous with a great preponderance of students being trained in the same school of thought. This determination was not only disturbing and dangerous, it demands politicians introduce a bit of heresy into our nation’s central bank.
Perhaps President Trump, his administration and all members of Congress should sit down for a tutorial on Heterodox Economics (nope, not making that one up), which refers to schools of economic thought which fall outside of mainstream — read Keynesian – economics, which is predictably referred to as orthodox economics. Maybe, just maybe, it’s high time a variety of schools are incorporated, as in the post-Keynesian, Georgist, social, behavioral and dare say, Austrian approaches.
That last one, the Von Mises-inspired Austrian school of economics is apparently public enemy number one. The FT’s Davies goes on to warn that some candidates up for those open and opening positions on the Fed’s Board of Governors are ‘Austrian’ economists, “a school that has apparently influenced Vice President Pence. An “Austrian” candidate would certainly alarm the markets.”
Davies has apparently done his homework. Back in 2010, one Mike Pence was serving in Congress as a representative of Indiana. In response to the Fed’s insistence on launching a second round of asset purchases, which the markets adoringly embraced as QE2, he blasted back that, “Printing money is no substitute for pro-growth fiscal policy.”
Pence’s words certainly ring Austrian, as the school considers malinvestment to be a menace, as well any rational person would. Malinvestment (we can finally score one for the Latins!) is defined as a mistaken investment in wrong lines of production, which inevitably lead to wasted capital and economic losses, subsequently requiring the reallocation of resources to more productive uses.
And we wonder why we’ve had such a long run of jobless recoveries that happens to coincide with the post-Greenspan era. Why would the markets abhor an Austrian? Clearly, we would not have starved productivity by overbuilding residential real estate in the years prior to the crisis. Nor would companies have gorged on record share buybacks in the years that followed. Agreed, these phenomena juiced returns. But to what end aside from protecting the legacy of the mythological ‘wealth effect’?
As my dear friend Peter Boockvar wrote of the wealth effect in response to the Fed’s meeting minutes from its January meeting: “The concept, invented by Alan Greenspan, and carried on by Mr. Bernanke and Mrs. Yellen, is the unspoken third mandate of the Fed. Well Fed, you certainly got what you wanted in terms of a dramatic rise in asset prices over the past 8 years (just look at the value of equities relative to the underlying US economy) but a wealth effect did not happen if the pace of personal spending in this expansion is any indication. For many, it’s the wages they earn and the savings they keep that drive spending decisions, not the value of their stock portfolios.”
For taxpayers’ money, because they will pay in the end, it would seem we need Peter to fill one of those vacancies on the Fed’s Board. Just sayin’. Would the man who coined the term, ‘monetary constipation’ to describe the, “constant hemming and hawing over a rate hike…even in the face of a world that clearly changed on November 8th and as we approach the 8th year of this expansion.”
President Trump, can you hear Peter?? This is not the time to be obtuse. This is the time to bring back the good things in life, beginning with the best – hope. Dig as deep as you can and ask yourself some probing questions. Can you stand up to the orthodoxy that’s robbed the business cycle of its very cyclicality? Are you man enough to populate the Fed with leaders who are so strong there’s no need to audit the out-of-control institution? Pray God, does Mike Pence have your ear? You may be a debt kind of a guy, you’ve said so yourself. But you’re also beholden to no one and have a once-in-a-century opportunity to reshape the world’s most powerful central bank and in doing so safeguard the sanctity of the U.S. dollar.
As Andy Dufrense explained to us all, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.” It’s time we got back to the business of living in this country, every single one of us. Who are we to question if it takes a heretic to get us back to where we need to be?
It’s been a whirlwind week here in New York launching Fed Up — running from one TV spot to another, opinion pieces to reviews, responding to criticism by Fed officials (a good thing), radio and back. I can tell you that I’ve lost my voice a few times but not my bearings. The sun is shining brightly on Fed Up.
If anything, listening to Janet Yellen testify this week strengthened my resolve in doing everything I can to get Fed Up into the hands of those to whom the book is dedicated: Every hardworking American who wakes up in the morning asking themselves what went wrong.
Chair Yellen’s insistence that the economic recovery is sturdy only served to reinforce my thesis: Those leading the Federal Reserve simply don’t grasp the reality that so many participants in our economy perceive the recovery to be anything but sturdy, and it is sorely lacking in inclusiveness. Savers continue to be penalized, millions of millennials remain trapped in modern day debtor’s prisons, and the younger generations behind them are woefully oblivious to the virtues and rewards of saving today to ensure a better tomorrow.
It’s fair to say far too many central bankers still don’t get it, which is why I chose some of the wisest words ever written on the error of central bankers’ ways to open Fed Up: Never in the field of monetary policy was so much gained by so few at the expense of so many. Thank you for writing them, Michael Hartnett.
The good, no great, news is that President Trump has a tremendous opportunity to restore the integrity of the Federal Reserve. The end of the book, as so many of you have learned, provides him and those in Congress a road map on how to reform the institution. I know many of our leaders have the book in hand. Let’s hope they find some time over this long weekend to read it.
Linked below is a page to my website containing some, but not all, of the press that’s accompanied the book launch. I would add, ‘just in case you missed it’ to the end of that sentence. But even I haven’t been able to keep up.
One last word of thanks to all of you for feedback, admirable speed reading of the book and reviews posted to Amazon. Keep them coming!
Have a great weekend,
Click to Press Page: Get Fed Up
Fed Up: An Insider’s Take on Why the Federal Reserve is Bad for America.
“If it were possible to take interest rates into negative territory, I would be voting for that.”
— Janet Yellen, February 2010
As her fame has grown, Janet Yellen is recognized in restaurants and airports around the world. But her world has narrowed. Because the Fed chairman can so easily move markets with a few casual words, Yellen can’t get together regularly and shoot the breeze with businesspeople or analysts who follow the Fed for a living. She must rely on her instincts, her Keynesian training, and the MIT Mafia.
“You can’t think about what is happening in the economy constructively, from a policy standpoint, unless you have some theoretical paradigm in mind,” Yellen had told Lemann of the New Yorker in 2014.
One of Lemann’s final observations: “The Fed, not the Treasury or the White House or Congress, is now the primary economic policymaker in the United States, and therefore the world.”
But what if Yellen’s theoretical paradigm is dead wrong?
The woman who “did not see and did not appreciate what the risks were with securitization, the credit rating agencies, the shadow banking system, the SIVs . . . until it happened” has led us straight into an abyss.
It’s time to climb out. The Federal Reserve’s leadership must come to grips with its role in creating the extraordinary circumstances in which it now finds itself. It must embrace reforms to regain its credibility.
Even Fedwire finally admitted in August 2016 that the Federal Reserve had lost its mojo, with a story headlined “Years of Fed Missteps Fueled Disillusion with the Economy and Washington.” In an effort to explain rising extremism in American politics in a series called “The Great Unraveling,” Jon Hilsenrath described a Fed confronting “hardened public skepticism and growing self- doubt.”
Mistakes by the Fed included missing the housing bubble and financial crisis, being “blinded” to the slowdown in the growth of worker productivity, and failing to anticipate how inflation behaved in regard to the job market. The Fed’s economic projections of GDP and how fast the economy would grow were wrong time and again.
People are starting to wake up. A Gallup poll showed that Americans’ confidence that the Fed was doing a “good” or “excellent” job had fallen from 53 percent in September 2003 to 38 percent in November 2014. Another poll in April 2016 showed that only 38 percent of Americans had a great deal or fair amount of confidence in Yellen, while 35 percent had little or none — a huge shift from the early 2000s when 70 percent and higher expressed confidence (however misguided) in Greenspan.
In early 2016, Yellen told an audience in New York that it was too bad the government had leaned so heavily on the Fed while “tax and spending policies were stymied by disagreements between Congress and the White House.” Maybe if she hadn’t been throwing money at them, lawmakers might have gotten their house in order.
“The Federal Reserve is a giant weapon that has no ammunition left,” Fisher told CNBC on January 6, 2016.
The Fed must retool and rearm.
First things first. Congress should release the Fed from the bondage of its dual mandate.
A singular focus on maintaining price stability will place the duty of maximizing employment back into the hands of politicians, making them responsible for shaping fiscal policy that ensures American businesses enjoy a traditionally competitive landscape in which to build and grow business.
The added bonus: shedding the dual mandate will discourage future forays into unconventional monetary policy.
Next, the Fed needs to get out of the business of trying to compel people to spend by manipulating inflation expectations. Not only has it introduced a dangerous addiction to debt among all players in the economy, it has succeeded in virtually outlawing saving.
Most seniors pine for a return to the beginning of this century when they could get a five- year jumbo CD with a 5 percent APR, offset by inflation somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 percent. Traditionally, 2 to 3 percentage points above inflation is where that old relic, the fed funds rate, traded. The math worked.
Under ZIRP, only fools save for a rainy day. The floor on overnight rates must be permanently raised to at least 2 percent and Fed officials should pledge to never again breach that floor. Not only will it preserve the functionality of the banking system, it will remind people that saving is good, indeed a virtue. And that debt always has a price.
Limit the number of academic PhDs at the Fed, not just among the leadership but on the staffs of the Board and District Banks. Bring in more actual practitioners— businesspeople who have been on the receiving end of Fed policy, CEOs and CFOs, people who have been on the hot seat, who have witnessed the financialization of the country and believe that American companies should make things and provide services, not just move money around.
Governors should be given terms of five years, like District Bank presidents, with term limits to bring in new blood and fresh ideas.
Grant all the District Bank presidents, not just New York’s, a permanent vote on the FOMC. Why should Wall Street, not Main Street, dominate the Fed’s decision making?
While we’re at it, let’s redraw the Fed’s geographical map to better reflect America’s economic powerhouses.
California’s economy alone is the sixth biggest in the world. Add another Fed Bank to the Twelfth District to better represent how the Western states have flourished over the last hundred years.
Why does Missouri have two Fed banks? Minneapolis and Cleveland can be absorbed into the Chicago Fed. Do Richmond, Philadelphia, and Boston all need Fed District Banks? Consolidate in recognition of the fact that it isn’t 1913 anymore.
Slash the Fed’s bloated Research Department. It’s hard to argue that a thousand Fed economists are productive and providing value-added insight when their forecasting skills are no better than the flip of a coin and half of their studies cannot be replicated.
Send most of the PhD economists back to academia where they belong. Require the rest to focus on research that benefits the Fed, studying how its policies impact American taxpayers and citizens. (Did the Fed do any studies about how ZIRP and QE would impact banking and consumers before it imposed them? No.)
Now take all the money you’ve saved and aim it squarely at Wall Street investment banks intent on always staying one step ahead of the Fed’s regulatory reach. Hire brilliant people for the Fed’s Sup & Reg departments and pay them market rates. Rest assured this will be ground zero of the next crisis.
And mix it up. One of Rosenblum’s students applied for a job at the New York Fed. He came from a blue- collar background, spent seven years in the military, and earned his MBA from SMU on the GI Bill. Smart guy. But he couldn’t get to first base at the New York Fed. They hire people from Yale and Harvard and NYU—people just like themselves. Others need not apply.
Then the top Ivy Leaguers stay for two years and move on to bigger money at Citibank or Goldman Sachs. It’s a tribe that’s been bred over ninety years and slow to change.
But if the culture of extreme deference at the New York Fed (which also exists in District Banks to a lesser degree) is not quashed, regulatory capture will continue with disastrous results. The Fed must give bank examiners the resources they need to understand the ever-evolving financial innovations created by Wall Street and back them up when they challenge high- paid bankers who live to skirt the rules.
Regulators must focus on the big picture as well as nodes of risk. Interconnectedness took down the economy in 2008, not just the shenanigans of a few rogue banks.
Focus on systemic risk and regulation around the FOMC table. Create a post with equal power and authority to that of the chair to focus on supervision and regulation. Yellen talks about monetary policy ad nauseam, but when challenged by the press or Congress on regulatory policy she stumbles and mumbles and does her best doe-in- the- headlights impersonation. Markets need predictability and transparency when it comes to Fed policy, not guesswork, parsing of the chair’s words, and manipulation of FOMC minutes.
Finally, let nature take its course. Reengage creative destruction. Markets by their nature are supposed to be volatile. Zero interest rates prevent the natural failures of weak companies, weighing down the economy with overcapacity for generations.
Recessions might have been more frequent, the financial losses greater for some, but if the Fed had let the economy heal on its own, America would have been stronger in the end and the bedrock of our nation, capitalism, would not have been corrupted.
I could never have imagined how my near decade-long journey at the Federal Reserve would play out.
In the beginning, I had been a “risk radar” to benefit myself and those closest to me. I wanted to stay out of debt and make certain that my children had great educations and a foundation of financial savvy so that they could pursue their versions of the American dream.
But I realize now the stakes are much higher.
We’ve become a nation of haves and have-nots thanks to Fed policies that benefit the wealthiest investors, punish the savers and the retired, and put the nation’s balance sheet at risk.
As consumers on the receiving end of Fed policies, we must reform our education system so that the American dream can be accessible to everyone. We must campaign for Congress to stop hiding behind the Fed’s skirts.
And we must demand that the Fed stop offering excuse after excuse for its failures. Short- term interest rates must return to some semblance of normality and the Fed’s outrageously swollen balance sheet must shrink in size. And most of all, the Fed must never follow Europe by taking interest rates into negative territory.
No more excuses. The Fed’s mandate isn’t to have a perfect world. That only exists in fairy tales, dreams, and the Fed’s econometric models.
For those of you who subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, please link on to today’s story on the book: A teaser in the form of a quote from Richard Fisher who the Journal interviewed for the article. “The book’s greatest value is in describing ‘the hubris of Ph.D. economists who’ve never worked on the Street or in the City,’ as well as flagging ‘the protected culture’ of Fed officials in Washington. Many central bankers are, ‘not going to like the book.”
Not that Mr. Fisher asked for an answer. But to those who ‘don’t like it,’ I say, “So be it.” With that, please enjoy an excerpt from Fed Up, Chapter 11: Slapped in the Face by the Invisible Hand.
“You want to put out the fire first and then worry about the fire code.” — Ben Bernanke, December 1, 2008
Among the economists at the Dallas Fed, Bernanke’s optimism prevailed. The Bear Stearns rescue was the punctuation mark that ended the paragraph. Bernanke would trim the sails to right the foundering ship.
I disagreed. The demise of the Bear was a flashing red light that shouted “danger.” My colleagues rolled their eyes.
Rosenblum treated me with a new respect. The chain of events was playing out as I had predicted. He and I began collaborating on a paper on moral hazard. It would make Rosenblum no fans at the Board of Governors.
The bailout both relieved and alarmed the financial press.
The Economist wrote that the Fed was “taking the unprecedented (and, some say, disturbing) step of financing up to $30 billion of Bear’s weakest assets. This could cost the central bank several billion dollars if those assets fall in value.”
The fear of the unknown prompted the Fed, for the first time ever, to extend lending at its discount window to all bond dealers.
Under previous rules, only institutions offering depository insurance or under strict regulatory oversight were allowed to use the discount window, paying a penalty fee for the privilege. Now any distressed investment bank, broker, or commercial bank was allowed to come, hat in hand, to use the window.
The Economist expressed skepticism at this development, saying that fear persisted because the “new Fed window is untested and the very act of drawing on it could rattle markets.” No bank wanted to be perceived as the next sick buffalo.
Inside the Fed, the academics naïvely assumed that just because the window was opened it would be used. The people who had been in the market, such as Fisher and myself, knew the stigma associated with the discount window. Borrowers might as well invite speculators into the boardroom to short their stock.
Fisher told the FOMC that if the Fed could coax some “big boys” to access the discount window, “it could be a life-changing event in removing the stigma.”
To encourage lending, the Fed at its March 2008 FOMC meeting dropped interest rates again, to 2.25 percent. Fisher dissented, as he would again in April when the FOMC again lowered rates.
Fisher wanted to raise rates instead of lower them. This got under Bernanke’s skin. Bernanke “vented” in an e-mail to Kohn the day after the 10 to 1 vote with the subject line “WWGD?”: “I find myself conciliating holders of the unreasonable opinion that we should be tightening even as the economy and financial system are in a precarious position and inflation/commodity pressures appear to be easing.”
Like Rosenblum, Bernanke had internalized Greenspan’s approach to monetary policymaking. The Fed’s tradition of consensus was so powerful “in that context a ‘no’ vote represents a strong statement of disagreement,” Bernanke wrote in his memoir. “Too many dissents, I worried, could undermine our credibility.”
But tradition be damned, Fisher refused to be a yes man. He always feared the consequences of “pushing on a string”— a phrase with a venerable history at the Fed.
In 1935, Federal Reserve Chairman Marriner Eccles testified during hearings on the Banking Act that little could be done with monetary policy to stimulate growth.
“You mean you cannot push on a string?” Congressman Alan Goldsborough said.
“That is a very good way to put it, one cannot push on a string,” Eccles said. “We are in the depths of a depression and…beyond creating an easy money situation through reduction of discount rates…there is very little, if anything, that the [federal] reserve organization can do toward bringing about recovery.”
Fisher feared the same thing was happening. In the middle of what would become known as his year of dissent, he sat down for an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
“It’s really a question of, are we getting the bang for the buck?” Fisher asked. “And clearly we’re not. The system was sputtering and I began to feel that at 3.5%. After that, that’s when I dissented,” referring to his January 2008 dissent, when the FOMC lowered the fed funds rate to 3 percent.
The problem wasn’t interest rates. Banks didn’t begin making loans because they first had to shore up their capital bases to cover potential losses from their own toxic waste.
“The U.S. economy was suffering from a breakdown of the nervous system and they wanted to use conventional macroeconomic tools,” said Rosenblum years later. “None of these people had ever been through a financial crisis. Their response was the height of tunnel vision, shortsightedness and myopia.”
The Fed’s medicine was incapable of treating the disease in the system, but they insisted on using it. By doing so, they began to cripple the very banks they desperately needed to convalesce.
In an attempt to keep things flowing, the Fed expanded the type of assets it would accept as collateral from distressed banks, reduced penalty rates to virtually nothing, and speeded up auctions of quality bonds, so banks could put those on their balance sheets and off-load the junk onto the Fed. But there was still no stampede to the discount window.
Buyers of securities had disappeared; the great derivatives locomotive had slammed on the brakes, causing the train cars behind to slam into one another, derail, and slide off the mountain.
In mid-April 2008, the IMF warned that potential losses from the credit crunch foreshadowed by Bear’s fall could surpass $1 trillion. As if on cue, Swiss bank UBS reported an $11.5 billion loss and announced that it would cut 5,500 jobs by the middle of 2009.
The bond issuers were the next to get hit. On May 13, MBIA, the world’s largest bond insurer, reported $2.4 billion in losses due to write-downs of CDSs. By early June, Moody’s announced it would probably downgrade MBIA and the second- largest player, Ambac. S& P followed two days later with a similar announcement.
If only the monoline bond insurers had stuck to their original business of insuring municipal bonds. But the potential for fee generation by selling insurance for CDOs was too tempting.
One after another, financial institutions announced deep losses. The $5.4 billion loss announced by American International Group (AIG), a massive underwater depth charge waiting to explode, was lost in the parade.
The next systemic risk flare-up came from the West Coast. On July 11, 2008, IndyMac Federal Bank, a subprime lender based in Los Angeles and valued at $30 billion, was placed in receivership by the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS).
Inexplicably, the OTS downgraded IndyMac without informing Yellen, whose bank had been in the process of offering IndyMac loans. What did the OTS know that Yellen didn’t?
That week, Congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) characterized as “solid” the future prospects of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two mammoth GSEs that guaranteed three out of every four mortgages in America. And made huge contributions to his political campaigns.
Frank had blocked all attempts by the Bush administration to rein in excesses at Fannie and Freddie. “The more people exaggerate a threat of safety and soundness [at Fannie and Freddie],” Frank said, “the more people conjure up the possibility of serious financial losses to the Treasury, which I do not see. I think we see entities that are fundamentally sound financially.”
But the GSEs were on a greasy slide to ruin. The companies had combined outstanding liabilities of $5.4 trillion. By early September, the Fed would be forced to take control of both Fannie and Freddie.
These past two weeks rank among some of the most tumultuous in U.S. postwar history, not just for investors, but every group imaginable save young children who’ve the freedom to not pay attention, much less care. ‘Uncertainty’ has taken on new meaning as the news cycle contracts to a nano-range in which sentiment can turn in the space of a 140-charcater transmittal of an unexpected message.
Into this breach stepped the Federal Reserve on Wednesday. Rather than capitalize on the uncertainty of the moment, policymakers retained their relatively cautious stance, wasting the chance to prepare markets for 2017 being the most aggressive year of tightening in over a decade. Recall that there are but four FOMC meetings followed by a press conference. If FedSpeak can’t jawbone a March rate hike back onto the table, policymakers will have precious little room for error to make good on their promised three rate increases for the remainder of the year.
Of course, ‘data dependent’ remains the mantra. Following Wednesday’s ADP report, and despite the data’s unreliable predictive power, confidence in today’s January labor report skyrocketed. This echoed household’s healthiest prospects for the job market since Reagan was in office. That makes it a good thing headline job growth did not disappoint. Private job creation exceeded estimates by a healthy margin, coming in at 237,000, 62,000 more than expected. Meanwhile the unemployment rate ticked up for the right reason, as more able-bodied workers rejoined the labor force.
The one black eye in the report was wage growth. At 2.5 percent in the 12 months through January, average hourly earnings ticked down from December’s 2.6-percent rate. That’s something of a surprise given the minimum wage rose in 19 states at the start of the year. Add to this what Peter Boockvar pointed out – that 305,000 jobs were lost by those in the 25-54-year cohort. Those ‘prime earning years’ have just not delivered for far too many in the current recovery. Strong wage gains remain the missing link, a subject I will write about in the coming week.
As for the trading week we’re about to log into the history books, it was a very busy one for yours truly in chilly New York. I’ve pasted links to what you might have missed below. As always, your feedback is most appreciated.
With that, wishing you the best for a relaxing weekend. To capture that peace, you might want to pretend we’re back in medieval times and not being endlessly pinged. In other words, unplug, lest you’re constantly jolted back to the new news cycle and our collective newfound restlessness.
“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you the illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”
The next time you happen to find yourself at 111 West 44th Street in New York’s theater district, make it a point to gaze up at the haunting image of the illuminated sign for The Glass Menagerie, the play that launched the career of America’s greatest playwright. Maybe you too will recall the unsettling opening lines written in 1944 by Tennessee Williams, spoken by his protagonist, Tom Wingfield. Tom’s words promised to deliver the sort of truths few of us covet, though the play’s entertainment value has clearly withstood the test of time.
If you’re of the rip-the-Band-aid-off philosophy on facing life’s unpleasant realities, pivot on your heel and look across the street, to 110 West 44th Street. Your eyes will be immediately drawn to the less mesmerizing, but equally inescapable, signage gracing the edifice of that building, the U.S. debt clock, that live, unrelenting tally that is marching towards $20 trillion, be we all damned.
One must wonder if Broadway’s denizens see the theater in having these two facades stare one another down, as if taunting the other to wax more fatalistic.
This week, Federal Reserve policymakers will release a policy statement that paints an illusion of prosperity in cold monetarist verbiage that feigns the appearance of truth. The doves’ message will be uncharacteristically hawkish. They will flap their wings about accelerating underlying growth and inflation. They will allude to the time being upon us to normalize interest rates, to come in from a long, brutal winter of artifice.
The truth, you ask? Unconventional monetary policy in the form of zero interest rates and quantitative easing braced an economy that has been and remains fragile. And yet, as evidenced by the most recent bout of euphoria, animal spirits are out in full force.
There are other calendar years ending in the number ‘7’ associated with rampant speculation in asset markets and a strong Fed. Only one of the two proved to be a buying opportunity. The other stands as testament to one of the greatest monetary policy blunders in history.
As was the case in 1936, monetary policy had been manipulated to serve political needs. It’s noteworthy that the form assumed differed from that of recent years: it was huge gold inflows that were being monetized back then, but similarly, interest rates had been held closer to the zero lower bound for a protracted period.
In another parallel, measured goods inflation was conspicuous in its inability to achieve liftoff while that of asset prices was off the charts. (Has it really been 80 years of repeating the same mistake in gauging aggregate price behavior?) Then and now, investors exiled to a yield dessert justified their irrational approach to investing by rhetorically asking, “What’s the alternative?”
Commodities and stocks were the primary target of speculators in the recovery that took hold in 1933. Today, commercial real estate (CRE) and bonds have taken center stage while that of stocks is running a close third depending on your preferred valuation metric.
The latest Moody’s/RCA CPPI aggregate price index for CRE is remarkable. Prices through November, the latest on offer, are up nine percent over the past year. But they are perched 23 percent above their pre-crisis peak, which represents a vertigo-inducing 159 percent recovery of prices’ peak-to-trough losses. Morgan Stanley’s Richard Hill and Jerry Chen helpfully provide perspective on this figure: residential real estate, by comparison, has recovered a mere 80 percent of its losses. As for what’s driving the CRE train, office and industrial properties have taken the lead while, no shock here, retail property prices have begun to decline.
As was the case throughout the housing mania, loose underwriting standards can be credited with initially pushing prices upwards. Add to this lender behavior. Smaller banks, in particular, have aggressively reduced fees to garner market share, raising the ire of Fed regulators alarmed at the growing concentration of banks’ exposure to CRE loans. At last check, banks accounted for nearly half of CRE lending activity, up from 35 percent a few years ago. The good news, unless you’re a seller, is that lending standards have tightened for five consecutive quarters. In response, transaction volumes fell 21 percent in the final three months of last year. Hill and Chen observed that the sales slide, “was unusually high for a period that is typically very active.”
The prima facie evidence on extreme bond market valuation is equally compelling. Rather than delve into specifics on sovereign, corporate and emerging market bonds, we’ll let Deutsche Bank’s math speak for itself. It took a mere eight weeks through early January for the global bond market to rack up $3 trillion in losses. The swiftness of the move placed in stark perspective how hyper-sensitive bonds had become to interest rate moves. Investors should consider themselves warned.
As for stocks, the broadest valuation measure compares the market capitalization of all stocks to gross domestic product. Anything north of 100 percent denotes overvaluation making today’s reading of 127 percent disconcerting. That said, it has been higher – the ratio peaked at 154 percent in 1999 and was 130 percent in late 2015. It was, though, appreciably lower shortly before the stock market tanked. Just before the 2008 crisis, the ratio was at ‘only’ 108 percent. So make your own determination on this count. Does a relatively lower nosebleed valuation give you great comfort?
Looked at from a holistic perspective, the VIX, or so-called fear index, which reflects investors’ comfort level with stocks, flirted with single-digit territory last week. Though it did not break through 10 on the downside, which would have matched its 2007 low, the 10-handle is associated with plenty of daunting history.
“When the VIX is low and yields are falling, stocks do very well,” wrote Citigroup’s Brent Donnelly in a recent report. “When the VIX is low and yields are rising, stocks do poorly.”
That’s intuitive enough. Donnelly then goes on to compare the move in the benchmark 10-year Treasury to moves in stocks over the next 120 days. The sample set he used incorporates instances in which the VIX was less than 11 since 1990. A second step entailed comparing these occurrences to their corresponding three-month moves in the 10-year. Donnelly found that the largest three-month rise had been one standard deviation (you recall the term from Statistics 101, as in the distance from the center point on the bell curve). That is, until today.
“The craziest thing is this: Currently, the three-month rise in 10-year yields is more than 2.5 standard deviations. So based purely on this analysis, the 120-day outlook for U.S. equities is very poor.” The strength of the relationship between yields and future returns suggests stocks will fall by about seven percent over the next three months.
Like it or not, risky assets certainly appear to be sticking to the post-election, honeymoon-is-over script.
The burning question will quickly become one of, how will the Fed react? In its past life, stocks wouldn’t have to give back even 10 percent to trigger the next iteration of quantitative easing riding to the rescue. Listen to the doves’ tough talk today, though, and they sound as if they’re finally comfortable leaving risky assets to their own devices. Politics anyone?
The problem is that perhaps too much like the breakable menagerie of glass animals on display in Tennessee Williams’ play, borrowers of all stripes have amassed a veritable collection of debts throughout the market acts playing out since the Fed first lowered interest rates to the zero bound.
In an economy contingent upon conspicuous consumption, it won’t take much for the Fed to bring on a recession. The recent downtick in the personal saving rate is no cause for alarm on its own. Combine it with the steady increase in credit card spending – inflation-adjusted credit card spending has outpaced that of income growth for over a year now — and you quickly understand just how dependent continued gains in consumption are on interest rates not rising.
It’s been a mighty long time, eight years to be exact, since paper gains eviscerated the net worth of U.S. retirement savings in its various 401k, IRA and pension forms. Factor in the demographic backdrop, however, and know it won’t take long for investors to tune in to just how precious their non-yielding cash has become.
Perhaps the best news is that all heretical arguments in favor of the abolishment of cash necessarily go by the wayside during times of tightening financial conditions. After all, economic theory advocates the destruction of cash for the purpose of forcing hoarded money back into the economy. Even the illusionists at the Fed, hellbent as they are in their insistence that the economy is overheating, cannot square that circle.
Click on one of the links below to purchase Fed Up: An Insider’s Take on Why the Federal Reserve is Bad for America.