@dimartinobooth, Danielle DiMartino Booth, Fed Up: An Insider's Guide to why the Federal Reserve is Bad for America, Money Strong LLC, economy, federal reserve, William Safire

Channeling Safire: “If it’s broke, fix it.”

Bert Lance must have left office thinking his legacy was in the soup.

Instead, the wise words of one of the country’s shortest-serving Directors of the Office of Management and Budget would go on to first merit inclusion in Random House’s Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings and then today, Google status. The expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” achieved such acceptance, conservative legend William Safire would go on to crown Lance’s idiom, “a source of inspiration to all anti-activists.”

For Safire, a gifted word spinner if there ever was one, his acknowledgement of pith perfected in no way implied admiration of the source. Indeed, Safire’s crowning glory as a New Yok Times columnist arrived with his 1978 Pulitzer Prize for “Carter’s Broken Lance.” …

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9/11, Danielle DiMartino Booth, Money Strong, Fed Up

Angels Manning Heaven’s Trading Floors

Dear friends,

Time heals, or so they say. Indeed, one more year has come and gone making today the 16-year anniversary of the most horrific day in modern U.S. history when life as we know it was forever altered, when innocence died. This year, we not only have the distance of 365 more days past to help fade memories and heal wounds, we have a multitude of distractions, both natural and man-made.

The onus was thus on me to make an extra special effort to honor all those Angels looking down on us as we go about our day to day lives. To do so, I watched Man on Wire with my nine-year old, my youngest, just he and I. I can tell you I will forever cherish spending those 94 minutes with him as we were swept away by something so much larger than anything we could have imagined, in a good way.

The Oscar-winning 2008 documentary follows Phillippe Petit’s fulfillment of his greatest dream, walking a high wire between the Twin Towers. The brazen illegality of the caper led to the 1974 feat being coined, “the artistic crime of the century.” To those of us for whom the majesty of the World Trade Center never failed to awe, Petit’s film will always stand as a magnificent monument to the fallen. If you haven’t seen it, perhaps today is the right day to do so.

Thursday, August 30, 2001 was the last day I stood and stared up at those beautiful beasts of buildings. I prefer to carry that image with me. Or that of my youth, when I would make day trips from Connecticut into the city with my grandparents. Or 1994, the first time I as a future New Yorker laid eyes on the Towers as a determined young woman with ambitions that matched the skyscrapers’ height. Anything but how they looked 16 years ago today, the day they collapsed, taking down so many Angels with them.

Many of you will have read today’s special installment in years past. This is the third year I am publishing my personal retrospective. If it is the case, that you’ve read it before, I ask that you take a moment to reread it and then pay it forward. As a proud People, we must make every effort, today at 8:46 am, 9:03, 9:37, 9:59, 10:07, and 10:28, and every minute of every day to #NeverForget.

With that, I give you what little I can, in all the humility I can muster. I give you Angels Manning Heaven’s Trading Floors.

 

Never forgetting and always wishing you well,

 

Danielle

 

Angels Manning Heaven’s Trading Floors

He could have passed for Yul Brynner’s twin if it wasn’t for those eyes. He was 57 years old, 6’2” tall, tan and handsome with a shining bald head. But his eyes, those elfish eyes dared those around him to partake of anything but his infectious happiness. It was those eyes I will never forget.

It was Labor Day weekend, 2001. One of my best friend’s college buddies from UCLA was in town and his uncle had a boat. So we had the good fortune to be invited to take a cruise around Shelter Island on that long holiday weekend 16 years ago. I was 30 years old at the time and I can tell you there was no “boat” about this Yul Brynner look-a-like’s 130-foot yacht. The crystal champagne flutes, the hot tub on the deck, the full crew – none of these accoutrements faintly resembled the boats I’d been on as a middle class girl spending summers off Connecticut’s stretch of Long Island Sound. The thing is, our friend’s uncle was none other than Herman Sandler, the renowned investment banker and co-founder of Sandler O’Neill.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of Sandler and I had no idea that this chance meeting would make a soon to happen unspeakable act that much more real. Would Sandler exude that same pomposity so common among the Ivy League investment bankers who had underwritten the Internet Revolution? In a word, hardly. Sandler personified self-made man. After introducing me to his family, of whom he was immensely proud, he graciously offered me something to eat or drink. And then, he told me a story about a man who knew the value of never straying the course. It haunts me to this day.

It was a good old-fashioned American Dream story about a man and some friends who started an investment bank to banks and built their firm to the top of the world. Literally. The secret to his success, which he enjoyed from his place in the clouds, on the 104th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center was simply hard work, he said. He prided himself, relaying to me in what I could tell was a tale he’d repeated time and again, not only on making it to the top of the tallest building in the city, but on beating the youngest and hungriest to the office in the mornings and turning off the lights at night. Never forget where you come from. Never take for granted what you have.

In 2001, I had been on Wall Street for five years and was enjoying my own success and experiencing firsthand what money could buy. Given the choices my world offered, most would not have chosen night school. But I was determined to fulfill a lifelong dream and attend Columbia where I was to earn my master’s in journalism to complement my MBA in finance from the University of Texas. I guess I was not like most others. I wanted something tangible to open the next door in my career, which I knew would involve both the markets and writing. I called it my retirement plan.

Throughout this Wall Street by day, student by night chapter of my life, the minute the stock market closed at 3 pm, I would rush to the west side subway lines to trek north to Columbia’s campus. Just before Labor Day that year, I had turned in a class project, exploring the world of the famous Cornell Burn Center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. During my time on the project, the unit was quiet save a few occupants, which apparently was not the norm. So those brave nurses had to paint a picture for me of what it was like when the floor was bustling with victims of fire-related disasters. Many of the stories of pain and suffering were so horrific I remember being grateful for the relative calm and saying a little prayer the unit would stay that way.

I returned to work on Tuesday, September 4, after that long weekend that proved to be fateful, with a new perspective on life and work, inspired by Sandler’s humility. Little did I know we were all living on precious borrowed time. It was impossible to conceive that one short week later, Sandler’s inspirational tale and those nurses’ surreal stories would collide in a very real nightmare.

It’s the Pearl Harbor of my generation. Most Americans can tell you where they were on the morning of September 11, 2001. I had walked part of the way to work that day, so picture perfect was the blue of the blue sky. I was in my office at 277 Park Avenue in midtown watching CNBC’s Mark Haines on my left screen and pre-market activity on my right screen. As was most often the case, it was muted as live calls on economic data and company news came over the real life squawk box on my desk. My two assistants were seated outside my office going through their pre-market routine, fortified as was usually the case with oatmeal, yogurt and coffee. In retrospect, the mundaneness of the morning’s details are bittersweet.

It was almost 9 am and out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that a live picture of the World Trade Center had popped up on CNBC. Haines reported, as did many initially, that a small commuter plane had hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. As distracting as the image was, I tried to go back to my own morning routine, preparing for the stock market open in what had ceased to be one-way (up) trading after the Nasdaq peaked in March 2000.

And then, at 9:02 am, time stood still. A scream pierced the floor as one of my assistants watched a second plane, a second enormous plane, fly straight into what appeared to be Morgan Stanley’s office floors in the south tower, where her father was at work. As things turned out, it didn’t matter where the plane had hit for the employees of Morgan Stanley that morning. They had Rick Rescorla, the firm’s Cornish-born director of security and a Vietnam veteran who had been preparing for this day for years. He knew the Twin Towers were an ideal target for terrorists. Thanks to his efforts and years of constant drilling – every three months, which some thought overzealous — all but 13 of Morgan Stanley’s 2,687 employees and 215 office visitors survived that day. With the evacuation complete, Rescorla heroically reentered the buildings to continue his rescue efforts and in doing so, paid the ultimate price.

Ironically, as was the case with Morgan Stanley’s Rescorla, some at Sandler O’Neill had lived through the first attack on the World Trade Center. When the young firm had outgrown its previous office space, it chose the south tower as its new home, moving in the same week it was bombed on Friday, Feb. 26, 1993. Many who struggled their way down over 100 flights in crowded stairwells, through seas of discarded women’s shoes, learned the lesson that they would have been just as well staying put. It was that very hesitation, borne of that lesson, that cost many of the firm’s employees their lives.

In the 16 minutes between the time the first and second planes struck the towers, the Port Authority had announced over the south tower’s intercom system that the issues were isolated to the north tower and to stay put. That didn’t mean the scenes across the way at the north tower were any less horrifying as rather than suffocate or burn to death, some leapt to their deaths before the very eyes of those across the way in the south tower. Amid this mayhem, Jennifer Gorsuch, a Sandler employee, emerged from the ladies room just in time to hear Sandler shout, “Holy shit!” Gorsach rushed to find a friend and fellow Sandler employee who had survived the 1993 ordeal and knew of an escape route. Together, the two set off down an open stairwell.

Sandler, though, going off his 1993 experience, told one investment banker who did survive 9/11 that the safest place to be was in the office. He added, though, that anyone who wanted to leave was welcome to do so. Of the 83 employees in the office that morning, 17 chose to leave right away. The bond traders and most of those on the equity desk chose to remain. Only three other Sandler employees would make it out alive. The rest, including Sandler himself, were never aware that one, and only one, open staircase offered them safe passage; the building’s intercom system had been knocked out at the time of the second plane’s impact.

From the little we know, many that day above the crash site tried to get to the roof. Though it would not have made a difference in the end, it is nevertheless deeply disturbing that the door to the roof was found to have been locked. The towers were exempt from a city code that required roof access to remain unlocked. The Port Authority and Fire Department had agreed that the safest evacuation route was down, not up. Plus, enforcing the exemption delivered a loud and clear message to vandals, media-mongering pranksters and those contemplating suicide.

For me, the sweetest sorrow came down to the nobility of those brash, boisterous traders. Many that day, at Sandler O’Neill and Keefe, Bruyette & Woods and Cantor Fitzgerald, among others, were among the 1,500 who could have possibly escaped but chose to do right by their firms’ clients. You see, once it was understood that the attacks were an act of terror, the markets began to flash angry red, promising to crash at the open, handing certain victory to the evil, soulless weaklings who took aim at the economic heart of this great country. It is the traders who chose to man their stations I mourn to this day, those I have always called, with utter reverence, the real Masters of the Universe

The helplessness I felt when the buildings fell was matched only by my horror at the silence that followed. At some point between 9 am and 10 am that morning, I found myself praying the deafening fire engine and ambulance sirens tearing down Park Avenue would just stop blaring. The cacophony had filled the 102 minutes that followed the initial plane striking the north tower at 8:46 am. But then the buildings did fall. Although the second to be struck by a plane, the south tower was the first to fall at 9:59 am. In the 29 minutes that followed, we all prayed the north tower would escape the fate of its sister to the south. But it was not to be. The unthinkable, the impossible happened, not once, but twice. And then it was quiet, quiet for days and months and now, 16 years.

Of course, there were miraculously 12,000 who walked away, mainly those who had evacuated the floors beneath the impact zones in both buildings. No doubt, the survivors paved a pathway of hope to help the country heal. But the dearth of rescues was nevertheless heartbreaking as we collectively sat vigil praying man and dog would pull a survivor from the pile. Hence the devastation wrought by the silence. It was unfathomable to contrast those who had braved the fires and lost, and the mere 22 survivors admitted to the no longer nearly vacant Cornell Burn Center of my Columbia class project experience. As if to punctuate the pain, four hospital EMS employees had been lost along with 408 other rescue workers that dark day.

Normalcy was suspended in the days and hellish nights that followed. We financial markets survivors, weighed down by guilt as we were, were told to do what those in those towers had done so bravely. We stayed on call in the event Dick Grasso and the other powers that be were able to open the markets for trading. We were prepared to be the calm in the stormy market seas that were sure to follow the initial open.

Unlike the markets, Columbia resumed classes on Wednesday, September 12th. The moment I stepped out of my cab on 125th Street that evening, the memories of the sounds of 9/11 were lost in the overwhelmingly toxic smells of its aftermath. Buffered as I was, at home in the middle of the island on Fifth Avenue, I had only experienced the tragedy’s aftermath from the nonstop playback news images of the towers that were, and then ceased to be. But Columbia, with its proximity to the Hudson, is an inescapable spot to take in what the winds carry. That evening it was the sad novelty of the smell of burning computers, steel and God knows what else, something I hope to never know again.

On Friday, September 14th, I was set free to travel north to Connecticut to the loving arms of my family who were worried so. They tried to bolster my spirits, what with my 31st birthday set to arrive on Monday. But I was in no place to find the will to celebrate. I was short the markets, poised to profit the minute trading opened on Monday morning and beating myself up as a traitor to my country for being so. The moment I was able to do so on the morning of September 17th, I closed out my position. And I manned my station.

That night, most of my friends dragged me out to my favorite Italian restaurant. But one of us was absent from the table. My dear friend, whose UCLA friend had introduced us to Herman Sandler, found herself in the right place at the right time to begin to help the healing process. At the time, she was working at Bank of America in midtown. The very day the towers fell, the bank had offered Sandler O’Neill survivors temporary office space in the same midtown office at which my friend worked. Jimmy Dunne, who found himself running Sandler O’Neill in the flash of an eye, gratefully accepted. Dunne had been out of the office on 9/11 trying to qualify for the U.S. Mid-Amateur Classic; he survived by chance and chance alone. So devastated was my friend that she chose to stay late every night, on her own time, to help Dunne write condolence letters to the families of the 66 Sandler employees who had lost their lives. She would eventually end up working at Sandler.

On my birthday, six days after 9/11, my friends insisted that robbing us all of joy, the very ability to celebrate life’s little occasions, would represent yet another feather in the caps of the cowards who attacked our fearless traders, our Masters of the Universe who were now all, and would be forever, on heavens’ trading floors. We raised our glasses to them that September evening and I remember thinking I hope Smith & Wollensky delivers in the celestial realm.

But I don’t digress. I never do on 9/11. I never shy away from remembering the worst day of my life. To do so would be an unforgivable dishonor to the 2,759 victims who gave their lives on that painfully beautifully September morning. And so, I never will.

ICYMI.housing, dimartinobooth, money strong, ICYMI

 In Case You Missed It— September 8, 2017

Dear friends,

It’s hard to watch the news these days, but for different reasons than a few weeks back when it was warfare in our streets by the looks of things. Now it’s Mother Nature who appears to be in quite the foul mood of late. To make matters worse, my beloved Longhorns did not have what I would call an auspicious start to their season. I’m running out of happy distractions here folks!

What I haven’t run low on is words – of the written and spoken variety. Please enjoy my latest Bloomberg Prophet (clever play on words if there ever was one) columns and TV interviews. And send me a signal if your team happens to win this weekend. I’ll live vicariously through your victory!

 

WRITTEN WORD

Bloomberg Prophets Harvey Won’t Help Flagging Housing Market – Neither have low mortgage rates. — 9.8.17

Bloomberg Prophets — Fed Easing Isn’t as Crazy as It Sounds – Market watchers are wasting time debating tightening when lower rates could just as likely be the next move. — 8.24.17

Bloomberg Prophets — Autos Put Economic Downside Risks on Full Display – The revival of the auto industry drove the factory sector out of recession; the flipside doesn’t look promising. — 8.22.17

 

SPOKEN WORD

Boom Bust RT — The new U.S. consumer confidence numbers are out and to everyone’s surprise, they are positive! Why are we seeing these rising numbers? — 8.31.17

CNBC — How the Fed may interpret today’s jobs report — 9.1.17

The Street with Scott Gamm — Fed watcher Danielle DiMartino Booth sees balance-sheet tightening as more likely than another rate hike. — 9.5.17

RT Boom Bust — Stanley Fischer is resigning and Danielle DiMartino Booth is back to tell us what that means — 9.7.17

Price of Business Radio — Hurricane Harvey and the impact on the oil markets — 9.1.17

 

This weekend and every other, wishing you well,

Danielle

 

 

To Subscribe to Danielle’s weekly post, visit subscription@dimartinobooth.com.

DiMartino Booth

“Okay, Houston, we’ve had an opportunity here.”

Who doesn’t know that past perfect verbs are passé? Especially where drama is concerned.

Hence the thrice-taken artistic license in recanting the fateful conversation that took place April 13, 1970. An onboard explosion had just rocked those manning the Apollo 13 mission to the moon. In the pitch-blacked-out module, some 200,000 miles from home, the astronauts radioed mission control. You know what happened next – ‘Houston, we have a problem.’ Except it didn’t.

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Bonfire of the Vulgarities, Danielle DiMartino Booth, Money Strong, Fed Up

The Bonfire of the Vulgarities

Among other historic Wall Street milestones, this October marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities.

If you’d prefer, it also marks the 520th anniversary of the original Bonfire that took place in Florence, Italy. Back in the late 1400s, the powerful city was under the rule of the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola, who like Wolfe, was taken, though not in the best way, with the outward ostentatiousness of the local glitterati. The good father thus ordered the burning of sinful vices such as books and arts deemed devilish and even cosmetics and mirrors that vaunted the vulgars, at least in his eyes.

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The Currency Wars two years on: Shanghai Accord, Danielle DiMartino Booth, Money Strong

The Currency Wars Two Years On: The Shanghai Discord

“Nothing unimportant ever happens at the Plaza.”

So legend has it of one of the finest structures to emerge from foreclosure in the aftermath of a three-year depression that ravaged the U.S. economy through 1885. ‘Important’ no doubt describes what took place one century later, on September 22, 1985, with the signing of the Plaza Accord, so named for the grand hotel that stands proudly to this day at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Central Park South.

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ECONOMICS101, Danielle DiMartino Booth, Federal Reserve

Economics 101: Divining a New Mouse Trap

If only we had more rhabdic force to go around.

Not familiar with the term? It is the Greek derivative for the word ‘rod,’ as in the ones used by Diviners to direct them to riches of the mineral or water variety in ancient days of yore. The key is placement, into the right hands, that is. Before the gifted few were scientifically overanalyzed out of existence or persecuted as witches and subsequently burned at the stake, Diviners were romanticized as the rainmakers of their day.

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ICYMI.ddb, In Case You Missed It — August 4, 2017

In Case You Missed It — August 4, 2017

Dear friends,

Happy Nonfarm Payrolls Friday from Grand Lake Stream, Maine! Grand Lake Where, you may be asking? THIS is where you fish, for small mouth bass, that is, in paradise. It’s a bit tricky to get here from Dallas, but it’s worth the trek to spend time with David Kotok, who organizes the annual campout. I also get to visit with some of the brightest minds in economics and finance I’m delighted to now call friends seven years into this annual tradition.

About those jobs…there are still plenty of them in the making. And they continue to be ho-hum in the income generation department, you know the drill – in the eating, drinking and getting sick sectors. Janet Yellen will be encouraged by the folks who’ve come off the sidelines to get the paltry paying positions. And away we go, to debate even more vigorously how the Fed’s balance sheet unwind will affect the bond market, or not.

Believe it or not, it’s not easy to get to the easternmost county in the United States. So, I made a stop in New York on the way and co-hosted a special Friends of Fermentation with my great friend, UBS’ Arthur Cashin. Friends, new and old, joined us to discuss the prospects for the market to continue moving up in 1,000-point increments and whether the Fed really will have the gumption to pull the trigger on shrinking its balance sheet (we really need to get out more and find some new materials over which to marinate ice cubes).

The consensus, if you must know, is that yes, the melt-up will continue, and that yes, the Fed seems hellbent on shrinking its mammoth balance sheet. Mind you, we also agree that the balance sheet will be blown up again in about a year’s time or so. That’s when most of us figure the economy will be in recession.

In the meantime, I’ve enjoyed writing my weekly column for Bloomberg, linked below. The editors are top notch and the readers, well – they’re well read.

Bloomberg: Back to School Means More Retail Agony

 

I also made a brief stop at the New York Stock Exchange to chat with CNBC’S Kelly Evans and Bill Griffeth, two journalists who can always be depended on to do their homework.

CNBC — Closing Bell Exchange: Underlying feeling the market is getting top heavy

 

Earlier in the week, I did a longer form interview on the job market, also linked below.

RT — Boom Bust — Re-Examining the Jobs Market

 

Signing off for now as my guide is itching to get going. The lake and fish (aka lunch) are a calling!

 

How could I not wish you well?

 

Danielle

 

 

 

Moderation, Money Strong, Federal Reserve, Economy, Danielle DiMartino Booth,

The Greater Moderation

5:12 am, April 18, 1906. A foreshock rocked the San Francisco Bay area followed 20 seconds later by one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history. The quake, which lasted a full minute, was felt from southern Oregon to south of Los Angeles and inland as far as central Nevada.

In the aftermath, the shock to the financial system was equally violent. Precious gold stores were withdrawn from the world’s major money centers to address the City by the Bay’s devastation. What followed was a run on liquidity that culminated in a recession beginning in June 1907. A decline in the U.S. stock market, combined with tight credit markets across Europe and a Bank of England in a tightening mode, set the stage.

Against the backdrop of rising income inequality spawned by the Gilded Age, distrust towards the financial community had burgeoned among working class Americans. Into this precarious fray, a scandal erupted centered on one F. Augustus Heinze’s machinations to corner the stock of United Copper Company. The collapse of Heinze’s scheme exposed an incestuous and corrupt circle of bank, brokerage house and trust company directors to a wary public. What started as an orderly movement of deposits from bank to bank devolved into a full scale run on Friday, October 18, 1907. Revelations that Charles Barney, president of Knickerbocker Trust Company, the third largest trust in New York, had also been ensnared in Heinze’s scheme sufficed to ignite systemic risk. Absent a backstop for depositors, J.P. Morgan famously organized a bailout to prevent the collapse of the financial system. Chief among his advisers on aid-worthy solvent institutions was Benjamin Strong, who would become the first president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Nearly 100 years later to the day, on May 2, 2006, California-based subprime lender Ameriquest announced it would lay off 3,800 of its nationwide workforce and close all 229 of its retail branches. There’s no need to rehash what followed. It remains fresh in many of our minds. Still, as we few skeptics who were on the inside of the Federal Reserve at the time can attest, that watershed moment also shattered the image of the false era that had sowed so many doubts, dubbed simply, The Great Moderation.

It is said that the Great Inflation gave way to the Great Moderation, so named due to the decrease in macroeconomic volatility the U.S. economy enjoyed from the 1980s through the onset of that third ‘Great,’ The Great Financial Crisis.

This from a 2004 speech given by none other than Ben Bernanke, who presided over this magnificent epoch:

“My view is that improvements in monetary policy, though certainly not the only factor, have probably been an important source of the Great Moderation.”

How very modestly moderate of him. To be precise, standard deviation gauges the volatility of a given data set by measuring how far from its long-run trend it swings; the higher the number, the more volatile, and vice versa. According to Bernanke’s own research, the standard deviation of GDP fell by half and that of inflation by two-thirds over this period of supreme calm.

In late 2013, Fed historians published a retrospective on The Great Moderation, which concluded as such:

“Only the future will tell for certain whether the Great Moderation is gone or is set to continue after the harrowing interruption of recent years. As long as the changes in the structure of the economy and good policy explained at least part of the Great Moderation, and have not been undone, then we should expect to return at least partially to the Great Moderation. And perhaps with financial stability being a more prominent objective and better integrated with monetary policy, financial shocks such as those seen over the past several years will be less common and have less severe impacts. If the Great Moderation is still with us, its reemergence in the aftermath of the Great Recession will be as welcome now as its first emergence was following the turbulence of the Great Inflation. As for its causes, economists may disagree on the relative importance of different factors, but there is little question that ‘good policy’ played a role. The Great Moderation set a high standard for today’s policymakers to strive toward.”

Strive they have, and succeeded spectacularly, by their set standards.

It matters little. Insert the observable phenomenon with anything that pertains to the macroeconomy and the financial markets, and you will see that volatility is all but extinct.

The volatility on stocks, as gauged by the VIX index, hit its lowest intraday level on record July 25 of this year. As for how much stocks are jostling about on any given day, that’s sunk to the lowest in 50 years. Treasury market volatility is at a…record low. A lack of volatility in the price of oil is peeving those manning the commodities pits. Even go-go assets are dormant. The risk premium, or extra compensation you receive to own junk bonds, is negative. Negative!

But this non-news spreads far beyond asset prices and presumably hits policymakers’ sweetest spot. According to some excellent reporting by the Wall Street Journal’s Justin Lahart, “Over the past three years, the standard deviation of the annualized change in U.S. gross domestic product…is just 1.5 percentage points, or about as low as it has ever been. It is a trend that is being matched elsewhere, with global GDP exhibiting the lowest volatility in history.”

Lahart goes on to add that job growth and corporate profits also seem stunned into submission. And then he goes for the jugular: “In the years since the financial crisis, the Federal Reserve and other central banks have acted like overprotective parents of a toddler, rushing in whenever the economy looks as if it might stumble. That risk-averse behavior has extended to businesses, making them unwilling to take chances.”

The WSJ goes on to report that at no time in at least 30 years has not one of the three major stock indexes in the U.S., Asia and Europe avoided a five percent decline in a calendar year…until what we’ve seen thus far in 2017, that is.

Is it any wonder the ranks of those who would profit from stocks declining have fallen to a four-year low? Why bother in such a perfect world?

In other words, we’ve never had it this good, or perhaps this bad. In that case, this must be The Greater Moderation. And by the looks of things, it’s gone global.

It’s no secret that the Bank of England, Bank of Japan and European Central Bank have been aggressively flooding their respective economies and in turn, the global financial system, with liquidity in some form of quantitative easing. If there is one lesson to be learned from The Great Moderation, it is that liquidity acts as a shock absorber.

In a less liquid world, the crash in oil prices would have resulted in a bankruptcy bloodbath. In a less liquid world, the bursting of the housing bubble would have led to millions of foreclosed homes clearing at fire sale prices. In a less liquid world, highly leveraged firms would have been rendered insolvent and incapable of covering their interest costs.

In short, a less liquid world would be smaller, for a time. But when the time came to allow nature to take its course, central bankers could not bear the pain, nor muster the discipline, to allow creative destruction to cull the weakest from the herd. Their policies have forced us to pay a dear price to maintain a population of inefficient operators.

The Economist recently featured a report on “corporate zombies”, firms that in a normal world would not walk among the living. Defining a ‘zombie’ as a company whose earnings before tax do not cover its interest expenses, the Bank for International Settlements placed 14 developed countries under the microscope. On this basis, the average proportion of zombies among publicly listed companies grew from less than six percent in 2007 to 10.5 percent in 2015.

So we have one-in-ten firms effectively sucking the life out of the world economy’s ability to regenerate itself. There is no such thing as a productivity conundrum against a backdrop of such widespread misallocation of capital and labor. There is no mystery cloaking the breakdown in new business formation. And there is no enigma, much less any reason to assign armies of economists to investigate, shrouding the new abnormality we’ve come to know as a low growth world.

There is simply no room for an economy to excel when its growth potential is choked off by an overabundance of liquidity that is perverting incentives. What is left behind is a yield drought, one that has left the whole of the world painfully parched for income and returns and yet too weary to conduct fundamental risk analysis.

You have Greece returning to the debt markets after a three-year exile and investors falling over themselves to get their hands on the junk-rated bonds; the offering was more than two times oversubscribed. Argentina preceded this feat, selling the first-of-its kind, junk-rated 100-year-maturity, or ‘century’ bond; it was 3.5 times oversubscribed.

Closer to home, Moody’s reports that lending to corporations has gone off the rails. Two-in-three loans offer no safeguards to lenders in the event a borrower hits financial distress; that’s up from 27 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, the kingpins of private equity have assumed such great powers, they’ve built in provisions that prohibit secondary market buyers of loans from assembling to make demands on their firms’ managements. Corporate lending standards in Europe are looser yet.

What are investors, big and small, to do? Apparently, sit back and do as they’re told to do: Buy in, but passively, and let the machines do their bidding. For institutions, add in alternative investments at hefty fees and throw in leverage to assist in elevating returns.

In late June, the recently retired Robert Rodriguez, a 33-year veteran of the markets, sat down for a lengthy interview with Advisor Perspectives (linked here). Among his many accolades, Rodriguez carries the unique distinction of being crowned Morningstar Manager of the Year for his outstanding management of both equity and bond funds. He likens the current era to that of the nine years ended 1951, a period during which the Fed and Treasury held interest rates at artificially low levels to finance World War II. His main concern today is that price discovery has been so distorted by the Fed that the stage is set for a ‘perfect storm.’ His personal allocation to equities is at the lowest level since 1971.

The combination of meteorological forces to bring on said storm, you ask? It may well be an act of God, an earthquake. It could just as easily be a geopolitical tremor the system cannot absorb; it’s easy enough to name a handful of potential aggressors. Or history may simply rhyme with the unrelenting shock waves that catalyzed the subprime mortgage crisis, coupled per chance with a plain vanilla recession.

We may simply and slowly wake to the realization that the assumptions we’ve used to delude ourselves into buying the most expensive credit markets in the history of mankind are built on so much quicksand.

The point is panics do not randomly come to pass; they must be shocked into existence as was the case in advance of 1907 and 2007.

One of Rodriguez’s observations struck a raw nerve for yours truly, who prides herself on being a reformed central banker: “The last great central banker that we had in the last 110 years other than Volcker was J.P. Morgan. The difference is, when Morgan tried to contain the 1907 crisis, he wasn’t using zeros and ones of imaginary computer money; he was using his own capital.”

It is only fair and true to honor history and add that Morgan’s efforts rescued depositors. Income inequality in the years that followed 1907 declined before resuming its ascent to its prior peak, reached at the climax of the Roaring Twenties.

The Fed’s intrusions since 2007, built on the false premise of a fanciful wealth effect concocted using models that have no place in the real world, have accomplished the opposite. Income inequality has not only grown in the aftermath of The Great Financial Crisis and throughout The Greater Moderation; it has long since smashed through its former 1927 record and kept rising. The Fed’s actions have not saved the little guy; they’ve skewered him.

The Smell of Dry Paint in the Morning, Danielle DiMartino Booth, Money Strong LLC

The Smell of Dry Paint in the Morning

Irish Playwright Oscar Wilde defied Aristotle’s memorable mimesis: Art imitates Life. In his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying, Wilde opined that, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” Jackson Pollock, the American painter, aesthetically rejected both philosophies as facile. We are left to ponder the genius of his work, which in hindsight, leaves no doubt that Art intimidated Life.

Engulfed in the flames of depression and the demons it awakened, Pollock’s work is often assumed to have peaked in 1950. The multihued vibrancy of his earlier abstract masterpieces descends into black and white, symbolically heralding his violent death in 1956 at the tender age of 44. Or does it? Look closer the next time you visit The Art Institute of Chicago. Greyed Rainbow, his mammoth 1953 tour de force, will at once arrest and hypnotize you. As you struggle to tear your eyes from it, you’ll ask yourself what the critics could have been thinking, to have drawn such premature conclusions as to his peak. Such is the pained beauty of the work. Rather than feign containment, the paint looks as if it will burst the frames’ binding. And the color is there for the taking, if you have the patience to slow your minds’ eye and see what’s staring back at you.

Perhaps it was the being written off aspect that drove Pollock to embark upon the final leg of his tour de force. We’ll never know. Renaissances to sublimity are the preserve of those with gifts beyond most our grasps. Hence the curious hubris driving so many pensions to reinvent themselves to full solvency by taking on undue risks. Heedless of what should be so many warning signs, so many managers continue to herd blindly into unconventional terrain hoping to find that perfect portfolio mix. The more likely upshot is their choices will drive them straight off a rocky cliff.

For now, the craggy landscape of pension canvases continue to be painted. Or in the case of the country’s largest pension, the stage continues to be set. This from Ted Eliopoulos, chief investment officer of the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS): “We will be conducting quite elaborate choreography, looking at asset allocation, our liabilities and the risk tolerance of our board in conjunction with our expected rates of return for our various candidate portfolios.”

Oh, but for the days of antiquated notions such as matching assets to liabilities. But that’s so 80s. Today, a given public pension’s portfolio is anything but dominated by the Treasury bonds once held to satisfy its future liabilities. Rather, half of a typical portfolio’s assets are invested in stocks, a quarter in bonds and cash, and the balance in ‘alternative investments,’ including private equity, hedge funds, real estate and commodities. (Yes, we are still on the subject of matching current and future retiree paychecks to appropriate investments.)

To CalPERS credit, this ‘elaborate’ mix turned in stellar performance in its most recent fiscal year ended June 30. The $323 billion fund generated a net 11.2 percent return buoyed by a 19.7 percent return on its stocks. Returns of 14 percent on its private equity holdings and 7.6 percent on real estate rounded out the outperformance.

Eliopoulos stressed that, “as pleased as we are with this one-year return, our focus is always on the long-term. We invest for decades, not years.”

As pointed out in Barron’s, it’s been touch and go for the past few decades. CalPERS returned 4.4 percent compared to the S&P 500’s 7.1 percent, and over the past 20 years, 6.6 percent vs. the market’s 7.1 percent. Neither achieved return, it should be pointed out, exceeds the fund’s currently assumed rate of return of 7.5 percent or the assumed rate to which it will be lowered, seven percent, by the end of 2019.

The ultralow interest rate environment engineered by the Federal Reserve and unattained return goals leave CalPERS 68 percent funded. That puts it just about in line with Wilshire Consulting’s most recent calculations, which found the average aggregate funding ratio for state pension plans to be 69 percent.

So very few pensions are where they need to be. And fewer still will ever get there. Pension managers are deluding themselves into believing creativity in asset allocation holds the key to greatness in the after-working-life.

Afraid to say the miracle of alternative investments cannot make up for the average four-percent differential required to make pensions whole – just this year. How so on the math? A blended portfolio of cash, investment-grade and junk bonds today earns 3.5-percent; this compares to pensions’ average assumed rate of return of 7.5 percent. Of course, this gap has been widening for years care of dim-witted central bankers who excel at calculus but can’t manage simple math.

How unfair is it to leave out portfolios’ spice girls of equities and alternatives? Hate to turn down the party music, but starting points do matter. So do fees (hold that thought).

There’s nothing to say pensions won’t eke out another exceptional year of stock gains. The Fed could well be tantalizing investors with chatter of QE4 if the economic data continue to soften. But there’s no silver lining in that potential outcome. Remember that rocky cliff over which current reckless allocations can drive returns? Let’s just say the cliff gets taller, and the fall longer, for every year into which this aged-bull-market rally stretches.

As for those alternatives, for better or for worse, commodities are passé. Meanwhile, pensions have been abandoning hedge funds for years as passive investing takes victim active managers who dare value an asset and invest accordingly. And real estate is on fire. As in, valuations have never been this steep in the history of mankind. You can draw your own conclusions on that front.

That leaves us with private equity, that darling of asset classes and the issue of those pesky steep fees. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, states bled $10 billion in fees and investment-related costs in 2014, the latest year for which data are available. Not only is this lovely line item funds’ largest expense; fees are up by about a third over the past decade, which conveniently coincides with the greater adoption of alternatives. Gotta love being a taxpayer!

But surely pensioners are privileged to have access to these tony private equity funds? Over the long haul, PE always outperforms those stodgy asset classes every Tom, Dick and Harry can buy online. So what if they’re illiquid. Right?

It’s hard to imagine the shivers sent down the spines of many pension fund managers when they heard the news that EnerVest Ltd, a $2 billion PE fund, had lost all its value. “Though private-equity investments regularly flop,” the Wall Street Journal reported, “industry consultants and fund investors say this situation could mark the first time that a fund larger than $1 billion has lost essentially all of its value.”

Well at least the oil bust is long over. Ill-fated, ill-timed, ill-valued energy investments are to blame for EnerVest’s demise. And surely that’s a comfort. It positively proves the fund’s evisceration is an isolated idiosyncratic incident.

Those other Wall Street Journal (WSJ) headlines don’t mean a thing. Why worry that, “Shale Produces Oil, So Why Doesn’t It Produce Cash, Too?” To wit, over the past decade, eight of the most established shale players have generated a respectable $414 billion in revenue but nary a penny in free cash flow. In fact, this eightsome has had negative cash flow of $68 billion.

Still think EnerVest will be a one-off event? Try this other WSJ headline from early July: “Wall Street Cash Pumps Up Oil Production Even As Prices Sag,” an article that went on to cite one analyst’s observation of, “insufficient discrimination on the part of sources of capital.”

Why, the question must be posed, bother discriminating when you’re sitting on $1.5 trillion in dry powder? Wait, are we still talking about energy? Well, no. That’s the point.

Go back to that last WSJ article for a moment, to what the reporters wrote: “Wall Street has become an enabler that pushes companies to grow production at any cost, while punishing those that try to live within their means.”

Set aside the fact that the analogy strikes closely to that of a drug dealer. Now nix the word, ‘production’ and fill in the blank with whatever your heart desires. THAT is the power of $1.5 trillion in private equity dry powder in all the forms it has the capacity to assume.

Again, starting points matter. That is, unless you are a deep-pocketed price agnostic buyer, one that collects fees for assets under management, regardless of how well the investment decisions fare. Being valuation-insensitive, however, also means you can incinerate your investors, especially pensions, and still walk away all the richer for it.

To its credit, Pew expressed particular concern with respect to desperate pensions playing the game of returns catch-up, as in those that have most recently plowed headlong into alternatives. No surprise, they happen to be one in the same with those sporting the weakest 10-year returns.

Ever heard someone tell you to not put all of your eggs in one basket? This rule of thumb applies in spades to pensions, or at least it should. While alternatives may provide a degree of diversification, Pew reports that that the use of alternatives among the nation’s 73 largest state-sponsored pension funds ranges from zero to over 50 percent.

Arizona tops the far end of that range, with 56 percent of its assets in alternatives. Missouri and Pennsylvania are not far behind with over 50 percent in this ‘basket,’ and Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina and Utah stand out as having close to 40 percent in alternatives. Click for link to PEWTrusts.org report.

In the weeks to come, many pensions will excel in the back-slapping department, reporting double-digit returns for the fiscal year ended June 30th. Please keep your salt shaker handy.

For the third time, starting points matter. In late June, Moody’s ran some figures and scenarios to quantify where pensions are today, and where they’re headed. In 2016, total net pension liabilities (NPLs) surpassed $4 trillion. Looking ahead, Moody’s expects reported NPLs to fall one percent by 2019 in an upside scenario, but rise 59 percent in a downside scenario.

Perhaps the fine folks at Moody’s have contemplated what happens when, not if, pensions’ liquid equity and bond holdings lose 20 percent. Maybe they’ve even taken their scenarios one step further and envisioned the return implications for all of these elegant alternatives when a liquidity freeze takes hold amid plummeting valuations.

What’s a pension to do? Fraught managers are apt to throw more of your money at alternatives as tax revenues rise to compensate for what pensions cannot make up in returns. Know this: the more that $1.5-trillion store of dry powder grows, the more it devolves into that much napalm in the morning. The conflagration that spreads will not be containable, and you won’t be able to tear your eyes from it. As the tragic Pollock said of his paintings, and we will one day say of pensions, they have no beginnings or endings, they have lives of their own.