‘O unhappy citizens, what madness?
Do you think the enemy’s sailed away? Or do you think
any Greek gift’s free of treachery? Is that Ulysses’s reputation?
Either there are Greeks in hiding, concealed by the wood,
or it’s been built as a machine to use against our walls,
or spy on our homes, or fall on the city from above,
or it hides some other trick: Trojans, don’t trust this horse.
Whatever it is, I’m afraid of Greeks even those bearing gifts.’
Virgil, The Aeneid Book II
So warned Laocoön to no avail, and that was with Cassandra’s corroboration. As reward for his prescient prudence, the Trojan priest and his twin sons were crushed to death by two sea serpents. It would seem the Greeks had no intention of relinquishing hold of ancient Anatolia, a critical continental crossroad where Europe and Asia’s borders meet, a natural target for conquering civilizations.
Thankfully, history has made history of menacing machinations crafted with the aim of undermining the opposition. If only… History is rife with exceptions starting with most politicians on Planet Earth and more recently, central bankers.
In what can only be characterized as Mission Creep raised to the power of infinity, the Federal Reserve’s last Federal Open Market Committee Minutes warned that “equity prices are quite high relative to standard valuation measures.”
Let’s see. Where does the stock market fit into Congress’ statutory requirements that the Fed’s objectives be: “maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates”? You neither, huh?
The Minutes also indicated that, “equity price indexes increased over the intermeeting period.” Is it the slightest bit alarming that monetary policymakers are nodding to a phenomena that’s been in place since March 2009 as having just occurred to them? Are we pondering pure coincidence or is this exactly what it appears to be — political pandering?
This from CNBC: FOMC Minutes have unleashed the word “valuation’ as it pertains to equities six times since Alan Greenspan, a self-described obsessive observer of the stock market, first uttered the words, “irrational exuberance.” In every instance, stocks were hit over the next 12 months.
Could it be that Janet Yellen, who in 2008 said the Minutes should be used, “to provide quantitative information on our expectations” knew exactly what she was doing, that she planted the word ‘valuation’ to send the President a pointed message with nothing less than perfect precision?
You may be thinking our new leader has more than enough on his agenda to be worried about a threat to the stock market from the likes of academics he not so long ago publicly derided. If Trump cares about staying in the good graces of those who put him in office, he will fight the temptation to pivot on the Fed. He’s been in office long enough to have made a move to begin filling the three open seats on the Federal Reserve Board.
More to the point, in the event Trump hasn’t been apprised, the Fed has the economy by the short hairs. And, yes, it was, is, and will be about the economy, at least among those who voted him into office, many of whom remain angry and anxious, but not stupid.
They are still waiting for an advocate who sees through the average data right through to the galling truth that absent executive pay, incomes remain in decline. They pine for a leader who can like debt all he wants to get deals done, but doesn’t force it down the economy’s throat to generate economic growth of the most fleeting nature. They may not be able to identify the enemy within by name but they have every right to expect their President does, that he has the gumption to stand up to the Fed and deliver his People from the shackles of indentured servitude.
It might even be a good thing, for working Americans who’ve long sensed the economy has abandoned them, that Trump has a beef with the media and two savvy guys from Goldman Sachs helping steer the economy. Together they should be able to glean the facts from the data the Fed insists are so much “good news.”
Consider, if you will, a fresh report on the state of consumer finance released by the New York Fed. At $12.73 trillion, household debt sits at a record high. We’re told to look the other way, that it’s a nominal figure and more importantly that debt as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) is nowhere near where it was back in the bad old days of 2007.
‘Tis true that household debt is no longer 95 percent of GDP which was the case when it peaked in the fourth quarter of 2007. Before resuming its climb to its current 80-percent level, it got as low as 78 percent of GDP. But let’s hold off on the austerity bubbly for the moment. Since record keeping began in 1952, when the record low of 23 percent was recorded, debt-to-GDP has averaged 56 percent.
As for the red herring that households have tightened their belts, while that is the case for a minority, the bulk of deleveraging that’s taken place has been the result of the past decade’s 10 million and counting foreclosures. (For those of you still keeping count, some 91,000 individuals had ‘foreclosure’ added to their credit reports in the first three months of this year, an uptick from 2016’s fourth quarter.)
The deleveraging, by the way, ended years ago. Aggregate household debt is 14 percent above the low it hit in the second quarter of 2013. And we’re not talking about mortgages here.
Drawing hard conclusions is a bit of a stretch as it really depends on your perspective. You make the call. How secured by anything of value is the type of debt households have taken on since mortgage lending standards tightened like a vise on would-be homebuyers? Credit card debt is an easy enough call. But what about that car loan? Checked your trade-in value lately? (Not recommended if you’ve had a bad day.) As for that festering $1.3 trillion mountain of student debt? Did someone say ‘perspective’?
The bottom line is we still have too much debt and precious little to show for it.
In return, we get this from the NY Fed’s President Bill Dudley: “Homeownership represents an important means of wealth accumulation, with housing equity being the principal form of wealth for most households.” (Isn’t that a good thing?)
He goes on to observe that, “Changes in the way we finance higher education, with an increased reliance on student debt, may have important implications for the housing market and the distribution of wealth.” (You think?)
And finally, out of the other side of his mouth, he has this gem of a recommendation to kick start the economy: “Whatever the timing, a return to a reasonable pattern of home equity extraction would be a positive development for retailers and would provide a boost to economic growth.” (Wait, wasn’t all that home equity borrowing what pushed debt up to its record highs and drove the economy into the Great Financial Crisis?)
It’s critical to note that Corporate America is also drowning in record levels of debt – nonfinancial corporate debt within a hair of $6 trillion. And though it was nary mentioned in the campaign by either party, at $20 trillion, Uncle Sam himself is up to his eyeballs in hock.
Hopefully you can see Trump’s once in a century chance to reshape the warped thinking inside the Fed. He has the tremendous power to redirect the meme by draining the debt swamp that makes our government beholden to foreign lenders, our corporations less competitive on the global stage and our households seething at their inhibited upward mobility. Talk about Making America Great Again, for ALL Americans.
Without a doubt, this will be one of Trump’s toughest tests, and yes, the Fed can easily take down the stock market in retaliation; they could even follow through on threats to shrink the balance sheet. It would be as if someone flipped a switch and we veered from Quantitative Pleasing to Quantitative Plaguing.
And what politician in their right mind wants plague visited upon their economy on their watch? Ask any of Trump’s predecessors and they’ll shoot you straight. Passing legislation with ultra-easy monetary policy and fluffy stock prices on your side sure as heck beats the alternative.
But in the end, it just buys time, not Greatness.
Artificially low interest rates might be as alluring as that Trojan Horse was to the people of Troy. But let’s put their experience to better use and not dismiss Laocoön’s words as the tragic Trojans did. Let us all Beware of Central Bankers Bearing Gifts.