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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In Case You Missed It — July 10, 2017

Dear friends,

It is my hope that you received an email that looked like what I’ve pasted below. While it doesn’t resemble the communique you normally receive from me, I assure you I am the sender. Please login as directed and you will transition yourself onto new platform.

 

On 07/6/2017, you successfully activated your trial subscription to Money Strong written by Danielle Dimartino Booth. During your trial subscription, you will receive an email containing a link to the most recent issue of Money Strong published every Wednesday. You may also view recently archived issues of Money Strong at the subscriber website (Subscribers Home).

To access Money Strong, you may login via the link in our notification email or via the login button on our website. On the login screen, please enter the below username and password below for access. To avoid errors in the login process we recommend typing in your email address and then copying and pasting the password from this email:

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In the meantime, we’ve got one more payroll report under our belt. The headlines made a splash with job growth appreciably stronger than expected as a surge of sidelined laborers rejoined the workforce. Wages remain soft, which is intuitive given the type of jobs created – home health care workers led the month’s gains, a demographic sign of the times we are in.

For more on the outlook for baby boomers’ retirements, please have a look at my latest Bloomberg column, which focuses on the implications of boomers’ increasing exposure to passive and so-called ‘alternative investments.’ Below the Blomberg piece are three of my earlier missives on the implications of the tremendous build in private equity dry powder and pensions’ prospects. Hard to believe I started writing on this subject two years ago.

 

Private Equity and Passive Investors Are on a Collision Course

Bloomberg View — Danielle DiMartino Booth, July 6, 2017

Money Strong Archive Pull

The Smell of Dry Powder in the Morning 

What if Charlie Munger is Right?

The Smell of Dryer Powder in the Morning

In other In Case You Missed It

The Lance Roberts Show — July, 6, 2017

FED Players Receive Special Treatment

FX Street — EUR/USD and Fed: Levels, Ranges, Targets

As many of you hit the road back home, wishing you well,

 

Danielle

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Central Banks to Investors: I Know Nothing

Central Banks to Investors: “I Know Nothing!”

“I know nothing! I see nothing! I hear nothing!”

So light was Hogan’s Heroes, one could easily forget the sitcom, which debuted September 17, 1965, was set in a Nazi P.O.W. camp. More than any one character, Sergeant Schultz deserves credit for the show’s laughable levity. His gregarious girth, sincere sympathy and wonderful weakness for tempting treats — let’s just say Shultz had anything but steely resolve, convincing affable audiences that war could be whimsical. For the prisoners of the Luft Stalag 13, Schultz made an ideal witness to their eternal escape endeavors. His robustly repeated response, “I know nothing!” faithfully failed to fulfill his German superiors’ suspicions.

One can only imagine the proliferation of late 1960s era’s pretentious political philosophers chafing at the bemusement beckoned by Schultz’s channeling Socrates. The Socratic paradox, “I know that I know nothing,” back-translated to Katharevousa Greek, was relayed by Plato in Apology.

Apparently, Socrates attributed his wisdom to not imagining that he knows what he does not. At the intersection of Schultz and Socrates, humility and hilarity collide.

It was neither humor nor humbleness, but rather hubris, being highlighted in London on June 27, 2017 when Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen managed to make light of a heavy subject in a live televised Q&A with British Academy President Lord Nicholas Stern. Chuckling in response to one query, Yellen offered up the following on our collective financial future:

“Would I say there will never, ever be another financial crisis? You know probably that would be going too far. But I do think we’re much safer and I hope that it will not be in our lifetimes, and I don’t believe it will be.

It was these last few words that ignited the ire of so many central banking detractors. Was she hoping we’d come to see the softer side of central banking?

Clearly, she takes faith in the radiation detection facilities the Fed has installed in the years since the worst of the financial crisis engulfed the global financial system. If not, why would she have also offered up these words of reassurance, that those at the Fed, “are doing a lot more to try to look for financial stability risks that may not be immediately apparent … in order to try to detect threats to financial stability that may be emerging.”

Though this particular quote got much less in the way of play in the media, marrying the two threads of thought helps explain why Yellen, who no doubt means well, was able to strike a jovial tone at the prospect of future financial crises. Blind faith in those who’ve been assigned tasks has long handicapped Fed leadership.

On a deeper level, one has to question the qualifications of the architects who’ve built out the risk monitoring system in recent years. The February 2015 McKinsey report Debt and (Not Much) Deleveraging did not gain the rank of ‘seminal’ without captivating most front-line veterans of the financial crisis.

The study’s findings were startling in their simplicity: Rather than address the underlying over-indebtedness that detonated systemic risk and culminated in a full-blown catastrophe, policy had simply catalyzed further indebtedness.

The numbers, with which we are all familiar, are as follows. From a starting point of the end of 2007 through mid-year 2014, global debt rose by $57 trillion to $199 trillion. As a percentage of global gross domestic product (GDP), global debt had risen to 286 percent from 269 percent.

Though deleveraging had indeed occurred in some corners (referred to in America as defaulted mortgages), the overabundance of liquidity generated by central banks’ machinations had simply found new places to stoke unquantifiable risks. In the case of the seven years through 2014, some usual suspects made their presence known on the leveraging-up-to-their-eyeballs scale such as Greece and Ireland.

But it was China that stood out in the McKinsey study, specifically, “the quadrupling of China’s debt, fueled by real estate and shadow banking, in just seven years.”

McKinsey was also kind enough to offer a bit more historic perspective for those of us rookies who might have thought this type of perverse approach to treat over-indebtedness novel. It all started at the end of 2000, just about the time investors were reeling from Internet bubble implosion portfolio losses. In the seven ensuing years, global debt rose to $142 trillion from $87 trillion. As a percentage of global GDP, debt had grown ‘smartly,’ to 269 percent from 249 percent. (Lest you’ve forgotten the name of that starlet in the annals of dumb debt, it was referred to as the subprime housing bubble).

Conclusion: Do NOT attempt to resolve over-indebtedness by applying more debt to the problem.

Presumably the task force monitoring the global financial system for signs of building dangers was armed with this simple guiding tenet.

It follows that our protectors were blindsided by yet another report released the very same day Yellen made her fate-tempting London remarks about how much safer we are.

The Institute of International Finance (IIF) is a Washington, DC-based global tracker of capital flows with a stellar reputation for sniffing out risks. In its newest report, the IIF warned of the risks posed by global debt levels that had ballooned to $217 trillion. In the event you are about keeping score, the math works out to 327 percent of global GDP.

The good news:  Developed economies continue to delever; in the past year, they’ve offloaded some $2 trillion in debts. The not-so-good news:  Central banks’ manning the printing presses 24/7 necessitate their crisp, fresh product find a home, fungible as global quantitative easing has proven to be. Enter developing countries, where debt has grown by $3 trillion over the past year to a new record of $56 trillion.

Filling in the blank with the main driver is akin to gaming a multiple-choice test for which you’ve not studied. When in doubt, choose ‘C,’ as in China, which accounted for 2/3rds of last year’s debt growth. Chinese debt now stands at $33 trillion. This most recent spurt of growth has been led both by households and companies.

At least Uncle Sam has that in common with his Red Dragon counterpart. Household debt has recaptured its record high levels led by unsecured debt (lovely). And corporate debt stateside is now at record levels, even when compared to earnings and cash flow, which remain strong. (Note to Fed: tightening into a weakening economy when debt burdens are at record highs has yet to end well.)

The IIF shrewdly expressed unease that all of this debt could pose “headwinds for long-term growth and eventually pose risks for financial stability.” Party poopers.

For good measure, the International Monetary Fund and Bank of International Settlements share the IIF’s concerns. But what do they know?

In the event you sense tongue squarely in cheek, hence the cheekiness, you are correct.

Either you laugh and channel Sargent Schultz. “In (currency) wars, I do not take sides! I see nothing! I know nothing! I didn’t even wake up this morning!” You pray God central bankers are making the best of a gravely unstable situation by making light of it to calm the masses. If you present a strong face, the minions will hopefully buy into your outward confidence.

Well played? Consider the alternative.

What’s worse than the monetary myopia that’s blinded central bankers into believing moral suasion can resolve the teensiest $217 trillion problem?

What if they believe what they are saying in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary? Socrates’ self-discovery followed a journey wherein he tried to find a wiser man than himself, whether it be politician, poet or craftsman. His findings were as follows: Politicians boast wisdom without knowledge (some things never change). Poets, for their part, touch people with their words, but don’t grasp their meaning. Finally, craftsmen claim knowledge but it is restricted to too narrow a field.

Socrates concluded that there was no such thing as indelible intellect, but rather ingrained ignorance. Recognizing your fallibility was thus the secret to achieving greatness, to know in your very soul, “I know that I know nothing.”

Future generations across the globe would be well served by central bankers of the strongest constitutions, those who are neither politicians, nor poets, nor craftsmen who bow to econometric models that have scant application outside tight academic circles. May they rather live by Socrates’ humble mantra, may they know they know nothing, and nothing more.

UK ELECTION, DiMartinoBooth

The U.K. Election: An Outsider Looking In

Talk about making hay if the sun shines through and through.

In 1696, William III introduced the ‘window tax.’ It was crystal clear that this dark tax was viewed with great disfavor being as it was based on the number of windows in a given home. Think of it as a first-generation progressive tax, which suited the extravagant era’s buildout of country estates. The more windows in a home, the wealthier the ostentatious occupants were, to say nothing of cheerier and healthier (did Vitamin D supplements exist back then?). So why not pony up more in taxes to help your sovereign offset the scourge of coin clipping?

Coin what?

Back in the day, coins were minted in pure precious metals. This prompted petty pilfers to shave, file and clip the edges off those coveted coins. Combine enduring effort with a red-hot melting pot and voila, fraudulent fortunes followed. The pinchers’ progeny were no doubt among the pioneers committing counterfeit currency capers.

These days we embrace the despicable denigration of our currencies. We go so far as to lavish the loftiest positions in the modern world on those whose most lauded accomplishments have been earned in laureates, not the legal authority to levy, well, anything.

‘Tis true, central bankers have assumed more power than our politicians. The question is where this will lead us all against the backdrop of a world where inequality has boiled over into illegality and depravity for our fellow man.

As all market watchers are aware, the British general elections are to be held Thursday. Intriguingly, some three million newly-registered voters will cast their calls for the first time. This should be a worrying factoid for Theresa May; the UK’s youngest voters were largely opposed to exiting the European Union last June.

The arguably inconsistent and unreliable polls will have certainly given Prime Minister Theresa May pause. One June 4th, May’s Conservative party looked to secure 354 seats, above and beyond the 326 needed for a Parliamentary majority. By Tuesday, other polls showed her party’s prospects had dwindled to 305 seats.

Intuition suggests Saturday night’s horrific terrorist attacks on London Bridge (pictured front and center in this week’s image) and a nearby neighborhood would have solidified Conservative’s lead. But the polls counterintuitively indicate a move in the opposite direction. Though impossible to predict, the least hyperbolic within the political analyst arena give the Conservatives better than even odds of winning a majority, or at the very least forming a coalition that accomplishes the next best thing.

It’s notable that May’s lead did not initially narrow based solely on events that were out of her control, as in three terrorist attacks in three months. Rather, it was her vow to make pensioners’ benefits progressive (just took a huge amount of license in simplifying her proposal) — as in those who have more can expect to collect less from the state – was met with about as much derision as William III’s window tax.

While it’s never wise to judge from the outside, some of the wisest and most patriotic suggestions floated in the United States have been from wealthy retirees who’ve suggested they need not collect Social Security to help balance the nation’s books. Moreover, May was magnanimous in her aim; she intends to use the saved state expenditures to funnel funds into raising productivity by closing the skills gap that has crippled the economy (sound familiar?)

Somehow the liberal media managed to paint May as a pariah (is it yours truly, or are the parallels multiplying?)

In one of May’s latest interviews, she reiterated her focus on what she hopes is to come: “It’s about young people’s future, it’s about ensuring we take the opportunities that will be opened up to us when we leave the EU to be a really global nation bringing more jobs, more investment into the UK. I want to see proper technical education for the first time for young people for whom that’s right.”

Connecting warm bodies with much-needed skills sets to UK’s corporate sector could well do the economy some good. Let’s hope she has wise economic counsel to help her execute her plan if the Conservatives prevail at the polls.

Luckily, one of Britain’s savviest economists is free to pursue his next career gig. Of course, the reference is to Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, whose term technically ended May 31st (he will remain at his post until his replacement is secured.)

How to sum up Haldane? A central banker who gets it right half the time is about as close to genius as you can ever hope for in the field given the de facto requirement that Keynesian Kool-Aid be drank before the threshold is crossed into the inner sanctum sanctorum. That applies whether you refer to the Bank of England, the Reserve Bank of Australia, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan or especially the Federal Reserve (though hawks may just get their chance to storm the temple – stay tuned on that count).

Of punk UK productivity, for one, Haldane has this to say in a recent speech: It wasn’t low interest rates that kept middling companies in business since the crisis hit, but rather delusions of operational grandeur. Haldane prodded the UK government to provide global benchmarks to UK firms so they could better appreciate their standing among their international peers.

“As Olympic athletes have shown, marginal improvements accumulated over time can deliver world-beating performance,” Haldane said. “Applying those marginal gains to the population of UK companies could significantly improve UK living standards.”

Sounds like May and Haldane are on the same page, though it goes without saying that low interest rates assisted in keeping ‘zombie’ companies alive in addition to an abject denial of mediocrity.

Most importantly for May, if she’s in the market for an economic advisor, Haldane is not beholden to the modern-day economics profession. Haldane likened economists’ failure to foresee the financial crisis to a, “Michael Fish moment.” Fish, for you non-Anglophiles, dismissed the chances that a massive hurricane would hit southern England in 1987. You know how this story ends. The Great Storm did indeed hit and how, wreaking mass destruction and casualties.

After describing his profession as being in, “some degree of crisis,” Haldane went on to suggest that his peers abandon their, “narrow and fragile” models in favor of a broader analysis that incorporated the perspectives of other disciplines. Hear, hear!

To be fair, Haldane went on to say that Brexit would crash the UK economy but with a lag, hence the above-referenced only ‘gets it right half the time’ bit.

If providence is propitious, May is also channeling the ghost of Margaret Thatcher, who made all manner of enemies going against the conventional wisdom of her day, especially as it pertained to the economy. No doubt it will take radical ideas to cure what ails the UK economy today.

In what can only be described as twisted irony, Mark Carney’s Bank of England (BoE) was recently taken to task for the pay raises recently ‘awarded’ to his employees which failed to keep pace with inflation. At around one percent, the most recent annual BoE employee pay raise is a pittance of the current 2.7 percent inflation rate. The average British worker bested that, with average wages increasing by 2.4 percent, which still fails to keep pace with the rising cost of living.

And yet, as is the case with his European and American counterparts, Carney is more likely to get caught out gnashing his teeth about inflation being too low, despite it clearly being too high for the average working man and woman.

The fact is Carney’s in a mighty tight corner with inflation running too hot, wages running too cold and a corporate sector petrified at the potentially poisonous ramifications of Brexit. For the moment, exports are a relative outperformer with a big boost from the weaker pound. It’s the ‘what’s next’ that matters most though — the impossible tradeoff between raising interest rates and the higher real wages that would follow, or lower for longer and the boost to short-term growth prospects too offset any Brexit fallout.

And that’s just for starters when it comes to threading needles on Threadneedle Street. As has been the case in Australia and Canada, residential real estate prices have run wild since quantitative easing unleashed animal spirits in the aftermath of the financial crisis. As a result, British households’ debt loads vis-à-vis the size of the economy have made a full round trip to record highs. But here’s the wrinkle:  mortgages in the UK tend to be of the variable rate variety, In other words, Carney has to tread more lightly than his counterpart Janet Yellen if he’s inclined to tighten.

And so they straddle the Atlantic, both weighed by impossible choices, rendered more intractable yet by their own misguided foregone follies that insisted more was more, lower was better. What good has that done? To add to their intellectual egos’ injuries, both Carney and Yellen have to contend with political leaders who’ve neither the appetite nor the intent to compromise, much less kowtow, to their theoretical end games.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe the window tax withstood its own political backlash for over 150 years. But believe you me, the tax was not abolished until 1851. By then, so despised was the levy, it had assumed a new name — Daylight Robbery. Is it so hard to see that the current crop of central bankers has also managed to destroy the vista, to suck the oxygen out of the world economy as closed up homes did back then, albeit with much more sophisticated means? We can only hope our elected leaders don’t have to wait another 150 years to see the light.

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Pension Tension, Part 2: Don’t California My Texas!, Dimartino Booth, Money Strong, Fed Up: In Insider's Take on Why the Federal Reserve is Bad for America

Pension Tension, Part 2: Don’t California My Texas!

What’s the next best thing to heaven?

Ask any Texan. Or better yet, try Tanya Tucker, born in Seminole, Texas in October 1958. She might just answer you by belting out the first stanza of her smash 1978 hit, “Texas When I Die,” in that gravelly voice of hers:

“When I die, I may not go to heaven

I don’t know if they let cowboys in

If they don’t just let me go to Texas

Texas is as close as I’ve been”

 

The point of the song is to glorify the Lone Star State as no other. And make no mistake, true Texans of all ages know and love the song. An out-of-state foreigner might venture that Texas has an ego. Yes, the state, replete with its own rallying cries. Remember “Remember the Alamo!”? Or if you prefer, the modern-day version, “Don’t Mess with Texas!” That last one may or may not have started out as an anti-littering campaign. But Texans cannot be one-upped in the adaptation department.

More recently, a crop of bumper stickers has blanketed the state’s highways and byways. Though state shapes are employed for illustration purposes on said stickers, you see the translation in the title: “Don’t CA my TX!” Ask any Texan about optionality if our taxes (let’s leave it there) even flirt with California’s. They’ll share with you the latest word bandied about: “Texit!”

Let’s use Forbes as the arbiter to explain the corporate and middle class mass departure out of California and into Texas in recent years. In 2016, Texas ranked fourth in Business Costs; California 43rd. Though there are a myriad of contributing factors to the relative unattractiveness of the Golden State, deeply underfunded pensions sit high on the list.

According to one CA resident and close friend, who also happens to be a crack economist, the back-of-the-envelope math works out as such: Stanford figures the state’s liabilities are in the neighborhood of $1 trillion, or $78,000 per household. Narrow it down to her county level, the local liability if you will, and there’s another $2 billion to consider, or $10,000 per household. Now here’s the rub. Double that $88,000 to account for the fact that various groups estimate upwards of half of CA residents don’t pay taxes. For the record, my friend is grappling with moving to a low-tax cold or low-tax warm state. Answer seems obvious but go figure.

The irony is recent headlines might cause her to steer clear of Texas given that the nation’s building pension tension first broke in Texas’ two biggest cities. Legislation is making its way through the Texas State Legislature to overhaul Houston’s firefighter and municipal employee pension. The zinger: the fix involves a cool $1 billion pension obligation bond that would require voter approval. Not to be outdone, subsequently, the Texas House voted unanimously to approve a rescue of Dallas’ Police and Fire Pension, which will also put taxpayers on the hook for a $1 billion, give or take. News that there’s been a run on a pension apparently has a stimulative effect on politicians.

The question is, will Texas begin to lose some of its appeal as the low-cost alternative to just about any other state in the nation? More to the point, are there other states out there that also appear to be dirt cheap but have pricey pension promises that will present themselves the next time markets swoon?

So much for judging low-tax-rate states by their covers. The good news is there’s a somewhat neutral intermediary to help conduct your analysis. You know, the rating agencies. Before you reach through your screen and try to land a knuckle sandwich, consider first that Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s have long been in the business of rating plain vanilla municipal bonds. We’re not talking about securities comprised of toxic mass that’s sliced and diced into credit sainthood. Plus, recent revisions to accounting rules require the agencies to visibly incorporate pension underfunding when scoring credits.

According to a recent Wells Fargo report penned by Wells Fargo Senior Analyst Natalie Cohen, over the last twelve months, this shift in accounting rules has triggered state-level downgrades of Alaska, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, New Jersey and West Virginia.

One caveat, especially at the local level, involves termination costs that can be triggered by a downgrade and accelerate payments. Detroit is a classic case in which ‘swap terminations’ tipped the city into bankruptcy. Moody’s, in particular, has devised a methodology to appraise stress using a uniform corporate bond rate; it’s called the “adjusted net pension liability (ANPL)” calculation. Included among those that lost their top credit rating because they had prohibitively high ANPLs are Evanston, IL, Minneapolis and Santa Fe along with a handful of highly-rated Ohio school districts.

It shouldn’t shock that many of the shakiest local credits reside within the weakest states. On a list Wells comprised using Merritt Research Services data, weak pensions contributed to 11 local government downgrades in Illinois, 10 in New Jersey and six in Connecticut. In what can only be described as fiscal hot potato, some states are also increasing the funds school districts are required to contribute to state retirement funds. One case in point:  Local districts in Michigan previously contributed 16.5 percent of payrolls to the Michigan Public School Employee Retirement System; that has since been upped to 27 percent. Cohen calls it the ‘State-Local Trickle Down’ effect.

They say that the best laid plans cannot account for random molecules bumping around the universe. The rub is there’s nothing random about the rot spreading across the municipal landscape. The buck will eventually stop somewhere, even as states and municipalities endeavor to shift their growing burdens from here to there to anywhere. If you just squirmed in your seat, you know where this is going.

The theory is taxpayers will take the tax hikes of the future required to rescue pensions lying down, forcing the actuarial armies’ math to finally work out in practice, not fairyland theory. Let’s just say the jury isn’t even hung on such an outrageously optimistic outcome. Targeted residents are much more apt to follow in Cook County’s fleeing population’s footsteps, that is, pull up stakes and move to lower tax states.

Carry this inevitable, albeit eventual, process to its logical end-point and it’s easy enough to envision the United States having a periphery of its own consisting of shallow-tax-base, budgetary-basket-case, junky high-yielding municipal borrowers. Preening at the opposite end of the spectrum are states that have prudently managed their affairs and prevented unions from ruling the pension roost – pristine and pure investment grade municipals.

An aside if you’ve got the ‘G’ in PIIGS on the mind (remember the acronym for the European periphery?), don’t sap your synapses. There will be no Prexit. The Constitution doesn’t allow for it.

As for tax reform, that’s another story. John Mousseau, Cumberland Advisors’ in house municipal maven, recently published a one-pager titled, “Quick Take on Munis and the Trump Plan.” In the report, Mousseau calculates the math behind the lower tax rate that stems from the elimination of the ObamaCare tax on investment income for families making over $200,000 combined with the nixing of the alternative minimum tax. The first blush take is that taxable equivalent yields of 5.30 percent for the today’s 39.6-percent top federal bracket taxpayers will fall to 4.61 percent as the top bracket declines to 35 percent. That slippage, however, is offset by the closure of the loopholes and deductions proposed.

But what about rendering nondeductible state and local income taxes? Mousseau uses the high-income-tax state of California, where the top state tax rate is currently 13.3 percent on income over $1 million, to illustrate the impact of the proposed changes to the tax laws. Under existing tax law, that rate effectively declines to 7.5 percent. Eliminate both the federal deduction for state income taxes and the Obamacare tax and you land right back at 13.3 percent.

The result would be twofold:  1) demand rises for in-state tax-exempt bonds in high-tax states (prices up, yields down), and 2) major resistance on the parts of state and local governments against tax increases and a push to roll back tax rates as state taxes will abruptly and significantly rise from their current levels.

Mousseau’s bottom line:

“From today’s vantage point, we feel that muni bonds, particularly in the intermediate and longer maturities, should face little adjustment under the proposed plan and that the demand for municipal bonds in high-tax states should advance smartly.”

While a wash for municipal bond holders in general, the implication is that high tax states, especially those with deeply underfunded pensions, will find politicians struggling in their efforts to insure escape eludes essential taxpayers.

The next recession will only serve to expedite the exoduses. That will put the onus on DC politicians to ponder the profound, as in how does the country meet the aggregate challenge pensions present? At some point, clinical calculations will clash with the still-angry citizenry. Making matters worse, both pensioners and punished taxpayers are within their rights in feeling as if they’ve been wronged.

Who will represent taxpaying Californians who prefer to grow old enjoying their perfect vistas of the Pacific? For that matter, who will stand up for Texans who darkly joke that the real wall that will be eventually erected will rise up along the state’s northern border?

The closest thing to winners in this war of states are Texas real estate agents who have never had it so good. Loaded with sales proceeds courtesy of ostentatiously overpriced homes, California transplants tend to buy two homes instead of one, so flashily flush are they when they cross over the Red River. While that extra spacious back yard (of course they raze one of the two!) is all good and well for the eager emigrant jet set, the traffic is worse than ever.

So, is there a Texit in the cards? The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia assured us the answer is no: “If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede.”

Try telling that to a tenacious Texan. As worthy residents of the state, who find themselves belting out Tucker’s gravelly-voice timeless hit racing down a dusty country road with the windows open will tell you, it’s not bond math that defines the allure of life in the Lone Star State. To the many, the proud, such a futile approach is akin to trying to put into words what the wind feels like to someone who has never felt a warm breeze against their face. Why bother? To borrow from another legendary bumper sticker: “I may not have been born in Texas. But I got here as fast as I could.”

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In Case You Missed It — March 24, 2017

Dear friends,

To say that we live in a brave new world, at least as it pertains to the media, is an understatement. Forget TV and radio as the sole conduits. Since Fed Up’s release five weeks ago, which spans approximately a dog year, I’ve done countless podcasts, Skype radio and video interviews, and Sirius radio stations. I’ve been on channels I’ve never heard of with such deep followings I clearly need to get out more.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s been plenty of traditional live TV and radio interviews. We can just no longer say that’s the norm.

I’ve also written. A lot. And that’s in addition to my weekly, which still stimulates my mind as no other intellectual outlet can.

Manners dictate that I not bombard your inbox every time I opine, in the written word or otherwise. But given the never-ending wrangling to which we are now subjected when our TVs are unmuted, I thought I would share two opinion pieces and one podcast released this week that remind us it is essential to look forward. We can only hope a spirit of compromise prevails giving our leadership in D.C. license to propel the country and economy into forward motion. The Bloomberg piece shot to the top of the most read list so clearly hit nerves. Let’s get going America! (In my humble opinion).

You will see the links to all three below my signature line. Have a great weekend.

Best,

Danielle

It’s Stand and Deliver Time for Trump and Congress on Deregulation — CNBC

Pension Crisis Too Big for Markets to Ignore — Bloomberg

Nine Years Later…All Fed Up — The Bell by Adam Johnson and Tom Essaye Podcast

 

Fed Up: Culture Shock

Photo Credit: Howie Le

“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.

 

Slapped in the Face by the Invisible Hand

Slapped, Danielle Dimartino Booth, Fed Up: An Insider's Guide to why the Federal Reserve is Bad for America


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.”

Former Fed Staffer Says Central Bank Is Under the Thumb of Academics, Wall Street Journal

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.