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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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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Danielle DiMartino Booth, Money Strong, Writing on the Wall

The Writing on the Wall

“Mene, Mene. Tekel, Parsin”

Appearing from nowhere came a disembodied hand. To the disbelief of a petrified King Belshazzar, the hand began to write words of unknown meaning on his wall. ‘Harried’ can’t begin to describe the king’s state of mind. He just had to know and promised the position of the third highest ruler in his kingdom to whom among his enchanters, astrologers and diviners could unravel the riddle of the seemingly indecipherable words. No such luck.

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

In Case You Missed It — July 28, 2017

Dear friends,

Calling turning points can be a fool’s game. But there is something to be said for the deathly quiet we’ve seen in the jobs market. Jobless claims volatility is at a postwar low even as companies have begun to cite cost cutting as the major driver behind job cut announcements. Is that ‘something’ finally about to give in this recovery that has left so many behind?

I’d love your feedback on my latest Bloomberg Prophets column, linked here:

Bloomberg Prophets — Like Markets, Jobs Are Due for a Jolt
Volatility for labor has reached its lowest in postwar history. What’s next?

I was also in New York ever so briefly as it was the day Fed officials met. Janet Yellen et al took the opportunity of a lame duck meeting to toughen up their language on Quantitative Tightening despite there being np press conference to explain themselves.

Will the Fed begin to shrink its mammoth balance sheet as early as September? Will the opposite of Quantitative Easing have no effect at all on markets? We will all tune in to FedSpeak in the weeks and months to come. The debate will no doubt continue to rage on.

You may be asking why I included a Bill Gross segment. As I was informed shortly after I left the set, CNBC’s Brian Sullivan gave self-deprecation new meaning when he claimed he was not as smart as me. I can assure you after many interviews sitting to his left, Brian is one smart cookie and a might bit smarter than yours truly.

A Few TV Stops in New York on Fed Day

Expert: Fed Fires ‘Shot Across the Bow’ on Balance Sheet Reduction
CNBC The Fed — Danielle DiMartino Booth

No One Knows How the Markets Will React to the Federal Reserve’s ‘Quantitative Tightening’
The Street — Danielle DiMartino Booth

Fed is Shifting its Focus to Balance Sheet Reduction instead of Interest Rates
CNBC The Fed — Bill Gross

On a personal note, I am delighted so many of you have subscribed. Next Wednesday marks the onset of a new journey and I am gratified to have you along. Bottoms up, friends and new subscribers! I raise my glass to you!

If you have not yet subscribed, please email subscription@dimartinobooth.com and type ‘Subscribe’ in the title line.

This weekend and next, wishing 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.

Danielle DiMartino Booth, Central Bankers, Money Strong LLC, Federal Reserve, Debt, Trojan Horse, Fed Up,

Beware of Central Bankers Bearing Gifts

Ulysses’s reputation preceded him.

   ‘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.

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Is the Fed’s Balance Sheet Headed for the Crapper?

Never underestimate the resourcefulness of a great plumber.

Had it not been for the genius of Thomas Crapper, champion inventor of the water-waste-preventing cistern syphon, Victorians would have been left to make their trek to that malodorous darker place otherwise known as the Out House, or perhaps the crockery pot stashed under the bed for a while longer.

Born in 1836, Crapper was apprenticed to a master plumber at the tender (today) age of 14 and had hung his shingle in Chelsea by his mid-twenties. Such was Crapper’s renown and stellar reputation, that even the Royals themselves were early adopters. The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, is the first known to grace the invention with his regal rear. Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey would be appointed in short order ensuring safe and sanitarily stately relief as the royal “We” traveled from castle to castle.

Of course, it took rude Americans to nick his last name, giving future generations of boisterous boys endless joy at having a humorous potty word to reference the potty. Crapper took great pride in publicly peddling his patented products. Legend has it prim British ladies would faint upon happening upon his Marlborough Road shop, such was the shock at the sight of this and that model of the technological wonder behind huge pane glass windows.

By our very nature, we are nothing if not imperfect, Crapper included. One of his innovative inventions fell flat, or better put, jumped too high. It would seem his spring-loaded loo seat, which leapt upwards as derrieres ascended, automating flushing in the process, was too ill-conceived and thus ill-fated, to be purveyed after all.

No one likes a rude slap on the bottom, bond market investors especially. Perhaps that’s why there’s such irritability among traders who prefer clarity above all, even as bond yields flash danger ahead. Just a guess here but all that angst could reflect concerns about a different sort of plumber, of the central banker ilk.

It’s no secret the plumbers at the Federal Reserve are feverishly at work devising a way to unwind their $4.5 trillion war chest of a balance sheet. Officials claim their carefully devised maneuvers will nary elicit an inkling of a disturbance in the markets they’ve coddled all these years with billions of dollars of purchases, month-in, month-out. But one must wonder, at the timing, at the ostensive optics, if nothing else.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen insists that economic recoveries do not die of old age. But why chance it? Unless, that is, the motivations of shrinkage are less than magnanimous and dare one say, immoral.

Consider the Fed’s Commander in Chief herself. Back in December 2011, then Vice Chair Yellen pushed back against the majority of those on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). The time was ripe for more cowbell. She argued that “a compelling case for further policy accommodation” could be made despite visible green shoots in the labor market and business spending. The consummate dove, she added that while they were at it, why not commit to the Fed sitting on its hands until late 2014 from what was then mid-2013?

Why yes, since you raise the subject, a presidential election was indeed a matter of months away.

Take a step back further in time if you will, to August 2011. Though it is maintained that the subject of politics at FOMC meetings is unseemly, as religion is to cocktail parties, the upcoming election was too front and center to ignore given the subject of debate among committee members.

At the time, the markets were interpreting the Fed’s pledge to keep interest rates tethered to the zero bound for “an extended period” as several meetings. For markets, that period of time was sufficiently brief to begin to price in an impending tightening cycle, an abhorrent assumption to the dovish coalition who had several years, not meetings, in mind.

How best to broadcast the Fed was anything but a commitment-phobe? That’s easy. Do what the Fed did throughout its foray into unconventional policymaking and guarantee results the best way econometricians can, with a numeric commitment, in this case through “mid-2013.”

God love St. Louis Fed President James Bullard for piping up with this following gem: “It will look very political to delay any rate hikes until after the election. I think that will also damage our credibility. I also doubt that we can credibly promise what this committee may or may not do two years from now.”

Score two for St. Louis! Political tinder and who the heck knows where economy will be in two years!

Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher (full disclosure – the man I once simply referred to as ‘boss’) concurred: “The ‘2013’ just looks too politically convenient, and I don’t want to fall back into people being suspicious about the way we conduct our business.”

According to the transcripts, former Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo offered a helping hand with the suggestion that perhaps Fisher would be happier with committing all the way out to 2014. Lovely. And this coming from an individual who sported his Obama bumper sticker for years driving in and out of the parking garage.

For the record, then Chairman Ben Bernanke sided with the doves, defending the move to make binding for a set period the promise to keep rates on the floor. In the end, Bernanke withstood three dissenting votes though not without a fight.

Perhaps what’s most noteworthy is that no fewer than 20 pages of transcripts are devoted to Bernanke’s best efforts to quash the dissents. That’s a problem in and of itself. Healthy dissent should make for a healthy institution. Plus, common sense tells you markets never give back what you give. The time committed was downright irresponsible and all but set the stage for future market temper and taper tantrums.

You may note that the dissenting voices of reason never prevailed, hence the aforementioned $4.5 trillion balance sheet. That’s what makes the doves’ dogged determination to tighten on two fronts so damning. It’s clear that politics got us into this monetary quagmire and that politics will also land us in recession.

To be fair, recessions are inevitabilities down here on Planet Earth where business cycles are permitted to be cyclical. Just the same, for a group of folks who’ve done backbends for years endeavoring to prolong the recovery at all costs, it’s plain odd that they’re even flirting with shrinking the very balance sheet that secures their power base as Type A monetary control freaks.

The good news, for those fearing having to enter monetary rehab, is that it’s going to take a mighty long time to shrink the balance sheet. The fine folks over at Goldman Sachs figure that getting from Point A ($4.5 trillion) to Point B ($2 trillion based on balance sheet contracting just over a tenth the size of the country’s GDP) will take at least five years.

(An aside for you insomniacs out there: Have a look back at Mind the Cap, penned back on December 16, 2015, released hours before the Fed hiked rates for the first time in order to raise the cap on the Reverse Repo Facility (RRP) to $2 trillion. (Mind The Cap via DiMartinobooth.com) Come what may, you can consider Goldman’s estimate of the terminal value of a $2 trillion balance sheet and the size of the RRP to be anything but coincidental.)

In any event, things change. As per Goldman, by 2022, “…changes in Fed leadership, regulation, Treasury issuance policy, or macroeconomic conditions could alter both the near-term path and the intended terminal size of the balance sheet.” Indeed.

It is entertaining to watch market pundits shift in their skivvies trying to assure the masses that a shrinking balance sheet will be welcomed by risky assets. It was downright comical to read that the Fed’s strategically allowing only long-dated Treasuries to expire and not be replaced would prevent the yield curve from inverting, thus staving off recession.

Pardon the interruption, but domestic non-financial sector debt stood at about 140 percent of GDP in 1980. Today, it’s crested 250 percent of GDP and keeps rising. Interest rate sensitivity, especially in commercial real estate, household finance and junk bonds is particularly acute. Oh, and by the way, monetary policy is a global phenomenon. At last check, the European periphery and emerging market corporate bond market were not in the best position to weather a rising rate environment.

The best performance, though, was delivered by Chair Janet Yellen herself. In the spirit of giving credit its due, Business Insider’s Pedro da Costa highlighted this delightful nugget from testimony Yellen presented to Congress in February: “Waiting too long to remove accommodation would be unwise, potentially requiring the FOMC to eventually raise rates rapidly, which could risk disrupting the financial markets and pushing the economy into recession.”

Isn’t the rapidly flattening yield curve communicating that ‘removing accommodation’ today is one and the same with ‘pushing the economy into recession’? In Da Costa’s words, this preemptive philosophy is “dubious” and akin to, “a modern-day finance version of bleeding the patient to cure it.” Hope you’ll agree that leeching has no more place in modern medicine than outhouses do in our backyards.

Even as the Fed battles its own public relations nightmare, it would seem policymakers intend to follow through on their threat to tighten on two fronts, though not concurrently. Will President Trump pass the test and stand firm on reinstating leaders at the Fed who will transform it into a less compromised, more apolitical institution? Or will Trump fold, opting to keep the doves in command?

It’s just a hunch, but a less-threatened Fed could just as easily be expected to back down on shrinking the balance sheet. Given where the economy looks headed, newly empowered doves might even be inclined to grow the balance sheet anew. Stranger things or political posturing? You tell me and while you’re at it, ever noticed the word, ‘die’ is embedded in the word, ‘diet’? Let’s just say bulking up is easier done than slimming down.

The Five-Tool Bond Market

The Five-Tool Bond Market, Danielle DiMartino Booth, Money STrongWillie Mays, Duke Snider and Ken Griffey, Jr.

It’s no secret that these bigger than life baseball players are all Hall of Fame legends. But what about Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels? Or the Pittsburg Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen or Carlos Gomez of the Texas Rangers? What do all six of these greats have in common?

If you guessed that none of them were pitchers, you would definitely be on to something. If you’ve really been doing your homework in the preseason, you would patiently explain that all six were “complete ballplayers,” with above-average capabilities in hitting, hitting for power, fielding, throwing and running. If you wanted to show off, you could elaborate that each has at least three qualified recorded data points in one season in each of the five areas rendering them “five-tool players.” These are the well-rounded players of field scouts’ dreams.

The idea of this quintessential, albeit exceedingly rare player, harkens to another picture of perfection – the bond market. After peaking above 15 percent in 1981, the yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury fell in July of last year to a record low of 1.36 percent. That there is what we call the rally of a lifetime. A major contributor to the mountains of wealth that bonds have generated include the venerable inflation-fighting of one Paul Volcker. The three subsequent boom and bust cycles, largely engineered by Volcker’s successors at the Federal Reserve, each made their own contribution and brought greater and greater degrees of intervention to bear on the market and helped push yields lower and lower. In bondland, that translates to prices soaring higher and higher.

Over the years, the castigators were cast aside time and again. As for the few with steel constitutions, who quickly drew parallels between Japan’s intrusions and those of the Federal Reserve, let’s just say they can retire and rest in peace. They bought 30-year Treasury Strips and buried them, giving new meaning to the beauty of buy and hold. To keep the analogy alive, let’s say that at that juncture, the bond market was a four-tool player.

But then suddenly, last summer, something gave way.

Since July, the conventional wisdom has held that bond yields have finally troughed, bringing a denouement to the 35-year bull run. Of course, those comprising the consensus collided in arriving at their conclusions.

Market technicians, aka the chart-meisters, provide the simplest explanation. In 2016, the 10-year yield sunk below 2015’s low of 1.64 percent and rose above its high of 2.50 percent. Technicians refer to such boomerang behavior in short spaces of time as “outside events” that mark the beginning of the end of a cycle.

The reflationists point to the pronounced uptick in the industrial metals complex as proof positive that inflation has seen its lows of the cycle. Everything from nickel to rebar to copper and back validated the notion that pipeline and margin pressures were building, especially if you had building a pipeline in mind.

And then we have the bullish economist cabal who insist that gross domestic product is set to accelerate into some sublimely sustainable hyper-drive mode. The increase off the lows in interest rates purely reflects the markets being forward-looking mechanisms and sniffing out the bevy of incendiary economic accelerants. In the event you’ve just emerged from a medically induced coma, we’re talking about small business formation, tax cuts galore and repairing every crumbling bridge and filling every pothole from Bangor to Baja. Oh, and by the way, delivered care of our cuddly Congress, in full, tomorrow.

Lastly, there’s the camp with which yours truly would most likely be associated: The Skeptics. As the ridiculous veered into the surreal last year, as nearly a quarter of a trillion in global debt yielded from somewhere south of one percent into deeply negative territory, some of us skeptics began to ask the ye-of-great-faith-in-omnipotent-central-bankers if they grasped the implications of policymakers’ intrusions. Did they really believe Mario Draghi could vacuum up a corporate bond market lock, stock and barrel, and his counterpart Hiroki Kuroda an entire stock market and live to tell? Or was exhaustion overcoming exertion?

At the end of the trading day, all four camps’ arguments are moot. At least, that’s the message the 10-year Treasury is communicating in no uncertain terms. If there is one thing the 10-year can be called upon to deliver, it’s consistency, as in behaving in the same way over time so as to be fair and accurate in anticipating the future. Lest you etymologists, pundits and, dare say, traders in our midst be tripped up, try not to confuse consistency with what you believe to be predictability, as in behaving in an expected manner.

You can carry this much, though not all the way to the bank — the bond market should have corrected long ago if history was any judge. Inflation, heck hyperinflation, should have ignited and burned our currency to the ground by now. But that hasn’t happened, has it? Unlike so many of you who do indeed deliver on the expectations front (yawn), the bond market has consistently surprised those with cocky certitude calling for sea changes.

You’re forgiven if it’s been difficult to incorporate a once-in-a-century outlier factor into your decision-making framework. The entrant of over a billion workers into the global workforce, coupled with the building out of the equivalent of the United States in its glorious industrial age, introduced a deflationary impetus that simply doesn’t exist in any economics textbook in print today. The weighty subsequent suppressant on yields, combined with the artificiality of central banks butting their way into bond pricing, held rates lower than logic or any econometric models dictated, confounding the esteemed doctorate community.

As for the here and now, worry thee not about the chartists, the inflation worrywarts, the optimists and even the skeptics. The decline in the 10-year yield tells you everything you need to know, and probably more than you’d like to acknowledge.

The simple fact is, the current economic recovery has peaked and rolled over. It’s one thing if some subprime auto lender you’ve never heard of is whining about regulators clamping down on premature repossessions. It’s quite another when the data tell you that car inventories are up nearly 10 percent over last year, GM is choking on incentives of its hottest selling pickups and State Farm has just swallowed $7 billion in auto loan underwriting losses (gulp!). Last check these were not hot-money, private-equity-backed fly-by-nighters.

In the event you require yet more proof that the bond scare was just that – scary — Behold! The yield curve flattens! After hitting a wide of 136 hundredths-of-a-percentage-point (basis point) in mid-December – which just so coincided with global bond losses hitting a cool $3 trillion — the difference between the 2-year and 10-year Treasury has narrowed to 112 basis points. Finance 101 tells us that the slimmer the divide between short and long rates, the closer we are to crossing into the netherworld, otherwise known as recession.

This precarious position posits a pondering pause:  Exactly where does the Fed fit into the equation? By the looks of things, the post-election Fed has morphed into its answer to Dirty Harry. Odds of a March rate increase have catapulted to 70 percent in the space of three trading days, a tidy trek for academics more apt to move at the pace of molasses in January. And yet, their tough talk is borderline brash.

Take this from New York Fed President William Dudley three whole days before the onset of the blackout period ahead of next week’s Federal Open Market Committee Meeting begins: “I just think it makes the risks to the outlook a little bit tilted to the upside at this point.” When further queried whether the next rate hike should come, ‘sooner rather than later,’ Dudley replied. “I think that’s fair.”

As benign as his comments may read, make no mistake, they’re fighting words for a Fed that’s given new meaning to skittish for the better part of three decades. It’s as if Fed officials were contenders within reach of that five-tool status save one that last qualifier – hitting for power with a home run distance of 425 feet or more. Recall that Dudley is Vice Chairman of the Federal Open Market Committee. In other words, his conceding to a ‘go’ in March cleared the ball way over the fences.

Rather than delve into any (deeply political so as to throw economy into recession) motivations, let’s look beyond the next recession, inadvertently induced by an overly aggressive Fed, to the next question: How do policymakers wage that next battle?

Since you ask, this is where baseball reenters the equation, in its positively perfect form, in all its five-tool glory. Fighting the next recession is theoretically where the academics shine brightest and hit their collective pleasure threshold. This is where the bond yields steal home. There’s one word for it. Wait for it… “MONETIZATION.” The debt doth disappeareth.

It wasn’t until a recent and very heated public debate, at which a friendly colleague attempted to put your fearless writer in her place (a mistake), that the height of the stakes became apparent. For starters, we both agreed that the overabundance of debt, not just in the United States, but globally, was problematic. Fair enough. The solution to such an intractable problem was thus by its very definition, tricky bordering on tempestuous.

The good news, he insisted, was that in the end, boys would be boys and men would be men. The overly indebted developed-world economies would march off into the great blue yonder and not return until a gentlemen’s agreement has been secured. Pray tell, what form would that take?

In short, not in the neatest of forms. A blanket propaganda campaign would have to be launched educating the clueless public about the virtues of negative interest rates and a cashless society. Upon that sturdy foundation, we could then construct a full-blown monetization of the bloated debt we carry today, one in the same with what we’re told is technically irrelevant because models dictate it can be wished away.

Lest you be led astray, there’s no cathartic Kumbaya that conveniently follows before the credits roll. Milton Friedman was, and remains to this day, spot on in his observation that there is no such thing as a free lunch. My undaunted debater conceded that there would be losers, mainly emerging nations shouldered with boatloads of dollar-denominated debt and developed nations that were naïve enough to not be burdened with excessive debts. But so be it.

In global credit markets that exceed $200 trillion in outstanding securities, dominated by dollar-denominated debt, I deign to accede that the losers have much to lose indeed. Whether they will take their lumps lying down like lambs, however, remains a much wider, open and heated debate than that which played out on a stage in Austin, Texas. My greatest fear is that the war we will eventually face is of the all-too-real variety, precipitated by the greatest income divide since the years that preceded the Great Depression and the Second World War.

Rather than focus on such dire potential outcomes, take comfort in the adage that history doesn’t precisely repeat itself, but rather merely rhymes. Between now and Sunday, April 2nd, baseball’s opening day, relish in the welcome distraction to come. Count your blessings as we count down to the day we hear, “Play Ball!” and spectate with hope for the next five-tool player to make us once again believe.

UpEnding the Fed: The Administration Redemption

Danielle Dimartino Booth, Money Strong, The Administration Redemption“Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” 

Wiser words were never spoken on the big screen than those of The Shawshank Redemption’s main character Andy Dufrense. We are none of us beyond redemption, so we are taught by this banker from Maine, even when we are punished for crimes we did not commit. In briefly researching the movie, one comes to learn that it is based on Stephen King’s 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. No doubt, Hayworth’s role in the movie stands out in all our minds, which is saying something as the superstar was no longer with us.

Dig deeper and you learn that King’s longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel, was part of a series called, Different Seasons, subtitled Hope Springs Eternal. How reassuring if enigmatic. More perplexing still is this master of the horror genre’s inspiration — Leo Tolstoy’s God Sees the Truth, But Waits. It would seem that Carrie has met Anna Karenina.

Clearly, it’s easier to judge those who write books by their most famous covers. But why not set such preconceived notions aside. You too can bask in King’s gorgeous prose from Shawshank and even Tolstoy’s beautiful words of inspiration: “If you want to be happy, be.” And redemption: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

These words resonate so against the backdrop of a country that remains intent on fomenting division, on splitting itself at the seams, bent on self-destruction. Perhaps it will have to come down to one man and his ability to change himself, to draw in more than his avid followers but his doubters as well.

For yours truly, it has thus been curious, nay fascinating that on matters of the Federal Reserve one Donald J. Trump has been silent as a mouse whose paws cannot bang out 140-character rants. Perhaps, just maybe, he is busy doing late night reading on the foundations of this venerable institution. If that’s the case, maybe he came across this little gem that was passed along recently:

“In selecting the members of the Board, not more than one of whom shall be selected from any one Federal Reserve district, the President shall have due regard to a fair representation of the financial, agricultural, industrial, and commercial interests, and geographical divisions of the country.”

Maybe that’s why the media has begun to dispense with the labels “hawk” and “dove” and is beginning to replace the aviary with simple human beings who have been there and done that, who have been on the receiving end of Fed policy for their entire careers. Take this from Kate Davidson at the Wall Street Journal:

“After his campaign criticism of the central bank’s low-interest-rate policies, many observers speculated he would seek more “hawkish” candidates who would favor higher borrowing costs. But his choices may be driven less by these issues and more by their practical experience, judging from his early picks for other top economic policy posts in the administration—drawn from investment banking, private equity and business—and the pool of early contenders for the Fed jobs.” 

Meanwhile, the Financial Times’ Gavyn Davies had this to say:

“The last four Fed Chairs have all been clearly on the economist side of the line, and because they have all bought into the Fed’s economic orthodoxy, their actions have been considered somewhat predictable by the markets. A business person or banker might be less predictable, at least initially, and more prone to shake up the Fed’s orthodoxies, for good or ill.”

With deference to Mr. Davies, there can be no ‘for ill’ in shaking up the Fed’s orthodoxies, if you can call them that. Orthodoxy, from the Greek word orthodoxia, implies officials are cleaving to a correct creed. But what if policymaking has devolved from correct to simply accepted?

That would imply a good dose of heterodoxy, also Greek from heterodoxos, was in order, as in a departure from the official position. To be crystal clear, heterodoxy does not equate to heretical, from the Greek hairetikos, (pardon the digression but who gave the Greeks a monopoly on multisyllabic, cool words?). Even so, a bit of heresy would also do the Fed a world of wonders. The literal Greek translation means ‘able to choose.’

A recent study determined the study of economics in academia had itself become incestuous with a great preponderance of students being trained in the same school of thought. This determination was not only disturbing and dangerous, it demands politicians introduce a bit of heresy into our nation’s central bank.

Perhaps President Trump, his administration and all members of Congress should sit down for a tutorial on Heterodox Economics (nope, not making that one up), which refers to schools of economic thought which fall outside of mainstream — read Keynesian – economics, which is predictably referred to as orthodox economics. Maybe, just maybe, it’s high time a variety of schools are incorporated, as in the post-Keynesian, Georgist, social, behavioral and dare say, Austrian approaches.

That last one, the Von Mises-inspired Austrian school of economics is apparently public enemy number one. The FT’s Davies goes on to warn that some candidates up for those open and opening positions on the Fed’s Board of Governors are ‘Austrian’ economists, a school that has apparently influenced Vice President Pence. An “Austrian” candidate would certainly alarm the markets.”

Davies has apparently done his homework. Back in 2010, one Mike Pence was serving in Congress as a representative of Indiana. In response to the Fed’s insistence on launching a second round of asset purchases, which the markets adoringly embraced as QE2, he blasted back that, “Printing money is no substitute for pro-growth fiscal policy.”

Pence’s words certainly ring Austrian, as the school considers malinvestment to be a menace, as well any rational person would. Malinvestment (we can finally score one for the Latins!) is defined as a mistaken investment in wrong lines of production, which inevitably lead to wasted capital and economic losses, subsequently requiring the reallocation of resources to more productive uses.

And we wonder why we’ve had such a long run of jobless recoveries that happens to coincide with the post-Greenspan era. Why would the markets abhor an Austrian? Clearly, we would not have starved productivity by overbuilding residential real estate in the years prior to the crisis. Nor would companies have gorged on record share buybacks in the years that followed. Agreed, these phenomena juiced returns. But to what end aside from protecting the legacy of the mythological ‘wealth effect’?

As my dear friend Peter Boockvar wrote of the wealth effect in response to the Fed’s meeting minutes from its January meeting: “The concept, invented by Alan Greenspan, and carried on by Mr. Bernanke and Mrs. Yellen, is the unspoken third mandate of the Fed. Well Fed, you certainly got what you wanted in terms of a dramatic rise in asset prices over the past 8 years (just look at the value of equities relative to the underlying US economy) but a wealth effect did not happen if the pace of personal spending in this expansion is any indication. For many, it’s the wages they earn and the savings they keep that drive spending decisions, not the value of their stock portfolios.”

For taxpayers’ money, because they will pay in the end, it would seem we need Peter to fill one of those vacancies on the Fed’s Board. Just sayin’. Would the man who coined the term, ‘monetary constipation’ to describe the, “constant hemming and hawing over a rate hike…even in the face of a world that clearly changed on November 8th  and as we approach the 8th  year of this expansion.”

President Trump, can you hear Peter?? This is not the time to be obtuse. This is the time to bring back the good things in life, beginning with the best – hope. Dig as deep as you can and ask yourself some probing questions. Can you stand up to the orthodoxy that’s robbed the business cycle of its very cyclicality? Are you man enough to populate the Fed with leaders who are so strong there’s no need to audit the out-of-control institution? Pray God, does Mike Pence have your ear? You may be a debt kind of a guy, you’ve said so yourself. But you’re also beholden to no one and have a once-in-a-century opportunity to reshape the world’s most powerful central bank and in doing so safeguard the sanctity of the U.S. dollar.

As Andy Dufrense explained to us all, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.” It’s time we got back to the business of living in this country, every single one of us. Who are we to question if it takes a heretic to get us back to where we need to be?