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Extend and Pretend
Posted by Peter Schiff on 11/10/2012 at 7:53 PM

Now that President Obama has been re-elected, the media is finally free to focus on something besides the clueless undecided voters in Ohio, Florida, and Colorado. The brightest and shiniest object that has attracted its attention is the "fiscal cliff" that we are expected to drive over at the end of the year unless Congress and the President can agree to turn the wheel or apply the brakes.

Fresh from his victory, the President took time today to let the nation know how he proposes to avoid the cliff: to raise taxes on those Americans who make more than $250,000 per year. He made clear than no one making less than that will be asked to pay any more. The two percent of taxpayers that the President is targeting earn 24.1% of all income and pay 43.6% (as of 2008) of all personal federal income taxes. Sounds like a fair share to me. But the four or five percent tax increases on those earners that are being proposed would only yield around $30 to $40 billion per year in added revenue, a drop in the federal bucket. Even if they were to double the amount that they pay our deficit would only be cut by about one third (even if those increases did not trigger an economic slowdown).

So what exactly is this looming menace, and why is it so dangerous? Stripped of its rhetorically charged language the fiscal cliff is simply a legal trigger that will trim the deficit in 2013 by automatically implementing spending cuts and tax increases. In other words, the government will spend less, and more of what it does spend will be paid for with taxes rather than debt. Isn't this exactly what both parties, and the public, more or less want? The fiscal cliff means that the federal budget deficit will be immediately cut in half, shrinking to approximately $641 billion in 2013 from the approximately $1.1 trillion in 2012. What is so terrible about that? I would argue that there is a greater danger in avoiding the cliff than driving over it.

If you recall, the cliff was created by a deal last year when Congress couldn't find ways to trim the deficit in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. When they failed to reach an agreement, Congress knew they had to raise the debt ceiling anyway. The resulting Budget Control Act of 2011, signed in August of that year, offered the pretense that they were dealing with our long-term fiscal crisis and not simply raising the debt ceiling with no strings attached. This was done not only to appease some House Republicans, who had threatened to vote against a debt ceiling increase, but to satisfy the bond rating agencies that had threatened a down-grade if Congress failed to act.

Now the focus turns to how Congress will dismantle the structure it created just 16 months ago. There can be little doubt that they will as economists are assuring politicians that driving over the fiscal cliff will immediately bring on a recession. The expiration of the Bush era tax cuts for all taxpayers will cost Americans an estimated $423 billion in 2013 alone. Hundreds of billions of across the board spending cuts, including the military, have been delineated. No politician would allow that to happen.

It is amazing that members of Congress can keep a straight face as they claim to want to address our long-term deficit problem while simultaneously working to avoid any substantive action. No doubt an agreement will be reached that will replace the looming fiscal cliff with another one farther down the road (which they can easily dismantle before we actually reach the precipice). Will the rating agencies buy this bill of goods a second time? If we lack the political courage to go over this fiscal cliff, why should anyone think we will be able to stomach going over the next one? Especially since each time we delay going over the cliff, we simply increase its future size, making it that much harder to actually go over it.

Many currently believe last year's S&P downgrade resulted from the same congressional dysfunction that resulted in the fiscal cliff agreement. The truth is that the downgrade would probably have been much greater, and more rating agencies would have likely joined S&P in taking action, had it not been for the fiscal cliff agreement. If further downgrades fail to be issued when the lame duck Congress inevitably comes up with another can kicking deal, then the agencies themselves could lose any remaining credibility. In my opinion, the only explanation for inaction by the rating agencies would be for fear of regulatory retaliation by a vindictive U.S government.

I do not think it is a coincidence that while the banks are suffering a regulatory backlash as a result of their perceived culpability for the mortgage crisis, the credit rating agencies have been relatively untouched. But the credit agencies played a key role in catalyzing the mortgage crisis by giving questionable ratings to the mortgage backed securities. My guess is the government simply does not want to open up that can of worms as similar mistakes are being made with respect to the agencies' ratings of government debt.

The truth is that regardless of what you call it, going over the fiscal cliff is not the problem, it is part of the solution. Our leaders should construct a cliff that is actually large enough to restore fiscal balance before a real disaster occurs. That disaster will take the form of a dollar and/or sovereign debt crisis that will make this fiscal cliff look like an ant hill. 



Tags:  economyInflationQE3stock market
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When Infinite Inflation Isn't Enough
Posted by Peter Schiff on 11/07/2012 at 4:45 PM

WHEN INFINITE INFLATION ISN'T ENOUGH 

If no one seems to care that the Titanic is filling with water, why not drill another hole in it? That seems to be the M.O. of the Bernanke Federal Reserve. After the announcement of QE3 (also dubbed "QE Infinity") created yet another round of media chatter about a recovery, the Fed's Open Market Committee has decided to push infinity a little bit further. The latest move involves the rolling over of long-term Treasuries purchased as part of Operation Twist, thereby more than doubling QE3 to a monthly influx of $85 billion in phony money starting in December. I call it "QE3 Plus" - now with more inflation!


Inflation By Any Other Name

In case you've lost track of all the different ways the Fed has connived to distort the economy, here's a refresher on Operation Twist: the Fed sells Treasury notes with maturity dates of three years or less, and uses the cash to buy long-term Treasury bonds. This "twisting" of its portfolio is supposed to bring down long-term interest rates to make the US economy appear stronger and inflation appear lower than is actually the case.

The Fed claims operation twist is inflation-neutral as the size of its balance sheet remains constant. However, the process continues to send false signals to market participants, who can now borrow more cheaply to fund long-term projects for which there is no legitimate support. I said it last year when Operation Twist was announced, and I'll continue to say it: low interests rates are part of the problem, not the solution.

Interventions Are Never Neutral

Just as the Fed used its interest-rate-fixing power to make dot-coms and then housing appear to be viable long-term investments, they are now using QE3 Plus to conceal the fiscal cliff facing the US government in the near future.

As the Fed extends the average maturity of its portfolio, it is locking in the inflation created in the wake of the '08 credit crisis. Back then, we were promised that the Fed would unwind this new cash infusion when the time was right. Longer maturities lower the quality and liquidity of the Fed's balance sheet, making the promised "soft landing" that much harder to achieve.

The Fed cannot keep printing indefinitely without consumer prices going wild. In many ways, this has already begun. Take a look at the gas pump or the cost of a hamburger. If the Fed ever hopes to control these prices, the day will inevitably come when the Fed needs to sell its portfolio of long-term bonds. While short-term paper can be easily sold or even allowed to mature even in tough economic conditions, long-term bonds will have to be sold at a steep discount, which will have devastating effects across the yield curve.
 
It won't be an even trade of slightly lower interest rates now for slightly higher rates in the future. Meanwhile, in the intervening time, the government and private sectors will have made a bunch of additional wasteful spending. When are Bernanke & Co. going to decide is the right time to prove that the United States is fundamentally insolvent? Clearly this plan lays down an even stronger incentive to continue suppressing interest rates until a mega-crisis forces their hands. 

Also, when interest rates rise - the increase made even sharper by the Fed's selling - the Fed will incur huge losses on its portfolio, which, thanks to a new federal law, will become a direct obligation of the US Treasury, i.e. you, the taxpayer! 

Of course, the Fed refuses to accept this reality. Even though a painful correction is necessary, nobody in power wants it to happen while they're in the driver's seat. So Bernanke will stick with his well-rehearsed lines: the money will flow until there is "substantial improvement" in unemployment.

Does Bernanke Even Believe It?

Even Bernanke must have a hunch that there isn't going to be any "substantial improvement" in the near term. I suggested before QE3 was announced that a new round of stimulus might be Bernanke's way of securing his job, but recent speculation is that he may step down when his current term as Fed Chairman expires. Perhaps he is cleverer than I thought. He'll be leaving a brick on the accelerator of an economy careening towards a fiscal cliff, and bailing before it goes over the edge. Whoever takes his place will have to pick up the pieces and accept the blame for the crisis that Bernanke and his predecessor inflamed.

Don't Gamble Your Savings on Politics

For investors looking to find a safe haven for their money, QE3 Plus is a strong signal that the price of gold and silver are a long way from their peaks. Gold hit an eleven-month high at the beginning of October after the announcement of QE3, but the response to the Fed's latest meeting was lackluster. When the Fed officially announces its commitment to QE3 Plus in December, I wouldn't be surprised to see a much bigger rally. For that matter, many are keeping an eye on the election outcome before making a move on precious metals.

However, seasoned readers of my commentary know that short-term trends are not a good reason to invest in physical precious metals. QE3 Plus can only boost the confidence of anyone intent on the long-term protection of wealth through hard assets. No matter who takes office in January, Helicopter Ben Bernanke will continue on the path of dollar devaluation until there is a flight of confidence from the dollar.

 



Tags:  economyInflationQE3stock market
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Pentonomics - Central Bankruptcy - Why QE3 is Inevitable
Posted by Michael Pento on 06/13/2011 at 3:46 PM

As the U.S. economy seemingly limps out of the Great Recession most analysts now assume that the Federal Reserve will soon join the tide of other central banks and bring an end to the current era of unprecedented monetary expansion. Markets expect that Fed will begin withdrawing liquidity this summer, not too long after this latest round of the quantitative easing comes to an end. But this is simply a delusion.

 

There are many political and economic reasons why the Fed will find it extremely difficult to absorb the liquidity that it has relentlessly pumped into the economy since the beginning of the financial crisis. But its biggest problem may be that the ammunition it carries on its balance sheet is insufficient to the task.

 

In order to withdraw liquidity the Fed must sell most, if not all, of the assets on its balance sheet. The questions are: what types of assets will it sell, how fast will they sell them, who will buy, and what price will the market bear?

 

In December 2007, before the Great Recession began the Fed had an equity ratio of around 6% on a balance sheet that totaled approximately $900 billion. The assets it held at that time were almost exclusively comprised of short term Treasury debt. This had been the norm for the vast majority of Fed history. Given the size of the Treasury market and the bankability of its short term debt, the value of such a portfolio was considered virtually bulletproof.

 

But beginning in late 2008, as financial institutions careened towards insolvency, the alphabet soup of Fed lending facilities (TAF, TSLF, PDCF and the CPFF just to name a few) bought all kinds of assets that the Fed never before held. Through quantitative easing efforts alone, Ben Bernanke has added $1.8 trillion of longer term GSE debt and Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS). (In fact, the Fed now holds more of these mortgage instruments than their entire balance sheet before the crash.) This has drastically changed the complexion of the assets it must now sell.

 

But as the size of the Fed's balance sheet ballooned, the dollar amount of capital held at the Fed has remained fairly constant. Today, the Fed has $52.5 billion of capital backing a $2.7 trillion balance sheet. While the size of the portfolio expanded three fold (and the quality of its assets diminished), the Fed's equity ratio plunged from 6% to just 2%. Prior to the bursting of the credit bubble, the public was shocked to learn that our biggest investment banks were levered 30 to 1. When asset values fell, those banks were quickly wiped out. But now the Fed is holding many of the same types of assets and is levered 51 to 1! If the value of their portfolio were to fall by just 2% the Fed itself would be wiped out.



Tags:  fedqe3quanititative easingrecessionstimulus
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