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inflation
Posted by Peter Schiff on 04/04/2014 at 2:11 PM

In recent years a good part of the monetary debate has become a simple war of words, with much of the conflict focused on the definition for the word "inflation." Whereas economists up until the 1960's or 1970's mostly defined inflation as an expansion of the money supply, the vast majority now see it as simply rising prices. Since then the "experts" have gone further and devised variations on the word "inflation" (such as "deflation," "disinflation," and "stagflation"). And while past central banking policy usually focused on "inflation fighting," now bankers talk about "inflation ceilings" and more recently "inflation targets".  The latest front in this campaign came this week when Bloomberg News unveiled a brand new word: "lowflation" which it defines as a situation where prices are rising, but not fast enough to offer the economic benefits that are apparently delivered by higher inflation. Although the article was printed on April Fool's Day, sadly I do not believe it was meant as a joke.

Up until now, the inflation advocates have focused their arguments almost exclusively on the apparent dangers of "deflation," which they define as falling prices. Despite reams of evidence that show how an economy can thrive when prices fall, there is now a nearly universal belief that deflation is an economic poison that works its mischief by convincing consumers to delay purchases. For example, in a scenario of 1% deflation, a consumer who wants a $1,000 refrigerator will postpone her purchase if she expects it will cost only $990 in a year. Presumably she will just make do with her old fridge, or simply refrain from buying perishable items for a year to lock in that $10 savings. If she expects the cost of the refrigerator to decline another 1% in the following year, the purchase will be again put off. If deflation persists indefinitely they argue that she will put off the purchase indefinitely, perhaps living exclusively on dried foods while waiting for refrigerator prices to hit zero.

Economists extrapolate this to conclude that deflation will destroy aggregate demand and force the economy into recession. Despite the absurdity of this argument (people actually tend to buy more when prices fall), at least there is a phantom bogeyman for which to conjure phony terror. Low inflation (below 2%) is even harder to demonize. Few have argued that it has the same demand killing dynamics as deflation, but many say that it should be avoided simply because it is too close to deflation. Given their feeling that even a brief bout of minor deflation could lead to a catastrophic negative spiral, they argue for a prudent buffer of 2% inflation or more. But the writer of the Bloomberg piece, the London-based Simon Kennedy, quotes people in high positions in the financial establishment who offer new arguments as to why "lowflation" (as he calls it) is a "threat" in and of itself. And although the article was primarily concerned with Europe, you can be sure that these arguments will be applied soon to the situation in the United States.

The piece correctly notes that those struggling with high debt tend to welcome high rates of inflation. The math is simple. By diminishing the value of money, inflation benefits borrowers at the expense of lenders. By repaying with money of lesser value, the borrowers partially default, even when paying in full. The biggest borrowers in Europe (and the United States for that matter) are heavily indebted governments and the overly leveraged financial sector. Should it come as a surprise that they are the leading advocates for inflation? The writer admits that higher inflation will help these interests manage their debt burdens and in the case of the financial sector, profit from the increased lending that low interest rates and quantitative easing encourage.

On the other side of the ledger are the consumers, the savers, and the retirees. These groups want lower prices and higher rates of interest on their accumulated capital. Such a combination will lead to higher living standards for those who have worked and saved for many years in order to enjoy the fruits of their efforts. But these types of people are simply not on the "must call" list for our best and brightest economic journalists. As a result, we only get one side of the story.

The article also points out that higher inflation gives businesses more flexibility to retain workers in periods of weak growth. The argument is that if sales revenue falls, companies will not be able to lower wages, and will instead resort to layoffs to maintain their profitability. However, this is only true in cases involving labor union contracts or minimum wage workers. In all other cases, business could reduce wages in lieu of layoffs. Plus, if prices for consumer goods are also falling, real wages may not even decline as a result of the cuts.

In circumstances where wages cannot be legally reduced, as is the case for unionized or minimum wage workers, layoffs are often the employer's only option for keeping costs in line with revenue. However, inflation allows employers to do an end run around these obstacles. In an inflationary environment, rising prices compensate for falling sales. The added revenue allows employers to hold nominal wage costs steady, even when the raw amount of goods or services they sell declines. When inflation rages, higher skilled workers will often demand, and receive, pay raises. But low-skilled workers, who lack such leverageare usually left holding the bag.

In other words, politicians can impose a high minimum wage to pander to voters, but then count on inflation to lower real labor costs, thereby limiting the unemployment that would otherwise result. So what the government openly gives with one hand, it secretly takes away with the other. Workers vote for politicians who promise higher wages, but those same politicians also create the inflation that negates the real value of the increase. But while government takes the credit for the former, it never assumes responsibility for the latter. The same analysis applies to labor unions. Based upon political protection offered by friendly officials, unions can secure unrealistic pay hikes for their members. But the same governments then work to reduce the real value of those increases to keep their employers in business.

Of course, what the Bloomberg writer was really arguing is that governments need inflation to bail themselves out of the policy mistakes they make to secure votes. But two wrongs never make a right. The correct policy would be to run balanced budgets rather than incur debts that can only be repaid with the help of inflation. On the labor front, the better policy would be to abolish the minimum wage and the special legal protections offered to labor unions, rather than papering over the adverse consequences of bad policies with inflation.

So be on the lookout for any more hand-wringing over the supposed dangers of lowflation. The noise will simply be an effort to convince you that what's bad for you is actually good. And although it's an audacious piece of propaganda to even attempt, the lack of critical awareness in the media gives it a fighting chance for success.

Peter Schiff is the CEO and Chief Global Strategist of Euro Pacific Capital, best-selling author and host of syndicated Peter Schiff Show. 

Catch Peter's latest thoughts on the U.S. and International markets in the Euro Pacific CapitalWinter 2014 Global Investor Newsletter!


Tags:  deflationinflation
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The GDP Distractor
Posted by Peter Schiff on 08/20/2013 at 10:06 AM
Albert Einstein, a man who knew a thing or two about celestial mechanics, supposedly once called compound interest "the most powerful force in the universe." While the remark was likely meant to be funny (astrophysicists can be hilarious), it sheds light on the often overlooked fact that small changes, over time, can yield enormous results. Over eons, small creeks can carve large canyons through solid rock. The same phenomenon may be at work in our economy. A minor, but persistent under bias in the inflation gauge used in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) may have created a wildly distorted picture of our economic health.

It would be impossible to measure the economy without "backing out," inflation. That is why economists are very careful to separate GDP reports into two categories: "nominal" (which are not adjusted for inflation), and real (which are). Only the real reports matter. The big question then becomes, how do we measure inflation? Just as I reported last week with respect to the biases baked into the government's GDP revisions, the devil is in the details. 

As it turns out there are a number of official inflation gauges that vie for supremacy. Most people tend to follow the Consumer Price Index (CPI) which is compiled by Bureau of Labor Statistics, a division of the Department of Labor. The CPI is regarded as the broadest measurement tool, but it has been changed many times over the years. Most famously, its formulas were loosened in the late 1990's as a result of the "Boskin Commission" which said that the CPI overstated inflation by failing to account for changes in consumer behavior. I believe those changes seriously undermined the reliability of the index. But the CPI itself has to contend for relevance with its stripped down rival, the "Core CPI," which factors out food and energy, which many believe are too volatile to be accurately counted. The core CPI is almost always lower than the "headline" number.

Another set of inflation data, the "GDP Deflator" is compiled by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (part of the Commerce Department), and is used by them to calculate GDP. The deflator differs from the CPI in that it has much more flexibility in weighting and swapping out items that are in its sample basket of goods and services. While the CPI attracts the lion's share of the media and political attention, it is the deflator that is relevant when looking at economic growth.

On a quarterly basis the two numbers are usually close enough to escape scrutiny. (However, the most recent 2nd quarter GDP estimates relied on annualized inflation of a ridiculously low .7%!). But if you look at a broader time horizon a very clear pattern emerges that makes a great difference in how we perceive the economic landscape.  

Available data sets for both the CPI and the GDP deflator go back to 1947. That 66 year period falls neatly into two phases. From 1947 to 1977 both yardsticks moved together almost identically, both rising 173% over that time. But in the ensuing 36 years (until 2013), the CPI is up almost three fold (292%) while the deflator is only up about two fold (209%). The CPI rising 40% more than the GDP deflator is an extremely significant factor. How did that happen? As it turns out, quarterly inflation assumptions have been, on average, .17% lower for the deflator than for the CPI since 1977. That is a small number. But as with compound interest small numbers add up to big numbers over time.

If you replace the GDP quarterly growth rates using the higher CPI rather the deflator, our current economy would be closer to $13 trillion than 16.6 trillion, about 28% smaller. Even if you were to split the difference between the CPI and the deflator you would still get an economy that is significantly smaller than it appears.

The $64,000 question ($188,000 adjusted by CPI inflation since 1977) is what happened in 1977 to make the CPI and the deflator diverge? Sadly, the details aren't really made public. What we do know is that the BEA took over the task in 1972, and that the separation occurred a few years later when inflation really started to run out of control. We also know that the deflator is more flexible than the CPI and that the interests of the government are better served by reporting low inflation and higher growth. So in other words, the deflator is likely lower for the same reasons that dogs lick themselves in intimate places: because they want to and they can.

If we had been growing as quickly as the official GDP indicates, why would our labor force have contracted so significantly? Why are we continuously replacing middle class jobs with lower paying ones? Why would we be using 3 percent less energy nationally than we did 10 years ago despite an 8.8% growth in population? Why would Americans be spending a higher percentage of their disposable incomes on basic necessities than they were 10 years ago? These trends don't conform to healthy GDP growth. So maybe the growth is largely an illusion?

When you take into consideration the likelihood that even the CPI drastically understates inflation, you get a much clearer picture of the true state of the U.S. economy. If you ever wondered how we went from being the world's largest creditor to its biggest debtor despite all this economic growth, now you know. As the growth was merely a statistical illusion, we have been forced to borrow money to maintain a life style our economy can no longer support.

So the next time you see a GDP report remind yourself that the "deflator" should really be called the "distractor." It's there to distract you from the truth.  

Peter Schiff is the CEO and Chief Global Strategist of Euro Pacific Capital, best-selling author and host of syndicated Peter Schiff Show. 

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Tags:  CPIeconomyGDPinflation
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Sock Puppet Kabuki; Nikkei Today Parallels Dot-Com Bust
Posted by Peter Schiff on 06/26/2013 at 7:28 PM
The Japanese stereotype of excessive courtesy is being confirmed by the actions of prime minster Shinzo Abe who is giving the world a free and timely lesson on the dangers of overly accommodative monetary policy. Whether or not we benefit from the tutorial (Japan will surely not) depends on our ability to understand what is currently happening there.

For now most economists still believe that Abe has stumbled upon the magic elixir of economic revitalization. His commitment to pull his country out of the mud by doubling the amount of yen in circulation, and raising the nation's official inflation rate to 2%, had conferred rock star status on the formerly bland career politician. But just one year after his first critical raves arrived, the audience is heading for the exits. As it turns out, the Japanese miracle may be a simple tale of confidence easily gained, and just as rapidly lost. 

In many ways the 75% nine month rally in the Nikkei 225 (that began when Abe was elected prime minister in September 2012), and the subsequent crash that began on May 22, is not all that different from the turbocharged rally, and spectacular crash, that occurred in technology heavy Nasdaq more than a dozen years ago here in the United States.

At the time that Pets.com (the company behind the iconic Sock Puppet) made its IPO, other high flying tech stocks had racked up 1000% gains. While investors scratched their heads, pundits offered reasons why common sense no longer applied to the new economy. We were told that valuations, revenue and profits no longer mattered. And to an extent that now seems absurd, the investing establishment bought into the insanity. But then a funny thing happened, investors woke up and realized that they had nothing but a handful of magic beans that couldn't grow a beanstalk. When the fog lifted, stocks plummeted...Wile E. Coyote style.

This time around investors in the Japanese market were similarly deluded by fairy tales. Leading economists told them that Japan could cheapen its currency to improve trade, use inflation to create real growth, increase prices to encourage spending, and drastically increase inflation without raising interest rates. In short, monetary policy was seen as substitute for an actual economy.

Initially at least the economic data seemed to confirm the success of Abe's program. The leading indicator was the yen itself, which dropped like a stone. Given the widely held view that a weak currency is the key to economic success, the 25% decline in the yen was welcomed as good news. Soon thereafter, the inflation that Abe so eagerly sought began to materialize in various sectors of the economy. When the Nikkei reacted positively to these developments, momentum traders from around began to take notice, thereby creating self-fulfilling prophecy.

But it's no great trick to weaken a currency. Any two bit economy could accomplish that objective. For a nation like Japan that imports nearly all of its raw materials it was inevitable that a drastically cheaper yen would to push up prices. However the rest of the plan, the part about surging exports and growing economic activity, has been much harder to achieve. In fact the data has been downright disheartening. The plunging yen has failed to reverse Japan's weakening trade balance which has declined for 28 straight months. The trend finally sent Japan into an overall trade deficit 10 months ago for the first time in 30 years. The latest data confirms that while the yen value of exports has increased, actual trade volume has fallen.

While the broad economic data failed to impress, economists and investors were nevertheless hopeful that Abenonmics would eventually work its magic. But recently the bottom has fallen out in a way that should have surprised no one, but somehow managed to do just that. Beginning in April Japanese Government bonds began to sell off sharply. Previously, the Japanese government could borrow funds for 10 years at just 36 basis points.

The truth is that the sub 40 basis point yield on Japanese Government bonds was the most important data point for their economy. At those levels, Japan needed to spend 25% of its tax revenue to service its outstanding debt. While that figure is high, most it is manageable given Japan's high savings rate.  However, with a national debt that exceeds 200% of GDP, the Japanese government could quickly become insolvent in the face of higher debt service costs. If rates on 10 year debt were to ever match the 2% of their inflation target, more half of total tax revenue would be needed to service debt payments.  

But the central premise of Abenomics seems to be that the Bank of Japan could push up inflation to 2% without raises the rates on long-term debt. To do this one would have to assume that bond investors would accept negative interest rates, even while a falling yen was eating away at principle and returns on alternative investments would be expected to be more attractive. Such an outcome is not consistent with human behavior. 

As a result, in late May a strong sell off in Japanese government bonds caused yields to nearly triple to almost 100 basis points on 10 year debt. And while one percent doesn't sound like much, it was the rapidity of the ascent that got everyone's attention. This grim, but very simple, reality seems to have hit Japanese stock investors with a panic unseen since Mechagodzilla took aim at Tokyo. Knowing that even moderately higher rates could counteract any economic gains made by stock market or export growth, the faith in Abenomics has seemed to evaporate almost overnight. Sounds a little like the dot-com bubble, doesn't it? 

Any more rapid escalation in Japanese bond yields should tell us that quantitative easing and growth through devaluation is a cul-de-sac that should be avoided. Japan should be our canary in the coal mine. In the meantime, the drama in Japan is diverting attention away from more important shifts in Asia, more of that in our latest newsletter

An expanded version of this commentary will appear in the June Edition of the Europac's Global Investment Newsletter, which will be available for download later today. 

Peter Schiff is the CEO and Chief Global Strategist of Euro Pacific Capital, best-selling author and host of syndicated Peter Schiff Show. 

Subscribe to Euro Pacific's Weekly Digest: Receive all commentaries by Peter Schiff, John Browne, and other Euro Pacific commentators delivered to your inbox every Monday! 

And be sure to order a copy of Peter Schiff's recently released NY Times Best Seller, The Real Crash: America's Coming Bankruptcy - How to Save Yourself and Your Country



Tags:  economyinflationJapanNikkei
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Tapering The Taper Talk
Posted by Peter Schiff on 06/21/2013 at 12:52 PM

As usual the Federal Reserve media reaction machine has fallen for a poorly executed head fake. It has fallen for this move many times in the past, and for its efforts, it has tackled nothing but air. Yet right on cue, it took the bait once more. Somehow the takeaway from Wednesday's release of the June Fed statement and Chairman Ben Bernanke's press conference was that the central bank is likely to begin scaling back, or "tapering," its $85 billion per month quantitative easing program sometime later this year, and that the program may be completely wound down by the middle of next year. 

Although this scenario is about as likely as an NSA-sponsored ticker tape parade for whistle blower Edward Snowden, all of the market segments reacted as if it were a fait accompli. The stock market - convinced that it will lose the support of ultra-low, long-term interest rates and the added consumer spending that results from a nascent housing bubble - sold off in triple digits. The bond market, sensing that its biggest and busiest customer will be exiting the market, followed a similarly negative trajectory. The sell-off in government and corporate debt pushed yields up to 21 month highs. In foreign exchange markets, the dollar rallied off its four-month lows based on the belief that Fed tightening will support the currency. And lastly, the gold market, sensing that an end of quantitative easing would eliminate the inflationary fears that have partially fueled gold's spectacular rise, sold off nearly five percent to a new two-and-a-half year low.
 
All of this came as a result of Bernanke's mild commitments to begin easing back on permanent QE sometime later this year if the economy continued to improve the way he expected. The chairman did not really elaborate on what types of improvements he had seen, or how much farther those unidentified trends would need to go before he would finally pull the trigger. He was however careful to point out that any policy shift, be it for less or more quantitative easing, would not be dependent on incoming data, but on the Fed's interpretation of that data. By stressing repeatedly that its data goalposts were "thresholds rather than triggers," the chairman gained further latitude to pursue any stance the Fed chooses regardless of the data. 
 
Yet the mere and obvious mention that tapering was even possible, combined with the chairman's fairly sunny disposition (perhaps caused by the realization that the real mess will likely be his successor's problem to clean up), was enough to convince the market that the post-QE world was at hand. This conclusion is wrong.   
             
Although many haven't yet realized it, the financial markets are stuck in a "Waiting for Godot" era in which the change in policy that all are straining to see will never in fact arrive. Most fail to grasp the degree to which the "recovery" will stall without the $85 billion per month that the Fed is currently pumping into the economy.
 
What exactly has convinced the Fed that the economy is improving? From what I can tell, the evidence centered on the rise in stock and real estate prices, and the confidence and spending that follow as a result of the wealth effect. But inflated asset prices are completely dependent on QE and are likely to reverse course even before it is removed. And while it is painfully clear that expectations about QE continuance have made a far bigger impact on the stock, bond, and real estate markets than any other economic data points, many must be assuming that this dependency will soon end.
 
Those who hold this belief have naively described QE as the economy's "training wheels." (In reality the program is currently our only wheels.) They are convinced that the kindling of QE will inevitably ignite a fire in the larger economy. But the big lumber is still too dampened by debt, government spending, regulation, and high asset prices to catch fire - all we have gotten is smoke instead. A few mirrors supplied by the Fed merely completed the illusion. The larger problem of course is that even though the stimulus is the only wheels, the Fed must remove them anyways as we are cycling toward the edge of a cliff. 
 
Although Bernanke dodged the question in his press conference, the Fed has broken the normal market for mortgage backed securities. While it's true that the Fed only owns 14% of all outstanding MBS (the "small fraction" he referred to in the press conference), it is by far the largest purchaser of newly issued mortgage debt. What would happen to the market if the Fed were no longer buying? There are no longer enough private buyers to soak up the issuance. Those who do remain would certainly expect higher yields if the option of selling to the Fed was no longer on the table. Put bluntly, the Fed is the market right now and has been for years.
 
A clear-eyed look at the likely consequences of a pull-back in QE should cause an abandonment of the optimistic assumptions behind the Fed's forecast. Interest rates are already rising rapidly based simply on the expectation of tapering. Imagine how high rates would go if the Fed actually tried to sell some of the mortgages it already owns. But the fact is the mere anticipation of such an event has already sent mortgage rates north of 4%, and without a lifeline from the Fed in the form of more QE, those rates will soon exceed 5%. This increase will greatly impact the housing market. Speculative buyers who have lifted the market will become sellers. More foreclosure will hit the market, just as higher home prices and mortgage rates price any remaining legitimate buyers out of the market. Housing prices will fall to new post bubble lows, sinking the phony recovery in the process. The wealth effect will work in reverse: spending and confidence will fall, unemployment will rise, and we will be back in recession even before the Fed begins to taper.
 
In fact, the rise in mortgage rates seen over the last month has already produced pain in the financial world, with banks reporting a rapid decline in refinancing applications. By the time rates hit 5%, the current rally in real estate will have screeched to a halt. With personal income and wage growth essentially stagnant, individual buyers are extremely dependent on the affordability allowed by ultra-low rates. A near 50% increase in mortgage rates, which would result from an increase in rates from 3.25% to 5.0%, would price a great many buyers out of the market. Higher rates would also cool much of the housing demand that has been coming from the private equity funds that have been a factor in pushing up real estate prices in recent years. Falling home prices would likely trigger a new wave of defaults and housing related bankruptcies that plunged the economy into recession five years ago.
       
A similar dynamic would occur in the market for U.S. Treasury debt. Despite Bernanke's assurances that the Fed is not monetizing the government's debt, the central bank has been buying nearly 70% of the new issuance in recent years. Already, rates on 10-year treasury debt have creeped up by more than 50% in less than two months to over 2.5%. Any actual decrease or cessation in buying - let alone the selling that would be needed to unwind the Fed's multi-trillion dollar balance sheet - would place the Treasury market under extreme pressure. Since low rates are the life blood of our borrow and spend economy, it is highly likely that higher rates will lead directly to lower stock prices, lower GDP growth, and higher unemployment. Since rising asset prices and the confidence and spending they produce is the basis for Bernanke's rosy forecast, new lows in house prices and a bear market in stocks will likely reverse those forecasts on a dime. 
 
Lost on almost everyone is the effect higher interest rates and a slowing economy will have on federal budget deficits. As unemployment rises, tax revenues will fall and expenditures will rise. In addition, rising rates will not only make it more expensive for the Fed to finance larger deficits, it will also make it more expensive to refinance maturing debts. Furthermore, the profit checks Fannie and Freddie have been paying the Treasury will turn into bills for losses, as a new wave of foreclosures comes tumbling in. 
 
It's fascinating how the goal posts have moved quickly on the Fed's playing field. Months ago the conversation focused on the "exit strategy" it would use to unwind the trillions in bonds and mortgages that it had accumulated over the last few years. Despite apparent improvements in the economy, those discussions have given way to the more modest expectations for the "tapering" of QE. I believe that we should really be expecting a "tapering" of the tapering conversations.
 
As a result, I expect that the Fed will continue to pantomime that an eventual Exit Strategy is preparing for a grand entrance, even as their timeline and decision criteria become ever more ambiguous. In truth, I believe that the Fed's next big announcement will be to increase, not diminish QE. After all, Bernanke made clear in his press conference that if the economy does not perform up to his expectations, he will simply do more of what has already failed. 
 
Of course, when the Fed is forced to make this concession, it should be obvious to a critical mass that the recovery is a sham. Investors will realize that years of QE have only exacerbated the problems it was meant to solve. When the grim reality of QE infinity sets in, the dollar will drop, gold will climb, and the real crash will finally be upon us. Buckle up.

Peter Schiff is the CEO and Chief Global Strategist of Euro Pacific Capital, best-selling author and host of syndicated Peter Schiff Show. 

Subscribe to Euro Pacific's Weekly Digest: Receive all commentaries by Peter Schiff, John Browne, and other Euro Pacific commentators delivered to your inbox every Monday! Or get the Global Investor Newsletter.

And be sure to order a copy of Peter Schiff's recently released NY Times Best Seller, The Real Crash: America's Coming Bankruptcy - How to Save Yourself and Your Country

Tags:  Ben Bernankeeconomyfederal reservehousinginflationquantitative easing
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The Great Reflation
Posted by Peter Schiff on 05/31/2013 at 10:36 AM

This week economists, investors and politicians were treated to some of the "best" home price data since the frothy days of 2006 when home loans were given out like cotton candy and condo flipping was a national pastime. The Case-Shiller 20 City Composite Home price index was up a startling 10.9% for the 12 month period ending in March. Prices in all 20 cities were up, with some (Las Vegas, Phoenix, and San Francisco) notching gains of more than 20%. Meanwhile the National Association of Realtors announced that April pending home sales volume reached the highest level in nearly three years.

The strong housing data is taken as proof that the economy has turned around and that a recovery is under way. Cooler heads may simply see how government policies have channeled money into real estate in order to reflate a bubble that has been collapsing for the last five years. Although the money is entering the market through slightly different paths than it did in 2005 and 2006, its effects on housing, and the broader economy, are the same as they were before the bubble burst. When the inevitable happens again, the ensuing damage will be eerily familiar.
 
After five years of dismal real estate performance and a lackluster economy, it's hard to fault people for believing that rising home prices are a good barometer of economic health. There can be little doubt that rising home prices feel good. Even single digit appreciation can make modest home buyers feel like mini-moguls. The effect is magnified in a falling interest rate environment where any appreciation can be instantly turned into an opportunity for cash out refinancing. The "wealth effect" created by such activities then translates into consumer spending and other seemingly positive economic developments. But some things can taste great but be very harmful (cinnamon buns come to mind). It felt good when real estate prices were rising during the pre-financial crisis bubble, but that rise only exacerbated the problems when the bubble burst. The questions we should now be asking ourselves is why are prices rising, are those higher prices sustainable, and what are the costs to the broader economy?
 
The truth is that most buyers cannot afford today's prices without the combination of government guarantees and artificially low mortgage rates. The Federal Reserve has been conducting an unprecedented experiment in economic manipulation. By holding interest rates near zero and by actively buying more than $40 billion monthly of mortgage-backed securities and $45 billion of Treasury bonds, the Fed has engineered the lowest mortgage rates in generations. At the same time, Federal control of the mortgage industry has become nearly complete, with government agencies Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the FHA buying or guaranteeing virtually all new mortgages. In addition, a variety of Federal programs, such as the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) are in place to help keep underwater homeowners in homes that they could not otherwise afford. Taken together, these programs create far more favorable terms for home buyers than those that existed before the crash.

The big difference between then and now however is that banks are much more reluctant to extend loans to people with bad credit. But that has not stopped money from flowing into real estate.  Ultra low interest rates also mean that fixed income investments, that have long been the staple of hedge funds and private equity funds, no longer deliver decent returns. To find yields in such an environment, many of these professional investment funds have scooped up single family homes out of foreclosure and put them into the rental market in order to generate a decent return on equity. These buyers come to the table with war chests full of cash which puts them in a position to avoid all of the credit obstacles that continue to plague individual buyers.
 
This trend has allowed a recovery in home sales even while the national home ownership rate has dropped to 65%, the lowest rate since 1995 (down from almost 70% during the last decade). Now that most of the available foreclosures have been picked through (with the rest log jammed with litigation and red tape), many of the new classes of investment buyers are striking deals directly with the large home builders to buy homes before they are even built. It is no coincidence that the southern tier markets with the fastest appreciation, and the fastest declines in inventories, have been those with the greatest participation of institutional investors.
 
But their activities have a latent downside. The new ownership class is not motivated to buy and hold the way Mom and Dad would. They are not looking for a place to live, raise families, and retire. They are simply looking for a decent return on equity relative to other investments. Many would happily put money in higher yielding bonds where landlord headaches don't exist. If better deals beckon, or if risks increase in the real estate market, the homes they bought will be dumped even faster.
 
In the meantime, bidding wars involving hedge funds are forcing real buyers to pay more, oftentimes pricing them out of the market completely. Then as these properties hit the rental market, an absence of qualified tenants will depress rents. Lower rents will in turn put downward pressure on property values. Many rental houses will also sit vacant. Though hedge funds are cash buyers, most borrow large percentages of that cash to lever up their returns. However, when interest rates rise and rents fall, hedge funds will be forced to sell. But where will the buyers come from? The current crop of renters cannot afford to buy even with mortgage rates at historic lows. When rates rise, prices will have to plunge before real buyers could even qualify for mortgages.
 
The current combination of low rates and investor demand has succeeded in pushing up prices. But that doesn't mean the market is healthy. For the first quarter of 2013, the Federal Reserve reports a 10% delinquency rate for residential mortgages (those with payments that are at least 90 days past due). This is more than 6 times the rate in the first quarter of 2006. In contrast, credit card delinquencies currently stand at 2.65%, the lowest rate in decades and 31% lower than the rate in the first quarter of 2006. Whether it is by choice, or simply by the ability to pay, Americans are clearly placing a low priority on paying their mortgages.
 
But rising home prices are currently creating residual benefits even for those who have no intention of selling. In the second quarter of this year, rates on 30 year mortgages hit the lowest level on record. Although the data has not yet been published, it would be logical to assume that homeowners have taken the opportunity to refinance, lower their payments, and in some cases, pull money out. But even if they haven't, there is evidence to suggest that an owner's belief that his home has appreciated is enough to encourage greater spending.
 
The "wealth effect' from rising home prices combined with the similar influence of rising stock prices creates an aura of recovery. In fact, this week's revisions to first quarter GDP revealed that consumer confidence and spending are up despite real discretionary per capita incomes plunging at a 9.03% annualized rate. That is worse than the largest plunge during the 2008-2009 crisis (7.52%). Additionally, the household savings rate fell to an abysmal 2.3%, the lowest since the 3rd quarter 2007. Debt-financed consumption supported by inflated asset prices is what led to the financial crisis of 2008. It's amazing how willing we are to travel down that road again.
 
Of course rising asset prices are completely dependent on continued Fed support. As we have seen time and again, whenever the Fed even hints at tapering its massive QE programs the stock market sells off. The housing market is even more dependent on that support. Given the risks, it is arguable that no private market for home loans would even exist without government intervention. The bubble that popped in 2008 consisted mainly of government-guaranteed mortgages. This time, the mortgages are not merely government-guaranteed, but government owned.
 
In the meantime, by blowing more air into a deflating housing bubble, the Fed is misdirecting money into a sector that investment capital should be avoiding. A successful economy can't be built on housing. Rather, a robust real estate market must result from a healthy economy. You can't put the cart before the horse. As a nation, we do not need more houses. We built enough over the last decade to keep us well sheltered for years. Private equity funds should be using their investment capital to fund the next technology innovator, not wasting it on townhouses in Orlando and Phoenix.
 
Of course the real risks in housing center on the next leg down, in what I believe will be a continuation of the real estate crash. We can't afford to artificially support the market indefinitely. When significantly higher interest rates eventually arrive, the fragile market will again be impacted. We saw that movie about five years ago. Do we really want to see it again?

Peter Schiff is the CEO and Chief Global Strategist of Euro Pacific Capital, best-selling author and host of syndicated Peter Schiff Show. 

Subscribe to Euro Pacific's Weekly Digest: Receive all commentaries by Peter Schiff, John Browne, and other Euro Pacific commentators delivered to your inbox every Monday

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Tags:  economyhousinginflation
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Symptoms Don't Lie
Posted by Peter Schiff on 05/10/2013 at 11:41 AM

A good doctor will not simply make a diagnosis based on measurements. The symptoms and complaints expressed by the patient are at least as important in making a determination as the data provided by diagnostic tools. When the data says one thing and the symptoms continuously say another, it makes sense to question the reliability of the instruments. This would be particularly true if the instruments are furnished by a party with a stake in a favorable diagnosis, say an insurance company on the hook for treatment costs. The same holds true for the U.S. economy. Although our government-supplied data suggests we are experiencing low inflation and modest economic growth, the economy shows symptoms of low growth, rising prices, and diminishing purchasing power.

In my latest commentary I discussed how the Big Mac Index (The Economist Magazine's 30 year data set on Big Mac prices) provided strong anecdotal evidence that inflation in the United States is higher than official figures. More information has come in since then that tells me the same thing: that Americans are downsizing their lives as their incomes fail to keep pace with rising prices. These symptoms are at odds with the widespread belief in an accelerating recovery that has resulted in braggadocio in Washington and euphoria on Wall Street.

Earlier this week Tyson Foods, one of the nation's largest providers of packaged meat products, announced that although their top line sales revenue increased by almost 2% (roughly in line with U.S. GDP growth), operating margins collapsed by almost 50%, leading to a 43% decline in profit. Consumer shifts away from relatively higher priced/higher margin beef and pork products to lower cost/lower margin chicken products were to blame. Tyson also noted that cost conscious consumers shifted away from higher margin packaged chicken products to fresh meat cuts, thereby sacrificing convenience for cost.

According to government statisticians, the Tyson announcement would reveal modest growth and low inflation. After all, revenue at the company grew and spending on their products had increased modestly. But rising prices were obscured by consumers purchasing lower quality products. Not only are consumers avoiding the beef and pork that they otherwise may have preferred, but they are opting out of the convenience of prepared foods. This behavior is symptomatic of diminished consumer purchasing power. This is known as getting poorer.

The trend corresponds with the steady increase in the share of income that Americans devote to food and energy. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis data, in 2002 Americans spent about 17.8% of income on food and energy. In the first quarter of 2013 the share had risen by a factor of 20% to 21.3% of income. Increased share of spending on necessities like food and energy is consistent with falling living standards. In the poorest countries almost all of income is devoted to such things.

This week we also learned the seemingly positive news that the March trade deficit narrowed to $38.8 billion.  But the reduction didn't come from increased exports (which actually declined), but by the sharpest drop in imports since February 2009. Oil imports declined to a seventeen-year low, in part due to rising domestic production, but also due to a record low in 13 years in gasoline consumption. While some may argue that is a function of greater energy efficiency, I believe it's more likely that usage is down because of high prices and high unemployment. Even more significant is that our trade deficit with China in March dropped by a whopping 23.6%, hitting a three-year low. On a year over year basis, the decline in our deficit with China was 90% attributable to the decline in imports.

In contrast to the declining import figures, the government reported that personal spending rose by .2% in March. If we are buying less stuff from abroad, where are Americans spending the extra money? If the prices are stable, and imports are way down, consumer spending should also be down and savings should be up. But the savings rate in March held steady at a meager 2.7%. The sad truth is that Americans are buying fewer Chinese products because they are spending more money on food, rent, utilities, healthcare, insurance, and other necessities that can't be imported. Again, this is consistent with a falling standard of living, as inflation forces consumers to forgo the things they want in order to buy the things that they need.  

It was also announced this week that the big three airlines (United, Delta, and American) will be raising their "change fees" for booked tickets by 33%, from $150 to $200. However, it's unlikely that such a hike will make much of an impact on CPI. According to the CPI, airline fares in the United States increased only .3% from 2011 to 2012. This mild increase came at a time when airlines were rolling out more new fees than most air travelers could have possibly imagined. 

But even if the government fully factored in the increase in fees, they would likely ignore the change in behavior that the increase would elicit. With the cost of changing a ticket so dramatically higher than it has been in the past, it is likely that far fewer Americans would be willing to change their travel plans once their tickets have been purchased. So even while the spending increase may be relatively small, the lost convenience is not factored into the equation. A ticket with low price (or no price) change option is a much better product than a ticket with high penalties.

CPI reports that from 2007 to 2012 air travel increased on average 4% per year. But that's only half the story. A new study released by MIT reports that during those five years, U.S. airlines cut the number of domestic flights by 14%,with the cuts falling most heavily on mid-sized regional airports. By 2012, the industry also closed more than 20 smaller airports, began using a higher percentage of larger airplanes, and reported record crowding on remaining flights. In other words, air travel not only became more expensive but less convenient and more crowded.

How much loss in value does this inconvenience and lack of flexibility create? It's hard to say, but we all have experienced it with varying degrees of frustration. But what is sure is that the government isn't interested in such trivialities.

The combination of these symptoms suggests that the extent to which people are being impoverished by accelerating inflation is not reflected in official government measurements. This explains why unemployment remains high even as GDP appears to rise. It is my belief that the unprecedented expansion of the money supply under the current Fed leadership is pushing up prices for stocks, bonds, real estate, and consumer goods. Market indices neatly capture the price increases for all of these categories except for the latter, which has been concealed by an overly adjusted CPI.

If consumer inflation data were reported more accurately, it would be revealed that much of the apparent growth is an illusion. The patient is getting sicker, but the doctors are too distracted to notice.

Peter Schiff is the CEO and Chief Global Strategist of Euro Pacific Capital, best-selling author and host of syndicated Peter Schiff Show. 

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Japan Steps into the Void
Posted by Peter Schiff on 04/19/2013 at 1:36 PM

In the years following the global financial crisis, economists and investors have gotten very comfortable with very high, and seemingly persistent, government debt. The nonchalance may be underpinned by the assumption that globally significant countries that can print their own currencies can't get trapped in a sovereign debt crisis. However, it now appears that Japan is preparing to put this confidence to the ultimate stress test.

For the better part of 20 years, successive Japanese governments and central bankers have been trying, unsuccessfully, to use quantitative easing strategies to pump up a deflated asset bubble. The economy has by and large not responded. The sustained and impressive growth that Japan delivered during the 45 years following the Second World War (which had made the country one of the most successful economic stories in world history), has never returned.  For the last 20 years Japan has offered a "zombie" economy characterized by low growth, stagnation, and exploding government debt. The Japanese government now owes approximately $12 trillion, a figure representing more than 200% of GDP. The IMF expects that this figure will reach 245% by the end of this year. This gives Japan the unenviable title of having the world's highest government debt-to-GDP ratio. But Shinzo Abe, the newly elected Prime Minister of Japan, and Haruhiko Kuroda, his newly-appointed Governor of the Bank of Japan, feel much, much more debt needs to be issued to turn the economy around.

The hope that Abe would be a new kind of prime minister with a bold economic formula helped revive the long dead Japanese stock market. Between May and November of 2012, the Nikkei traded within a range of 8200-9400. As Abe's victory began to be expected, the Nikkei started moving up, reaching 10,000 by the time he was sworn in on December 26 of last year. The euphoria continued throughout the spring and by April 2 the Nikkei stood at 12,003 points. Then on April 4, BOJ Governor Kuroda made good on Abe's dovish rhetoric and announced a plan to end years of mildly declining prices by doing whatever necessary to create 2% inflation (in reality these price declines have  been one of the few consolations to Japanese consumers). To achieve its goals, the government is prepared to double the amount of Yen in circulation. Stocks immediately rallied, and in less than a week the Nikkei had breached 13,000 points, taking the index to a 4 1/2-year high. It is rare that any major stock market can achieve a 50% rally in less than a year. But the rally will be costly.

The Japanese government already spends 25% of tax revenue to service outstanding debt (compared to 6% in the US). These costs become even more astonishing when one considers the extremely low rates Japan pays. Ten-year Japanese government bonds now pay less than 0.6%, and five-year yields are now a little more than 0.20%. How much will debt service costs increase if Abe succeeds in pushing inflation to 2.0%? Two percent rates would triple long term borrowing costs. Given the size of its debts, increases of such magnitude could hit Japan with the force of 10 Godzillas.

Japan has an aging demographic and as more time goes by, the pool of potential bond buyers continues to shrink. Unlike the United States, where individual savers are mostly irrelevant in the sovereign debt market, Japanese investors have largely set the market in their own country. There is evidence to suggest that Japanese savers are increasingly considering overseas sources of yield for protection from the inflation that Abe is so determined to create.

As the Nikkei has moved upward, the Japanese Yen has taken the opposite trajectory, falling more than 20% against the U.S. Dollar since the beginning of 2012, and nearly 12% since the beginning of this year (the decline has been even greater in terms of several other currencies). This steep drop, which has taken a huge bite out of the nominal gains in Japanese stocks is unusual in the foreign exchange markets, and has threatened to destabilize an already weak global financial system.

Earlier this year the falling yen issue sparked a full-fledged headline war. On February 16th, participating members of the G20 issued a statement, clearly aimed at Japan, warning against competitive devaluations and currency wars. A day later, Japan's Finance Minister stated flatly that Japan was not attempting to manipulate its currency. After some hesitation, the G20 seemed to accept this statement. For now it seems the international powers have fallen in behind Japan. Both IMF Chief Christine Lagarde and Ben Bernanke have praised Abe's policies. The prevailing opinion seems to be that weakening a currency should not be considered manipulation as long as it's done to revive a domestic economy, not specifically to harm competitors. Such an opinion qualifies as a great moment in rhetorical shamelessness. 

In addition to his plans for inflationary monetary policy, Abe is also attempting to wage war from the fiscal side as well. His Liberal Democratic Party has called for over $2.4 trillion USD worth of public works stimulus over the next 10 years. This spending represents approximately 40% of Japan's current GDP and, adjusted for population, would be the equivalent of nearly $600 billion USD annually in the United States.

It should be obvious to anyone with even half a brain that Japan's prior experiments with ever larger doses of quantitative easing have failed. Leaders in both Japan and the United States, however, are following this path with reckless abandon. According to Abe, the entirety of Japan's economic problems can be blamed on the fact that consumer prices have been declining by one tenth of one percent per year. If only Japanese consumers were forced to pay two percent more per year for the things they need or desire, all would be well. 

Abe's wish may already be coming true. McDonald's announced this morning that, for the first time in 5 years, the price of hamburgers and cheeseburgers in Japan will be rising by 20% and 25% respectively. No doubt the Japanese will be so excited by this development that they'll rush to the stores to consume all the burgers they were planning on eating in 2014 before prices go up again. Of course there is no official concern that low-income Japanese will now have to pay more for low cost food. 

The idea that informs Abe's plan, that rising prices entice consumers to buy before the prices go up, is clearly suspect as economic law dictates that demand increases when prices fall. Any store owner will tell you that cutting prices is the best way to move merchandise. Apart from this problem, how does Abe expect consumers to buy more when their currency is losing purchasing power and more of their incomes will be needed to pay interest on the national debt?    

The boldness of Abe's plans should provide the rest of the world with a crash course in the ability of debt accumulation to jumpstart an economy. The good news is that the effects should not take too long to be seen. I believe that we will be treated with a stark lesson on the limitations of inflation as an economic panacea.

Hopefully, failure of this latest Japanese experiment will help convince leaders in the U.S. and Japan that the only true path to prosperity is free market capitalism. Rather than trying to reflate busted bubbles and micro-manage Keynesian style recoveries, politicians and central bankers should recognize their respective roles in creating the problems and get out of the way.  

Peter Schiff is the CEO and Chief Global Strategist of Euro Pacific Capital, best-selling author and host of syndicated Peter Schiff Show. 

Subscribe to Euro Pacific's Weekly Digest: Receive all commentaries by Peter Schiff, John Browne, and other Euro Pacific commentators delivered to your inbox every Monday

And be sure to order a copy of Peter Schiff's recently released NY Times Best Seller, The Real Crash: America's Coming Bankruptcy - How to Save Yourself and Your Country

Tags:  Bank of JapaninflationJapanyen
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Inflation Propaganda Exposed
Posted by Peter Schiff on 01/09/2013 at 12:57 PM

Economists who hold the popular view that expanding the money supply will provide the best medicine for our ailing economy dismiss the inflationary concerns of monetary hawks, like me, by pointing to the supposedly low inflation that has occurred during the current period of rampant Fed activism. In a recent blog post aimed specifically at me, Paul Krugman noted that the sub 2.5% increases in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) over the past few years are all that is needed to prove me wrong. In fact, Krugman and others have even suggested that the CPI itself overstates inflation and that the Fed would be better able to help the economy if less strict methodologies were used. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the CPI is essentially meaningless as it woefully under reports rising prices.

Magazines and newspapers provide a good case in point. The truth has not been exposed through the economic reporting that these outlets provide, but in the prices that are permanently fixed to their covers. For instance, from 1999 to 2002 the Bureau of Labor Statistic's (BLS) "Newspaper and Magazine Index" (a component of the CPI) increased by 37.1%. But a perusal of the cover prices of the 10 most popular newspapers and magazines (WSJ, Washington Post, Time, Sports Illustrated, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People, NY Times, USA Today, and the LA Times) over the same time frame showed an average cover price increase of 131.5% (3.5 times faster than the BLS' stats). This is not even in the same ballpark.

Some defenders of the BLS may conclude that prices were held down by the availability of free online news content or the convenience of digital delivery. But that is beside the point. Prior to the digital age, the BLS could have claimed that newspaper costs were held down by public libraries that provided free access. It's also true that online publications deliver less value on some fronts. Not only do many people enjoy the tactile process of reading physical newspapers or magazines, but they offer the secondary value in helping to kindle fires, housebreak puppies, pack dishes, and line birdcages.  

Another stunning example is found in health insurance costs, which is a major line item for most families. According to the BLS we can all breathe easy on that front because their "Health Insurance Index" increased a mere 4.3% (total) in the four years between 2008 and 2012.  Interestingly, over the same time, the Kaiser Survey of Employer Sponsored Health Insurance showed that the cost of family health insurance rose 24.2% (5.5 times faster). But even if the BLS had reported higher costs, it wouldn't have made much of a difference in the CPI itself. Believe it or not, health insurance costs are assigned a weighting of less than one percent of the overall CPI. In contrast, the Kaiser Survey revealed that in 2012 the average total cost for family health insurance coverage was $15,745, or almost one third of the median family income.

If the BLS could be so blatantly wrong in reporting the prices of newspapers and health insurance, should we believe that they are more accurate on all other sectors? If the inaccuracy of these two components were consistent with the rest of the CPI's components, inflation could now be reported in double-digits!

Even more egregious than the manner in which prices are currently reported is the way that CPI methods have been changed over the years to insure that most increases are factored out.  Since the 1970's, the CPI formula has changed so thoroughly that it bears scant resemblance to the one used during the "malaise days" of the Carter years. Main stream economists dismiss criticism of the changes as tin hat conspiracy theories. But given the huge stakes involved, it's hard to believe that institutional bias plays no role. Government statisticians are responsible for coming up with the formulas, and their bosses catch huge breaks if the inflation numbers come in low. Human behavior is always influenced by such incentives. 

The newer CPI methodologies are designed to report not just on price movements, but on spending patterns, consumer choices, substitution bias, and product changes. In other words, the metrics have been altered to track not so much the cost of things, but the cost of living (or more accurately, the cost of surviving). But if you simply focus on price, especially on those staple commodity goods and services that haven't radically changed in quality over the years, the under reporting of inflation becomes more apparent.

As reported in our Global Investor Newsletter, we selected BLS price changes for twenty everyday goods and services over two separate ten-year periods, and then compared those changes to the reported changes in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) over the same period. (The twenty items we selected are: eggs, new cars, milk, gasoline, bread, rent of primary residence, coffee, dental services, potatoes, electricity, sugar, airline tickets, butter, store bought beer, apples, public transportation, cereal, tires, beef, and prescription drugs.)

We know that people do not spend equal amounts on the above items, and we know their share of income devoted to them has changed over the decades. But as we are only interested in how these prices have changed relative to the CPI, those issues don't really matter. We chose to look at the period between 1970 and 1980 and then again between 2002 and 2012, because these time frames both had big deficits and loose monetary policy, and they straddle the time in which the most significant changes to the CPI methodology took effect. And while the CPI rose much faster in the 1970's, the degree to which the prices of our 20 items outpaced the CPI was much higher more recently.

Between 1970 and 1980 the officially reported CPI rose a whopping 112%, and prices of our basket of goods and services rose by 117%, just 5% faster. In contrast between 2002 and 2012 the CPI rose just 27.5%, but our basket increased by 44.3%, a rate that was 61% faster. And remember, this is using the BLS' own price data, which we have already shown can grossly under-estimate the true rate of increase. The difference can be explained by how CPI is weighted and mixed. The formula used in the 1970's effectively captured the price movements of our twenty everyday products. But in the last ten years it has been quite a different story.

If these price changes in our experiments had been fully captured, CPI could currently be high enough to severely restrict Fed action to stimulate the economy. Instead, the Fed is operating as if inflation is extremely low. As a result, they are making a huge policy mistake that will come back to haunt us. During the last decade the Fed spent many years denying the existence of a housing bubble, even as a mountain of evidence piled up to the contrary. That error caused the Fed to hold interest rates too low for too long, blowing more air into the bubble and imposing enormous negative consequences on the economy. The Fed, now similarly blind to the inflation threat, is repeating its mistake, only this time the negative consequences will be even more dire.

Apart from the statistical problems that hide inflation, there are also macroeconomic factors that have helped keep prices down despite the quantitative easing. Massive U.S. trade deficits and foreign central bank dollar accumulation mean that much of the printed money winds up in foreign bank vaults, not U.S. shopping centers. As foreign consumer goods flow in, and dollars flow out, a lid is kept on domestic prices. In effect, our inflation is exported as foreign central banks monetize our deficits and recycle their surpluses into U.S. Treasuries. The demand has pushed down bond yields which has allowed the U.S. government to borrow inexpensively. Of course, when the flows reverse, bond prices will fall, yields will climb, and a tidal wave of dollars will wash up on American shores, drowning consumers in a sea of inflation.   

Unlike Krugman and the Keynesians, I would argue that it is impossible to create something from nothing. I believe that printing a dollar diminishes the value of all existing dollars by an aggregate amount equal to the purchasing power of the new dollar. The other side takes the position that the new money creates tangible economic growth and  that real economic value can therefore be created by putting zeroes onto a piece of paper. I think that those making such absurd claims should bear the burden of proof. For more on the interesting topic of hidden inflation, see my video that I just posted.

 

Peter Schiff is the CEO and Chief Global Strategist of Euro Pacific Capital, best-selling author and host of syndicated Peter Schiff Show.

Subscribe to Euro Pacific's Weekly Digest: Receive all commentaries by Peter Schiff, John Browne, and other Euro Pacific commentators delivered to your inbox every Monday! 

And be sure to order a copy of Peter Schiff's recently released NY Times Best Seller,The Real Crash: America's Coming Bankruptcy - How to Save Yourself and Your Country.


Tags:  CPIfederal reserveinflationKrugman
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Treasury's Last Pillar Crumbles
Posted by Peter Schiff on 01/03/2013 at 7:20 AM
With the return of Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party to power in Japan, the market for US Treasuries may be losing its last external pillar of support. Re-elected on September 26th, Abe has quickly set a course for limitless inflation, saying Japan must "free itself from deflation and the strong yen." This is significant to the global economy as Japan is the largest foreign power left with a strong appetite for US Treasuries. If this demand falters, the Fed may be the only remaining buyer of new Treasury issuance.
 
Abe's Plan
 
This election marks Abe's second turn in the premier's seat. He first held the position from 2006 to 2007, when he abruptly resigned as the first of a string of unpopular one-year premierships. Notably, in the intervening time, the LDP lost its lower house majority to an opposition party for the first time since its formation in 1955. The victors, the Democratic Party of Japan, had been formed in 1998 on a platform of reducing corruption and making Japan more progressive.
 
Unfortunately, as we know from our past century of experience in America, progressivism is not the cure for an ailing economy. The DPJ was predictably unsuccessful at reining in the bureaucracy, but did manage to push through a damaging doubling of the national sales tax and additional entitlement spending.
 
Similarly to President Obama's 2008 election, the Japanese people were sold a lot of rhetoric about hope and change and, lacking any sincere alternatives, decided to give the new guys a shot. The results were equally disappointing on both sides of the Pacific. 
 
While American voters decided to throw good votes after bad in 2012, the Japanese preferred to return to the devil they know. The only problem is, he's still a devil.
 
Abe has essentially promised to return to the failed but feel-good policies of LDP government for the last 3 decades; namely, he will prop up failing industrial giants and attempt to print his way out of an economic slump.
 
Saving Grace or Pain in the $%&?
 
The yen hit a post-war high against the US dollar in 2011 and has remained strong. For sound-money enthusiasts, this has been cause for celebration. But for Keynesian demand-siders, it's a crisis.
 
Rather than attribute decades of sluggish growth to an interventionist industrial policy, Abe and his cadres are blaming the strong yen. In response, Abe has called for the Bank of Japan to target at least 3% inflation.
 
For some time, the only saving grace for Japanese citizens who are unable to find jobs or secure financing has been that prices have been stable or falling. Abe intends to rob them of that salve while doing nothing to address the underlying infection.
 
While some Americans may feel a self-interested sense of relief that one of the major dollar-alternatives is being undermined from within, they are misunderstanding the knock-on consequences of this move.
 
The Last Major Pillar
 
For the Treasury to continuing having successful auctions at current rock-bottom interest rates, someone has to be purchasing. A lot. 
 
Before 2008, most of the demand came from foreign central banks - especially China. Since the financial crisis began, China and many emerging market banks have dramatically reduced their purchases and even become net sellers. 
 
The deficit has been made up by the Federal Reserve, domestic personal and institutional investors, and a few foreign holdouts led by Japan. In fact, Japan is about to overtake China as the largest foreign holder of US government debt.
 
This is significant in that the other two sources of funding - Fed and US domestic - are essentially intertwined. The more Treasuries the Fed purchases, the higher inflation becomes, which harms the US economy even further, which leaves domestic funds less wealth to invest in Treasuries. In my view, the foreign influx of capital has been the key third pillar that has kept this vicious domestic cycle from playing out in full.
 
How It Crumbles
 
Prime Minister Abe's plan to devalue the yen could thus be disastrous for both US and Japanese government finances. As the yen devalues, Japanese domestic investors - who make up the bulk of owners of Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) - will be under intense pressure to sell out and find higher yields elsewhere. 
 
This flight of capital will threaten Tokyo with default, so the likelihood is that the Bank of Japan will begin directly buying JGBs on an even larger scale (as our Fed has done since the financial crisis) instead of buying US Treasuries. They may even become net sellers of Treasuries in order to finance their bailout of Tokyo while controlling inflation.
 
This will, in turn, put tremendous pressure on US Treasury investors. As the outflows mount, the Fed will no doubt announce another program to buy Treasuries under the guise of promoting economic stability. If the Fed becomes the permanent crutch of the Treasury, we can expect inflation to get higher and higher - driving more and more investors out of Treasuries.
 
Decoupling Continues
 
It is clear that Washington and Tokyo are but two sides of the same coin. Japan's debt-to-GDP is about 212%, while the US has just crossed 100%. Both are highly dependent on domestic investor interest in government debt to keep the charade going, and neither have prospects of paying their debts without real write-downs for investors. 
 
Unfortunately, neither government is using the time before this real crash strikes to even attempt to shore up their positions. The platform of Shinzo Abe seems poised to undermine Japan's ability to continue subsidizing US government debt. Left without any significant external supports, Treasuries will be in an extremely weak position when attention shifts from the EU sovereign debt crisis to the our own tattered finances.
 
Fortunately, there are ways for investors to escape Abe and Obama's tandem cliff-dive. Recent data shows that China continues to build a viable alternative. The South Korean won and Taiwan dollar are now significantly more correlated to the movements of the yuan than the yen or the US dollar. These booming economies will sustain demand for commodities as they build real wealth. With the old statesmen of sovereign debt compromised, I expect the up-and-comers to continue to turn to gold and silver in droves.

Peter Schiff is CEO of Euro Pacific Precious Metals, a gold and silver dealer selling reputable, well-known bullion coins and bars at competitive prices. 

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Tags:  ChinadollarinflationJapantreasuriesyen
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No Way Out
Posted by Peter Schiff on 12/14/2012 at 12:54 PM

By upping the ante once again in its gamble to revive the lethargic economy through monetary action, the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee is now compelling the rest of us to buy into a game that we may not be able to afford.  At his press conference this week, Fed Chairman Bernanke explained how the easiest policy stance in Fed history has just gotten that much easier.  First it gave us zero interest rates, then QEs I and II, Operation Twist, and finally "unlimited" QE3. 

Now that those moves have failed to deliver economic health, the Fed has doubled the size of its open-ended money printing and has announced a program of data flexibility that virtually insures that they will never bump into limitations, until it's too late.  Although their new policies will create numerous long-term challenges for the economy, the biggest near-term challenge for the Fed will be how to keep the momentum going by upping the ante even higher their next meeting.

The big news is that the Fed is now doubling the amount of money it is printing. In addition to its ongoing $40 billion per month of mortgage backed securities (to stimulate housing), it will now buy $45 billion per month of Treasury debt. The latter program replaces Operation Twist, which had used proceeds from the sales of short-term treasuries to finance the purchase of longer yielding paper. The problem is the Fed has already blown through its short-term inventory, so the new buying will be pure balance sheet expansion.

To cloak these shockingly accommodative moves in the garb of moderation, the Fed announced that future policy decisions will be put on automatic pilot by pegging liquidity withdrawal to two sets of economic data. By committing to tightening policy if either unemployment falls below 6.5% or if inflation goes higher than 2.5%, Bernanke is likely looking to silence fears that the Fed will stay too loose for too long. While these statistical benchmarks would be too accommodative even if they were rigidly enforced, the goalposts have been specifically designed to be completely movable, and hence essentially meaningless.

Bernanke said that in order to identify signs of true economic health, the Fed will discount unemployment declines that result from diminishing labor participation rates. It is widely known that a good portion of unemployment declines since 2009 have resulted from the many millions of formerly employed Americans who have dropped out of the workforce. But like many other economists, Bernanke failed to identify where he thinks "real" employment is now after factoring out these workers.  So how far down will the unemployment number have to drift before the Fed's triggering mechanism is tripped? No one knows, and that is exactly how the Fed wants it.

A similarly loose criterion exists for the Fed's other goalpost - inflation. Bernanke stated that he will look past current inflation statistics and look primarily at "core inflation expectations." In other words, he is not interested in data that can be demonstrably shown but on much more amorphous forecasts of other economists who have drunk the Fed's Kool-Aid. He also made clear that rising food or energy prices will never fall into the Fed's radar screen of inflation dangers.

For as long as I can remember (and I can remember for quite some time) the Fed has stripped out "volatile" increases in food and energy, preferring the "core" inflation readings. But in the overwhelming majority of cases, the headline numbers are significantly higher than the core. In other words, Bernanke simply prefers to look at lower numbers. In his press conference, he made it clear that the Fed will avoid looking at price changes in "globally traded commodities," that are all highly influenced by inflation.      

These subjective and attenuated criteria give Fed officials far too much leeway to ignore the guidelines that they are putting into place. If the Fed will not react to what inflation is, but rather to what it expects it to be, what will happen if their expectations turn out to be wrong? After all, their track record in forecasting the events of the last decade has been anything but stellar.

The Fed officials repeatedly assured us that there was no housing bubble, even after it burst. Then they assured us the problem was contained to subprime mortgages. Then they assured us that a slowdown in housing would not impact the broader economy. I could go on, but my point is if the Fed is as spectacularly wrong about inflation as it has been about almost everything else, will they be able to slam on the brakes in time to prevent inflation from running out of control? And if so, at what cost to the overall economy?

The Fed is committing to more than a $1 trillion annual expansion in its balance sheet, an amount greater than the total size of its balance sheet as late as 2008. Most forecasters believe that the Fed will have $4 trillion worth of assets on its books by the end of 2013, and perhaps more than $5 trillion by the end of 2014. If conditions arise that require the Fed to withdraw liquidity, the size of the sales that would be required will be massive. Who exactly does the Fed believe will have pockets deep enough to take the other side of the trade? 

As the biggest buyer of treasuries, it is impossible for the Fed to sell without chances of collapsing the market. Surely any other holders of treasuries would want to front-run the Fed, and what buyer would be foolish enough to get in front of the Fed freight train? The bottom line is that it is impossible for the Fed to fight inflation, which is precisely why it will never acknowledge the existence of any inflation to fight. 

But perhaps the most absurd statement in Bernanke's press conference was his contention that the Fed is not engaged in debt monetization because it intends to sell the debt once the economy improves. This is like a thief claiming that he is not stealing your car, because he intends to return it when he no longer needs it. To make the analogy more accurate, there could not be any other cars on the road for him to steal. 

Without the Fed's buying, it would be impossible for the Treasury to finances its debts at rates it can afford. That is precisely why the Fed has chosen to monetize the debt. Of course, officially acknowledging that fact would make the Fed's job that much harder. Without the monetization safety valve, the government would have to make massive immediate cuts in all entitlements and national defense, plus big tax increases on the middle class.

As I wrote when the Fed first embarked on this ill-fated journey, it has no exit strategy. The Fed adopted what amounts to "the roach motel" of monetary policy. If the Fed actually raised rates as a result of one of its movable goal posts being hit, the result could be a much greater financial crisis than the one we lived through in 2008. The bond bubble would burst, interest rates and unemployment would soar, housing prices would collapse, banks would fail, borrowers would default, budget deficits would swell, and there would be no way to finance another round of bailouts for anyone, including the Federal Government itself. 

In order to generate phony economic growth and to "pay" our country's debts in the most dishonest manner possible, the Federal Reserve is 100% committed to the destruction of the dollar. Anyone with wealth in the U.S. dollar should be concerned that economic leadership is firmly in the hands of irresponsible bureaucrats who are committed to an ivory tower version of reality that bears no resemblance to the world as it really is. 



Tags:  Ben Bernankefederal reserveFedsinflationquantitative easingstimulus
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