Although Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen said nothing new in her carefully manicured semi-annual testimony to Congress last week, her performance there, taken within the context of a lengthy profile in the New Yorker (that came to press at around the same time), should confirm that she is very different from any of her predecessors in the job. Put simply, she is likely the most dovish and politically leftist Fed Chair in the Central Bank's history.
While her tenure thus far may feel like a seamless extension of the Greenspan/Bernanke era, investors should understand how much further Yellen is likely to push the stimulus envelope into unexplored territory. She does not seem to see the Fed's mission as primarily to maintain the value of the dollar, promote stable financial markets, or to fight inflation. Rather she sees it as a tool to promote progressive social policy and to essentially pick up where formal Federal social programs leave off.
Despite her good intentions, the Fed's blunt instrument policy tools of low interest rates and money supply expansion can do nothing to raise real incomes, lift people out of poverty, or create jobs. Instead these moves deter savings and capital investment, prevent the creation of high paying jobs, and increase the cost of living, especially for the poor (They are also giving rise to greater international financial tensions, which I explore more deeply in my just released quarterly newsletter). On the "plus" side, these policies have created huge speculative profits on Wall Street. Unfortunately, Yellen does not seem to understand any of this. But she likely has a greater understanding of how the Fed's monetization of government debt (through Quantitative Easing) has prevented the government from having to raise taxes sharply or cut the programs she believes are so vital to economic health.
But as these policies have also been responsible for pushing up prices for basic necessities such as food, energy, and shelter, these "victories" come at a heavy cost. Recent data shows that consumers are paying more for the things they need and spending less on the things they want. But Yellen simply brushes off this evidence as temporary noise.
In her Congressional appearances, Yellen made clear that the end of the Fed's six-year experiment with zero percent interest rates is nowhere in sight. In fact, the event is less identifiable today than it was before she took office and before the economy supposedly improved to the point where such support would no longer be needed. The Bernanke Fed had given us some guidance in the form of a 6.5% unemployment rate that could be considered a milestone in the journey towards policy normalization. Later on these triggers became targets, which then became simply factors in a larger decision-making process. But Yellen has gone farther, disregarding all fixed thresholds and claiming that she will keep stimulating as long as she believes that there is "slack" in the economy (which she defines as any level of unemployment above the level of "full employment.") Where that mythical level may be is open for interpretation, which is likely why she prefers it.
The Fed's traditional "dual mandate" seeks to balance the need for job creation and price stability. But Yellen clearly sees jobs as her top priority. Any hope that she will put these priorities aside and move forcefully to fight inflation when it officially flares up should be abandoned.
These sentiments are brought into focus in the New Yorker piece, in which she unabashedly presents herself as a pure disciple of John Maynard Keynes and an opponent of Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and Alan Greenspan, figures who are widely credited with having led the rightward movement of U.S. economic policy in the last three decades of the 20th Century. (Yellen refers to that era as "a dark period of economics.")
Perhaps the most telling passage in the eleven-page piece is an incident in the mid-1990s (related by Alan Blinder who was then a Fed governor along with Janet Yellen). The two were apparently successful in nudging then Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan into a more dovish position on monetary policy. When the shift was made, the two agreed "...we might have just saved 500,000 jobs." The belief that central bankers are empowered with the ability to talk jobs in and out of existence is a dangerous delusion. As her commitment to social justice and progressivism is a matter of record, there is ample reason to believe that extremist monetary policy will be in play at the Yellen Fed for the duration of her tenure.
For the present, other central bankers have helped by taking the sting out of the Fed's bad policy. On July 16 the Wall Street Journal reported that the Chinese government had gone on a torrid buying spree of U.S. Treasury debt, adding $107 billion through the first five months of 2014. This works out to an annualized pace of approximately $256 billion per year, or more than three times the 2013 pace (when the Chinese government bought "just" $81 billion for the entire calendar year). The new buying pushed Chinese holdings up to $1.27 trillion.
At the same time, Bloomberg reports that other emerging market central banks (not counting China) bought $49 billion in Treasuries in the 2nd Quarter of 2014, more than any quarter since 3rd Quarter of 2012. These purchases come on the heels of the mysterious $50 billion in purchases made by a shadowy entity operating out of Belgium in the early months of this year (see story).
So it's clear that while the Fed is tapering its QE purchases of Treasury bonds, other central banks have more than picked up the slack. Not only has this spared the U.S economy from a rise in long-term interest rates, which would likely prick the Fed-fueled twin bubbles in stocks and real estate, but it has also enabled the U.S. to export much of its inflation.As long as this continues, the illusion that Yellen can keep the floodgates open without unleashing high inflation will gain traction. She may feel that there is no risk to continue indefinitely.
But as the global economic status quo is facing a major crisis (as is examined in this newsletter), there is reason to believe that we may be on the cusp of a major realignment of global priorities. Despite her good intentions, if Yellen and her dovish colleagues do not receive the kind of open-ended international support that we have enjoyed thus far in 2014, the full inflationary pain of her policies will fall heaviest on those residents of Main Street for whom she has expressed such deep concern.
Peter Schiff is the CEO and Chief Global Strategist of Euro Pacific Capital, best-selling author and host of syndicated Peter Schiff Show.
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.
There never really could be much doubt that the current experiment in competitive global currency debasement would end in anything less than a total war. There was always a chance that one or more of the principal players would snap out of it, change course and save their citizenry from a never ending cycle of devaluation. But developments since September 13, when the U.S. Federal Reserve finally laid all its cards on the table and went "all in" on permanent quantitative easing, indicate that the brainwashing is widely established and will be difficult to break. The vast majority of the world's leading central bankers seem content to walk in lock step down the path of money creation as a means to economic salvation. Never mind that the path will prevent real growth and may ultimately lead off a cliff. The herd is moving. And if it can't be turned, the only thing that one can do is attempt to get out of its way.
The details of the Fed's new plan (which I christened Operation Screw in last week's commentary) are not nearly as important as the philosophy it reveals. The Federal Reserve has already unleashed two huge waves of quantitative easing (purchases of either government securities or mortgage-backed securities) in order to stimulate consumer spending and ignite business activity. But the economy has not responded as hoped. GDP growth has languished below trend, the unemployment rate has stayed north of 8%, and the labor participation rate has fallen to all-time lows. In the meantime, America's fiscal position has grown significantly worse with government debt climbing to unimaginable territory. Despite the lack of results, the conclusion at the Federal Reserve is that the programs were too small and too incremental to be effective. They have determined that something larger, and potentially permanent, would be more likely to do the trick.
However, in making its new plan public, the Fed made a startling admission. At his press conference, Ben Bernanke backed away from previous assertions that printed money would be effective in directly pushing up business activity. Instead he explained how the new stimulus would be focused directly at the housing market through purchases of mortgage backed securities. He made clear that this strategy is intended to spark a surge in home prices that will in turn pull up the broader economy. Such a belief requires a dangerous amnesia to the events of the last decade. Despite the calamity that followed the bursting of our last housing bubble, economists feel this to be a wise strategy, proving that a poor memory is a prerequisite for the profession.
But now that the Fed is thus committed, the focus has shifted to foreign capitals. Not surprisingly, the dollar came under immediate pressure as soon as the plan was announced. In the 24 hours following the announcement, the Greenback was down 2.2% against the euro, 1.6% against the Australian Dollar, and 1.1% against the Canadian Dollar. A week after the Fed's move, the Mexican Peso had appreciated 2.7% against the US dollar. Many currency watchers noted that more dollar declines would be likely if foreign central banks failed to match the Fed in their commitments to print money. On cue, the foreign bankers responded.
It is seen as gospel in our current "through the looking glass" economic world that a weak currency is something to be desired and a strong currency is something to be disdained. Weak currencies are supposed to offer advantages to exporters and are seen as an easy way to boost GDP. In reality, weak currencies simply create the illusion of growth while eroding real purchasing power. Strong currencies confer greater wealth and potency to an economy. But in today's world,no central banker is prepared to stand idly by while their currency appreciates. As a result, foreign central banks are rolling out their own heavy artillery to combat the Fed.
Perhaps anticipating the Fed's actions, on September 6th the European Central Bank announced its own plan of unlimited buying of debt of troubled EU nations (however, the plan did come with important concessions to the German point of view - see John Browne's commentary). On September 17th, the Brazilian central bank auctioned $2.17 billion of reverse swap contracts to help push down the Brazilian Real. The next day, Peru and Turkey cut rates more than expected. On September 19th, the Bank of Japan increased its asset purchase program from 70 trillion yen to 80 trillion and extended the program by six months. It's clear we are seeing a central banking domino effect that is not likely to end in the foreseeable future.
Although the Fed is directing its fire towards the housing market, the needle they are actually hoping to move is not home prices, but the unemployment rate. Until that rate falls to the desired levels (some at the Fed have suggested 5.5%), then we can be fairly certain that these injections will continue. This will place permanent pressure on banks around the world to follow suit.
All of this simultaneous money creation will likely be a boon for nominal stock and real estate prices. But in real terms such gains will likely not keep pace with dollar depreciation. Inflation pushes up prices for just about everything, so stocks and real estate are not likely to prove to be exceptions. Even bond prices can rise in the short term, but their real values are the most vulnerable to decline. In fact, even nominal bond prices will ultimately fall, as inflation eventually sends interest rates climbing. But prices for hard assets, precious metals, commodities, and even those few remaining relatively hard currencies should be on the leading edge of the upward trend in prices.
While I believe the Fed's plan will be a disaster for the economy, the silver lining is that it provides investors with a road map. As the policy of the Fed is to debase the currency, those holding dollar based assets may seek alternatives in hard assets and in the currencies of the few remaining countries whose bankers have not drunken so freely from the Keynesian Kool-Aid. We believe that such opportunities do exist. Some broad ideas are outlined in the latest edition of my Global Investor Newsletter, which became available for download this week. I encourage those looking for ways to distance their wealth from the policies of Ben Bernanke to start their search today.
Peter Schiff is the CEO and Chief Global Strategist of Euro Pacific Capital, best-selling author and host of syndicated Peter Schiff Show.
With yesterday's Fed decision and press conference, Chairman Ben Bernanke finally and decisively laid his cards on the table. And confirming what I have been saying for many years, all he was holding was more of the same snake oil and bluster. Going further than he has ever gone before, he made it clear that he will be permanently binding the American economy to a losing strategy. As a result, September 13, 2012 may one day be regarded as the day America finally threw in the economic towel.
Here is the outline of the Fed's plan: buy hundreds of billions of home mortgages annually in order to push down mortgage rates and push up home prices, thereby encouraging people to build and buy homes and spend the extracted equity on consumer goods. Furthermore, the Fed hopes that ultra-cheap money will push up stock prices so that Wall Street and stock investors feel wealthier and begin to spend more freely. He won't admit this directly, but rather than building an economy on increased productivity, production, and wealth accumulation, he is trying to build one on confidence, increased leverage, and rising asset prices. In other words, the Fed prefers the illusion of growth to the restructuring needed to allow for real growth.
The problem that went unnoticed by the reporters at the Fed's press conference (and those who have written about it subsequently) is that we already tried this strategy and it ended in disaster. Loose monetary policy created the housing and stock bubbles of the last decade, the bursting of which almost blew up the economy. Apparently for Bernanke and his cohorts, almost isn't good enough. They are coming back to finish the job. But this time, they are packing weaponry of a much higher caliber. Not only are they pushing mortgage rates down to historical lows but now they are buying all the loans!
Last year, the Fed launched the so-called "Operation Twist," which was designed to lower long-term interest rates and flatten the yield curve. Without creating any real benefits for the economy, the move exposed US taxpayers and holders of dollar-based assets to the dangers of shortening the maturity on $16 trillion of outstanding government debt. Such a repositioning exposes the Treasury to much faster and more painful consequences if interest rates rise. Still, the set of policies announced yesterday will do so much more damage than "Operation Twist," they should be dubbed "Operation Screw." Because make no mistake, anyone holding US dollars, Treasury bonds, or living on a fixed income will have their purchasing power stolen by these actions.
Prior injections of quantitative easing have done little to revive our economy or set us on a path for real recovery. We are now in more debt, have more people out of work, and have deeper fiscal problems than we had before the Fed began down this path. All the supporters can say is things would have been worse absent the stimulus. While counterfactual arguments are hard to prove, I do not doubt that things would have been worse in the short-term if we had simply allowed the imbalances of the old economy to work themselves out. But in exchange for that pain, I believe that we would be on the road to a real recovery. Instead, we have artificially sustained a borrow-and-spend model that puts us farther away from solid ground.
Because the initials of quantitative easing - QE - have brought to mind the famous Queen Elizabeth cruise ships, many have likened these Fed moves as giant vessels that are loaded up and sent out to sea. But based on their newly announced plans, the analogy no longer applies. As the new commitments are open-ended, quantitative easing will now be delivered via a non-stop conveyor belt that dumps cheap money on the economy. The only variable is how fast the belt moves.
Fortunately, the crude limitations of the Fed's only policy tool have become more apparent to the markets. If you must stick with the nautical metaphors, QE3 has sunk before it has even left port. The move was explicitly designed to push down long-term interest rates, but interest rates spiked significantly in the immediate aftermath of the announcement. Traders realize that an open-ended commitment to buying bonds means that inflation and dollar weakness will likely destroy any nominal gains in the bonds themselves. To underscore this point, the Fed announcement also caused a sharp selloff in Treasuries and the dollar and a strong rally in commodities, especially precious metals.
Given that 30-year fixed mortgages are already at historic lows, there can be little confidence that the new plan will succeed in pushing them much lower, especially given the upward spike that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the announcement. Instead, Bernanke is likely trying to provide the confidence home owners need to exchange fixed-rate mortgages for lower adjustable rate loans - which would free up more cash for current consumer spending. He is looking for homeowners to do their own twist. If he succeeds, more homeowners will be vulnerable to increasing rates, which will further limit the Fed's future ability to increase rates to fight rising prices.
The goal of the plan is to create consumer purchasing power by raising home and stock prices. No one seems to be considering the likelihood that unending QE will fail to lift bond, stock, or home prices, but will instead bleed straight through to higher prices for food, energy, and other consumer staples. If that occurs, consumers will have less purchasing power as a result of Bernanke's efforts, not more.
The Fed decision comes at the same time as the situation in Europe is finally moving out of urgent crisis mode. While I do not think the ECB's decision to underwrite more sovereign debt from troubled EU members will work out well in the long term, at least those moves have come with some German strings attached [For more on this, see John Browne's article from earlier this week]. As a result, I feel that the attention of currency traders may now shift to the poor fundamentals of the US dollar, rather than the potential for a breakup of the euro.
In the meantime, the implications for American investors should be clear. The Fed will try to conjure a recovery on the backs of currency debasement. It will not stop or alter from this course. If the economy fails to respond to the drugs, Bernanke will simply up the dosage. In fact, he is so convinced we will remain dependent on quantitative easing that he explicitly said he won't turn off the spigots even if things noticeably improve. In other words, the dollar is screwed.
This past Friday, as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke delivered his annual address from Jackson Hole - the State of the Dollar, if you will - I couldn't help but hear it as an incumbent's campaign speech. While Wall Street was hoping for some concrete announcement, what we got was a mushy appraisal of the Fed's handling of the financial crisis so far and a suggestion that more 'help' is on the way.
It is important to remember that it's not just President Obama's job on the line in this election; in two years time, the next President will have the opportunity to either reappoint Bernanke or choose someone else. So we must understand what platform Bernanke is running on, as his office has an even greater effect on global markets than the President's.
Bernanke has been the perfect tag-team partner for George W. Bush and then Barack Obama as they have pursued an economic policy of deficits, bailouts, and stimulus. Without the Fed providing artificial support to housing and US debt, Washington would have already been shut out of foreign credit markets. In other words, they would have faced a debt ceiling that no amount of bipartisan support could raise. Fortunately for the politicians, Helicopter Ben was there to monetize the debts.
As far back as his time as an academic, Bernanke made clear that when the going got tough, he wouldn't hesitate to fire up the printing presses. He specialized in studying the Great Depression and, contrary to greater minds like Murray Rothbard, determined that the problem was too little money printing. He went on to propose several ways the central bank could create inflation even when interest rates had been dropped to zero through large-scale asset purchases (LSAPs). Sure enough, the credit crunch of 2008 gave the Fed Chairman an opportunity to test his theory.
All told, the Fed spent $2.35 trillion on LSAPs, including $1.25 trillion in mortgage-backed securities, $900 billion in Treasury debt, and $200 billion of other debt from federal agencies. That means the Fed printed the equivalent of 15% of US GDP in a couple of years. That's a lot of new dollars for the real economy to absorb, and a tremendous subsidy to the phony economy.
This has bought time for President Obama to enact an $800 billion stimulus program, an auto industry bailout, socialized medicine, and other economically damaging measures. In short, because of the Fed's interventions, Obama got the time and money needed to push the US further down the road to a centrally planned economy. It is also now much more unlikely that Washington will be able to manage a controlled descent to lower standards of living. Instead, we're going to head right off a fiscal cliff.
The Fed Chairman even admitted to this reality in his statement. Here are two choice quotes:
"As I noted, the Federal Reserve is limited by law mainly to the purchase of Treasury and agency securities. ... Conceivably, if the Federal Reserve became too dominant a buyer in certain segments of these markets, trading among private agents could dry up, degrading liquidity and price discovery." [emphasis added]
"...expansions of the balance sheet could reduce public confidence in the Fed's ability to exit smoothly from its accommodative policies at the appropriate time. ... such a reduction in confidence might increase the risk of a costly unanchoring of inflation expectations, leading in turn to financial and economic instability." [emphasis added]
So we all agree that the prospect of inflationary depression was made worse by the Fed's actions - but at least Ben Bernanke has pleased his boss. As a guaranteed monetary dove, Ben Bernanke appears to be a shoo-in if Obama is re-elected.
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has pledged to fire Bernanke if elected. While I am not confident that Mr. Romney has the economic understanding to appoint a competent replacement - let alone pursue a policy of restoring the gold standard or legalizing competing currencies - he may well be seen as a threat not only to the Fed Chairman's self-interest, but also to his inflationary agenda.
Given this background, let's look at Bernanke's quotes that have been the focus of media speculation for the past week: the US economy is "far from satisfactory," unemployment is a "grave concern," and the Fed "will provide additional policy accommodation as needed." These comments seem designed to reassure markets (and Washington) that there will be no major shift toward austerity in the near future. The party can go on. But they also hint that Bernanke might be planning to double down again. I have long written that another round of quantitative easing is all but inevitable. It now seems to be imminent.
In reality, when the money drops may have more to do with politics than economics. The Fed may not want to appear to be directly interfering in the election by stimulating the economy this fall, but there are strong incentives for Bernanke to try to perk up the phony recovery before November and deliver the election to Obama. However, if Romney wins, Bernanke can at least fall back on his appeal as a team player as he lobbies for another term.
For gold and silver buyers, either scenario is likely to continue to stoke our market in the short- and medium-term. As the past week's rally indicates, there is no longer a fear that the Fed has had enough of money-printing - in fact, it looks prepared for much more.
Peter Schiff is CEO and Chief Global Strategist of Euro Pacific Precious Metals.
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The past week provided clear lessons not just in how central bankers have a limited ability to positively influence the economy but also how they are limited in their capacity to deliver the shortsighted policy actions that investors currently crave. The developments should provide new reasons for investors and economy watchers to abandon their faith in central bankers as super heroes capable of saving the economy.
The employment report released on Friday confirmed that the U.S. economy is stagnating at best and actively deteriorating at worst. While the numbers of jobs created in July was actually better than many economists expected, it was still far below the levels that would indicate a growing economy. But more important than the official unemployment rate (which ticked up to 8.3%) or the number of jobs created, is the number of people who have left the workforce out of frustration or despair. This number continues to head higher. The labor force participation rate, which is the percentage of healthy working age Americans who actually have jobs, is at one of the lowest points since women first started working en masse in the 1970's. It's also instructive to add back into the unemployment rate those who want full time jobs but who have had to settle for part time work. This figure, reported under the "U6" category, currently stands at 15.0%. This is just a 12% decline from the 17.1% high seen December 2009. In contrast the "official" (U3) unemployment figure has declined 17% from its peak.
In explaining these bad results, most economists simply look at the stimulating effects of monetary and fiscal policy, not at the problems that those measures create. As a result, it is assumed that not enough stimulation, in the form of quantitative easing or federal deficit spending has been applied to the economy. The next logical assumption is that if the measures of the past few years had not been applied, we would have seen much weaker results over that time. In other words, no matter how bad things are now, defenders of the status quo will always describe how bad things "could have been" if the Fed hadn't stepped in. This counterfactual argument gets increasingly threadbare as the years wear on.
Rather than admit that its policies have failed, the Fed statement last week gave all indications that it will continue with its current inflationary policy to the bitter end. These are the same errors that inflated the stock and real estate bubbles and ultimately resulted in the 2008 financial crisis and our continuing economic malaise. Without any fresh ideas, Fed press releases have become a Groundhog Day repetition of the same pronouncements and diagnoses. Oddly, many market watchers are frustrated that the Fed has not telegraphed that more stimulus is forthcoming. While it should be obvious that our current "recovery" is dependent on monetary support, it should be equally plain that the Fed can't actually admit that fragility without spooking markets. To be clear, QE III is coming, but the markets should not expect Bernanke to supply a precise timetable.
Without question, if the Fed had not stimulated the economy with zero percent interest rates, two rounds of quantitative easing and operation twist, the initial economic contraction would have been sharper. But such short-term pain would have been constructive. By not taking away the cheap-money punch bowl, the Fed has delayed the pain and prolonged the party. But to what end? So far all we have received is a tepid phony recovery that has sown the seeds of its own destruction.
In contrast, real economic restructuring would have resulted if the Fed had withdrawn its monetary props. This would have paved the way for a robust, sustainable recovery. Instead, the Fed helped numb the pain with unprecedented (and apparently permanent) liquidity injections. Its actions merely exacerbate the underlying imbalances that lie at the root of our structural problems, and thus act as a barrier to a real recovery. So long as the Fed fails to learn from its prior mistakes, the phony recovery it has concocted will continue to fade until we find ourselves in an even deeper recession than the one we experienced in 2008.
Those who believe that artificially low interest rates are needed now, fail to see the price that will be paid down the road. By keeping rates too low, the Fed continues to lead an overly indebted economy deeper into the financial abyss. However, its ability to maintain rates at such low levels is not without limits. Just as real estate prices could not stay high forever, interest rates cannot stay low forever. When rates finally rise, the extent of the economic damage will finally be revealed.
The sad fact is that no matter how impotent and dishonest Fed officials become, their elected rivals on Capitol Hill (who control the fiscal side of the equation) have become even less significant. The complete lack of any political conviction to take steps to confront our fiscal imbalances means that Ben Bernanke and his cohorts are seen as the only cavalry capable of riding to the rescue. But no matter how often they blow their bugles, our economy will continue to deteriorate until we stop waiting for a savior and instead fight the battle for prosperity ourselves.
The media is now fixated on an apparently new feature dominating the economic landscape: a "fiscal cliff" from which the United States will fall in January 2013. They see the danger arising from the simultaneous implementation of the $2 trillion in automatic spending cuts (spread over 10 years) agreed to in last year's debt ceiling vote and the expiration of the Bush era tax cuts. The economists to whom most reporters listen warn that the combined impact of reduced government spending and higher taxes will slow the "recovery" and perhaps send the economy back into recession. While there is indeed much to worry about in our economy, this particular cliff is not high on the list.
Much of the fear stems from the false premise that government spending generates economic growth (for stories of countries experiencing real growth,see our latest newsletter). People tend to forget that the government can only get money from taxing, borrowing, or printing. Nothing the government spends comes for free. Money taxed or borrowed is taken out of the private sector, where it could have been used more productively. Printed money merely creates inflation. So the automatic spending cuts, to the extent they are actually allowed to go into effect, will promote economic growth not prevent it. Even most Republicans fall for the canard that spending can help the economy in general. But even those who don't will surely do everything to avoid the political backlash from citizens on the losing end of any specific cuts.
The only reason the automatic spending cuts exist at all is that Congress lacked the integrity to identify specifics. Rest assured that Congress will likely engineer yet another escape hatch when it finds itself backed into a corner again. Repealing the cuts before they are even implemented will render laughable any subsequent deficit reduction plans. But politicians would always rather face frustration for inaction than outright anger for actual decisions. In truth though, only an extremely small portion of the cuts are scheduled to occur in 2013 anyway. If it comes to pass that Congress cannot even keep its spending cut promises for one year, how can they be expected to do so for ten?
The impact of the expiring Bush era tax cuts is much harder to assess. The adverse effects of the tax hikes could be offset by the benefits of reduced government borrowing (provided that the taxes actually result in increased revenue). But given the negative incentives created by higher marginal tax rates, particularly as they impact savings and capital investment, increased rates may actually result in less revenue, thereby widening the budget deficit.
In reality, the economy will encounter extremely dangerous terrain whether or not Congress figures out a way to wriggle out of the 2013 budgetary straightjacket. The debt burden that the United Stated will face when interest rates rise presents a much larger "fiscal cliff." Unfortunately, no one is talking about that one.
The current national debt is about $16 trillion (this is just the funded portion...the unfunded liabilities of the Treasury are much, much larger). The only reason the United States is able to service this staggering level of debt is that the currently low interest rate on government debt (now below 2 per cent) keeps debt service payments to a relatively manageable $300 billion per year.
On the current trajectory the national debt will likely hit $20 trillion in a few years. If by that time interest rates were to return to some semblance of historic normalcy, say 5 per cent, interest payments on the debt would then run $1 trillion per year. This sum could represent almost 40 per cent of total federal revenues in 2012!
In addition to making the debt service unmanageable, higher rates would depress economic activity, thereby slowing tax collection and requiring increased government spending. This would increase the budget deficits further, putting even more upward pressure on interest rates. Higher mortgage rates and increased unemployment will put renewed downward pressure on home prices, perhaps leading to another large wave of foreclosures. My guess is that losses on government insured mortgages alone could add several hundred billion more to annual budget deficits. When all of these factors are taken into account, I believe that annual budget deficits could quickly approach, and exceed, $3 trillion. All this could be in the cards if interest rates were to approach a modest five per cent.
If the sheer enormity of the red ink were to finally worry our creditors, five per cent interest rates could quickly rise to ten. At those rates, the annual cost to pay the interest on the national debt could equal all federal tax revenues combined. If that occurs we will have to either slash federal spending across the board (including cuts to politically sensitive entitlements), raise taxes significantly on the poor and middle class (as well as the rich), default on the debt, or hit everyone with the sustained impact of high inflation. Now that's a real fiscal cliff!
By foolishly borrowing so heavily when interest rates are low, our government is driving us toward this cliff with its eyes firmly glued to the rear view mirror (much as the new French regime appears to be doing). For years I have warned that a financial crisis would be triggered by the popping of the real estate bubble. My warnings were routinely ignored based on the near universal assumption that real estate prices would never fall. My warnings about the real fiscal cliff are also being ignored because of a similarly false premise that interest rates can never rise. However, if history can be a guide, we should view the current period of ultra-low rates as the exception rather than the rule.
This article is taken from the July 2012 Euro Pacific Global Investor Newsletter. CLICK HERE for your free subscription.
Offered to the House Sub-Committee on Government Reform and Stimulus Oversight
September 13, 2011
Mr. Chairman, Mr. Ranking member, and all distinguished members of this panel. Thank you for inviting me here today to offer my opinions as to how the government can help the American economy recover from the worst crisis in living memory.
Despite the understandable human tendency to help others, government spending cannot be a net creator of jobs. Indeed many efforts currently under consideration by the Administration and Congress will actively destroy jobs. These initiatives must stop. While it is easy to see how a deficit-financed government program can lead to the creation of a specific job, it is much harder to see how other jobs are destroyed by the diversion of capital and resources. It is also difficult to see how the bigger budget deficits sap the economy of vitality, destroying jobs in the process.
In a free market jobs are created by profit seeking businesses with access to capital. Unfortunately Government taxes and regulation diminish profits, and deficit spending and artificially low interest rates inhibit capital formation. As a result unemployment remains high, and will likely continue to rise until policies are reversed.
It is my belief that a dollar of deficit spending does more damage to job creation than a dollar of taxes. That is because taxes (particularly those targeting the middle or lower income groups) have their greatest impact on spending, while deficits more directly impact savings and investment. Contrary to the beliefs held by many professional economists spending does not make an economy grow. Savings and investment are far more determinative. Any program that diverts capital into consumption and away from savings and investment will diminish future economic growth and job creation.
Creating jobs is easy for government, but all jobs are not equal. Paying people to dig ditches and fill them up does society no good. On balance these “jobs” diminish the economy by wasting scarce land, labor and capital. We do not want jobs for the sake of work, but for the goods and services they produce. As it has a printing press, the government could mandate employment for all, as did the Soviet Union. But if these jobs are not productive, and government jobs rarely are, society is no better for it.
This is also true of the much vaunted “infrastructure spending.” Any funds directed toward infrastructure deprive the economy of resources that might otherwise have funded projects that the market determines have greater economic value. Infrastructure can improve an economy in the log-run, but only if the investments succeeds in raising productivity more than the cost of the project itself. In the interim, infrastructure costs are burdens that an economy must bear, not a means in themselves.
Unfortunately our economy is so weak and indebted that we simply cannot currently afford many of these projects. The labor and other resources that would be diverted to finance them are badly needed elsewhere.
Although it was labeled and hyped as a “jobs plan,” the new $447 billion initiative announced last night by President Obama is merely another government stimulus program in disguise. Like all previous stimuli that have been injected into the economy over the past three years, this round of borrowing and spending will act as an economic sedative rather than a stimulant. I am convinced that a year from now there will be even more unemployed Americans than there are today, likely resulting in additional deficit financed stimulus that will again make the situation worse.
The President asserted that the spending in the plan will be “paid for” and will not add to the deficit. Conveniently, he offered no details about how this will be achieved. Most likely he will make non-binding suggestions that future congresses “pay” for this spending by cutting budgets five to ten years in the future. In the meantime money to fund the stimulus has to come from someplace. Either the government will borrow it legitimately from private sources, or the Federal Reserve will print. Either way, the adverse consequences will damage economic growth and job creation, and lower the living standards of Americans.
There can be no doubt that some jobs will in fact be created by this plan. However, it is much more difficult to identify the jobs that it destroys or prevents from coming into existence. Here’s a case in point: the $4,000 tax credit for hiring new workers who have been unemployed for six months or more. The subsidy may make little difference in effecting the high end of the job market, but it really could make an impact on minimum wage jobs where rather than expanding employment it will merely increase turnover.
Since an employer need only hire a worker for 6 months to get the credit, for a full time employee, the credit effectively reduces the $7.25 minimum wage (from the employer’s perspective) to only $3.40 per hour for a six-month hire. While minimum wage jobs would certainly offer no enticement to those collecting unemployment benefits, the lower effective rate may create some opportunities for teenagers and some low skilled individuals whose unemployment benefits have expired. However, most of these jobs will end after six months so employers can replace those workers with others to get an additional tax credit.
Of course the numbers get even more compelling for employers to provide returning veterans with temporary minimum wage jobs, as the higher $5,600 tax credit effectively reduces the minimum wage to only $1.87 per hour. If an employer hires a “wounded warrior”, the tax credit is $9,600 which effectively reduces the six-month minimum wage by $9.23 to negative $1.98 per hour. This will encourage employers to hire a “wounded warrior” even if there is nothing for the employee to do. Such an incentive may encourage such individuals to acquire multiple no-show jobs form numerous employers. As absurd as this sounds, history has shown that when government created incentives, the public will twist themselves into pretzels to qualify for the benefit.
The plan creates incentives for employers to replace current minimum wage workers with new workers just to get the tax credit. Low skill workers are the easiest to replace as training costs are minimal. The laid off workers can collect unemployment for six months and then be hired back in a manner that allows the employer to claim the credit. The only problem is that the former worker may prefer collecting extended unemployment benefits to working for the minimum wage!
The $4,000 credit for hiring the unemployed as well as the explicit penalties for discriminating against the long-term unemployed will result in a situation where employers will be far more likely to interview and hire applicants who have been unemployed for just under six months. Under the law, employers would be wise to refuse to interview anyone who has been unemployed for more than six months, as any subsequent decision not to hire could be met with a lawsuit. However, to get the tax credit they would be incentivized to interview applicants who have been unemployed for just under six months. If they are never hired there can be no risk of a lawsuit, but if they are hired, the start date can be planned to qualify for the credit.
The result will simply create classes of winners (those unemployed for four or five months) and losers (the newly unemployed and the long term unemployed). Ironically, the law banning discrimination against long-term unemployed will make it much harder for such individuals to find jobs.
At present, I am beginning to feel that over regulation of business and employment, and an overly complex and punitive tax code is currently a bigger impediment to job growth than is our horrific fiscal and monetary policies. As a business owner I know that reckless government policy can cause no end of unintended consequences.
As I see it, here are the biggest obstacles preventing job growth:
Interest rates are much too low. Cheap money produced both the stock market and real estate bubbles, and is currently facilitating a bubble in government debt. When this bubble bursts the repercussions will dwarf the shock produced by the financial crisis of 2008. Interest rates must be raised to bring on a badly needed restructuring of our economy. No doubt an environment of higher rates will cause short-term pain. But we need to move from a “borrow and spend” economy to a “save and produce” economy. This cannot be done with ultra-low interest rates. In the short-term GNP will need to contract. There will be a pickup in transitory unemployment. Real estate and stock prices will fall. Many banks will fail. There will be more foreclosures. Government spending will have to be slashed. Entitlements will have to be cut. Many voters will be angry. But such an environment will lay the foundation upon which a real recovery can be built.
The government must allow our bubble economy to fully deflate. Asset prices, wages, and spending must fall, interest rates, production, and savings must rise. Resources, including labor, must be reallocated away from certain sectors, such as government, services, finance, health care, and educations, and be allowed to into manufacturing, mining, oil and gas, agriculture, and other goods producing fields. We will never borrow and spend our way out of a crisis caused by too much borrowing and spending. The only way out is to reverse course.
To create conditions that foster growth, the government should balance the budget with major cuts in government spending, severely reform and simplify the tax code. It would be preferable if all corporate and personal taxes could be replaces by a national sales tax. Our current tax system discourages the activities that we need most: hard work, production, savings, investment, and risk taking. Instead it incentivizes consumption and debt. We should tax people when they spend their wealth, not when they create it. High marginal income tax rates inflict major damage to job creation, as the tax is generally paid out of money that otherwise would have been used to finance capital investment and job creation.
Regulations have substantially increased the costs and risks associated with job creation. Employers are subjected to all sorts of onerous regulations, taxes, and legal liability. The act of becoming an employer should be made as easy as possible. Instead we have made it more difficult. In fact, among small business owners, limiting the number of employees is generally a goal. This is not a consequence of the market, but of a rational desire on the part of business owners to limit their cost and legal liabilities. They would prefer to hire workers, but these added burdens make it preferable to seek out alternatives.
In my own business, securities regulations have prohibited me from hiring brokers for more than three years. I was even fined fifteen thousand dollar expressly for hiring too many brokers in 2008. In the process I incurred more than $500,000 in legal bills to mitigate a more severe regulatory outcome as a result of hiring too many workers. I have also been prohibited from opening up additional offices. I had a major expansion plan that would have resulted in my creating hundreds of additional jobs. Regulations have forced me to put those jobs on hold.
In addition, the added cost of security regulations have forced me to create an offshore brokerage firm to handle foreign accounts that are now too expensive to handle from the United States. Revenue and jobs that would have been created in the U.S. are now being created abroad instead. In addition, I am moving several asset management jobs from Newport Beach, California to Singapore.
As Congress turns up the heat, more of my capital will continue to be diverted to my foreign companies, creating jobs and tax revenues abroad rather than in the United States.
To encourage real and lasting job growth the best thing the government can do is to make it as easy as possible for business to hire and employ people. This means cutting down on workplace regulations. It also means eliminating the punitive aspects of employment law that cause employers to think twice about hiring. To be blunt, the easier employees are to fire, the higher the likelihood they will be hired. Some steps Congress could take now include:
a. Abolish the Federal Minimum Wage
Minimum wages have never raised the wages of anyone and simply draw an arbitrary line that separates the employable from the unemployable. Just like prices, wages are determined by supply and demand. The demand for workers is a function of how much productivity a worker can produce. Setting the wage at $7.25 simply means that only those workers who can produce goods and services that create more than $7.25 (plus all additional payroll associated costs) per hour are eligible for jobs. Those who can’t, become permanently unemployable. The artificial limits encourage employers to look to minimize hires and to automate wherever possible.
By putting many low skill workers (such as teenagers) below the line, the minimum wage prevents crucial on the job training, which could provide workers with the experience and skills needed to earn higher wages.
b. Repeal all Federal workplace anti-discrimination Laws
One of the reasons unemployment is so high among minorities is that business owners (particularly small business) are wary of legal liability associated with various categories of protected minorities. The fear of litigation, and the costly judgments that can ensue, are real. Given that it is nearly impossible for an employer to control all the aspects of the workplace environment, litigation risk is a tangible consideration. Given all the legal avenues afforded by legislation, minority employees are much more likely to sue employers. To avoid this, some employers simply look to avoid this outcome by sticking with less risky employee categories. It is not racism that causes this discrimination, but a rational desire to mitigate liability. The reality is that a true free market would punish employers that discriminate based on race or other criteria irrelevant to job performance. That is because businesses that hire based strictly on merit would have a competitive advantage. Anti-discrimination laws titled the advantage to those who discriminate.
c. Repeal all laws mandating employment terms such as work place conditions, over-time, benefits, leave, medical benefits, etc.
Employment is a voluntary relationship between two parties. The more room the parties have to negotiate and agree on their own terms, the more likely a job will be created. Rules imposed from the top create inefficiencies that limit employment opportunities. Employee benefits are a cost of employment, and high value employees have all the bargaining power they need to extract benefits from employers. They are free to search for the best benefits they can get just as they search for the best wages.
Companies that do not offer benefits will lose employees to companies that do. Just as employees are free to leave companies at will, so too should employers be free to terminate an employee without fear of costly repercussions. Individuals should not gain rights because they are employees, and individuals should not lose rights because they become employers.
d. Abolish extended unemployment benefits
In addition to being a source of emergency funds, unemployment benefits over time become more of a disincentive to employment than anything else (although the disincentive diminishes with the worker’s skill level -- i.e. high wage workers are unlikely to forego a high wage job opportunity to preserve unemployment benefits). For marginally skilled workers unemployment insurance is a major factor in determining if a job should be taken or not.
Even if unemployment pays a significant fraction of the wage a worker would get with a full time job, the money may be enough to convince the worker to stay home. After all, there are costs associated with having a job. Not only does a worker pay payroll and income taxes on any wages he earns, the loss of unemployment benefits itself acts as a tax. Plus workers must pay for such job related expenses as transportation, clothing, restaurant meals, dry cleaning and childcare, and they must forgo other work that they could do in their free time (providing care for loved ones, home improvement, etc.).
Understandably, most people also find leisure time preferable to work. As a result, any job that does not offer a major monetary advantage to unemployment benefits will likely be turned down. This entrenches unemployment insurance recipients into a class of permanently unemployed workers.
It is no accident that employment increases immediately after unemployment insurance expires for many categories of workers. In fact, many individual will seek to max out their benefits, and remain unemployed until those benefits expire. If they work at all, it will be for cash under-the-table, so as not to leave any money on the table.
Although it was labeled and hyped as a "jobs plan," the new $447 billion initiative announced last night by President Obama is merely another government stimulus program in disguise. But semantics are of supreme importance in American politics...some could argue that word choice is the only thing that matters. As a result, despite the fact that this plan bears no substantive difference from previous stimulus bills, the President never once mentioned the word "stimulus" in his hour-long speech. But a rotten banana by any other name still stinks.
Like all previous stimuli, this round of borrowing and spending will act as an economic sedative rather than a stimulant. Running up the deficit in the short-run will not grow the economy, but will merely dig it into a deeper hole. A year from now there will be even more unemployed Americans than there are today, likely resulting in additional deficit financed stimulus that will again make the situation worse.
The President asserted that the spending in the plan will be "paid for" and will not add to the deficit. Conveniently, he offered no details about how this will be achieved. Most likely he will make non-binding suggestions to future congresses to "pay" for this spending by cutting budgets five to ten years in the future. History is absolutely clear on one point: politicians never pass cuts promised by prior politicians. In other words...the check is in the mail. So I will make the fairly riskless assumption that the plan will be financed by deficit spending. If so, the negatives associated with greater deficits will overwhelm any perceived benefit the spending will generate.
President Obama claims he wants to put money into the pockets of American consumers. The problem is the government's own pockets are empty. In order to put money in the pocket of one American, it must first pick the pocket of another. The problem is that it takes more from the pockets it picks than it puts into the pockets it fills.
In the meantime money to fund the stimulus has to come from somewhere. Either the government will borrow it legitimately, or the Federal Reserve will print. Either way, the adverse consequences will damage economic growth and job creation, and lower the living standards of Americans.
There can be no doubt that some jobs will in fact be created by this plan. However, it is much more difficult to identify the jobs that it destroys or prevents from coming into existence. Here's a case in point: the $4,000 tax credit for hiring new workers who have been unemployed for six months or more.
The subsidy may make little difference in effecting the high end of the job market. An employer will not pay a worker $50,000 per year simply to qualify for a one-time $4,000 credit. But the effects will be felt on minimum wage jobs where rather than expanding employment it will merely increase turnover.
Since an employer need only hire a worker for 6 months to get the credit, for a full time employee, the credit effectively reduces the $7.25 minimum wage (from the employer's perspective) to only $3.40 per hour for a six month hire. While minimum wage jobs would certainly offer no enticement to those collecting unemployment benefits, the lower effective rate may create some opportunities for teenagers and some low skilled individuals whose unemployment benefits have expired. However, most of these jobs will end after six months so employers can replace those workers with others to get an additional tax credit.
Of course the numbers get even more compelling for employers to provide returning veterans with temporary minimum wage jobs, as the higher $5,600 tax credit effectively reduces the minimum wage to only $1.87 per hour. If an employer hires a "wounded warrior" the tax credit is $9,600 which effectively reduces the six month minimum wage by $9.23 to negative $1.98 per hour. This will encourage employers to hire a "wounded warrior" even if there is nothing for the employee to do. Such an incentive may even encourage such individuals to acquire multiple no-show jobs from numerous employers. History has shown that when government creates incentives, the public will twist themselves into pretzels to qualify for the benefits.
The plan creates incentives for employers to replace current minimum wage workers with new workers just to get the tax credit. Low skill workers are the easiest to replace as training costs are minimal. The laid off workers can collect unemployment for six months and then be hired back in a manner that allows the employer to claim the credit. The only problem is that the former worker may prefer collecting extended unemployment benefits to working for the minimum wage!
The $4,000 credit for hiring the unemployed as well as the explicit penalties for discriminating against the long term unemployed will result in a situation where employers will be far more likely to interview and hire applicants who have been unemployed for just under six months. Under the law, employers would be wise to decline interviews with anyone who has been unemployed for more than six months, as any subsequent decision not to hire could be met with a lawsuit. However, to get the tax credit they would be incentivized to interview applicants who have been unemployed for just under six months. If they are never hired there can be no risk of a lawsuit, but if they are hired, the start date can be planned to qualify for the credit.
The result will simply create classes of winners (those unemployed for four or five months) and losers (the newly unemployed and the long term unemployed). Ironically, the law banning discrimination against long-term unemployed will make it much harder for those people to find jobs.
Another problem is the President's intention to help under-water homeowners refinance their mortgages with lower rates. While this will certainly be good for the borrowers, it will be horrific for the banks holding the loans. The borrower's gain is simultaneously offset by the bank's loss. This will further impair the solvency of our banking sector, exacerbating the losses and failures when rates rise, thereby increase the costs to taxpayers of the next round of bailouts.
Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, the President claims his payroll tax cuts will not endanger the Social Security Trust Fund, as the government will replace the lost "contributions" with transfers from general revenue. In other words, the government will borrow money, put it in a phony trust fund, then borrow the same money back from the trust funds and spend it on the stimulus. It is amazing the theatrics the government will go through to maintain the illusion that trust funds actually exist. The tragedy is that Americans continue to buy the charade and even heap scorn on those, like Rick Perry, who has the temerity to point out that the emperor is naked.
The truth of course is that no real economic growth or job creation is going to occur until the failed policies of both Obama and Bush are reversed. In his speech the President mourned the death of the American dream. Obama should stop killing it. To revive that dream we need to revive the American spirit that produced it in the first place. That means returning to our traditional values of limited government and sound money. Unfortunately we are still headed in the wrong direction.
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.
Nothing discussed on the show is an offer to buy or sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy or sell any security or instrument or to participate in any particular investing strategy. All securities involve varying amounts of risk, and their values will fluctuate, and the fluctuation of foreign currency exchange rates will also impact your investment returns if measured in U.S. Dollars. Dividend yields change as stock prices change, and companies may change or cancel dividend payments in the future. Investments may increase or decrease in value and you may lose money. International investing may not be suitable for all investors.