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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

WHEN INFINITE INFLATION ISN'T ENOUGH 

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


Inflation By Any Other Name

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

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

Interventions Are Never Neutral

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

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

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

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

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

Does Bernanke Even Believe It?

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

Don't Gamble Your Savings on Politics

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

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

 



Tags:  economyInflationQE3stock market
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Lessons from Black Monday
Posted by Peter Schiff on 10/22/2012 at 8:07 AM

25 years ago, on another Monday in late October, the financial world seemed to disintegrate in a heartbeat. Though the 205 point drop in the Dow last Friday (the technical anniversary of the '87 Crash) was somewhat reminiscent of its 108-point drop on Friday, October 16, 1987, the real action in '87 was on the Monday that followed.  And while this Monday is not nearly as black, it is important that we use the opportunity to recall the circumstances that nearly sent the stock market into cardiac arrest. 

While there were technical reasons that allowed the snowball to gather so much mass, it was major economic problems that started it rolling. Those issues remain to this day, but have grown much, much larger. But while they terrified the market 25 years ago, they don't rate a second look today. Whether investors have gotten wise, or merely oblivious, is the question we should be asking.

Though most simply remember the 1987 Crash as one panicked selling day, Black Monday was just the largest drop in a string of bad days. On the Wednesday before, the Dow sold off 95 points (then a record) and dropped another 58 points on the Thursday. On Friday the selling got worse, with the Dow setting another record with a 108 point drop. After thinking about it over the weekend, investors decided to preserve what remained of their gains by selling on Monday. Unfortunately, everyone got the same idea at the same time. 
 
It is true that the Crash was in some ways a technical phenomenon. As of August of 1987,stocks had surged 75% from January 1986, and 40% from January 1987. After such an upswing, it was inevitable that investors were on edge. Rather than taking profits, many on Wall Street instead hedged their positions using the new, and largely untested, trading programs that were designed to put a floor under losses if the markets turned south. But when the selling came in waves, the machines went into overdrive. Selling begat selling and an automated rout ensued. When the dust settled, the Dow was down 22% in a single day.
 
If that was all there was to the story, we would be left with a neat cautionary tale about the folly of placing too much faith in machines. But that is a distracting sideshow. In truth, the market was spooked by concerns over international trade and government debt, which then became known as the "twin deficits." After widening earlier in the 80's, investors had hoped that these gaps would come under control. But as Ronald Reagan's second term wore on, those hopes faded.  
 
From 1982 to 1986, the U.S. trade deficit had expanded 475%from $24 billion to $138 billion. Most economists blamed the trend on the dollar gains in the early 1980's, which had apparently made U.S. products uncompetitive. As it was assumed that a weakened dollar would solve the problem, in 1985 the leading western democracies and Japan announced the Plaza Accords to systematically push down the dollar against the Japanese yen and the Deutsche mark. By 1987, the plan had "succeeded" devaluing the dollar 51% against the yen. But by the second half of that year it became apparent that the Plaza Accord had failed in its real mission to cut down on the U.S. trade deficit. Despite the plunging dollar, the deficit expanded that year by another 10% to $152 billion.

At around that time, the U.S. government budget deficits also became a major concern. Everyone remembers Ronald Reagan as a small government champion, but many conveniently forget that he presided over a significant expansion in government spending. Federal deficits rose 199% from 1980 ($74 billion) to 1986 ($221 billion). Although the deficit came down to $150 billion in 1987, many were frustrated that it remained stubbornly high by historic standards.  
 
As early as August of 1987, concern over the twin deficits, which together accounted for 6.4% of the nation's $4.76 trillion GDP became critical. Given the prior run up in stocks, this was enough to convince many investors to head towards the exits. Before Black Monday (October 19), the Dow had already declined 18% from its August peak. 

When we look back at those events from the current perspective, it almost seems comical. Government deficits now approach $1.5 trillion annually and annual trade deficits exceed $500 billion. Today's twin deficits now add up to more than 13% of current GDP (twice the level of 1987). But today's investors are largely untroubled. Oftentimes news of a falling dollar and wider deficits will spark a stock rally, and the issues barely rate a mention in a presidential debate.

Are investors today simply more sophisticated than they were then? Have they lost an irrational fear of deficits? To the contrary, I believe that we have arrived at a point where money printing and government stimulus has replaced manufacturing and private sector productivity as the foundation of our economy (see my lead commentary in the October 2012 edition of the Euro Pacific Global Investor Newsletter for more on this). As a result, most investors are now blind to the dangers of deficits. But that does not mean that they don't exist. 

When America's creditors wake up, particularly those foreign governments now shouldering the lion's share of the burden, concerns over our twin deficits will return with a vengeance. As the problems now loom larger than ever, so too will the economic and market implications when the issues come to a head. Interest rates will surge and the dollar will fall. But the U.S. economy is not nearly as well equipped as in 1987 to withstand the stresses. Given the relative size of our imbalances, the manner in which they are being financed, and the diminished state of our manufacturing sector, higher interest rates and a weaker dollar will exact a much greater toll.

Despite this, I do not believe that the stock market is as vulnerable to another Black Monday. With the Federal Reserve so committed to its current course of quantitative easing, it seems to me unlikely that they will allow such a steep one-day drop. Also, with bond yields so low, domestic investors are currently presented with fewer attractive options. If anything, the next Black Monday is more likely to occur in the currency and/or bond markets, with safe haven flows moving into gold not treasuries.

 

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

 



Tags:  crasheconomystock market
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