Jay Powell is selling but the bond market isn’t buying

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell declared that the Fed’s commitment to taming inflation is “unconditional”:

June 23 (Reuters) – The Federal Reserve’s commitment to reining in 40-year-high inflation is “unconditional,” Powell told lawmakers on Thursday, even as he acknowledged that sharply higher interest rates may push up unemployment.

“We really need to restore price stability … because without that we’re not going to be able to have a sustained period of maximum employment where the benefits are spread very widely,” the Fed Chairman told the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee.

Under questioning by members of the House panel on Thursday, Powell said there was a risk the Fed’s actions could lead to a rise in unemployment. “We don’t have precision tools,” he said, “so there is a risk that unemployment would move up, from what is historically a low level though. A labor market with 4.1% or 4.3% unemployment is still a very strong labor market.”

He also dismissed cutting interest rates if unemployment were to rise while inflation remained high. “We can’t fail on this: we really have to get inflation down to 2%,” he said.

The Fed chief was also asked about the central bank’s balance sheet, which was built up to around $9 trillion during the pandemic in an effort to ease financial conditions and is now being pared. The Fed aims to get it “roughly in the range of $2.5 or $3 trillion smaller than it is now,” Powell said.

But the bond market isn’t buying it. Treasury yields from 2-year to 30-year are compressed in a narrow band above 3%, indicating a flat yield curve. Expectations are that the Fed can’t go much higher than 3.0% to 3.5%.

Treasury Yield Curve

The dot plot from the last FOMC meeting similarly projects a 3.4% fed funds rate by the end of 2022, 3.8% by 2023, and lower at 3.4% by the end of 2024.

FOMC Dot Plot

You cannot cure inflation with a Fed funds rate (FFR) of 3.5%.

CPI is growing at 8.6% YoY, while the FFR target maximum is 1.75%. Another 1.75% just won’t cut it. You have to hike rates above inflation. Positive real interest rates are the best antidote for inflation but the economy, in its current precarious state, could not withstand this.

Fed Funds Rate & CPI

Taming inflation in the 1980s

Paul Volcker killed inflation by hiking the fed funds rate to 20% in 1980, but we live in a different world.

In 1980, federal debt to GDP was less than 50% of GDP. Today it’s 118%.

Federal Debt/GDP

The Federal deficit was 2.5% of GDP. Now it’s 12%.

Federal Deficit/GDP

Private debt (excluding the financial sector) was 1.35 times GDP in 1980. Now it’s more than double.

Private Non-Financial Debt/GDP

Powell can’t hike rates like Volcker. If he tried, he would collapse the economy and the US Treasury would be forced to default on its debt. Collapse of the global reserve asset is about as close as you can get to financial Armageddon.

Pricking the bubble

Instead, the Fed plans to use QT to deflate the asset bubbles in stocks and housing, in the hope that a reverse wealth effect — as households feel poorer — will slow consumer spending and reduce inflation.

So far, the S&P 500 has dropped by 25% and the housing market is likely to follow. The 30-year mortgage rate has climbed to 5.81%, more than double the rate in August last year.

30-Year Fixed Mortgage Rate

Housing starts and permits are both declining.

Housing Starts & Permits

Powell talks of a $2.5 to $3.0 trillion reduction in the Fed’s balance sheet. That would increase the supply of Treasuries and MBS in financial markets by an equivalent amount which would be sucked out of the stock market, causing a fall in prices.

The two largest foreign investors in US Treasuries — Japan and China — have also both become net sellers to support their currencies against the rising Dollar. That will further increase the supply of Treasuries, causing an outflow from stocks.

Since 2009, stock market capitalization increased by $47.4 trillion, from $16.9T to $64.3T at the end of Q1. At the same time, the Fed’s balance sheet increased by $7.9 trillion, from $0.9T to $8.8T. Market cap increased by $6T for every $1T increase in the Fed’s balance sheet (QE). The multiplier effect is 6 times (47.4/7.9).

Stock Market Capitalization & Fed Total Assets

If the Fed were to shrink its balance sheet by $2.5 trillion and net foreign sales  of Treasuries amount to another $0.5 trillion, we could expect a similar multiplier effect to cause an $18 trillion fall in market capitalization ($3Tx6). Market cap would fall to $50T or 26.5% from its $68T peak in Q4 of 2021.

That’s just the start.

“Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”

Nobel prize-winner Milton Friedman argued that long-term increases or decreases in the general price level were caused by changes in the supply of money and not by shortages or surpluses of oil, commodities or labor.

The chart below shows the supply of money (M2) as a percentage of GDP. The economy thrived with M2 below 50% throughout the Dotcom boom of the late 1990s but has since grown bloated with liquidity as the Fed tried to revive the economy from the massive supply shock of China’s admission to the World Trade Organization in 2002 — the introduction of hundreds of millions of workers earning roughly 1/30th of Western-level wages.

Money Supply (M2)/GDP

The massive supply shock helped to contain prices over the next two decades, perpetuating the myth of the Great Moderation — that the Fed had finally tamed inflation. Fed hubris led them to pursue easier monetary policy with little fear of  inflationary consequences.

All illusions eventually come to an end, however, and the 2020 pandemic caused the Fed to purchase trillions of Dollars of securities to support massive government stimulus payments. The MMT experiment failed disastrously, causing a $5 trillion spike in M2 without an accompanying rise in GDP. M2 spiked up from an already bloated 70% of GDP to more than 90%, before GDP recovered slightly to reduce it to the current 89%.

Trade tensions with China, coupled with supply chain disruptions from the 2020 pandemic and a sharp rise in natural gas prices — as industry switched from coal to reduce CO2 emissions — triggered price increases. These were aggravated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and resulting sanctions, leading to oil shortages.

Normally, high prices are the cure for high prices. Consumers cut back purchases in response to high prices and demand falls to the point that it matches available supply. Prices then stabilize.

But consumers are sitting on a mountain of cash, as illustrated in the above M2 chart. They continued spending despite higher prices and demand didn’t fall. Investors who have access to cheap debt also, quite rationally, borrow to buy appreciating real assets. Unfortunately cheap leverage is seldom channeled into productive investment and instead fuels expanding asset bubbles in homes and equities.

The Fed is forced to intervene, employing demand destruction, through rate hikes and QT deflate asset bubbles, to reduce consumer spending.

An unwelcome side-effect of demand destruction is that it also destroys jobs. Unemployment rises and eventually the Fed is forced to relent.

Conclusion

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell says that the Fed’s commitment to reining in inflation is “unconditional” but the bond market is pricing in rate hikes peaking between 3.0% and 3.5%, way below the current rate of inflation. The economy is unlikely to be able to withstand more because of precarious levels of debt to GDP and a massive fiscal deficit.

Instead, the Fed plans to shrink their balance sheet by $2.3 to $3 trillion. QT is expected to deflate asset bubbles in stocks and housing and achieve a reverse wealth effect. Households are likely to curb spending as their net worth falls and they feel poorer.

Unfortunately, demand destruction from rate hikes and QT will also cause unemployment, inevitably leading to a recession. The Fed seems to think that the economy is resilient because unemployment is low and job openings outnumber unemployed workers by almost 2 to 1.

Job Openings & Unemployment (U3)

But elevated debt levels and rapidly rising credit spreads could precipitate a sharp deleveraging, with crumbling asset prices, rising layoffs and credit defaults.

High Yield Spreads

The Fed may also manage to lower prices through demand destruction but inflation is likely to rear its head again when they start easing. Surging inflation is likely to repeat until the Fed addresses the underlying issue: an excessive supply of money.

Milton Friedman was a scholar of the Great Depression of the 1930s which he attributed to mistakes by the Fed:

“The Fed was largely responsible for converting what might have been a garden-variety recession, although perhaps a fairly severe one, into a major catastrophe. Instead of using its powers to offset the depression, it presided over a decline in the quantity of money by one-third from 1929 to 1933 … Far from the depression being a failure of the free-enterprise system, it was a tragic failure of government.”

Ben Bernanke, another scholar of the Great Depression, acknowledged this during his tenure as Fed Chairman:

“Let me end my talk by abusing slightly my status as an official representative of the Federal Reserve. I would like to say to Milton (Friedman) and Anna (Schwarz): Regarding the Great Depression, you’re right. We did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.”

Instead the Fed made the opposite mistake. By almost doubling the quantity of money (M2) relative to GDP (output) they have created an entirely different kind of monster.

Money Supply (M2)/GDP

Slaying the beast of inflation is likely to prove just as difficult as ending the deflationary spiral of the 1930s.

Dr Lacey Hunt, Hoisington Asset Management | The debt trap

From Dr Lacey Hunt at Hoisington Asset Management on the declining velocity of money:

M2 Velocity

The Fed is able to increase money supply growth but the ongoing decline in velocity (V) means that the new liquidity is trapped in the financial markets rather than advancing the standard of living by moving into the real economy…..

GDP/Debt

Money and debt are created simultaneously. If the debt produces a sustaining income stream to repay principal and interest, then velocity will rise since GDP will eventually increase beyond the initial borrowing. If advancing debt produces increasingly smaller gains in GDP, then V falls. Debt financed private and governmental projects may temporarily boost GDP and velocity over short timespans, but if the projects do not generate new funds to meet longer term debt servicing obligations, then velocity falls as the historical statistics confirm.

The increase in M2 is not channeled into productive investment — that fuels GDP growth — but rather into unproductive investment in financial assets. The wealthy invest in real assets, as a hedge against inflation, but these are mainly speculative assets — such as gold, precious metals, jewellery, artworks and other collectibles, high-end real estate, or cryptocurrencies — which seldom produce much in the way of real income, with the speculator relying on asset price inflation and low interest rates to make a profit. Many so-called “growth stocks” — with negative earnings — fall in the same category. Debt used to fund stock buybacks also falls in this category as their purpose is financial engineering, with no increase in real earnings.

In 2008 and 2009 Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff (R&R) published research that indicated from an extensive quantitative analysis of highly indebted economies that their economic growth was significantly diminished once they become highly over-indebted.

…..Cristina Checherita and Philip Rother, in research for the European Central Bank (ECB) published in 2014, investigated the average effect of government debt on per capita GDP growth in twelve Euro Area countries over a period of about four decades beginning in 1970. Dr. Checherita, now head of the fiscal affairs division of the ECB and Dr. Rother, chief economist of the European Economic Community, found that a government debt to GDP ratio above the turning point of 90-100% has a “deleterious” impact on long-term growth. In addition, they find that there is a non-linear impact of debt on growth beyond this turning point. A non-linear relationship means that as the government debt rises to higher and higher levels, the adverse growth consequences accelerate……Moreover, confidence intervals for the debt turning point suggest that the negative growth rate effect of high debt may start from levels of around 70-80% of GDP.

…..Unfortunately, early-stage economic expansions do not fare well when inflation and interest rates are not declining at this stage of the business cycle, which is not the normal historical role, or the path indicated by economic theory. As this year has once again confirmed, in early expansion inflationary episodes, prices rise faster than real wages, thereby stunting consumer
spending. The faster inflation also thwarts the needed continuing cyclical decline in money and bond yields, which are necessary to gain economic momentum.

…..The U.S. economy has clearly experienced an unprecedented set of supply side disruptions, which serve to shift the upward sloping aggregate supply curve inward. In a graph, with aggregate prices on the vertical axis and real GDP on the horizontal axis, this causes the aggregate supply and demand curves to intersect at a higher price level and lower level of real GDP. This
drop in real GDP, often referred to as a supply side recession, increases what is known as the deflationary gap, which means that the level of real GDP falls further from the level of potential GDP. This deflationary gap in turn leads to demand destruction setting in motion a process that will eventually reverse the rise in inflation.

Currently, however, the decline in money growth and velocity indicate that the inflation induced supply side shocks will eventually be reversed. In this environment, Treasury bond yields could temporarily be pushed higher in response to inflation. These sporadic moves will not be maintained. The trend in longer yields remains downward.

Negative real yields

A negative real yield points to the fact that investors or entrepreneurs cannot earn a real return sufficient to cover risks. Accordingly, the funds for physical investment will fall and productivity gains will erode which undermines growth. Attempting to counter this fact, central banks expand liquidity but the inability of firms to profitably invest causes the velocity of money to fall but the additional liquidity boosts financial assets. Financial investment, however, does not raise the standard of living. While the timing is uncertain, real forward financial asset returns must eventually move into alignment with the already present negative long-term real Treasury interest rates. This implied reduction in future investment will impair economic growth.

….research has documented that extremely high levels of governmental indebtedness suppress real per capita GDP. In the distant past, debt financed government spending may have been preceded by stronger sustained economic performance, but that is no longer the case. When governments accelerate debt over a certain level to improve faltering economic conditions, it actually slows economic activity. While governmental action may be required for political reasons, governments would be better off to admit that traditional tools would only serve to compound existing problems.

Carmen Reinhart, Vincent Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff (which will be referred to as RR&R), in the Summer 2012 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives linked extreme sustained over indebtedness with the level of interest rates…… “Contrary to popular perception, we find that in 11 of the 16 debt overhang cases, real interest rates were either lower or about the same as during the lower debt/GDP years. Those waiting for financial markets to send the warning signal through higher (real) interest rates that governmental policy will be detrimental to economic performance may be waiting a long time.”

Growth Obstacles

In 2022, several headwinds will weigh on the U.S. economy. These include negative real interest rates combined with a massive debt overhang, poor domestic and global demographics, and a foreign sector that will drain growth from the domestic economy. The EM and AD (Advanced) economies will both serve to be a restraint on U.S. growth this year and perhaps significantly longer. The negative real interest rates signal that capital is being destroyed and with it the incentive to plough funds into physical investment.

Demographics continue to stagnate in the United States and throughout the world……..Poor demographics retard economic growth by lowering household, business and state and local investment. This keeps intact the observable trend in numerous countries – extreme over-indebtedness reduces economic growth which, in turn, worsens demographics, which reinforces the weakness emanating from the debt overhang. William Stull, Professor of Economics at Temple University, makes the case that for nations’, “demographics is destiny” (a phrase coined by Ben Wattenberg and Richard M. Scammon), highlighting the importance of its critical secular growth in determining economic fortune.

Although fourth quarter numbers are not yet available, the global debt to GDP average for 2020-21 is almost certainly the highest on record for any two-year period. Transitory growth spurts, like the one Q4 2021, are unlikely to be sustained. The sporadic but weakening growth trend evident before the pandemic hit in 2019 will return, reinforcing the debt trap.

Inflation

The University of Michigan indicates consumer sentiment in the fourth quarter was worse than during the height of the 2020 pandemic and at the levels of the beginning of the very deep 2008-09 recession. Consumers cut back significantly on their buying plans as expectations for increases in future income slumped. To fund the sharply higher cost of necessities, households have been forced to reduce the personal saving rate in November to 6.9%, or 0.4% less than in December 2019. Needing to tap credit card lines undoubtedly contributed to the erosion in consumer confidence measures. Without the sizable cut in personal saving, real consumer expenditures were barely positive in the fourth quarter. With money growth likely to slow even more sharply in response to tapering by the FOMC, the velocity of money in a major downward trend, coupled with increased global over-indebtedness, poor demographics and other headwinds at work, the faster observed inflation of last year should unwind noticeably in 2022.

Deconstructing Evergrande’s effect on China

Elliot Clarke at Westpac says that China will be able to withstand the shock of Evergrande’s collapse and that power outages are a bigger threat.

We still think that the property sector contagion is part of a broader issue that China will struggle to overcome, as Michael Pettis succinctly explained:

China’s debt problem

Tweeted by Prof. Michael Pettis:

In the past — e.g. the SOE reforms of the 1990s, the banking crisis of the 2000s, SARS in 2003, the collapse of China’s trade surplus in 2009, COVID, etc. — whenever China faced a problem that threatened the pace of its economic growth, Beijing always responded by accelerating debt creation and pumping up property and infrastructure investment by enough to maintain targeted GDP growth rates. It didn’t adjust, in other words, but rather goosed growth by exacerbating the underlying imbalances.

That is why it had always been “successful” in seeing off a crisis. But when the main problem threatening further growth becomes soaring debt and the sheer amount of non-productive investment in property and infrastructure, it is obvious, or should be, that accelerating debt creation and pumping up property and infrastructure investment can no longer be a sustainable solution. All this can do is worsen the underlying imbalances and raise further the future cost of adjustment.

Deflationistas and base effects

Deflationistas like respected economist David Rosenberg point to a sharp decline in bank credit over the past 12 months as evidence of deflation.

By the end of April, commercial bank loans and leases had declined by $510 billion, or 4.7% of total, over the past 12 months.

Commercial Banks: Loans & Leases

That would be cause for concern but it does not take into account the massive $742 billion surge in lending in the preceding two months, March-April 2020, when borrowers drew on lines of credit to ensure that they had sufficient liquidity during the pandemic. They were afraid that banks would withdraw credit facilities in anticipation of widespread corporate defaults.

Commercial Banks: Loans & Leases

Conclusion

There is no credit contraction.

Bank credit did shrink by $510 billion in the past 12 months but this followed an unusual $742 billion surge in credit as borrowers drew on credit facilities to ensure liquidity during the first two months of the pandemic. What we have witnessed is the normalization of bank credit, with borrowers repaying credit temporarily drawn at the height of the liquidity crunch.

We expect normal credit growth to resume.

Can the Fed keep a lid on inflation?

Jeremy Siegel, Wharton finance professor, says the Fed has poured a tremendous amount of money into the economy in response to the pandemic, which will eventually cause higher inflation. David Rosenberg of Rosenberg Research argues that velocity of money is declining and the US economy has a large output gap so inflation is unlikely to materialize.

CNBC VideoClick to play

Both are right, just in different time frames.

Putting the cart before the horse

The velocity of money is simply the ratio of GDP to the money supply. Fluctuations in the velocity of money have more to do with fluctuations in GDP than in the money supply. If GDP recovers, so will the velocity of money. Equating velocity of money with inflation is putting the cart before the horse. Contractions in GDP coincide with low/negative inflation while rapid expansions in GDP are normally accompanied, after a lag, by rising inflation.

CPI & GDP

Money supply and interest rates

Inflation is likely to rise when consumption grows at a faster rate than output. Prices rise when supply is scarce — when we consume more than we produce. Interest rates play a key role in this.

Low interest rates mean cheap credit, making it easy for people to borrow and consume more than they earn. Low rates also boost the stock market, raising corporate earnings because of lower interest costs, but most importantly, raising earnings multiples as the cost of capital falls. Speculators also take advantage of low interest rates to leverage their investments, driving up prices.

S&P 500

In the housing market, prices rise as cheap mortgage finance attracts buyers, pushing up demand and facilitating greater leverage.

Housing: Building Starts & Permits

Wealth effect

Higher stock and house prices create a wealth effect. Consumers are more ready to borrow and spend when they feel wealthier.

High interest rates, on the other hand, have the exact opposite effect. Credit is expensive and consumption falls. Speculation fades as stock earnings multiples fall and housing buyers are scarce.

Money supply is only a factor in inflation to the extent that it affects interest rates. There is also a lag between lower interest rates and rising consumption. It takes time for consumers and investors to rebuild confidence after an economic contraction.

The role of the Fed

Fed Chairman, William McChesney Martin, described the role of the Federal Reserve as:

“…..to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going.”

In other words, to raise interest rates just as the economic recovery starts to build up steam — to avoid a build up of inflationary pressures.

The Fed’s mandate is to maintain stable prices but there are times, like the present, when their hands are tied.

Federal government debt is currently above 120% of GDP.

Federal Debt/GDP

GDP is likely to rise as the economy recovers but so is federal debt as the government injects more stimulus and embarks on an infrastructure program to lift the economy.

With federal debt at record levels of GDP, raising interest rates could blow the federal deficit wide open as the cost of servicing Treasury debt threatens to overtake tax revenues.

Conclusion

Inflation is likely to remain low until GDP recovers. But the need to maintain low interest rates — to support Treasury markets and keep a lid on the federal deficit — will then hamper the Fed’s ability to contain a buildup of inflationary pressure.

Jim Bianco forecasts higher inflation in 2021

Jim Bianco from Bianco Research:

“The problem the stock market has in 2021 is by most standard metrics (P/E, Market Cap/GDP, etc.) it’s overvalued. Now a lot of people expect it to stay that way for another year. If we don’t get inflation, that can actually happen and you could actually have the market stay at these elevated levels. But if you do get rising interest rates on inflation……that will frip earnings, make mortgage rates go up and lift interest rates. That has historically not been good for risk assets….”

The problem if we don’t get inflation will be far worse. MMT theorists will take this as validation and we are likely to see more calls for far higher stimulus checks. Why not $200,000 stimulus checks someone on Twitter asked. The bubble will keep expanding without any visible effect …..until it bursts.

A stock market bubble of epic proportions

A great deal has been written in recent years about real estate bubbles, stock market bubbles and even bond market bubbles. But there is really only one kind of bubble — that is a debt bubble. Without low interest rates fueling rapid debt growth, any form of bubble would wither on the vine.

The Wilshire 5000 broad market index, compared to profits before tax, recently peaked above 15.0 for only the second time in history before retreating to 13.97 in Q3. The fall in Q3 is attributable to recovering profits rather than falling stock prices, so a return to above 15.0 seems likely if the index rises in response.

Wilshire 5000 Index/Profits

The reason for the surge in stock prices is clear on the chart below: interest rates at close to zero for an extended period act like rocket fuel.

Wilshire 5000 Index/Profits & 3-Month T-Bill Yield

Anna Schwartz, co-author of A Monetary History of the United States (with Milton Friedman, 1963) once said:

If you investigate individually the manias that the market has so dubbed over the years, in every case, it was expansive monetary policy that generated the boom in an asset. The particular asset varied from one boom to another. But the basic underlying propagator was too-easy monetary policy and too-low interest rates.

That is particularly true of the current bubble.

When will it end?

The Fed seems unlikely to change course and is expected to keep interest rates near zero for an extended period, so when is the bubble likely to end?

If bank credit growth stalls, falling to zero (the red line) as it did before the last three recessions, stock prices are likely to tumble.

Wilshire 5000 Index/Profits & Bank Credit

There may be three possible causes of slowing credit growth:

  1. Inflation surges, forcing the Fed to raise interest rates;
  2. Low interest rates cause investment misallocation, as in the Dotcom and subprime bubbles, leading to rising defaults and tighter bank credit; or
  3. An external shock causes falling aggregate demand and high unemployment, with banks tightening credit policies in anticipation of rising defaults.

Chairman Jay Powell has assured us that the Fed will tolerate higher inflation, with its new policy of inflation averaging, so higher interest rates do not seem to be a major risk. While there has been some investment misallocation, falling aggregate demand and high unemployment seem to be the greatest threat.

Initial claims for unemployment insurance jumped to 853,000 for the week ended December 5th, while initial claims for pandemic unemployment assistance surged to 427,600.

Initial Claims

Latest Department of Labor figures (November 21) show total unemployment claims remain high at 19 million — or 1 in 8 people who had a job in February 2020.

Bank credit standards have tightened significantly.

Bank Credit Standards

Conclusion

Keep a close watch on bank credit growth. If this falls to zero, then stock prices are likely to tumble.

Bank Loans & Leases

Commercial paper often acts as the canary in the coal mine, giving advance warning of a credit contraction.

Commercial Paper Outstanding