A bear market for bonds?

In 2009, Warren Buffett wrote:

“Economic medicine that was previously meted out by the cupful has recently been dispensed by the barrel. These once-unthinkable dosages will almost certainly bring on unwelcome aftereffects. Their precise nature is anyone’s guess, though one likely consequence is an onslaught of inflation…..”

He was wrong about inflation. The next decade enjoyed low inflation, despite loose monetary policy, for two reasons. First, globalization had flooded the global economy with hundreds of millions of Chinese workers — earning a fraction of Western wages — a huge deflationary shock that depressed wages growth. Second, a contracting US economy, after the global financial crisis, added to deflationary pressures. The combined effect offset the inflationary impact from profligate monetary policy.

Manufacturing wages

The world has now changed. On-shoring of critical supply chains and geopolitical tensions with Russia and China are stoking inflationary pressures. Warren Buffett’s warning now seems prescient as the Fed struggles to cope with inflation fueled by combined fiscal and monetary policy during the pandemic.

The abrupt reversal in Fed monetary policy has increased the risk of recession. All traces of the word “transitory” have disappeared from press announcements, switching to the mantra “higher for longer”. The Fed funds rate is expected to reach 5.0% in the next few months, causing job losses later in the year.

Fed Funds Target Rate

10-Year Treasury yields broke former resistance at 3.0%, reaching 4.0% before retracing. Respect of support at 3.0% would confirm that the almost forty-year bull market in bonds is over.

10-Year Treasury Yield

Falling long-term yields caused a massive surge in private debt during the bull market, with non-bank debt more than doubling relative to GDP.

Non-Financial Debt/GDP

Federal debt, even worse, grew four times relative to GDP.

Federal Debt/GDP

The surge in debt inevitably fueled speculation in real assets, with a similar rise in stock market capitalization relative to GDP.

Stock Market Capitalization/GDP

Conclusion

The significance of debt to GDP ratios should not be underestimated.

Increasing debt to fund investment in real assets is a sound investment strategy in a bond bull market, so where’s the harm?

When an individual or corporation invests, their goal is to generate income from the investment. The income stream is applied to pay the interest on the debt and repay loan capital over a reasonable period. An investment that fails to generate sufficient income and requires the borrower to capitalize interest against the loan is generally considered a failure. And likely to lead to a forced sale when the economy contracts and access to credit dries up.

The overall economy is headed for a similar predicament. When debt growth outstrips income, it warns that borrowers are capitalizing interest and headed for a disaster. The Fed can attempt to postpone the day of reckoning by suppressing interest rates and injecting liquidity. But this just encourages more debt growth and investment in even riskier assets, compounding the problem.

We are now approaching a watershed. An inverted yield curve warns that credit growth is about to dry up. Banks borrow short and lend long, so a negative spread between long-term and short-term interest rates discourages lending.

Treasury Yields: 10-Year minus 3-Month

The Fed faces a tough choice: (A) allow a bond market to cause a sharp fall in asset prices and an inevitable deep recession; or (B) kick the can down the road, suppressing long-term yields to postpone the inevitable collapse, but make the problem even bigger.

Recent falls in CPI do not mean that the Fed has won the fight against inflation. This is likely to be a long, protracted battle. Winning the first round is a good start, but does the Fed have the political cover to stay the distance?

The bond market is pricing in rate cuts by the end of the year, expecting that the Fed will pivot to plan B.

Gold investors appear to share their conviction.

Spot Gold

Nouriel Roubini: “We are in a debt trap”

Nouriel Roubini was mocked by the media — who christened him “Dr Doom” — because of his prescient warnings ahead of the 2008 global financial crisis.

He has now published a book identifying 10 mega-threats to the global economy.

First and foremost is the debt trap. Private and public debt has expanded from 100% of GDP in the 1970s, to 200% by 1999, 350% last year — advanced economies even higher at 420%, China at 330%. Inflation forces central banks to raise interest rates. High rates mean many debtors will be unable to repay.

If governments print money to bail out the economy they will cause further inflation — a tax on creditors and savers [negative real rates threaten collapse of the insurance and pension industry].

We face prolonged high inflation.

Central Banks hiking rates is misguided, economic crisis will be so damaging they will be forced to reverse course.

Supply shocks from pandemic, Russia-Ukraine war and China zero-COVID policy.

Fiscal deficits will rise due to increased spending on national security and reducing carbon emissions.

Twenty years of kicking the can down the road [short election cycle incentivizes this], with politicians unwilling to support short-term costs for long-term gain because they are unlikely to be in power to reap the rewards. Older voters are also unlikely to support change as they may not be around to reap the benefits.

Carbon emissions are increasing due to the energy crisis from Russia-Ukraine war. Carbon tax of $200/tonne required, currently $2.

We need to reduce our energy consumption.

Also increase productivity. Technology is the only solution. AI and automation could lift GDP growth, providing sufficient income to fund the changes needed.

But technology is also a threat. It provides more dangerous weapons which risk greater destruction in the next conflict.

Democracy is still the best system. Autocracies are often corrupt and way too much concentration of power [echo chamber] leads to mistakes. They also increase inequality and political instability.

Nouriel seems bullish on gold because of geopolitical tensions. Also “green metals” because of the need to reduce CO2 emissions.

Our 2023 Outlook

This is our last newsletter for the year, where we take the opportunity to map out what we see as the major risks and opportunities facing investors in the year ahead.

US Economy

The Fed has been hiking interest rates since March this year, but real retail sales remain well above their pre-pandemic trend (dotted line below) and show no signs of slowing.

Real Retail Sales

Retail sales are even rising strongly against disposable personal income, with consumers running up credit and digging into savings.

Retail Sales/ Disposable Personal Income

The Fed wants to reduce demand in order to reduce inflationary pressure on consumer prices but consumers continue to spend. Household net worth has soared — from massive expansion of home and stock prices, fueled by cheap debt, and growing savings boosted by government stimulus during the pandemic. The ratio of household net worth to disposable personal income has climbed more than 40% since the global financial crisis — from 5.5 to 7.7.

Household Net Worth/ Disposable Personal Income

At the same time, unemployment (3.7%) has fallen close to record lows, increasing inflationary pressures as employers compete for scarce labor.

Unemployment

Real Growth

Hours worked contracted by an estimated 0.12% in November (-1.44% annualized).

Real GDP & Hours Worked

But annual growth rates for real GDP growth (1.9%) and hours worked (2.1%) remain positive.

Real GDP & Hours Worked

Heavy truck sales are also a solid 40,700 units per month (seasonally adjusted). Truck sales normally contract ahead of recessions, marked by light gray bars below, providing a reliable indicator of economic growth. Sales below 35,000 units per month would be bearish.

S&P 500

Inflation & Interest Rates

The underlying reason for the economy’s resilience is the massive expansion in the money supply (M2 excluding time deposits) relative to GDP, after the 2008 global financial crisis, doubling from earlier highs at 0.4 to the current ratio of 0.84. Excessive liquidity helped to suppress interest rates and balloon asset prices, with too much money chasing scarce investment opportunities. In the hunt for yield, investors became blind to risk.

S&P 500

Suppression of interest rates caused the yield on lowest investment grade corporate bonds (Baa) to decline below CPI. A dangerous precedent, last witnessed in the 1970s, negative real rates led to a massive spike in inflation. Former Fed Chairman, Paul Volcker, had to hike the Fed funds rate above 19.0%, crashing the economy, in order to tame inflation.

S&P 500

The current Fed chair, Jerome Powell, is doing his best to imitate Volcker, hiking rates steeply after a late start. Treasury yields have inverted, with the 1-year yield (4.65%) above the 2-year (4.23%), reflecting bond market expectations that the Fed will soon be forced to cut rates.

S&P 500

A negative yield curve, indicated by the 10-year/3-month spread below zero, warns that the US economy will go into recession in 2023. Our most reliable indicator, the yield spread has inverted (red rings below) before every recession declared by the NBER since 1960*.

S&P 500

Bear in mind that the yield curve normally inverts 6 to 18 months ahead of a recession and recovers shortly before the recession starts, when the Fed cuts interest rates.

Home Prices

Mortgage rates jumped steeply as the Fed hiked rates and started to withdraw liquidity from financial markets. The sharp rise signals the end of the 40-year bull market fueled by cheap debt. Rising inflation has put the Fed on notice that the honeymoon is over. Deflationary pressures from globalization can no longer be relied on to offset inflationary pressures from expansionary monetary policy.

S&P 500

Home prices have started to decline but have a long way to fall to their 2006 peak (of 184.6) that preceded the global financial crisis.

S&P 500

Stocks

The S&P 500 is edging lower, with negative 100-day Momentum signaling a bear market, but there is little sign of panic, with frequent rallies testing the descending trendline.

S&P 500

Bond market expectations of an early pivot has kept long-term yields low and supported stock prices. 10-Year Treasury yields at 3.44% are almost 100 basis points below the Fed funds target range of 4.25% to 4.50%. Gradual withdrawals of liquidity (QT)  by the Fed have so far failed to dent bond market optimism.

10-Year Treasury Yield & Fed Funds Rate

Treasuries & the Bond Market

Declining GDP is expected to shrink tax receipts, while interest servicing costs on existing fiscal debt are rising, causing the federal deficit to balloon to between $2.5 and $5.0 trillion according to macro/bond specialist Luke Gromen.

Federal Debt/GDP & Federal Deficit/GDP

With foreign demand for Treasuries shrinking, and the Fed running down its balance sheet, the only remaining market  for Treasuries is commercial banks and the private sector. Strong Treasury issuance is likely to increase upward pressure on yields, to attract investors. The inflow into bonds is likely to be funded by an outflow from stocks, accelerating their decline.

Energy

Brent crude prices fell below $80 per barrel, despite slowing releases from the US strategic petroleum reserve (SPR). Demand remains soft despite China’s relaxation of their zero-COVID policy — which some expected to accelerate their economic recovery.

S&P 500

European natural gas inventories are near full, causing a sharp fall in prices. But prices remain high compared to their long-term average, fueling inflation and an economic contraction.

S&P 500

Europe

European GDP growth is slowing, while inflation has soared, causing negative real GDP growth and a likely recession.

S&P 500

Australia, Base Metals & Iron Ore

Base metals rallied on optimism over China’s reopening from lockdowns. Normally a bullish sign for the global economy, breakout above resistance at 175 was short-lived, warning of a bull trap.

S&P 500

Iron ore posted a similar rally, from $80 to $110 per tonne, but is also likely to retreat.

S&P 500

The ASX benefited from the China rally, with the ASX 200 breaking resistance at 7100 to complete a double-bottom reversal. Now the index is retracing to test its new support level. Breach of 7000 would warn of another test of primary support at 6400.S&P 500

China

Optimism over China’s reopening may be premature. Residential property prices continue to fall.

S&P 500

The reopening also risks a massive COVID exit-wave, against an under-prepared population, when restrictions are relaxed.

“In my memory, I have never seen such a challenge to the Chinese health-care system,” Xi Chen, a Yale University global health researcher, told National Public Radio in America this week. With less than four intensive care beds for every 100,000 people and millions of unvaccinated or partially protected older adults, the risks are real.

With official data highly unreliable, it is hard to track exactly what impact China’s U-turn is having. Authorities on Friday reported the first Covid-19 deaths since most restrictions were lifted in early December, but there have been reports that funeral homes in Beijing are struggling to handle the number of bodies being brought in.

“The risk factors are there: eight million people are essentially not vaccinated,” said Huang Yanzhong, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Unless this variant has evolved in a way that makes it harmless, China can’t avoid what happened in Taiwan or in Hong Kong,” he added, referring to significant “exit waves” in both places.

The scale of the surge is unlikely to be apparent for months, but modelling suggests it could be grim. A report from the University of Hong Kong released on Thursday warned that a best case scenario is 700,000 fatalities – forecasts from a UK-based analytics firm put deaths at between 1.3 and 2.1 million.

“We’re still at a very early stage in this particular exit wave,” said Prof Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong. (The Telegraph)

China relied on infrastructure spending to get them out of past economic contractions but debt levels are now too high for stimulus on a similar scale to 2008. Expansion of credit to local government and real estate developers is likely to cause further stagnation, with the rise of zombie banking and real estate sectors — as Japan experienced for more than three decades — suffocating future growth.

S&P 500

Conclusion

Resilient consumer spending, high household net worth, and a tight labor market all make the Fed’s job difficult. If the current trend continues, the Fed will be forced to hike interest rates higher than the bond market expects, in order to curb demand and tame inflation.

Expected contraction of European and Chinese economies, combined with rate hikes in the US, are likely to cause a global recession.

There are two possible exits. First, if central banks stick to their guns and hold interest rates higher for longer, a major and extended economic contraction is almost inevitable. While inflation may be tamed, the global economy is likely to take years to recover.

The second option is for central banks to raise inflation targets and suppress long-term interest rates in order to create a soft landing. High inflation and negative real interest rates may prolong the period of low growth but negative real rates would rescue the G7 from precarious debt levels that have ensnared them over the past decade. A similar strategy was successfully employed after WWII to extricate governments from high debt levels relative to GDP.

As to which option will be chosen is a matter of political will. The easier second option is therefore more likely, as politicians tend to follow the line of least resistance.

We have refrained from weighing in on the likely outcome of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Ukraine presently has the upper hand but the conflict is a wild card that could cause a spike in energy prices if it escalates or a positive boost to the European economy in the unlikely event that peace breaks out.

Our strategy is to remain overweight in gold, critical materials, defensive stocks and cash, while underweight bonds and high-multiple technology stocks. In the longer term, we will seek to invest cash in real assets when the opportunity presents itself.

Acknowledgements

  • Hat tip to Macrobusiness for the Pantheon Macroeconomics (China Residential) and Goldman Sachs (China Local Government Funding & Excavator Hours) charts.

Notes

* The yield curve inverted ahead of a 25% fall in the Dow in 1966. The NBER declared a recession but later changed their minds and airbrushed it out of their records.

There’s always more than one cockroach

There is always more than one cockroach. ~ Doug Kass, 50 Laws Of Investing (#8)

Rising interest rates, soaring energy prices, and plunging exchange rates of major energy importers — Europe, Japan and China — are likely to expose widespread misuse of leverage in financial markets.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon says investors should expect more blowups after a crash in U.K. government bonds last month nearly caused the collapse of hundreds of that country’s pension funds. The turmoil, triggered after the value of U.K. gilts nosedived in reaction to fiscal spending announcements, forced the country’s central bank into a series of interventions to prop up its markets. That averted disaster for pension funds using leverage to juice returns, which were said to be within hours of collapse. “I was surprised to see how much leverage there was in some of those pension plans,” Dimon told analysts Friday in a conference call to discuss third-quarter results. “My experience in life has been when you have things like what we’re going through today, there are going to be other surprises.” ~ CNBC

Contagion

Financial turmoil in one market soon spreads to others as market bullishness collapses.

Extreme Fear

Financial chaos in the UK is hitting the shores of Japan and roiling the $1 trillion global market for collateralized loan obligations. Norinchukin Bank, once known as the “CLO whale”, has stopped buying new deals in the US and Europe for the foreseeable future because of volatility sparked by UK pension funds…. (Bloomberg)

Misuse of debt

Speculators in a bull market, encouraged by the low cost of debt and the consequential rise in asset prices, borrow money in expectation of leveraging their gains. Companies, encouraged by the low cost of debt and rising stock prices, also borrow money to invest in projects with low returns or without proper consideration of downside risks should the economy go into recession. Companies may generate sufficient cash flow to service interest on their debt but insufficient to repay the capital. Their survival depends on rolling over their debt when it matures. Known as “zombies”, they are vulnerable to rising interest rates, shrinking liquidity and stricter credit standards during an economic down-turn.

Zombie Companies

The Great Repricing

“We’re seeing the beginning of the Great Repricing…and that repricing is going to have significant impacts on portfolios of many investors…But this is an inevitable consequence, in my view, of a return to more normal levels of interest rates…” ~ Mervyn King, former Governor of the Bank of England

Rising interest rates and tighter liquidity force speculators to sell off assets to repay debt. The sell-off causes a fall in asset prices, prompting further margin calls, fire sales and a downward spiral in asset prices. Also, zombie companies, devoid of support from creditors, go to the wall. Publicity surrounding bankruptcies and layoffs raises fears of further corporate failures and increases the difficulty for borderline companies to roll over debt, reinforcing the downward spiral.

The ratio of stock market capitalization to GDP — Warren Buffett’s favorite long-term indicator of market valuation — has fallen sharply to 211% (Q2) but is still well above the Dotcom bubble high of 189%. And a long way from the long-term average of 104% (dotted red line below).

Stock Market Capitalization to GDP

Government intervention

Attempts to support inflated asset prices, as in China’s real estate markets, prevent markets from clearing and merely compound the problem. They simply prolong the bubble, allowing further debt accumulation and increase the eventual damage to financial markets.

No soft landing

In the past few recessions the Fed has stepped in, injecting liquidity to end the deflationary spiral but this time is different. The recent rapid surge in inflation has tied the Fed’s hands. They cannot inject liquidity to slow the rate of descent without risking a bond market revolt as seen in the UK.

30-Year Gilts Yield

Portfolios with a 60/40 split between stocks and bonds are showing their worst year-to-date performance in the past 100 years as both asset classes suffer from shrinking liquidity.

60/40 Portfolio Performance

Conclusion

“The investor who says, ‘This time is different,’ when in fact it’s virtually a repeat of an earlier situation, has uttered among the four most costly words in the annals of investing.” ~ Sir John Templeton

We should not underestimate the ingenuity of governments and their central bankers in postponing the inevitable pain associated with sound economic management. Instead they kick the can down the road, compounding the initial problem until it assumes Godzilla-like proportions, making further avoidance/postponement almost inevitable. It takes the courage of a Paul Volcker to confront the problem head-on and restore the economy to a sound growth path.

The million-dollar question facing investors is whether Fed chair Jerome Powell can do another Volcker. But Volcker had the advantage of a federal debt to GDP ratio below 50% in 1980. Treasury could withstand far higher interest rates than at the present ratio of well over 100%. So Powell is unlikely to succeed in meeting financial markets head-on.

Federal Debt to GDP

We expect the Fed to pivot. Just not this year.

Acknowledgements

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.