The Fed and Alice in Wonderland

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland a young Alice experiences a series of bizarre adventures after falling down a rabbit hole. The new Fed Chairman Jerome Powell will similarly have to lead global financial markets through a series of bizarre, unprecedented experiences.

Down the Rabbit Hole

In 2008, after the collapse of Lehman Bros, financial markets were in complete disarray and in danger of imploding. The Fed, under chairman Ben Bernanke, embarked on an unprecedented (and unproven) rescue attempt — now known as quantitative easing or QE for short — injecting more than $3.5 trillion into the financial system through purchase of long-term Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities (MBS).

Fed Total Assets

The Fed aimed to drive long-term interest rates down in the belief that this would encourage private sector borrowing and investment and revive the economy. Their efforts failed. Private sector borrowing did not revive. Most of the money injected ended up, unused by the private sector, as $2.5 trillion of excess commercial bank reserves on deposit at the Fed.

Fed Excess Reserves

Richard Koo pointed out that the private sector will under normal cirumstances respond to lower interest rates with increased borrowing but during a financial crisis, when their balance sheets have been destroyed and their liabilities exceed their assets, their sole focus is to restore their balance sheet, using surplus cash flow to pay down debt. The only way to prevent a collapse is for the government to step in and plug the gap, borrowing surplus capital and investing this in infrastructure.

One Pill Makes you Larger

Fortunately Bernanke got the message.

US and Euro Area Public Debt to GDP

… and spread the word.

Japan Public Debt to GDP

And One Pill Makes you Small

Unfortunately, other central banks also followed the Fed’s earlier lead, injecting vast sums into the financial system through quantitative easing (QE).

ECB and BOJ Total Assets

Driving long-term yields to levels even Lewis Carroll would have struggled to imagine.

10-Year Treasury Yields

The Pool of Tears

Then in 2014, another twist in the tale. Long-term yields continued to fall in Europe and Japan, while US rates stabilised as Fed eased off on QE. A large differential appeared between US and European/Japanese rates (observable since 2014 on the above chart), causing a flood of money into the US, in pursuit of higher yields.

….. with an unwanted side-effect. The Dollar strengthened. Capital inflows caused the trade-weighted value of the US Dollar to spike upwards beween 2014 and 2016, damaging US export industries and local manufacturers facing competition from foreign imports.

US Trade-Weighted Dollar Index

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

A jobless recovery in manufacturing and low wage growth in turn led to the election of Donald Trump in 2016 promising increased protectionism against global competition.

US Manufacturing Jobs

Then in 2017, to the consternation of many, despite rising interest rates the US Dollar began to fall.

US TW Dollar Index in 2017

Learned analysis followed, ascribing the weakening Dollar to rising commodity prices and a recovery in emerging markets. But something doesn’t quite add up.

International bond investors are a pretty smart bunch. When they look at US bond markets, what do they see? The new Fed Chairman has inherited a massive headache.

Donald Trump is determined to stimulate job growth through tax cuts and infrastructure spending. This will certainly create jobs. But when you stimulate an economy that is already at full employment you get inflation.

Who Stole the Tarts?

Jerome Powell is sitting on a powder keg. More than $2 trillion of excess reserves that commercial banks can withdraw without notice. Demand for bank credit is expected to rise as result of the Trump stimulus. Commercial banks, not known for their restraint, can make like Donkey Kong with their excess reserves provided by the Bernanke Fed.

Under Janet Yellen the Fed mapped out a program to withdraw excess reserves from the market by selling down Treasuries and MBS at the rate of $100 billion in 2018 and $200 billion each year thereafter. But at that rate it will take 10 years to remove the excess.

Bond markets are worried about what will happen to inflation in the mean time.

Off With His Head

The new Fed Chair has made all the right noises about being hawkish on inflation. But can he walk the talk? Especially with his $2 trillion headache.

….and the Red Queen, easily recognizable from Lewis Carroll’s tale, tweeting “off with his head” if a hawkish Fed threatens to spoil the party.

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she’s ten feet tall

….When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low….

When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head
Feed your head

~ White Rabbit by Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane (1967)

Carl Icahn warns of ‘day of reckoning’


Billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn ….. said he was “still very cautious” on the US stock market and there would be a “day of reckoning” unless there was some sort of fiscal stimulus.

…..Icahn, who owned 45.8 million Apple shares at the end of last year, said China’s economic slowdown and worries about how China could become more prohibitive in doing business triggered his decision to exit his position entirely.

Icahn is right about fiscal stimulus. Easy money policies implemented by central banks around the globe are an effective tool to stem the flow when financial markets are hemorrhaging but they are not a long-term solution. The only effective means of halting the long-term, downward spiral is fiscal stimulus.

The biggest obstacle to fiscal stimulus is resistance to increasing public debt. There is good reason for this as wasteful deficit spending in the past has left taxpayers with a massive debt burden and nothing to show for it. Governments ran deficits to cover a shortfall in tax revenue or an increase in expenditure without thought as to how the debt would be repaid.

But if debt is used to fund investment in productive infrastructure, revenue from the asset can be used to pay off the debt over time, or the asset can be sold to repay the loan. There is an immediate double benefit to government, with increased wages — directly from infrastructure projects and indirectly from suppliers of goods and services — boosting tax revenues while also saving on unemployment benefits. The long-term benefit is retaining and developing skills in the economy that would otherwise be lost through long-term unemployment.

Politicians have a poor track record, however, when it comes to selecting productive infrastructure projects. Instead favoring projects that will garner the most votes. This can be improved by setting up a non-partisan planning and selection process with a long time horizon. Also partnership with the private sector would eliminate projects with weak or unpredictable revenue streams.

Partnerships with the private sector also help to leverage funds raised through public debt, limit cost overruns and contain on-going running costs. But both sides must have skin in the game.

To be effective, infrastructure programs must address the long-term needs of the economy and should be carried out on a broad, even global, scale to re-invigorate the faltering global economy.

Source: Carl Icahn sells entire Apple stake on China worries, warns Wall Street of ‘day of reckoning’

Public Debt and the Long-Run Neutral Real Interest Rate | Narayana Kocherlakota

Extract from a speech by Narayana Kocherlakota, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, in Seoul, South Korea on August 19, 2015:

There has been a significant decline in the long-run neutral real interest rate in the United States over the past few years.

10-Year TIPS Yields

This decline in the long-run neutral real interest rate increases the future likelihood that the FOMC will be unable to achieve its objectives because of financial instability or because of a binding lower bound on the nominal interest rate. Plausible economic models imply that the fiscal authority can mitigate this problem by issuing more public debt, although such issuance is not without cost. It is, of course, the province of the fiscal authority to determine whether those costs are worth the benefits that I’ve emphasized…

How we got in this mess

There are two critically important price signals in the economy — the interest rate and the exchange rate. Tampering with them encourages distortions, leading to instability.

  • The Austrians were right: allow market forces of supply and demand to set a neutral interest rate.
  • The main function of regulators should be to ensure that debt growth is consistent with economic (GDP) growth else the banks can distort the supply of money by excessive debt creation.
  • The Austrians are also right about not running consistent fiscal deficits.
  • The other important element is to avoid consistent current account deficits to achieve a fair exchange rate.

None of these (in my view) sensible guidelines have been adhered to for the last half-century. Financial markets are in a real mess and Austrian “hands-off” policies are now insufficient to get us out of it. The only real alternative is to employ “hair of the dog” remedies advocated by Keynes: run fiscal deficits, increase public debt and distort real interest rates. Remember that Keynes published his General Theory in 1936 when financial markets were in an even bigger mess. Even a broken clock is right twice a day (or twice a century in Keynes case).

As for the Monetarists, Market Monetarists present the best opportunity to get us out of this “Keynesian hell” and set us on the path to Austrian (and Monetarist) utopia.

Read more of Narayana Kocherlakota’s speech at Public Debt and the Long-Run Neutral Real Interest Rate | Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Federal budget 2015: worst cumulative deficits in 60 years | Chris Joye

Chris Joye (AFR) on the budget deficit:

There are two critical differences in 2015 that make Australia’s current debt burden [42.2% of GDP] much more troubling than that serviced by previous generations. Back in the 1977 and 1983 recessions, the household debt-to-income ratio was only 34 per cent and 37 per cent, respectively. Even in the 1991 recession, it was just 48 per cent, which is one reason why home loan arrears were so benign. Yet by 2015, the household debt-to-income ratio had jumped 3.2 times to an incredible 154 per cent, which is above its pre-GFC climax because families haven’t deleveraged….

Public Debt to GDP and Household Debt to Income

Public and private debt levels are important to our economic health, but where the money is borrowed domestically it is far less serious than when it is borrowed offshore. In the former case, net debt in the economy is effectively zero — one sector runs a surplus while the other runs a deficit — but where money is borrowed offshore, the nation as a whole becomes a net debtor. Which is why short-term borrowing in international markets by Australian banks — used to fund the housing bubble in the run up to the GFC — was so dangerous.

From Greg McKenna (House & Holes) at Macrobusiness:

“….The funding gap is estimated to be $600 billion. In a speech on Friday, Westpac deputy chief executive Phil Coffey cited research from PwC which estimated the gap could grow to $1.325 trillion if there was a pick-up in credit growth.”

Here is the latest chart from the RBA showing the rising borrowing, it’s quarterly and likely lagging:

International Liabilities of Australian Banks

Notice how the article is focused entirely upon the “funding gap” as a tactical challenge in which the banks are innocent players. In reality there is no “funding gap”. Rather, our financial system is addicted to unproductive mortgage-lending and that crowds out the kind of business lending that would generate income growth and local savings. The “funding gap” is created by the banks not serviced by them.

International borrowing to fund a domestic property bubble is double trouble.

Read more at Federal budget 2015: worst cumulative deficits in 60 years |

And at Macrobusiness: Australia ramps the risk as banks borrow abroad

Explaining Richard Koo to Paul Krugman |

George Dorgan writes:

….Prof. Steve Keen’s and Richard Koo’s recipe is to increase public debt, when the private sector is de-leveraging and to reduce public debt when the private sector is leveraging. According to Keen, the Americans are currently doing the complete opposite of what they should do. They should continue reducing private liabilities, but they should increase public spending.

The Fed wants the average American to spend, even deficit spending, while the state is doing austerity. According to Keen, the current increase of private US debt could lead to a new recession.

Read more at Explaining Richard Koo to Paul Krugman, to Austrian Economists and the SNB #Balance Sheet Recession.

High public debt impedes recovery

This graph from a FRBSF paper Private Credit and Public Debt in Financial Crises, by Òscar Jordà, Moritz Schularick, and Alan M. Taylor, perfectly illustrates how high public debt levels impede the ability of an economy to recover from a financial crisis:

Figure 3……. shows that high levels of public debt can be a considerable drag on the recovery. The figure displays the path of per capita GDP in a typical recession compared with the paths under three scenarios following a financial crisis resulting from excess growth of private credit. Each of the three scenarios corresponds to a specified level of public debt at the start of the recession. The dotted line represents a low level of debt of about 15% as a ratio to GDP; the solid line represents a medium level of debt of about 50% of GDP, which is the historical average; and the dashed line represents a high level of debt of about 85% of GDP.

Recessions and Public Debt Levels

Read more at Federal Reserve Bank San Francisco | Private Credit and Public Debt in Financial Crises.

Hat tip to Barry Ritholz

Druckenmiller Sees Storm Worse Than ’08 | Bloomberg

Stan Druckenmiller, George Soros’ former partner and one of the best-performing hedge fund managers of the past three decades, warns of the real long-term threat to the US economy:

Druckenmiller, 59, said the mushrooming costs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, with unfunded liabilities as high as $211 trillion, will bankrupt the nation’s youth and pose a much greater danger than the country’s $16 trillion of debt currently being debated in Congress…… unsustainable spending will eventually result in a crisis worse than the financial meltdown of 2008…

Read more at Druckenmiller Sees Storm Worse Than ’08 as Seniors Steal – Bloomberg.

Debunking austerity claims makes no difference to Europe’s monks and zealots | Telegraph Blogs

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard attacks euro-zone austerity:

Britain’s public debt was 260pc of GDP in 1816 at the end of near perma-wars: Seven Years War, American War of Independence, and the Napoleonic Wars. This was whittled down to 24pc over the next century by the magical compound effects of economic growth. The debt reached 220pc in 1945, the price for defeating fascism. This was certainly a drag on the post-War recovery, but it did not stop debt falling to 36pc by the mid-1990s.

Britain twice recovered from massive debt through a combination of growth and inflation — not necessarily in that order — but they had control of their own currency. The states of Europe are strait-jacketed by a currency dominated by the austerity-minded Bundesbank.

Read more at Debunking austerity claims makes no difference to Europe's monks and zealots – Telegraph Blogs.