Guest Post: 2011 - The Year Of Catch 22

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Submitted by Jim Quinn of The Burning Platform

2011 - The Year Of Catch 22

As I began to think about what might happen in 2011, the classic Joseph Heller novel Catch 22 kept
entering my mind. Am I sane for thinking such a thing, or am I so
insane that asking this question proves that I’m too rational to even
think such a thing?  In the novel, the “Catch 22″ is that “anyone who
wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy”. Hence, pilots who
request a fitness evaluation are sane, and therefore must fly
in combat. At the same time, if an evaluation is not requested by the
pilot, he will never receive one (i.e. they can never be found
“insane”), meaning he must also fly in combat. Therefore, Catch-22
ensures that no pilot can ever be grounded for being insane – even if he
were. The absurdity is captured in this passage:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified
that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were
real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and
could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he
would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would
be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane,
he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to;
but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved
very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and
let out a respectful whistle. “That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he
observed. “It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed. -
Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

The United States and its leaders are stuck in their own Catch 22.
They need the economy to improve in order to generate jobs, but the
economy can only improve if people have jobs. They need the economy to
recover in order to improve our deficit situation, but if the economy
really recovers long term interest rates will increase, further
depressing the housing market and increasing the interest expense burden
for the US, therefore increasing the deficit. A recovering economy
would result in more production and consumption, which would result in
more oil consumption driving the price above $100 per barrel, therefore
depressing the economy. Americans must save for their retirements as
10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65 every day, but if the savings rate goes back
to 10%, the economy will collapse due to lack of consumption. Consumer
expenditures account for 71% of GDP and need to revert back to 65% for
the US to have a balanced sustainable economy, but a reduction in
consumer spending will push the US back into recession, reducing tax
revenues and increasing deficits. You can see why Catch 22 is the theme for 2011.

It seems the consensus for 2011 is that the economy will grow 3% to
4%, two million new jobs will be created, corporate profits will rise,
and the stock market will rise another 10% to 15%. Sounds pretty good.
The problem with this storyline is that it is based on a 2010 that gave
the appearance of recovery, but was a hoax propped up by trillions in
borrowed funds. On January 1, 2010 the National Debt of the United
States rested at $12.3 trillion. On December 31, 2010 the National Debt
checked in at $13.9 trillion, an increase of $1.6 trillion.

The Federal Reserve Balance Sheet totaled $2.28 trillion on January
1, 2010. Today, it stands at $2.46 trillion, an increase of $180
billion.

 

Over this same time frame, the Real GDP of the U.S. has increased
approximately $350 billion, and is still below the level reached in the
4th Quarter of 2007. U.S. politicians and Ben Bernanke spent almost $1.8
trillion, or 13% of GDP, in one year to create a miniscule 2.7%
increase in GDP. This is reported as a recovery by the mainstream
corporate media mouthpieces. On September 18, 2008 the American
financial system came within hours of a total meltdown, caused by Wall
Street mega-banks and their bought off political cronies in Washington
DC. The National Debt on that day stood at $9.7 trillion. The US
Government has borrowed $4.2 since that date, a 43% increase in the
National Debt in 27 months. The Federal Reserve balance sheet totaled
$963 billion in September 2008 and Bernanke has expanded it by $1.5
trillion, a 155% increase in 27 months. Most of the increase was due to
the purchase of toxic mortgage backed securities from their Wall Street
masters.

Real GDP in the 3rd quarter of 2008 was $13.2 trillion. Real GDP in the 3rd quarter of 2010 was $13.3 trillion.

Think about these facts for one minute. Your leaders have borrowed
$5.7 trillion from future unborn generations and have increased GDP by
$100 billion. The financial crisis, caused by excessive debt creation by
Wall Street and ridiculously low interest rates set by the Federal
Reserve, 30 years in the making, erupted in 2008. The response to a
crisis caused by too much debt and interest rates manipulated too low
was to create an immense amount of additional debt and reduce interest
rates to zero. The patient has terminal cancer and the doctors have
injected the patient with more cancer cells and a massive dose of
morphine. The knowledge about how we achieved the 2010 “recovery” is
essential to understanding what could happen in 2011.

Confidence Game

Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner, Barack Obama, the Wall Street banks,
and the corporate mainstream media are playing a giant confidence game.
It is a desperate gamble. The plan has been to convince the population
of the US that the economy is in full recovery mode. By convincing the
masses that things are recovering, they will begin to spend and buy
stocks. If they spend, companies will gain confidence and start hiring
workers. More jobs will create increasing confidence, reinforcing the
recovery story, and leading to the stock market soaring to new heights.
As the market rises, the average Joe will be drawn into the market and
it will go higher. Tax revenues will rise as corporate profits, wages
and capital gains increase. This will reduce the deficit. This is the
plan and it appears to be working so far. But, Catch 22 will kick in
during 2011.

Retail sales are up 6.5% over 2009 as consumers have been convinced
to whip out one of their 15 credit cards and buy some more iPads, Flat
screen TVs, Ugg boots and Tiffany diamond pendants. Consumer
non-revolving debt for autos, student loans, boats and mobile homes is
at an all-time high as the government run financing arms of GMAC and
Sallie Mae have issued loans to anyone that can fog a mirror with their
breath. Total consumer credit card debt has been flat for 2010 as banks
have written it off as fast as consumers can charge it. The savings rate
has begun to fall again as Americans are being convinced to live today
and not worry about tomorrow. Of course, the current savings rate of
5.9% would be 2% if the government was not dishing out billions in
transfer payments. Wages have declined by $127 billion from the 3rd
Quarter of 2008, while government transfer payments for unemployment and
other social programs have increased by $441 billion, all borrowed.

  Graph of Personal Saving Rate

Both the government and its citizens are living the old adage:

Everybody wants to get to heaven, but no one wants to practice what is required to get there.

The government politicians and bureaucrats promise to cut
unsustainable spending as soon as the economy recovers. The economy has
been recovering for the last 6 quarters, according to GDP figures, but
there are absolutely no government efforts to cut spending. This is
proof that politicians always lie. It will never be the right time to
cut spending. Another faux crisis will be used as a reason to continue
unfunded spending increases. Having consumer spending account for 70% of
GDP is unbalanced and unsustainable. Everyone knows that consumer
spending needs to revert back to 65% of GDP and the Savings Rate needs
to rise to 8% or higher in order to ensure the long-term fiscal health
of the country. Savings and investment are what sustain countries over
time. Borrowing and spending is a recipe for failure and bankruptcy. The
facts are that consumer expenditures as a percentage of GDP have
actually risen since 2007 and Congress and Obama just cut payroll taxes
in an effort to encourage Americans to spend even more borrowed money.
Catch 22 is alive and well.

The first half of 2011 is guaranteed to give the appearance of
recovery. The lame-duck Congress ”compromise” will pump hundreds of
billions of borrowed dollars into the economy. The continuation of
unemployment benefits for 99 weeks (supposedly to help employment) and
the 2% payroll tax cut will goose consumer spending. Ben Bernanke and
his QE2 stimulus for poor Wall Street bankers is pumping $75 billion per
month ($3 to $4 billion per day) directly into the stock market. Since
Ben gave Wall Street the all clear signal in late August, the NASDAQ has
soared 25%. Despite the fact that there are 362,000 less Americans
employed than were employed in August 2010, the mainstream media will
continue to tout the jobs recovery. The goal of all these efforts is to
boost confidence and spending. Everything being done by those in power
has the seeds of its own destruction built in. The Catch 22 will assert
itself in the 2nd half of 2011.

Housing Catch 22

Ben Bernanke, an Ivy League PhD who should understand the concept of
standard deviation, missed a 3 standard deviation bubble in housing as
ironically pointed out by a recent Dallas Federal Reserve report.

Chart 1: U.S. Real Home Prices Returning to Long-Term Mean?

Home prices still need to fall 23%, just to revert to its long-term
mean. That is a fact that even Bernanke should be able to grasp (maybe
not). Anyone who argues that housing has bottomed and will resume growth
either has an agenda (NAR) or is a clueless dope (Bernanke). A new
perfect storm is brewing for housing in 2011 and will not subside until
late 2012. You may have thought those bad mortgages had been all written
off. You would be wrong. There will be in excess of $200 billion of
adjustable rate mortgages that reset between 2011 and 2012, with in
excess of $125 billion being the dreaded Alt-A mortgages. This is a
recipe for millions of new foreclosures.

[SNLCreditSuisse.jpg]

According to the Dallas Fed, in addition to the 3.9 million homes on
the market, there is a shadow inventory of 6 million homes that will be
coming on the market due to foreclosure. About 3.6 million housing
units, representing 2.7% of the total housing stock, are vacant and
being held off the market. These are not occasional-use homes visited by
people whose usual residence is elsewhere but units that are vacant
year-round. Presumably, many are among the 6 million distressed
properties that are listed as at least 60 days delinquent, in
foreclosure or foreclosed in banks’ inventories.

The coup de grace for the housing market will be Ben Bernake’s ode to Catch 22. In his November 4 OP-ED piece he had this to say about his $600 billion QE2:

“Easier financial conditions will promote economic growth. For
example, lower mortgage rates will make housing more affordable and
allow more homeowners to refinance.”
Housing sage Ben Bernanke

On the day Bernanke wrote these immortal words 30 Year Mortgage rates
were 4.2%. Today, two months later, they stand at 5.0%. This should be a
real boon to refinancing and the avalanche of mortgage resets coming
down the pike. It seems that money printing and a debt financed
“recovery” leads to higher long-term interest rates. The more convincing
the recovery, the higher interest rates will go. The higher interest
rates go, the further the housing market will drop. The further housing
prices drop, the number of underwater homeowners will grow to 30%. This
will lead to more foreclosures. Approximately 50% of all the assets on
banks books are backed by real estate. Billions in bank losses are in
the pipeline. Do you see the Catch 22 in Bernanke’s master plan? The
Dallas Fed sees it:

This unease highlights the housing market’s fragility and
suggests there may be no pain-free path to the eventual righting of the
market. No perfect solution to the housing crisis exists. The latest
price declines will undoubtedly cause more economic dislocation. As the
crisis enters its fifth year, uncertainty is as prevalent as ever and
continues to hinder a more robust economic recovery. Given that time has
not proven beneficial in rendering pricing clarity, allowing the market
to clear may be the path of least distress. -
Dallas Fed

Quantitative Easing Catch 22

Ben Bernanke’s quantitative easing (dropping dollars from
helicopters) is riddled with Catch-22 implications. Bernanke revealed
his plan in his 2002 speech about deflation:

“The U.S. government has a technology, called a printing press
(or today, its electronic equivalent), that allows it to produce as many
U.S. dollars as it wishes at no cost.”

The expectations of most when reading Ben’s words were that his
helicopters would drop the dollars across America. What he has done is
load up his helicopters with trillions of dollars and circled above Wall
Street for two years continuously dropping his load. Bernanke’s
quantitative easing, which will triple the Fed’s balance sheet by June
of 2011, began in earnest in early 2009. The price for a gallon on
gasoline was $1.62. Today, it is $3.05, an 88% increase in two years.
Gold was $814 an ounce. Today, it is $1,421 an ounce, a 61% increase in
two years. In the last year, the prices for copper, silver, cotton,
wheat, corn, coffee and other commodities have risen in price by 30% to
90%.  

2 year gold price per ounce

Quantitative easing has been sold to the public as a way to avoid the
terrible ravages of deflation. The fact is there are less jobs, lower
wages, lower home prices, zero returns on bank deposits, higher fuel
costs, higher food costs, higher real estate taxes, higher medical
insurance premiums and huge jaw dropping bonuses for the bankers on Wall
Street. Somehow the government has spun this toxic mix into a CPI which
has resulted in fixed income senior citizens getting no increases in
their pitiful Social Security payments for two years. You can judge
where Ben’s Helicopters have dropped the $2 trillion. Quantitative
easing has benefited only Wall Street bankers and the 1% wealthiest
Americans. The $1.4 trillion of toxic mortgage backed securities on The
Fed’s balance sheet are worth less than $700 billion. How will they
unload this toxic waste? The Treasuries they have bought drop in value
as interest rates rise. Quantitative easing’s Catch 22 is that it can
never be unwound without destroying the Fed and the US economy.

The USD dollar index was at 89 in early 2009. Today, it stands at 79,
an 11% decline, which is phenomenal considering that Europe has
imploded over this same time frame. Bernanke’s master plan is for the
USD to fall and ease the burden of our $14 trillion in debt. He just
wants it to fall slowly. Foreigners know what he is doing and are
stealthily getting out of their USD positions. This explains much of the
rise in gold, silver and commodities. The rise in oil to $91 a barrel
will not be a top. The Catch-22 of a declining dollar is that prices of
all imported goods go up. If the dollar falls another 10%, the price of
oil will rise above $120 a barrel and push the economy back into
recession. Then there is the little issue of at what level of printing
and debasing the currency does the rest of the world lose its remaining
confidence in Ben and the USD.

U.S $ INDEX (NYBOT:DX)

A few other “minor” issues for 2011 include:

  • The imminent collapse of the European Union as Greece, Ireland,
    Portugal and Spain are effectively bankrupt. Spain is the size of the
    other three countries combined and has a 20% unemployment rate. The
    Germans are losing patience with these spendthrift countries. Debt does
    matter.
  • State and local governments were able to put off hard choices for
    another year, as Washington DC handed out hundreds of billions in pork.
    California will have a $19 billion budget deficit; Illinois will have a
    $17 billion budget deficit; New Jersey will have a $10.5 billion budget
    deficit; New York will have a $9 billion budget deficit. A US Congress
    filled with Tea Party newcomers will refuse to bailout these spendthrift
    states. Substantial government employee layoffs are a lock.

  • There is a growing probability that China will experience a hard
    landing as their own quantitative easing has resulted in inflation
    surging to a 28 month high of 5.1%, with food inflation skyrocketing to
    11.7%. Poor families spend up to half of their income on food. Rapidly
    rising prices severely burden poor people and can spark civil unrest if
    too many of them can’t afford food.
  • The Tea Party members of Congress are likely to cause as much
    trouble for Republicans as Democrats. If they decide to make a stand on
    raising the debt ceiling early in 2011, all hell could break loose in
    the debt and stock markets. 

The government’s confidence game is destined to fail due to Catch-22.
Will the consensus forecast of a growing economy, rising corporate
profits, 10% to 15% stock market gains, 2 million new jobs, and a
housing recovery come true in 2011? No it will not. By mid-year
confidence in Ben’s master plan will wane. He is trapped in the paradox
of Catch-22. When you start hearing about QE3 you’ll know that the gig
is up. If Bernanke is foolish enough to propose QE3 you can expect gold,
silver and oil to go parabolic. Enjoy 2011. I don’t think Ben Bernanke
will.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22.” -Yossarian