In a recent NBER paper, Ken Rogoff and Vince and Carmen Reinhart address the long-lasting consequences of high public debt loads. The authors findings are shocking to many - especially those who choose to look at 10Y Treasury rates as an indication of stress (as opposed to our earlier note on the stresses beginning to occur in the less financially repressed USA sovereign CDS market). Across 50 countries, they find 26 periods of public debt overhangs where the government has pushed gross public debt to GDP over 90% and held it there for at least five years. The stunning reality of their empirical work is four-fold: 1) the median duration of these overhang periods in 23 years (that's a lot of can-kicking); 2) real GDP growth averages 1.2% lower than trend during these overhangs; 3) real GDP drops by on average around 25% at the end of the deleveraging episode; and 4) most critically, "waiting for markets to signal a problem may be waiting too long because governments have the ability to suppress market signals." So while all the chatter of renewed growth in Europe has us ebullient with an unchanged US equity market today, the longer-term reality is - unless this time is different, there's a long and painful road ahead.
That US consumer credit soared by $21.4 billion in March on expectations of $9.8 billion rise, or the fastest monthly expansion since March 2001 would have been commendable and memorable if one did not dig through the actual components. Which sadly are atrocious: of the entire surge, a modest $5.1 billion was from real credit, or revolving, credit-card type debt. This brought the total revolving debt to $804 billion or to a level first crossed in January 2005. The balance, or $16.2 billion, was non-revolving debt, or the type of debt used to fund GM car purchases by subprime borrowers and push the student loan bubble well into its $1+ trillion record territory. The total non-revolving debt is now $1.739 trillion: an all time record. As for the source of such debt? why the US government of course, in what is the supreme ponzi scheme, whereby the US government allows US consumers to purchase Government Motors products and to keep the Higher Learning status quo in power. In other words, the US government has become the final enabler of the consumer spending bubble with proceeds used to keep the US auto unions happy (as channel stuffing is already at record high levels), and of course, to fund such ancillary student purchases as iPads. As for whether any of this debt will ever be paid off? Don't be silly.
As can be seen in the attached clip Warren Buffett, as part of his anti money tirade, both real (gold) and fiat, the Chairman of Berkshire is certainly not a fan of holding cash in any form. To wit: "cash is as risky an asset you can own over time." In other words, the opportunity cost of not owning something else with that cash is indicative of even more risk in the equities arena. So one wonders: is the fact that Buffett's firm now has a record amount of cash on its books more an example of senility or hypocrisy.... Or is all hell about to break loose as per Buffett's own words? We can't decide.
New Democracy Unable To Form Government, Anti-Bailout Parties Now Get Opportunity To Eject Greece From EuroSubmitted by Tyler Durden on 05/07/2012 - 12:29
Well, that lasted far less than the three days expected:
- SAMARAS SAYS WAS UNABLE TO FORM GOVERNMENT
- SAMARAS SAYS DID ALL POSSIBLE TO FORM GOVERNMENT
- SAMARAS HANDS BACK MANDATE TO PRESIDENT PAPOULIAS
- SAMARAS SAYS AIM TO KEEP GREECE IN EURO
And now the broad-left coalition Syriza gets the mandate to form a coalition government. If successful, and with nearly 60% of the parties in parliament being anti-bailout it would not take much for differences to be resolved, all bets are off as the anti-bailout powers will finally gain control of Greece, effectively ending European control over Greece. Alternatively, if nothing is achieved, then it is very likely that Greece will have another election within 3-4 weeks. And then another. And then another.
There was a little mentioned tangent to last Friday's very disappointing NFP print of +115,000 (driven by a surge in temp jobs offsetting a collapse in full time positions): as David Rosenberg notes, the jobs number was about half of another far more important number - that of Americans applying for disability, which in April was +225,000. He continues: "this is the new stealth stimulus program - so far in 2011, nearly one million Americans have applied for disability and year-to-date, 333k have actually enrolled (covering 539k family members). In total, more than five million people have been added to disability coverage since President Obama took over three years ago." The punchline will make all those who adore (insolvent) welfare states shake with giddy delight: "So look - either safety standards at work have eroded dramatically or the "99%" have found a creative way to milk the system and turn the economy into a quasi welfare state".... Yup. What he said. Because remember: the BLS assumes that any amount up to the total 53 million people, is not in the labor force as they have other "wefare" based forms of government handouts and see no need at all to look for a job. Is there any wonder why US unemployment is realistically 20% if not much higher? As for the other chart, food stamps, we know that story all too well.
In a little over 80 seconds, this animated clip provides everything you need to know about exactly what Hollande's victory today means to Europe's glorious future.
While there may be a plethora of geopolitical reasons to be 'cautious' of getting over your skis in US equities, there are a number of more quantifiable reasons for not buying-the-f##king-dip here. Between the sustainability of US earnings and the sell-in-May mantra, we highlight five foods-for-thought before you push all-in this morning. Of course the only bullish reason left is Central-Bank-driven and remains the elephant in the room but as we get closer and closer to the election, the Fed will be increasingly snookered and require a market plunge of more than 1.5% to step in and save the civilized world with S&P 500 1285 as a target for Fed action based on last Summer's excitement.
The global economy is facing a structural surplus of labor and a scarcity of paid work. Here is the critical backdrop for the global recession that is unfolding and the stated desire of central banks and states everywhere for "economic growth": most of the so-called "growth" since the 2008 global financial meltdown was funded by sovereign debt and "free money" spun by central banks, not organic growth based on rising earned incomes. Take away the speculation dependent on "free money" and the global stimulus dependent on massive quantities of fresh debt, and how much "growth" would be left? The Internet has enabled enormous reductions of labor input. A mere 15 years ago when I first learned HTML (1997), you had to code your own site or learn some fairly sophisticated website creation/management software packages, and you needed to set up a server or pay a host. Now anyone can set up a Blogspot or equivalent blog for free in a few minutes with few (if any) technical skills, and the site is free. The other trend is the cost of labor in the developed West is rising as systemic friction adds cost without adding productivity. Workers in the U.S. only see their wages stagnate, but their employers see total labor costs rising as healthcare costs rise year after year. In effect, the U.S. pays an 8% VAT tax to support a bloated, paperwork-pushing, inefficient and fraud-laced healthcare system that costs twice as much as a percentage of GDP as other advanced democracies. No wonder many entrepreneurs are selling their high-overhead businesses and becoming flexible, low-cost one-person enterprises.
Presented with little comment except to note that just when you thought a sense of reality had returned (and Treasuries and stocks re-coupled), equities feel the need to hype once again - fool you once shame on you, fool you the 50th time and we give up.
About two years ago the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund did something truly remarkable: it invested for infinity: "Norway, which has amassed the world’s second-biggest sovereign wealth fund, says Greece won’t default on its debts. The Nordic nation’s $450 billion Government Pension Fund Global has stocked up on Greek debt, as well as bonds of Spain, Italy and Portugal. Finance Minister Sigbjoern Johnsen says he backs the strategy, which contributed to a 3.4 percent loss on European fixed income in the second quarter, compared with gains on bonds in Asia and the Americas. Norway says its long-term perspective will protect it from losses. “One could say we are investing for infinity,” Johnsen said." Well, we all know how the experiment ended: "Norway Sovereign Wealth Fund Purges All Insolvent Eurozone Debt Holdings." So much for infinity. But that has not stopped others to boldly catch falling knives where so many other have tried to catch falling knives before, and failed. Enter Greylock Capital and various other hedge funds who are positive they have rediscovered the wheel.
What are the classic signs of an asset bubble? People piling into an asset class to such an extent that it becomes unprofitable to do so. Treasury bonds are so overbought that they are now producing negative real yields (yield minus inflation). And so America’s creditors are now getting slapped quite heavily in the mouth by the Fed’s easy money inflationist policies. John Aziz proposes (much to the consternation of the monetarist-Keynesian “print money and watch your problems evaporate” establishment) that this is a very, very, very dangerous position. And that those economists who are calling for even greater inflation are playing with dynamite. See, while the establishment seems to largely believe that the negative return on treasuries will juice up the American economy — in other words that “hoarders” will stop hoarding and start spending — we believe that negative side-effects from these policies may cause severe harm. Do we really want to risk the inflationary impact of continuing to print money to monetise debt (and hiding the money in excess reserves, thereby temporarily hiding the inflation). As John wrote recently - "So, does the accumulation of excess reserves lead to inflation? Only so much as the frequentation of brothels leads to chlamydia and syphilis." We’d call that playing dice with the devil.
Back in March India did a quick flipflop on its then announced Cotton export ban following complaints by China and domestic trade groups, which created quite a stir in the cotton market, first sending it soaring then plunging on supply concerns. This was promptly followed by another misguided attempt to control and benefit from the price of a key commodity, in this case gold, when the country announced it would impose an excise tax on gold jewelry, sending its gold merchants into a nationwide strike. This did not last long either and a few days later, merchants cancelled their strike following promises form the government that too would be promptly overturned. Sure enough, the excise tax has been officially withdrawn, and the biggest source of gold demand is set to see gold imports unleashed once again.
We have been warning of the pending fiscal cliff in the US and the somewhat inevitable debt ceiling debacle, election uncertainty, and the question of Fed independence in an election year as potential catalysts for risk flares in the US and abroad. For now, US equities are happy to ignore these events, still drawn in their Pavlovian-educated manner to US equities for their nominal enrichment. The trouble is - there are clear warning signs from some particularly noteworthy markets that all is not well (that appear more capable of comprehending fundamentals). Forget for a moment the overnight plunge and recovery in futures as this will bring only anchoring bias; a step back to 30,000 feet and we note that the spread on USA Sovereign CDS has risen by over 30% in the last month (now back at 40bps or 3-month wides) flashing a worrying warning signal for US equities if the past is any guide. Remember that US CDS are denominated in EUR and do not simply reflect the 'default' risk of the fiat-issuing USA but the devaluation or restructuring risks - and it appears market participants are getting nervous once again of the profligacy of the US government and the ineptitude of the central banks with their one-trick-pony experimentation. At the same time, central banks' broad repression has crushed volatility in every asset class - except, as Morgan Stanley notes - credit which is inferring considerably higher chance of a risk flare in the short-term. So while this week will bring cheers of growthiness and cooperation and decoupling, the all-seeing eye of credit markets remain far less sanguine.
The Greek elections culminated with the worst possible outcome: 2 votes short of a majority for the pro-bailout New Democracy and Pasok parties. So what happens next? Well - two things: expect to see random stop hunting ramps in the EURUSD and ES on false rumors that despite the math, a pro-bailout coalition government is being formed. It isn't, but it will take out all FX and ES stops to the upside first as skittish shorts get burned as usual on planted fake headlines. More importantly, and as predicted last week, we will likely see yet another Greek election as the political vacuum in Athens is likely too big to be circumvented in a few days. Below we present a summary of immediate next steps as summarized by the WSJ. Yet one thing we want to bring attention to is that as we pointed out first on Saturday, a key even over the next two weeks, during a time when Greece will most likely not have an active government in place is the May 15th maturity of €430 million in international-law bonds whose holders have not agreed to the terms of the PSI and thus demand full payment... of money that Greece does not have. Finally we already know that Norway is the biggest non-PSI compliant entity out there. So will we finally see the first Greek PSI-related lawsuit on May 16 if and when Greece fails to make a payment? We will know in 9 days whether the European soap opera gets even more exciting than usual as various European countries start suing each other in international court, especially when one of the countries will have no government for the foreseeable future.
Just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, the Eurozone won’t be destroyed in a day, but it is on a path that leads to eventual dismantling. This week we will see everyone play nice. Conciliatory words will be spoken. Growth will become the topic de jour. The markets will fall all over themselves once again on news of bank bailouts. The headlines we get in the early part of this week will once again be overwhelmingly designed to encourage people and the markets. Europe will have a new spirit of co-operation and will welcome fresh insights into the process. Growth, growth pacts, plans to grow, infrastructure growth, etc., will be talked about. There will be talk, and maybe even action on the bank recapitalization efforts. Good banks and bad banks will abound. Governments will promise money to banks at rates so low no sane investor would even consider. Ultimately these plans will fail, and we will see fresh lows on the year for stocks, with the U.S. and Germany hit hardest as justifying further bailouts for the core will be nigh on impossible, growth is not easy to achieve, and the good-bank-bad-bank model is a loser from the start.