The Federal Reserve System was created on December 23, 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act into law. Today, the Fed has decided to commemorate the event today with all three living Fed chairman delivering remarks. We are sure it will be very exciting but in the interests of 'balance' we offer a few alternative views of the "success" of the venerable monopoly including its cost: since 1913, the dollar has lost nearly 90% of its purchasing power.
With enough real and electronic ink spilled over the past two weeks to describe every nuance of the Lehman crisis (as if anyone can ever forget those vivid days) that nearly 3 months worth of Treasury issuance could be monetized, we decided to go further back, some 140 years back in fact, to this day in 1873 which just happens to be day the first Great market Panic gripped the US, and resulted in the first ever shutdown of the New York Stock Exchange. Granted, these days the NYSE or N-ICE as it is currently known, and the NASDARK shut down on a daily basis courtesy of a billion collocated vacuum tubes and the rigged casino formerly known as the stock market, on a virtually daily basis. But back then, when the general population was still largely clueless just how broken and corrupt the ideal of market efficiency would become when commingled with political and corporate interests, it was quite a shock.
The current regime of extreme monetary policy that has become the new normal - to which we have become entirely desensitized and addicted - remains the biggest (and most dangerous) experiment in central planning in the 100 year history of the Fed. Trusting the beard and his band of PhDs to get this right may be a stretch though, as UBS' Art Cashin notes, their track record has not been stellar and as he notes from the 10th Annual Report of the Fed: "the Fed was supposed to extend credit only for 'productive' and not for 'speculative' purposes."
Those following day to day flow (buys and sells) data of Treasurys and MBS by the Fed, are aware that in the past few months Ben Bernanke's net purchases of MBS have declined modestly. Naturally this is not due to a stated policy of tapering one or more purchasing programs (at least not yet), but due to what appears to have been a drop off in origination, as confirmed by recent plunging mortgage applications data (and which today literally crashed out of bed). So is this net change in Fed flow, in a world in which Fed flow is all that matters (sorry "Stock" purists: 2009 called, they want their discredited ideas back) an indication of stealth Fed tapering? Read on for Cashin's explanation.
The venerable UBS floorman asks (and answers) an interesting question. With the re-institution of the payroll tax and higher level rates and with spending lowered by sequestration, will the Treasury need to offer fewer bonds? And if so, will the Fed remain steadfast in its purchasing 'size' (good for bond bulls since secondary demand will increase) or reduce its 'size' to meet the lower monetization needs of the Treasury (bad for equity bulls since flow is all that matters.) Thoughts below...
Is the U.S. economy about to experience a major downturn? Unfortunately, there are a whole bunch of signs that economic activity in the United States is really slowing down right now. In many ways, what we are going through right now feels very similar to 2008 before the crash happened. Back then the warning signs of economic trouble were very obvious, but our politicians and the mainstream media insisted that everything was just fine, and the stock market was very much detached from reality. When the stock market did finally catch up with reality, it happened very, very rapidly. Sadly, most people do not appear to have learned any lessons from the crisis of 2008. Americans continue to rack up staggering amounts of debt, and Wall Street is more reckless than ever. As a society, we seem to have concluded that 2008 was just a temporary malfunction rather than an indication that our entire system was fundamentally flawed. In the end, we will pay a great price for our overconfidence and our recklessness.
One can spend all day watching financial media channels stuffed full of self-promoting index-hugging asset-managers and be left with the belief that all is well and that the market does indeed represent our reality... Or, as UBS' Art Cashin notes today (confirming what we first published a month ago - here, here, and here), there is more (well less) to today's global economy and markets than meets the eye or rests in the headlines. His excellent diatribe today reiterates our previous comments of investing icons such as Baupost's Seth Klarman and Oaktree's Howard Marks that "(The) underpinnings of our economy and financial system are so precarious that the un-abating risks of collapse dwarf all other factors."
While UBS' Art Cashin sees the 'uptrend' in stocks as largely in tact, though warns of the start of what appears to be a stalling formation, there is another 'bigger' potential crash on his mind. Having survived the Mayan apocalypse, and a Papal resignation, our home planet is due for a record setting space encounter on Friday (Feb. 15) of this week... which means it is now too late to even send Bruce Willis (or better yet, Bob Pisani) into space for an Armageddon sequel. We are told to keep calm and carry on - Bernanke-like "there is nothing to worry about", but no known asteroid has traveled this close to earth in recorded history. Let's hope the slide rule guys have it nailed - or the grand central planner.
As most of Asia is on vacation for the lunar new year, UBS' Art Cashin is growing more and more concerned with the excessively bullish tone. While not screaming for an outright short, the venerable volatility-handler fears many factors he sees in the market currently from sentiment to vauation, and a lack of 'rotation', and while the January Effect and the Super-Bowl are in the bulls favor, he gently reminds that the 'Year of the Snake' has typically not been a good one for markets or man...
As UBS' Art Cashin points out, the weekend talk shows were filled with talk of immigration reform, and yet, as he exclaims, no discussion of Social Security. The avuncular arbitrageur, however, sees immigration reform from a different and insightful perspective noting that while immigration reform may finally get the undocumented worker a fairer break, Social Security will lose significantly...
Stocks have slipped, precious metals have round-tripped, and the FOMC did nothing to save us but nevertheless the world's analysts and economists came to the rescue of yesterday's negative GDP growth print yammering over a never-ending series of reasons why ignoring the bad parts, it was great. UBS' Art Cashin, as always, cuts through all the spin as he notes, while most of headlines concentrated on the 4th Quarter GDP, it did give us a look at the annual GDP for 2012 at about 1.5% (not the 4% growth that was the Fed's projection, he snarks); and it is that 1.5% growth rate that has a 65-year history of concerning implications...
We have discussed Dallas Fed's Richard Fisher's money-where-his-mouth-is perspective on the world before and the (sadly) non-voting member is among UBS' Art Cashin's most respected and candid of the FOMC. A glance through the transcripts that Art highlights below should both make readers sick at the constant pollyanna-ish nature of Fisher's comrades and perhaps more confident that his insights will be listened to more astutely 'the next time' as he noted at the time "No amount of rewriting of history will exonerate us". Once again, after reading these transcripts, do we really believe that central bankers are omnipotent? or incompetent?
The last few months have seen US equity markets swinging from confidence to grave concerns (briefly) and back to exuberance even as the looming 'debt ceiling' and sequester remains dead ahead. The pattern is eerily similar in price (and volatility) terms to the movements ahead of the Summer 2011 'debt ceiling' debacle. What is just as concerning is, as Bloomberg's Chart of the Day shows, is the mass psychology aspect, as mentions of the words 'debt ceiling' are once again gathering pace, just as they did in 2011. Markets may not repeat, but they do echo; and as UBS' Art Cashin noted, this month marks the 40-year anniversary of a significant top in the market as stocks broke to all-time highs and "all appeared right with the world." Perhaps, it is our inexorably optimistic belief that the politicians will fix it all (or kick the can) at the last minute - so there is nothing to fear but fear itself; or perhaps this time, there is a line in the sand that both sides need to defend.
We already posted Howard Marks' most recent letter in its entirety previously, but it bears reposting a section from Art Cashin's daily letter which focuses on one segment of Marks' thoughts, which is especially relevant in light of today's most recent comment from one Warren Buffett - a person who very directly benefited from the government/Fed's bailout of the banking sector in 2008 - who said that "Bank Risk No Longer Threatens U.S. Economy." The same banks, incidentally, who are TBerTFer than ever. An objective assessment or merely yet another example of the "handcuff volunteerism" (not to mention crony hubris) Marks touches on? Readers can decide on their own.
It would appear that even the venerable Art Cashin had to rub his eyes in incredulity at the recircling of the idea of the Treasury minting a "Trillion Dollar Platinum Coin" to solve the debt-ceiling 'problem'. His brief discussion on the idea is summed up perfectly in his final six words "anybody got an ebook on alchemy?"