As we have explained recently, the US fiscal cliff is a far more important issue 'fundamentally' than the Fed's economic impotence. While most market participants believe some kind of compromise will be reached - in the lame-duck session but not before the election - the possibility of a 3.5% drag on GDP growth is dramatic to say the least in our new normal stagnation. As Goldman notes, the window to address the fiscal cliff ahead of the election has all but closed, the 40% chance of a short-term extension of most current policies is only marginally better than the probability they assign to 'falling off the cliff' at 35%. The base case assumptions and good, bad, and ugly charts of what is possible are concerning especially when a recent survey of asset managers assigned only a 17% chance of congress failing to compromise before year-end. Critically, and not helped by Bernanke's helping hand (in direct opposition to his hopes), resolution of the fiscal cliff will look harder, not easier, to address as we approach the end of the year - and its likely only the market can dictate that direction - as the "consequence is terrible, but bad enough to force a deal."
To all who miss the highly volatile days of August 2011, when as a result of the congressional deadlock on the debt ceiling, and the S&P downgrade of the US, the DJIA swung by 400 points every day for 4 days in a row just to get Congress to come to the "compromise" exposed in painful detail by Bob Woodward a few days ago, fear not: they are coming back, and with a vengeance. Because while last year only the debt ceiling was under discussion, now we get the double whammy of the debt ceiling and the Fiscal cliff. And just so the suspense meter is pushed off the charts early, and the performance gets maximum billing for theatrics if not execution, House Speaker John Boehner has just said he's not confident Congress can reach a budget deal and avoid a downgrading of the U.S. debt rating. Let us paraphrase: there will be no deal until the 11th hour, 59th minute, 59th second, and 999th millisecond, at which point the market will plunge and get Congress to do what it always does: Wall Street's bidding, which now and always, is a smooth and seamless continuation of the status quo.
13 months ago, in the aftermath of the debt ceiling fiasco, which we now know was a last minute compromise achieved almost entirely thanks to the market plunging to 2011 lows, S&P had the guts to downgrade the US. Moody's did not. Now, it is Moody's turn to fire up the threat cannon with a release in which it says that should the inevitable come to pass, i.e. should congressional negotiations not "lead to specific policies that produce a stabilization and then downward trend in the ratio of federal debt to GDP over the medium term" then "Moody's would expect to lower the rating, probably to Aa1" or a one notch cut. Moody's also warns that should a repeat of last year's debt ceiling fiasco occur, it will also most likely cut the US. Of course, that the US/GDP has risen by about 8% since the last August fiasco has now been apparently forgotten by both S&P and Moodys. Sadly, continued deterioration in the US credit profile is inevitable, as every single aspect of modern day lives that is "better than its was 4 years ago" has been borrowed from the future. More importantly, with the S&P at multi year highs courtesy of Bernanke using monetary policy to replace the need for fiscal policy, Congress will see no need to act, and Moody's warning will be completely ignored. This will continue until it no longer can.
A few days ago, the BOE's Andy Haldane, rightfully, lamented that the apparent "solution" to the exponentially growing level of complexity in the financial system is more complexity. Alas, there was little discussion on the far more relevant central planning concept of fixing debt with even more debt, especially as the US just crossed $16 trillion in public debt last week, right on schedule, and as we pointed out over the weekend, there has been precisely zero global deleveraging during the so-called austerity phase. But perhaps most troubling is that with 2 days to go to what JPM says 77% of investors expect with be a NEW QE round (mostly MBS) between $200 and $500 billion in QE, the world is, also in the words of JP Morgan, drowning in liquidity. In other words, according to the central planners, not only is debt the fix to record debt, but liquidity is about to be unleashed on a world that is, you guessed it, already drowning in liquidity. The bad news: everything being tried now will fail, as it did before, because nothing has changed, except for the scale, meaning the blow up will be all that more spectacular. The good news: at least the Keynesians (or is it simply Socialists now?) out there will not be able to say we should have just added one more [ ]illion in debt/liquidity and all would have worked, just as our textbooks predicted. Because by the time it's over, that too will have happened.
"It Is Really Disheartening That This White House Did Not Have A Plan B" - A Preview Of The Next Debt Ceiling CrisisSubmitted by Tyler Durden on 09/09/2012 10:37 -0500
As of Friday, total US debt subject to the limit was $16.006 trillion, or $387 billion below the latest and greatest official debt ceiling. In the past 3 months the US has been raising debt at a slower pace than usual precisely for this reason. Debt issuance will now pick up at far faster pace as the trendline mean reversion reasserts itself. It means that sometime over the next few months, and certainly before the end of the year, the US debt ceiling will be breached (with all the usual tactics employed to delay this event from happening as much as possible, including resuming the pillaging of various government retirement funds) as the Treasury itself warned. It also means that either just before or just after the presidential election, the topic of the debt ceiling will be once again upon us. As a reminder, the reason why the market plunged back in August of 2011 is because as the GOP proved unwilling to compromise, suddenly everyone, led by Tim Geithner, realized just how close to a failed auction, read endgame, the US was, and the dire need for a wake up call became paramount. Furthermore as is well-known, the only stimulus Pavlovian politicians react to is a market collapse, which not only instills the fear of the "401(k)" god falling to earth, but lights up the switchboards as concerned "voters" suddenly realize that all their mark-to-Bernanke's market "wealth" may disappear in a puff of smoke. It is now, courtesy of Bob Woodward, that we learn just how close we came. And since the polarity and discord in Congress after the election, already at record levels, will soar to new all time highs after November, it is safe to say that the debt ceiling debacle deja vu is coming, and this time it will make the first one seem like child's play.
Bernanke takes the wind out of the market's euphoric sails: "Substantial further expansions of the balance sheet could reduce public confidence in the Fed's ability to exit smoothly from its accommodative policies at the appropriate time. Even if unjustified, such a reduction in confidence might increase the risk of a costly unanchoring of inflation expectations, leading in turn to financial and economic instability."
The market over the summer has been quieter than we had expected - thanks to Draghi's threats placating-words and Bernanke's promises. Equities rallied, Bunds and Treasuries sold off, and government spreads in Europe declined. All these markets look more constructive. However, the event calendar in the near future is very heavy, notably the political one. This article from UBS' global strategy group does three things. First, they provide a list of events until the end of the year. Second, the relative importance of the various events are ranked; and finally, they provide, where needed, a comment on what to expect. We still believe three topics will drive markets: (1) the ongoing European sovereign crisis, where we see some progress (albeit slow) as Draghi has pushed forward his agenda and found some support from politicians; (2) the political issues in the US, although the main change is the more dovish Fed; and (3) world growth, which has been disappointing and is a major risk to monitor.
It is one thing for various anti-Central Planning (and thus central bank) outlets to warn, over 3 years ago, that easy monetary policy is merely an enabling substance, and is addictive as any drug to a dysfunctional political establishment which is more than happy to avoid fiscal prudence if monetary policy is readily available to delay the inevitable day of reckoning when monetizing the debt will no longer work. It is a different matter entirely when the head of the world's only solvent central bank - the German Bundesbank, which happens to be the biggest guarantor of that other mega hedge funds the ECB, and which of all developed economies also happens to have had the closest recent encounter with hyperinflation (unlike all the "other" theoretical experts who enjoy talking extensively about matters they have zero experience with). In an interview with German Spiegel magazine, Buba head Jens Weidmann, once again has loudly warned what as recently as 2009 very few dared to even think: namely that rampant and gratuitous deficit plugging using central bank debt issuance, and thus explicitly monetizing the debt, "can be addictive as a drug." Obviously, like any drug overdose, the aftereffects are always fatal.
The S&P 500 is at its 2012 highs, and rapidly approaching all time highs, even as nothing has changed over the biggest near-term challenge facing America: the fiscal cliff. Ironically, with every tick higher in the market, the probability that Congress will come to a consensus over what would be a haircut of up to 4% to next year's GDP as soon as January 1 2013 gets smaller. Why - the same reason that Spain is unlikely to demand a bailout now that its 10 Year bond is back to the mid 6% range (ironically on expectations it will demand a bailout!): complacency - both by investors, and by politicians. After all, it's is all a matter of perception, and the market is seen to be "perceiving" an all clear signal. It means that the impetus to do something constructive simply does not exist, as we explained recently in the case of Spain (and Italy). It also means that Congress has no reason to be proactive about the biggest threat facing the economy: just look at the S&P - it sure isn't worried, and the market is supposed to be far more efficient than elected politicians. At least on paper. This line of thinking is also the reason why Goldman's head of equity strategy David Kostin (not to be confused with the person he replaced: permabull A Joseph Cohen, who off the record sees the S&P rising to 1600 or more) refuses to raise his year end forecast for the S&P, which has remained firmly at 1250 for the entire year. More muppetry, more dodecatuple reverse psychology, or is Goldman telling the truth? You decide.
The market may have found itself in the purgatory of the summer doldrums, where unlike last year this time, not only are volumes over 50% lower, but volatility is non-existent, but that doesn't mean that investors are sleeping easy. In fact, quite the opposite because as the following chart from MS confirms, the lack of market volatility merely mimics the complete chaos and lack of decisiveness in Congress, where each passing day brings America not only closer to the most contentious presidential election in ages, but to another debt ceiling hike debate, and, of course, the fiscal cliff. All of these combined have brought US policy uncertainty to the third all time highest level, on par with September 11 and the collapse of Lehman/TARP, and just short of last year's imminent European collapse, which was only staved off courtesy of the coordinated global central bank intervention on November 30.
With less than three months to go, the outcome of the November election remains highly uncertain. SocGen notes that, as always, economic performance over the coming months will be a key determinant of who wins and who loses. If the elections were held today, the most likely outcome would be a Republican win in both Congressional races and a Democratic win in the race for the White House. This means that any new significant legislation will almost certainly have to be a product of compromise. In this sense, we may very well be looking at a status quo in terms of bipartisanship and gridlock which have dominated Washington politics over the past few years. This would be bad news at a time when the country faces a number of serious challenges with significant long-term implications. From the economy to long-term fiscal health, and from the debt-ceiling to Housing, Healthcare, and Energy policy differences, the following provides a succinct review.
After many instances of prodding from readers, I finally bought and read The Fourth Turning, and I'm sorry that I waited so long.
Q2 earnings seasons is now (with 93% of firms reporting) over, and it is time for post mortem. The bottom line for those strapped for time is the following: In order to salvage the 2012 earnings consensus for the S&P, the sell side crew and asset managers, as wrong but hopeful as ever, are now expecting Q4 2012 earnings to grow 15% versus 4Q 2011, which is more than twice as fast as any other quarter. Indicatively, Q2 2012 earnings rose at a rate of 3% compared to Q2 2011. Elsewhere, revenues came 2% lower than consensus estimates at the start of the earnings season. In other words, the entire year is now a Hail Mary bet that in Q4, the time when the presidential election, its aftermath, as well as the debt ceiling and fiscal cliff acrimony will hit a peak, a Deus Ex Machine will arrive and lead to a 15% rise in earnings. Why? Because global central bankers will have no choice but to step in and thus lead to a surge in EPS multiples even if the underlying earnings are collapsing. With the presidential election around the corner making Fed QE before 2013 now virtually impossible, with Spain (and Italy) refusing to be bailed out and cede sovereignty thus precluding ECB intervention, and with China spooked by what may be a surge in food costs, this intervention, and any hope that the Hail Mary pass will connect, all look quite impossible.
When we wrote Part I of this paper in June 2009, the total U.S. public debt was just north of $10 trillion. Since then, that figure has increased by more than 50% to almost $16 trillion, thanks largely to unprecedented levels of government intervention. Once the exclusive domain of central bankers and policy makers, acronyms such as QE, LTRO, SMP, TWIST, TARP, TALF have found their way into the mainstream. With the aim of providing stimulus to the economy, central planners of all stripes have both increased spending and reduced taxes in most rich countries. But do these fiscal and monetary measures really increase economic activity or do they have other perverse effects?... The politically favoured option of financial repression and negative real interest rates has important implications. Negative real interest rates are basically a thinly disguised tax on savers and a subsidy to profligate borrowers. By definition, taxes distort incentives and, as discussed earlier, discourage savings.... The current misconception that our economic salvation lies with more stimulus is both treacherous and self-defeating. As long as we continue down this path, the “solution” will continue to be the problem. There is no miracle cure to our current woes and recent proposals by central planners risk worsening the economic outlook for decades to come.
While we are not certain how many times we have used the above headline in the past we know it is not the first time. Nor the fifth. Yet here we are again, reporting that Greece is out of money again. "Near-bankrupt Greece is fast running out of cash while it waits for its next installment of aid from international lenders, a deputy finance minister said on Tuesday, sounding the alarm on the country's precarious financial position. Greece's European partners have repeatedly promised the country will be funded through August, when it must repay a 3.2 billion euro bond, but the details of the funding have yet to be disclosed. In the absence of that money, Greece would run out of funds to pay everyday public expenses ranging from police and other public service wages to pensions and social benefits. "Cash reserves are almost zero. It is risky to say until when (they will last) as it always depends on the budget execution, revenues and expenditure," Deputy Finance Minister Christos Staikouras told state NET television" In other words just like the US yesterday, Greece has also overestimated its revenues and underestimated its expenditures; also Greece in August is what the US itself will be in about 3-4 months, when the debt ceiling is hit. Luckily, the political environment in D.C. is open and cordial, and a prompt resolution to both the debt ceiling issue and the fiscal cliff, especially as they all coincide just in time for the presidential election is guaranteed.