The easing of credit conditions (in other words, the enhancement of banks’ ability to create credit and thus enhance their own purchasing power) following the breakdown of Bretton Woods — as opposed to monetary base expansion — seems to have driven the growth in credit and financialisation. It has not (at least previous to 2008) been a case of central banks printing money and handing it to the financial sector; it has been a case of the financial sector being set free from credit constraints. Monetary policy in the post-Bretton Woods era has taken a number of forms; interest rate policy, monetary base policy, and regulatory policy. The association between growth in the financial sector, credit growth and interest rate policy shows that monetary growth (whether that is in the form of base money, credit or nontraditional credit instruments) enriches the recipients of new money as anticipated by Cantillon. This underscores the need for a monetary and credit system that distributes money in a way that does not favour any particular sector — especially not the endemically corrupt financial sector.
Expansionary monetary policy constitutes a transfer of purchasing power away from those who hold old money to whoever gets new money. This is known as the Cantillon Effect, after 18th Century economist Richard Cantillon who first proposed it. In the immediate term, as more dollars are created, each one translates to a smaller slice of all goods and services produced. How we measure this phenomenon and its size depends how we define money.... What is clear is that the dramatic expansion of the monetary base that we saw after 2008 is merely catching up with the more gradual growth of debt that took place in the 90s and 00s. While it is my hunch that overblown credit bubbles are better liquidated than reflated (not least because the reflation of a corrupt and dysfunctional financial sector entails huge moral hazard), it is true the Fed’s efforts to inflate the money supply have so far prevented a default cascade. We should expect that such initiatives will continue, not least because Bernanke has a deep intellectual investment in reflationism.
For a presidential election taking place when the US debt/GDP has for the first time in 70 years crossed above 100%, in which over 50 million Americans collect food stamps and disability, in which M2 just crossed $10 trillion, in which total US debt is about to pass $16 trillion, and when total nonfarm employees in America (133,235,000) are the same as they were in April of 2005, it is quite surprising that economics has not taken on a more decisive role in the electoral debate. But while both candidates may, for their own particular reasons, not want to bring up the slow motion trainwreck that is the US economy now, in 4 years whoever is running for president will not be so lucky, because as the US debt clock shows, assuming current rates of progression, things are about to get far, far worse.
Two weeks ago we observed that the broadest money aggregate tracked by the Fed, M2, was less than $10 billion away from crossing the historic $10 trillion mark. As of this week, this number now officially has 14 digits for the first time ever, or $10,035,100,000,000 to be precise (technically the non-seasonally adjusted number crossed $10T last week, but for some reason bank deposits need to be seasonally adjusted, so waiting for the traditionally fudged data seemed appropriate). And we have a $50 billion increase in savings deposits, aka deferred buying power to those who still have the capacity to save, in one week to thank for putting $10 trillion in the rearview mirror.
Market-top economics could be an entire university course, if people cared enough about such phenomena. Most only consider the signs of a market top months or years after a crash when some unyielding economics researcher puts the pieces together. As human-beings we have developed an uncanny ability to rationalize what we know to be bad news and convince ourselves, "This time is different," despite the fact that it usually never is. In a previous article we provided analysis on economic/equity decoupling (cognitive dissonance) and showed that the economy as we know it cannot persist--we are either due for a literal gap-up in leading economic conditions, or we are due for a serious correction in US equities. With today's 5.4% slip in existing home-sales, let's go with the latter.
One used to describe how the Chinese economy is like (exactly who started saying that is no longer clear): a bicycle. Anyone with the experience of riding a bicycle knows that you can’t ride it too slowly, or else you fall over. There was a common belief that China has to grow at least at 8% annual rate (now the number seems to have come down to 7.5%), or there will not be enough jobs being created so that there will be social unrest, that kind of thing. We are not sure if we have ever had much faith in such theory. To our mind, the society has something seriously wrong if it requires 8% or more economic growth in order to keep it stable. And if this is true for China, the Chinese society is very wrong indeed (or perhaps the Chinese society has been seriously wrong with or without this implicit 8% requirement). Now, the Chinese government is now worried about growth (we won’t speculate if the government is panicking or not). Even if China successfully reflates its economy to 7-8% growth (via mal-investments in already over-capacity industries), we are genuinely not impressed if that is going to mean even lower return on investment and even lower corporate profit. That means we have come to an uncomfortable conclusion that China is just not the place we would like to be in, regardless of GDP growth.
According to the just released M2 update, the broadest publicly tracked monetary aggregate (because the Fed doesn't have enough money to keep track of M3) just hit $9,991.5 billion, a $43 billion increase from last week. In other words, this is the last week in which M2 is under $10 trillion. So enjoy it while the "complete lack of penetration" of the monetary base into broader monetary aggregates, and of the Fed's reserves so tightly locked up in bank vaults, is still only 13 digits (most of it comprising of bank deposits which of course represent no inflationary threat at all). Next week it will be a record 14 digits for the first time, and well on its way to surpassing the $15 trillion held in the deposit-free shadow banking system as the importance (and inflationary convexity) of the two is rapidly interchanged.
European equities are seen softer at the North American crossover as continued concerns regarding global demand remain stubborn ahead of tonight’s Chinese GDP release. Adding to the risk-aversion is continued caution surrounding the periphery, evident in the Spanish and Italian bourses underperforming today. A key catalyst for trade today has been the ECB’s daily liquidity update, wherein deposits, unsurprisingly, fell dramatically to EUR 324.9bln following the central bank’s cut to zero-deposit rates. The move by the ECB to boost credit flows and lending has slipped at the first hurdle, as the fall in deposits is matched almost exactly by an uptick in the ECB’s current account. As such, it is evident that the banks are still sitting on their cash reserves, reluctant to lend, as the real economy is yet to see a boost from the zero-deposit rate. As expected, the European banks’ share prices are showing the disappointment, with financials one of the worst performing sectors, and CDS’ on bank bonds seen markedly higher. A brief stint of risk appetite was observed following the release of positive money supply figures from China, particularly the new CNY loans number, however the effect was shortlived, as participants continue to eye the upcoming growth release as the next sign of health, or lack thereof, from the world’s second largest economy.
As many observers have noted, you can expand the money supply but if that money ends up stashed as bank reserves, it never enters the real economy, nor does it flow into household earnings. The velocity of that "dead money" is near-zero. M2 declined in the housing bubble as the velocity of money skyrocketed: everyone was pulling money out of housing equity via HELOCs (home equity lines of credit) and spending the "free money" on cruises, furniture, big-screen TVs, boats, fine dining, etc. The recipients of that spending also borrowed and spent as if the "free money" would never end. If M2 expansion is the only thing propping up an artificial market, what happens to the stock market rally as M2 rolls over?
Josh Barro of Bloomberg has an interesting theory. According to him, conservatives in modern day America have become so infatuated with the school of Austrian economics that they no longer listen to reason. It is because of this diehard obsession that they reject all empirical evidence and refuse to change their favorable views of laissez faire capitalism following the financial crisis. Basically, because the conservative movement is so smitten with the works of Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek, they see no need to pose any intellectual challenge to the idea that the economy desperately needs to be guided along by an “always knows best” government; much like a parent to a child. CNN and Newsweek contributor David Frum has jumped on board with Barro and levels the same critique of conservatives while complaining that not enough of them follow Milton Friedman anymore.
To put this as nicely as possible, Barro and Frum aren’t just incorrect; they have put their embarrassingly ignorant understandings of Austrian economics on full display for all to see.
There is a saying that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt. Today, the San Fran Fed's John Williams, and by proxy the Federal Reserve in general, spoke out, and once again removed all doubt that they have no idea how modern money and inflation interact. In a speech titled, appropriately enough, "Monetary Policy, Money, and Inflation", essentially made the case that this time is different and that no matter how much printing the Fed engages in, there will be no inflation. To wit: "In a world where the Fed pays interest on bank reserves, traditional theories that tell of a mechanical link between reserves, money supply, and, ultimately, inflation are no longer valid. Over the past four years, the Federal Reserve has more than tripled the monetary base, a key determinant of money supply. Some commentators have sounded an alarm that this massive expansion of the monetary base will inexorably lead to high inflation, à la Friedman.Despite these dire predictions, inflation in the United States has been the dog that didn’t bark." He then proceeds to add some pretty (if completely irrelevant) charts of the money multipliers which as we all know have plummeted and concludes by saying "Recent developments make a compelling case that traditional textbook views of the connections between monetary policy, money, and inflation are outdated and need to be revised." And actually, he is correct: the way most people approach monetary policy is 100% wrong. The problem is that the Fed is the biggest culprit, and while others merely conceive of gibberish in the form of three letter economic theories, which usually has the words Modern, or Revised (and why note Super or Turbo), to make them sound more credible, they ultimately harm nobody. The Fed's power to impair, however, is endless, and as such it bears analyzing just how and why the Fed is absolutely wrong.
European equities in both the futures and the cash markets are making significant gains after a mornings’ trade, with financials, particularly in the periphery, leading the way higher following the weekend reports of the Eurogroup confirming aid for the Spanish banking sector. With data remaining light throughout the day, its likely investors will remain focused on the macro-picture, seeing some relief as the Spanish financials look to be recapitalized. At the open, risk sentiment was clear, with EUR/USD opening in the mid-1.2600’s, and peripheral government bond yield spreads against the German bund significantly tighter. In the past few hours, these positions have unwound somewhat, with EUR/USD breaking comfortably back below 1.2600 and the Spanish 10-yr yield spread moving through unchanged and on a widening trend across the last hour or so against its German counterpart, and the yield failing to break below the 6% mark.
In today’s world, there are many who want government to regulate and control everything. The most bizarre instance, though — more bizarre even than banning the sale of large-sized sugary drinks — is surely central banking. Why? Well, central banking was created to replace something that was already working well. Banking panics and bank runs happen, and they have always happened as long as there has been banking. But the old system that the Fed displaced wasn’t really malfunctioning — unlike what the defenders of central banking today would have us believe. Does central banking retard the economy by providing liquidity insurance and a backstop to bad companies that would not otherwise be saved under a free market “bailout” (like that of 1907)? And is it this effect — that we call zombification — that is the force that has prevented Japan from fully recovering from its housing bubble, and that is keeping the West depressed from 2008? Will we only return to growth once the bad assets and bad companies have been liquidated? That conclusion, we think, is becoming inescapable.
The game continues. Talk up the economy, talk down printing and pray. If the market heads into the Fed meeting at current levels it runs the risk of being disappointed. If this is combined with continued economic weakness then the real set up happens between the June meeting and the August one. It is in that interim period that the market could throw another one of its hissy fits and beg for more liquidity. Money supply growth is extremely sluggish right now all over the world. The velocity never happened and the global economy is rolling over. The Fed is already behind the curve and so when they are forced to act the infusion will have to be huge just to stem the momentum. Mike Krieger suggests people go back and look at different asset classes from the prior two lows in China’s M2 year-over-year growth rate. The first one occurred in late 2004. The M2 growth rate then accelerated until around mid 2006. In that time period gold prices went up around 65% and the S&P 500 went up 20%. In the second period of acceleration from late 2008 to late 2009 gold was up 65% and the S&P500 was up 15%. We are at one of these inflection points and considering the DOW/Gold ratio is still holding gains from its countertrend rally from last August of almost 40%, this is probably one of the best entry points to buy gold and short the Dow of any time in the last decade.