There have been very few times where in my 40+ years of capital markets participation that I’ve strongly believed that we have witnessed a significant, material, public but seemingly under-discussed, under appreciated watershed event that will over the next several years, impact capital markets in a profound manner. The recent announcement by the Fed that they were to pursue the future course of monetary policy with direct regard to a specific, numerical level of unemployment in my mind, represents exactly one of those rare events. While the optics of the recent decision to accept an active target of the unemployment rate might be well meant, socially responsible and politically correct, the dependency upon the single datum construct already of a highly controversial nature may well likely reduce further the credibility of the Federal Reserve’s monetary efforts, thereby leading to slower economic growth, hiring and economic well being as adverse unintended consequences. Indeed, another triumph of form over substance wherein appearances of a literally wondrous intent might soothe the fevered brows of the public but remain entirely within the manipulative province of the data managers.
Gold’s recent move down is tracking our forecast.We saw an initial shock to gold as the pressure of higher rates moved through the system. What is perhaps lost on most market observers is the slowing pace of global liquidity flowing into the system. You could call the current situation a problem of velocity synchronicity.
"There’s a problem with kicking the can down the road" - Ben Bernanke, (December 12 2012)... We’ve taken this quote out of context - Bernanke was actually talking about the fiscal cliff, and not monetary policy; but kicking the can down the road is exactly what Bernanke is doing in his domain. Instead of letting the shadow banking bubble burst and liquidate in 2008, Bernanke has allowed it to slowly deflate, all the while pumping up the traditional banking sector with heavy, heavy liquidity. The reduction in shadow liabilities remains a massive deflationary and depressionary force (and probably the main reason why a tripling of the monetary base has not resulted in very severe inflation). Trillions and trillions of liquidity later, Bernanke is barely keeping the system afloat. We chose the path of Japan (which has spent the last twenty years depressed) not the path of Iceland (which is emerging from its depression). We chose to kick the can down the road. The system is rotten, and the debt load is unsustainable.
We face one of the deepest crises in history. A prognosis for the economic future requires a deepening of the concepts of inflation and deflation. Inflation is a political phenomenon because monetary aggregates are not determined by market forces but are planned by central banks in agreement with governments. Inflation is a tax affecting all real incomes. Inflation is a precondition of extreme deflation: depression. Should in fact the overall debt collapse, there would be an extreme deflation or depression because the money aggregate would contract dramatically. In fact the money equivalent to the defaulted debt would literally vanish. It is for this reason that central banks monetize new debt at a lower interest rates, raising its value. All the financial bubbles and the mass of derivatives are just the consequence of debt monetization. How will this all end? In history, debt monetization has always produced hyperinflation. In Western countries, despite the exponential debt a runaway inflation has not yet occurred. Monetary policy has only inflated the financial sector, starving the private one, which is showing a bias towards a deflationary depression. Unfortunately governments and banks will go for more inflation. As history teaches, besides money the freedom of citizens can also be the victim.
Watching Barack Obama and Mitt Romney duel in the presidential campaign should have convinced the spectators that we live in an age of illusionists. Few of the assertions and conjectures thrown around have been subjected to what the political chattering classes deem to be the indignity of factual verification. This brings us to the sharp pencil people in the Obama administration, specifically the OMB. They claim to know what the relative size of the federal government will be in 2016, at the end of President Obama’s term. According to the OMB’s plans, the federal government, as a percent of GDP should be 22.5%. That’s a 1.8 percentage point drop from the current level. Given that President Obama’s first term recorded a record growth in the relative size of the federal government, and that the President campaigned on a platform of more big government, it is doubtful that he will come close to meeting his own OMB forecasts, in his second term. Yes, the illusionists, not the President’s sharp pencil people, will probably carry the day. What will make the President’s task even more onerous is money – as in the money supply. Thanks to Basel III, the U.S. money supply isn’t the only one creating growth headwinds. Europe faces significant money supply deficiencies. Will Asia continue to be the world’s locomotive? We will have to wait and see. At present, though, one thing is certain – an age of illusionists has arrived.
Whenever the case is made for a stronger U.S. dollar (USD), the feedback can be sorted into three basic reasons why the dollar will continue declining in value:
- The USD may gain relative to other currencies, but since all fiat currencies are declining against gold, it doesn’t mean that the USD is actually gaining value; in fact, all paper money is losing value.
- When the global financial system finally crashes, won’t that include the dollar?
- The Federal Reserve is “printing” (creating) money, and that will continue eroding the purchasing power of the USD. Lowering interest rates to zero has dropped the yield paid on Treasury bonds, which also weakens the dollar.
All of these objections are well-grounded. However, the price of gold is not consistently correlated to the monetary base, the trade-weighted dollar, or interest rates. We have seen interest rates leap to 16% and fall to near-zero; gold collapse, stagnate, and then quadruple; and the dollar gain and lose 30% of its trade-weighted value in a few years. None of these huge swings had any correlation to broad measures of domestic activity such as GDP. Clearly, interest rates occasionally (but not always) affect the value of the trade-weighted dollar, and the monetary base occasionally (but not always) affects the price of gold, but these appear to have little correlation to productivity, earnings, etc., or to each other. Gold appears to march to an independent drummer.
In what follows, we will examine the adjustment process necessary to shift from a system with fiat money and a reserve ratio below 1 (reserve requirement under 100%). Let’s begin clarifying that this proposed delevering process is an ideal situation, applicable if one had the luxury of planning the shift. There is not always time to do so and, if we ever had any, we’re running out of it pretty fast. The adjustment process below could only be done very gradually, by adjusting the reserve requirement and gold holdings by the central bank a few bps every year (say 200bps). The ultra-necessary condition here is that the nation undergoing this process be able to generate an equivalent fiscal surplus, in percentage terms. For instance, the process could demand to cover 2% per year of the gap in the reserve ratio to reach 1 (50 years long!!!). This means that if the reserve ratio is 10%, the gap is 90% and narrowing it over 50 years would require to increase reserves by 1.8% every year (90%/50). Because the delevering process should be accompanied by a pari passu reduction in the fiscal deficit and sovereign debt, that 2% annual adjustment, in the US, this would require a surplus of $324BN every year, over 50 years ($16.2 trillion in national debt x 2%). In 2012 terms, spending would have to be cut by $1.52 trillion ($324 billion + $1.2 trillion annual deficit), if the numbers we have are correct. We suspect they are not: The situation is even worse. But, the bottom line is that, once you see these numbers, you realize that going back to a world of no leverage is politically impossible. Even though it is technically feasible, just like the European Monetary Union was planned and built over decades, it is still politically impossible.
Readers may recall that Ron Paul once surprised everyone with a seemingly very elegant proposal to bring the debt ceiling wrangle to a close. If you're all so worried about the federal deficit and the debt ceiling, so Paul asked, then why doesn't the treasury simply cancel the treasury bonds held by the Fed? After all, the Fed is a government organization as well, so it could well be argued that the government literally owes the money to itself. He even introduced a bill which if adopted, would have led to the cancellation of $1.6 trillion in federal debt held by the Fed. Of course the proposal was not really meant to be taken serious: rather, it was meant to highlight the absurdities of the modern-day monetary system. In a way, we would actually not necessarily be entirely inimical to the idea, for similar reasons Ron Paul had in mind: it would no doubt speed up the inevitable demise of the fiat money system. Control can be lost, and it usually happens only after a considerable period of time during which their interventions appear to have no ill effects if looked at only superficially: “Thus we learn….to be ignorant of political economy is to allow ourselves to be dazzled by the immediate effect of a phenomenon."
Even though we have presented comparable scenarios looking at the coverage of the US money base in gold terms previously, aka "gold coverage" ratio, including once from Dylan Grice, and once from David Rosenberg, now that we have drifted into a new, previously unchartered and very much open-ended liquidity tsunami, it is time to revisit the topic. Luckily, Guggenheim's Scott Minerd has done just that. Not only that, but he presents three distinct gold pricing scenario, attempting to forecast a low, medium and high price range for the yellow metal. To wit: "The U.S. gold coverage ratio, which measures the amount of gold on deposit at the Federal Reserve against the total money supply, is currently at an all-time low of 17%. This ratio tends to move dramatically and falls during periods of disinflation or relative price stability. The historical average for the gold coverage ratio is roughly 40%, meaning that the current price of gold would have to more than double to reach the average. The gold coverage ratio has risen above 100% twice during the twentieth century. Were this to happen today, the value of an ounce of gold would exceed $12,000.”
Entering the final quarter of the year, Lacy Hunt and Van Hoisington (H&H) describe domestic and global economic conditions as extremely fragile. New government initiatives have been announced, particularly by central banks, in an attempt to counteract deteriorating economic conditions. These latest programs in the U.S. and Europe are similar to previous efforts. While prices for risk assets have improved, governments have not been able to address underlying debt imbalances. Thus, nothing suggests that these latest actions do anything to change the extreme over-indebtedness of major global economies. To avoid recession in the U.S., the Federal Reserve embarked on open-ended quantitative easing (QE3). Importantly, in their view, the enactment of QE3 is a tacit admission by the Fed that earlier efforts failed, but this action will also fail to bring about stronger economic growth. H&H go on to break down every branch that Bernanke rests his QE hat on from the Fed's inability to create demand, to the de minimus wealth effect, and most importantly the numerous unintended consequences of the Fed's actions.
Guest Post: On Currency Swaps And Why Gartman May Be Wrong In Focusing On The Adjusted Monetary BaseSubmitted by Tyler Durden on 10/14/2012 12:53 -0500
Last week Dennis Gartman, in his homonymous letter said that he was concerned about the fact that the adjusted monetary base has been falling, rather than rising, taking away the bullish case for gold on the topic of “money printing”. One must therefore remind those with this concern that the credit expansion caused by the backstop of the Fed alone is enough to inflate asset prices. This is consistent with the case we made in our last letter, that a commodity based standard is not as relevant as having a 100% reserve requirement. By the same token, if the reserve requirement is below 100%, it is not that relevant to see the expansion of the monetary base! The “printing of money” will eventually come, when EU corporations begin to default and the Fed has to “ensure there is enough US dollar liquidity”. It happened in 1931-33, in spite of the fact that the adjusted monetary base had been contracting since 1929: The US dollar was devalued from approx. $20.65/oz to approx. $34.70oz and gold was confiscated.
The usual definition of a recession is GDP goes negative. But this isn't necessarily true. Notice that GDP never went below the zero line in the 2001 recession. Dipping close to zero was good enough. The more interesting line is our composite of economic activity. We can pose the "recession" question in this way: if real investment, net earnings after debt service and M2 money are all puking, how can the economy be "growing slowly but steadily"?
It seems our recent re-introduction of the world to Robert Triffin has struck a note among a number of market participants. The gold-convertible U.S. dollar became the global reserve currency under the Bretton Woods monetary system, which lasted from 1944-1971. This arrangement ended because foreign central banks accumulated unsustainably large reserves of U.S. Treasuries, threatening price stability and the purchasing power of the dollar. Today, central banks are once again stockpiling massive Treasury reserves in an attempt to manage their currency values and gain advantages in export markets. We have, effectively, returned to Bretton Woods. The trouble is, as Guggenheim's Scott Minerd notes, that the arrangement is as unsustainable today as it was during the middle of the last century. None of this should come as a surprise given the unorthodox growth of central bank balance sheets around the world. The collapse of Bretton Woods in 1971 caused a decade of economic malaise and negative real returns for financial assets. Can anyone afford to wait to find out whether this time will be different?
We have mentioned the little-known Belgian economist's works a couple of times previously (here and here) with regard his exposing the serious flaws in the Bretton Woods monetary system and perfectly predicting it's inevitable demise. Triffin's 'Dilemma' was that when one nation's currency also becomes the world's reserve asset, eventually domestic and international monetary objectives diverge. Have you ever wondered how it's possible that the USA has run a trade deficit for 37 consecutive years? Have you ever considered the consequences on the value of your Dollar denominated assets if it eventually becomes an unacceptable form of payment to our trading partners? Thankfully for those of us trying to navigate the current financial morass, Robert Triffin did. Triffin's endgame is simple. A rapid diversification of reserves out of the dollar by foreign central banks. The blueprint for this alternative has been in plain sight since the late 1990's, and if you watch what central banks do – not what they say – you can benefit.
Six charts tell the story of financialization and the diminishing returns of credit.
Expanding base money pushes the price of oil up to stall speed, while expanding credit has a diminishing effect on the real economy. It does however handsomely boost bank assets.