Two pieces of business news announced this week provide a convenient frame through which to view our dysfunctional and distorted economy. The first (which has attracted tremendous attention), is Facebook's blockbuster $19 billion acquisition of instant messaging provider WhatsApp. The second (which few have noticed) is the horrific earnings report issued by Texas-based retail chain Conn's. While these two developments don't seem to have much in common, together they shed some very unflattering light on where we stand economically.
Today's modest bounce in stocks - considerably removed after-hours - does not provide much hope for those looking to buy the dip with the Dow still down over 1000 points year-to-date. In fact, as we discuss below, troubling news just continues to pour in from all over the world... For those that are not interested in the technical details, what all of this means is that global financial markets are starting to become extremely unstable. Consider the following...
That unpopular short Apple/long Google pair trade's still paying in spades. In addition, an hour and a half of nerd celebrity Bitcoin and crowdfuning equiy in startups.
Dedicated readers of The Wall Street Journal have recently been offered many dire warnings about a clear and present danger that is stalking the global economy. They are not referring to a possible looming stock or real estate bubble. Nor are they talking about other usual suspects such as global warming, peak oil, the Arab Spring, sovereign defaults, the breakup of the euro, Miley Cyrus, a nuclear Iran, or Obamacare. Instead they are warning about the horror that could result from falling prices, otherwise known as deflation. Get the kids into the basement Mom... they just marked down Cheerios!
Hayek knew that avoiding the credit-created boom prevents the associated malinvestments and over-consumption while boom-bust cycles will be avoided through prevention or significant reductions in credit creation. Keynes, however, thought differently. Current Fed policy is a policy of illusion, or better yet, of delusion.
Most economic observers are predicting that 2014 will be the year in which the United States finally shrugs off the persistent malaise of the Great Recession. In contrast, we believe that the episode has, for the moment, established supreme confidence in the powers of monetary policy to keep the economy afloat and to keep a floor under asset prices, even in the worst of circumstances. The shift in sentiment can only be explained by the growing acceptance of monetary policy as the magic elixir that Keynesians have always claimed it to be. This blind faith has prevented investors from seeing the obvious economic crises that may lay ahead. Based on nothing but pure optimism, the market believes that the Fed can somehow contract its $4 trillion balance sheet without pushing up rates to the point where asset prices are threatened, or where debt service costs become too big a burden for debtors to bear. The more likely truth is that this widespread mistake will allow us to drift into the next crisis.
The start of 2014 was less than exuberant as the markets turned in the steepest loss for the first trading day of a new year since 2008. What does this mean for the rest of 2014? Likely not much. The old Wall Street axioms of "the first 5 trading days" and "so goes January, so goes the year" tend to be statistically more important. However, it did get me thinking about the new year from a more macro perspective. This weekend's "Things To Ponder" is a collection of ideas to get you to do the same.
There can be little doubt that last week's Fed announcement was an epic attempt at rhetorical audacity. The message they hope to convey is that they are tightening monetary policy by loosening it. Based on the market reactions, the trick has seemed to work. But we are still seeing much higher leverage than what would be expected in a healthy economy, and as a result, the gains in stocks, bonds and real estate markets are highly susceptible to rate spikes. If yields move much higher we feel that the Fed will have to intervene to bring them back down. In other words, the Fed will find it much harder to exit QE than it was to enter.
We have tried a number of times (here, here, and here) to explain the simple math behind the populist call for a higher minimum wage (that appears to be founding the President's new class warfare) but in the following clip, we hope, Peter Schiff visits a local Wal-Mart in the hopes of explaining that magic money trees are not real.
David Stockman's exclamation at the "betrayal" realized within the latest so-called "festerng fiscal" budget deal is taken a step further with Peter Schiff's head-shaking diatribe on Congress' inability to show that it is truly "capable of tackling our chronic and dangerous debt problems." So America blissfully sails on, ignoring the obvious fiscal, monetary, and financial shoals that lay ahead in plain sight. I believe that will continue this dangerous course until powers outside the United States finally force the issue by refusing to expand their holding of U.S. debt. That will finally bring on the debt and currency crisis that we have created by our current cowardice.
Just as many expect that the #1 buyer of Treasuries (the Fed) will soon begin paring back its purchases, the top foreign holder (China) may cease buying, thereby opening a second front in the taper campaign. Little thought seems to be given to how the economy would react to 5% yields on 10 year Treasuries (a modest number in historical standards). The herd assumes that our stronger economy could handle such levels. That is why when it comes to tapering, the Fed is all bark and no bite. But the market understands none of this. This is not unusual in market history. When the spell is finally broken and markets wake up to reality, we will scratch our heads and wonder how we could ever have been so misguided.
Peter Schiff is sympathetic "with what [bitcoin] is trying to achieve," but as he explains in this brief clip he believes, "they are using the wrong vehicle." After rising from less than $20 to more than $600 in one year, many investors are wondering if bitcoin might be worth the risk, Schiff adds, nothing that early adopters pitch bitcoin as "gold 2.0" – a digital currency that cannot be manipulated like fiat money. Bitcoins are even "mined," similar to physical gold and silver (and are scarce and divisble); but as Schiff explains, bitcoins still fail as a substitute for gold and strongly urges investors to avoid this risky new currency. Bitcoin could very well have already hit its top, but Peter is confident gold is still well below its future record highs.
The third stage of bull markets, the mania phase, can last longer and go farther that logic would dictate. However, the data suggests that the risk of a more meaningful reversion is rising. It is unknown, unexpected and unanticipated events that strike the crucial blow that begins the market rout. Unfortunately, due to the increased impact of high frequency and program trading, reversions are likely to occur faster than most can adequately respond to. This is the danger that exists today. Are we in the third phase of a bull market? Most who read this article will say "no." However, those were the utterances made at the peak of every previous bull market cycle.
With gold down 10 of the last 11 days (until today), Peter Schiff tells CNBC that this temporary downswing is due to "the fantasy of a US recovery," that so many actually believe and thus, due to this 'recovery' the Fed will taper back its quantitative easing. "It's not gonna happen," Schiff explains, "we have a phony recovery," and the Fed will more likely increase the amount of QE in order to sustain it, "which is very bullish for gold." Crucially, Schiff clarifies that he "doesn't think a taper is inevitable," as many believe, "but an end to QE won't happen by the Fed's choice - the market will force them to tread on the brakes as the USD collapses." As we noted earlier, Schiff also believes there is an attempt to do "whatever it takes" to pull the EUR down to maintain the USD - but as today's price action shows, it's not working... "Long-term, the fundamentals have never been better for gold."
Despite rewriting history as usual, proclaiming that the administration 'knew' early numbers would be low (not true since they estimated 500,000 and are rumored to only have ~50,000), and changing the definition of what an enrollee is, and managing our expectations via Carney's press conference, we are intrigued to see what the "huge demand" Kathleen Sebelius expected for Obamacare has actually resulted in... Perhaps she needs to call the helpline! Remember, as Peter Schiff noted, the website can be fixed, but Obamacare can't (unless, of course, more keg-standers and sluts sign up).
*OBAMACARE ENROLLS 106,185 IN PRIVATE HEALTH PLANS IN OCTOBER (26,794 on Federal Exchange,79,391 on State Exchanges)