Real Interest Rates
Gold climbed $11.80 or 0.69% in New York yesterday and closed at $1,712.70. Silver surged to a high of $32.232 and finished with a gain of 1.36%.
While the media continues to push the idea that the housing market is on the mend the data really doesn't yet support such optimism. The current percentage of the total number of housing units available that are currently occupied remains at very depressed levels. When it comes to the reality of the housing recovery the 4-panel chart (below) tells the whole story. There is another problem with the housing recovery story. It isn't real. The nascent recovery in the housing market, such as it has been, has been driven by the largest amount of fiscal subsidy in the history of world. The problem, however, is that for all of the financial support and programs that have been thrown at the housing market - only a very minor recovery could be mustered. With household formation at very low levels and the 25-35 cohort facing the highest levels of unemployment since the "Great Depression" it is no wonder that being a "renter" is no longer a derogatory label.
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.
While it is easier to listen to the narrative from world leaders and feel numb to the reality of it all, The Economist has decided enough is enough. Just as we earlier explained in simple bullet points the reality of the last few years in Europe (here), so The Economist provides this handy 'be your own global macro strategist' tool to comprehend just what magic the markets believe will occur going forward to keep debt levels under control across the world's governments... (e.g. all things equal, the country would need to grow by 7.7% a year, or nominal bond yields to fall to a Teutonic 0.5% to stabilize government gross debt at its 2011 level of 70% of GDP).
As we have painstakingly pointed out, rising equity markets in 2012 have mostly been a function of rising multiples applied to relatively stagnant earnings. While JPMorgan's CIO Michael Cembalest would have given odds no better than 1 in 4 of a 17% advance in the S&P this year, he does note that forecasting annual equity returns is an entirely treacherous (and we add foolish) exercise as real return variation has completely swamped industry expectations for the last 60 years. The traditional Graham-Dodd/Shiller valuation model makes equities look expensive currently, but Cembalest notes, valuations might not be the driving factor at this point. The debasement of money by the Fed has altered the calculus of investing for many participants, and not necessarily for the better. Of course, by driving interest rates down and promising to keep them there, a 7% nominal equity earnings yield (i.e., a 14 P/E) is transformed into a more compelling investment - but critically (especially for social and political reasons) the 'value' of this adjusted earnings yield is questionable given the earnings boom is derived from extraordinarily weak labor compensation and potentially unsustainable demand from Europe/China.
Economists, market analysts, journalists and investors alike are all talking about it quite openly, generally in a calm and reserved tone that suggests that - to borrow a phrase from Bill Gross – it represents the 'new normal'. Something that simply needs to be acknowledged and analyzed in the same way we e.g. analyze the supply/demand balance of the copper market. It is the new buzzword du jour: 'Financial Repression'. The term certainly sounds ominous, but it is always mentioned in an off-hand manner that seems to say: 'yes, it is bad, but what can you do? We've got to live with it.' But what does it actually mean? The simplest, most encompassing explanation is this: it describes various insidious and underhanded methods by which the State intends to rob its citizens of their wealth and income over the coming years (and perhaps even decades) above and beyond the already onerous burden of taxation and regulatory costs that is crushing them at present. One cannot possibly "print one's way to prosperity". The exact opposite is in fact true: the policy diminishes the economy's ability to generate true wealth. If anything, “we” are printing ourselves into the poorhouse.
IMF Cuts Global Growth, Warns Central Banks, Whose Capital Is An "Arbitrary Number", Is Only Game In TownSubmitted by Tyler Durden on 10/08/2012 18:05 -0400
"The recovery continues but it has weakened" is how the IMF sums up their 250-page compendium of rather sullen reading for most hope-and-dreamers. The esteemed establishment led by the tall, dark, and handsome know-nothing Lagarde (as evidenced by her stroppiness after being asked a question she didn't like in the Eurogroup PR) has cut global growth expectations for advanced economics from 2.0% to only 1.5%. Quite sadly, they see two forces pulling growth down in advanced economies: fiscal consolidation and a still-weak financial system; and only one main force pulling growth up is accommodative monetary policy. Central banks continue not only to maintain very low policy rates, but also to experiment with programs aimed at decreasing rates in particular markets, at helping particular categories of borrowers, or at helping financial intermediation in general. A general feeling of uncertainty weighs on global sentiment. Of note: the IMF finds that "Risks for a Serious Global Slowdown Are Alarmingly High...The probability of global growth falling below 2 percent in 2013––which would be consistent with recession in advanced economies and a serious slowdown in emerging market and developing economies––has risen to about 17 percent, up from about 4 percent in April 2012 and 10 percent (for the one-year-ahead forecast) during the very uncertain setting of the September 2011 WEO. For 2013, the GPM estimates suggest that recession probabilities are about 15 percent in the United States, above 25 percent in Japan, and above 80 percent in the euro area." And yet probably the most defining line of the entire report (that we have found so far) is the following: "Central bank capital is, in many ways, an arbitrary number." And there you have it, straight from the IMF.
When it comes to investing in gold, investors often see the world in black and white. Some people have a deep, almost religious conviction that gold is a useless, barbarous relic with no yield; it’s an asset no rational investor would ever want. Others love it, seeing it as the only asset that can offer protection from the coming financial catastrophe, which is always just around the corner. PIMCO's views are more nuanced and, we believe, provide a balanced framework for assessing value. Their bottom line: given current valuations and central bank policies, we see gold as a compelling inflation hedge and store of value that is potentially superior to fiat currencies.
There's a belief among certain economists – and the wider population – that if the government takes a more active role in the economy, the social outcome can be improved. Dr. Lacy Hunt, executive VP of Hoisington Investment Management Company (HIMCO), says it's a false belief… and he has proof to back it up. An unprecedented buildup of debt, he shows, can only lead to one outcome: a drop in Americans' standard of living. Must watch!
It is always amazing to observe how people become less risk averse after risk has markedly increased and more risk averse after it has markedly decreased. The stock market is held to be 'safe' after it has risen for many weeks or months, while it is considered 'risky' after it has declined. The bigger the rally, the safer the waters are deemed to be, and the opposite holds for declines. One term that is associated in peoples' minds with rising prices is 'certainty'. For some reason, rising prices are held to indicate a more 'certain' future, which one can look forward to with more 'confidence'. 'Uncertainty' by contrast is associated with downside volatility in stocks. In reality, the future is always uncertain. Most people seem to regard accidental participation in a bull market cycle with as a kind of guarantee of a bright future, when all that really happened is that they got temporarily lucky. Perma-bullish analysts like Laszlo Birinyi or Abby Joseph Cohen can be sure that they will be right 66% of the time by simply staying bullish no matter what happens. This utter disregard of the risk-reward equation can occasionally lead to costly experiences for their followers when the markets decline.
We have seen consecutive weeks of bullish strength in the gold and silver markets. Gold has completed what is known as a ‘Golden Cross’ and silver is poised to complete one in the coming days. A ‘Golden Cross’ occurs when not only the current price, but also shorter-term moving averages such as the 50 day moving average “cross” or rise above the longer term 200 day moving average. Gold’s 50 day moving average (simple) has risen to $1,651/oz and is now comfortable above the 200 day moving average (simple) at $1,645/oz and accelerating higher. Silver’s 50 day moving average (simple) has risen to $29.86/oz and will soon challenge the 200 day moving average (simple) at $30.47/oz.
XAU/EUR Exchange Rate Daily - (Bloomberg)
Gold at €1,355/oz, just 2.5% from the record high of €1,390/oz, is a sign of a continuing lack of trust in the euro and in Draghi’s stewardship at the ECB.
Gold prices languished from 1980 to 2000 and had declining correlations with debt levels because GDP growth was sufficient to mute fears about budget and deficit issues. The current economic recovery has been too weak to support a sustained rise in real rates above the 2% level that has acted an inflection point for gold prices. With energy and food inflation deepening and soon to affect consumer price indices, interest rates may have to rise significantly in order to restore real interest rates above 2%. This is with ex Federal Reserve Chairman Volcker did in the late 1970’s - when he increased interest rates to above 15% in order to protect the dollar and aggressively tackle inflation. It is unlikely that similar ‘hawkish’ monetary policy would be implemented by the Bernanke Fed today. It is unlikely that they would and even doubtful if they could – given the appalling fiscal situation and levels of debt in the US and global economy. A continuing succession of higher real gold prices above the inflation adjusted high, or real record high, of $2,500/oz is likely until we see interest return to more normal levels and zero percent interest policies are supplanted by positive real interest rates.
As the world anticipates Bernanke's speech on Friday - which most do not expect to explicitly say "NEW-QE-is-on-bitches" - we started thinking just what it is that he can suggest that would provide more jawboning potential. His speech is likely to lay out 'lessons learned' and outline the various conventional, unconventional, and unconventional unconventional policy options available (as we noted here). While open-ended QE, cutting the IOER, and 'credit-easing' are often discussed, none would be a surprise; this reminded us of an article from Morgan Stanley two years ago - after QE2 - that raised the possibility of Price-Level Targeting (PT), which is quite different from Inflation-Targeting. While its cumulative effect could be anti-debtflationary, it is however tough to communicate, reduces the Fed's inflation-credibility, and could be seen as inconsistent with the Fed's dual mandate. Our hope is that by understanding this possibility, the mistaken shock-and-awe is dampened.
It is hard to find fiscal situations that are worse than Japan's. The gross government debt/GDP ratio, at more than 200%, is the worst among the major developed economies. Yet yields on Japanese government bonds (JGBs) have not only been among the lowest, they have also been stable, even during the recent deterioration during the European debt crisis. This apparent contravention of the laws of economics is both an enigma for foreign investors and the reason for them to expect fiscal collapse as a result of a sharp rise in selling pressure in the JGB market. As Goldman notes, the European debt crisis has led to an increase in market sensitivity to sovereign risk in general and questions remain on when to expect the tensions in the JGB market and the fiscal deficit to reach a breaking point in Japan. In the following 14 charts, we explore the sustainability of fiscal deficit financing in Japan and Goldman addresses the JGB puzzles.