"Balance-sheet wealth is sustainable only when it comes from earned success, not government fiat," is the ugly truth that former Fed governor Kevin Warsh (amazing what truths come out after their terms are up) and hedge fund billionaire Stan Druckenmiller deliver in the following WSJ Op-Ed. The aggregate wealth of U.S. households, including stocks and real-estate holdings, just hit a new high of $81.8 trillion. No wonder most on Wall Street applaud the Fed's unrelenting balance-sheet recovery strategy.The Fed's extraordinary tools are far more potent in goosing balance-sheet wealth than spurring real income growth. Corporate chieftains rationally choose financial engineering - debt-financed share buybacks, for example - over capital investment in property, plants and equipment. The country needs an exit from the 2% growth trap. There are no short-cuts through Fed-engineered balance-sheet wealth creation. The sooner and more predictably the Fed exits its extraordinary monetary accommodation, the sooner businesses can get back to business and labor can get back to work.
More Reasons QE Is a Dud
In a month of disturbing images from troubled countries in all parts of the developing world, the biggest threat to the global economy may have been lurking in the shadows...
Indicators of US balance-sheet repair hardly signal the onset of the more vigorous cyclical revival that many believe is at hand. Optimists see it differently. Encouraged by sharp reductions in households’ debt-service costs and a surprisingly steep fall in unemployment, they argue that the long nightmare has finally ended. That may be wishful thinking. Notwithstanding the Fed’s claims that its unconventional policies have been the elixir of economic renewal in the US, the healing process still has years to go. This should not be surprising. Far too many US households made enormous bets on the property bubble, believing that their paper gains were permanent substitutes for stagnant labor income... and appear to be doing the same again.
Things in the country whose central bank assets have climbed to ¥229 trillion, or 48 percent of the nation’s nominal gross domestic product, are about to get very interesting: on one hand, it will have no choice but to slow down monetization under its existing QE program. On the other, pernicious inflation is spreading doubts the BOJ will be able to boost QE in the near-future. What is a country stuck in a vortex between deflation and runaway inflation to do? "It may be too late to prevent long-term rates doing something crazy” should the BOJ hold off on tapering before inflation reaches the target, said Richard Koo, the chief economist in Tokyo at Nomura.
The number one American export is U.S. dollars. It is paper currency that is backed up by absolutely nothing, but the rest of the world has been using it to trade with one another and so there is tremendous global demand for our dollars. The linchpin of this system is the petrodollar. For decades, if you have wanted to buy oil virtually anywhere in the world you have had to do so with U.S. dollars. But if one of the biggest oil exporters on the planet, such as Saudi Arabia, decided to start accepting other currencies as payment for oil, the petrodollar monopoly would disintegrate very rapidly. For years, everyone assumed that nothing like that would happen any time soon, but now Saudi officials are warning of a "major shift" in relations with the United States. In fact, the Saudis are so upset at the Obama administration that "all options" are reportedly "on the table".
Despite the 'support' of the G-20 and the self-deceiving belief that Japan is 'not' manipulating its currency; 60 US Senators appear confused. In a letter to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Trans-Pacific-Partnership Trade Rep Michael Froman, the Senators demand they "address one of the 21st century's most serious trade problems: foreign currency manipulation." In order to ensure any agreements meet the "high standards" that America's workers deserve, Lew and Froman are directed to include "strong and enforceable disciplines," for any currency manipulations. Cue Abe protestations at US policy...
Positive demographic cycles have been one of the key components in the strong growth trends for a number of Asian countries. As Morgan Stanley note in their most recent 'China Deleveraging' discussion, the decline in the ratio of the non-working (elderly and children) to working-age (15-64 years) population has coincided with periods of economic boom for various countries in Asia in the past 50 years. But... as Nomura's Richard Koo notes - having experienced the very same unstoppable shift in Japan - "demographics will cease to be a positive for China’s economic growth and start to have a negative impact." Fundamentally, Koo adds, this means "the nation will grow old before it grows rich." Demographics, capital accumulation and productivity are the three most important drivers of potential growth, and these three factors are intertwined to a certain extent. China has already entered its first stage of demographic challenge, with its GDP growth slowing on the back of all three contributors of growth. Given the lessons of Japan and the Asian Tigers, China is set to suffer notably from this demographic drag - and its entirely foreseeable.
As we noted just two weeks ago - before the hope-and-change-driven exuberance in Japanese equities came crashing down - "those who believe in Abenomics are suffering from amnesia," and Nomura's Richard Koo clarifies just who is responsible for the exuberance and why things are about to shift dramatically. Reasons cited for the equity selloff include Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s remarks about ending QE and a weaker than expected (preliminary) Chinese PMI reading, but, simply put, Koo notes, more fundamental factor was also involved: stocks had risen far above the level justified by improvements in the real economy. It was overseas investors (particularly US hedge funds) that responded to Abe's comments late last year by closing out their positions in the euro (having been unable to profit from the Euro's collapse) and redeploying those funds in Japan, where they drove the yen lower and pushed stocks higher. Koo suspects that only a handful of the overseas investors who led this shift from the euro into the yen understood there was no reason why quantitative easing should work when private demand for funds was negligible... The recent upheaval in the JGB market signals an end to the virtuous cycle that pushed stock prices steadily higher.
The spin-doctors are hard at work talking up America’s subpar economic recovery. All eyes are on households. Thanks to falling unemployment, rising home values, and record stock prices, an emerging consensus of forecasters, market participants, and policymakers has now concluded that the American consumer is finally back. Don’t believe it. In short, the American consumer’s nightmare is far from over. Spin and frothy markets aside, the healing has only just begun.
If JGB investors 'believe' as Richard Koo earlier noted, in the BoJ's new actions and Abenomics (to double the monetary base and generate inflation), then, Kyle Bass explains, a rational investor is likely to sell a portion if not all of them. The BoJ only has JPY10 trillion cushion (after the JPY60 trillion deficit) to soak up this 'rational investor paradox' selling and this is dwarfed by the holdings of JGBs in the largest Japanese banks (who are now starting to rotate away from JGBs into foreign bonds). Simply out, Bass exclaims, they are going to have make the plan even bigger... if they are to successfully contain rates. With a quadrillion JPY of JGBs out there, if a mere 5% is sold (from 'Abe'lievers) then Japan's Turbo QE is not big enough which leads to the paradoxical increase in the QQE, moar inflationary 'belief', and moar selling pressure... The BoJ has been in the market every day but 2 since April 4th trying to hold rates down (and is failing)...
The surge in Japanese long-term interest rates is likely causing some lost sleep among bond market participants and policymakers (despite their ignorance of the moves in the BoJ minutes) as Nomura's Richard Koo notes, if this trend continues (now added to by the collapse in stock prices) it could well mark the “beginning of the end” for the Japanese economy. Although the stock market has (until now) welcomed the yen’s continued slide against the dollar, Koo warns that this trend needs to be carefully monitored, as simultaneous declines in JGBs and the yen can be interpreted as a loss of faith in the Japanese government and the Bank of Japan. The biggest concerns are that the extreme volatility in Japanese stocks and bonds is occurring at a time when the BOJ was buying large quantities of government bonds. It is now clear that even large-scale BOJ purchases of JGBs cannot stop yields from rising. Simply put, Koo notes, the BoJ needs to rein itself in and state it will not stand for overshooting inflation expectations or the 'bad' rise in rates could crush both the nascent recovery and the nation's banking system.
Nomura's Richard Koo destroys the backbone of the modern central bankers only tool in the tool-box in his latest paper. "As more and more people began to realize that increases in monetary base via QE during balance sheet recessions do not mean equivalent increases in money supply, the hype over QEs in the FX market is likely to calm down ...The only way quantitative easing can have a positive impact on economic activity is if the authorities’ purchase of assets from the private sector boosts asset prices, making people feel wealthier and thereby encouraging them to consume more. This is the wealth effect, often referred to by the Fed chairman Bernanke as the portfolio rebalancing effect, but even he has acknowledged that it has a very limitmed impact... In a sense, quantitative easing is meant to benefit the wealthy. After all, it can contribute to GDP only by making those with assets feel wealthier and encouraging them to consume more."
The existing (and ongoing) massive expansion of base money into the banking systems of the US, England, and Japan is without precedent. As Nomura's Richard Koo notes, at 16x statutory reserves, the liquidity 'should' have led to unprecedented inflation rates of 1,600% in the US, 970% in the UK, and 480% in Japan. However, it has not, yet. In short, Koo explains, businesses and households in these economies have stopped borrowing money even though interest rates have fallen to zero. There is little physical or mechanical reason for the BOJ’s easing program to work. But the program could also have a psychological impact - and Japanese media is on an 'inflation' full-court press currently. The risk here is that not only borrowers but also lenders will start to believe the lies. No financial institutions anticipating inflation could ever lend money at current interest rates. No actual damage will be done as long as the easing program remains ineffective. But once it starts to affect psychology, the BOJ needs to quickly reverse the policy and bring the monetary base back to 'normal'. If the policy reversal is delayed, the Japanese economy (and inflation) could spiral out of control.
While the G-20 and the G-7 haggle among each other, all (with perhaps the exception of France) desperate to make it seem that Japan's recent currency manipulation is not really manipulation, and that the plunge in the Yen was an indirect, "unexpected" consequence of BOJ monetary policy (when in reality as Richard Koo explained it is merely a ploy to avoid the spotlight falling on each and every other G-7/20 member, all of which are engaged in the same type of currency wars which eventually will all morph into trade wars), Europe's energy powerhouse Norway quietly entered into the war. From Bloomberg: "Norges Bank is ready to cut interest rates further to counter krone gains that interfere with the inflation target, Governor Oeystein Olsen said. “If it gets too strong over time, leading to inflation that’s too low, we will act,” Olsen said yesterday in an interview at his office in Oslo.