Today, Rand’s fictional world has seemingly become a reality – endless bailouts and economic stimulus for the unproductive at the expense of the most productive, and calls for additional taxation on capital investment. The shrug of Rand’s heroic entrepreneurs is to be found today within the tangled ciphers of corporate and government balance sheets. The US Federal Reserve has added more than $2 trillion to the base money supply since 2008 – an incredible and unprecedented number that is basically a gift to banks intended to cover their deep losses and spur lending and investment. Instead, as banks continue their enormous deleveraging, almost all of their new money remains at the Fed in the form of excess reserves. Corporations, moreover, are holding the largest amounts of cash, relative to assets and net worth, ever recorded. And yet, despite what pundits claim about strong balance sheets, firms’ debt levels, relative to assets and net worth, also remain near record-high levels. Hoarded cash is king. The velocity of money (the frequency at which money is spent, or GDP relative to base money) continues to plunge to historic lows. No wonder monetary policy has had so little impact. Capital, the engine of economic growth, sits idle – shrugging everywhere.
Financial credits remain the big underperformer hinting at much less risk appetite than USD-based stocks would indicate for now but broad risk assets staged an impressive bounce recovery on better than average volumes today as early weakness in Europe was shrugged off with better-than-expected macro data in the US (claims and Philly Fed headlines) and then later in the morning the story in the ECB Greek debt swap deal. We discussed both the macro data and the debt swap deal realities but the coincident timing of the ECB story right into the European close (when we have tended to see trends reverse in EUR and risk anyway) helped lift all risky asset boats as USD lost ground. The long-weekend and OPEX tomorrow likely helped exaggerate the trend back today but we note HYG underperformed out of the gate and while credit and stocks did rally together, the afternoon in the US saw stocks limp higher on lagging volumes (and lower trade size) as credit leaked lower. Treasuries sold off reasonably well as risk buyers came back (around 8bps off their low yields of the day pre-ECO) but rallied midly into the close (as credit derisked). Commodities all surged nicely from the macro break point this morning with Copper best on the day but WTI still best on the week. Silver is synced with USD strength still (-0.25% on the week) as Gold is modestly in the money at 1728 (+0.4% on the week) against +0.47% gains for the USD still. FX markets abruptly reversed yesterday's USD gains with most majors getting back to yesterday's highs. GBP outperformed today (at highs of the week) and JPY underperformed (lows of the week). VIX shifts into OPEX are always squirly and today was no different but we did see VIX futures rise into the close. We wonder if the last couple of days of Dow swings and vol spikes and recoveries will remind anyone of the mid-summer day swings last year?
Sprott strategist John Embry has never been a fan of the existing financial system. Today, he makes that once again quite clear in this interview with Egon von Grayerz' Matterhorn Asset Management in which he says: "I think that the current financial system, as we know it, will be totally destroyed, probably sooner rather than later. The next system will require gold backing to have any legitimacy. This has happened many times in history." Needless to say, he proceeds to explain why a monetary system based on gold, one in which one, gasp, lives according to one's means, is better. Logically, he also explains why the status quo, whose insolvent welfare world has nearly a third of a quadrillion in the form of unfunded future liabilities, will never let this happen. Much more inside.
Today, the US total debt rose by $32 billion touching on a new record high of $15.392 trillion. As a reminder this is just the beginning: as we noted yesterday, according to the president's own budget total US debt is now expected to surpasses the greatest and final debt ceiling of $16.4 trillion just around September, and likely sooner with the addition of the $160 billion in additional debt needed to fund the extension of the Bush temporary yet perpetual tax cut through the end of 2012. So while we know that total debt to GDP is already over 100% and unlikely to ever decline back to double digits, thus putting into question the marginal utility of debt to generate further economic growth, another just as important question is what is the incremental utility of tax revenue relative to debt issuance, i.e., is America now issuing more debt than it is collecting from tax revenues: a step which would further cement its status as a banana debt republic. The chart below should provide some comfort in that regard. In fiscal 2012, starting October 31 through today, the US has collected $677.6 billion in withholdings taxes, while issuing $601 billion in debt over the same period of time. In other words, for now at least tax revenues are running 12% above debt issuance. Alas, considering that according to the president's own budget there is another $1 trillion in debt issuance over the next seven and a half months, we have a very distinct feeling the red line will cross the blue line yet again, and quite soon at that. Naturally, a logical question arises: why not just do away with taxes entirely and have all US capital needs be debt funded? After all, all that "saved or created" tax money would be used to buy bonds or better yet, iBonds, or something just as silly. And the USD would never, ever, lose its status as reserve currency...
And so we are back to the same fiscal feudalism that Germany demanded, and the Greece refused weeks ago. We have been pondering the ECB bond swap 'news-story' and the market's reaction to this with incredulity. Our earlier discussion of the deal (here and here) pointed to the problems and now Peter Tchir explains how this debt swap is actually a step towards a Greek default (thanks to the removal of the CAC-encumberance within the ECB). It is also a large step towards colonization as the FT notes that the bailout terms will contain "unprecedented controls" on Athens. It is our earlier comments on the unintended consequence of this ECB action - that of explicitly subordinating all other sovereign bondholders in Europe, and that this would likely raise the very large specter of legal action by other Greek bondholders arguing the ECB has received unfair treatment - that the FT also brings to investors' attention (which is seemingly being ignored on the eve of OPEX). Whichever way you look at this - it is not good for Greece and could have significantly negative implications for the rest of the European sovereign bond market just as investors are starting to dip a toe in the cool risk water once again.
“Whoever controls the volume of money in our country is absolute master of all industry and commerce…and when you realize that the entire system is very easily controlled, one way or another, by few powerful men at the top, you will not have to be told how periods of inflation and depression originate.” – President James Garfield, 2 weeks before his assassination.
While next to impossible, now may be a good time to ignore the constant barrage of meaningless noise and flashing red headlines, which not only are contradictory but prove that Europe is literally making it all up as it goes along. Today is a great case in point of a tangential detour which does nothing to change the reality that Germany no longer wants Greece in the Eurozone (remember, oh, yesterday), and that the ECB is merely playing possum with PSI creditors who will block the deal with even greater vigor than before (anyone recall the FT story about the PSI deal being on the verge of collapse not due to the ECB but due to private creditors?) as the ECB's even bigger subordination will simply make the amount of hold outs even greater. So while algos take the required 12-48 hours to figure out what just happened today, here is SocGen's Suki Mann stepping back from the endless daily din, and summarizing what is really happening in Europe.
There are those who have been waiting to buy undilutable precious metals in response to a headline announcement from the Fed that it is starting to buy up hundreds of billions of Treasurys or MBS. This is understandable - after all that is precisely the trigger that the headline scanning robots which account for 90% of market action in the past year are programmed to do. And the worst thing that one can do is put on the right trade at the wrong time. Yet it may come as a surprise to some, that while the world was waiting, and waiting, and waiting, for Bernanke to hit the Print button, virtually every other central bank was quietly unleashing it own mini tsunami of liquidity. In fact, as Morgan Stanley puts it, "the Great Monetary Easing Part 2 is in full swing." But wait, there's more: in an Austrian world, where fundamentals don't matter and only how much additional nominal fiat is created is relevant, it is sheer idiocy to assume that the printers will stop here... or anywhere for that matter. They simply can't, now that the marginal utility of every dollars is sub 1.00 relative to GDP creation. This means that by the time the Global Weimar is in full swing, we will see much, much more easing. Sure enough, MS anticipates an unprecedented additional round of easing in the months ahead. So for those waiting to buy gold et al at the same time as DE Shaw's correlation quants do, the time will be long gone. Because slowly everyone is realizing that it is not the Fed that is the marginal creator of fake money. It is everyone.
The more we dig into the bones of President Obama's new budget plan, the more it becomes clear that, as JP Morgan's Michael Cembalest notes, the battles of the future (among our peak-polarized political class) will be between raising taxes and cutting entitlements as the discretionary spending well is empty. As the Budget Control Act cuts this discretionary spend to a 50-year low (close to only 5% of GDP), it is the rise in entitlements (and of course interest costs) that appear mandatory for now and will need to be 'balanced' with tax revenue growth that is expected to rise from 15% of GDP to 20% of GDP by 2022 (thanks largely to a belief that cyclical recovery will save us). As the real ranks of the long-term unemployed and now disabled benefits receivers swell, it seems clear how the entitlement-taxation see-saw will swing unless there is change everyone can believe in.
This one's hot off the presses. Just yesterday, our friends at the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued a press release on its latest ruling related to foreign 'money service businesses (MSBs).' An MSB is a private company that provides certain financial services like check cashing, money orders, title pawn, payday loans, travelers' checks, prepaid stored value cards, tax refund payments, etc. Frequently, traditional MSB clients tended to be individuals without bank accounts or access to credit. But increasingly, the US government is looking at companies engaged in electronic payments, crowdsourced funding, and even microcredit finance as money service businesses. The implication? They should all be regulated. Even if they're not even US companies. That's right. FinCEN's latest ruling suggests a foreign MSB may now be subject to US regulations AND CRIMINAL PENALTIES "even if none of its agents, agencies, branches or offices are physically located in the United States."
Yesterday, it was Thomas Stolper who capitulated on his latest incursion into the field of 0.000 batting, when he closed his long EURUSD reco (only for the EUR to jump today of course). We can hardly wait for him to announce he is again long the EURUSD for the clearest EUR short signal possible. That said, it still left outstanding the Goldman Russell 2000 recommendation noted here previously. Sure enough, in the aftermath of yesterday's return of risk with a vengeance, Goldman is taking steps to make sure it locks in at least some profits on its RUT 2000 target of 860 by hiking the stop to 810 from 765. The reason? "What has clearly changed in the past week -- and the catalyst for this "leash tightening" -- is that European sovereign risks have reemerged, with continued near-term support for Greece now much more uncertain than we or the markets had previously assumed. With the amplification of these hard-to-assess risks emanating from Europe, and data continuing to support our main thesis, we think that protecting the gains at this point with relatively tight stop is prudent" But why if Europe is suddenly fixed, on the completely meaningless news that the ECB is funding Eurozone central banks with magic money on their Greek bond losses, even as the actual debt notional is not changing at all. At this point, we doubt we are the only one who no longer care.
If the ECB switches 50 billion of old bonds for 50 billion of new bonds, what does Greece get? No notional reduction. Possibly a reduction in interest payments but that depends on the coupons on the bonds the ECB owns. The new bonds allegedly have some covenants and possibly other projections for the bond holders. That is a negative for Greece - they can default on these old bonds and the ECB can't do much about it. Maybe the reporter is wrong, but this is a good deal for the ECB, marginal for Greece, but does make it easier to jam holdouts. They can default on old bonds or retroactively CAC old bonds and the ECB won't be affected. This announcement is either marginally good or marginally bad depending on the details. It is not great or a game changer - except maybe the money printing angle.
A number of headlines from Bloomberg, via Die Welt, that the ECB will undergo a bond swap on their greek government bonds and the 'profit' will flow to governments. This is absolute delusion. The ECB claims EUR50bn nominal value of GGBs - so likely took a EUR20-30bn loss on this given the prices they bought at under the SMP and the current market price. We explained last week (must-read) the delusional nature of these profits (given the losses that occur once the new bonds break) and assume this is yet another attempt to make market participants believe they wil help with PSI. However, there is more to this in our humble opinion. Since the ECB says they will distribute profits (which we know are illusory) to governments - it is nothing but a covert attempt to funnel money (think printing) to local government central banks - and the illusory profits here are simply giving away free money. Perhaps the loud screaming over the pain associated with even an 'orderly' Greek default is enough that the ECB needs to placate them with some new freshly printed money? For now, the PSI remains in limbo for the hold-out blocking stake reasons we have discussed at length - if the ECB were to step into the market and buy/swap with hold-outs all of their UK-law bonds at Par (for huge gains to the hedgies) then perhaps we get a deal done - but this would be astounding and leave the rest of the European sovereign debt market disabled as investors pushed for the same deal and vigilantes drove Portugal and then Spain to this point...
Is it perhaps cheaper for the Troika to fund the ECB's EUR30bn loss (and let Greece default) than pay the EUR130bn for them to stay?
Two formal requests to Mr. Draghi - please show where the profit is booked on your balance sheet and also explain how a notional swap (no debt reduction) in any helps the Greeks?