El-Erian Breaches The Final Frontier: What Happens If Central Banks Fail?

"In the last three plus years, central banks have had little choice but to do the unsustainable in order to sustain the unsustainable until others do the sustainable to restore sustainability!" is how PIMCO's El-Erian introduces the game-theoretic catastrophe that is potentially occurring around us. In a lecture to the St.Louis Fed, the moustachioed maestro of monetary munificence states "let me say right here that the analysis will suggest that central banks can no longer – indeed, should no longer – carry the bulk of the policy burden" and "it is a recognition of the declining effectiveness of central banks’ tools in countering deleveraging forces amid impediments to growth that dominate the outlook. It is also about the growing risk of collateral damage and unintended circumstances." It appears that we have reached the legitimate point of – and the need for – much greater debate on whether the benefits of such unusual central bank activism sufficiently justify the costs and risks. This is not an issue of central banks’ desire to do good in a world facing an “unusually uncertain” outlook. Rather, it relates to questions about diminishing returns and the eroding potency of the current policy stances. The question is will investors remain "numb and sedated…. by the money sloshing around the system?" or will "the welfare of millions in the United States, if not billions of people around the world, will have suffered greatly if central banks end up in the unpleasant position of having to clean up after a parade of advanced nations that headed straight into a global recession and a disorderly debt deflation." Of course, it is a rhetorical question.

March Foreclosure Activity Plunges To 5 Year Low

While the naive public has been inundated with stories that the foreclosure pipeline has been finally unclogged following the robo-settlement (see here and here) and as a result the home "price discovery" process is well on its way, reality is just a tad different. Make that totally different. As usual, the only foreclosure report that matters, and that is even remotely close to reality, comes from RealtyTrac, and we are sad to say, it brings no good news. Quite the contrary. According to the real estate specialists, March 2012 foreclosures plunged from 206,900 in February to 198,853 in March, the first time the total number of foreclosures (either Default Notices, Foreclosure Auctions, or REOs) has dropped under 200,000 since July 2007! Which sadly means that the foreclosure dam wall has yet to crack. Of course, when it does, well "The Second Foreclosure Tsunami Is Coming, And Is About To Kill Any Hopes Of A "Housing Bottom."

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What makes this time different? Several items:

  1. The Crisis coming from Europe will be far, far larger in scope than anything the Fed has dealt with before.
  2. The Fed is now politically toxic and cannot engage in aggressive monetary policy without experiencing severe political backlash (this is an election year).
  3. The Fed’s resources are spent to the point that the only thing the Fed could do would be to announce an ENORMOUS monetary program which would cause a Crisis in of itself.

Europe's 'Off-The-Grid' Economy And Why PIGS Might Fly (The Euro)

When building a house in Spain a substantial part of the cost now involves paying people 'off-grid' or 'under the table'. This seems endemic and we imagine is partially historic but IF it is increasing in extent as a result of the financial crisis it is an important trend. Extrapolating this trend out to the whole population, one suddenly realizes that the private sector could be slowly going 'off-grid', further starving governments of revenue and thus the means of the economy’s and therefore the government’s recovery. The downward spiral will continue until eventually social unrest will rise to the point where there will be a “European spring”. One country will ditch the Euro and/or their cumulative debt holdings and/or move back to their own currency. The pain of action will be less than the pain of in-action. So here we sit watching a couple of PIGS not trying consciously to fly but flapping their baby wings anyway. We watch on, content in the knowledge that PIGS can’t fly… Until, that is, the first one takes flight.

The Anatomy Of A USD-Funding Crisis And The Fed's Global Swap-Line Bailout

The Fed's currency swap with the ECB is nothing more than a covert bailout for European banks. Philipp Bagus of explains how the USD-funding crisis occurred among European banks inevitably leading to the Fed assuming the role of international lender of last resort - for which US taxpayers are told to be lucky happy since this free-lunch from printing USD and sending them overseas provides an almost risk-free benefit in the form of interest on the swap. Furthermore, the M.A.D. defense was also initiated that if this was not done, it would be far worse for US markets (and we assume implicitly the economy). The Fed's assurances on ending the bailout policy should it become imprudent or cost-benefits get misaligned seems like wishful thinking and as the EUR-USD basis swap starts to deteriorate once again, we wonder just how long before the Fed's assumed role of bailing out the financial industry and governments of the world by debasing the dollar will come home to roost. As Bagus concludes: "Fed officials claim to know that the bailout-swaps are basically a free lunch for US taxpayers and a prudent thing to do. Thank God the world is in such good hands." and perhaps more worryingly "The highest cost of the Fed policy, therefore, may be liberty in Europe" as the Euro project is enabled to play out to its increasingly centralized full fiscal union endgame.

Guest Post: What If Housing Is Done for a Generation?

A strong case can be made that the fundamental supports of the housing market-- demographics, employment, creditworthiness and income--will not recover for a generation. It can even be argued that housing has lost its status as the foundation of middle class wealth, not for a generation, but for the long term. Let's begin by noting that despite the many tax breaks lavished on housing--the mortgage interest deduction, etc.--there is nothing magical about housing as an asset. That is, its price responds in an open, transparent market to supply and demand and the cost of money and risk. There are a number of quantifiable inputs that feed into supply and demand--new housing starts, mortgage rates and income, to name three--but there are other less quantifiable inputs as well, notably the belief (or faith) that housing will return to being a "good investment," i.e. rising in price roughly 1% above the rate of inflation. If this faith erodes, then the other factors of demand face an insurmountable headwind, for the most fundamental support of housing is the belief that buying a house is the first step to securing middle class wealth.

Guest Post: The Return Of Economic Weakness

sta-eoci-index-041012-2Here is a number for you: 70%  That is roughly how many economic reports have missed their mark in the last month.  Why is this important?  Believe it or not - It has a lot to do with the weather.   We have written many times recently about the weather related effects skewing the seasonal adjustment figures in everything from the leading indicators and retail sales to employment numbers.  Now those weather related boosts are beginning to run in reverse as weather patterns return to normal and realign with the seasonal adjustments. This resurgence of economic weakness is only just beginning to appear in the fabric of the various manufacturing reports.  The Chicago Fed National Activity Index (a broad measure of 85 different data points) has declined from its recent peak in December of .54 to .33 in January and -.09 in February.   The ISM Composite index (an average of manufacturing and non-manufacturing data), Richmond, Dallas and Kansas Fed Manufacturing indexes all posted declines in March.

Artemis On Volatility At World's End: Deflation, Hyperinflation And The Alchemy Of Risk

Imagine the world economy as an armada of ships passing through a narrow and dangerous strait leading to the sea of prosperity. Navigating the channel is treacherous for to err too far to one side and your ship plunges off the waterfall of deflation but too close to the other and it burns in the hellfire of inflation. The global fleet is tethered by chains of trade and investment so if one ship veers perilously off course it pulls the others with it. Our only salvation is to hoist our economic sails and harness the winds of innovation and productivity. It is said that de-leveraging is a perilous journey and beneath these dark waters are many a sunken economy of lore. Print too little money and we cascade off the waterfall like the Great Depression of the 1930s... print too much and we burn like the Weimar Republic Germany in the 1920s... fail to harness the trade winds and we sink like Japan in the 1990s. On cold nights when the moon is full you can watch these ghost ships making their journey back to hell... they appear to warn us that our resolution to avoid one fate may damn us to the other.

Behind 'The Iksil Trade' - IG9 Tranches Explained

There is a lot of talk about IG9 these days.  We think the JPMorgan 'Iksil' story has a lot more to do with tranches than with outright selling of the index. Noone knows what exactly is going on, but we think selling tranches without delta explains far more than just selling the index, given the size and leverage. Critically, in the end it is all speculation as what (if any) trade they have on but if our belief on this being a tranche exposure (for the thesis reasons we explain) then the explanation is far less scary.

Guest Post: Ten Minutes After The Titanic Struck The Iceberg

As we all know, the "unsinkable" Titanic suffered a glancing collision with an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912. Ten minutes after the iceberg had opened six of the ship's 16 watertight compartments, it was not at all apparent that the mighty vessel had been fatally wounded, as there was no evidence of damage topside. Indeed, some eyewitnesses reported that passengers playfully scattered the ice left on the foredeck by the encounter. But some rudimentary calculations soon revealed the truth to the officers: the ship was designed to survive four watertight compartments being compromised, and could likely stay afloat if five were opened to the sea, but not if six compartments were flooded. Water would inevitably spill over into adjacent compartments in a domino-like fashion until the ship sank. The financial system of the United States of America is like the Titanic. Hubris led many to declare it financially unsinkable even as its fundamental design was riddled with fatal flaws and the human pilots in charge ran it straight into the ice field at top speed. We have some time left before the ultimate fate is visible to all. Ten minutes after the collision, the Titanic's passengers had 2 hours and 30 minutes before the "unsinkable" ship sank. How much time we have left is unknown, but the bow of the ship will be visibly settling into the icy water within a year or two--and perhaps much sooner.