When it comes to predicting consumer spending patterns, especially those of the baby boomers who are traditionally reliant on fixed income (but lately have had to migrate back into the workforce, as retirement prospects diminish, in effect displacing the young 18-24 year old Americans where unemployment is now at a substantial 46%), the following two charts from today's David Rosenberg letter do a great job at explaining the schism between interest and dividend income. The former, as is well-known, has been crippled and is plunging courtesy of Bernanke's ZIRP policy, which makes cash yields on savings and fixed income instruments virtually negligible, and the latter, which while rising, has a long way to rise if it is to catch up to lost annuity potential. It is here that the primary tension for the Fed resides: it has to force investors to switch their mindsets from the capital preservation of fixed income, to the risky behavior of pursuing stock dividends. It is also here that we see the lost purchasing power of the US consumer: interest income is down $450 billion from 2007-2008 levels to roughly $1 trillion, while dividend income has risen to $825 billion, which is where it was at the prior peak. In other words, when all is said and done, Bernanke's ZIRP policy has eliminated $450 billion in purchasing power, even if he has succeeded in reflating the equity bubble. Yet while bonds at least have capital preservation optics, what happens to dividend stocks whose cash flow yields can be eliminated at the bat of an eye, if and when the next flash crash materializes, or the next financial crisis is finally too big for the central planners to control?
Marc Faber does not mince words. He believes the money printing policies of the Federal Reserve and its sister central banks around the globe have put the world's currencies on an inexorable, accelerating inflationary down slope. The dangers of money printing are many in his eyes. But in particular, he worries about the unintended consequences it subjects the populace to. Beyond currency devaluation, it creates malinvestment that leads to asset bubbles that wreak havoc when they burst. And even more nefarious, money printing disproportionately punishes the lower classes, resulting in volatile social and political tensions. It's no surprise then that he's feeling particularly defensive these days. While he generally advises those looking to protect their purchasing power to invest capital in precious metals and the equity markets (the rationale being inflation should hurt equity prices less than bond prices), he warns that equities appear overbought at this time.
China is trying to tell you something, are you listening?
...most investors fall into one of two categories: those that hold an abundance of gold and silver (which tends to be physical forms only), and those with little or none. While both groups need to diversify, I'm a little more concerned about the second group. Here's why. Regardless of what you think will happen over the remainder of this decade, one thing seems virtually certain: the value of paper money will be affected, perhaps dramatically. Even if the economy slips into deflation, the deflation wouldn't last long. A panicked Fed would print to the max and set off a wild rise in prices. This is why we're convinced currency dilution will not only continue but accelerate. Let's take a look at what's happened so far with the value of our currency vs. gold, after accounting for the loss in purchasing power.
Robert Mish has been a precious metals dealer for nearly 50 years and knows what a gold bubble mania looks like. We are nowhere near that stage, in his opinion. Instead, he sees a US populace largely unappreciative of holding precious metal as a store of wealth, and engaged in a slow process of dis-hording their gold and silver to eager foreign buyers who are more than happy to take the bullion back to their shores. In terms of where we are on the gold mania spectrum, he sees us at a "2" out of 10. But he foresees a very rude awakening ahead as the populace eventually wakes up to the increasing damage our over-debted global economy is doing to the purchasing power of world currencies. Because when the general investor finally realizes the protection the precious metals offer against currency debasement, much of the retail supply will already be out of the system in very tight hands, and largely overseas. Moreover, when supply gets tight, there will be more challenges to obtaining physical bullion during a buying mania than there were during the last one in 1980. There are many fewer local sources to exchange bullion these days as much of that business is now transacted by online vendors dependent mail delivery to ship product, which are more vulnerable to supply chain disruptions. And be sure you're aware of how the form you hold your bullion in will affect the price you get during a buying frenzy, when refining capacity is overwhelmed. You may find you gold or silver sells at a hefty discount because it's not in a preferred format for trade.
Oil is battling hard with Greece to top the tail-risk-du-jour in financial markets recently. As Credit Suisse notes, the US economy so far seems to have shrugged it off as 'gasoline-sensitive' economic data for Feb have ignored the price rise for now. The extreme (warm) weather may be shielding the economy from the effect of these higher energy costs, as are consumers habituation with relatively high prices, and while CS remains more sanguine than us on energy's negative impulse they set forth some useful implications (rules-of-thumb) for what oil means for gas prices, headline inflation, real disposable income, and GDP growth pointing to $150 Brent as a critical threshold for the economy (or equivalently $4.50 retail gasoline prices). Of course, Fed policy precedents and implications are necessarily situational as the hope for this being a 'temporary' situation but the circular reaction to the consequences of any growth drag will merely exacerbate the situation. Was Bernanke's recent less unconditional dovishness an implicit effort to 'tighten' expectations and manage the war-premium out of oil prices?
Today's news focuses on UI benefits and the PVV's euro exit report
Inflation, Dollar devaluation, and war with Iran -- Happy Monday
On Friday, we quantified the biggest losers in the case of a sustained oil price shock, and were not surprised to find that the US leads the way with about a 0.9% hit to GDP for every $10 rise in crude prices (compared to about 0.4% for the entire world). Today, via Goldman we look at the flipside and while acknowledging that in absolute terms the world will suffer should crude prices sustain their move higher, there will be relative winners. From GS' David Kostin: "Our oil convergence monitor tracks the relative performance of the Energy sector vs. S&P 500 against the price of oil (measured by the 2-year oil swap). Currently, Energy equities are about 1.5 standard deviations cheaper then the oil price would suggest (based the relationship over the past three years (see Exhibit 4). The divergence has remained stable during the last two weeks although the Energy sector outpaced the S&P 500 by 160 bp during February (5.9% vs. 4.3%). Outside Energy, the Metals & Mining and Engineering & Construction industries show the highest sensitivity to oil prices." What is strange is that the biggest loser by far to an oil shock is the Consumer Discretionary sector, which continues to plough on, completely oblivious of absolutely everything, even as the Dow Transports have decoupled from the broader market, purely in hope that the iRally will continue and lift all boats with it, when in reality every incremental dollar spent for iTrinkets saps the already tapped out US iConsumer even more, with less marginal purchasing power left for other discretionary purchases. Then again, good luck trying to talk any sense into the central bank playground known as the stock market, which will do whatever it wants for as long as it wants, until it doesn't.
Warren Buffett loves to bash gold — claiming that stocks are inherently superior, because they produce a return, whereas gold just sits. Trouble is, stocks (and all paper assets) are subject to counter-party risk, whereas physical gold isn’t. Gold doesn’t overcompensate its CEOs, it doesn’t leverage its productive capital in toxic derivatives, it doesn’t cause industrial disasters like Deepwater Horizon, its value isn’t dependent on central banking, or securitisation, or American imperialism, or the machinations of the military-industrial complex. It just sits, retaining its purchasing power.
Today's second most important event is the testimony of Bernanke before the House Financial Services Committee (yes, Maxine Waters will be there). Lawmakers will question him about the Fed's plans on avoiding inflation and the current unemployment rate. Committee members are also expected to inquiry about fiscal policy, the status of the nation's economic recovery, the impact of rising gas prices, and the debt crisis in Europe. Most importantly, Benny will be asked to testify on when more QEasing is coming as the markets need their fix. Watch it live at C-Span after the jump.
Although U.S. demand for crude oil has fallen by 1.5 million barrels per day since 2007, anyone spending more than a few minutes on the road, watching TV, or surfing the internet will be more than unpleasantly aware of the rapid rise in gas prices recently. As we noted earlier, following January's record high average gas price, February just surpassed its own record and TrimTabs quantifies the impact of this implicit tax on consumption, noting three key factors that will remain supportive of high oil prices: Central Bank liquidity provision (ZIRP), political tensions, and implicit USD devaluation. Critically, around 70% of the benefits of the payroll tax extension has already been removed thanks to 60-80c rise in gas prices nationwide whose growth has far outstripped wage and salary growth in recent years. As Madeline Schnapp points out, while the latest round of oil speculation is likely to end with a pop, the erosion of purchasing power from high energy prices is here to stay. Bottom Line: Rapidly Rising Fuel Prices Put Sluggish Economic Growth at Risk.
We have repeatedly voiced our views on Buffett's relentless bashing of the only asset that is a guaranteed protection against now exponential currency debasement and central planner, and other PhD economist, stupidity, most recently here. We are happy that other, more politically correct asset managers, have decided to share how they fell, and take the crony capitalist to task. The first (of many we are sure), are Lee Quaintance and Paul Brodsky of QBAMCO who have just penned "Golden Boy" or the much needed "high society" response to the old man from Omaha: "Buffett may be a sage, a wizard, and an oracle when it comes to nominal relative value pricing of financial assets, but it is well worth noting that Buffett’s proclamations are not necessarily worthy of being considered “fact” in matters unrelated to finance, just as the legendary Joe Paterno’s judgment seems to have been sorely lacking when it came to sorting out matters unrelated to a winning football program....We must assume his aggressive gold comments have been meant to force the price of gold lower. (We do not know why he is so interested in doing so though we do have a reasonable theory, for another time). We strongly disagree with Mr. Buffett’s views and we thought it would be best to explore his comments and provide our counter-arguments."
Like sands through the hour-glass, these are the fears of our lives. Just as we noted last week, the focus of risk is shifting from Greece (where while 'tail-risk' has perhaps receded for now, it is all-but certain that the insolvency predicament will resurface as a source of political, policy, and market tension in the not-too-distant future) to other foot-holds on the growing wall-of-worry. As UBS' Larry Hatheway notes this week, several candidates may replace Greece in the risk headlines, among them rising bond yields, French elections, or a Chinese hard landing. But his sense, and ours, is that oil prices will become the next risk item for market participants. Partly this is because oil prices are already approaching levels where worries have occurred in the past (and the velocity of the move is also empirically troublesome) and partly as the remedy for all global-ills (that of central bank printing) is implicitly impacting this 'risk' in a vicious circle. With global growth expectations already low, the 0.2ppt drop in Global GDP for each $10/bbl rise in oil will do nothing for Europe and US hope - and leaves Central Banks in that dangerous position of reinflating their low core inflation data while all around them is inflating rapidly. With modest schadenfreude, we remind readers of our comments from last week: "Alas, as noted previously, the central bank tsunami is only just starting. Watch for inflation, and concerns thereof, to slowly seep into everything". Given oil's potential 'real' impact, as SocGen notes: "Perhaps Greece wasn't so bad after all."