Crescenzi On Tracking The Inflection Point In The Radioactive Hyperinflationary "Yucca Mountain" Excess Liquidity Warehouse

PIMCO's Tony Crescenzi is out with his latest summary of US monetary conditions. Nothing revolutionary, just a good solid theoretical summary of what to look for in anticipation of the "massive monetary madness" turn. Crescenzi likens the trillion in excess reserves to a "Yucca Mountain" of toxic, hyperinflationary "nuclear waste" storage, and suggests the following approach for tracking the inflection point: "when banks begin to utilize their excess reserves to make new loans and create new money rather than store the reserves in “Yucca Mountain,” the case will then grow for the Fed to begin removing the reserves. This has not happened yet, but when the process begins it will be evident from the Fed’s weekly H.8 report on the assets and liabilities of commercial banks." None of this is new for Fed watchers. As usual what we enjoy the most are the historical anecdotes of hyperinflation, the same way in ten years, historians will put America in the same case study: "History is laden with failed attempts at creating new money to shed debt. Greek tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse, now Sicily, at around 400 B.C. resorted to coinage debasement when his fortunes declined. Germany, of course, debased its currency before World War II, leading to hyperinflation. More recently, Zimbabwe printed massive amounts of currency, also leading to hyperinflation – I purchased trillions of Zimbabwe dollars on eBay for a few U.S. dollars! Such are the ravages of excessive use of the printing press." Certainly worth the read.

Yucca Mountain

  • When the concrete cracks and banks start lending again, the Fed must remove the toxins through reverse repos, rate hikes. 
  • The ECB must walk a fine line between fiscal and monetary policy, maintaining a 1% policy rate while monitoring inflation expectations.
  • Emerging markets will see normalization of stimulus; tightening monetary policy, fiscal consolidation, currency appreciation.  

Paul McCulley, a minister’s son, said in January 2000 in his first regularly produced PIMCO publication on central banking – then titled Fed Focus – the following:

“The job of a Fedwatcher is very similar to that of the theologian: Identifying the dogmas and catechisms of the secular god of money creation, and within that paradigm of understanding, forecasting feasts and famines for particular asset classes.”

It is said that the more times change, the more they stay the same. Times certainly have changed, but Paul’s words ring as true today as ever: Forecasting the ultimate performance of particular asset classes requires investors to do far more than put their money to the wind and pray; above many other influences they must understand the many ways that central banks influence the behavior of economies and markets. The adage “Don’t fight the Fed” therefore remains powerful advice to heed.

Still, there is much more that investors must do if they are to successfully guard and grow their capital. In particular, investors must see the world through new eyes, because the world of finance in a decade has been turned upside down – the sources of global economic growth and the seat of financial power have made a titanic shift away from the developed world. Thus it behooves investors today to drop their home bias and scour the globe for sources of value and investment opportunities. This requires investors to expand their view of the world of central banking beyond the Federal Reserve to include analyses of the policies and activities of the rest of the world’s central banks, because, as Paul noted in his first edition of the renamed Global Central Bank Focus in May 2006, “Fed policy is no longer the sole straw stirring the global liquidity drink.”

New Levers and the Ravages of Coinage

The influence of the world’s central banks on the capital markets remains as strong as ever. Today, central bankers are not just referees of the capital markets, they are also players; they are price setters. This is true in particular of the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, and the Bank of England, each of which has engaged in securities purchase programs to battle the financial crisis.

As new as the influence of central banks on asset prices seems, is it really new? Have central bankers only recently learnt the power of pulling the monetary lever or did they merely find more levers? The answer is certainly the latter; those with the power to print money have for centuries held influence over the populace. This was true well before there were central banks and it reminds us of the dangers of turning to coinage – or at least today’s electronic version of it – as a means of shedding debt.

History is laden with failed attempts at creating new money to shed debt. Greek tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse, now Sicily, at around 400 B.C. resorted to coinage debasement when his fortunes declined. Germany, of course, debased its currency before World War II, leading to hyperinflation. More recently, Zimbabwe printed massive amounts of currency, also leading to hyperinflation – I purchased trillions of Zimbabwe dollars on eBay for a few U.S. dollars! Such are the ravages of excessive use of the printing press.

The Monetary Trilemma

The consequences of the debasing of currencies have been readily transparent for ages. Yet, in one form or another, nations in the developed world are resorting to their virtual printing presses to revive their economic fortunes. In the United States, the Federal Reserve has used its authority to engage in the purchase of roughly $2 trillion of financial assets, an activity that increases the quantity of bank reserves, the money that banks use to expand the money supply – to increase coinage, in other words. This, in theory, puts at risk the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar. The hyperbole over stripping the Fed of its independence therefore is just that, leaving the Fed able to continue its efforts to reflate the U.S. economy, but also creating risk for the U.S. dollar.

In the U.S. and in the rest of the world, nations face a trilemma, where one objective must be sacrificed in order to achieve the other two. Here are their choices:

  • Monetary policy independence
  • Exchange rate stability
  • Free flow of capital

Owing to its large budget deficit, the U.S. cannot sacrifice capital mobility, because it needs funding. As mentioned, no sacrifice of monetary policy independence is in the offing – certainly not to any foreign entity and not to the fiscal authority, either. This means the U.S. has chosen to sacrifice exchange rate stability.

The European Central Bank (ECB) is engaging in quasi-fiscal transfers by purchasing the sovereign debts of peripheral Europe. The purchases result in excess liquidity in Europe’s banking system and at the same time contaminate the ECB’s balance sheet, risking the purchasing power of the euro. Having selected monetary policy independence and capital mobility, Europe too is therefore sacrificing exchange rate stability. Internally, Europe’s periphery has actually had to sacrifice two objectives: independent monetary policy and exchange rate stability. Europe faces a particularly daunting challenge trying to balance between its so-called fiscal and monetary corridors, as Ben Emons describes in his section (below).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, nations with surplus funds – which in today’s upside-down world include China, Brazil, South Korea and Russia, to name a few – wish to control the growth of their surpluses in order to keep economic activity from increasing too rapidly and inciting inflation. In other words, surplus nations are choosing to sacrifice capital mobility for the ability to keep monetary policy independence and exchange rate stability. Lupin Rahman describes in her section (below) how policymakers within the emerging markets will contend with the monetary trilemma in the year ahead.

In game theory, in a non-cooperative game such as the trilemma above, each of the participants acts out of self-interest, resulting in big winners and losers. In today’s multi-speed world, central bankers are for the most part acting unilaterally, serving their own interests. For the foreign exchange markets, the investment implications are fairly obvious – indebted nations must sacrifice exchange rate stability if they are to correct the imbalances they have with the rest of the world. For the interest rate markets, efforts by indebted nations to reflate their economies will eventually erode the value of money, thus posing risk for holders of long-term government securities.

Concrete Casks and Yucca Mountain

Numismatists understand well the relationship between supply and price because in their hobby of collecting coins, the quantity of a particular coin relative to demand affects its price a great deal. Notaphilists are the same, only their familiarity comes from the collection of paper currencies. Scripophilists understand the relationship, too, from their experience in collecting paper stock and bond certificates. Philatelists – stamp collectors – know a thing or two about the laws of supply and demand, too. An understanding of the basic relationship between supply and price is what prevents, say, a numismatist from being fooled by a novice who tries to sell him or her for a “song” a copper Chinese coin that was minted about 1,000 years ago during the Song Dynasty. The numismatist knows that literally billions of such coins were produced in the year 1085, for example, in factories across China.

Only Banks Can Create Money Supply

Debasement of indebted nations’ currencies depends importantly upon the excessive creation of money. Today, the deleveraging process is preventing this from happening. This brings us to a critical point: By themselves, increases in the quantity of bank reserves resulting from central bank activities cannot boost the money supply; only banks can create money supply. To illustrate the point, let’s look at a sample T-account (that is, a basic two-column accounting table; see Figure 1) for a U.S. bank and its customer.

ABC Company borrows $20,000 from XYZ Bank, which, like all banks, is an intermediary between the Fed and the public. Banks, in fact, are the only entities allowed to offer checking accounts.

As the T-account shows, the immediate effect of the loan is to increase total demand deposits by $20,000, but no decrease has occurred in the amount of currency in circulation. Therefore, by making the loan, XYZ Bank has created $20,000 of new money supply.

The ability of banks to create loans and thus boost the money supply is what worries those who focus on the quantity of reserves that the Federal Reserve has injected into the financial system. Roughly $1 trillion of excess reserves sit in the U.S. banking system as a result of the Fed’s asset-purchase program, which is about $1 trillion more than normal – banks typically would rather lend their excess reserves than leave them deposited at the Fed (Figure 2) where they earn next to nothing.

In normal times, the banking system can turn one dollar of reserves into about eight dollars of new money supply, because a bank can lend 90 cents on the dollar after putting 10 cents aside at the Fed for a reserve requirement. A bank on the receiving end of the 90 cents can lend out 90% of that, or 81 cents, and so on and so forth until presto: One dollar becomes eight dollars. This is why the monetary base, which represents the money, or reserves, injected into the financial system by the Federal Reserve, is called “high-powered money.”

Bank reserves in their enormous quantities therefore are toxic, but in the same way that nuclear waste is of no danger so long as it is tucked away either in Yucca Mountain or concrete casks, bank reserves are of no danger to fueling inflation so long as they are held at the Fed. When the concrete cracks – when banks utilize their excess reserves and lend again – the Fed must remove the toxins, beginning first with technical operations such as reverse repos, but ultimately ending with rate hikes. This is the expected sequencing.

The Fed’s Commitment on Rates

Gains in the real economy by themselves won’t be enough to prompt the Fed to raise interest rates for quite some time, because the level of economic activity will remain low relative to the economy’s potential for the foreseeable future. In order for the Fed to break its commitment on rates, one of its three conditions for keeping the commitment would have to change:

  • Low resource utilization (for example, the high unemployment rate)
  • Subdued inflation trends 
  • Stable inflation expectations

Only the third condition has the potential to change in any meaningful way this year, because the unemployment rate is almost certain to remain high and as a result inflation will stay low. Inflation expectations could nonetheless become less stable if, following many months (six, at least) of strong employment gains and/or gains in bank lending, the Fed indicates it has no plans over the medium term to reduce its degree of accommodation. A less-stable level of inflation expectations would occur at levels above the long-term trend of around 2.50% for 10-year TIPS (Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities), say when inflation expectations reach 2.75% on a sustained basis and trending higher, and at around 3.25% and trending higher for the 5-year/5-year (the level at which market participants expect five-year inflation expectations to be in five years).

The Forward Curve Will Be Right… Someday

It has paid for many quarters now to bet against interest rate hikes embedded in forward rates. Extant in the forward curve implied by Eurodollar futures are Fed rate hikes priced to occur as early as the end of this year. If economic activity accelerates in the way that many expect, increases in forward rates in 2011 will be associated more often with increased speculation about rate hikes than was the case in 2010. The emphasis here is on the word “speculation” – the market is almost certain to romance the idea of a hike well before an actual hike occurs. This is a bit different than in 2010 when the cause of increase in spot and forward money market rates was nearly always concern over credit conditions rather than concern about either liquidity or increased speculation about future Fed rate hikes. There was only one occasion, in April, when speculation about future rate hikes intensified, but the speculation was mild. Decisions in 2011 about whether the forwards will be validated need be taken with a bit more care than in 2010 owing to the strengthening of the U.S. economy, but the base case is that there will be no rate hikes.

As I said, when banks begin to utilize their excess reserves to make new loans and create new money rather than store the reserves in “Yucca Mountain,” the case will then grow for the Fed to begin removing the reserves. This has not happened yet (Figure 3), but when the process begins it will be evident from the Fed’s weekly H.8 report on the assets and liabilities of commercial banks.

We Will Know It When We See It

Paul McCulley faced in January 2000, as Fedwatchers constantly do, a question over when the Fed might begin to reverse its interest rate policy. He presciently described the endgame for that era, expecting it to unwind in four stages, concluding that short rates would “reach a sufficiently high level to ‘crash’ stocks,” thereby weakening the economy and “ushering a reversal to Fed easing.” How right he was: The Fed hiked rates until May 2000 and the financial bubble burst.

Paul said in his article that he didn’t know when the events he predicted would happen, but he reminded readers that PIMCO is paid to “know it when we see it.” In this vein, when we at PIMCO are asked when the Fed will reverse its current stance on interest rate policy, we will echo Paul’s words and say that we will know “it” when we see it. We plan to earn our pay.

Across the Pond and Around the World

Now, let’s turn to my PIMCO colleagues for discussions on central banking in Europe and the emerging markets. Comments from PIMCO experts throughout the world will be a regular feature of future editions of the Global Central Bank Focus.

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