Fasten Your Seatbelt
November 11, 2010
By John R. Taylor, Jr.
Chief Investment Officer, FX Concepts
Now that Ben Bernanke has re-introduced quantitative easing (QE2) to a mostly incredulous world and, across the ocean, the Eurozone has begun unraveling again, our thoughts should turn to the parlous state of the world and the risks ahead. These are amazing times and seem to grow more so every day. Policy errors are popping up everywhere and are likely to multiply dramatically as the political problems are serious, answers hard to find, and the decision makers are not up to the task. Bernanke has proven that he is more a college professor and less a trader, which will cost the world dearly. Sometime between June and August Bernanke lost his stomach for the “exit strategy,” probably influenced by his predecessor’s summer announcement that the US economy had ‘hit an invisible wall.” While it can be argued that QE1 has been a success due to the liquidity crisis, it did not expand the Fed’s balance sheet and came when the economy was still reeling. This new edition dramatically expands the balance sheet, actually funding the entire projected government deficit over the next few months. Although the world believes that QE2 is there to push the dollar sharply lower, Bernanke argued that his goal was something else. On the day after the Fed’s move, he wrote in a Washington Post editorial piece that QE2 would push up the equity market, bonds, and other risky securities thereby stimulating consumption and economic activity. Even Greenspan did not publicly proclaim his “put,” but now Bernanke has made it the centerpiece of US strategy. Equities are already overpriced, with profit margins at all-time highs and PE ratios far above average. Speculation is now more American than apple pie – but this is a very risky time to practice it. As one highly respected analyst noted about Bernanke’s article, “these are undoubtedly among the most ignorant remarks ever made by a central banker.” As we and many others have noted that QE has shown little or no positive impact on actual economic activity, so the Fed has taken a big gamble, and if it fails as we expect it will have nowhere else to go. With the Republican victory tainted by the Tea Party “starve the beast” mentality, austerity has come to Washington. This next year will be a terrible one for the world’s biggest economy, so we would go against Bernanke on the equity side, but buy government bonds along with him.
The Eurozone has begun its collapse a little later than we thought. My compliments to the political prowess of the euro-leaders for holding things together for so long, but this is an impossible situation and the crisis is on its way. Jean-Claude Trichet caught the spirit of the situation today in Seoul when he said that “it is absolutely necessary to change the governance of Europe” and called for moving “as far as possible in the direction of an economic and budgetary quasi-federation.” I only disagree with part of one word, ‘quasi,‘ as Europe must move to a full economic federation if the euro is to survive. With 16 countries using the euro and Estonia on the way, the odds of moving there is currently lower than infinitesimal. Things will change after the approaching horrible economic and political catastrophes that will wrack some of these economies and societies. Unfortunately nothing will happen before the current situation gets unbearable – this is the way of democratic politics. As all the leaders are still working toward the same goals, and no one has stepped forward express the inchoate fears of the European populace, this should take years. By the start of next year the Eurozone will enter a recession that will test the current leadership. The euro, which has been perceived as if it were a German mark, has already topped and will decline until it is priced like an Italian lira in the next few months. With Europe and the US in recession next year, commodity prices will drop again and global growth will suffer despite the outperformance of domestic Asian economies. With the policy stresses, and the risk of significant errors in judgment, international strife becomes more likely as well.