IceCap Asset Management: Three Days That Shook The World, And The Law Of Diminishing Returns

From Keith Dicker of Ice Cap Asset Management

Three Days That Shook The World

The Law Of Diminishing Returns

While there are plenty of complex laws to keep lawyers happily billing forever, there is one law that is very simple and is never mentioned by those responsible for the good health of our global economy - the law of diminishing returns.

This un-billable law becomes a nightmare for anyone trying to produce more of anything. It occurs when despite putting increasingly more effort into an activity, the desired outcome becomes less and less rewarding.

Case in point, one just has to consider America’s growth of borrowed money and the resulting growth in GDP over the last 50 years.

Chart 1 shows that in the 1950s, America had to borrow just $1.36 to grow their economy by 1 extra dollar. That’s not so bad until you  consider that over the next 50 years America had to borrow more and more to produce less and less GDP. In fact, during the 2000s America had to borrow $5.76 to grow its economy by an extra buck – that’s progress.

Now, we’re sure that over the years all of this borrowed money was put to great use. After all, the future never comes so why worry about it. Unfortunately, the future is today and the “credit cliff” is quite steep (see chart 2). The debt reaper is knocking on the door and he wants his money back. There’s just one minor problem – no one has the money to repay him.

No problem, the central banks & governments have plenty of money tools available to beat back any financial challenges presented by the debt reaper.

To make you feel more uncomfortable, let’s review the tricks in their money bag:

Money tool # 1 = deficit spending. For years, the G7 countries have believed that spending more than you make, will create jobs and prosperity. To measure the success of this strategy, we invite you to hang out in Spain, Greece or Italy.

Money tool # 2 = cut interest rates to 0%. All the really smart people in the World know that lower interest rates encourage people and companies to borrow more money and spend this money. To measure the success of this strategy, we invite you to hang out at the US Federal Reserve and help them count the $1.5 trillion in excess money held by the big banks.

Money tool # 3 = when all else fails print money. Everyone knows by now the reason the Great Depression was great was because no one had the idea to print money to kick start the economy. To measure the success of this strategy, we definitely do not invite you to visit Japan. The Japanese have been printing money for over 10 years and that hasn’t shaken their economy from its funk one bit.

As we enter the always dangerous months of September and October, central bankers and governments just can’t get their heads around the fact that their cherished money tools are not shaking the World. Never one to quit, someone somewhere muttered “we must do something” – and something they did.

Day 1 – September 6, 2012

Up to this point, the European Central Bank (ECB) has provided over EUR 1 trillion in bailouts to banks and countries with two separate Long Term Refinancing Operation (LTRO) schemes. It was thought that these two initial financial bazookas would be enough to restore confidence, but it wasn’t.

Investors became bored with Greece and its 25th final bailout and now all the attention was turning to Spain. The rapid decline in Spain’s real estate market was causing an even rapider decline in the health of Spanish banks. In fear of losing their life savings, people and companies were yanking billions of deposits out of the country.

This bank run was serious stuff. So serious that investors began refusing to lend not only to the banks but to the Spanish government itself. And if Spain wasn’t bad enough, Italy has the potential to be even worse. Yes, the dreaded contagion had started again and this time the hats had seemingly run out of rabbits.

And then it happened. The ECB announced that they would provide unlimited amounts of Euros to any European country that required a bailout. But – because this is Europe, there was a small catch. Any country who wanted the money had to first formally apply.

While this may sound a lot like “pretty please” it isn’t. Unsurprisingly, Germans are growing tired of using their money to bailout it’s southern European friends. Reluctantly, the Germans agreed to this latest save Europe scheme but only if the bailout contained conditions. Now, you can’t really blame Germany for this requirement. After all, it was only a year earlier when Italy pulled the old switcheroo and reneged on its promise to raise their retirement age after receiving bailout money from Germany. Lesson learned.

On hearing that the ECB would provide unlimited amounts of money

over an unspecified time, markets naturally soared on the news. Hey – it’s free money! How could you not like this?

While you would assume this conditionality clause would be deemed fair everywhere else in the World – not so in Europe. Naturally, the Spanish and Italians have a beef – they were under the impression that money is always free, never wrapped tightly with any kind of strings.
Now the World patiently awaits for the Spanish to formally request a bailout, yet the Spanish have an entirely different plan and that plan involves anything to keep Brussels and the IMF away from Madrid.

The Spanish government’s fear (which will soon become reality) is that as soon as these non-Spanish accountants and bureaucrats discover how bad the finances really are, someone might actually lose their job, government car and government expense account.

The irony of course, is that the mere announcement of the ECB’s unlimited money for an unlimited time scheme has had the effect of pushing Spain (and Italy’s) cost of borrowing down. No money or conditions have changed hands, yet markets are reacting as if it already has.

This brings us to a stalemate - as long as Spain’s cost of financing remains low, it will not formally request a bailout. However, we ask you not to fret and frown. As soon as Spanish interest rates shoot up again and thousands of protesters march in Madrid and Barcelona, Mr. Rajoy and his government will be forced to raise the white flag.

What isn’t known just yet, is what happens once the rest of the World discovers how bad Spain’s finances really are. And of course, bailouts aside – none of these money tricks will have any impact on economic growth or job creation.

Nevertheless, everyone in Europe slept well that night – at least for another six days anyway.

Day 2 – September 12, 2012

It was all fine and dandy for the ECB to announce six days earlier that they would provide unlimited money to anyone who formally requests a bailout from Brussels. The ECB however, forgot to mention just one itty bitty tiny detail called Germany.

After three years, the German public have started to become increasingly uncomfortable with giving their money away to Greece, Ireland and Portugal. As one would expect, eventually politicians hear their common man and actually exercise their duty of representation by government.
In effect, the German “no more bailout” snowball has started to roll and its first encounter is the question of whether Germany can legally participate in the European bailout fund – the ESM. While the Law of Diminishing Returns racks up zero billable hours for lawyers, German
lawyers had a field day with the legality behind the ESM issue. The decision would be decided by the German high court and a ruling against the legality of the ESM bailout fund would effectively end the whole Euro experiment once and for all.

When the announcement hit the news wires, the result was unsurprisingly “for” the ESM bailout fund (whew!) yet the decision also came with a twist, similar to the twisted twist delivered by the ECB a few days earlier.

While the German high court stated that the ESM was not against the German constitution, it did set a cap on the maximum amount Germany would contribute to the fund – EUR 190 billion.

This cap can be increased, but only if agreed to by a vote in the German parliament. And considering the taste for additional bailouts is not exactly being embraced by the voting population, this is a significant caveat.

The significance behind this “capped” amount cannot be overstated, and it is only a matter of time before the French catch on to the fact that they’ve just been hoodwinked by the Germans.

With Germany now capping their ESM bailout liabilities at EUR 190 billion, the question must now be asked “who picks up the slack?”
Unfortunately for the French, they have no idea what just happened.

While the good bankers in La Défense are cheering the latest run up in stock prices, the rest of the French population are about to be baguetted in the side of the head.

Considering that France just decreased the retirement age, increased minimum wages while slapping a 75% tax on anyone earning greater than EUR 1 million, the likelihood of it eliminating its fiscal deficit and then reducing its debt are slim and none. Yet, with Germany now drawing a line in the bailout sand, France’s commitments have suddenly increased significantly.

The ESM bailout fund is structured so that if a country requests a bailout it no longer has to accept its share of liabilities. Considering this entire charade is being orchestrated to bailout Spain and then Italy – it directly results in France having to pick-up the tab not being absorbed by Germany.

The numbers are staggering to say the least. Frances’s ESM liability increases from EUR 143 billion to EUR 226 billion. From another perspective, France’s ESM commitment will soon equal over 44% of the government’s tax revenues for the year.

While today, everyone in France is talking about Germany we’re quite confident that at some point soon, everyone in France will be talking about France.

Day 3 – September 13, 2012

With the Europeans clearly taking the lead in shaking the World, you knew it was only a matter of time before the Americans would take note. And why not – America continues to have the World’s largest economy, the World’s largest debt burden and the World’s largest money printing machine.

Since telegraphing its newest money printing intentions from Jackson Hole a few weeks earlier, the only surprise available from Ben Bernanke and the US Federal Reserve was how much money they would print. Guesstimates ranged from $250 billion up to $700 billion. No matter what happened, bankers everywhere had Bollinger Champaign sitting on ice.

Never one to disappoint, Mr. Bernanke’s announcement to print $40 billion a month until eternity was too much for even the talking heads to comprehend. America has now committed to printing money forever – or at least until the job market improves.

This new approach by the Federal Reserve is interesting on several levels. First, previous goals of printing money was to bolster the housing market. It was believed that fixing the housing market would boost the economy out of its slump and save the day. Well, today millions of homes remain worth less than their mortgage and millions more sit in the shadows waiting to be sold. The only bolstering that happened was of the big banks’ bank accounts.

But that’s ok. The Federal Reserve had another trick up its sleeve. Instead of targeting the housing market, it would instead target “wealth creation.”

“Wealth creation” is another academic, economic, and prehistoric belief that if everyone was wealthier, they would spend more money. And as we have all been told, spending your money is a guaranteed way to prosper. Unfortunately for the Federal Reserve, the old wealth creation thingy hasn’t quite worked out either.

And with two strikes in the count, there was nothing left for Ben Bernanke and the US Federal Reserve to do except close their eyes and swing for the fences. And swing they did and they will keep on swinging until something, anything, happens.

Well, one thing is for sure – something will happen.

As for what, we have little confidence it will involve a rebound in the economy or a rebound in new jobs – you need “real” not “manufactured” prosperity for this to happen.

What will happen, will be a continued widening in the rift between financial markets and the economy.

There is little doubt this new edition of money printing American style will bolster financial markets, the fact remains that the real economy in the US, Europe and Japan will not begin to recover until the central banks and the governments simply allow bad debt to be written off. At this rate, don’t hold your breath as the bad debt scenario will not be allowed to happen anytime soon.

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