After closing at 3.03% in December 2013 the yield on the 10-year US T-Note has been trending down, closing at 2.34% by August this year. Many commentators are puzzled by this given the optimistic forecasts for economic activity by Fed policy makers.
According to mainstream thinking the Central Bank is the key factor in determining interest rates. By setting short-term interest rates the Central Bank, it is argued, through expectations about the future course of its interest rate policy influences the entire interest rate structure.
Following the expectations theory (ET), which is popular with most mainstream economists, the long-term rate is an average of the current and expected short-term interest rates. If today’s one-year rate is 4% and next year’s one-year rate is expected to be 5%, the two-year rate today should be (4%+5%)/2 = 4.5%.
Note that interest rates in this way of thinking is set by the Central Bank whilst individuals in all this have almost nothing to do and just form mechanically expectations about the future policy of the Central Bank. (Individuals here are passively responding to the possible policy of the Central Bank).
Based on the ET and following the optimistic view of Fed’s policy makers on the economy some commentators hold that the market is wrong and long-term rates should actually follow an up-trend and not a down-trend.
According to a study by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (FRBSF Economic Letter – Assessing Expectations of Monetary Policy, 8 of September 2014) market players are wrongly interpreting the intentions of Fed policy makers. Market players have been underestimating the likelihood of the Fed tightening its interest rate stance much sooner than is commonly accepted given Fed officials’ optimistic view on economic activity.
It is held that a disconnect between public expectations and the expectations of central bank policy makers presents a challenge for Fed monetary policy as far as the prevention of disruptive side effects on the economy is concerned on account of a future tightening in the interest rate stance of the Fed.
We suggest that what matters for the determination of interest rates are individuals’ time preferences, which are manifested through the interaction of the supply and the demand for money and not expectations regarding short-term interest rates. Here is why.
The essence of interest rate determination
Following the writings of Carl Menger and Ludwig von Mises we suggest that the driving force of interest rate determination is individual’s time preferences and not the Central Bank.
As a rule people assign a higher valuation to present goods versus future goods. This means that present goods are valued at a premium to future goods.
This stems from the fact that a lender or an investor gives up some benefits at present. Hence the essence of the phenomenon of interest is the cost that a lender or an investor endures. On this Mises wrote,
That which is abandoned is called the price paid for the attainment of the end sought. The value of the price paid is called cost. Costs are equal to the value attached to the satisfaction which one must forego in order to attain the end aimed at.
According to Carl Menger:
To the extent that the maintenance of our lives depends on the satisfaction of our needs, guaranteeing the satisfaction of earlier needs must necessarily precede attention to later ones. And even where not our lives but merely our continuing well-being (above all our health) is dependent on command of a quantity of goods, the attainment of well-being in a nearer period is, as a rule, a prerequisite of well being in a later period……..All experience teaches that a present enjoyment or one in the near future usually appears more important to men than one of equal intensity at a more remote time in the future
Likewise according to Mises,
Satisfaction of a want in the nearer future is, other things being equal, preferred to that in the farther distant future. Present goods are more valuable than future goods.
Hence according to Mises,
The postponement of an act of consumption means that the individual prefers the satisfaction which later consumption will provide to the satisfaction which immediate consumption could provide.
For instance, an individual who has just enough resources to keep him alive is unlikely to lend or invest his paltry means.
The cost of lending, or investing, to him is likely to be very high – it might even cost him his life if he were to consider lending part of his means. So under this condition he is unlikely to lend, or invest even if offered a very high interest rate.
Once his wealth starts to expand the cost of lending, or investing, starts to diminish. Allocating some of his wealth towards lending or investment is going to undermine to a lesser extent our individual’s life and well being at present.
From this we can infer, all other things being equal, that anything that leads to an expansion in the real wealth of individuals gives rise to a decline in the interest rate i.e. the lowering of the premium of present goods versus future goods.
Conversely factors that undermine real wealth expansion lead to a higher rate of interest rate.
Time preference and supply demand for money
In the money economy individuals’ time preferences are realized through the supply and the demand for money.
The lowering of time preferences, i.e. lowering the premium of present goods versus future goods, on account of real wealth expansion, will become manifest in a greater eagerness to lend and invest money and thus lowering of the demand for money.
This means that for a given stock of money there will be now a monetary surplus.
To get rid of this monetary surplus people start buying various assets and in the process raise asset prices and lower their yields, all other things being equal.
Hence, the increase in the pool of real wealth will be associated with a lowering in the interest rate structure.
The converse will take place with a fall in real wealth. People will be less eager to lend and invest thus raising their demand for money relative to the previous situation.
This for a given money supply reduces monetary liquidity – a decline in monetary surplus. Consequently, all other things being equal this lowers the demand for assets and thus lowers their prices and raises their yields.
What will happen to interest rates as a result of an increase in money supply? An increase in the supply of money, all other things being equal, means that those individuals whose money stock has increased are now much wealthier.
Hence this sets in motion a greater willingness to invest and lend money.
The increase in lending and investment means the lowering of the demand for money by the lender and by the investor.
Consequently, an increase in the supply of money coupled with a fall in the demand for money leads to a monetary surplus, which in turn bids the prices of assets higher and lowers their yields.
As time goes by the rise in price inflation on account of the increase in money supply starts to undermine the well being of individuals and this leads to a general rise in time preferences.
This lowers individuals’ tendency for investments and lending i.e. raises the demand for money and works to lower the monetary surplus – this puts an upward pressure on interest rates.
We can thus conclude that a general increase in price inflation on account of an increase in money supply and a consequent fall in real wealth is a factor that sets in motion a general rise in interest rates whilst a general fall in price inflation in response to a fall in money supply and a rise in real wealth sets in motion a general fall in interest rates.
Explaining the fall in long-term interest rates
We suggest that an uptrend in the yearly rate of growth of our monetary measure AMS since October 2013 was instrumental in the increase in the monetary surplus. The yearly rate of growth of AMS jumped from 5.9% in October 2013 to 10.6% by March and 10.3% by June this year before closing at 7.6% in July.
Furthermore, the average of the yearly rate of growth of the consumer price index (CPI) since the end of 2013 to July this year has been following sideways trend and stood at 1.6%, which means a neutral effect on long-term yields from the price inflation perspective. Also the average of the yearly rate of growth of real GDP, which stood at 2.2% since 2013, has been following a sideways movement – a neutral effect on long term rates from this perspective.
Hence we can conclude that the rising trend in the growth momentum of money supply since October last year was instrumental in the decline in long-term rates.
Summary and conclusions
Since December 2013 the yields on long-term US Treasuries have been trending down. Many commentators are puzzled by this given the optimistic forecasts for economic activity by Fed policy makers. Consequently, some experts have suggested that market players have been underestimating the likelihood of the Fed tightening its interest rate stance much sooner than is commonly accepted. We hold that regardless of expectations what ultimately matters for the long-term interest rate determination are individuals’ time preferences, which is manifested through the interaction of the supply and the demand for money. We suggest that an up-trend in the yearly rate of growth of our monetary measure AMS since October 2013 has been instrumental in the increase in the monetary surplus. This in turn was the key factor in setting the decline in trend in long-term interest rates.
[Editor's note, this piece, by Richard Ebeling, is from EpicTimes]
It is an old adage that there are lies, damn lies and then there are statistics. Nowhere is this truer that in the government’s monthly Consumer Price Index (CPI) that tracks the prices for a selected “basket” of goods to determine changes in people’s cost-of-living and, therefore, the degree of price inflation in the American economy.
On August 19th, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its Consumer Price Index report for the month of July 2014. The BLS said that prices in general for all urban consumers only rose one-tenth of one percent for the month. And overall, for the last twelve months the CPI has only gone up by 2 percent.
A basket of goods that had cost, say, $100 to buy in June 2014 only cost you $100.10 in July of this year. And for the last twelve months as a whole, what cost you $100 to buy in August 2013, only increased in expense to $102 in July 2014.
By this measure, price inflation seems rather tame. Janet Yellen and most of the other monetary central planners at the Federal Reserve seem to have concluded, therefore, that they have plenty of breathing space to continue their aggressive monetary expansion when looking at the CPI and related price indices as part of the guide in deciding upon their money and interest rate manipulation policies.
Overall vs. “Core” Price Inflation
The government’s CPI statisticians distinguish between two numbers: the change in the overall CPI, which rose that 2 percent for the last year, and “core” inflation, which is the rate of change in the CPI minus food and energy prices. Leaving these out, “core” price inflation went up even less over the last twelve months, by only 1.9 percent.
The government statisticians make this distinction because they argue that food and energy prices are more “volatile” than many others. Fluctuating more frequently and to a greater degree than most other commonly purchased goods and services, they can create a distorted view, it is said, about the magnitude of price inflation during any period of time.
The problem is that food and energy costs may seem like irritating extraneous “noise” to the government number crunchers. But to most of the rest of us what we have to pay to heat our homes and put gas in our cars, as well as buying groceries to feed our families, is far from being a bothersome distraction from the statistical problem of calculating price inflation’s impact on our everyday lives.
Constructing the Consumer Price Index
How do the government statisticians construct the CPI? Month-by-month, the BLS tracks the purchases of 6,100 households across the country, which are taken to be “representative” of the approximately 320 million people living in the United States. The statisticians then construct a representative “basket” of goods reflecting the relative amounts of various consumer items these 6,100 households regularly purchase based on a survey of their buying patterns. They record changes in the prices of these goods in 24,000 retail outlets out of the estimated 3.6 million retail establishments across the whole country.
And this is, then, taken to be a fair and reasonable estimate – to the decimal point! – about the cost of living and the rate of price inflation for all the people of the United States.
Due to the costs of doing detailed consumer surveys and the desire to have an unchanging benchmark for comparison, this consumer basket of goods is only significantly revised about every ten years or so.
This means that over the intervening time it is assumed that consumers continue to buy the same goods and in the same relative amounts, even though in the real world new goods come on the market, other older goods are no longer sold, the quality of many goods are improved over the years, and changes in relative prices often result in people modifying their buying patterns.
The CPI vs. the Diversity of Real People’s Choices
The fact is there is no “average” American family. The individuals in each household (moms and dads, sons and daughters, and sometimes grandparents or aunts and uncles) all have their own unique tastes and preferences. This means that your household basket of goods is different in various ways from mine, and our respective baskets are different from everyone else’s.
Some of us are avid book readers, and others just relax in front of the television. There are those who spend money on regularly going to live sports events, others go out every weekend to the movies and dinner, while some save their money for an exotic vacation.
A sizable minority of Americans still smoke, while others are devoted to health foods and herbal remedies. Some of us are lucky to be “fit-as-a-fiddle,” while others unfortunately may have chronic illnesses. There are about 320 million people in the United States, and that’s how diverse are our tastes, circumstances and buying patterns.
Looking Inside the Consumer Price Index
This means that when there is price inflation those rising prices impact on each of us in different ways. Let’s look at a somewhat detailed breakdown of some of the different price categories hidden beneath the CPI aggregate of prices as a whole.
In the twelve-month period ending in July 2014, food prices in general rose 2.5 percent. A seemingly modest amount. However, meat, poultry, fish and egg prices increased, together, by 7.6 percent. But when we break this aggregate down, we find that beef and veal prices increased by 10.4 percent and frankfurters went up 6.9 percent, but lamb rose by only by 1.7 percent. Chicken prices increased more moderately at 2.7 percent, but fresh fish and seafood were 8.8 percent higher than a year earlier.
Milk was up 5.4 percent in price, but ice cream products decreased in price by minus 1.4 percent over the period. Fruits increased by 5.7 percent at the same time that fresh vegetable prices declined by minus 0.5 percent.
Under the general energy commodity heading, prices went up by 1.2 percent, but propane increased by 7.3 percent in price over the twelve-month period, while electricity prices, on the other hand, increased by 4 percent.
So why does the overall average of the Consumer Price Index seem so moderate at a measured 2 percent, given the higher prices of these individual categories of goods? Because furniture and bedding prices decreased by minus 3.1 percent, and major appliances declined in price over the period by minus 6.2. New televisions went down a significant minus15 percent
In addition, men’s apparel went down a minus 0.2 percent over the twelve months, but women’s outerwear rose a dramatic 12.3 percent in the same time frame. And boys and girls footwear went up, on average, by 8.2 percent.
Medical care services, in general, rose by 2.5 percent, but inpatient and outpatient hospital services increased, respectively, by 6.8 percent and 5.6 percent.
Smoke and Mirrors of “Core” Inflation
These subcategories of individual price changes highlight the smoke and mirrors of the government statisticians’ distinction between overall and “core” inflation. We all occasionally enter the market and purchase a new stove or a new couch or a new bedroom set. And if the prices for these goods happen to be going down we may sense that our dollar is going further than in the past as we make these particular purchases.
But buying goods like these is an infrequent event for virtually all of us. On the other hand, every one of us, each and every day, week or month are in the marketplace buying food for our family, filling our car with gas, and paying the heating and electricity bill. The prices of these goods and other regularly purchased commodities and services, in the types and combinations that we as individuals and separate households choose to buy, are what we personally experience as a change in the cost-of-living and a rate of price inflation (or price deflation).
The Consumer Price Index is an artificial statistical creation from an arithmetic adding, summing and averaging of thousands of individual prices, a statistical composite that only exists in the statistician’s calculations.
Individual Prices Influence Choices, Not the CPI
It is the individual goods in the subcategories of goods that we the buying public actually confront and pay when we shop as individuals in the market place. It is these individual prices for the tens of thousands of actual goods and services we find and decide between when we enter the retail places of business in our daily lives. And these monetary expenses determines for each of us, as individuals and particular households, the discovered change in the cost-of-living and the degree of price inflation we each experience.
The vegetarian male who is single without children, and never buys any types of meat, has a very different type of consumer basket of goods than the married male-female couple who have meat on the table every night and shop regularly for clothes and shoes for themselves and their growing kids.
The individual or couple who have moved into a new home for which they have had to purchase a lot of new furniture and appliances will feel that their income has gone pretty far this past twelve months compared to the person who lives in a furnished apartment and has no need to buy a new chair or a dishwasher but eats beef or veal three times a week.
If the government were to impose a significant increase in the price of gasoline in the name of “saving the planet” from carbon emissions, it will impact people very differently depending up whether an individual is a traveling salesman or a truck driver who has to log hundreds or thousands of miles a year, compared to a New Yorker who takes the subway to work each day, or walks to his place of business.
It is the diversity of our individual consumer preferences, choices and decisions about which goods and services to buy now and over time under constantly changing market conditions that determines how each of us are influenced by changes in prices, and therefore how and by what degree price inflation or price deflation may affect each of us.
Monetary Expansion Distorts Prices in Different Ways
An additional misunderstanding created by the obsessive focus on the Consumer Price Index is the deceptive impression that increases in the money supply due to central bank monetary expansion tend to bring about a uniform and near simultaneous rise in prices throughout the economy, encapsulated in that single monthly CPI number.
In fact, prices do not all tend to rise at the same time and by the same degree during a period of monetary expansion. Governments and their central banks do not randomly drop newly created money from helicopters, more or less proportionally increasing the amount of spending power in every citizen’s pockets at the same time.
Newly created money is “injected” into the economy at some one or few particular points reflecting into whose hands that new money goes first. In the past, governments might simply print up more banknotes to cover their wartime expenditures, and use the money to buy armaments, purchase other military supplies, and pay the salaries of their soldiers.
The new money would pass into the hands of those selling those armaments or military supplies or offering their services as warriors. These people would spend the new money on the particular goods and services they found desirable or profitable to buy, raising the demands and prices for a second group of prices in the economy. The money would now pass to another group of hands, people who in turn would now spend it on the market goods they wanted to demand.
Step-by-step, first some demands and some prices, and then other demands and prices, and then still other demands and prices would be pushed up in a particular time-sequence reflecting who got the money next and spent in on specific goods, until finally more or less all prices of goods in the economy would be impacted and increased, but in a very uneven way over time.
But all of these real and influencing changes on the patterns of market demands and relative prices during the inflationary process are hidden from clear and obvious view when the government focuses the attention of the citizenry and its own policy-makers on the superficial and simplistic Consumer Price Index.
Money Creation and the Boom-Bust Cycle
Today, of course, virtually all governments and central banks inject new money into the economy through the banking system, making more loanable funds available to financial institutions to increase their lending ability to interested borrowers.
The new money first passes into the economy in the form of investment and other loans, with the affect of distorting the demands and prices for resources and labor used in capital projects that might not have been undertaken if not for the false investment signals the monetary expansion generates in the banking and financial sectors of the economy. This process sets in motion the process that eventually leads to the bust that follows the inflationary bubbles.
Thus, the real distortions and imbalances that are the truly destabilizing effects from central banking inflationary monetary policies are hidden from the public’s view and understanding by heralding every month the conceptually shallow and mostly superficial Consumer Price Index.
What is Super Mario up to?
First, he gave an unexpectedly dovish speech at the Jackson Hole conference, rather ungallantly upstaging the host, Ms Yellen, who was widely anticipated to be the most noteworthy speaker at the gathering (talking about the labor market, her favorite subject). Having thus single-handedly and without apparent provocation raised expectations for more “stimulus” at last week’s ECB meeting, he then even exceeded those expectations with another round of rate-cuts and confirmation of QE in form of central bank purchases of asset-backed securities.
These events are significant not because they are going to finally kick-start the Eurozone economy (they won’t) but because 1) they look rushed, and panicky, and 2) they must clearly alienate the Germans. The ideological rift that runs through the European Union is wide and deep, and increasingly rips the central bank apart. And the Germans are losing that battle.
As to 1), it was just three months ago that the ECB cut rates and made headlines by being the first major central bank to take a policy rate below zero. Whatever your view is on the unfolding new Eurozone recession and the apparent need for more action (more about this in a minute), the additional 0.1 percent rate reduction will hardly make a massive difference. Yet, implementing such minor rate cuts in fairly short succession looks nervous and anxious, or even headless. This hardly instils confidence.
And regarding the “unconventional” measures so vehemently requested by the economic commentariat, well, the “targeted liquidity injections” that are supposed to direct freshly printed ECB-money to cash-starved corporations, and that were announced in June as well, have not even been implemented yet. Apparently, and not entirely unreasonably, the ECB wanted to wait for the outcome of their “bank asset quality review”. So now, before these measures are even started, let alone their impact could even be assessed, additional measures are being announced. The asset purchases do not come as a complete surprise either. It was known that asset management giant BlackRock had already been hired to help the ECB prepare such a program. Maybe the process has now been accelerated.
This is Eurozone QE
This is, of course, quantitative easing (QE). Many commentators stated that the ECB shied away from full-fledged QE. This view implies that only buying sovereign debt can properly be called QE. This does not make sense. The Fed, as part of its first round of QE in 2008, also bought mortgage-backed securities only. There were no sovereign bonds in its first QE program, and everybody still called it QE. Mortgage-backed securities are, of course, a form of asset-backed security, and the ECB announced purchases of asset-backed securities at the meeting. This is QE, period. The simple fact is that the ECB expands its balance sheet by purchasing selected assets and creating additional bank reserves (for which banks will now pay the ECB a 0.2 percent p.a. “fee”).
As to 2), not only will the ECB decisions have upset the Germans (the Bundesbank’s Mr. Weidmann duly objected but was outvoted) but so will have Mr. Draghi’s new rhetoric. In Jackson Hole he used the F-word, as in “flexibility”, meaning fiscal flexibility, or more fiscal leeway for the big deficit countries. By doing so he adopted the language of the Italian and French governments, whenever they demand to be given more time for structural reform and fiscal consolidation. The German government does not like to hear this (apparently, Merkel and Schäuble both phoned Draghi after Jackson Hole and complained.)
The German strategy has been to keep the pressure on reform-resistant deficit-countries, and on France and Italy in particular, and to not allow them to shift the burden of adjustment to the ECB. Draghi has now undermined the German strategy.
The Germans fear, not quite unjustifiably, that some countries always want more time and will never implement reform. In contrast to those countries that had their backs to the wall in the crisis and had little choice but to change course in some respect, such as Greece, Ireland, and Spain, France and Italy have so far done zilch on the structural reform front. France’s competitiveness has declined ever since it adopted the 35-hour workweek in 2000 but the policy remains pretty much untouchable. In Italy, Renzi wants to loosen the country’s notoriously strict labour regulations but faces stiff opposition from the trade unions and the Left, not least in his own party. He now wants to give his government three years to implement reform, as he announced last week.
Draghi turns away from the Germans
German influence on the ECB is waning. It was this influence that kept alive the prospect of a somewhat different approach to economic challenges than the one adopted in the US, the UK and, interestingly, Japan. Of course, the differences should not be overstated. In the Eurozone, like elsewhere, we observed interest rate suppression, asset price manipulations, and massive liquidity-injections, and worse, even capital controls and arbitrary bans on short-selling. But we also saw a greater willingness to rely on restructuring, belt-tightening, liquidation, and, yes, even default, to rid the system of the deformations and imbalances that are the ultimate root causes of recessions and the impediments to healthy, sustainable growth. In the Eurozone it was not all about “stimulus” and “boosting aggregate demand”. But increasingly, the ECB looks like any other major central bank with a mandate to keep asset prices up, government borrowing costs down, and a generous stream of liquidity flowing to cover the cracks in the system, to sustain a mirage of solvency and sustainability, and to generate some artificial and short-lived headline growth. QE will not only come to the Eurozone, it will become a conventional tool, just like elsewhere.
I believe it is these two points, Draghi’s sudden hyperactivity (1) and his clear rift with the Germans and his departure from the German strategy (2) that may explain why the euro is finally weakening, and why the minor announcements of last Thursday had a more meaningful impact on markets than the similarly minor announcements in June. With German influence on the ECB waning, trashing your currency becomes official strategy more easily, and this is already official policy in Japan and in the US.
Is Draghi scared by the weak growth numbers and the prospect of deflation?
Maybe, but things should be put in perspective.
Europe has a structural growth problem as mentioned above. If the structural impediments to growth are not removed, Europe won’t grow, and no amount of central bank pump priming can fix it.
Nobody should be surprised if parts of Europe fall into technical recessions every now and then. If “no growth” is your default mode then experiencing “negative growth” occasionally, or even regularly, should not surprise anyone. Excited talk about Italy’s shocking “triple-dip” recession is hyperbole. It is simply what one should expect. Having said this, I do suspect that we are already in another broader cyclical downturn, not only in Europe but also in Asia (China, Japan) and the UK.
The deflation debate in the newspapers is bordering on the ridiculous. Here, the impression is conveyed that a drop in official inflation readings from 0.5 to 0.3 has substantial information content, and that if we drop below zero we would suddenly be caught in some dreadful deflation-death-trap, from which we may not escape for many years. This is complete hogwash. There is nothing in economic theory or in economic history that would support this. And, no, this is not what happened in Japan.
The margin of error around these numbers is substantial. For all we know, we may already have a -1 percent inflation rate in the Eurozone. Or still plus 1 percent. Either way, for any real-life economy this is broadly price-stability. To assume that modest reductions in any given price average suddenly mean economic disaster is simply a fairy tale. Many economies have experienced extended periods of deflation (moderately rising purchasing power of money on trend) in excess of what Japan has experienced over the past 20 years and have grown nicely, thank you very much.
As former Bank of Japan governor Masaaki Shirakawa has explained recently, Japan’s deflation has been “very mild” indeed, and may have had many positive effects as well. In a rapidly aging society with many savers and with slow headline growth it helped maintain consumer purchasing power and thus living standards. Japan has an official unemployment rate of below 4 percent. Japan has many problems but deflation may not be one of them.
Furthermore, the absence of inflation in the Eurozone is no surprise either. There has been no money and credit growth in aggregate in recent years as banks are still repairing their balance sheets, as the “asset quality review” is pending, and as other regulations kick in. Banks are reluctant to lend, and the private sector is careful to borrow, and neither are acting unreasonably.
Expecting Eurozone inflation to clock in at the arbitrarily chosen 2 percent is simply unrealistic.
Draghi’s new activism moves the ECB more in the direction of the US Fed and the Bank of Japan. This alienates the Germans and marginally strengthens the position of the Eurozone’s Southern periphery. This monetary policy will not reinvigorate European growth. Only proper structural reform can do this but much of Europe appears unable to reform, at least without another major crisis. Fiscal deficits will grow.
Monetary policy is not about “stimulus” but about maintaining the status quo. Super-low interest rates are meant to sustain structures that would otherwise be revealed to be obsolete, and that would, in a proper free market, be replaced. The European establishment is interested in maintaining the status quo at all cost, and ultra-easy monetary policy and QE are essentially doing just that.
Under the new scheme of buying asset-backed securities, the ECB’s balance sheet will become a dumping ground for unwanted bank assets (the Eurozone’s new “bad” bank). Like almost everything about the Euro-project, this is about shifting responsibility, obscuring accountability, and socializing the costs of bad decisions. Monetary socialism is coming. The market gets corrupted further.
The following is a commentary I wrote for The Forum section of London business-paper City A.M. The link is here.
It is now six years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and considering that the US economy has officially been in recovery for the past five years, that equity indexes have put in new all-time highs, and that credit markets are once again ebullient to the point of carelessness, it is worth contemplating that monetary policy remains stuck in pedal-to-the-floor stimulus mode. Granted, quantitative easing is (once again) scheduled to end, and the first rates hikes are now expected for next year, but the present policy stance certainly remains highly accommodative. A full ‘exit’ by the Fed is still merely a prospect.
Expectations appear to be for the US economy to finally emerge from its long stay in monetary intensive care healthier and fit for self-sustained, if modest, growth. I think this is unlikely. The lengthy period of monetary stimulus will have saddled the economy with new dislocations. And if central bank intervention did indeed manage to arrest the forces of liquidation that the crisis had unleashed, then some old imbalances will also still hang around.
“Easy money” is – contrary to how it is frequently portrayed – not some tonic that simply lifts the general mood and boosts all economic activity proportionally. Monetary stimulus is always a form of market intervention. It changes relative prices (as distinguished from the ‘price level’ that most economists obsess about); it alters the allocation of scarce resources and the direction of economic activity. Monetary policy always affects the structure of the economy – otherwise no impact on real activity could be generated. It is a drug with considerable side effects.
The latest crisis should provide a warning. As David Stockman pointed out, it did not arrive on a meteor from space, but had its origin in distortions in the housing market in the US – and the UK, Spain and Ireland – and in related credit markets, and therefore ultimately in the “easy money” policies of the early 2000s. Administratively suppressing short rates down to 1 percent for a prolonged period was then the “unconventional” policy du jour, and it was a success of sorts. A credit crunch and deleveraging were indeed avoided, which were then feared as a consequence of WorldCom and Enron defaulting and the dot.com-bubble bursting, but only at the price of blowing an even bigger bubble elsewhere.
This is the problem with our modern fiat money system. With the supply of money no longer constrained by a nature-given, scarce commodity (gold or silver), but now fully elastic, essentially unlimited, and under the control of a lender of last resort central bank, the parameters of risk-taking are forever altered.
Allegedly, we can now stop bank-runs and ignite short-term growth spurts, or keep the overall “price level” advancing on some arbitrarily chosen path of 2 percent. But we can achieve all of this only through monetary manipulations that must create imbalances in the economy. And as the overwhelming temptation is now to use “easy money” to avoid or shorten any period of liquidation, to go for all growth and no correction, distortions will accumulate over time.
As we move from cycle to cycle, the imbalances get bigger, asset valuations become more stretched, the debt load rises, and central banks take policy to new extremes to arrest the market’s growing desire for a much needed cleansing. That policy rates around the world have converged on zero is not a cyclical but a structural phenomenon.
Central bank stimulus is not leading to virtuous circles but to vicious ones. How can we get out? – Only by changing our attitudes to monetary interventions fundamentally. Only if we accept that interest rates are market prices, not policy levers. Only if we accept that the growth we generate through cheap credit and interest-rate suppression is always fleeting, and always comes at the price of new capital misallocations.
The prospect for such a change looks dim at present. Last year’s feverish excitement about Abenomics and this year’s urgent demands for Eurozone QE show that the belief in central bank activism is unbroken, and I remain sceptical as to whether the Fed and the Bank of England can achieve a proper and lasting “exit” from ultra-loose policy in this environment. The near-term outlook is for more heavy-handed interventions everywhere, and the endgame is probably inflation. This will end badly.
So far in August the differential between the yield on the 10-year Treasury note and the yield on the 3-month Treasury bill stood at 2.38% against 2.95% in December 2013.
Historically the yield differential on average has led the yearly rate of growth of industrial production by fourteen months. This raises the likelihood that the growth momentum of industrial production will ease in the months ahead, all other things being equal.
It is generally held that the shape of the yield curve is set by investors’ expectations. According to this way of thinking – also labeled as the expectation theory (ET) – the key to the shape of the yield curve is the notion that long-term interest rates are the average of expected future short-term rates.
If today’s one-year rate is 4% and next year’s one-year rate is expected to be 5%, the two-year rate today should be (4%+5%)/2 = 4.5%.
It follows that expectations for increases in short-term rates will make the yield curve upward sloping, since long-term rates will be higher than short-term rates.
Conversely, expectations for a decline in short-term rates will result in a downward sloping yield curve. If today’s one-year rate is 5% and next year’s one – year rate is expected to be 4%, the two-year rate today (4%+5%)/2 = 4.5% is lower than today’s one year rate of 5% – i.e. downward sloping yield curve.
But is it possible to have a sustained downward sloping yield curve on account of expectations? One can show that in a risk-free environment, neither an upward nor a downward sloping yield curve can be sustainable.
An upward sloping curve would provoke an arbitrage movement from short maturities to long maturities. This will lift short-term interest rates and lower long-term interest rates, i.e., leading towards a uniform interest rate throughout the term structure.
Arbitrage will also prevent the sustainability of an inverted yield curve by shifting funds from long maturities to short maturities thereby flattening the curve.
It must be appreciated that in a free unhampered market economy the tendency towards the uniformity of rates will only take place on a risk-adjusted basis. Consequently, a yield curve that includes the risk factor is likely to have a gentle positive slope.
It is difficult to envisage a downward sloping curve in a free unhampered market economy – since this would imply that investors are assigning a higher risk to short-term maturities than long-term maturities, which doesn’t make sense.
The Fed and the shape of the yield curve
Even if one were to accept the rationale of the ET for the changes in the shape of the yield curve, these changes are likely to be of a very short duration on account of arbitrage. Individuals will always try to make money regardless of the state of the economy.
Yet historically either an upward sloping or a downward sloping yield curve has held for quite prolonged periods of time.
We suggest an upward or a downward sloping yield curve develops on account of the Fed’s interest rate policies (there is an inverse correlation between the yield curve and the fed funds rate).
While the Fed can exercise a certain level of control over short-term interest rates via the federal funds rate, it has less control over long-term interest rates.
For instance, the artificial lowering of short-term interest rates gives rise to an upward sloping yield curve. To prevent the flattening of the curve the Fed must persist with the easy interest rate stance. Should the Fed slow down on its monetary pumping the shape of the yield curve will tend to flatten. Whenever the Fed tightens its interest rate stance this leads to the flattening or an inversion of the yield curve. In order to sustain the new shape of the curve the Fed must maintain its tighter stance. Should the Fed abandon the tighter stance the tendency for rates equalisation will arrest the narrowing or the inversion in the yield curve.
The shape of the yield curve reflects the monetary stance of the Fed. Investors’ expectations can only reinforce the shape of the curve. For instance, relentless monetary expansion that keeps the upward slope of the curve intact ultimately fuels inflationary expectations, which tend to push long-term rates higher thereby reinforcing the positive slope of the yield curve.
Conversely, an emerging recession on account of a tighter stance lowers inflationary expectations and reinforces the inverted yield curve.
A loose Fed monetary policy i.e. a positive sloping curve, sets in motion a false economic boom – it gives rise to various false activities. A tighter monetary policy, which manifests through an inversion of the yield curve, sets in motion the process of the liquidation of false activities i.e. an economic bust is ensued.
A situation could emerge however where the federal funds rate is around zero, as it is now, and then the shape of the yield curve will vary in response to the fluctuations in the long-term rate. (The fed funds rate has been around zero since December 2008).
Once the Fed keeps the fed funds rate at close to zero level over a prolonged period of time it sets in motion a severe misallocation of resources – a severe consumption of capital.
An emergence of subdued economic activity puts downward pressure on long-term rates. On the basis of a near zero fed funds rate this starts to invert the shape of the yield curve.
At present, we hold the downward slopping yield curve has emerged on account of a decline in long term rates whilst short-term interest rate policy remains intact.
We suggest this may be indicative of a severe weakening in the wealth generation process and points to stagnant economic growth ahead.
Note again the downward sloping curve is on account of the Fed’s near zero interest rate policy that has weakened the process of wealth formation.
First it was the government’s miraculous ability to deliver on-target GDP growth that got the permabulls bellowing again, then it was the striking (world-beating, one might even say), 12% currency-adjusted rally in its stock market that got them triumphantly pawing the ground. Nor did the drop in interest rates serve in any way to dampen the eternal hope that China was once again deferring meaningful structural reform in the face of a threat to near-term output.
Quite what was actually behind the equity rally is not easy to say. There were whispers that the Russians (who else?) were piling in, now that their assets were subject to arbitrary seizure as part of Nova Roma’s vilification of their leader and proxy war against their homeland. There was also talk that the imminent linkage of the Shanghai and HK bourses was driving an arbitrage between the unusually-discounted mainland A-shares and their offshore H-share equivalents. Finally, in a typically neat piece of circular reasoning, the imminent rebound in the economy which we have even seen some brave (or foolhardy, according to preference) souls project at a startling 8.5% (sic) early next year was held to be at work to push up what was an otherwise under-owned and thus optically ‘cheap’ emerging market.
On the face of it, news that, over the first seven months of the year, the increase in SOE earnings had accelerated from June’s 8.9% YOY to July’s 9.2% – well up on the first quarter’s paltry 3.3% pace – may have seemed to have offered some much-needed confirmation of this optimistic thesis. However, a closer glance at the figures would not have proven quite so reassuring, had anyone bothered to actually take one.
Over the past, supposedly brighter three months, revenues advanced a modest 6.2% compared to the like period in 2013, though with as-reported profits up an ostensibly more creditable 12.1%. There, all grounds for positive spin, alas, were exhausted. For one, operating profits were, in fact, only up 4.0% like-for-like (a wide discrepancy which can only excite suspicion as to the nature of the headline surplus) while financing costs vaulted a fifth higher.
Worse still, in eking out even this degree of improvement since May, liabilities have soared by an incredible CNY2.320 trillion (around $125 billion a month) – an increment fully half as big again as that registered twelve months ago and a sum which is actually greater than the entire reported sum of ‘total social finance’ over the trimester (that latter ‘only’ managed CNY 2.240 trillion after last month’s thoroughly unexpected swoon).
And what did our proud commanders of the economic heights achieve for shouldering such a hefty weight of obligations? An addition to revenues of CNY719 billion (extra debt to extra ‘sales’ therefore coming in at a ratio of 3.2:1); a pick-up in ‘profit’ of CNY76 billion (d[Debt]:d[Income] = 30:1); and a blip up in operating profit of just CNY16 billion (at a truly staggering ratio of 144 to 1).
Reversing these latter relationships, we can see that while swallowing up all of the nation’s available new credit since the spring, China’s SOEs added 31 fen per one renminbi in sales, 3.3 fen in reported profit, and a bare 0.7 fen in the operating version of income. Just the sort of performance on which to base expectations of a significant coming rise in growth and prosperity!
Armed with such an underwhelming use of resources – both physical and financial – it is perhaps no wonder that MIIT is again trying to shut down swathes of superfluous capacity, issuing what are effectively cease-and-desist orders against 132 firms in a whole range of heavy industries – iron, steel, coke, ferroalloy, calcium carbide, aluminium, copper and lead smelting, cement, flat glass, paper, leather, printing and dyeing, chemical fibres, and lead-acid batteries. Shipbuilding may not be far behind, either, given that it formed the main topic of discussion at a meeting of the National Committee of the CPPCC this week.
The language used was, in some cases, pretty uncompromising, too: “Total industrial capacity in cement and plate glass is still growing, but the industry-wide sales rate is in decline and accounts receivable are increasing… there are to be no new projects in the sector for any reason,” thundered the MIIT communique.
This time around, given Chairman Xi’s rigorous ‘anti-corruption’ campaign, there might well be a little less of the back-sliding and wilful defiance which has greeted such edicts in the past. The emperor is no longer quite so fare away, nor the mountain quite so high, if you are a recalcitrant local cadre these days!
Even before this, the signs were there for those with eyes to see. Despite the much-bruited pick-up in activity, Chinese power use, excluding the residential component, SLOWED to 4.5% YOY in the three months to July from 8.1% in the preceding three months. Nor did this come without a significant deceleration in so-called ‘tertiary’ industry sector (loosely, that encompassing services and light indstry) which is henceforth supposed to be the torchbearer for growth and employment. Here, consumption dropped from the spring’s 10%-plus rates to just 7.4% YOY last month. Added buring of lights and turning of lathes in the secondary industry category – essentially manufacturing – was a tardy 4.2% even though growth in industrial production, we were told, had averaged 9.0% in that same period.
Hmmmm. No wonder the PMI seems to be shedding some of its recent, rather inexplicable exuberance.
Round and round the circle of vicious consequences swirls. As Wang Xianzheng, President of the China Coal Industry Association, admitted: ‘Currently, more than 50 percent of enterprises are in payment arrears and have delayed paying wages.’ Of 26 large companies spread across nine provinces, he revealed that 20 are making losses, only 9 are still in the black, and the remainder are hovering uneasily between (commercial) life and death.
Other obvious signs of distress are to be had among the loan guarantee networks which had everywhere come into being with the then-laudable aim of persuading constitutionally reluctant banks to lend to customers other than SOEs when times were good. Now trapped in flagging businesses which are more correlated than perhaps the participants had realised – and often having succumbed to the diversion of funds to less commendable ends in the interim – they are all going sour together and the same interconnectedness which was once their mainstay is proving instead a sheet anchor with which to drag them all under.
As Zhou Dewen, president of Zhejiang Federation of Private Enterprise Investment, told the Global Times, the rash of bankruptcies in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces has disrupted production and led to lay-offs, with 80% of all sour loans in the area associated with such mutual guarantee schemes. So elevated is the level of distrust, as bad debts have risen at an annualized 30% pace this year, that banks are now trying to call loans in early and obtaining court orders to freeze the assets of those firms that are unable to comply with their demands.
The banks themselves are beginning to accelerate write-offs dramatically – even though the official NPL ratios still look woefully understated. They are also drawing heavily upon the markets in order to bolster their capital as a precaution. As the WSJ reported, the four largest state-owned lenders have started raising a planned $73 billion in debt and equity this year – a call which is expected to jump to more than $300bn in the next five years, according to the banking regulator.
In addition, five local governments in the south and east of the country are setting up so-called ‘asset-management companies’ – effectively state-sponsored ‘bad banks’ – in a mirror of the system used by Zhu Rongji in the 1990s to shuffle the more toxic stuff off its originators’ balance sheets and thus allow them to continue to lend while the bitter fruits of their previous mistakes were hidden away elsewhere.
Though this only disguises and does not in any way alleviate the economic waste spawned by the boom, it might at least allow banks to issue new equity-like capital – perhaps to the insurers who are themselves being heavily promoted by Beijing as the next battalion of systemic saviours – at above notional book value and hence to enable them to remain a viable source of new credit. Note that the last time this was done, the losses were essentially fiscalized: banks simply swapped the bad loans on their books for what have since proven to be irredeemable – but nonetheless fully par-valued – loans to the state entities which, in turn, financed the obliging AMCs. Balance sheets will not shrink, therefore, only become sanitised, by the operation of this mechanism.
Here, however, is where it all gets fraught once more, because the same local governments who are being marshalled to assume the banks’ bad debts (many of them ensuing from extending credit to LGFPs) are themselves becoming desperate for funds given that all too many of their own, sure-fire investment gambits are turning out to be the dampest of damp squibs.
As the Economic Information Daily reported, an audit of 448 eastern township platform companies found that two-fifths of them were curently loss making, while a further thirty percent barely broke even. With these bodies so heavily dependent on land sales to generate the revenues needed to cover their current outlays, much less their ambitious capital expansion plans and ongoing debt service costs – and with such ‘sales’ only being possible in large part if the authorities extend the credit to the purchasers in the first place – a decidedly negative feedback loop has begun to tighten around their necks as the property market itself enters a slump.
Indeed, according to research conducted by brokerage company Centaline Property Agency, twenty major developers have between them spent CNY182.5 billion yuan so far this year to purchase new sites – a drastic 38% down on the like period last year.
‘Worsening property sales have undercut the willingness of developers to buy land. Their focus now is on raising cash from the sales of what they’ve already built. Few are in the mood to buy more,’ said Zhang Dawei who headed up the company’s research team.
In July alone, aggregate land sales revenue for 300 Chinese cities was off by a half from the same month in 2013, as reported by the China Index Academy. Sales in the four largest cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen – normally a slam-dunk – sank by a staggering 70%.
‘The downturn means that the scale of land sales for the remainder of this year could continue to contract. Developers have pushed the “conservative” button,’ said Zhang with commendable understatement.
And quite right, too, as anecdotal evidence grows that formerly avid house-buyers are beginning to adopt that age-old American practice of ‘jingle mail’ – that is, they are simply walking away from properties they either cannot afford or do not believe will again appreciate in price.
At one end of the scale, one Nanjing online estate agent recorded a growing back-log of such defalcations and referred to the ‘unspeakable pain’ in the local market – an agony apparently shared in at least six other of the districts neighbouring his.
Despite the widespread belief that Chinese buyers are sitting on a typical equity cushion of 30-40% of the property value – and hence, unlike their less well-endowed US, Irish, and Spanish cousins, are impervious to all bar the most extreme events in the market – the scary truth is that much of the real estate to which they do hold title has been, how shall we say, ‘rehypothecated’ – i.e., pledged as collateral for a range of business loans as well as for the more speculative use of funds.
‘In the past few years, many small business owners blindly invested in real estate, mining and other industries. These industries are now suffering from overcapacity and falling asset prices, so business owners are unable to pay their debts,’ said one general manager of a Wenzhou microfinance company.
‘Many [of these] use the house as collateral when business loans go wrong,‘ Ge Ningbo, a county bank manager, told a journalist.
To get a feel for the scale of the problem, consider press reports that in Wenzhou, 1,000 homes were abandoned as a result of the decline, homes with an ostensible market value of more than Y6.4 Billion – or roughly $1 million a pop! No scrabbling rural migrants, these, but possibly members of an increasingly scrutiny–shy party apparatus! Clearly, the banks will need to suck in even more money from their gullible preference shareholders if this phenomenon starts to spread and, in the meanwhile, it is hard to see how they will be empowered to make sufficient revenue-positive new loans to keep the whirligig in motion in such a climate of confusion and disabusal.
Sadly, we have not finished our tale of woe there because there are also stories circulating in the official media that those same local governments, who are in many ways the lynchpins of the whole merry-go-round, may be far deeper into the mire than has been recognised to date.
As the articles detail, a member of the relevant NPC standing committee confided to a press contact that when hidden liabilities are taken into account alongside those uncovered in a recent audit, the true total of LG debt almost doubles to a wince-inducing Y30 trillion. Just for sheer size – some 50% of national GDP – this would be a matter of concern, but it also should not be overlooked that far too much of that monstrous total is comprised of short-term obligations against which are held long-term, illiquid, and often economically redundant ‘assets’.
Given that the last NAO study showed that are some 3,700 governmental bodies across various categories which had debts in excess of 100% of their local GDP, something patently needs to be done if the mad Chinese juggler is to keep his profusion of balls bobbing in the air.
So, welcome to local scrip issues. Yes, it seems that ingenious local cadres have dusted off their depression-era news clippings and revisited the age of the mediaeval mint and simply started using their own IOUs as media of exchange wherever their writ may run.
Economic Information Daily reported that in Hubei, Hunan and Guangdong, among others, government IOUs have become a ‘discount currency.’ In fact, commentary on Caijing suggests that not only are even small, rural communities now doing likewise, but that some companies, too, are paying their workers in scrip – just as in the early days of the Western factory age when resort by employers to what was called the ‘truck’ or ‘Tommy’ system was widespread.
As the early 19th century English radical, William Cobbett noted, ‘… when this tommy system… makes its appearance where money has for ages been the medium of exchange, and of payments for labour; when this system makes its appearance in such a state of society, there is something wrong; things are out of joint; and it becomes us to inquire into the real cause of its being resorted to…’
His answer? The state of economic depression brought about by the costs imposed upon entrepreneurs by the dead-weight of government:-
‘It is not the fault of the masters, who can have no pleasure in making profit in this way: it is the fault of the taxes, which, by lowering the [net] price of their goods, have compelled them to resort to this means of diminishing their expenses, or to quit their business altogether, which a great part of them cannot do without being left without a penny… Everything was on the decline… I was assured that shop-keepers in general did not now sell half the quantity of goods in a month that they did in that space of time four or five years ago… need we then wonder that the iron in Staffordshire has fallen, within these five years, from thirteen pounds to five pounds a ton [metal-bashers were similarly bearing the brunt, it appears]… and need we wonder that the iron-masters, who have the same rent and taxes to pay that they had to pay before, have resorted to the tommy system, in order to assist in saving themselves from ruin!’
‘Here is the real cause of the tommy system; and if [we wish] to put an end to it… prevail upon the Parliament to take off taxes to the amount of forty millions a year.’
Caijing devoted quite some space to ‘netizen’ comments on this state of affairs, several of which reflected a considerable degree of awareness that this had come about because of the unbridled spending and lavish self-indulgence of the relevant officials, while some were also aware that such an emission of fiat money was a direct parallel of the official money-creation process and further that it could only persist for so long as some minimal degree of trust resided in the councils’ ability one day to redeem the claims. Moreover, it was noted that since people ultimately expect the discount between township paper and that issued by the PBOC to widen, they were using the former preferentially to buy and sell and clinging on to the latter – a classic, Gresham’s Law example of bad money driving out good.
If the localities are in such dire straits as these, then it is hard to resist the temptation to believe that we are approaching some sort of end-game. But what, we should ask ourselves, might be the trigger for its no-doubt jarring denouement?
Well, here we come full circle with the latest act of Xi Jinping’s grand ‘anti-corruption’ drive. For, as well as Our Glorious Leader’s insistence at last week’s Leading Group get-together that everyone must ‘truly push forward reform with real guns and knives’ (ulp!), news has come out that the National Audit Commission will next conduct a full, ‘rigorous’ check of all land sales and related transactions carried out between 2008-13 and that, moreover, the results will be to hand when the top men convene for their next Plenum this coming October.
One can only imagine the consternation in the ranks which this announcement has unleashed. After all, there is unlikely to be overmuch evidence that any of these deals were conducted transparently, competitively, honestly, and legally, in the absence of any and all inducements, kickbacks, or displays of favouritism, not only since such was the accepted practice during the reign of Wen and Hu – especially during the infamous, no questions asked, frenzy of post-Crash stimulus – but also because this is a sphere notoriously subject to peculation in what we fondly imagine to be our more enlightened polities, too.
We can therefore not only expect the bodycount to rise substantially as officials fearful of censure seek to avoid their imminent disgrace and subsequent punishment, but we should also be prepared for the possibility that when this most capacious of all cylindrical metallic containers of vermiform invertebrae is opened, it will be accompanied by a blast of sufficient megatonnage to bring the whole flawed edifice crashing to the ground.
Under such circumstances, we find it very hard to shake off the presentiment that, on the one side, some commentators’ touching faith in an incipient re-acceleration are horribly misplaced while, on the other, the tired old ‘Goldilocks’ scenario whereby all bad news is good because it presages the launch of another round of sustained, indiscriminate ‘stimulus’ seems equally out of key with what Xi tells us he is trying to achieve.
Having dealt at such length with China, let us try and dispose of the rest of the globe in as short a space as possible.
Japan: Abenomics is still a horrible failure as drooping machine orders, frozen store sales, and exports back at 4 ½ year (currency-adjusted), one-quarter-from-the-peak lows reveal. So, guess what? As the PM’s approval ratings slip, another ‘stimulus’ package is said to be in the offing (sigh!)
Europe: Even one of Hollande’s own ministers confided to the press a couple of weeks back, ‘the truth is, he thinks we don’t have a chance’ – who are we to disagree? Meanwhile, the chap at the head of the other Sick Man, Matteo Renzi, has undergone a moment of almost Caligulan delusion, assuring supporters that the hour had come for Italy ‘to tow Europe out of the crisis’ and ‘to assume… the leadership’ of the Continent.
And what of his first steps to make good on such a vaunting claim? Why, in an Onion-like act of farce, to insist that ISTAT no longer releases the GDP numbers a week ahead of its peers and thereby afford underemployed analysts and commentators more opportunity to be critical of the country’s performance! And then there’s the Neocon-inspired catastrophe unfolding on the bloc’s eastern fringe from which the emergence of a bout of renewed economic difficulty is the very least of our worries.
USA: Chairperson Yellen is currently holding court at Jackson Hole as the US numbers continue their rebound from the winter’s retardation. What a moment for her to take the stage. Non-financials (large cap-led) are at new records, Tech at new, post-Bubble highs; junk spreads have narrowed sharply; vol has again crashed, correlations fallen, and put-call ratios evaporated. With the Bund-UST spread at a 15-year high and equities outperforming, the USD stands on the verge of a break out and up from what is already its best level in a year. The cycle is still running in favour of the States on a comparison basis, no matter how ninety-Nth percentile many of its valuations are when considered in isolation.
With money supply still swelling rapidly – and amid hints that it is being more actively utilised than of late—it is hard to see quite what will bring that run to an end in the near term. Were we to really be critical, one of the few clouds ‘no bigger than a man’s hand’ is that the growth of both inventories and payroll expenses are outstripping sales in the durable goods sector. Thus, while US assets are hardly ‘investible’ in the Benjamin Graham sense, they are also a tough short in the Sell’em Ben Smith one.
Britain: While MPC member David Miles saw fit to describe the EU as ‘dead in the water’ as a trade partner, closer to home some of the gloss is finally coming off the reputation of one of the country’s most expensive recent imports, its egregious Bank governor.
No doubt, dear reader, you too were shocked – shocked! – to hear local Tory Mark Field, the Honourable Member for the Cities of London and Westminster, opine to his mates in Grub Street that “…from the moment Mark Carney became governor in July 2013, it was pretty clear forward guidance was an indication rates would not rise this side of the election – for all the talk of Bank of England independence, there was a clear bargain between him and George Osborne.” Be that as it may, it is surely not too cynical to note that Fred Carney’s Army will not want to contibute to a possible defeat by Alex the Bruce’s forces in the coming Scottish independence vote.
You can just hear it now, that ringing oration:-
‘Aye, vote ‘Yes’ and interest rates may rise. Vote ‘No’ and they’ll stay as is … at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin’ to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our neighbours that they may take our pound and their nuclear subs, but they’ll never take… OUR FREEDOM!
Truth be told, it has not been the kindest of summers for commodities. Since reaching their late June peak, returns have suffered a 7.5% slump to touch six month lows even as US equities have added 2%. For the record, in that crumbling eight week stretch EM stocks put on 4.7%, US bonds were up 1% and junk was flat.
Within commodities themselves, what some commentators have been calling a ‘Garden of Eden’ summer in the US grain belt has ensured that the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye almost everywhere you look, while oilseeds and wheat have been similarly profuse. A loss of 11.3% and, in fact, the casting into jeopardy of the entire cyclical bull market in prices has been the result.
Energy, too, has suffered, as the record longs in oil finally began to liquidate, triggering the biggest 6-week sell-off of positions in WTI on record. IN notional value terms, net spec longs in Brent and WTI combined crashed from close to $97 billion worth of contracts to $59 billion. It is possible to read the charts to declare that this swoon has violated the uptrend in place for the last five years, as well as breaking all major MAs. Against that, we are arguably a touch oversold and the last four years’ sideways stationary, Arab Spring range remains intact. Tacticians, Faites vos jeux!
Dollar strength, the subsidence of financial market anxieties alluded to above, and the cessation of labour unrest in SA have hardly been conducive to higher PM prices (palladium — and Russia—excepted). Gold has also broken 200, 100, 50-day MAs and is threatening the uptrend drawn from the June 30-Dec 31 $1180 double bottom and June 3rd’s $1240 probe. Lease rates remain positive and net specs—at 43% of total O/I – as long as they have been on average throughout the last 12 years’ bull market.
Only Base metals seem to offer any hope (they rallied 4.2% while everything else was collapsing). Strength has partly been predicated upon what we think are decidedly ephemeral signs of a Chinese renaissance, but also on evidence of dwindling stockpiles and the litany of capex cuts and asset disposals emanating from the mining industry. They appear, therefore, to offer the least dirty shirt in the laundry basket.
The data was not really surprising and neither was the response from the commentariat. After a run of weak reports from Germany over recent months, last week’s release of GDP data for the eurozone confirmed that the economy had been flatlining in the second quarter. Predictably, this led to new calls for ECB action. “Europe now needs full-blown QE” diagnosed the leader writer of the Financial Times, and in its main report on page one the paper quoted Richard Barwell, European economist at Royal Bank of Scotland with “It’s time the ECB took control and we got the real deal, instead of the weaker measure unveiled in June.”
I wonder if calls for more ‘stimulus’ are now simply knee-jerk reactions, mere Pavlovian reflexes imbued by five years of near relentless policy easing. Do these economists and leader writers still really think about their suggestions? If so, what do they think Europe’s ills are that easy money and cheap credit are going to cure them? Is pumping ever more freshly printed money into the banking system really the answer to every economic problem? And has QE been a success where it has been pursued?
The fact is that money has hardly been tight in years – at least not at the central bank level, at the core of the system. Granted, banks have not been falling over one another to extend new loans but that is surely not surprising given that they still lick their wounds from 2008. The ongoing “asset quality review” and tighter regulation are doing their bit, too, and if these are needed to make finance safer, as their proponents claim, then abandoning them for the sake of a quick – and ultimately short-lived – GDP rebound doesn’t seem advisable. The simple fact is that lenders are reluctant to lend and borrowers reluctant to borrow, and both may have good reasons for their reluctance.
Do we really think that Italian, French, and German companies have drawers full of exciting investment projects that would instantly be put to work if only rates were lower? I think it is a fairly safe bet that whatever investment project Siemens, BMW, Total and Fiat can be cajoled into via the lure of easy money will by now have been realized. The easy-money drug has a rapidly diminishing marginal return.
In most major economies, rates have been close to zero for more than five years and various additional stimulus measures have been taken, including some by the ECB, even if they fell short of outright QE. Yet, the global economy is hardly buzzing. The advocates of central bank activism will point to the US and the UK. Growth there has recently been stronger and many expect a rise in interest rates in the not too distant future. Yet, even if we take the US’ latest quarterly GDP data of an annualized 4 percent at face value (it was a powerful snap-back from a contraction in Q1), the present recovery, having started in 2009, still is the slowest in the post-World-War-II period, and by some margin. The Fed is not done with its bond-buying program yet, fading it out ever so slowly and carefully, fearful that the economy, or at any rate overstretched financial markets, could buckle under a more ‘normal’ policy environment, if anybody still knows what that may look like. We will see how much spring is left in the economy’s step once stimulus has been removed fully and interest rates begin to rise — if that will ever happen.
Then there is Japan, under Abe and Kuroda firmly committed to QE-square and thus the new poster-boy of the growth-through-money-printing movement. Here the economy contracted in Q2 by a staggering 6.8% annualized, mimicking its performance from when it was hit by a tsunami in 2011. This time economic contraction appears to have been mainly driven by an increase in the country’s sale tax (I guess the government has to rein in its deficit at some stage, even in Japan), which had initially caused a strong Q1, as consumers front-loaded purchases in anticipation of the tax hike. Now it was pay-back time. Still, looking through the two quarters, the Wall Street Journal speaks of “Japan’s slow recovery despite heavy stimulus”.
Elsewhere the debate has moved on
In the Anglo-Saxon countries the debate about the negative side-effects of ultra-easy money seems to be intensifying. Last week Martin Feldstein and Robert Rubin, in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal, warned of risks to financial stability from the Fed’s long-standing policy stimulus, pointing towards high asset values and tight risk premiums, stressing that monetary policy was asked to do too much. Paul Singer, founder of the Elliott Management hedge fund and the nemesis of Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, was reported as saying that ultra-easy monetary policy had failed and that structural reforms and a more business-friendly regulatory environment were needed instead. All of this even before you consider my case (the Austrian School case) that every form of monetary stimulus is ultimately disruptive because it can at best buy some growth near term at the price of distorting capital markets and sowing the seeds of a correction in the future. No monetary stimulus can ever lead to lasting growth.
None of this seems to faze the enthusiasts for more monetary intervention in Europe. When data is soft, the inevitable response is to ask the ECB to print more money.
The ECB’s critics are correct when they claim that the ECB has recently been less accommodative than some of its cousins, namely the Fed and the Bank of Japan. So the eurozone economy stands in front of us naked and without much monetary make-up. If we do not like what we see then the blame should go to Europe’s ineffectual political elite, to France’s socialist president Hollande, whose eat-the-rich tax policies and out-of-control state bureaucracy cripple the country; to Ms Merkel, who not only has failed to enact a single pro-growth reform program since becoming Germany’s chancellor (how long can the country rest on the Schroeder reforms of 2002?) but now embraces a national minimum wage and a lower retirement age of 63, positions she previously objected to; to Italy’s sunny-boy Renzi who talks the talk but has so far failed to walk the walk. But then it has been argued that under democracy the people get the rulers they deserve. Europe’s structural impediments to growth often appear to enjoy great public support.
Calls for yet easier monetary conditions and more cheap credit are a sign of intellectual bankruptcy and political incompetence. They will probably be heeded.
At the end of July global equity bull markets had a moment of doubt, falling three or four per cent. In the seven trading days up to 1st August the S&P500 fell 3.8%, and we are not out of the woods yet. At the same time the Russell 2000, an index of small-cap US companies fell an exceptional 9%, and more worryingly it looks like it has lost bullish momentum as shown in the chart below. This indicates a possible double-top formation in the making.
Meanwhile yield-spreads on junk bonds widened significantly, sending a signal that markets were reconsidering appropriate yields on risky bonds.
This is conventional analysis and the common backbone of most brokers’ reports. Put simply, investment is now all about the trend and little else. You never have to value anything properly any more: just measure confidence. This approach to investing resonates with post-Keynesian economics and government planning. The expectations of the crowd, or its animal spirits, are now there to be managed. No longer is there the seemingly irrational behaviour of unfettered markets dominated by independent thinkers. Forward guidance is just the latest manifestation of this policy. It represents the triumph of economic management over the markets.
Central banks have for a long time subscribed to management of expectations. Initially it was setting interest rates to accelerate the growth of money and credit. Investors and market traders soon learned that interest rate policy is the most important factor in pricing everything. Out of credit cycles technical analysis evolved, which sought to identify trends and turning points for investment purposes.
Today this control goes much further because of two precedents: in 2001-02 the Fed under Alan Greenspan’s chairmanship cut interest rates specifically to rescue the stock market out of its slump, and secondly the Fed’s rescue of the banking system in the wake of the Lehman crisis extended direct intervention into all financial markets.
Both of these actions succeeded in their objectives. Ubiquitous intervention continues to this day, and is copied elsewhere. It is no accident that Spanish bond yields for example are priced as if Spain’s sovereign debt is amongst the safest on the planet; and as if France’s bond yields reflect a credible plan to repay its debt.
We have known for years that through intervention central banks have managed to control the prices of currencies, precious metals and government bonds; but there is increasing evidence of direct buying of other financial assets, including equities. The means for continual price management are there: there are central banks, exchange stabilisation funds, sovereign wealth funds and government-controlled pension funds, which between them have limitless buying-power.
Doubtless there is a growing band of central bankers who believe that with this control they have finally discovered Keynes’s Holy Grail: the euthanasia of the rentier and his replacement by the state as the primary source of business capital. This being the case, last month’s dip in the markets will turn out to be just that, because intervention will simply continue and if necessary be ramped up.
But in the process, all market risk is being transferred from bonds, equities and all other financial assets into currencies themselves; and it is the outcome of their purchasing power that will prove to be the final judgement in the debate of markets versus economic planning.
Although it might seem odd for a school of economics to largely ignore the role of money in the economy, this is indeed the case with traditional Keynesian economics. Declaring in 1963 that, “Inflation is, always and everywhere, a monetary phenomenon,” Milton Friedman sought to place money at the centre of economics where he and his fellow Monetarists believed it belonged. Keynesian policies continued to dominate into the 1970s, however, and were blamed by the Monetarists and others for the ‘stagflation’ of that decade—weak growth with rising inflation. Today, stagflation is re-appearing, the inevitable result of the aggressive, neo-Keynesian policy responses to the 2008 global financial crisis. In this report, I discuss the causes, symptoms and financial market consequences of the new stagflation, which could well be worse than the 1970s.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF KEYNESIANISM
During the ‘Roaring 20s’, US economists mostly belonged to various ‘laissez faire’ or ‘liquidationist’ schools of thought, holding that economic downturns were best left to sort themselves out, with a minimal role for official intervention. President Hoover’s Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (in)famously represented this view following the 1929 stock market crash when he admonished the government to stay out of private affairs and allow businesses and investors to “Liquidate! Liquidate! Liquidate!”
The severity of the Depression caught much of the laissez faire crowd off guard and thus by 1936, the year John Maynard Keynes published his General Theory, there was a certain open-mindedness around what he had to say, in particular that there was a critical role for the government to play in supporting demand during economic downturns through deficit spending. (There were a handful of prominent economists who did warn that the 1920s boom was likely to turn into a big bust, including Ludwig von Mises.)
While campaigning for president in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously painted Herbert Hoover as a lasseiz faire president, when in fact Hoover disagreed with Mellon. As Murray Rothbard and others have demonstrated, Hoover was a highly interventionist president, setting several major precedents on which FDR would subsequently expand. But all is fair in politics and FDR won that election and subsequent elections in landslides.
With the onset of war and the command war economy it engendered, in the early 1940s the economics debate went silent. With the conclusion of war, it promptly restarted. Friedrich von Hayek fired an early, eloquent shot at the Keynesians in 1946 with The Road to Serfdom, his warning of the longer-term consequences of central economic planning.
The Keynesians, however, fired back, and with much new ammunition. Beginning in the early 20th century, several US government agencies, including the Federal Reserve, began to compile vast amounts of economic statistics and to create indices to aggregate macroeconomic data. This was a treasure-trove to Keynesians, who sought quantitative confirmation that their theories were correct. Sure enough, in 1947, a new, definitive Keynesian work appeared, Foundations of Economic Analysis, by Paul Samuelson, that presented statistical ‘proof’ that Keynes was right.
One of Samuelson’s core contentions was that economic officials could and should maintain full employment (ie low unemployment) through the prompt application of targeted stimulus in recessions. As recessions ended, the stimulus should be withdrawn, lest price inflation rise to a harmful level. Thus well-trained economists keeping an eye on the data and remaining promptly reactive in response to changes in key macroeconomic variables could minimise the business cycle and prevent Depression.
For government officials, Samuelson’s work was the Holy Grail. Not only was this a theoretical justification for an active government role in managing the economy, as Keynes had provided; now there was hard data to prove it and a handbook for just how to provide it. A rapid, historic expansion of public sector macroeconomics soon followed, swelling the ranks of Treasury, Commerce, Labor Department and Federal Reserve employees.
CHICAGO AND THE ‘FRESHWATER’ DISSENT
Notwithstanding the establishment of this new economic mainstream and a public sector that wholeheartedly embraced it, there was some dissent, in particular at the so-called ‘freshwater’ universities of the American Midwest: Chicago, Wisconsin, Minnesota and St Louis, among others.
Disagreeing with key Keynesian assumptions and also with Samuelson’s interpretation of historical data, Monetarists mounted an aggressive counterattack in the 1960s, led by Milton Friedman of the Chicago School. Thomas Sargent, co-founder of Rational Expectations Theory, also took part.
The Chicago School disagreed that there was a stable relationship between inflation and employment that could be effectively managed through fiscal policy. Rather, Friedman and his colleagues argued that Keynesians had made a grave error in largely ignoring the role of money in the economy. Together with his colleague Anna Schwarz, Friedman set out to correct this in the monumental Monetary History of the United States, which re-interpreted the Great Depression, among other major events in US economic history, as primarily a monetary- rather than demand-driven phenomenon. Thus inflation, according to Friedman and Schwarz, was “always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon,” rather than a function of fiscal policy or other demand-side developments.
By the late 1960s the dissent played a central role in escalating policy disputes, due primarily to a prolonged expansion of US fiscal policy. Following Keynesian policy guidance, the government responded to the gentle recession of the early 1960s with fiscal stimulus. However, even after the recession was over, there was a reluctance to tighten policy, for reasons both foreign and domestic. At home, President Johnson promised a ‘Great Society’: a huge expansion of various programmes supposedly intended to help the poor and otherwise disadvantaged groups. Abroad, the Vietnam War had escalated into a major conflict and, combined with other Cold War military commitments, led to a huge expansion of the defence budget.
DE GAULLE AND INTERNATIONAL DISSENT
In the early 1960s a handful of prescient domestic observers had already begun to warn of the increasingly inflationary course of US fiscal and monetary policy (Henry Hazlitt wrote a book about it, What Inflation Is, in 1961.) In the mid-1960s this also became an important international topic. Under the Bretton-Woods system, the US was obliged to back dollars in circulation with gold reserves and to maintain an international gold price of $35/oz. In early 1965, as scepticism mounted that the US was serious about sustaining this arrangement, French President Charles De Gaulle announced to the world that he desired a restructuring of Bretton-Woods to place gold itself, rather than the dollar, at the centre of the international monetary system.
This prominent public dissent against Bretton-Woods unleashed a series of international monetary crises, roughly one each year, culminating in President Nixon’s decision to suspend ‘temporarily’ the dollar’s convertibility into gold in August 1971. (Temporarily? That was 43 years ago this month!)
The breakdown of Bretton-Woods would not be complete until 1973, when the world moved formally to a floating-rate regime unbacked by gold. However, while currencies subsequently ‘floated’ relative to one another, they collectively sank in purchasing power. The price of gold soared, as did the price of crude oil and many other commodities.
Rather than maintain stable prices by slowing the growth rate of the money supply and raising interest rates, the US Federal Reserve fatefully facilitated the dollar’s general devaluation
with negative real interest rates. While it took several years to build, in part because Nixon placed outright price controls on various goods, eventually the associated inflationary pressure leaked into consumer prices more generally, with the CPI rising steadily from the mid-1970s. Growth remained weak, however, as the economy struggled to restructure and rebalance. Thus before the decade was over, a new word had entered the economic lexicon: Stagflation.
STAGFLATION IS A KEYNESIAN PHENOMENON
Keynesians were initially mystified by this dramatic breakdown in the supposedly stable and manageable relationship between growth (or employment) and inflation. Their models said it couldn’t happen, so they looked for an explanation to deflect mounting criticism and soon found one: The economy had been hit by a ‘shock’, namely sharply higher oil prices! Never mind that the sharp rise in oil prices followed the breakdown of Bretton-Woods and devaluation of the dollar: This brazen reversal of cause and effect was too politically convenient to ignore. Politicians could blame OPEC for the stagflation, rather than their own policies. But an objective look at history tells a far different story, that the great stagflation was in fact the culmination of years of Keynesian economic policies. To generalise and to paraphrase Friedman, stagflation is, always and everywhere, a Keynesian phenomenon.
Why should this be so? Consider the relationship between real economic activity and the price level. If the supply of money is perfectly stable, then any negative ‘shock’ to the economy may reduce demand, but that will result in a decline rather than a rise in the general price level. The ‘shock’ might also increase certain prices in relative terms, but amidst stable money it simply cannot increase prices across the board, as is the case in stagflation.
They only way in which the toxic stagflationary mix of both reduced growth and rising prices can occur is if the money supply is flexible. Now this does not imply that a flexible money supply is in of itself a Keynesian policy, but deficit spending is far easier with a flexible money supply that can be increased as desired to finance the associated deficits. Yes, this then crowds out real private capital, with negative long-term consequences for economic health, but as we know, politicians are generally more concerned with the short-term and the next election.
CONTEMPORARY EVIDENCE OF STAGFLATION
Contemporary examples provide support for the reasoning above. It is instructive that two large economies, Japan and France, have been chronically underperforming in recent years, slipping in and out of recession. Both run chronic budget deficits in blatant Keynesian efforts to stimulate demand. In Japan, where the money supply is growing rapidly, inflation has been picking up despite weak growth: stagflation. In France, where the money supply has been quite stable, there is price stability: That is merely stagnation, not stagflation.
The UK, US and Germany have all been growing somewhat faster. Following the large devaluation of sterling in 2008, the UK experienced a multi-year surge in prices amidst weak growth, clearly a stagflationary mix. The US also now appears to be entering stagflation. Growth has been weak on average in recent quarters—outright negative in Q1 this year—yet inflation has now risen to 4% (3m annualised rate). Notwithstanding a surge in labour costs this year, the US Fed has, up to this point, dismissed this rise in CPI as ‘noise’. But then the Fed repeatedly made similar claims as CPI began to rise sharply in the mid-1970s.
In Japan, the UK and US, the stagflation is highly likely to continue as long as the current policy mix remains in place. (For all the fanfare surrounding the US Fed’s ‘tapering’, I don’t consider this terribly meaningful. Rates are still zero.) In France, absent aggressive structural reforms that may be politically impossible, the stagnation is likely to remain in place.
Germany is altogether a different story than the rest of these mature economies. While sharing the same, relatively stable euro money supply as France, the price level in Germany is also stable. However, Germany has been growing at a faster rate than most other developed economies, notwithstanding a smaller deficit. This is compelling evidence that Germany is simply a more competitive, productive economy than either the US or UK. But this is nothing new. The German economy has outperformed both the US and UK in nearly every decade since WWII. (Postwar rebuilding provided huge support in the 1950s and 1960s but those days are long past.)
The persistence of German economic outperformance through the decades clearly demonstrates the fundamental economic superiority of what is arguably the least Keynesian set of policies in the developed world. Indeed, Germans are both famed and blamed for their embrace of sound money and fiscal sustainability. ‘Famed’ because of their astonishing success; ‘blamed’ because of, well, because of their astonishing success relative to economic basket cases elsewhere in Europe and around the world. As I sometimes say in jest to those who ‘blame’ the Germans for the economic malaise elsewhere: “If only the Germans weren’t so dammed productive, we would all be better off!”
INVESTING FOR STAGFLATION
Stagflation is a hostile environment for investors. As discussed above, Keynesian policies require that the public sector siphon off resources from the private sector, thereby reducing the ability of private agents to generate economic profits. So-called ‘financial repression’, a more overt seizure of private resources by the public sector, is by design and intent hostile for investors. Regardless of how you choose to think about it, stagflation reveals previously unseen resource misallocations. As these become apparent, investors adjust financial asset prices accordingly. (Perhaps this is now getting under way. The Dow fell over 300 points yesterday.)
The most recent historical period of prolonged stagflation was the 1970s, although there have been briefer episodes since in various countries. Focusing here on the US, although there was a large stock market decline in 1973-4, the market subsequently recovered these losses and then roughly doubled in value. The bond market, by contrast, held up during the first half of the decade but, as stagnation gradually turned into stagflation, bonds sold off and were sharply outperformed by stocks.
That should be no surprise, as inflation erodes the nominally fixed value of bonds. Stock prices, however, can rise along with the general price level along as corporate revenues and profits also rise. It would seem safe to conclude, therefore, that in the event stagflationary conditions intensify from here, stocks will outperform bonds.
While that might be a safe conclusion, it is not a terribly helpful one. Sure, stocks might be able to outperform bonds in stagflation but, when adjusted for the inflation, in real terms they can still lose value. Indeed, in the 1970s, stock market valuations failed to keep pace with the accelerating inflation. Cash, in other words, was the better ‘investment’ option and, naturally, a far less volatile one.
Best of all, however, would have been to avoid financial assets and cash altogether and instead to accumulate real assets, such as gold and oil. (Legendary investors John Exter and John van Eck did precisely this.) The chart below shows the total returns of all of the above and the relative performance of stocks, bonds and cash appears irrelevant when compared to the soaring prices of gold and oil, both of which rose roughly tenfold.
REAL VS NOMINAL ASSETS IN STAGFLATION
(Jan 1971 = 100)
Source: Bloomberg; Amphora
Some readers might be sceptical that, from their current starting point, gold, oil or other commodity
prices could rise tenfold in price from here. Oil at $100/bbl sounds expensive to those (such as I) who remember the many years when oil fluctuated around $20. Gold at $1,300 also seems expensive compared to the sub-$300 price fetched by UK Chancellor Brown in the early 2000s. In both cases, prices have risen by a factor of 4-5x. Note that this is the rough order of magnitude that gold and oil rose into the mid-1970s. But it was not until the late 1970s that both really took off, leaving financial assets far behind.
If anything, a persuasive case can be made that the potential for gold, oil and other commodity prices to outperform stocks and bonds is higher today than it was in the mid-1970s. Monetary policies around the world are generally more expansionary. Government debt burdens and deficits are far larger. If Keynesian policies caused the 1970s stagflation, then the steroid injection of aggressive Keynesian policies post-2008 should eventually result in something even more spectacular.
While overweighting commodities can be an effective, defensive investment strategy for a stagflationary future, it is important to consider how best to implement this. Here at Amphora, we provide investors with an advisory service for constructing commodity portfolios. Most benchmark commodity indices and the ETFs tracking them are not well designed as investment vehicles for a variety of reasons. In particular, they do not provide for efficient diversification and their weightings are not well-specified to a stagflationary environment. With a few tweaks, however, these disadvantages can be remedied, enabling a commodity portfolio to produce the desired results.
CURRENT COMMODITY OPPORTUNITIES
For those inclined to trade commodities actively, and relative to each other, there are an unusual number of opportunities at present. First, grains are now unusually cheap, especially corn. This is understandable given current global weather patterns supportive of high yields, but beyond a certain point producers are fully hedged and/or are considering withholding some production to sell once prices recover. That point is likely now close.
Second, taking a look at tropical products, cotton has resumed the sharp slide that began earlier this year. As is the case with grains, we are likely nearing the point where producer hedging and/or holding out for higher prices will support the price. By contrast, cocoa prices continue their rise and I note that several major chocolate manufacturers have recently increased prices sharply to maintain margins. That is a classic indication that prices are near a peak.
Third, livestock remains expensive. Hog prices have finally begun to correct lower but cattle prices are at record highs. There are major herd supply issues that are not easily resolved in the near-term but consumers are highly price sensitive in the current environment and substitution into pork or poultry products is almost certainly now taking place around the margins. Left to run for awhile, this is likely to place a lid on cattle prices, although I do expect them to remain elevated for a sustained period until herds have had a chance to re-build.
Fourth, following a brief correction lower several weeks ago, palladium prices have risen back near to their previous highs of just under $900/oz. Palladium now appears expensive relative to near-substitute platinum; to precious and base metals generally; and relative to industrial commodities. The primary source of demand, autocatalysts, has remained strong due to auto production, but recent reports of rising unsold dealer inventory in a handful of major countries, including the US, may soon weaken demand. In the event that the fastest growing major auto markets—the BRICS—begin to slow, then a sharp decline in palladium to under $700 is likely.
Finally, a quick word on silver and gold. While both have tremendous potential to rise in a stagflationary environment, it is worth noting that, following a three-year correction, they appear to have found long-term support. Thus I believe there is both near-term and well as longer-term potential and I would once again recommend overweighting both vs industrial commodities.
1Von Mises not only warned of a financial crash and severe economic downturn in 1929; he refused the offer of a prominent position at the largest Austrian bank, Kreditanstalt, around the same time, not wanting to be associated with what he correctly anticipated would soon unfold. A Wall Street Journal article discussing this period in von Mises’ life is linked here.
2A classic revisionist view is that of Murray Rothbard, AMERICAS GREAT DEPRESSION. More recent scholarship by Lee Ohanian has added much additional detail to Rothbard’s work. I briefly touch on this subject in my book and also in a previous Amphora Report, THE RIME OF THE CENTRAL BANKER, linked here.
June’s FMQ components have now been released by the St Louis Fed, and it stands at a record $13.132 trillion. As can be seen in the chart above, it is $5.48 trillion more than an extension of the pre-Lehman crisis exponential growth trend. At this point readers not familiar with the construction of FMQ and its purpose may wish to refer to the original paper, here.
It should be borne in mind that there may be seasonal factors at play, with dips in the growth rate discernable at this time of year in the past. So the slower growth rate of FMQ, up $44bn between April and June when it might have risen $150-200bn, is not necessarily due to tapering of QE3. If tapering was responsible for slowing growth in FMQ, we could expect to see some tightening in short-term interest rates. But as the chart of 3-month T-bill rates shows they have been in a declining trend since last November.
The chart confirms that tapering seems to be having little or no effect on money markets and therefore the growth rate of fiat currency.
Weakness in interest rates is also consistent with poor economic demand. This week the first estimate of Q2 GDP was released which came in at an annualised 4%, substantially above market estimates of 3.1%. This outturn conflicts sharply with the lack of any meaningful demand for money, until one looks at the underlying estimates.
Of this 4% increase, the change in real private inventories added 1.66%. In other words GDP based on goods and services actually sold was only 2.34%. That changes in unsold goods, which is what inventories represent, should be part of final consumption is a dubious proposition, but need not concern us here. According to the technical note accompanying the release, figures for inventories and durable goods (which showed an incredible rise of 14%) are estimated and not hard data, so are subject to future revision. On this basis, the surprise GDP figure is little more than a government econometrician’s guess until the real data is available. Suspicions that these guesses err on the optimistic side are confirmed by the experience of the Q1 GDP figure, which was revised sharply downwards from first estimates when hard data eventually became available.
Whichever way we look at FMQ, it continues to expand at a frightening pace irrespective of the GDP outturn and its flaws. Furthermore, a look at the most recent Fed balance sheet confirms this view, showing that the 1st August figure will be considerably higher, unless there is an offsetting contraction of bank credit.
There is little sign of any such contraction. We can conclude from short-term market interest rates that the US economy is going nowhere fast, contrary to this week’s GDP estimate, and that demand for credit continues to come from essentially financial activities. But given that GDP estimates turn out to be far too optimistic, what if the US economy stalls or even slumps? Won’t that lead to a reversal of FMQ’s growth trend?
This is essentially the argument of the deflationists. In a slump they expect a dash from credit into cash as asset prices tumble. The counterpart of credit is deposits, the major components of FMQ. And without Fed intervention FMQ would rapidly contract. But in the event of a slump the Fed cannot be expected to stand idly by without taking extraordinary measures: in the words of Mario Draghi at the ECB, whatever it takes.