In the past months and right after implementing Quantitative Easing Unlimited Edition, the Fed began surfacing the idea that an exit strategy is at the door. With the latest releases of weak activity data worldwide, the idea was put back in the closet. However, a few analysts have already discussed the implications of the smoothest of all exit strategies: An exit without asset sales; a buy & hold exit. I have no doubt that as soon as allowed, the idea will resurface again.
Underlying all official discussions is the notion that an exit strategy is a “stock”, rather than a flow problem, that the Fed can make decisions independently of the fiscal situation of the US and that international coordination can be ignored. This is logically inconsistent and today’s letter will address these inconsistencies. Let’s see…
Monetary expansions are treated as a flow process
Conventional PhD wisdom on monetary things tells us that government deficits represent net credits to the system via reserves, as well as to non-government deposits at banks.
When it comes to bond purchases by the Fed, such wisdom implies that the US Treasury is assisting markets with liquidity. This is not new. As a student, I once heard that “governments must run deficits, so that markets can have a benchmark rate”. My professor meant that “thanks” to fiscal deficits, bonds are issued and markets can proceed with the price discovering process. Today of course, we don’t even have that luxury, courtesy of Quantitative Easing (Not happy with the lesson, I asked Dr. Julio H. Olivera his thoughts on this statement. He chuckled (although Dr. Olivera never really chuckled) and recalled a similar exchange with John Hicks. According to Dr. Olivera, when Hicks was faced with the same proposition, he replied: “The merchant makes the market”. Unfortunately, I cannot prove this exchange, but thought I would share it with you).
But monetary contractions are treated as a stock problem
Why do I bring this up? Because if deficits are welcome by the PhD standard when it comes to monetary expansions, surpluses should not be ignored, when dealing with monetary exit strategies. It’s only fair…Yet, in the past months there has been a timid incursion into the upcoming debate on exit strategies available to the Fed, but without a single comment on fiscal policies. By now, I have become used to typing CTRL+F “fiscal” (i.e. find “fiscal”), whenever I come across any research note on potential exit strategies. If nothing comes up, it looks suspicious to me.
Once such example was Bank of America’s April 10th note titled “The consequences of a “no sales” Fed exit strategy”, from the Global Economics Rates & FX team. This paper has not a single sentence or thought on the fiscal situation and Treasury issuance forecasts of the United States (the word “fiscal” only shows up once). They are not alone. How can mainstream economics afford to ignore the fiscal side of the problem when facing an exit strategy? They simply treat it as a “stock”, rather than a flow problem.
Terms of the “stock” perspective
As a stock problem, mainstream economists look at a “no sales” exit strategy by the Fed, in these terms:
1.-Not to sell means to hold, while principal and interest payments are reinvested.
2.-The target of a 6.5% unemployment rate is reached and there are signs of a firm recovery underway
3.-Losses on their US Treasuries portfolio are manageable, particularly since the Fed announced its accounting policy change on January 6th 2011, where capital losses may be treated as negative liabilities (Truly, you can’t make this stuff up). Even putting this fiction away, mainstream analysis is comfortable with a negative impact on the asset side of the Fed’s balance sheet. To assess that impact, reference is made in terms of 10-yr equivalent duration exposure held outside of the Fed. Growth of 10-yr equivalents is expected to stabilize. As I mentioned in the last letter on the Bank of Japan, I side with Shuichi Ohsaki and Shogo Fujita, from Bank of America’s Pac Rim Rates Research team, who argue that volatility in the Japanese bond market could be diminished if the BOJ announced a schedule for buying operations, with the amounts that would be purchased in each maturity sector. In other words, the market does not look at the stock of government debt as a block of exposure that is sizable in equivalent duration terms.
4.-Reserves management, via interest on reserves, can be used to send short-term signals to the market.
In the next sections, I will seek to demonstrate that it is a huge mistake to ignore the fiscal side of this dynamic picture, and that a smooth, no sales exit strategy is fiction. Moreover, I will show that this is a flow, rather than a stock problem. Before I proceed, let me offer you this interesting exchange between Stanley Druckenmiller and Kevin Warsh, which took place on March 5th (Druckenmiller’s intervention starts on minute 5:41)
The flow perspective of the “no sales” exit strategy
To simplify the exposition, let’s look at the cash flow situation of the US government. Like any of us, the government has to collect taxes and pay for expenses. For this particular discussion, it will not matter if the same are ordinary, extraordinary, operating, capital expenditures etc. All I want to do here is to separate this collection of taxes net of expenses –which I will call Primary Cash flow- from the cash flow that has to be used to service debt obligations. In other words, like any of us, the US government will have, after collecting taxes and paying expenses, a primary cash flow with which to service debt obligations:
If the Primary Cash flow (PCF) is not enough to service the debt, unlike us, the government can issue more debt (at least the US government; at least for now). Additionally, the government can liquidate assets. Therefore:
Let’s now look at the demand for the gross issuance and simplify it, saying that the same is purchased either by the Fed, by the rest of the central banks in the world, and by the rest of the world (ROW, i.e. anyone else in this planet who is not a central bank, either in the public or private sector). Under these terms:
Let’s assume that the government sells no assets. If the Fed stopped purchasing US sovereign debt but did not sell any holdings and kept reinvesting the interest and principal payments it received, re-arranging the terms, we obtain:
Let’s further call a Net Demand of one of the agents (i.e. central banks, rest of the world) the difference between its purchases and the collected interest and debt repayments. We can then say that under a “no sales” exit strategy of the Fed and without asset sales, the primary cash flow of the US government equals the sum of the net demands of the central banks and the rest of the world. This is valid at one point in time as well as when we consider the comparative statics of the issue (the term “D” below denotes temporal change in a variable, between t and t+1):
Having arrived to the identity above (the above notations are identities, not equations), let’s look at the context under which the “no sales” strategy would take place. It is a context of a firm recovery, as the Fed has told us and we have every grounds to believe that for this reason, interest rates would tend to rise, as capital moves out of fixed income and credit, into equities. This means that the Net Demand of US Treasuries by the Rest of the World will likely be negative (i.e. Drucknemiller’s observation) or zero, at best:
Let’s take the optimistic view that the Net Demand of the Rest of the World is zero (Clearly, Mr. Druckenmiller does not share this view…and he has every reason not to be). This means that if neither the Fed nor the Rest of the World add US Treasuries to their balance sheets, the primary cash flow of the US government has to be addressed by the Net Demand of central banks, exclusively.
We can think of three different scenarios for the primary cash flow of the US government: A scenario of surpluses (PCF >0), deficits (PCF <0) or balance (PCF = 0).
If the primary cash flow is negative
This is the toughest scenario. It implies that the negative primary cash flow of the US government will be financed by the central banks of the rest of the world. The question here is: Why would these central banks keep accumulating US Treasuries when the Fed itself does not? From here, it is very clear to me that in the presence of continuing fiscal deficits, regardless of where the unemployment rate is, the Fed has no alternative but to continue monetizing the deficits.
But let’s examine this case further. Let’s suppose that by some miraculous intervention, the central banks of the rest of the world would in fact resolve to continue purchasing US sovereign debt, even if the Fed itself wouldn’t. How would this process take place?
There are two ways. Either the currency zones these central banks operate in generate balance of trade surpluses or their respective nations incur into fiscal deficits.
In my last letter, I explained how the latter way worked in Japan under Shirakawa. With regards to the former, to expect a sustainable recovery in the United States (which is the a priori condition for an exit) within a context of fiscal deficits, increasing sovereign debt and balance of trade deficits is a contradiction. Yet some mainstream economists see this as something very feasible, whereby the Debt/GDP ratio falls because the denominator rises faster than the numerator. If this is true, then I am completely wrong and I have nothing else to say. If you believe in the sustainability of this context, please accept my apologies for having taken your time. If you don’t, please proceed to the next scenario analysis.
If the primary cash flow is positive
If the primary cash flow was positive, the Net Demand of the rest of the central banks would be negative. This would imply a strong and positive savings rate in the United States. The problem is to figure out how the United States can get to achieve a savings rate strong enough to get to this point, in a context of negative to zero interest rates, where nobody has any incentive to save and where the same Fed wants to boost consumption. I asked about this problem (i.e. how the savings rate will improve) to a very well-known economist who gave a presentation this past Wednesday April 24th, at the Oakville Community Foundation. His answer was that the stronger savings rate would come from the public sector. But this explanation seems to me a tautology (i.e. The US government will be cash flow positive because it will save)
The real question in the face of this problem is “What will push the US government and the US to save, when all its deficits are monetized and interest rates are negative?” This is not a new question. In fact, it occupied the mind of Jacques Rueff for decades. Perhaps the first time M. Rueff made public this concern was during an exchange with no other than the same John Maynard Keynes in 1929, during a conference at the Assembly of the League of Nations, in Geneva. M. Rueff suggested that there was indeed an adjustment mechanism for the balance of trade and Keynes asked how such an adjustment could be brought about.
Rueff explained that inflation is nothing else but the creation of purchasing power in a country without a counterpart increase in production. For that reason, it is only possible to run balance of trade deficitsindefinitely –like the US has done over the 20th and 21st centuries- if there is inflation. The opposite should also be true: In the absence of inflation, there would be a balance of trade surplus, until all debts are paid (as in this scenario, where the Net Demand of the rest of the central banks is negative).
In summary, to effect a negative Net Demand of the rest of the central banks in US Treasuries, the purchasing power of Americans should be decreased. But how will the United States ever achieve such a state of affairs, when the Fed targets a 6.5% unemployment rate precisely by inflating the purchasing power of Americans? If the Fed is successful, the opposite will have occurred and the nominal purchasing power of Americans will have increased. Therefore, a positive primary cash flow is not possible, as long as the Fed continues boosting asset prices.
How did Keynes react to this view? We have only the testimony of Jacques Rueff on this, which I reproduce below:
“…Et Keynes, qui marchait de long en large –c’était sur la scène d’un théâtre- s’est arrêté brusquement et a dit: “Tiens, mais, cela c’est une idée intéressante, il faudra que j’y réflechisse.”
Je dis cela à mon ami Largentaye, parce que c’est très important pour l’historie de la pensée keynesienne. Cela prouve qu’en 1929 la théorie de la dépense global n’était pas encore au point dans son (i.e. Keynes’) esprit et que c’est plus tard, dans l’ouvrage que M. de Largentaye a traduit, qu’elle s’est élaborée, d’abord dans le Traité sur la monnaie et, ensuite, dans la Théorie générale. Et cela indique, d’ailleurs, le caractère mouvant de sa pensée; ce n’est pas une critique que je lui adresse, c’est plutôt un éloge; c’était un des esprits les plus actifs qui fût…” (J. Rueff, Le système monétaire international”, presentation given at the Conseil Economique et Social, May 18th, 1965).
Finally, if the nominal purchasing power of Americans will not be decreased by the Fed, the real purchasing power will have to fall, with the devaluation of the US dollar. This is a logical conclusion. In a context of global monetary easing, this can only be achieved against gold and…. why not, commodities in general.
If the primary cash flow is zero
This is a simple theoretical conjecture, just like the existence of general equilibrium in the fractionary reserve system and shadow banking we live in. To discuss it is an intellectual exercise of dubious utility.
In this discussion, I sought to show that:
-The exit strategy of the Fed is not a stock, but a flow problem.
-Just like expansionary monetary policy must address fiscal policy, contractionary monetary policy cannot ignore fiscal deficits.
-The fiscal issue PRECEDES the monetary issue. Without first addressing fiscal policy, it is irrelevant whether or not a labour market objective is achieved (i.e. unemployment rate of 6.5%).
-Any analysis of a potential exit by the Fed that dismisses fiscal deficits and focuses on the management of the balance sheet of the Fed only is surreal. It is not enough to claim that buy & hold is better than selling.
-In the case of the Fed, international coordination is required for an exit strategy to succeed.
Bonus: Was Mr. Druckenmiller correct?
As you may have noticed, I was optimistic and assumed that the Net Demand of US Treasuries by central banks would increase (i.e. international coordination) and that the Net Demand of the Rest of the World would remain unchanged.
What I believe Mr. Druckenmiller had in mind is a more realistic picture, where the Net Demand of the central banks would remain unchanged, while that of the Rest of the World becomes increasingly negative. In this context, with the US government continuing to run negative primary cash flows and the Fed shifting from quantitative easing to a buy & hold stance, the supply of US Treasuries would increase and interest rates would rise exponentially. Mr. Druckenmiller was correct.
“…In my view, it was exactly because the Fed’s (undisclosed) intention was to engage in never ending Quantitative Easing, that Japan was forced to implement the policy undertaken by Kuroda. Coordination with the Fed was impossible…”
Over the past week, I had three main topics in my mind. Perhaps, I should have considered more, but these are them: The plunge of precious metals, the policy of the Bank of Japan, and the debate on the Fed exit tools. I don’t want to write about the latest manipulation of the precious metals, but I have to say that I came across what seemed to me a lot of nonsense. Maybe the weakest explanation is the one that simply states that “a correction was due”. And this explanation does not only come from those who don’t believe in gold. You have Marc Faber and Jim Rogers giving it too.
Below is a chart I used in a past letter. It shows the value of the US dollar in terms of Argentine pesos, both in the official and black market (blue line).
How do you think an Argentinian would react if I told him that the blue line is “due for a correction”? He would obviously laugh at me without mercy.Why can he afford to laugh at me? Because the US dollar market in Argentina is broken, and the paper USD market (i.e. certificates of deposit in US dollars), is no longer driving the market dynamic. The USD market in Argentina can therefore not be manipulated. It is driven by physical USD bills hidden under mattresses.
What about the value of the Deutsche Mark in gold during the ‘20s or the Yugoslavian dinar, in USDs, during the early ‘90s? Were those also not due for a correction? (charts below)….Just askin’…..
Technical analysis, both when the markets are broken (as in Argentina, Germany in the 1920’s or Yugoslavia in the ‘90s) or when they are rigged, is useless.
Let’s now concentrate on the events out of Japan. I know I am late to the party but after reading volumes of comments on this, I feel there is still something to be written. Most publications were limited to simply enumerating the changes in policy of the Bank of Japan (BOJ), while others just pointed out immediate, tactical consequences (i.e. volatility in Japanese Government Bonds, JGBs)…and then…then we had Robert Feldman, from Morgan Stanley, telling us that Japan may still be saved.
The main take away for me is that the BOJ shifted from a tactic of interventions (under former Governor Masaaki Shirakawa) to one of monetary policy (under current Governor Haruhiko Kuroda) . What strikes me is that the monetary policy is precisely to….well, destroy their money and in the process any chance of having a monetary policy.
How the Shirakawa intervention worked
In Japan, the FX intervention is carried out by the Ministry of Finance, rather than the Bank of Japan. In order to sell Yen to the FX market to devalue, under Shirakawa, the Ministry of Finance issued Finance Bills, which were “bought” by the Bank of Japan, in Yen. Let’s call these first issues Finance Bills “1” and Yen “1”, which were issued by the Ministry of Finance and the Bank of Japan, respectively, as shown in the graph below (step 1). The Ministry of Finance was issuing “on credit”, because the issuance was going to later be repaid with funds obtained from the market:
Next, with the Yen1, the Ministry of Japan bought USDs in the FX market (step 2). The price of Yen in terms of USDs dropped as its supply increased. At this point, the amount of Yen circulating in the market was higher than before this intervention took place. This increase in supply is the amount I call Yen1.
To bring the supply of Yen back to the original amount in circulation, the Ministry of Finance issued Finance bills in the market. I will call this issuance Finance Bills 2, which are shown below (step 3). The amount of Finance Bills 2 equaled that of the first issuance, Finance Bills 1, and raises Yen2, so that Yen1=Yen2:
Of course, as the Ministry of Finance went to the market to place Finance Bills 2, with this new issuance, the supply of government debt in Yen increased. As in any other bond market, as supply grew, yields tended to rise (i.e. price tended to fall), to encourage market participants to buy the increased supply.
Once the amount Yen2 was in the balance sheet of the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry used it to repay its outstanding debt with the Bank of Japan, which I called Finance Bills 1. Therefore, once this payment was done (with a lag), the balance sheet of the Bank of Japan remained unchanged and Yen1 were taken out of circulation. The Ministry of Finance had US dollars on the asset side of its balance sheet, matched by Finance Bills 2 on the liabilities side, as shown in the graph below (step 4):
The graphs above show the balance sheets of all the participants in this intervention: The Ministry of Finance, the Bank of Japan, the FX market and the Yen Government debt market. But it is also be interesting to show the intervention in terms of cash flows. In the graph below, we can see that de facto, the Ministry of Finance ended up as intermediary between the Government debt market and the FX market. In essence, the intervention “moved” Yen from the Government debt market to the FX market, and this was a “fragile” movement, because it was simple arbitrage.
Whenever an asset has two different prices, arbitrage arises and fixes the “anomaly”. You may wonder why I imply that the Yen had two different prices. I want answer with another question: Why would the JGB market need a “middle-man” (see graph below) to provide Yen to the FX market? It didn’t!
The JGB market was “not willing” to buy US dollars (i.e. provide Yen) from the FX market at a loss (i.e. buying US dollars at above market prices). Who ended up taking the loss? Who ended up buying US dollars at above 80-82 Yen per dollar? The Ministry of Finance did, which meant the average Japanese tax payer! The Japanese taxpayer subsidized the big exporting conglomerates of Japan, so that these would provide “financing” to the American consumer who remains broke. The subsidy was significant because as we saw in the graphs above, two things take place simultaneously: a) Interest rates in Yen would tend to increase (i.e. price of Yen Finance Bills will tend to fall) and b) the holders of Yen (i.e. Japanese consumer) lost purchasing power. Given the demand for JGBs, the temporary nature of the interventions (which did not shape inflation expectations) and the short-term of the debt purchased, the marginal effect of issuing Finance bills 2 was not relevant (i.e. on interest rates).
In the long term, with these interventions, the Ministry of Finance had P&L risk (i.e. the risk of having a loss, if the USD depreciates further) which could only be addressed with higher debt (i.e. higher interest rates) or higher taxes. Under intervention, the Profit/Loss position of the Ministry of Finance was determined by:
P&L = D US dollars (in its Assets) / D t – D Finance Bills 2 / D t
Whenever the Fed undertook quantitative easing and the value of the US dollar fell, it generated a negative mark-to-market to the Ministry of Finance’s position (if they indeed mark themselves to market).
How the Kuroda policy works
Under Mr. Kuroda’s leadership, the BOJ will not be manipulating interest rates (i.e. price), but will target the monetary base (i.e. volume). The problem is that he pretends to be in control of both, when the fact is that this ancient truth holds: One can only control price or volume, but not both simultaneously.
The new policy consists of:
1.- Increasing the monetary base at an annual speed of JPY60-70 trillion (stock of JPY200 trillion by Dec/13 and JPY 270 trillion by Dec/14).
2.- To accomplish No. 1, the BOJ will purchase approx. JPY7 trillion in JGBs/month, on a gross basis. On a net basis (i.e. net of repayments), holdings of JGBs will rise by JPY50 trillion/year.
3.- JGBs purchased will include long-term issues (incl. 40-year, previously limited to 3-year maturities), raising the average remaining tenor of the BOJ holdings from 3 to about 7 years.
4.- Achieving a 2% inflation level as soon as possible
5.-Purchases will include also ETFs and REITs (Japanese)
With the Shirakawa intervention the market had to assume that the devaluing efforts were temporary, or at least not within a specific time frame, and consistent with a policy of keeping interest rates at zero. Challenging the BOJ was a frustrating experience. Under Mr. Kuroda however (and here is where I disagree with mainstream analysis), Japan is entering the uncharted waters of a Latin American-style inflationary spiral (very similar to the plan implemented by the late Martinez de Hoz, also called “La Tablita”).
The chart below shows the balance sheets of the involved economic agents:
As you can see, there is nothing fancy here. Given the magnitude of the monetary expansion, what is a big unknown is what will the net aggregate reallocation of JGB holdings be, outside the Ministry of Finance. Because the BOJ will not only buy issuance of the Ministry of Finance, but also existing stock of JGBs. For now, it is all speculation and the flows are monitored closely. The reader will find plenty of research material on where Japanese banks, pensions, insurers and households will reallocate the JGBs that they sell (if they sell them). I think they are and will be exponentially selling them, because the pace of the devaluation in the Yen will generate tangible profits to those doing so.
When one owns a fixed income asset with a negative interest rate, it is difficult to grasp that purchasing power is being destroyed. The asset is benchmarked against an arbitrary consumer price index. If at the same time there is a certain, known rate of devaluation in the currency of denomination of that asset, there is still difficulty in assessing whether if, in terms of other goods in the same currency (but not in terms of imports), value is being destroyed.
However, there is no doubt that under a known rate of devaluation, if that fixed income asset is swapped for another one denominated in the appreciating currency, there will be a profit. In the case of Kuroda’s policy, because the devaluation is not a one-and-for-all event but a certain, over-no-less-than-2-years process, the devaluation of the yen morphs into a “rate” of appreciation of foreign assets and prices of imported goods.
This rate of appreciation is thereforefungible into another magnitude: Yen-denominated yields. Therefore, a circularity ensues: Yen-denominated yields/spreads will incorporate devaluation expectations. As yields/spreads rise, the Bank of Japan will be forced to buy more JGBs, to keep yields within a level that it deems tolerable. As the BOJ buys more JGBs, the devaluation will likely accelerate.
It is important to understand that this circular, spiraling process can take place regardless of the RELATIVE reallocations done by the Japanese banks, pensions, insurers and households. What matters is that as more Yen is printed, more Yen is available and it devalues vs. the USD. The speed of devaluation will indeed be influenced by the relative reallocations above.
Additional observations on volatility and growth
Kuroda’s policy has and will continue to generate enormous volatility in the JGB market. That same volatility was likely a factor enhancing the effects of the manipulation in gold.
With regards to volatility in JGBs, I found interesting a suggestion made by Shuichi Ohsaki and Shogo Fujita, from Bank of America’s Pac Rim Rates Research team, dated April 11th. According to the authors, the volatility could be diminished if the BOJ announced a schedule for buying operations, with the amounts that would be purchased in each maturity sector. In other words, it would help if the BOJ would improve its communications strategy. What I find of interest in this suggestion is that it is contrary to an increasing common belief regarding exit strategies available to the Fed. Indeed, when it comes to assessing the possible impact of balance sheet management by the Fed, analysts advise that we look at its US Treasury holdings in terms of 10-year duration equivalents. The actual distribution of maturities in the Fed’s holding is perhaps not so relevant. Ironically, this wisdom also comes from the Bank of America, although from a different team (i.e. Brian Smedley, Global Economics Rates & FX, “The consequences of a “no sales” Fed exit strategy”, April 10th, 2013), as well as from BMO Capital Markets (Dimitri Delis, March 25th, 2013). Personally, I side with the view of Ohsaki and Fujita: To me, distribution matters as much to the BOJ as it will to the Fed.
With regards to the impact on real growth of the Kuroda’s policy, I cannot mince words: It will be disastrous. Whenever the medium of indirect exchange of a nation is destroyed, no growth can ever be expected. The coordination process needed to allocate resources is seriously impaired. And to explicitly have the central bank tell their people that the monetary base will be doubled within two years is nothing short of destroying their medium of indirect exchange.
For some reason (unknown to me), Robert Feldman (Morgan Stanley, April 4th and April 17th, 2013) is more optimistic. He believes that Japan still has a chance, if the country implements what he refers to a “third arrow” policy. Feldman’s third arrow policy is a list of actions that would promote growth, in agriculture, medical care, energy, employment and electoral system….I wonder whether Mr. Feldman seriously asked himself why any initiative in these fields would require that the monetary base of the country be doubled by the end of 2014…
With the interventions under Shirakawa, the Bank of Japan did not need to sterilize, as it is clear from the mechanism previously described. The BOJ’s balance sheet remained unchanged at the end of the intervention. This supposedly meant that the BOJ was independent. However, given the resulting long USD risk position by the Ministry of Finance (see step 4 above), in the long term, coordination with the Fed would have been required. In my view, it was exactly because the Fed’s (undisclosed) intention was to engage in never ending Quantitative Easing, that Japan was forced to implement the policy undertaken by Kuroda. Coordination with the Fed was impossible.
With Mr. Kuroda’s policy, we now have the BOJ with a balance sheet objective, the Fed with a labour market objective (or so they want us to believe), the European Central Bank with a financial system stability objective (or a Target 2 balance objective) and the People’s Bank of China (and the Bank of Canada) with soft-landing objective . It is clear that any global coordination in monetary policy is completely unfeasible. The only thing central banks are left to coordinate is the suppression of gold.
In the same fashion that I proposed an analytic framework for 2012, I want to lay out today what I think will be the big themes of 2013. Their drivers were established in September 2012, and I sought to give a thorough description of them here, here and here.
An analytic framework for 2013
In one sentence, during 2013, I expect imbalances to grow. These imbalances are theUS fiscal and trade deficits, the fiscal deficits of the members of the European Monetary Union (EMU) and the unemployment rate of the EMU thanks to a stronger Euro. A stronger Euro is the consequence of capital inflows driven by the elimination of jump-to-default risk in EMU sovereign debt. Below is a drawing I made to help visualize these concepts:
The drawing shows a circular dynamic playing out: The threat of the European Central Bank to purchase the debt of sovereigns (that submit to a fiscal adjustment program) eliminates the jump-to-default risk of this asset class. As explained and forecasted in September, this threat also forces a convergence in sovereign yields within the EMU, to lower levels. As long as the market perceives that the solvency of Germany is not affected, the Bund yields will not rise to that convergence level. So far, the market seems not to see that (Possunt quia posse uidentur). But the resulting appreciation of the Euro will eventually address that illusion.
This convergence, in my view, is behind the recent weakness in Treasuries. I proposed this thesis last September. However, the ongoing weakness in Treasuries does not mean I was right. In fact, I fear I may have been right for the wrong reasons. The negotiations on the US fiscal deficit and the latest announcement of the Fed with regards to debt monetization quantitative easing to infinity may also be behind this move. But until proven wrong, I will cautiously hold to my thesis.
The above factors drove capital inflows back to the European Monetary Union and strengthened the Euro. I believe this strength will last longer than many can endure. The circularity of this all resides in that the strength of the Euro will make unemployment and fiscal deficits a structural feature of the EMU, forcing the ECB to keep the threat of and eventually implementing the Open Monetary Transactions. The alternative is a social uprising and that will not be tolerated by the Euro kleptocracy.
All this -and particularly the strength of the Euro- is not sustainable. Ad infinitum, it would create a Euro so strong that the periphery would drag coreEuropein its bankruptcy. But while it lasts, the compression in sovereign yield will mask the increasing default risks in Euro corporate debt, specially the one denominated in US dollars. Both have been fuelling the rise in the value of equities globally.
The unsustainable framework rests upon the shoulders of the Federal Reserve, which thanks to the established USD swaps and unlimited Quantitative Easing, has completely coupled its balance sheet to that of the European Central Bank. In the end, as this new set of relative prices between asset classes sets in, it will be more difficult for the European Central Bank to sterilize the Open Monetary Transactions.
History provides an example of the current growth in imbalances
By now, it should be clear that the rally in equities is not the reflection of upcoming economic growth. Paraphrasing Shakespeare, economic growth “should be made of sterner stuff”.
Under the current framework, the European Central Bank can afford to engage in the purchase of sovereign debt because the Fed is indirectly financing the European private sector. The Fed does so with the backstop of USD swaps and tangible quantitative easing, which provides cheap USD funding to European banks and thus avoids a credit contraction of the sorts we began to see at the end of 2011.
This same structure was in place between the Federal Reserve and the central banks of France and England in 1927, 1928 and 1929 and, as a witness declared, “(it)transformed the depression of 1929 into the Great Depression of 1931”. Something tells me that this time however it will be different. It will be worse. That little something is the determination of the new Japanese government to devalue its currency via purchases of European sovereign debt (ESM debt).
How fragile is this Entente?
Most analysts I have read/heard, focus on the political fragility of the framework. And they are right. The uncertainty over theUSdebt ceiling negotiations and the fact that prices today do not reflect anything else but the probability of a bid or lack thereof by a central bank makes politics relevant. Should the European Central Bank finally engage in Open Monetary Transactions, the importance of politics would be fully visible.
From earlier letters, you know that I believe quasi-fiscal deficits (i.e. deficits from a central bank) are a necessary condition for a meltdown to occur, and that these usually appear when deposits begin to seriously evaporate. So far, capital is leaving main street (via leveraged share buybacks and dividends), but at the same time, it is being parked at banks in the form of deposits. The case of Wells Fargo and the temporary pause in the flight of deposits from the periphery of the European Union suggest that the process towards a meltdown, if any (and I believe there will be one), will be a long agony. Furthermore, in the short term, at the end of January, European banks have the option to repay the money lent by the European Central Bank in the Long-Term Refinancing Operations from a year ago, on a weekly basis. I expect them to repay enough to cause more pain to those still long of gold (including me, of course).
As anticipated in my previous letter, today I want to discuss the topic of high or hyperinflation: What triggers it? Is there a common feature in hyperinflations that would allow us to see one when it’s coming? If so, can we make an educated guess as to when to expect it? The analysis will be inductive (breaking with the Austrian method) and in the process, I will seek to help Peter Schiff find an easy answer to give the media whenever he’s questioned about hyperinflation. If my thesis is correct, three additional conclusions should hold: a) High inflation and high nominal interest rates are not incompatible but go together: There cannot be hyperinflation without high nominal interest rates, b) The folks at the Gold Anti-Trust Action Committee will eventually be out of a job, and c) Jim Rogers will have been proved wrong on his recommendation to buy farmland.
(Before we deal with these questions, a quick note related to my last letter: A friend pointed me to this article in Zerohedge.com, where the problem on liquidity being diverted back to shareholders in the form of share buybacks and dividends was exposed, before I would bring it up, on my letter of March 4th. )
A forensic analysis on dead currencies
When I think of hyperinflation, I think of dead currencies. They are the best evidence. There is a common pattern to be found in every one of them and no, I am not talking of six-to-eight-figure denomination bills or shortages of goods. These are just symptoms. Behind the death of every currency in modern times, there has been a quasi-fiscal deficit causing it. Thus, briefly, when someone asks: What causes hyperinflations? The answer is: Quasi-fiscal deficits! Why have we not seen hyperinflation yet? Because we have not had quasi-fiscal deficits!
What is a quasi-fiscal deficit?
A quasi-fiscal deficit is the deficit of a central bank. From Germany to Argentina to Zimbabwe, the hyper or high inflationary processes have always been fueled by such deficits. Monetized fiscal deficits produce inflation. Quasi-fiscal deficits (by definition, they are monetized) produce hyperinflation. Remember that capital losses due to the mark down of assets do not affect central banks: They simply don’t need to mark to market. They mark to model.
The only losses that can meaningfully affect central banks stem from flows (i.e. deficits), like net interest losses. These losses result from paying a higher interest on their (i.e. central banks’) liabilities than what they receive from their assets. These losses leave central banks no alternative but to monetize them, in a deadly feedback loop. They are like black holes: Once trapped into them, there is no way out, because (fiscal) spending cuts are no longer relevant, unless they produce a surplus material enough to offset the quasi-fiscal deficits. And that, by definition, is impossible.
This raises questions like: Why would a central bank need to pay interest on its liabilities? Why would the monetization of the losses necessarily lead to a spiralling process?
Why would a central bank need to pay interest on its liabilities?
This is a key point to understand inflation. According to mainstream economists, inflation is a process that pops once the potential output gap of a currency zone is eliminated. Inflation is the consequence of reaching full employment of resources, they say, and place the situation within the context of “hydraulics”. In the figure below, I illustrate this context, showing two glasses: One is not full, and therefore, there should not be inflationary pressures.
Please, do not laugh at the figure. It also contains a citation from a speech given by Fed’s Governor Jeremy C. Stein a few months ago, that uses this same metaphor to illustrate how the Fed thinks about their policies. If it wasn’t so sad, it would be comic. And it is sad because there is absolutely no historical evidence of a nation sustainably living under inflation that would have reached full employment. In fact, it is quite the opposite: Inflation breeds unemployment, which breeds shortages and further inflation. This is why this whole situation is so sad. Millions of lives have been and will continue to be ruined because of this error.
The truth is however that inflation and financial repression are inseparable. They are different faces of the same coin, and as inflation develops, financial repression morphs into plain confiscation. As at December 2012, we have only had increasing financial repression, mostly in the form of price manipulation. Some of this manipulation is open, as with interest rates, and some of it is covered, as with gold, the consumer price index or the unemployment rate. But as the US fiscal deficits grows, the manipulation will be increasingly open and the fear of confiscation will be very tangible. Yes, the manipulation will be so open that even the GATA (Gold Anti-Trust Action Committee) will completely lose its raisond’être. It will be worthless to expose what will be public.
With regards to the fear of confiscation, there is a good example in the drop in deposits from the banks in the periphery of the Euro zone. Any rational investor could see that his bank was being coerced into purchasing the worthless debt of its sovereign and that the likelihood of being caught in a bank run was exponentially rising. Policy makers in the Euro zone chose not to confiscate. It was too early to do so, in the presence of other alternatives. But deposits dropped nevertheless, and to restore them, the European Central Bank will have to pay higher interest rates on its sterilized purchases, when it finally engages in Open Monetary Transactions (i.e. purchase of sovereign debt with maturity under three years). I explained this in September: Since the backstop of the ECB removes jump-to-default risk from the front end (i.e. 1 to 3 years, in sovereign debt), selling the sovereign debt to the central bank for cash will be a losing proposition for banks. The Euro zone banks will demand that the purchases be sterilized, to receive central bank debt in exchange and at an acceptable interest rate. This rate will have to be higher than it currently is. This is why, in my opinion, we are seeing a stronger Euro and weaker Treasuries.
Why would a government want to maintain a certain level of deposits?
Governments need bank deposits to fund the bonds they force their banks to buy. The regulations, the pressure on the bankers, the open threats are all part of the same means to coerce bankers to fund their debts with your savings. Is this what was behind the failed moves in 2012 to destroy the US money market funds?
Essentially, hyperinflation is the ultimate and most expensive bailout of a broken banking system, which every holder of the currency is forced to pay for in a losing proposition, for it inevitably ends in its final destruction. Hyperinflation is the vomit of economic systems: Just like any other vomit, it’s a very good thing, because we can all finally feel better. We have puked the rotten stuff out of the system.
Why would depositors not want to renew deposits?
Whenever the weight of deficits passes a certain milestone, people begin to flee en masse from the system. They not only take their savings from the system, but they generate income outside it too. This has happened since times immemorial. Below is a picture of buried coins, found in Hertfordshire. They are presumed to have been hoarded in 4th century during the final years of Roman rule.
Then and now, the tax pressure ended breaking capital markets and trade. In the early stages, everyone seeks to stop investing and collect by any means whatever capital that can be recovered. Nobody should be surprised if, with these low interest rates, the wave of share buybacks and dividend payments increases. The shrinkage of the system exacerbates the fall in tax revenue and the intervention of central banks, leading to the self fulfilling outcome of quasi-fiscal deficits. Production falls and the shortage of goods, together with the increase in the circulation of money, triggers high inflation. Price controls follow. If this is correct, Jim Rogers is wrong and you should not buy farmland. Farming will not be profitable. The increase in food prices would not be a signal to encourage farming, but the reflection of the fact that farming is not profitable because it is easy to tax. Hence, the food shortages. The same applies to real estate in general, as the rule of the mob spreads and the rights of debtors and tenants are favoured over those of creditors and landlords. Hyperinflation therefore is not just a run from a currency, but from the economic system entirely. Thousands of years of Diaspora are screaming to us in the face that the advantage of gold as an easy-to-transport and store asset is not to be underestimated.
Why have we not seen a quasi-fiscal deficit yet and how close are we to see one?
I think that at this point one can easily see how high nominal interest rates (to attract deposits) and hyperinflation go together. The loss of confidence in the system pushes nominal rates higher, which causes even more pain to produce, unleashing shortages of goods and higher prices. Von Mises, for instance, remembered that in the case of the German hyperinflation, “…With a (my note: nominal) 900 per cent interest rate in September 1923 the Reichsbank was practically giving money away…” (Chapter 7, in “Money, Method, and the Market Process”).
Frankly, I do not have a definitive answer to the question of why we have not seen a quasi-fiscal deficit yet. But I can intuit that we are still far from seeing one. There are many factors at play. The existence of coercive pension plans (i.e. monies coercively taken from salaries to fund collective distributions) could be playing an important role. These funds are “other peoples’ monies” to their managers and they will not risk their careers to protect them from governments that force them to assign a zero risk weight to US Treasury holdings. It is conceivable that as funds are burdened with losses, the contributors wake up to them and decide that at a certain point, one is better off working outside the system than in it, to avoid this hidden tax. Just like Romans left the city, millions of workers in the developed world may decide to become self-employed and leave the system. This is a typical characteristic of under-developed economies.
So far, the Federal Reserve does not even need to sterilize what it prints. The European Central Bank did have to sterilize but the market does not demand an interest rate on its liabilities, higher than that of the sovereign debt it purchases. Not yet…Perhaps because the market somehow still believes that institutional structure of the European Monetary Union is fixable. Further downgrades in the risk rating of core Europe, the concurrent rise in the yields ofGermany’s sovereign debt and corporate defaults in USD denominated bonds will eventually wipe this belief. For now, the European Central Bank has been successful in not even having to pay interest on deposits.
If I have to think of a main and most likely trigger of quasi-fiscal deficits, I have to name the future bailout of the next wave in corporate defaults, particularly from the Euro zone.
“…If you tax a nation to death, destroy its capital markets, nourish its unemployment, condemn it to an expensive currency and give its corporations liquidity at stupidly low costs you can only expect one outcome: Defaults….”
Let’s now briefly follow up on each of the market themes I covered in 2012:
1.-There has been no decoupling: The Euro zone is coupled to the US dollar zone
At the end of 2011, when the collapse of the banking system in the Euro zone (courtesy of M. Trichet) was dragging the rest of the world, the Swiss National Bank established a peg on the Franc to the Euro and the Federal Reserve extended and cheapened its currency swaps with the European Central Bank. These two measures –indirectly- coupled the fate of the assets in the balance sheets of the Euro zone banks to the balance sheets of the central banks of Switzerland and the US.
As in any other Ponzi scheme, when the weakest link breaks, the chain breaks. The risk of such a break-up, applied to economics, is known as systemic risk or “correlation going to 1”. As the weakest link (i.e. the Euro zone) was coupled to the chain of the Fed, global systemic risk (or correlation) dropped. Apparently, those managing a correlation trade in IG9 (i.e. investment grade credit index series 9) for a well-known global bank did not understand this. But it would be misguided to conclude that the concept has now been understood, because there are too many analysts and fund managers who still interpret this coupling as a success at eliminating or decreasing tail risk. No such thing could be farther from the truth. What they call tail risk, namely the break-up of the Euro zone is not a “tail” risk. It is the logical consequence of the institutional structure of the European Monetary Union, which lacks fiscal union and a common balance sheet. I am not in favour of such, but in its absence, to think that the break-up is a tail risk is to hide one’s head in the sand. And to think that because corporations and banks in the Euro zone now have access to cheap US dollar funding, the recession will not bring defaults, will be a very costly mistake. Those potential defaults are not a tail risk either: If you tax a nation to death, destroy its capital markets, nourish its unemployment, condemn it to an expensive currency and give its corporations liquidity at stupidly low costs you can only expect one outcome: Defaults. The fact that they shall be addressed with even more US dollars coming from the Fed in no way justifies complacency.
In January of 2012, I laid out an analytic framework to visualize the dynamics between these two currency zones. I reproduce the figure below without comment, as it is self explanatory:
In February, I anticipated that the European Central Bank was eventually going to need to floor the value of sovereign debt. It took about seven more painful months to see this take place, with the announcement of the Open Monetary Transactions. With this in mind, I suggested not to chase the stock rally and warned that shorting the euro would be a painful trade.
2.- Manipulation in the gold market
From my years at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, I always remember professors J. M. Fanelli and Daniel Heymann, because they used to and still think that policy makers (in Argentina) had no choice but to “manage” the price of the US dollar (vs. the peso) to fight inflation. The value of the US dollar, in pesos, was a signal that shaped inflation expectations, according to them. In the same fashion, I am convinced that those at the helm of the G7 central banks believe that to shape inflation expectations and avoid the burst of the bond bubble, they need to manage the price of gold. And that is exactly what they have been doing (via swaps, leases from their deposits at below market rates), since Standard & Poor’s downgraded the sovereign risk rating of the US. They are wrong of course and in time, it will prove to have been an expensive decision. The proof? Movements like the $100/oz drop upon the announcement of the second Long-term Refinancing Operation at the end of February. Nobody who lives marked to market would ever dump so much gold in seconds in a market, let alone do so sustainably and predictably, as it often happens, between 10am and 11am ET. I am convinced that had it not been for this manipulation, gold would have had a stellar performance this year. But how serious can I sound debating a counter-factual statement?
3.-Liquidity will not fund capital expenditures but share buybacks, dividends
In March, we were perhaps the first to suggest that the US dollar liquidity enabled by the Fed via swaps was going to be used to buy back shares and distribute dividends, rather than finance capital expenditures (I say “perhaps” because a few days later David Rosenberg expressed the same view). This is a typical outcome of financial repression. Nations under financial repression generate bankrupt companies owned by wealthy owners. Time will tell but so far, numerous articles have been suggesting that this trend is taking place (Eric Beinstein, from JP Morgan, shows evidence to the contrary, in his latest Credit Markets Outlook report). Because of this, I proposed that as a trading theme, one should buy the product, rather than the producers, which is a winning trade in inflationary environments. Therefore, the suggestion was to buy gold, rather than gold miners.
4.-To defend their currency, the Euro zone destroyed its capital markets
(At this stage, I think no comments are needed on this point, which I made in March.)
5.- Sovereign debt owned by other sovereigns is a concern
In March too, I noticed that the situation in 2012 resembles that of 1931, as Greece and increasingly other peripheral EU countries owe to other governments, the IMF and the European Central Bank. Private investors have been wiped out and just like in 1931 (when France, for political reasons, allowed the KreditAnstalt to go bankrupt), when the next bailout is due, political conditions will be demanded that no private and rational investor would demand.
6.-Canada’s story will be different
In April, I proposed that the Canadian context was different and that rather than expect contagion from the banking system to the government, in Canada, we should expect contagion from the government to the banking system. I still expect this deterioration to be triggered by an exogenous development (i.e. outside Canada) and the reaction of the Canadian dollar to the revised unemployment rate on December 7th may be telling us that this view has merit.
7.- September marked a tectonic shift
I will not elaborate on the points below. I wrote extensively about them in September (see here, here and here), but I need to mention them because they are very relevant for the next year. These points, I must clarify, are my best case scenario, because the necessary condition for their validity is that Spain and any other peripheral country in need of a bailout asks for one and receives the support of the European Central Bank (ECB) in exchange :
-The market will arbitrage the rates of core Europe and its periphery, converging into a single Euro zone target yield (with higher German rates).
-We will no longer be able to talk about “the” risk-free rate of interest, when we refer to the US sovereign yield. Inflation expectations will pick up
-The Canadian dollar should not rise significantly above the US dollar (i.e. above $1.04 per 1 CAD).
-The ECB backstop (i.e. purchase of sovereign debt) generates capital gains for the banks of the Euro zone and transforms risky sovereign debt into a carry product (i.e. an asset whose price is mostly driven by the interest it pays, rather than its risk of default, because this risk has been removed by the central bank)
This implies that in the future, sterilization at low rates or the suggested negative deposit rates at the European Central Bank, under Open Monetary Transactions, will not be feasible. Banks will demand high rates in exchange, if they are to sell the debt to the central bank.
In my next letter, and likely the last one of the year, I will address the topic of why we have not yet seen high or hyper inflation and what is necessary, in general, to see this phenomenon take place. The letter will go dedicated to Peter Schiff. In it, I will seek to show that unlike Keynesian economists believe, not only are high nominal interest rates compatible with high inflation, but in fact they are a necessary condition for high inflation to exist and morph into hyperinflation. This is a paradox to mainstream economics…and, coming from Argentina, I love paradoxes.
A final observation, on method
As my approach is within the Austrian school, you may have noticed that I use praxeology. ( “a theorem of a praxeological science provides information that has been derived by sheer reasoning; it is the product of pure logic without the assistance of any empirical observation”, I. Kirzner). Hence, you find almost no statistics in my articles. My aversion to them is due to my view that the national accounting system used to date is simply a barbaric relic of mercantilist doctrine. But that’s a story for another time… I walk through problems using simple axioms and test their logic with identities (i.e. balance sheets). Mainstream economists, on the other hand, use equations. Hence, they need to “torture” their stats to prove their propositions, because they are inductive. I use deduction.
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