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.
“…despite the gigantic efforts of the Fed, during early 1933, to inflate the money supply, the people took matters into their own hands, and insisted upon a rigorous deflation…” M. Rothbard, ““America’s Great Depression””
We are as deceived as you are with the policy decisions undertaken by the European Union (EU) and the US. As we muddle through their consequences, today we take a moment to offer a few thoughts…
-On the EU: Banking Union, bailout funds and other tricks
After the second LTRO (i.e. long-term refinancing operation) and the Greek debt swap exchange (in March), the likelihood of the break-up of the European Monetary Union has risen exponentially, and continues to rise. Along with this trend, cross border lending by banks continues to fall and flight of capital from the periphery remains in place. The fear of a final collapse is there and rumours of a pending banking union were thrown at the markets.
A banking union, if true and under whatever form it takes, requires a final omni guarantor, backed by an omni pool of resources, funded by an omni tax. This means that the required step of a EU fiscal union is still the only solution to the (only) problem. As we repeated since 2010: This is an institutional crisis! The same analogy is applicable to any bailout fund that “they” may want to throw at us. EFSF? ESM? You name it, they are all useless. They all need an omni guarantee. To think otherwise is simply delusional and a waste of time. Fiscal union, on the other hand, is not possible overnight. It demands constitutional changes. Any strength in the Euro upon these rumors should be faded.
-The European Central Bank (ECB), its collateral and Argentina:
On Friday, the ECB announced that it will reduce the rating threshold and amend the eligibility requirements for certain collateral. In other words, the ECB is accepting lower rated assets to back its liabilities, i.e. the Euro. This brings the European Monetary Union closer to an “Argentina 2001” moment. Why? Argentina suffered from a fast deterioration because its banks, after years of hyperinflation and the confiscation of the 1989 Bonex Plan could only fund themselves via deposits. The European Union banks are getting dangerously close to that stage: Raising equity is no longer an option, unsecured funding has been subordinated by past bailouts, available assets to encumber are almost non-existent at this point (which is precisely why the ECB had to accept lower rated assets on Friday). Therefore, the only fools still funding the banks, at least the banks in core Europe (because banks in the periphery live on liquidity lines from the ECB) are the depositors. We want to believe that majority of these deposits come from corporations, whose treasurers deposit other peoples’ (i.e. the corporations’ shareholders’) monies. Otherwise, we would be underestimating the intelligence of the people of the European Union, and we don’t.
Given the circularity in the solution proposed by the leaders of the EU (i.e. banks buy debt from bankrupt nations; the banks go insolvent and are “saved” by the bankrupt nations, which in turn, are now even more insolvent), it is only a matter of time until the very deposits of EU banks are challenged, after every last asset owned by the banks is downgraded to junk and pledged to the central bank. This brings us to the next point…
-Who leaves first?
With the outlook of former austerity programs (which never got to be implemented, by the way) being relaxed, to “promote growth”, we now believe that it is likely that Germany be the first to leave the European Monetary. The latest action in bunds (i.e. Germany’s sovereign debt) seems to indicate that we are not alone with this thought. Here is why: If a peripheral country is seen as likely to leave the monetary union, the flight of deposits from that country to Germany’s banks appreciates Germany’s sovereign debt and its yields drop, as it has, to negative territory. But if those countries are perceived to stay, as it was after the Greek’s election during the past weekend, then Germany will have to foot the bill. Therefore, the value of its sovereign debt will fall and its yield rise. This is precisely what occurred in the past days. The question is: When will Germany leave? To which we answer in these simple terms: Germany will leave only when the cost of staying surpasses that of leaving. Under both scenarios (staying or leaving) there is a cost. The cost of staying, is a higher yield on Germany’s debt. How high? Potentially, to the magical 7% that Spain has touched and Italy is on its way to touch. Germany would leave before then, as the unthinkable (i.e.Germanyout of the capital markets) takes place. The cost of leaving would be represented by the defaults of the countries that stay, on their obligations to the Bundesbank (for the liquidity lines they enjoyed under Target 2). We think (and explained in our last letter) that this cost can be mitigated, if no capital controls are imposed and bi-monetarism is embraced. This would allow banks –both in Germany and the periphery- to take deposits in Euros and in the new local currencies. Under this scenario, the European Central Bank would not be dissolved. However, if Germany left first, we doubt there would be any incentive from the rest of the countries to allow the existence of Euro-denominated deposits.
-Operation Twist, Part Two
We are not going to add noise to the decision by the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to extend its purchases of long-term US Treasuries and selling, in equal amount, short-term US Treasuries. We are only surprised (very much) by the fact that every analyst, fund manager or media anchor judges the decisions of the FOMC –past, present and future ones- by their impact on the private sector: On activity, on the labour market, on asset prices, etc. Why is nobody openly saying that in a country where fiscal deficits are higher than $100BN per month, the central bank has no alternative but to buy and monetize fiscal debt? Why is nobody linking the deficit and the purchases? Who can really believe that the US are not kicking the can? Who can really think that there will not be, eventually, straight debt purchases?
-The unintended consequences of zero-rate policies, from a micro perspective.
From our lessons in corporate finance, as students, we remember that equity is the riskiest part of a company’s capital structure. Equity is a call option on the assets of the company, with the value of its debt being the strike price. If the value of the assets increases over that of the debt, the spread goes to the shareholders. Hence, for that to occur, the company must “grow”. Companies that have a high likelihood of growing can be financed via equity. Companies that are not likely to grow, that are established in a mature industry and generate steady cash flows, are better candidates to be financed with debt.
With this in mind, we now turn to the fact that zero rate policies sought after globally by central banks have destroyed any possibility of obtaining a decent yield in corporate debt. This forces those who cannot afford to eat off their savings, to “gamble” them in the stock markets, with the hope that the same central banks will boost equity valuations. However, the zero-rate policies kill growth and those poor peoples who were forced to leave the comfort of corporate debt and transfer their savings to stocks will find themselves invested, contrary to common sense, in the riskiest part of the capital structure, in a call option, exactly at the time when no growth will come. How unfair is this?
-Why this agony can last longer than you or we can think
Unlike financial crises in underdeveloped countries, the one affecting the developed world takes place in sophisticated capital markets. There are futures/derivatives markets, forced savings via pension plans, and legalized Ponzi schemes whereby collateral can be pledged multiple times to support liquidity. These factors can cause a significant delay in reaching the “final outcome” and are subject to manipulation:
To break the futures markets, one needs to see a failed delivery by one of the players. But politicians can always capitalize or inject liquidity to that counterpart and avoid the break-up of that market.
A significant portion of the workforce is coerced to save through collective pension plans. The coerced savings act as a cushion between reality and illusion. Those forced to save believe in the illusion that somehow, their pension plans will provide them with an income in the future. If reality set in and the magic was lost, politicians could (and have done so) simply postpone the retirement age or even hike the savings rates enforced upon them. Even in the case where people realized that the cost of staying in the pension plans was higher than leaving them under penalties, politicians can simply “temporarily” prohibit withdrawals and effectively confiscate the monies.
It will take dramatic events to be confronted with these situations, but we think that this crisis will last long enough to face them.
-Murray Rothbard and his book “America’s Great Depression”
The question is therefore: When is this crisis going to crystallize and what will it take for it to do so? Don’t ask us why but we re-read Murray Rothbard’s “America’s Great Depression”. In its Chapter 12, under the section titled: “The attack on property rights: The final currency failure”, Rothbard tells us that: “…despite the gigantic efforts of the Fed, during early 1933, to inflate the money supply, the people took matters into their own hands, and insisted upon a rigorous deflation (gauged by the increase of money in circulation)— and a rigorous testing of the country’s banking system in which they had placed their trust…”
From this, we take two conclusions: (a) The crisis ends with a rigorous deflation or liquidation of liabilities, (b) That deflation has to be expressed in terms of a new standard (gold?).
In the ‘30s, the US dollar was still backed by gold. Gold was the Fed’s asset, the US dollar its liability. Today, the US dollar is backed by US Treasuries. Therefore, “to insist upon a rigorous deflation” is to repudiate the US Treasury notes. We can now see the implications of such repudiation, but we have written enough for today. We will elaborate more on this topic, in our next letter.
“…It will be wise to be cautious taking a trading view. We will not only have to protect our savings, our assets “nominally”, but physically as well….”
Click here to read this article in pdf format: June 4 2012
The loyal reader knows by now that we have been, perhaps since the start of our publication, expecting a dynamic like the one seen last Friday, namely, lower stock prices and a higher gold price. The last time we insisted on such a forecast was on April 9th, under the title “We’re getting closer”. But no, we are not like the oracle of Delphos, supplying pagans with loose predictions. We have been very precise in laying out what the drivers for the upcoming collapse are. At the beginning, in 2009, we were alone (read, for instance, our letter from May 19th, 2009) . Today, we are only one of many to side with this view.
We want to throw a word of caution. Last Friday also, Treasuries ended higher (i.e. yields lower), which means that the status quo, although challenged, is still the status quo. There are now many, including Peter Schiff or George Soros, who assume that from now on and incarnated by the reversal in gold, we start a new phase. This phase would lead us to a crash, followed by unseen amounts of money printing and ending in hyperinflation.
This is a simplistic, 10,000 ft above ground perspective, we think. Undoubtedly, and as per our last two letters, liquidity seems not to be an issue and the intervention of central banks will do little to prevent what we think will be a crash. This crash will be nothing else than the repudiation of the uncertainty provoked by and the misleading nature of zero interest rates, as well as of the increasing financial repression. But exactly for this reason, the status quo will not leave without a fight that will involve more capital controls, price controls, unilateral currency devaluations and a diversity of other interventions.
On this basis, we think it will be wise to be cautious taking a trading view. We will not only have to protect our savings, our assets “nominally”, but physically as well. Coming from Argentina, we have the dubious benefit of knowing a thing or two about this, but it may not be all that handy. After all, the developed world has its own methods and (going by the experience in the manipulation of the price of gold) one of them is the manipulation of prices via the futures markets.
In the futures market, prices can be affected on an unfunded basis, that is…without actually having to own an asset or all the cash to own it. As long as futures markets exist and regulators impose a risk weight on the assets that serve as collateral, the defenders of the status quo will have a tool to inflict pain on those who want to seek refuge in real assets. Therefore, it is valid to ask what could bring the collapse of the futures markets. High inflation would be one of the factors, but in our view, it is a longer term one. A simple answer to the question is this: Futures markets will collapse when an asset that was supposed to be delivered, cannot be delivered in the quantities and at the time it was going to be delivered. Most likely, due to the failure of a big counterparty, followed by that of the corresponding clearinghouse. This event, if it takes place and we think there is an increasing likelihood that it will, will really boost the flight from nominal to real capital.
Why do we think there might be an increasing likelihood of it happening? Because it would be the unintended consequence of the same manipulative actions governments are taking to affect spot prices. As these manipulations increase, their unintended consequence is more likely to occur, just like it did happen to the derivatives position of a well-known, global bank.
With these words of caution, we can only add that the future weeks, months, will be horribly volatile and that one will have to sit tight, and on the margin, move nominal capital to real capital at each opportunity. Policy makers believe they are still in control, but they are not. And by the time they find out, it will be too late for us to take any protective measures. The European periphery, for all practical purposes, is already out of the Euro zone. The US, for all practical purposes, is insolvent. The creditor countries of the world, for all practical purposes, are heading towards deception, as they find out that their mercantilist view of reserves management has destroyed wealth and misallocated capital. The Middle East, for all practical purposes, is heading towards complete anarchy and the commodity countries likeCanadaorAustralia, have left their fate in the hands of hope, unable to steer a course on their own, at the mercy of global capital flows…and hope is seldom a good strategy.
“…The situation out of Spain is rapidly worsening. Most analysts believe it is serious and a good portion of them think that once it spins out of control, the European Central Bank will intervene with plain monetization of Spanish assets. We have our doubts….”
As Easter approached, we began to see a timid sell off in US stocks (but not so timid in Europe or Canada), in corporate debt, and in Treasuries. Treasuries later in the week rallied, but if you ask, we would see them still in a downtrend. This downtrend began with the implementation of the Fed’s latest currency swaps, at 50bps, in mid December. As we argued against public opinion (refer here), the swap is a bailout that actually coupled the fate of the US with that of Europe, and not the opposite. It makes perfect sense to us because just like now, the US was also coupled to Europe in the 1930s, and ended up having to pardon what it was “owed”. Here is the moment when President Hoover announces the moratorium (ie. pardon) of the debt:
People back then took the matter in their own hands and forced the devaluation that ended in the bank holiday of 1933, with President Roosevelt confiscating gold. Here is the announcement by Mr. Roosevelt. Let’s keep both videos in mind, for future reference, because we have the feeling this crisis will be a horrible déjá vu:
As we have done many times before, we offer this excerpt from Jacques Rueff’s “The Monetary sin of the West”, 1971:
“…On 1 October 1931 I wrote a note to the Finance Minister, in preparation for talks that were to take place between the French Prime Minister, whom I was to accompany to Washington, and the President of the United States. In it I called the Government’s attention to the role played by the gold-exchange standard in the Great Depression, which was already causing havoc among Western nations, in the following terms:
There is one innovation which has materially contributed to the difficulties that are besetting the world. That is the introduction by a great many European states, under the auspices of the Financial Committee of the League of Nations, of a monetary system called the gold exchange standard. Under this system, central banks are authorized to include in their reserves not only gold and claims denominated in the national currency, but also foreign exchange. The latter, although entered as assets of the central bank which owns it, naturally remains deposited in the country of origin. The use of such a mechanism has the considerable drawback of damping the effects of international capital movements in the financial markets that they affect. For example, funds flowing out of the United States into a country that applies the gold-exchange standard increase by a corresponding amount the money supply in the receiving market, without reducing in any way the money supply in their market of origin. The bank of issue to which they accrue, and which enters them in its reserves, leaves them on deposit in the New York market. There they can, as previously, provide backing for the granting of credit….”
We are starting to get dizzy, disappointed, confused by the manipulation of capital markets, which are slowly and steadily losing liquidity.
The manipulation comes first and foremost from central banks, be it in the FX market, rates or gold. And when they intervene, they generate a volatility that is completely foreign to the “natural” changes that “Main street” (i.e. non-financial sector) would expect from a growing economy. It is this volatility that gets everyone dizzy.
Secondly, governments, via regulations and financial repression, distort the subordination points the market had established for different sectors. What do we mean by this? Every business and in aggregate, the whole economic system, has a capitalization structure, consisting, for example, of equity, preferred equity, subordinated debt, sr. unsecured debt and sr. secured debt. Each participant in these “layers” of the capital structure demands a return for the risk taken. That risk consists of two parameters: The probability of default (i.e. losing one’s capital) and what it expects to recover, if there such default takes place. Well, since the beginning of this crisis, with the bailout of the Chrysler and General Motors in the US, the Asset-Backed Commercial Paper scandal in Canada, the bailout of the financial system in the UK and most recently, the debt exchange of Greek debt with the European Central Bank which subordinated private bondholders without triggering default, both parameters (default and recovery) have been insanely disfigured. The natural consequence is a retreat by investors from pouring funds to the “system” at best, or simply reducing the savings rate, at worst. We fear both processes are well underway (last week, we received confirmation of a slight decrease in the savings rate in the US) and it is this repression that disappoints us.
Thirdly, we are confused by the ignorance leaders show. They should by now see that these policies drive people and companies to save less. We discussed this point on March 18th, when we wrote:
“How can any entrepreneur in these conditions feel encouraged to invest in increasing the productivity of his/her business? They cannot and all they are doing and will be doing is maintain what they have, refinance their liabilities longer term for cheaper rates and use every excess cash they count on to increase their dividends, as a way to cash out in a world where the price of equity, the price of risk, is anything but clear. We remember those times in Argentina when suddenly, bankrupt companies were owned by rich businessmen. One thing is to invest in dividend producing companies, with dividends driven by stable and healthy cash flows. Another thing is to invest under the illusion that those exist, when in fact the dividends are the only outlet entrepreneurs have to cash out with bank debt…”
On April 2nd, Zerohedge.com reproduced comments made by David Rosenberg, supporting this view, under the title: “How The Fed’s Visible Hand Is Forcing Corporate Cash Mismanagement” (We generally tend to disagree with mainstream economist David Rosenberg, but it looks like, over the past years, he may have been quietly reading Austrian economic literature).
Under the status quo, investors, globally, are and will continue to shift slowly their savings out of the “system”. On the margin, why would anyone that is not an insider of the financial markets want to keep their savings there? They will be levered/re-hypothecated or invested in cartelized exchange-traded funds or used to pay fees or futures rolls, or face huge bid/ask spreads or finally, if they produce good results… they will be taxed. Why would anyone want this? Why not just keep savings safely invested in farmland, or collectibles, or physical precious metals, or real estate in unique locations? These assets cannot be re-hypothecated, charged with monopolistic fund fees or unreasonable bid/ask differentials. Returns can be influenced by their owners’ commercial activity and taxes can always be minimized. But if these are the alternatives…how will corporations get funding for their projects or even normal capital expenditures? How will governments keep funding their deficits? Of course, …. Ben Bernanke and Mario Draghi assured us last week that their liquidity pumping policies are only transitory…
In the last days again, we have been exposed once more to the rhetoric of the prospective fiscal unification of the European Monetary Union (“EMU”) but based on new, mega bailout funds. We no longer care about the amounts they come up with (they came up with Eur940MM…nobody bought), even if it was true that the EMU members can raise these amounts. The fundamental issue here is that they want to address a “flow” problem (fiscal deficits) with a “stock” solution (bailout funds). It can’t be done. Flow-driven problems must be addressed with flow-based solutions, like a federal tax (If you have never heard of the terms “flow” and “stock” as used in Economics, please, read this explanation).
In particular, the situation out of Spain is rapidly worsening. Most analysts believe it is serious and a good portion of them think that once it spins out of control, the European Central Bank will intervene with plain monetization of Spanish assets. We have our doubts. Unlike other peripheral countries, Spain is a kingdom with a strong and influential king. Unlike other peripheral countries too, the fiscal deficits that hurt Spain are of a regional nature, and the independence of these regions is strong and ferociously defended. Under these circumstances, there is a high risk that the demands imposed upon Spaniards by the Euro Council be harsh enough to be refused and that upon such refusal, the Euro-zone face its final hour. We think that the fact that gold held above $1,600/oz upon the release of the Federal Open Markets Committee’s (“FOMC”) minutes last week, with stocks and the Euro selling off is a signal that this risk is not to be underestimated.
In light of this, having been stopped out of our position in gold with the release of the FOMC minutes, we bought it back on Thursday, at a lower price, but this time, hedged, shorting North American stocks. We are bearish of stocks or, better said, we think that the ratio of gold to stocks is now in gold’s favor, after a serious correction.
In 2012, 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 will not return any moment soon. We fear that just like in 1931, when the next bailout is due either for Greece again or Portugal or Spain, political conditions will be demanded that no private investor in his/her right mind would ever have demanded.
Please, click here to read this article in pdf format: March 18 2012
We are back from Washington DC and realize that we could choose different titles for today’s letter. Let’s try a few…
Title No.1: “The market proved us wrong”
Indeed, we have been, and continue to be, long term gold bulls. We have been buying dips in gold and find ourselves having averaged down on our holdings, as gold did not find a floor in the low $1,700/oz, nor $1,695/oz or even $1,660/oz. Averaging down is the sure way to ruin and wisdom calls for trimming rather than increasing one’s exposure to a falling asset. And we trimmed only a bit and stopped buying, with the belief that it will prove a wrong decision, but with the unemotional duty to survive. As we write, we learn that there’s an article on the Financial Times telling us that central banks (not the Fed, of course) have been doing the same, only better than us: They really added!
We have no doubts that the plunge in gold on February 29th was simple manipulation and it is only this reason that encourages us to hold on to what we have. With respect to stocks, we continue to remain neutral of them, not willing to buy but also, not willing to short them. From conversations with friends and readers, we noticed that we have not explained ourselves appropriately. Therefore, we want to briefly stop here to provide these short comments:
The popular view on inflation is that which sees it coming from a steady increase in the supply of money spilled over onto assets, lifting investments, increasing employment, wages and later the price of every consumption good. If the price of assets and the employment rate rise, it is understood that the original goal by the central banker, that of lifting the level of activity with monetary easing, is working and that soon, that easing will disappear, followed by an increase in interest rates.
The problem we have with this view is personal. Unfortunately, we lived through inflation and remember it differently. Inflation is a steal. It is a tax charged by the government. And they charge this tax because they run a deficit. No government would nor will ever target inflation under surplus or balanced fiscal conditions. Inflation is the distortion of relative prices, and it always starts with that of the cost of capital. It is a manipulation first of the cost of capital, then of commodities and followed by price controls: First on goods and later on salaries. It entails control on capital flows (which we are currently seeing everywhere in the world), currencies, and financial repression. Therefore, our view is different: Inflation does not bring full employment. That’s a myth. Inflation creates unemployment. Under inflation, production does not rise lifting prices. That’s another myth. Under inflation, production falls, creating shortages of goods, which is what further shifts the inflationary process to hyperinflation. If a country like the US manages to have the rest of the world finance that shortage of goods, that’s another story and it will last as long as the rest of the world wants it to last. But we should be clear on the underlying process. If you have any doubts, just drive around the former industrial areas in the outskirts of Buffalo, Detroit, Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, etc. and you will picture what we’re talking about here.
As we explained at the beginning of the year, the rally in stocks and in gold was expected. It was only three weeks ago that the world was injected with more than half a trillion Euros in 3-yr liquidity lines!!! But gold was manipulated and stocks were not. And we have gold at below its 200-day moving average and the capitalization of Apple Inc. at higher than half a trillion US dollars, without Steve Jobs as CEO. Take this as you wish. In the meantime, on Friday we saw a violent increase in US yields, followed by demand, that kept the 30-yr Treasury yield below 3.5%, which is what brings us to the next possible title, for today’s letter…
Title No. 2: “Financial repression, Stage 1”
Perhaps the most clear exposition of financial repression occurred this week, when President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron openly threatened to manipulate crude reserves to lower the price of oil. The sense of embarrassment is gone.The leaders of two world powers meet and tell us in our faces that they contemplate manipulating the reserves of a commodity? What is going on? We, at “A View from the Trenches” take signals of repression like this one seriously. It was only a few years ago that governments started running after people’s assets in other jurisdictions. They followed with open repression in the foreign exchange markets (Switzerland pegging the Franc, Brazil controlling capital flows). They kept on directing the lending activities of banks. They manipulate the reserves in gold. They wiped out investors in sovereign debt and this is a trend that will not weaken but strengthen. Perhaps our readers don’t, but we do see union strikes more often these days vs. in past years. How can any entrepreneur in these conditions feel encouraged to invest in increasing the productivity of his/her business? They cannot and all they are doing and will be doing is maintain what they have, refinance their liabilities longer term for cheaper rates and use every excess cash they count on to increase their dividends, as a way to cash out in a world where the price of equity, the price of risk, is anything but clear. We remember those times in Argentina when suddenly, bankrupt companies were owned by rich businessmen. One thing is to invest in dividend producing companies, with dividends driven by stable and healthy cash flows. Another thing is to invest under the illusion that those exist, when in fact the dividends are the only outlet entrepreneurs have to cash out with bank debt. We think we are witnessing the latter case but, as followers of Von Hayek, we can understand the confusion, because the price system is broken and the signals sent by prices are misleading. We need to quote the great Friederich A. Von Hayek here, on the price system:
“…The price system is just one of those formations which man has learned to use (though he is still very far from having learned to make the best use of it) after he had stumbled upon it without understanding it. Through it not only a division of labor but also a coordinated utilization of resources based upon an equally divided knowledge has become possible. Its misfortune is the double one that it is not the product of human design and that the people guided by it usually do not know why they are made to do what they do…(…)… I am convinced that if it were the result of deliberate human design, and if the people guided by the price changes understood that their decisions have significance far beyond their immediate aim, this mechanism would have been acclaimed as one of the greatest triumphs of the human mind…” F.A. Von Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society”, American Economic Review. XXXV, No. 4., September 1945
The actions of central banks have totally annihilated the price system, in relation to both the inter-temporal allocation of resources and the capitalization structure of economic systems. This brings us to our last title…
Title No. 3: “Remember the KreditAnstalt”
Since the debt swap of Greece’s sovereign debt, in terms of the capitalization structure of this sovereign, we understand that more than two thirds of it is in the hands of the public sector (European Central Bank, IMF, other governments) and highly collateralized. This is a point we have been thinking during last week because it painfully reminds us of the KreditAnstalt crisis of 1931. We highly recommend readers to do their own research on this topic and to reach their own conclusions. On our part, we are interested in one angle of it.
The KreditAnstalt of 1931 had been created in October of 1929, as the merger between the bankrupt Bodenkreditanstalt and the Öesterreichischekreditanstalt. However, the distressed assets of the Bodenkreditanstalt’s were too distressed to deal with. Given the Austrian regulations on capital requirements, when on May 11th, 1931 the KreditAnstalt disclosed a 140MM Schilling loss, it immediately suffered a run on deposits. The Österreichische Nationalbank intervened, loaning 152.5MM Schillings. The Bank of International Settlements loaned an additional 100MM Schillings three days later. But by June, more funds were needed and this time….this time the Bank of International Settlements, under a request from the French, would only provide them if the Austrian government aborted a customs union with Germany, which was underway. The Austrian government did not accept the political condition and instead only received a third of the funds needed, from the Bank of England, on June 16th.
In the meantime, the Austrian government had been forced to guarantee the bank’s foreign deposits and imposed exchange controls to sustain the convertibility of the Schilling to gold. But the violence of the capital outflows was so strong that Austrialeft the gold standard on June 17th. Unlike Greece, Austrians in 1931 did not have the 3-yr liquidity lines from Mario Draghi at the European Central Bank. These events triggered a wave of bank defaults in Eastern Europe and Germany. Gold eventually also was withdrawn from London. In July, the Federal Reserve Banks and the Bank of France saved the Bank of England with currency swaps of US$650 million and £eq.25 million, respectively. But this was not enough and Great Britain had to leave the gold standard on September 21st. The countries that held sterling pounds as foreign reserves suffered heavy losses.
Fiat currencies were no longer to be trusted and the run on deposits was now taking place in the United States. Think of this: As Europe owed the US payment in specie and Europe had gone off the gold standard…who was the Fed going to recover the loaned money (approx. the equivalent of 465 metric tonnes of gold) back from??? We have written about this before too, in relation to the swaps extended by the Fed to the European Central Bank. If the Eurozone breaks up, who is the Fed going to recover the money from? They will not. But unlike back in 1931, the US dollar is not backed by gold and depositors are not going to run for their funds to exchange them into gold. However the Fed will need to undoubtedly print more US dollars and the devaluation, eventually, will happen anyway. The year 1931 was the year of bank failures in America. In 1932, after a bank holiday that lasted a week, the US government confiscated gold from its citizens.
The question you may have in mind now is what similarity do we see with the current situation? Well, this whole series of events was triggered because France, a public sector creditor, introduced a political condition to Austria, in exchange for a bailout of the KreditAnstalt. Today, like in 1931, in the Eurozone, the public sector is increasingly the creditor of the public sector. In 1931,England andFrance were creditors of Austria and demanded conditions that no private investor would have demanded.
Private investors live and die by their profits and losses. Politicians live and die by the votes they get. Private investors worry about the sustainability and capital structure of the borrower, the collateralization and the funding profile of their credits. Politicians worry about the sustainability of their power. It’s a fact and we must learn to live with it.
In 2012, 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 will not return any moment soon. We fear that just like in 1931, when the next bailout is due either for Greece again or Portugal or Spain, political conditions will be demanded that no private investor in his/her right mind would ever have demanded. Think of it…What in the world had the customs union between Austria and Germany in 1931 had to do with the capitalization ratio of the KreditAnstalt??? Nothing! Yet, millions and millions of people worldwide were condemned to misery in only a matter of days as their savings evaporated! Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of fiat currencies! You have been warned! If months from now you read in the papers that the EU Council irresponsibly demands strange things from a peripheral country in need of a bailout, remember the KreditAnstalt. Remember 1931…
Please, understand that this is not a tail risk. The tail risk is precisely the opposite. The real tail risk here is that when the next bailout comes due, politicians think like private investors and give priority to economic rather than political considerations. That’s the tail risk! If such a crisis occurred, the media will speak of increased correlations and tell you that everything is actually fine on this side of the Atlantic. But if you read us, you will know that all that led to such a situation was perfectly foreseeable and nothing is really fine on this side of the Atlantic either. You will have remembered 1931…
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