US Federal Reserve

Waking up to a horror of our own creation

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Some will say I am a pessimist. I’d prefer to be called an optimist with experience. At only age 16 (in 1987) I realized the destructive power financial markets had on the family home. Those memories were etched permanently. We weren’t homeless or singing for our supper but things sure weren’t like they use to be. It taught me much about risk and thinking all points of view rather than blindly following the crowd. That just because you were told something by authority it didn’t mean it was necessarily true. It was to critically assess everthing without question.

In 1999, as an industrials analyst in Europe during the raging tech bubble, we were as popular as a kick in the teeth. We were ignored for being old economy. That our stocks deserved to trade at deep discounts to the ‘new economy’ tech companies, no thanks to our relatively poor asset turnover and tepid growth rates. The truest sign of the impending collapse of the tech bubble actually came from sell-side tech analysts quitting their grossly overpaid investment bank salaries for optically eye-watering stock options at the very tech corporations they rated. So engrossed in the untold riches that awaited them they abandoned their judgement and ended up holding worthless scrip. Just like the people who bought a house at the peak of the bubble telling others at a dinner party how they got in ‘early’ and the boom was ahead of them, not behind.

It was so blindingly obvious that the tech bubble would collapse. Every five seconds a 21 year old with a computer had somehow found some internet miracle for a service we never knew we needed. The IPO gravy train was insane. One of my biggest clients said that he was seeing 5 new IPO opportunities every single day for months on end. Mobile phone retailers like Hikari Tsushin in Japan were trading at such ridiculous valuations that the CEO at the time lost himself in the euphoria and printed gold coin chocolates with ‘Target market cap: Y100 trillion.’ The train wreck was inevitable. Greed was a forgone conclusion.

So the tech bubble collapsed under the weight of reality which started the most reckless central bank policy prescriptions ever. Supposedly learning from the mistakes of the post bubble collapse in Japan, then Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan turned on the free money spigots. Instead of allowing the free market to adjust and cauterize the systemic imbalances, he threw caution to the wind and poured gasoline on a raging fire. Programs like ‘Keep America Rolling’ which tried to reboot the auto industry meant cheaper and longer lease loans kept sucking consumption forward. That has been the problem. We’ve been living at the expense of the future for nigh on two decades.

Back in 2001, many laughed me out of court for arguing Greenspan would go down in history as one of the most hated central bankers. At the time prevailing sentiment indeed made me look completely stupid. How could I, a stockbroker, know more than Alan Greenspan? It was not a matter of relative educations between me and the Fed Chairman, rather seeing clearly he was playing god with financial markets.  The Congressional Banking Committee hung off his every word like giddy teenagers with a crush on a pop idol. Ron Paul once set on Greenspan during one of the testimonies only to have the rest of the committee turn on him for embarrassing the newly knighted ‘Maestro.’ It was nauseating to watch. Times seemed too good so how dare Paul question a central bank chief who openly said, “I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

We all remember the horrors of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in September 2008. The nuclear implosions in credit markets had already begun well before this as mortgage defaults screamed. The 7 years of binge investment since the tech bubble collapse meant we never cleansed the wounds. We would undoubtedly be in far better shape had we taken the pain. Yet confusing products like CDOs and CDSs wound their way into the investment portfolios of local country towns in Australia. The punch bowl had duped even local hicks to think they were with the times as any other savvy investor. To turn that on its head, such was the snow job that people who had no business being involved in such investment products were dealing in it.

So Wall St was bailed out by Main St. Yet instead of learning the lessons of the tech bubble collapse and GFC our authorities doubled down on the madness that led to these problems in the first place. Central banks launched QE programs to buy toxic garbage and lower interest rates to get us dragging forward even more consumption. The printing presses were on full speed. Yet what have we bought?

Now we have exchange traded funds (ETFs). Super simple to understand products. While one needed a Field’s Medal in Mathematics to understand the calculations of a CDO or CDS, the ETF is child’s play. Sadly that will only create complacency. We have not really had a chance to see how robots trade in a proper downturn. ETFs follow markets, not lead them. So if the market sells off, the ETF is rapidly trying to keep up. Studies done on ETFs (especially leveraged products) in bear markets shows how they amplify market reactions not mitigate them. So expect to see robots add to the calamity.

Since GFC we’ve had the worst post recession recovery in history. We have asset bubbles in bonds, stocks and property. The Obama Administration doubled the debt pile of the previous 43 presidents in 8 years. Much of it was raised on a short term basis. This year alone, $1.5 trillion must be refinanced.  A total of $8.4 trillion must be refinanced inside the next 4 years. That excludes the funding required for current budget deficits which are growing despite a ‘growing economy’. That excludes the corporate refinancing schedule. Many companies went out of their way to laden the balance sheet in cheap debt. In the process the average corporate credit rating is at its worst levels in a decade. Which means in a market where credit markets are starting to price risk accordingly we also face a Fed openly saying it is tapering its balance sheet and the Chinese and Japanese looking to cut back on US Treasury purchases. Bond spreads like Libor-OIS are already reflecting that pain.

Then there is the tapped out consumer. Unemployment maybe at record lows, yet real wage growth does not appear to be keeping up. The number of people holding down more than one job continues to rebound. The quality of employment is terrible. Poverty continues to remain stubbornly high. There are still three times as many people on food stamps in the US than a decade ago – 41 million people. Public pension unfunded liabilities total $9 trillion. Credit card delinquencies at the sub prime end of town are  back at pre-crisis levels. We could go on and on. Things are terrible out there. Should we be in the least bit surprised that Trump won? Such is the plight of the silent majority, still delinquent after a decade. No wonder Roseanne appeals to so many.

A funny comment was sent by a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, lambasting Trump on his trade policies. He criticized the fact that America had sold its soul for offshoring for decades. Indeed it had but queried that maybe he should be praising Trump for trying to reverse that tide, despite being so late to the party. Where were the other administrations trying to defend America all this time? Stunned silence.

Yet the trends are ominous. If we go back to the tech bubble IPO-a-thon example. We now have crowd funding and crypto currencies. To date we had 190 odd currencies to trade. Of that maybe a handful were liquid – $US, GBP, JPY, $A, Euro etc – yet we are presented with 1,000s of crypto currency choices. Apart from the numerous breaches, blow ups and cyber thefts to date, more and more of these ‘coins’ are awaiting the next fool to gamble away more in the hope of making a quick buck. Cryptos are backed by nothing other than greed. Yet it sort of proves that more believe that they are falling behind enough such they’re prepared to gamble on the biggest lottery in town. One crypto used Wikipedia as a source for its prospectus.

Yet the media remains engrossed on trying to prove whether the president had sex with a porn star a decade ago, genderless bathrooms, bashing the NRA, pushing for laws to curtail free speech, promoting climate change and covering up crime rather than look at reporting on what truly matters – the biggest financial collapse facing us in 90 years.

There is no ‘told you so’ in any of this. The same feelings in the bones of some 30 years ago are back as they were at the time of Greenspan and Lehman. This time can’t be avoided. We have borrowed too much, saved too little and all the while blissfully ignored the warning signs. The faith and confidence in authorities is evaporating. The failed experiment started by Greenspan is coming home to roost. This will be far worse than 1929. Take that to the bank, if it is still in operation because you won’t be concerned about the return on your money but the return of it!

Worst Q2 start for S&P 500 since 1929

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ZeroHedge reported today that the S&P had its worst percentage 2nd quarter start since 1929 overnight. Both the Dow Jones Industrial Average broke below the 200 day moving average before an at the death rally to close above. Plunge Protection Team (PPT)? The broader S&P 500 failed to hold the 200 dma. All feels ominous. Awaiting the dead cat bounce. Short dated out of the money index put options continue to look ridiculously cheap relative to other asset classes. Gold also having a good day. Bitcoin showing its true value sliding below $7.000. Best to remember in a bear market the winner is the one who loses the least.

Some interesting reading

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John Mauldin has put together a few interesting pieces over the weekend. Some of the select quotes from Thoughts from the frontline:

Money Velocity (which CM wrote about in 2016):

velocity of money, which is continuing to fall, as it has for almost 20 years…So it is somewhat disturbing to see velocity now at its lowest point since 1949, and at levels associated with the Great Depression.”

Income Disparity:

Note that it is the 95th percentile of workers that has received the bulk of the increase in wages. The bottom 50% is either down or basically flat since 1979. Even the 70th percentile didn’t do all that well.

Budget Deficits:

Over the last half-century, higher deficits have been associated with recessions. After recessions end, the deficit shrinks, and occasionally we get a surplus. That’s not happening this time. Deficits are growing even without a recession…but in the next recession tax revenues will fall, and spending will increase enough to not only swell the annual deficit but also to add north of $2 trillion to the national debt each year. We’re using up our breathing room, and that will be a problem – sooner or later.

Monetary Policy:

Ominously, you can see from Grant’s labels (In the above chart) with arrows that peak yields tended to correspond with crises. If the current breakout persists, it is probably going to get its own label, and I bet we won’t like it.

Nothing to see here?

 

35% of US households have no retirement savings plan – St Louis Fed

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According to the St Louis Fed:

Overall, 35 percent of U.S. households do not participate in any retirement savings plan.

Even among those households that do hold retirement accounts, many of them have low account balances. Figure 1 plots the sum of account balances of all IRAs, Keogh accounts and pension plans by percentile for various age groups. The median (50th percentile) household holds only $1,100 in its retirement account. Even the 70th and 80th percentiles of households have only about $40,000 and $106,000 in their retirement accounts, respectively.

This is literally before the sh1t hits the fan.

Then we wonder why Roseanne tops the ratings charts…

Just how far behind the curve is the Fed?

As the Fed raised its Fed Funds Rate to 1.5~1.75% overnight, one has to question just how far behind is it? 3M Libor rates have surged from 0.5% in 2016, c.1% at the start of 2017 to 2.27% today, the highest levels since 2008.  Normally Libor minus Overnight Index Swap (OIS) rates don’t diverge so much without causing a credit issue. The gap is effectively the market price over and above the risk free rate. At the time of the GFC, the Libor-OIS spread hit 3.5%, with 1% being the detonator level. While it is currently at 0.54% spread, it has risen consecutively for the last 32 sessions.

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As Libor drives corporate credit recycling, with corporate debt piles approaching record highs and average credit ratings the worst they’ve been in over a decade (chart below depicts Top tier as AAA and bottom tier as BBB-) we could see the Libor-OIS spread keep expanding.

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What could be causing this? If we think logically the US Treasury has to refinance $1.5 trillion over the next 12 months and $8.4 trillion over the next 4 years. Add to that a Fed looking at quantative tapering and a less eager Japan and China as buyers of US$ federal debt then the corporate will undoubtedly get crowded out. The demands for refinancing are not being met with the supply of funds.

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Of note, the St Louis Fed reports the YoY increase in inflation reported by the CPI in the US in Feb 2018 was 2.3%. The 10yr breakeven inflation rate is around 2.08%. CPI ex food items is still at 1.9%. In any event the US remains in a negative real yield environment.

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The Fed can bang on all it wants about healthy growth, full employment but the depth of problems stored up is getting worse. $9 trillion in unfunded public pension liabilities, $67 trillion in combined public, private and corporate debt…

…many are recently talking of the huge pent-up profit boost to banks which have had such compressed spreads for so long. Indeed that all makes absolute sense from a theoretical (and to date practical) reasoning but banks like those in Australia up to their gills in mortgage debt, rising spreads have far nastier implications for blowing up balance sheets than boosting P&L accounts.

In a sense it is almost futile to call central banks as being behind the curve. The failure to take the harsh medicine of almost two decades ago is gathering momentum in so far as there is not much can left to kick down the road.

Credit card delinquency in America – nothing to see here?

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Waltzing through the treasure trove of data at the St Louis Fed, this chart intrigued. It shows delinquency rates on credit cards among the smaller banks. Presumably the smaller banks have to chase less credit worthy customers because they lack the ultimate battleship marketing cannons of the bigger financial instititutions. We’re back at times worse than the highest levels seen during GFC. Among all banks, we are still away off the $40bn of delinqient credit card debts we’re back at levels higher than those before Lehman’s brought financial markets to a grinding halt.

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Add to that the step up in interest rates as well to levels we saw before the whole edifice of cards came crumbling down.

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Then why worry when the number of financial institutions looking to tighten standards on consumer lending languishes at close to zero, the types of levels we saw ahead of the market collapse? Nothing to see here?

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Meanwhile American household savings languish at 3%. Similar levels as just before GFC  melt down. Not much in the rainy day funds. So when Trump’s new economic policy advisor Larry Kudlow starts telling us to back a strong dollar and weak gold, you know exactly what to do.

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Moral hazard was supposed to be contained at the private sector level. Looks as though this time around the government is joining the party.

Fasten your seatbelts!

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The “Fasten your seatbelts” edition (March 6, 2018) of the High-Tech Strategist by Fred Hickey is best read with antidepressants or a stiff drink. To be honest I hadn’t seen a copy of this research for at least 5 years. Today I’ve read it three times hoping I haven’t missed or misread anything. It is well reasoned and well argued. I would even admit to there being confirmation bias on my side but it is compelling. Usually confirmation bias is a worrying sign although prevailing sentiment or group think, it isn’t!

Perhaps the scariest claim in his report is a survey that showed 75% of asset managers have not experienced the tech bubble collapse in 2000. So their only reference point is one where central banks manipulated the outcome in 2007/8. S&P fell around 56% peak to trough. I often like to say that an optimist is a pessimist with experience. A lot of experienced punters have quit the industry post Lehman’s collapse, hollowing out a lot of talent. That is not to disparage many of the modern day punters but it does experience is a hard teacher because one gets the test first and the lesson afterwards.

Hickey cites an interview with Paul Tudor Jones who said that the new Fed Chairman Powell has a situation not unlike “General George Custer before the battle of the Little Bighorn” (aka Custer’s Last Stand). He spoke of $1.5 trillion in US Treasuries requiring refinancing this year. CM wrote that $8.4 trillion required refinancing in 4 years. In any event, with the Fed tapering (i.e. selling their bonds) couple with China and Japan feeling less willing to step up to the plate he conservatively sees 10yr rates hit 3.75% (now 2.8%) and 30 years rise above 4.5%. Now if we tally the $65 trillion public, private and corporate (worst average credit ratings in a decade) debt load in America and overlay that with a rising interest rate market things will get nasty. Not to mention the $9 trillion shortfall in public pensions.

Perhaps the best statistic was the surge in the number of articles which contained ‘buy-the-dip’ to an all time record. Such lexicon is often used to explain away bad news. It is almost as useless as saying there were more sellers than buyers to explain away a market sell off. In any event closing one’s eyes is a strategy.

Hickey runs through the steps leading up to and during the bear market that followed the tech bubble collapse. It was utter carnage. Bell wether blue chips like Cisco fell 88% from the peak. Oracle -83%. Intel -82%. Sun Microsystems fell 96%.

To cut a long story short, assets (bonds, equities and property) are overvalued. The Bitcoin bubble and consequent collapse have stark warnings that he saw in 2000. He recommends Gold, Gold stocks (which he claims are selling at deeper discounts than the bear market bottom) Silver, index and stock put options (Apple, Tesla, NVidia & Amazon) and cash. Can’t say CM’s portfolio is too dissimilar.

As Hickey says, “fasten your seatbelts