Debunking Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

Corp Profit

While the Dow & S&P500 indices grind back higher thanks to the US Fed chickening out on a rate rise in because the economy can’t handle it, many people still overlook the fact that core US profitability has tracked sideways since 2012. 6 years of next to nada. Sure one can boost profits by adding back unrealistic  “inventory adjustments” but the reality is plain and simple. If you search for inventory adjusted earnings they’re still marginally growing but there in lies the point. Real profits aren’t.

Record buybacks fueled by cheap debt is the cause for ‘flattered’ earnings. No growth in E  just falls in S.  EPS growth can look spectacular if you ignore 50% of US corporates have BBB credit ratings or worse.

The latest lexicon is “modern monetary theory” (MMT). The idea that the central banks just manipulate markets in perpetuity. Austerity is no longer needed. Central banks print money and extinguish debts the same way. Seriously why bother with taxation? The question is if it is meant to be a sure winner, why aren’t we all living in 5 bedroom mansions with a Mercedes Benz and a Porsche in the driveway? Why not a helicopter?

Logically if central banks can buy our way out of this debt ridden hellhole, why is growth so anemic? Why is European GDP being cut back? Why is German industrial production at its worst level since 2009? Why does Salvini want to jail the Italian central bankers? Why does the Yellow Vest movement in France carry on for its 15th consecutive week? If MMT works why would the EU care if the UK leaves with No Deal? MMT can solve everything for unelected bureaucrats in theory. Even £39bn can be printed

Last year the US Fed announced it had stopped reporting its balance sheet activity. In 2006 it stopped reporting M3 money supply. Curious timing when inside 2 years the world was flung into the worst recession since 1929. Transparency is now a danger for authorities.

The question boils down to one of basic sanity. All assets are priced relative to others. It’s why an identical house with a view in a nice neighborhood trades at a relatively higher price than one in a outer suburban back lot. The market attributes extra value even if the actual dwelling is a carbon copy. It is why currencies in banana republics trade by appointment and inflation remains astronomical. Investors don’t trust their ability to repay debts unless given extremely favorable terms. Market forces at work.

To put the shoe on the other foot, if all countries adopted MMT why bother buying bonds for retirement? The interest is merely backed by a printing press. Best consume 100% and save zero. The government has moved beyond moral hazard and hopes no one will notice

Take a look at Japan. It has $10 trillion in outstanding debt which is 2x its economy. The Bank of Japan owns 60% of that paper bought through a printing press. The market for JGBs is so manipulated that several Japanese mega banks have handed back their trading licenses because it has become worthless to be on that exchange. The BoJ thinks it can make whatever prices it chooses. The ultimate aim is to convert all of the outstanding debt into a zero coupon perpetual bond with a minor ‘administration’ fee in order to assign some value to it. To the layman, a zero coupon perpetual means you get no interest on the money you lend and the borrower is technically never required to pay the borrowed amount back. Such loans are made by parents to their children, not central banks to politicians (although one could be forgiven to think their behaviour is child like).

Yet the backdrop remains the same. Consumers are tapped out in many countries. Lulled by a low interest rates forever mentality, even minute rises to stem inflation (real is different to reported) hurt. My credit card company constantly sends emails to offer to transfer balances at 9% as opposed to the 20% they can charge if I don’t pay in full.

APRA recently relented on interest only mortgages after demanding it be tightened to prevent a housing bubble getting bigger. Now mortgage holders hope the RBA cuts rates to ease their pain.

Like most new fads, MMT can’t remove the ultimate dilemma that Milton Friedman told us half a century ago. Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. One can’t hope that putting money in the hands of everyone can be sustainable.

The one lesson that we should have learnt from GFC was that living at the expense of the future has rapidly diminishing returns. All we did was double down on that stupidity.

Do we think it normal that Sydney house prices  trade at levels the Japanese property bubble did in the late 1980s? Do we realize that we hold as much mortgage debt than Japanese banks did for a population 5x our size? Do we think that our banks are adequately stress tested? When an economy like ours has avoided recession for a quarter century, it builds complacency.

MMT is nothing more than a figment of the imagination. It preys on the idea that we won’t notice if we can’t see it. Unfortunately behind the scenes, the real economy can’t sustain the distortions. The French make the best modern day example of  a growing number of Main Streeters struggling  to make ends meet.

Central banks monkeying around with MMT smacks of all the same hubris of the past. It is experimental at best and reckless at worst. Markets can be manipulated for as long as confidence can be sustained. Lose the market’s trust and all of a sudden no amount of modern day jargon  can overcome what economists have known for millennia.

If you flood a global economy with cash at 5x the rate the economy can feasibly grow then it will ultimately require bigger and bigger hits to get the same bang before the jig is up. It’s a Ponzi scheme. Bernie Madoff got 120 years jail. Why not the central bankers?

So what is the best asset out there? Gold. It can’t be printed. It requires effort to discover it and dig it out of the ground. Of course the barbouros relic deserves to be consigned to the dustbin of history. If that were so Fort Knox might as well leave the gate open. The more it is hated only makes this contrarian investor want it more.

Some interesting reading


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?


Funniest thing I’ve heard all week if it wasn’t so serious

unemp“The FOMC is not a body that suffers from group think” – Fed Chair Janet Yellen. Normally I have to wait to read the FOMC Minutes some 3 weeks after the FOMC meeting to be stunned at the ridiculous language used to cover up the fact they have no idea. I reported last time that the Fed said “The risks to the forecast for real GDP were seen as tilted to the downside, reflecting the staff’s assessment that both monetary and fiscal policy appeared to be better positioned to offset large positive shocks than adverse ones.”

In the press conference Yellen said “Why didn’t we raise”? It does not reflect a lack of confidence in the economy…let me try to set out again…we are generally pleased with how the US economy is doing… evidence is that the economy is expanding more strongly…we don’t see the economy as overheating now…we continue to progress toward our objectives”.” The last sentence beggars belief. If the FOMC keeps lowering forecasts I would argue the objectives are progressing toward you. That’s right you have to cut forecasts to make it sound as though you have credibility.

If things are so peachy why has the Fed lowered its 2016 and  long term GDP growth target to 1.8%? One reporter sensibly asked “if you’re cutting growth predictions, where is the inflation coming from?”  Yellen suggested that the risk of labour market tightness with a healthy hiring outlook but lower productivity.

I thought the use of the word “overheat” by Yellen several times was mind boggling. If the US economy is at risk of overheating on 0.37% rates and you’ve just cut forecasts to 1.8% long term growth, what does that suggest for a normal operating GDP level? There is no way anyone can take central bankers seriously. The language she used in the press conference was a total fiction.

I updated the following chart on US unemployed persons which shows ominous signs of picking turning points of economic weakness over the last 60+ years. Since May 2016, the number is up over 400,000. It will be interesting to see if the September labour stats due in early October show unemployed rising north of 8mn. We’ll know soon enough.