#USfederealreserve

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.

Yellen’s Fedtime stories

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US Fed Chair Janet Yellen uttered perhaps some of the most bizarre words to come out of a central banker. So much so that Alan Greenspan’s “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.” seems almost comprehensible by comparison. Yellen told an audience that she believes we won’t see another severe financial crisis in our lifetimes. Either Ms Yellen is not long for the world or denial is running deep within her veins. One of her own FOMC board members (James Bullard) wrote a piece on why the Fed needs to trim its balance sheet from $4.47tn to around $2.5 trillion) so they can prepare for the next horror that awaits.  Even Minnesota Fed Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari said the likelihood of another financial crisis is 2/3rds. We have a world with debt up to its eyeballs and global interest rate policies that have only led to the slowest post slowdown growth in history. The signs of a global slowdown are becoming ever more obvious even in the US. Slowing auto sales and rising delinquencies are but one signal. The imminent collapse of so many public pension funds another.

Had she not seen the European Commission’s decision to let Italy spend up to 17 billion euros to clean up the mess left by two failed banks? The news is not only another whack for Italian taxpayers but a setback for the euro zone’s banking union, and a backflip for the EU’s stance on non-standard bailouts. The Italian government wound down Banca Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca, two regional lenders struggling under the weight of non-performing loans which averages 20% across the nation and up to 50% in the south. Intesa Sanpaolo bought the banks’ good assets for one euro, and was promised another 4.8 billion euros in state aid to deal with restructuring costs and bolster its capital ratio. Italy’s taxpayers get to keep the bad loans, which could end up costing them another 12 billion euros. Even the Single Resolution Board — whose purpose is to take the politically difficult decision of whether to close a bank out of the hands of governments — chose not to intervene.

Last year four Italian banks were rescued and it seems that since Lehman collapsed in 2008 non performing loans (NPLs) have soared from 6% to almost 20%. Monte Dei Paschi De Siena, a bank steeped in 540 years of history has 31% NPLs and its shares are 99.9% below the peak in 2007. Even Portugal and Spain have lower levels of NPLs. The IMF suggested that in southern parts of Italy NPLs for corporates is closer to 50%!

Italy is the 3rd largest economy in Europe and 30% of corporate debt is held by SMEs who can’t even make enough money to repay the interest. The banks have been slow to write off loans on the basis it will eat up the banks’ dwindling capital. It feels so zombie lending a la Japan in the early 1990s but on an even worse scale.

Not to worry, the Italian Treasury tells us the ECB will buy this toxic stuff! But wait, the ECB is not allowed to buy ‘at risk’ stuff. So it will bundle all this near as makes no difference defaulted garbage (think CDO) in a bag and stamp it with a bogus credit rating such that the ECB can buy it. In full knowledge that most of the debt will never be repaid, the ECB still violates its own rules which state clearly that any debt they buy ‘cannot be in dispute’.

The Bank of Japan has no plans to cut back on the world’s largest central bank balance sheet. It continues to Hoover up 60% of new ETF issues at such an alarming pace it is the largest shareholder of over 100 corporates. Then there is the suggestion of buying all $10 trillion of outstanding JGBs and convert them into zero-rate (+miniscule annual service fee) perpetuals.

Australia’s banks are now the most loaded with mortgage debt globally at 60% of the total loan book.  Second is daylight and third Norway at 40%. Private sector debt to GDP is 185%. We have a government who can’t tighten its belt basing its budget on rosy scenarios that will be improbable. Aussie banks have been slapped with a new tax and with the backdrop of a rising US rate environment, the 40% wholesale funded Aussie banks will be forced to accept higher cost of funds. That will be passed straight onto consumers that are already being crushed under the weight of mortgages. One bank survey by ME Bank in Australia said that 1/3rd would struggle to pay a month’s mortgage if they lost their jobs.

Had Ms Yellen forgot to read the St Louis Fed’s survey which revealed that 45% of Americans can’t raise $400 in an emergency without selling something? USA Today reported that 7 out of 10 Americans have less than $1,000 in savings to their name.

“Last year, GoBankingRates surveyed more than 5,000 Americans only to uncover that 62% of them had less than $1,000 in savings. Last month GoBankingRates again posed the question to Americans of how much they had in their savings account, only this time it asked 7,052 people. The result? Nearly seven in 10 Americans (69%) had less than $1,000 in their savings account…Breaking the survey data down a bit further, we find that 34% of Americans don’t have a dime in their savings account, while another 35% have less than $1,000. Of the remaining survey-takers, 11% have between $1,000 and $4,999, 4% have between $5,000 and $9,999, and 15% have more than $10,000.”

So Chair Yellen, we are not sure what dreamland you are living but to suggest that we won’t see another financial crisis in our lifetime almost guarantees it will happen. The Titanic was thought unsinkable until history proved otherwise. Money velocity is not rising and every dollar printed is having less and less impact. I thought it nigh on impossible to surpass the stupidity of Greenspan but alas you have managed it.

Illinois Police Pension can’t protect or serve – it is going bust

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Sadly the Illinois Police Pension is rapidly approaching the point of being unable to service its pension members and a taxpayer bailout looks unlikely given the State of Illinois’ mulling bankruptcy. Local Government Information Services (LGIS) writes, “At the end of 2020, LGIS estimates that the Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago will have less than $150 million in assets to pay $928 million promised to 14,133 retirees the following year…Fund assets will fall from $3.2 billion at the end of 2015 to $1.4 billion at the end of 2018, $751 million at the end of 2019, and $143 million at the end of 2020, according to LGIS…LGIS analyzed 12 years of the fund’s mandated financial filings with the Illinois Department of Insurance (DOI), which regulates public pension funds. It found that– without taxpayer subsidies and the ability to use active employee contributions to pay current retirees, a practice that is illegal in the private sector– the fund would have already run completely dry, in 2015…The Chicago police pension fund held $3.2 billion in assets in 2003. It shelled out $3.8 billion more in benefits to retired police officers than it generated in investment returns between 2003 and 2015…Over that span, the fund paid out $6.9 billion and earned $3.0 billion, paying an additional $134 million in fees to investment managers.”

The public pension black hole in America is an alarming issue.  In the piece, “The Public Pension Black Hole” it was plain to see the problems of unfunded state pensions is rife across America. Take California- “The US Federal Reserve (Fed) reported in 2013 that the State of California had an official unfunded pension liability status equivalent to 43% of state revenue. However, if marked-to- market with realistic discount rates we estimate that it is equivalent to 300% of state revenue or 7x greater. Going back to 2000, California had an unfunded liability less than 11% of tax collections. As a percent of GDP it has grown from 2% to 9.7% based on official figures. If our estimate is correct, the mark-to market reality is that California’s unfunded state pension (i.e. for public servants only) is around 18% of state GDP!”

The problem for Illinois is that a taxpayer funded bailout is all but impossible. The State of Illinois ranked worst in the Fed study on unfunded liabilities.  The unfunded pension liability is around 24% of state GDP. In 2000 the unfunded gap to state revenue was 30% and in 2013 was 124% in 2013. Chicago City Wire adds that the police fund isn’t the only one in trouble.

“Chicago’s Teachers Union Pension Fund is $10.1 billion in debt. Its two municipal worker funds owe $11.2 billion and its fire department fund owes $3.5 billion…All will require taxpayer bailouts if they are going to pay retirees going into the next decade…Put in perspective, the City of Chicago’s property tax levy was $1.36 billion in 2017…Paying for retirees “as we go,” which will prove the only option once funds run dry, will require almost quadrupling city property tax bills…Last year, it would have required more than $4 billion in revenue– including $1 billion for City of Chicago workers, $1.5 billion for teachers, and $1.5 billion for retired police officers and fire fighters.”

This problem is going to get catastrophically worse with the state of bloated asset markets with puny returns. Looking at how it has been handled in the past Detroit, Michigan gives some flavor. It declared bankruptcy around this time three years ago. Its pension and healthcare obligations total north of US$10bn or 4x its annual budget. Accumulated deficits are 7x larger than collections. Dr. Wayne Winegarden of George Mason University wrote that in 2011 half of those occupying the city’s 305,000 properties didn’t pay tax. Almost 80,000 were unoccupied meaning no revenue in the door. Over the three years post the GFC Detroit’s population plunged from 1.8mn to 700,000 putting even more pressure on the shrinking tax base.

In order for states and local municipalities to overcome such gaps, they must reorganise the terms. It could be a simple task of telling retiree John Smith that his $75,000 annuity promised decades ago is now $25,000 as the alternative could be even worse if the terms are not accepted. Think of all the consumption knock on effects of this. I doubt many Americans will accept that hands down, leading to class actions and even more turmoil.

 

Trouble with (being behind) the curve

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I’ve been bearish for a long time. With good reason. In July of last year I articulated the awful state of affairs driven by reckless group thinking central banks who have seen money velocity evaporate before their eyes yet continue to throw more fuel on the fire. At a lunch the other week some bankers were telling me (a former banker) that things were fantastic and I was wrong to be bearish. I replied, “have you hired or fired more people in the last 12 months and why?” Stunned silence. Group think prevails like always. Let us not forget that history has at times proven not to be on the side of conventional wisdom, or the consensus view, but on the side of those who dissented from them. More significantly, the media and financial community failed by not being rigorous and questioning enough, resulting in many anomalies taking too long to be discovered. We have seen so often that the time of greatest certainty is, in fact, the time to be most sceptical. “If we spent more time on biopsies in journalism”, as Adrianna Huffington suggested, “there would be far fewer autopsies.”

Please find this interesting summation on ZeroHedge which runs through 12 reasons why this Fed rate hike is madness. I agree. After running out of ammo they are reloading the cartridges with rock salt.

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.