Category Archives: Commodities

What If?

The stock and bond markets are depending on the recession to “force” the Fed to “pivot” back to money printing and ZIRP. The economy is addicted to free money and is slowing rapidly now that it has been withdrawn. The bond market has already priced in disinflation and Fed easing, and the stock market has been buoyed accordingly, proceeding from short squeeze to short squeeze since June of 2022.

But what if Powell has decided that the QE policies that have yielded only $1 of GDP growth for every $10 of fresh debt are toxic and the addiction must be broken, no matter what the symptoms of withdrawal might be? That his legacy will be having returned the economy from dependence on continuous stimulus to sustainable growth? To say nothing of reducing the Fed-induced income inequality that is being exacerbated by inflation? That would certainly earn him a niche in the financial Hall of Fame, perhaps next to Paul Volcker.

Kumquat

Recession is here. The official dating will come later, much later. But the economy is slowing quickly. Commodity prices are falling due to lack of demand. Property – real estate – is slowing. China is struggling with Covid – and trying to infect the rest of the world with whatever variants they have incubated over the last couple of years. Europe is struggling with the Ukraine war and self-inflicted wounds from sanctions and immigration.

But equity markets don’t care. The S&P 500 looks to be making a bottom at a level that was the May bottom. The Dow seems to be heading for all time highs. Only the NDX seems to be close to a new low as some hypervalued “tech” stocks have been clobbered.

Panic Buying

Panic buying this morning resulted from this morning’s CPI report. Core inflation was reported at 0.2% for the month and 6.0% y-o-y, down from 6.3% in the previous report. This disinflationary update resulted almost entirely from falling energy prices, courtesy of Biden’s draining of the SPR, with some help from used car prices. Anyone who thinks that falls in energy prices are sustainable in the face of suppression of the use of fossil fuels is probably still checking to see if the Tooth Fairy has been.

What Happens Next

Well 2022 is just about over. I traded badly this year but that is behind me, I hope. Especially annoying since I have been expecting this bubble to burst for a long time. The big question is, where do we go from here. Some thoughts:

  • Housing. Sales volumes are falling very rapidly because affordability is poor, but prices are holding as sellers are reluctant to drop their expectations. In the last housing bubble pop, it took a year and a half for this process to work through so that sellers finally acknowledged that prices could actually fall. This means that housing costs, which make up a disproportionate share of CPI, will be sticky.
  • Employment. The pandemic significantly reduced the labor pool as many people retired or just dropped out. In China, the pandemic and measures to suppress it have badly damaged the economy and look to continue to do so. It seems likely that the offshoring that reduced labor demand in the US is over, and will be replaced by onshoring and relocation of production. Either way, labor demand is likely to remain relatively strong well after consumption growth falls. Labor looks to reclaim at least part of the loss of its share of economic output, at the expense of capital, i.e. profits.
  • Energy. The idiocy of belief that minor reductions in CO2 output will have a material affect on the climate is hampering investment in energy sources. Of course this will throttle growth in energy production and keep prices high, even as a slowing economy will reduce demand for other commodities. I was amused to find that DNA recovered from northern Greenland revealed that during the region’s , when were 20 to 34 degrees Fahrenheit (11 to 19 degrees Celsius) higher than today, the area was filled with an unusual array of plant and animal life, including aurochs and mastodons. Then of course there are the (hopefully temporary) supply constraints that have been caused by the sanctions on Russian production.
  • Food. The good news is that more CO2 in the atmosphere helps food production. But modern farming depends heavily on diesel fuel for big equipment and natural gas for fertilizer production. Fossil fuel prices directly affect food prices, because even though yields may be good, farmers will not plant crops on which they cannot make a profit. In addition to high prices, shortages of some crops will develop as farmers pivot to crops which require less of these costly inputs.
  • Interest Rates. It seems that no-one believes that Fed Chair Powell will actually carry out the attack on inflation that he has outlined. Some argue that a recession will “force” him to abandon his current goals and resume ZIRP and QE, redefining his goals in the process to accept a higher level of inflation on an ongoing basis. Others believe that the recession will cause inflation to fall quickly and make the question moot as his goals, such as positive real rates across all maturities, will be automatically met.It is certainly true that this long-suppressed business cycle is moving fast, but there is a long way to go to normal. My personal view is that his vision for his legacy is an economy that does not depend on massive growth of debt relative to GDP as has been the case in recent years, and he will do “whatever it takes” to get there

In summary, inflation will prove sticky although not runaway, and Powell will accept a recession. But as the recession gains hold, it will accelerate as defaults reduce credit availability regardless of Powell.

Central Heating Poverty

When I was growing up in the UK, our house had no central heating.  It was rare. In cold weather, I had a hot water bottle in my bed to take the chill off. Other than that, there was no heating in the house overnight. When I was old enough, it was my job, first thing in the morning, to light the fireplace in the living room, which burned coke. The black stuff, not the white stuff. There was a gas poker that was used for a few minutes to light off the coke. Until age 11 I went to school in shorts year round, long trousers being the exclusive privilege of the upper forms.

We had a gas cooker and water heater, electric lights and refrigerator, plus a few small electric appliances such as a vacuum cleaner. The gas supply was not natural gas, it was made from coal and, unlike natural gas, was highly toxic. It was common that people, especially those living in flats (apartments), would have a coin-operated gas meter that needed to be fed to provide gas.

I couldn’t find data earlier than 1970, at which time adoption of central heating was at 30% of households and rising steeply. By 1990, it was 79% and by 2018, it was at 95%. (Statista). Almost all of that is based on natural gas. So now there is widespread panic about fuel poverty in the UK, as there is a shortage of natural gas. The government can print money, and even generate hot air in small quantities. But not natural gas. So, folks, you are going to have to turn down the central heat. Or off. But I can testify that you will survive.  Got eiderdown?

When I was 14, the family moved to Canada. Now, there, winter is a more serious matter.

Disintegration

The world is disintegrating. Trust has been lost, both within countries and between countries. Without trust, economic relationships cannot operate.

China

China is a poor country, despite the glitz and glamor of its big cities and its showpiece infrastructure, with a per-capita annual GDP of about USD 11,000.

Chairman Xi presented his plan for world domination at the opening of the party congress. Not going to happen, sir. Your country is an economic and social house of cards that is in the process of collapsing. The housing market, investment of choice for the masses, is a bubble bursting and desperate local governments are even buying their own land use rights from themselves or one another because retail buyers have left the building. So to speak. Your Covid-zero policy has shaken the people’s faith in the benign CCP, while wreaking destruction on millions of small businesses. Unemployment is high and rising, college graduates cannot find jobs. Biden’s withdrawal of support for your semiconductor industry has condemned it to a bleak future without the production technology that your people cannot build. Export demand from the rest of the world is shrinking fast. Sir, your country is likely heading for a deep economic depression and social turmoil. This will further weaken China’s positioning for the world hegemony which you desire.

United States

In the USA, we live in a world now that George Orwell and Aldous Huxley would readily recognize. The state has commandeered the legacy media, as well as the new social media, to not only put out the “progressive” state’s version of reality but to identify, spy on, ostracize and  punish critics and dissenters.

President Biden, your “progressive” policies are not working. Democrat-run inner cities are being abandoned to crime and homelessness. Illegal immigrants are flooding in without any prospects for employment or training. You are continuing to feed the inflation which is mostly damaging the people you claim to represent. Your support for expansion of NATO triggered the invasion of Ukraine, with severe economic and social consequences.

You and your Democratic predecessors, notably Hillary Clinton, have created a deeply divided society, with those who have drunk the purple Kool-Aid and accept the state’s lies and propaganda on one side, and those with a more traditional view of reality on the other. Neither side trusts the other, respects the other’s views, or is willing to compromise. Both sides are preparing for more direct conflict as the sporadic clashes increase in frequency and severity. This is a recipe for a failing state with extremism on both sides. Negative economic consequences are to be expected.

Europe

Neither China nor Europe are democracies – by design. The architects of the European Union claimed that, since democracy had enabled Hitler, it could not be a part of the EU’s structure. As a result, bureaucrats who suffer no consequences for their failures and care little for the fate of the citizenry run the EU. Ursula van der Leyen is no less of an autocrat than Xi. Deep rifts have emerged as democratically elected governments have resisted the orders of the bureaucrats. These rifts are between rich north and poor south as well as conservative east and “progressive” west. It is only a matter of time before a second country leaves the EU, and that will spark a rush for the exits.

The coming winter is going to be hard, as the bureaucrats’ energy policy has been disastrous. Immigration policies have resulted in shocking increases in crime, with many countries reporting zones where the police dare not go in fear for their lives. Mario Draghi’s “whatever it takes” has left a legacy of irresponsible debt, as in the USA. As  interest rates increase, this is going to be a huge problem

Russia and Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has no winners. Regardless of the outcome, the invasion is an economic disaster for both of them. Their economies depend heavily on the export of commodities, such as food, energy and metals. The volumes of these commodities are large, and their absence are also a problem for the countries that have come to depend on them.

Conclusion

I could go on, but it is time to recognize that the future is not bright. Economies will get worse. Much worse. Be careful out there. Don’t focus on the narrative of the “Fed pivot.” The Fed is irrelevant.

Dummies?

When seeming professionals propose ideas that are internally contradictory I really start to question professionalism in the financial services industry.

The idea proposed was that since inflation was caused by limited supply, which the Fed cannot control, the Fed would simply raise its inflation target and resume easy money to resume growth, driving stocks to infinity and beyond.

Excuse me, but doesn’t limited supply itself limit growth?

Since when has the Fed ever been able to control supply? The money printers go b-r-r-r but there are no gas wells or potash mines at the Fed building. The Fed’s manipulations are intended to control demand.

And by the way, how is the economy to grow when businesses wanting to expand cannot hire the employees that they need?

The bubble is still with us.

Germany

The situation in Germany just went to Defcon 2. Toilet paper manufacturers warned of a coming shortage. History says this is the one thing that triggers revolution and regime change. People will put up with many hardships, but lack of TP is unacceptable. Heads must roll. The Soviet Union’s fall was triggered by this, to say nothing of Venezuela.

Things Can’t Get Any Worse

The title summarizes the line being put out by Wall Street and amplified by the financial press. The logic is that it is then time to buy stocks. And it is working, stock indexes are rallying strongly as retail inflows into mutual funds and individual stocks have resumed. In turn, hedge funds and CTAs must follow, to say nothing of the resumption of buybacks as earnings season comes to an end.

Of course, things can and will get worse. The impact of input costs and other supply constraints such as war, drought and ill-advised climate change politics have hardly been felt yet in retail prices, even though they have risen substantially. Energy prices continue to be driven higher by the same bad science and emotional political campaigning. Then of course there is the labor shortage, caused by more bad government decisions partly around the pandemic, but mostly about socialist “progressive” politics.

vac minus ui

The excess demand for labor demonstrated by the chart above means that the economy will have to slow considerably before pressure on labor costs is eased. But while rising labor costs impact inflation, they don’t mean that personal income is keeping up with inflation as food and energy prices accelerate away.

Donald Swain, CFA CPI Adj Personal Income

All of the above mean that the current recession will have a long way to go before inflation is reduced. Once the genie is out of the bottle, she doesn’t go back in willingly, as Paul Volcker’s efforts to contain her in the 1980s show.

Supposedly the Fed will “pivot” back to easy money (well, even easier, money is still easy with deeply negative real rates) as soon as this third quarter. Well, maybe it will – the Fed’s politically driven monetization of government debt is what has brought us here, after all. But that will bring about true hyperinflation and I doubt that Powell wants to go down in history as the Fed chairman who put politics before sound economics to complete his ruination of the world economy. I say the world economy because central bankers move in unison to avoid individual criticism.

Labor chart thanks to zero hedge, Personal Income chart thanks to Donald Swain, CFI CPA.

The Price Of Moderation

From my last blog post of 2020:

William Greider, in his book, Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs The Country, reports Nixon (’69-’74) as saying: “We’ll take inflation if necessary, but we can’t take unemployment.” The nation eventually had to take both. Note that Fed Chair Powell has indicated a willingness to let inflation “run hot” to encourage economic growth. That’s what they thought in the 1960s, too.

Well, inflation is running hot. Too hot for comfort. Discretionary spending is falling rapidly as the cost of essential goods and services takes more of people’s income. Fed Chair Powell is raising interest rates in baby steps, presumably in an attempt to quell inflation without slowing the economy significantly. People seem to think that raising rates to 2 1/2 percent will achieve this result, and are competing to time the “pivot” when the Fed returns to easy money. All I can say is good luck with that. History says that once inflation starts to surge – as it has – it is not easy to stop, as all kinds of feedback loops keep driving prices higher. Weakness now will only make the pain worse.