Category Archives: Stocks

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.

That’ll Buff Out

Well I got that one wrong, fortunately my trading system had no dog in the hunt. Yes, Powell did hint at slowing rate increases. But the markets were shocked, shocked I say, by his acknowledgement of the 15 years of futile attempts to curb inflation before Volcker took matters in hand. That an economist should consider history rather than models and calculus is pretty much unprecedented, at least in modern times. His academic credentials may be called into question. The calculus thing was introduced because economists – it was called, correctly, “political economy” at the time – felt they were underpaid, relative to the physical sciences, and therefore needed to emulate them. It helped their prestige but not their forecasts.

Sarcasm aside, it’s a good thing. But the bad thing is there is way too much money in circulation. Consider the following mantra from Milton Friedman in 1963, years before the 1970s inflation.

“Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon in the sense that it is and can be produced only by a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output.”

Then please consider the following:

fredgraph

money to gdp

That’s going to take a lot of buffing. And yes, Mr Powell, it is the product of years of central bank economic idiocy and arrogance. First chart St. Louis Fed, second John Hussman.

Friday

Friday is the Jackson Hole retreat, where the US taxpayer hosts a gathering of the people who believe they are the masters of the world economies.

Our esteemed Fed Chair, Jerome Powell, is expected to speak about, inter alia, Fed policy. Much digital ink is being spent on speculation about what he will say. So I will join in and spend a little.

It is important to remember that he, and many other attendees, claim to be economists. They are a dangerous species, especially when they attempt to manipulate economies and markets, as the records of booms and busts show.

Chair Powell has stated that he intends to curb inflation by slowing growth, not by slowing the economy, as in the R-word. In my personal opinion, as they say in Japan, we are going to have a deep and dark recession regardless of what Chair Powell says or does. But back to Friday. This means that he will at least hint at slowing rate increases. Of course this is not a “pivot”, more like a “swivel”. But it will be friendly to the stock and bond markets, at least for a little while.

Just One Chart

When you buy shares in a company, you are really buying a share of the stream of profits yet to come. This chart from John Hussman shows what is going to happen as labor reclaims its share of company income.

labor costs vs profits

The extra profits in the early 2000s were financed by the housing bubble, while the recent spike is mostly the result of massive government deficit spending on subsidies and handouts of various kinds. These are coming to an end despite the best efforts of the Dems to blow up inflation.

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.

Perfect Storm Plus

The Perfect Storm began as an extratropical system, absorbed a tropical system (i.e., Hurricane Grace), and ended somewhat uneventfully as an unnamed hurricane. In the process it caused considerable damage on the US East Coast, and sank the fishing vessel Andrea Gail, with the loss of all hands.

We are now living through the early stages of the economic Perfect Storm Plus. The “Plus” is due to the near-simultaneous collapse of four great bubbles – China, Japan, North America and Europe. All are due to central bank monetization of government deficit spending, coupled with over-expansion of consumer and property credit. As Austrian economics teaches, there are only two paths out of these bubbles – stop the credit expansion and accept the resulting recession or depression, or continue to hyperinflation and the destruction of the currency.

The collapse of China began with the cascading failures of property developers, such as Evergrande, when President Xie’s “three red lines” reined in their ability to raise new debt. Then his idiotic “zero-Covid” policy drove a dagger into the beating heart of China’s economy, Shanghai. Then failures in a handful of smaller banks were mishandled by local governments which failed to honor deposit insurance guarantees, instead hiring toughs to beat up demonstrators. This has been followed by a wave of buyers refusing to continue mortgage payments on unfinished properties, especially where cash-starved developers have stopped working on them. A loss of confidence in the CCP government has resulted. It is attempting to stop the collapse with promises of more government funding, but so far success is elusive.

Japan is, so far, following the path of currency destruction. Even though Japan’s central bank now owns virtually all government debt and a very large chunk of the stock market, it continues its path of yield curve control – at zero. This has led to a downward slide in the yen as the US Fed has reacted to inflation, well a little bit anyway. Japan is short of natural resources and must import many commodities, especially energy as the Fukushima disaster has constrained the use of nuclear power. One could easily see a return of the yen to dollar valuations like the pre-1989 mid-200s, compared to 140 today and the 2012 high in the 70s. Needless to say, this would kick off serious inflation in Japan.

North America’s asset bubble, in property and financial assets of all kinds has finally been joined by rapidly inflating prices of consumable goods and services. While Alan Greenspan started the Fed’s monetization addiction around the turn of the century, rapid growth in outsourcing to China, India and numerous other countries kept consumer prices and wages under pressure. Finally the combination of supply chains ruptured by Covid and government payments that put large sums directly in the hands of consumers started to drive up prices, and also allowed large numbers of people to withdraw from the labor force. The coup de grace was Biden’s decision to follow the urging of the climate fanatics and cut off investment in future fossil fuel supply. Anecdotally, a farmer of 1,800 acres in Canada reports that his annual diesel fuel bill has doubled from $40K to $80K, and nitrogen fertilizer (made from natural gas) has gone from $270/tonne to $900/tonne. The Fed’s reaction has been a minor increase in interest rates. A recession is either already underway or set to begin anytime now.

Europe (including the UK) is a basket case. It shares many of the same problems as North America, but in addition climate fanatics and the Russian attack on the Ukraine have conspired to leave it desperately short of energy. EU inflation is running high (8.8%) but the real problem is yet to come. Germany continues to shut down its remaining nuclear plants, while Russia has just notified Germany that it is terminating natural gas deliveries. Germany lacks the terminals needed to import LNG.

A key component of the coming confluence of these storms is the climate mania. This mania is based on bad science, but socialist politicians and activists see an opportunity to disrupt the status quo.

The Return Of Goldilocks

Everywhere I look in the financial press, I see predictions of a Fed “pivot”, by which is meant the abandonment of inflation-fighting and the return to the lowering of interest rates and printing of money.

This pivot is to occur sometime in the fall, apparently. The economy will be in recession, which will cause the Fed to panic and return to bubble-blowing. Inflation will have magically disappeared, because recession. The result will be the return of the bull market, “To infinity and beyond”, I guess. Biden will be carried on Powell’s shoulders to the mid-terms, supermarket shelves will be overflowing with foods, gas will be back to the $2s, unemployment will have taught the working classes the folly of asking for higher wages….

Too good to be true, I fear. But we’ll see.

Complacency Is Back

There’s always a bullish story. Now the story is that a recession is coming (very likely true) and that will cause the Fed to stop tightening and resume easing. That would bring back happy days to the stock market.

There are a couple of problems with this story. The first is that the Fed is willing to see inflation run away and destroy any last shred of credibility that it has in order to save the stock market bulls.

The second is that this scenario would be good for the stock market – negative growth and high inflation – even though coupled with low interest rates.

But it’s OK with me. Take it up, clean out the shorts so that when it rolls over the next time there are no buyers left.

Reality Check

Everywhere I read the pontifications of eager interpreters of yield inversions, and other signs and portents, predicting smooth sailing for the economy until a possible recession in 2023.

All I can say is you have to be kidding me. First of all, markets are still at unprecedented and artificial extremes. It seems to me to be a trifle naive to assume that scenarios from the past apply here. Markets have never been here before and hopefully will never return again. Secondly, there are major and poorly understood economic disruptions underway:

China: The world’s largest asset class, real estate in China, is in trouble. March sales of new homes are down 29% y-o-y. Lockdowns in Shanghai and other large cities in China are stalling production and shipments of many goods.

Ukraine: The Russian invasion and its corollary sanctions are negatively impacting agricultural and commodity exports. Restricted supply and high prices of fertilizer will reduce agricultural production around the world.

United States: Historically high consumer price increases have resulted from years of low interest rates and massive expansion of the money supply. Measures announced so far to deal with this issue are unlikely to have much effect. The 10-year Treasury yield has doubled since the beginning of 2022, with direct impact on mortgage rates and thence real estate prices. “Green” policies have driven up energy prices by restricting supply.

EU: “Green” policies have left the EU (and the UK) without reliable domestic sources of energy, leaving the group dependent on imports from the rest of the world, but without adequate LNG terminals to replace Russian pipelines. The EU is expected to announce an embargo on Russian oil immediately after the French election, which will drive prices higher.

Japan: The third most traded currency, JPY, the Japanese yen, is falling rapidly, now down more than 10% since the beginning of 2022 against the US dollar. The Bloomberg Commodity Spot Index rose 8.2% in JPY terms over just the past week. It’s up 29% since end of Feb., more than 48% ytd and 177% over the past two years (all in JPY terms). The possibility of intervention is being bruited about. Currency wars are the nuclear option for financial markets.

Look out below.

Whistling Past The Graveyard

Markets seem blithely ignorant of the implications of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Russia is the world’s largest exporter of oil and natural gas, and a major supplier of oil to the US. Biden has refused to roll back his suspension of permitting and pipeline shutdowns, while sanctioning Russian imports. The result will be similar to the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo. Domestic production will increase in response to higher prices, but can make only a modest difference this year even if Biden rolls back his “green” initiatives, due to lack of equipment and the time it takes to bring wells into production. Demand must be reduced.

At the same time, Russia and Ukraine combined account for about 29 percent of the world’s wheat, 20 percent of global corn, and 80 percent of sunflower oil production. Much of this supply will be unavailable, due to either sanctions or war damage.  Closed ports will impact supply as Ukraine exports must move almost entirely by sea. Compare this to the United States, which produces only about 7 percent of global wheat, although it is the largest global corn producer, but exports about 30 percent of production. Higher prices and food shortages will result.