Category Archives: Manias

The Cash Economy

Large-scale money printing was launched by Alan Greenspan, who believed that additional liquidity would be needed to cushion the shock of the millennium rollover. The shock never happened, but the easy money continued as the dot-com bubble popped, eventually leading to the housing bubble and its culmination with the failure of Lehman and the 2008 financial crisis. The Fed’s response was to turn on the afterburners. The December 2007 monetary base was 0.84 trillion dollars. By December 2019, it had risen four-fold to 3.4 trillion. And the the Fed lit the JATO bottles as well and we got real liftoff, as by December 2021 the monetary base had risen to 6.4 trillion dollars.

This matters because it means the economy is awash in cash. Monetary velocity has fallen from a pre-2009 low of 1.65, set in Q4 of 1964, to 1.15 as of Q2 of 2022. That means that much of the cash is idle, not being spent. All that cash is buying power in the hands of people and institutions. This means that interest rates and availability of credit are less important, and the Fed’s mission to reduce inflation by reducing demand faces an uphill battle. The Fed has begun reducing the monetary base by selling its pile of Treasuries and MBS. This is far more important than raising rates, but it will be a long time before its effects start to be felt because the current position is so extreme.

The poster child of the 2008 crisis was the NINJA (No Income, No Job or Assets) home buyer. The NINJA borrower has been replaced by the US government. Federal debt has nearly quadrupled since 2008.

fredgraph

fredgraph

This is why we have inflation. It is not going away until the deficit spending is reined in. Every dollar of new federal debt becomes a dollar in savings – and potential spending – for the private sector.

Where The Fugawi?

The flightless Fugawi bird lives in the tall grass of the African savannahs. Unfortunately, this bird is not as tall as the grass that surrounds it, hence its mournful call. The mavens of Wall Street seem to share the bird’s frustration as they focus on fractional changes in economic data, in the hope that they will foreshadow a return to the peaceful, sunlit uplands of free and flowing money.

Alas, it is not to be. We are fated to do battle with the multi-headed Scylla of inflation and, if we win, it is only to be sucked into Charybdis’ whirlpool of depression. Massive increases in government debt have, inevitably, increased private sector savings and pulled consumption forward in time. If these increases continue, Scylla will dine well as hyperinflation ruins the dollar. If they do not, consumption will, of necessity, fall as the credit impulse reverses. Charybdis’ whirlpool is a fine metaphor for the negative feedback cycle that will result from bankruptcies and defaults. If I do say so myself.

Jeff Gundlach Interview

Jeffrey Gundlach is the billionaire founder and CEO of DoubleLine, a Los Angeles based investment boutique mainly specializing in bonds, ranks among America’s highest-profile investors. His bold calls and correct prediction of the 2007 housing crash have earned him a solid reputation. A recent interview is most interesting in that he clearly, if intuitively, understands the instability inherent in the Fed’s attempts to control the economy by hindsight.

The next shock is that we’re having to put in a big overreaction to the inflation problem which we created from our initial reaction of excess stimulus. My guess is that we will end up creating momentum that’s more deflationary than a lot of people believe is even possible.

Of course he is very probably correct. A deflationary economic collapse is very likely to follow the inflationary phase. So long as the Fed is willing to make massive interventions in the economy without understanding the dynamics of control, we are utterly screwed. There comes to mind a well-known class of control systems known as bang-bang control.

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.

China

China sports the second largest economy in the world and its hyper-stimulated growth over the last decade has boosted growth in the rest of the world, including the US. Right now, however, the Chinese economy is foundering. Its struggle to stamp out Covid continues, with two major cities, Shenzen and Chengdu entirely or mostly in lockdown. Chinese investors have chosen to speculate in residential housing rather than the stock market, leading to a giant property market bubble with hundreds of thousands of empty or unfinished apartments overhanging the market. August sales of new units were down 33% y-o-y. Both drought and flooding have plagued the country this summer, leading to the same difficulties with agriculture and transport seen in Europe.

The Chinese government has responded with yet more stimulus, widely seen as inadequate given the magnitude of the economic problems. These problems will have a negative effect on the rest of the world.

Yet Another “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up”

Promptly after California issued its electric car mandate, the grid operator is asking people to avoid charging electric vehicles over the coming Labor Day Weekend, in order to avoid blackouts.

“The power grid operator expects to call on Californians for voluntary energy conservation via Flex alerts over the long weekend.

During a Flex Alert, consumers are urged to reduce energy use from 4-9 p.m. when the system is most stressed because demand for electricity remains high and there is less solar energy available. The top three conservation actions are to set thermostats to 78 degrees or higher, avoid using large appliances and charging electric vehicles, and turn off unnecessary lights. Lowering electricity use during that time will ease strain on the system, and prevent more drastic measures, including rotating power outages.”

My Volt gets most of its charging at night, when it is not in use. The electricity to charge electric cars has to come from somewhere. Looking at the weight of these vehicles, my guess is that the total energy consumption of these vehicles is higher than the IC vehicles.

If we want to get off fossil fuels, it is necessary to replace them as the base load source. And that means nuclear.

Affordable Housing

From Sfgate:

In San Francisco, the minimum income required to purchase a median-priced home leapt from $350,400 to $450,800 from the second quarter of 2021 to the second quarter of 2022. It was even worse in San Mateo — the minimum income jumped from $390,400 to $512,000.

Pivot – To What?

It seems as if every financial writer has no more important subject to opine upon than the exact date of the Fed “pivot,” when the Fed will be “forced to” resume supporting wild speculation.

Such opinions may be successful clickbait, but any such pivot is economically meaningless. Just look at the last employment report. The number of jobs increased significantly, but the number of employed persons hardly moved. People are taking on more jobs in order to, as President Bush put it, “put food on their family.” This can only go so far, for obvious reasons, and it means there are insurmountable limits on the economy’s ability to grow. Production equals labor hours times productivity. Productivity is slow and hard to improve, so not any help. Labor hours are pretty close to the wall, as shown by the average workweek which has flatlined at 34.6 (FRED). This all means that the economy cannot grow in response to stimulus. Easy money and/or a return to QE will simply result in more inflation, which will do as much or more damage to the economy and corporate profitability than higher interest rates. I cannot believe that the Fed is unaware of this reality. There is no free lunch. Pain is coming, regardless of what the Fed may or may not do. Look back at the Great Depression when the Fed thrashed around, trying everything because nothing “worked.”

China Property

In a symptom of the bursting property bubble in China, the issuance of Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities (RMBS) has fallen 92% so far this year. No new RMBS have been issued since February. This is an indicator in the loss of confidence in the world’s largest asset class. The business model of property developers in China is to sell uncompleted units, taking not only a down payment but a mortgage so they are fully paid, in many cases before construction has even started. Predictably enough, many end up not only short of cash, but in default on their debts. Now hundreds of thousands of people are refusing to make mortgage payments as their units go unfinished long past their contracted delivery dates.

Of course the failures of the developers impact on their suppliers, their banks and the local governments that rely on land sales for much of their revenue.

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.