Category Archives: Strategy & Scenarios

Unwarranted

From the minutes of  the Fed’s 12/13-14 meeting:

Participants noted that, because monetary policy worked importantly through financial markets, an unwarranted easing in financial conditions, especially if driven by a misperception by the public of the Committee’s reaction function, would complicate the Committee’s effort to restore price stability.

Per Bloomberg, financial conditions are now back in pre-QT, super low rate – i.e. bubble – territory.

Fin Cond Index

This isn’t going to make Jerome Powell happy, is it? Could 0.50 be back on the table? Just to get the markets’ attention…

Froth

While a little of the massive cash pile that resulted from the Fed’s monetization of Treasury debt has been whittled away, there’s more than enough left to continue to encourage the manic speculation that we’ve seen in recent years. A week ago yesterday, Thursday, January 5, Bed Bath and Beyond (NYSE: BBBY), a past favorite of meme stock traders, told investors that ”there is substantial doubt about the Company’s ability to continue as a going concern.”

The stock closed that day about 30% lower, at $1.69. The following day, Friday, it closed another 23% lower, at $1.30 – fair enough for a company that had just issued a bankruptcy warning. But starting on Monday, the meme stock traders started a bull run and took BBBY along for the ride. On Thursday – yesterday –  the stock touched 5.87, a 350% gain from last Fridays’s close. Today, it closed at 3.66, a 180% gain from its low close and a 52% gain from its pre-news close.

This is not investing. This is the kind of speculative frenzy that is generally called “froth.” As in “frothing at the mouth” or “rabid.” “Froth” is at tops, not bottoms.

Edit: Just noticed that Bitcoin is back over $20K. Despite the continuous drumbeat of frauds, hacks, rug-pulls, SEC lawsuits, defaults, bankruptcies etc. Another sign of speculative fever.

Edit: I guess it is everywhere. “Lotto Madness” is back. Two months after a record-breaking $2 billion jackpot, another winning ticket, sold in Maine, is worth an estimated $1.35 billion. Odds of a jackpot-winning ticket: 1 in 302,575,350.

Here We Go Again

Having concluded that he could not control the spread of whatever Covid variant is raging in China, Xi is sending untested people abroad to ensure as best he can that the rest of the world shares China’s misery. Just as he did with the Wuhan outbreak. Italy reports that more than 50% of arriving passengers from China are infected. The southern border must be closed as well as the other ports of entry.

Edit: The Biden administration announced that, starting Jan 6, arriving passengers from China must have a clean PCR test within the previous 48 hours. Fat lot of good that will do. This is China. Everything is fake. There are strong suspicions that testing labs have been receiving government money, not only not performing the testing but creating outbreaks to increase demand.

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.

Recession

Albert Edwards observes that history implies that recession is starting now:

recession now

Housing Collapse Redux

Take a look at this chart:

2022-11-16_07-05-40_0

That is a collapse in process. An unprecedented collapse in modern times. Perhaps 1346-53 showed something similar. It will take 4-6 months to work its way into the hard data, but it is coming. Recall Stephanie Pomboy’s observation that in July of 2008, inflation was at 5.6%. By July of 2009, it was at -2.1%. There’s a Fed pivot of some kind. Now look at John Hussman’s pivot chart:

Bears follow pivot

Which clearly shows that the real bear market will follow the pivot. Then contemplate another of Hussman’s charts which shows the potential losses from here:

Potential Losses

Now look at the international context. China has its own housing bubble collapse going on, to say nothing of choking its economy with a stupid Covid strategy because a dictator like Xi cannot admit error. Europe is seized with political correctness, internal division over immigration from Africa and an energy catastrophe. Oh and there’s a proxy war with Russia going on and another with China waiting in the wings, to say nothing of a demented President. Just don’t choke on that turkey.

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.

One Thing Right

Fed Chair Powell got one thing right: He observed that the current situation was outside historical norms. Well, duh. This is the largest, most extreme financial bubble in history, so throw away any analysis that depends on history.

During the last two or three decades, China took over as the workshop of the world and flooded the rest of the world with cheap goods, largely suppressing inflation while destroying the goods-producing cores of western economies.  Governments and central banks did “whatever it takes” to support employment by lowering interest rates and monetizing government debt. But, as in California’s forests, fuel built up as fires were suppressed, in this case piles of cash instead of dry underbrush. We do know that government deficit spending is the primary cause of inflation. As China’s growth sagged and supply chains reached their limits of capacity, government deficit spending accelerated… and here we are.

Where do we go from here? No-one knows, we are in uncharted territory. Governments continue to spend like drunken sailors, but at least the Fed has stopped monetizing the debt with its balance sheet around 36% of GDP (against a historical norm of around 6%). Japan continues to lead the monetizers, with the BoJ balance sheet now around 135% of GDP, forcing the Japanese government to intervene in forex markets to prop up the yen this morning, for the first time in 24 years. This observer would welcome to a return to more peaceful times, where the world did not revolve around central bankers roiling markets and economies while attempting the impossible. Pass the peanuts.

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.