Category Archives: Income & Consumption

Happy Days Are Here Again

Markets continue to behave as if 2022 never happened, inflation is dead, growth is strong, the Fed is impotent, we’ve had a soft landing and caution can be thrown to the winds. Stock prices have resumed their uptrend and new highs are soon to be seen. After all, the Dow is only down 7.5% from its all-time high close, and the S&P only 15%, dragged down by the big tech stocks, which are recovering fast from irrational selling, thanks to cost reductions from layoffs. VIX, the volatility index, is at levels last seen in early January last year, close to the December 2021 all-time stock market highs (18.06 as I write). Perhaps that is not a coincidence.

To me, this looks like an opportunity. Far be it for me to rain on a parade, but this looks like a bull trap.

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 The economy is addicted to free money and is slowing rapidly now that it has been withdrawn.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.

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

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.

Flippy

Shortage of labor + higher wages and benefits = Flippy 2 

Miso-Robotics-Flippy-2

PASADENA, Calif., Oct 4 (Reuters) – Fast-food French fries and onion rings are going high-tech, thanks to a company in Southern California. Miso Robotics Inc in Pasadena has started rolling out its Flippy 2 robot, which automates the process of deep frying potatoes, onions and other foods. A big robotic arm like those in auto plants – directed by cameras and artificial intelligence – takes frozen French fries and other foods out of a freezer, dips them into hot oil, then deposits the ready-to-serve product into a tray. Flippy 2 can cook several meals with different recipes simultaneously, reducing the need for catering staff and, says Miso, speed up order delivery at drive-through windows. “When an order comes in through the restaurant system, it automatically spits out the instructions to Flippy,” Miso Chief Executive Mike Bell said in an interview.” … It does it faster or more accurately, more reliably and happier than most humans do it,” Bell added.

Of course this is in addition to the original Flippy, which does burgers, etc.

Can the fully automated fast-food restaurant be far off? Ordering is handled by kiosks, cooking by Flippy. What’s next?

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.