Oct 092017
 
 October 9, 2017  Posted by at 2:08 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  2 Responses »
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Fan Ho In Paris 1953

 

 

Update: I never did this before, but now I think I must: change the title of an article. “Minsky and Volatility” isn’t nearly as good as “The S&P Is A Bloated Corpse”. Simple, really. The URL will be the same as before

 

 

According to Hyman Minsky, economic stability is not only inevitably followed by instability, it inevitably creates it. Complacent humans being what they are. If he’s right, and would anyone dare doubt it, we’re in for that mushroom cloud on the financial horizon. We know that because market volatility, as measured for instance by the VIX, the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE)’s volatility index, is scraping the depths of the Mariana trench.

Two separate articles at Zero Hedge this weekend, one by NorthmanTrader.com and one by LPLResearch.com, address the issue: it is time to be afraid and wake up. And that is not just true for investors or traders, it’s true for ‘everyone out there’ perhaps even more. Central bank policies, QE and ultra low rates, have distorted the financial system to such an extent -ostensibly in an attempt to save it- that the depressed, compressed volatility these policies have created can only come back to life with a vengeance.

Feel free to picture zombies and/or loss of heartbeat as much as you want; it’s all true. Financial markets haven’t been functioning for years, and there have been no investors either, only gamblers and profiteers, as savers and pensioners have been drawn and quartered. Central bankers have eradicated price discovery, nobody knows what anything is really worth anymore, be it stocks, bonds, housing, gold, bitcoin, you name it.

If you make interest rates ‘magically’ disappear anyone can spend any amount of money on anything they fancy buying. And it’s not just traders and investors either. Scores of people think: look, I can buy a house, others think they can buy a bigger house, many will get into stocks and/or bonds, because prices just keep going up. Even savers and pensioners are drawn into the central bank Ponzi, often in an effort to make up for what they lose when their accumulated wealth no longer pays them any returns. Shoeshine boys are dishing out market tips.

Crypto may or may not be a new tulip, but many Silicon Valley start-ups -increasingly funded by crypto ICO’s- certainly are. There’s so much money sloshing around nobody can tell, or even cares, whether they are actually worth a penny. It’s all based on gossip multiplied by the idea that they will be smart enough to get out in time in case things go awry.

 

People mistakenly think that a market’s heartbeat can be found in for instance rising stock prices, the Dow, the S&P. But that’s simply not true. The S&P is a bloated corpse increasingly filling up with gases that will eventually cause it to explode, with guts and blood and body parts and fluids flying all around.

The US stock market’s heartbeat manifests itself in volatility, and the overall economy’s heartbeat in interest rates. Rising and falling volatility and interest rates is how we know whether a market is in good health, or even alive at all. They are its vital signs.

That follows straight from Minsky. Ultra-low rates and ultra-low volatility, especially if they last for a longer period of time, are signs of trouble. The markets the central banks’ $20+ trillion QE and ZIRP have created are bloated corpses that no longer have a heartbeat. They are zombies. But markets, unlike natural bodies, won’t die, they can’t. They will instead rise from their graves and take over Wall Street, the City, and then everyone else’s street.

Bernanke, Yellen, Draghi and Kuroda are sorcerer’s apprentices and Dr. Frankensteins, who have created walking dead monsters they have no control over. But the monsters won’t turn on them personally; that’s the tragedy here as much as it is the reason why they have worked their sorcery. They themselves won’t go bankrupt, other will. No skin in the game.

Enough with the metaphors. First, here’s NorthmanTrader:

 

Flatliners

In the movie Flatliners aspiring medical doctors tried to unlock the mysteries of death by, well, killing themselves. It was meant to be a controlled death of course, to flat line on the heart rate monitor for a few minutes to find out what wonders where to be found “on the other side” only to then return safe & sound thanks to medical intervention. Well, they soon found out the other side wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be and the main character soon got regular beatings as the sins of his past came back to haunt him.

In my view markets find themselves in a very similar script. The promise of investor nirvana where the pains of real life no longer matter. If you only pay attention to the record highs headlines it all looks rather fantastical these days. [..] any trader staring at the tape knows that we find ourselves in the most compressed price environment in history. This is not normal, there’s no heartbeat:

As I’m writing this I’m fully aware I may be viewed as the bear who cried wolf. After all I’ve been outlining structural risk factors for a while and markets have moved past my technical risk zones of 2450-2500 and most recently 2530. That’s what bubbles do. They blow past anyone’s expectations, they make believers of the unbelievers, make bears look like idiots and the most reckless look like geniuses. But an extreme market that only becomes more extreme is not any less extreme, it is just more extreme. As no risk is apparent these extremes are then dismissed as the new normal. Yet momentum driven price appreciation has absolutely zero predictive value of future price appreciation, it only appears as such at the time.

We find ourselves in a very unique point in history and in a world dominated by false narratives. It is a challenge to keep an analytical grip on reality, but I’ll try to tie a few threads together here to put everything in a macro context. Firstly the underlying base reality: Free money, easy money, whatever you want to call it, permeates everything we see in financial markets. Indeed I would argue price appreciation has been paid for with unprecedented and, in my view, unsustainable volatility compression. A couple of charts really highlight this. Most clearly perhaps is the precise trend line tagging we can observe in the correlated picture of price appreciation and volatility compression since the February 2016 lows:

The $VIX’s corollary, the inverse $XIV, embarked on an explosive near one way journey since the US election coinciding with over $2 trillion central bank intervention in just the first 9 months of 2017:

And it has continued to this day and just made another all time high this past week on a massive negative divergence. It is the magnitude of this volatility compression that explains the current trading environment we find ourselves in.

 

[..] Debt expansion at low rates continues to sustain the illusion of real prosperity for the 90%:

 

And then LPLResearch with another indicator that goes to show we’re dealing with a zombie here: stock prices are not moving, either up or down. Or rather, they’re moving up all the time, but in too small increments. Yeah, like that bloated corpse.

 

Where Did All the Big Moves Go?

There have only been eight moves of at least 1% for the S&P 500 Index so far this year—the least since 13 in 1995. The all-time record was an incredible three in 1963. What about a big move? The last time the S&P 500 moved at least 4% was nearly six years ago. In fact, the S&P 500 had four consecutive days with 4% (or greater) changes in August 2011. Other than 2008 and the crash of ’87, that is the only other time since the Great Depression to see four consecutive 4% changes. That isn’t anything like today’s action.

As the chart below shows, so far in 2017, big moves have been nonexistent; and even 1% changes have been rare. Per Ryan Detrick, Senior Market Strategist, “If you had forecast that the 11 months after the 2016 U.S. presidential election would be one of the least volatile periods ever, you would be in the minority. Then again, the last time we saw a streak of calm like this was the year after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. Once again proving that the market rarely does what the masses expect and usually surprises us.”

You want a heartbeat. That tells you if a body or a market is alive, healthy, functioning. We don’t have one. We haven’t for years. But we will again. Natural bodies can tend towards equilibrium, i.e. death. Markets cannot. They’re doomed to flatline, and then to always come back from near death experiences. They tend to do so in violent ways though. When volatility at last returns, so will price discovery. It won’t be pretty.

 

 

Feb 282015
 
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Fenno Jacobs Schoolchildren staging a patriotic demonstration, Southington, CT 1942

In an article about NATO exercises in Estonia, just 300 yards from the Russian border, Daniel McAdams at the Ron Paul Institute makes a point that I want to use to make a much broader point. Not the provide answers, though, just to provide questions. McAdams quotes the Guardian review of a book by George Sakwa:

NATO’s Russia Border Games

Russian military plane over international waters 25 miles from the UK coast is “real and present danger” to NATO. Yet… Yet yesterday US combat vehicles conducted a military parade and show of military force in Estonia just 300 yards – yards! – from the Russian border. That is just over 60 miles from downtown St. Petersburg. This is not a provocation, we are to believe. This is not a “real and present danger” to Russia. NATO is exempt from the rules it imposes on its enemies. In the Guardian’s review of a new book by Politics professor George Sakwa, the current fallout from a near quarter century of post-Cold War NATO policies is perfectly captured:

The hawks in the Clinton administration ignored all this, Bush abandoned the anti-ballistic missile treaty and put rockets close to Russia’s borders, and now a decade later, after Russia’s angry reaction to provocations in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine today, we have what Sakwa rightly calls a “fateful geographical paradox: that NATO exists to manage the risks created by its existence”.

That line bears repeating: “NATO exists to manage the risks created by its existence.”

Yes, that line bears repeating, but it bears much more than that: the line doesn’t go nearly far enough. Because NATO doesn’t only exist, it develops and changes. In fact, to justify its prolonged existence, NATO has turned from a force for peace into a warmonger. That way, the organization argues, consciously or not, it provides itself with a reason to exist. It now doesn’t just exist to manage the risks, it exists to create them. In doing so, NATO itself has become the biggest risk.

Regular readers will be well aware that I, like Ron Paul, have said many times that NATO should be dismantled (and not just NATO). Not only because it’s long outlived its original purpose, based in the Cold War, but because it increasingly attracts as leaders people who use ever more aggressive language for ever more elusive reasons. The latest in the series are new General Secretary Stoltenberg and General ‘Warhead’ Breedlove, both of whom seem hell bent on outdoing even Ukraine’s leadership pair of Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk when it comes to making unsubstantiated claims about Russia, and about the situation in Ukraine – and Eastern Europe – in a broader sense.

My thesis is that all supranational organizations will eventually attract a certain kind of people as their leaders, and that these are inevitably the last kind of people we should want in these positions. But in the absence of effective democratic oversight, they end up there anyway. Therefore, the only way to counter this mechanism is to dismantle and abandon the organizations, while we still can. Which is not a given, since they function like power pyramids, in which ever more active power flows to an ever smaller top, until they become ‘untouchable’ by the nations that founded them in the first place.

These organizations don’t just fail to meet their originally stated purpose, they become entities dangerous to those they were meant to serve. That’s true for NATO, for the IMF, the World Bank, and the EU. They all end up serving only their most powerful members, at the cost of the smaller and less powerful. Since there is no mechanism to prevent this from happening while they exist, we must dismantle them.

There’s a strong correlation with an example from the economic world, in which corporations were originally incorporated for a specific project (e.g. building a bridge), a specific budget and a specific duration. And look at corporations now: there is no time limit to their existence, they are free to buy political control over our societies across generations, and they have even been granted person’s rights, though persons die and corporations no longer do.

What is true for corporations is just as true for supranational organizations: it’s all about scale. They are all – well, mostly – founded by well-meaning people, but these people ignore – willingly or not – to set time, financial and legal limits to them. And that’s a surefire recipe for disaster. The IMF upon its inception had lofty ideals behind it. But look at the damage it’s done across the globe. The World Bank was intended to help fight poverty in poor nations, but, like the IMF, has become an instrument for the rich to control these nations and prey on them.

And NATO has been busy ever since the Berlin wall came down, to resurrect the Cold War, without which it knows it must fear for its continued existence. It’s a twin sister of the American military complex, which creates threats out of nowhere and fights wars that all end in disaster, creating chaos along the way that forms the reason, and the cradle, for the next theater of war.

I’ve said before that I’m somewhat hesitant to include the US in the list of supranational organizations that should be dismantled, but if the country, the union, can’t find a way to reform and refind itself, I don’t see much reason for it to live on. The concentrated power bastion in Washington simply does too much harm to too many people, both at home and abroad. Nobody should have that sort of power.

If you have an entity that comprises 300 million people, it’s inevitable that ‘rulers’ over that entity need to be curtailed and limited in their powers from the get-go, or things will go awfully wrong. In the US, arguably, that has long since started to happen. The solution – in theory – is real simple: decentralize power. The solution in practice is much less obvious, since the people in power won’t volunteer to give up what they’ve got. A critical mass has been reached from which it will be very hard to retreat.

‘Once it reaches a certain threshold, the process of institutionalization becomes counterproductive’

Those are the words from a man I’ve been thinking about for quite a while, when pondering these issues, 20th century philosopher/priest Ivan Illich, whose criticism of ‘institutionalization’, mostly published in the 1970’s from Latin America, was largely inspired by, and directed at, the Catholic Church, not coincidentally the world’s – by far – earliest truly multinational corporation. Illich basically asserted that institutions tend to monopolize parts of societies that they should leave alone, because they belong to the people, and are essential to their well-being. From Wikipedia’s entry on Illich:

[e]lite professional groups . . . have come to exert a ‘radical monopoly’ on such basic human activities as health, agriculture, home-building, and learning, leading to a ‘war on subsistence’ that robs peasant societies of their vital skills and know-how. The result of much economic development is very often not human flourishing but ‘modernized poverty,’ dependency, and an out-of-control system in which the humans become worn-down mechanical parts.”

[2] Illich proposed that we should “invert the present deep structure of tools” in order to “give people tools that guarantee their right to work with independent efficiency.”[14]

Schools should not be able to declare themselves the only valuable source of education, nor hospitals that of health care. To Illich, the fact that he did see them do this anyway, meant people were being robbed of their freedom to learn, and to heal. In the same vein, NATO should not have a monopoly on defending us from ‘evil’ enemies, because it will create that evil just to justify its own apparatus, in the process robbing people of the ability to judge what is evil and what is not.

‘[I]nstitutions create the needs and control their satisfaction, and, by so doing, turn the human being and her or his creativity into objects’

And that of course moves us real close to what I said about supranational organizations and multinationals, and to what Sakwa said: “NATO exists to manage the risks created by its existence.”. It shirks close to the Completion Backward Principle, in which first a need and a market is created and only then the product that fills that need.

My perhaps favorite Illich quote, which with a little imagination is one on one applicable to the entire institutionalization issue, is this:

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value.

Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavour are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.

I never liked the education system I grew up in, any more than I like supranational institutions (it just took me a while to figure out the connection). High school was fine, because it was a breeze. But university was like running into a wall, multiple times. I just never had the idea that these people had anything I wanted. Just perhaps a degree that would have given me a ‘better’ job. But to go through 4-5-6 years of something I absolutely didn’t want, or saw the use of, seemed to be far too high a price to pay. This was way after Illich wrote what he did, though I didn’t read it until even much later again, but when I did, I still had a feeling of redemption, of: I’m not the only one who saw what I did.

And of course people will say that I’m an idiot to throw away a university degree when so many others would kill to have one. That all, however, proves Illich’s point, and it leads back to the same issue: universities have a monopoly on learning, which means people learn less and less, they only ‘learn’ to be cogs in a machine. And if you don’t get the degree, than no well-paying job for you. And that’s exactly what Illich says. It makes for societies of unhappy people, who can’t even provide for themselves, as all their ancestors could, because all they’ve learned is to be that cog.

I wanted to bring Ivan Illich into the discussion about NATO we’ve been having for a long time, with Ron Paul and myself saying it should be banned and its pieces ritually incinerated, because Illich makes the idea far more accessible that this is all part of a much larger pattern. That is to say, we tend towards centralization at all levels, mostly at first – seemingly – innocently, but soon with control moving beyond our perception.

Who controls NATO, or the IMF? I’m sure you understand it’s not you. Still, when an organization exhibits aggressive behavior in your name, or lends out your money in your name, you should at all times feel that you are in control, through those you elect to represent you. Well, do you? Or are you merely thinking: that’s too far away from me?

Organizations, like so many things in life, don’t scale up well, if at all. Beyond a certain critical mass, they become counterproductive, as Illich states. They become predators on their own creators. That goes as much for NATO, IMF and EU as it does for schools and hospitals.

Modern societies appear to create more and more institutions – and great swathes of the way we live our lives become institutionalized. ‘This process undermines people – it diminishes their confidence in themselves, and in their capacity to solve problems… It kills convivial relationships. Finally it colonizes life like a parasite or a cancer that kills creativity’ (Finger and Asún 2001: 10).

Experts and an expert culture always call for more experts. Experts also have a tendency to cartelize themselves by creating ‘institutional barricades’ – for example proclaiming themselves gatekeepers, as well as self-selecting themselves. Finally, experts control knowledge production, as they decide what valid and legitimate knowledge is, and how its acquisition is sanctioned.

Schooling – the production of knowledge, the marketing of knowledge, which is what the school amounts to, draws society into the trap of thinking that knowledge is hygienic, pure, respectable, deodorized, produced by human heads and amassed in stock…..

[B]y making school compulsory, [people] are schooled to believe that the self-taught individual is to be discriminated against; that learning and the growth of cognitive capacity, require a process of consumption of services presented in an industrial, a planned, a professional form;… that learning is a thing rather than an activity. A thing that can be amassed and measured, the possession of which is a measure of the productivity of the individual within the society. That is, of his social value.

It’s a trap we’ve set for ourselves, and over which we’ve now long lost control. Technology seems to make the world ‘smaller’, and to increase our control, but in effect it ends up doing the opposite. It makes us dumber, since we are now only cogs in a machine that others control, and over which we have no oversight. If the machine gets orders to go to war, the cogs will have to obey. That’s our world today, and that’s what the NATO issue teaches us. NATO is our Frankenstein. And if we don’t stop it now, it will end up coming after us.