Aug 242015
 
 August 24, 2015  Posted by at 9:00 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , ,  


NPC Grand Palace shoe shining parlor, Washington DC 1921

After losing 11% last week, Shanghai this morning was down almost -9% at one point, after lunch went back up to -6.5%, and ended its day at -8.49%. A Black Monday for sure, but is this the BIG ONE? It really doesn’t matter one bit. Unless perhaps you persist in calling your self an investor, in which case we pity you, but not for losing your shirt. Because God knows we’ve said enough times now that there are no functioning markets anymore, and therefore no-one who can rightfully lay claim to the title ‘investor’.

Plenty amongst you will be talking about economic cycles, and opportunities, and debate how to ‘play’ the crash, but all this is useless if and when a market doesn’t function. And just about all markets in the richer part of the world stopped functioning when central banks started buying assets. That’s when you stopped being investors. And when market strategies stopped making sense.

Central banks will come up with more, much more, ‘stimulus’, but what China teaches us today is that we’re woefully close to the moment when central banks will lose the faith and trust of everyone. After injecting tens of billions of dollars in markets, which thereby ceased to function, the global economy is in a bigger mess then it was prior to QE. The whole thing is one big bubble now, and we know what invariably happens to those.

More QE is not an answer. And there is no other answer left either. Those tens of trillions will need to vanish from the global economy before any market can be returned to a functioning one, and by that time of course asset prices will be fraction of what they are now. It may not happen today, but that doesn’t matter: what’s important to know is that it WILL happen.

And if you keep being out there trying to outsmart a non-functioning market, you’ll get burned as badly as the millions of Chinese grandmas who already lost 20%+ so far just this month. And that’s just on their share holdings; Chinese property ‘markets’ will be at least as badly burned.

China’s leaders, and its people, have walked eyes wide open into an ugly albeit nigh perfect trap. They’ve all started to believe that borrowing more could make them richer. Outstanding credit across the entire society has reached idiotic proportions. We can get somewhat of a glance at what levels debt have reached in Steve Keen’s Is This The Great Crash Of China?, in which he argues that a crash is inevitable, simply given those levels.

But we can at the same time be sure that this doesn’t tell the whole story. Much of what has gone on in the shadow banking sector remains unknown and carefully hidden. Thousands of local governments have plunged themselves into the deep end borrowing from trusts and other often shady instruments, at interest levels much higher than the ‘official’ ones. Even these shadow trusts last week have begun asking for bailouts, a development that can only make one think of a Godfather episode of one’s choice.

China’s first big mistake is that Xi and Li and their ilk think they can control housing and stock markets. Which basically means they think they can stop people from selling property and assets when they feel these might go down in ‘value’.

China’s second big mistake is that so many people believe that Xi and Li actually have any such control. Which means the people don’t sell nearly soon enough, and will be saddled with the losses. From an economic perspective, it’s an exercise in stupid futility, or, if you prefer, futile stupidity.

Add to this that the credit that allowed the Chinese to purchase all these alleged assets came from nowhere, and will therefore of necessity have to go back to nowhere, and you have a recipe for deflationary debt deleveraging the likes of which the world may never have seen before in history, unless perhaps you count the tulip- or South Sea bubbles, but they are just small scale anecdotes compared to today.

This deleveraging will be global. We pity the many millions of poor souls who think that countries like the US and Britain will be spared the worst because their economies are doing ‘so well’. Doing well in a global Ponzi is not a recommendation.

China’s fall is being exacerbated by the fact that it has two -heavily intertwined- parties who believe in their own omnipotence, the government (Politburo) and the central bank. Both are being found out at the same moment. And both will resist this discovery. As will all central banks in the west, where at least any idea of omnipotence of governments has long been eradicated.

But the entire west has become so addicted to China’s debt, and the illusion of prosperity and economic recovery it has brought, that all prices everywhere must come down, as noted above, until the tens of trillions of dollars in stimulus measures have vanished into the thin air they were fabricated in. Until value becomes real value again, not this virtual zombie Ponzi pricing.

Today may be just a warning sign, and it may take a while longer before the deluge, but it will come. And since China has nothing left to fall back on but even higher private and public debt levels, make that sooner rather than later.

The main advice we’ve always given with regards to debt deleveraging stands: get out of debt.

Meanwhile, the western financial press, which has been reporting on non-functioning markets for years as if they actually were still functioning, is worrying about a potential Fed rate hike, telling its readers and listeners that the US central bank ‘looks set to make a dangerous mistake’. But the real ‘mistake’ was made a long time ago.

Jan 182015
 
 January 18, 2015  Posted by at 11:53 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  


DPC Longacre Square, soon to be Times Square 1904

I’ve said before, and quite a while ago too, – more than once-, that the world of investing as we’ve come to know it is over. It’s still as true as it was then, and I can only hope that more people today understand why it is true, and why I said it in the past. The basic underlying argument then and now is that financial markets have been distorted to such an extent by the activities, the interventions, of central banks – and governments -, that they can no longer function, period.

What we’ve seen since 2008 – not that things were fine and rosy before that – is that all ‘private’ losses were taken over by the public sector, just so the private sector didn’t have to fess up to what it lost, and the appearance of a functioning market system could be upheld. And those who organized this charade were dead on in thinking that as long as Dow and S&P numbers would look good, and they said ‘recovery’ in the media often enough, people would believe there still was a functioning financial marketplace. And they did. But those days are over. Or at least, they soon will be.

What I mean by that is that the functioning marketplace is long gone, and only now people’s beliefs, too, about it are changing, being forced to change, and soon quite radically. The entire idea that ruled the world of finance and kept it -seemingly – standing upright is crumbling fast. And we’re going to have to find a way to deal with that. As of today, we have none, we come up zero. The overriding narrative – which overrides every other thought – is that we’re on our way back to recovery. And then we’ll get back to becoming ever richer, live in ever bigger homes and drive ever bigger, smarter and faster cars. Or something in that vein.

The downfall of finance can be traced back to all sorts of points in history. Think Nixon the gold standard in 1971, for example. But the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1998, under Bill Clinton, is undoubtedly one of the major ones. Once deposit-taking banks were -again – allowed to use those deposits to ‘invest’ – read: gamble with -, it was only a matter of time before the train went off the tracks in spectacular fashion.

It now seems to stupid to be true, but Alan Greenspan, Bob Rubin and Larry Summers, the guys who had pushed so hard for the repeal – and got it -, were once featured on the cover of TIME as The Men Who Saved The World. While what they did was the exact opposite: they threw the world into a financial abyss. It took a while, sure, but then, 16-17 years is not all that long. Plus, it took just 2 years for the dotcom bubble to burst, and 6-7 more for Bear Stearns, AIG and Lehman to be whack-a-moled.

The rest would have followed, but then the central banks stepped in. And now, 6 years and $50 trillion later, their omnipotence is being exposed as impotence. Which means there’s nothing left to keep up appearances. We’ll all have to leave the theater of dreams and step out into the blinding cold faint light of another morning. No choice. And we’ll figure out at some point that we’ve paid all we had just to watch the show.

No. 1) The Swiss National Bank this week threw in the towel, bankrupted a lot of foreign exchange brokers and investors and destroyed a few hundred thousand Swiss jobs in the process. And that was not the first sign that the game was up, the oil price collapse started it. Or, to be precise, made the collapse visible for the first time to most – even if they didn’t recognize it for what it was-. Central banks are pushing on a string, a concept long predicted: they have become powerless to stop financial markets events from taking their natural course of boom and bust.

No. 2) The Bank of Japan. From Asian Nikkei:

Japan’s Central Bankers Mull Diminishing Returns From Bond Buying

Some in the Bank of Japan are growing anxious about continuing its massive purchases of government bonds, confronted with the program’s negative side effects. [..] The BOJ’s buying of huge amounts of Japanese government bonds has pushed long-term interest rates to unprecedented lows. This has made it impossible for insurance companies to generate sufficient returns on JGB investments to pay benefits to policyholders.

The longer ultralow interest rates continue, the more likely other insurers are to take similar steps. Household finances would suffer. Money reserve funds, used for parking individual stock investors’ unused funds, are another financial product hit by ultralow interest rates. MRFs put money into short-term government bonds and other safe investments. Generating positive returns on the bonds is becoming nearly a lost cause [..]

The BOJ has discussed these costs at its policy board. When the board took up additional easing measures in a late-October meeting, some members raised the specter of hurting earnings at financial institutions and giving the impression that the bond-purchasing program is actually a scheme to enable deficit spending. The board decided to step up the program anyway, judging the benefits to outweigh the costs.

“Since nominal interest rates are already at historically low levels, the marginal impact of more easing aimed at putting upward pressure on consumer prices is not strong,” policy board member Takehiro Sato said in a speech last month, explaining why he opposed additional easing in October. “We have caused tremendous trouble for the financial industry,” a BOJ official says. “I hope we will be able to scale back monetary easing soon by achieving the price stability target as projected.”

All the BOJ can do by now, all that’s left to do, is get out of the way. As it should have done right off the bat, before it started intervening 20 years ago. All central banks should have gotten, and stayed, out of the way. Butt out. They have no role to play in financial markets, and should never have been allowed to assume one. They can only do harm. Free markets may not be ideal, but central bank intervention is a certified lot worse.

No. 3) The Fed:

Yellen Signals She Won’t Babysit Markets in Turmoil

Janet Yellen is leaving the Greenspan “put” behind as she charts the first interest-rate increase since 2006 amid growing financial-market volatility. The Federal Reserve chair has signaled she wants to place the economic outlook at the center of policy making, while looking past short-term market fluctuations. To succeed, she must wean investors from the notion, which gained currency under predecessor Alan Greenspan, that the Fed will bail them out if their bets go bad – just as a put option protects against a drop in stock prices.

“The succession of Fed puts over the years has led to a wide range of distortions in financial markets ,” said Lawrence Goodman, president of the Center for Financial Stability. “There have been swollen asset values followed by sharp declines. This is a very good time for the Fed to move away.”

“Let me be clear, there is no Fed equity market put,” William C. Dudley, president of the New York Fed, the central bank’s watchdog on financial markets, said in a Dec. 1 speech in New York. “Because financial-market conditions affect economic activity only slowly over time, this suggests that we should look through short-term volatility.”

The concept of a Fed put took hold under Greenspan, who in 1998 cut the benchmark federal funds rate three times in response to market stress arising from a Russian bond default and the failure of hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management. The economy expanded 5% that year and 4.7% in 1999, and critics say the rate cuts helped extend a bubble in technology stocks. The Nasdaq rose 40% in 1998 and 86% in 1999 before plunging almost 40% in 2000. Greenspan said in an interview that he regarded the notion of a Fed put as a “joke.”

Bernanke told Fed officials in an Aug. 16, 2007, conference call as they prepared to cut the discount rate, according to transcripts. Bernanke recommended resisting a cut in the fed funds rate “until it is really very clear from economic data and other information that it is needed. I’d really prefer to avoid giving any impression of a bailout or a put, if we can.”

“The put is there – it is just further out of the money,” said Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Barclays. As the central bank raises rates, “there could be more volatility and the Fed could be OK with it.”

No. 4) The ECB. Which is supposed to come with a $1 trillion or so QE package this week. Which has long been priced in by the markets and will have no other effect than to bring down the euro further. QE everywhere is always only a game that shifts wealth from the public to the private sector, which is another way of saying from the poor to the rich. But then you end up with the poor getting so much poorer, you don’t have a functioning real economy anymore, and therefore no functioning financial markets either.

The problem today is not one of lending, but of borrowing. Banks, even if they would want to, cannot lend to people too poor to borrow. Or spend, for that matter. And if people in the real economy, which accounts for 60-70% of GDP in developed nations, don’t spend, because they simply either don’t have the money or have no expectations of getting any, deflation sets in and central bankers are revealed as the impotent old farts they are.

But that will by no means conclude the story. The effects of the ill-fated megalomaniac central bank policies will reverberate through our societies for decades, if only because $50 trillion is a lot of money. Much of it may have gone somewhere, in some zero sum game, but most of it just went up in the thin air of wagers like the ones the forex trade is made of. People keep asking where did the money go, well, nowhere, or rather it went back to the virtual state it came from.

The difference between the past 6 years and today is that central banks can and will no longer prop up the illusionary world of finance. And that will cause an earthquake, a tsunami and a meteorite hit all in one. If oil can go down the way it has, and copper too, and iron ore, then so can stocks, and your pensions, and everything else.

Perhaps Yellen et al are not all that crazy for cutting QE, and soon raising interest rates. Perhaps that’s the only sane thing left to do, as sane as the Swiss cutting their euro-peg. That doesn’t mean the Fed understands what’s going to happen to the US economy because of it, but it may just mean they have an inkling of the lack of alternatives.

Japan is gone, it’s borrowed itself into oblivion. China’s ‘miracle’ was debt-financed to a much larger degree than anyone wishes to admit. Europe will end up seeing its union falling apart, because it could only ever be held up in times of plenty, and those times are gone. And the US won’t make it too long either on people making a ‘living’ flipping their neighbor’s burgers.

But the central bank bills will still come due all over. That’s the bummer about deflation: your wealth evaporates, but your debt does not.

Jan 052015
 
 January 5, 2015  Posted by at 11:26 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , ,  


DPC Court Street, Ames Building, Young’s Hotel, Boston, MA 1906

Well! WTI below $50 and Brent below $53 when I start writing this. Who knows where they’ll be by the time I’m finished?! The euro down below $1.20, US stocks flirting with -2%, major European ones off -3%, Italy and Greece over -5%. Welcome to the real world, baby! Didn’t think you’d see it again so soon, did you? Welcome to the world where the Kool-Aid recovery does not reign supreme.

Not that you’re not going to hear that anymore, and 24/7 incessantly so, but there’s no recovery with these oil prices, no matter what anybody says. The damage must be gargantuan by now. Everybody’s invested in oil. Sure, lots of shorts and stuff by now, but that’s not going to do much good. Not for pensions funds, or for governments. This thing will not blow up or over softly.

There’s not an oil major or minor or a producing country left that makes a profit at these prices, and there’s no sign anywhere to be seen that the drop will stop. If this keeps going, someday soon somebody’s going to go to war. Maybe domestically, maybe across a border, but it’ll happen.

There are dozens of regimes out there for whom oil prices have become a huge threat to their powers, their status, their lives, and there are dozens of others waiting in the wings, eager to take over. The move is just too big not to lead to bloodshed.

The eurozone is perceived as a major threat to the global economy, but not necessarily for the right reasons. Sure, that looming Grexit is not good for Brussels, but Germany and its courts might be a bigger issue. Mario Draghi will need to announce something along the lines of a QE-like measure on January 22, but can he even without risking to blow up the whole casino?

What’s more, with oil and the euro where they are, and especially where’s they’re headed, what good would any new Draghi policy do, however big it is? Europe today, like the rest of the world, has bigger problems to deal with than yesterday’s inflation rates.

Oil below $50 and falling is bigger than any other political or economic issue. Remember when they all said low oil prices would boost the economy through higher consumer spending? Heard anything much about that lately?

For western countries like Norway, Britain, Holland, oil and gas producers, the loss in – tax – revenue is debilitating. For US states like North Dakota, Texas, Alaska, it’s worse. These are not the kind of entities that can turn on a dime, they write long term budgets, the same way oil companies do. There’s a time lag in consequences, but that doesn’t mean it’s unwise to be ready to get out of Dodge.

Thing is, prices DO turn on a dime. And now they’re stuck with a zillion broken promises to investors and voters. And while the executives and politicians will at worst get thrown out, the other side of the equation is going to be stuck with the tab. And in order to save their skins, the ‘leaders’ will raise that tab wherever they see fit.

This oil thing is the real deal. There’s no Plunge Protection for that. And for all we know nobody that counts wants any. For all we know the American behind the curtain wizard convention plans to use it to destabilize a whole list of additional countries. And for all we know Russia – and perhaps China- have seen that coming from miles away.

If and when an oil producing (!) nation like Turkmenistan devalues its currency by 19% against the dollar, something’s really amiss, and tectonic plates are shifting in a part of the world where balances were already, and always, delicate. And once plates start shifting, who’s to tell where they will end up?

It’s no longer about which factors bring down oil prices, that’s old news; it’s about what oil prices bring down. You know, the next – logical -step. And they bring down more than anybody seems to be aware of. Good luck with saving a dollar a day on your gasoline bill. The world’s power brokers feel they have it all under control – they don’t, nobody has the means to control the entire world – , and they have no qualms about sacrificing you to get what they want.

The oil price drop is a much bigger event than the US subprime housing crisis, it’s bigger than everything put together that happened in 2008. And this time, central banks are lame sitting ducks. Omnipotence is a harsh mistress. She tends to backfire.