Blog Archives

No Matter How Much Money the Fed Prints, We Still Can’t Afford Nice Things

You’d think that with the Federal Reserve printing trillions of dollars since 2008, we’d all be able to afford nice things. But you’d be wrong: after 11 years of Fed money-printing, nice things are even more out of reach for all but the favored few who’ve received the Fed’s bounty of freshly created currency.

The Fed’s trillions were supposed to trickle down into the real economy, but they never did. All those trillions boosted asset prices and the wealth of the $100 million yachts and private jets elite.

Instead costs have soared while wages have stagnated. If this widening gap between wages and costs were accurately presented, there would a political revolt against the Fed and those few who have benefited so immensely from Fed money-printing: the banks, financiers, corporations buying back their own shares, the owners of high-frequency trading computers, etc.

Despite the best efforts of the government’s “suppress all evidence of runaway cost inflation” functionaries, a few facts have slipped through. Let’s start with income from 1980 to the present, as per the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Note that this is all pre-government-transfer (Social Security, food stamps, etc.) income, both earned (wages) and unearned (investment income).

The top households have done very, very well in the past 20 years of Fed largesse, while the incomes of the bottom 80% have gone nowhere.

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Instability Rising: Why 2020 Will Be Different

Economically, the 11 years since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09 have been one relatively coherent era of modest growth, rising wealth/income inequality and coordinated central bank stimulus every time a crisis threatened to disrupt the domestic or global economy.

This era will draw to a close in 2020 and a new era of destabilization and uncertainty begins.

Why will all the policies that have worked so well for 11 years stop working in 2020?

All the monetary/fiscal policies of the past decade were simply extreme versions of tried-and-true policies that central banks and governments have used for the past 75 years to restore growth in a recession or financial crisis: lower interest rates, increase credit/liquidity, and ramp up government spending (i.e. deficit spending) to compensate for declining private-sector spending.

These policies were designed to be short-term stimulus programs to jump-start the economy out of a slowdown (recession), which typically lasted between 9 and 18 months.

These policies are now permanent, as the system is now dependent on these policies. Any reduction in central bank stimulus causes a market crash (witness the 20% drop in 2018 as the Fed slowly raised interest rates from near-zero) and any reduction in deficit spending threatens to trigger a recession.

The problem is that these policies create distortions that cannot be fixed with more of what caused the distortions in the first place: more extreme monetary and fiscal stimulus.

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409Ks, 90% Gains, The Fed and Darth Vader’s Warning

In case you missed it, here’s a snapshot of the most recent Federal Reserve board meeting:

It’s certainly a peculiar moment in history when the President chides everyone who hasn’t gained 90% in their 409K (sic), seemingly unaware that only the top 5% have enough in a 409K to make a difference.

President Trump and the Federal Reserve agree: the “solution” to inequality and malaise is to boost the 409Ks of the top 5%, leaving the rest of the American workforce as glorified servants of the few who benefit from a record-setting stock market.

Note to the Prez and the Fed: goosing the stock market only increases wealth/income inequality. There’s only so many dogs owned by the top 5% the peasantry can walk, only so many Priuses and Teslas to wash, only so many preciously over-scheduled children to tutor, only so many $50 steak dinners to bus, only so many bedpans of the top 5%’s parents to empty. The top 5% who benefit from the stock market’s relentless melt-up can’t generate a tide that raises all ships; all they can do is further enrich themselves on the debt-serfdom of their servants.

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Just a Friendly Heads-Up, Bulls: The Fed Just Slashed its Balance Sheet

Just a friendly heads-up to all the Bulls bowing and murmuring prayers to the Golden Idol of the Federal Reserve: the Fed just slashed its balance sheet–yes, reduced its assets. After panic-printing $410 billion in a few months, a $24 billion decline isn’t much, but it does suggest the Fed might finally be worrying about the reckless, insane bubble it inflated:

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Was Marx Right about Capitalism Destroying Itself from Within?

One of the core tenets of Marx’s work is that capitalism will be undone by internal contradictions that would manifest as ever-greater crises that would eventually destroy the system from within.

As the global economy continues to unravel beneath the surface, it’s a good time to re-examine Marx’s claim. If if turns out the current version of global capitalism is indeed unraveling due to its internal contradictions, it would be valuable to understand this now rather than later.

Sartre once observed that students are only taught enough about Marx’s work to refute it. Despite the difficulty of Marx’s writings (only German philosophers can be so convoluted), its elevation to scripture by various academic tribes, and his failure to describe his “scientific socialism” alternative to capitalism in the same detail he devoted to his critique of capitalism, Marx’s work remains relevant and insightful.

Thus we continue to see articles such as Capitalism is unfolding exactly as Karl Marx predicted.

I’m not in either of the two camps, those trained to dismiss Marx’s critiques or those who devote their careers to jousting over Marxist minutiae. It’s been decades since I studied Marx in a college classroom, but I’ve continued to apply his core insights to our era.

To understand Marx’s critique of capitalism, we have to understand that he came to economics via philosophy, specifically the writings of Hegel. In other words, Marx did not approach the study of capitalism from the abstractions of classical 19th century economics (Marx was born in 1818) but from a profound interest in history, social and spiritual development and human alienation. Marx ended up devoting his life to an understanding of capitalism because it is a world-system that drives history and society.

Hegel believed human history wasn’t just “one damn thing after another;” he saw it as teleological, i.e. on a trajectory leading to higher social and spiritual development. Given this context, it’s little wonder that Marx viewed capitalism as a necessary stage of history creating the conditions for the next advancement.

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The Fed Can’t Reverse the Decline of Financialization and Globalization

The global economy and financial system are both running on the last toxic fumes of financialization and globalization.

For two generations, globalization and financialization have been the two engines of global growth and soaring assets. Globalization can mean many things, but its beating heart is the arbitraging of the labor of the powerless, and commodity, environmental and tax costs by the powerful to increase their profits and wealth.

In other words, globalization is the result of those at the top of the wealth-power pyramid shifting capital around the world to exploit lower costs of labor, commodities, environmental regulations and taxes.

This manifests as offshoring of jobs, the stripmining of forests, minerals, etc., the degradation of local ecosystems, the decline of tax revenues derived from capital and the explosive rise in stock market valuations as wages stagnate or decline.

A key element in globalization is the transfer of risk from the owners of capital to the workers and public resources. Examples of this transfer of risk abound: rather than pay workers benefits, corporations game part-time/full-time labor laws so workers’ health insurance is paid by taxpayers (Medicaid). Corporations pay wages too low to survive so workers depend on public-sector assistance (food stamps, etc.)

Rather than provide vehicles to workers who drive for a living, corporations such as Uber and Lyft transfer all the risks of ownership, maintenance and enterprise to the drivers. And so on.

Financialization is the exploitation of assets/income that were previously safe from predation by those with access to low-cost central bank credit. While definitions vary, mine is:

Financialization is the mass commoditization of debt collaterized by previously unsecuritized assets, a pyramiding of risk and speculation that is only possible in a massive expansion of low-cost credit and leverage for those at the top of the wealth-power pyramid: financiers, banks and corporations.

One example is the student loan “industry,” which prior to financialization did not exist. A previously safe from predation asset/source of income–college degrees–has been securitized so that loans issued to students for largely worthless diplomas can be sold globally as “secure assets with guaranteed yields.”

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Is This “The Top”?

The consensus seems to be that the stock market is on its way to much higher levels, and soon. The near-term targets for the S&P 500 (SPX, currently around 3,235) range from 3,500 to 4,000, with longer-term targets reaching “the sky’s the limit.”

The consensus reasoning goes like this:

— Central banks can print a lot more money

— Stocks rise when central banks print more money.

The history of the 2009-2019 era strongly supports this simple cause-effect, and so just about everyone is on the same side of the boat, the “don’t fight the Fed” side of ever-higher stock multiples and ever-higher prices.

Simply put: sales and profits no longer matter, the only thing that matters is whether central banks are printing more money. And since we all know they’ll have to print more money to keep the flying pig (the stock market) aloft, then it follows as night follows day that stocks will rise essentially forever.

As soon as the consensus has settled complacently on one side of the boat, contrarians take notice as history has a perverse habit of foiling any overwhelmingly complacent consensus.

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The Two Charts You Need to Ignore or Rationalize Away in 2020 (Unless You’re a Bear)

We’re awash in financial charts, but only a few crystallize an entire year. Here are the two charts that sum up everything you need to know about the stock market in 2020.

Put another way–these are the two charts you need to ignore or rationalize away–unless you’re a Bear, of course, in which case you’ll want to tape a printed copy next to your wall of curled Post-It notes for future reference.

These charts show that all the potential gains from a thee-year advance (2019-2021) in P-E multiples and stock valuations have already been front-run in a mere three months. This is a key dynamic in the diminishing returns on Federal Reserve stimulus. This is an important point that few seem to observe.

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The Fed’s “Not-QE” and the $33 Trillion Stock Market in Three Charts

The past decade has shown that when the Federal Reserve creates trillions of dollars out of thin air (QE), U.S. stocks rise accordingly. The correlation is very nearly perfect.

This has given rise to the belief that buyers of stocks will always be rewarded because “the Fed has our backs.” The evidence for this belief is the near-perfect correlation of Fed money-printing and stocks soaring.

This near-universal belief in the omnipotent Fed raises an interesting question: how much actual control does the Fed have on the U.S. stock market? One way to approach this question is to plot the size (to scale) of the Fed’s current money-printing campaign of $60 billion per month, “Not-QE,” to the market cap (total value) of U.S. stocks, using the Wilshire 5000 as the measuring stick and the St. Louis Federal Reserve database (FRED) as the data source.

This first chart shows the Fed’s $60 billion per month “Not-QE” in relation the $33 trillion market value of U.S. stocks.

The nearly invisible thin red line is $60 billion in relation to $33 trillion. So exactly how does this signal-noise sum translate into “the Fed has our backs”?

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The Hour Is Getting Late

So here we are in Year 11 of the longest economic expansion/ stock market bubble in recent history, and by any measure, the hour is getting late, to quote Mr. Dylan:

So let us not talk falsely now
the hour is getting late
Bob Dylan, “All Along the Watchtower”

The question is: what would happen if we stop talking falsely? What would happen if we started talking about end-of-cycle rumblings, extreme disconnects between stocks and the real economy, the fact that “the Fed is the market” for 11 years running, that diminishing returns are setting in, as the Fed had to panic-print $400 billion in a few weeks to keep this sucker from going down, and that trees don’t grow to the troposphere, no matter how much the Fed fertilizes them?

When do we stop talking falsely about expansions that never end, and stock melt-ups that never end? Just as there is a beginning, there is always an ending, and yet here we are in Year Eleven, talking as if the expansion and the stock market bubble can keep going another eleven years because “the Fed has our backs.”

Take a quick glance at the chart below of the Fed balance sheet and tell me this is just the usual plain-vanilla, ho-hum, nothing out of the ordinary Year 11 of a “recovery” that will run to 15 years and then 20 years and then 50 years–as long as the Fed panic-prints, there’s no end in sight.

So after 9 years of “recovery,” the Fed finally starts reducing its balance sheet, peeling off about $700 billion over the course of 18 months.

Nice–only $3 trillion more to dump to return to the pre-crisis asset levels of less than $800 billion. In other words, the Fed’s “normalization” was a travesty of a mockery of a sham, a pathetically modest reduction that barely made a dent in its bloated balance sheet.

Knock a couple trillion off and we’ll be impressed with your “normalization.”

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Is Social Media the New Tobacco?

Social problems arise when initially harmless addictions explode in popularity, and economic problems arise when the long-term costs of the addictions start adding up. Political problems arise when the addictions are so immensely profitable that the companies skimming the profits can buy political influence to protect their toxic products from scrutiny and regulation.

That describes both the tobacco industry before its political protection was stripped away and social media today, as the social media giants hasten to buy political influence to protect their immensely profitable monopolies from scrutiny and regulation.

It’s difficult to measure the full costs of addictions because our system focuses on price discovery at the point of purchase, meaning that absent any regulatory measuring of long-term consequences, the cost of a pack of cigarettes is based not on the long-term costs but solely on the cost of producing and packaging the tobacco into cigarettes, and the enterprise side: marketing, overhead and profit.

(I address the consequences of what we don’t measure in my latest book, Will You Be Richer or Poorer?)

To take tobacco as an example, the full costs of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day for 20 years is not limited to the cost of the cigarettes: 365 days/year X 20 years X 2 packs (14,600) X cost per pack ($5 each) $73,000.

The full costs might total over $1 million in treatments for lung cancer and heart disease, and the reduction in life span and productivity of the smoker. (The emotional losses of those who lose a loved one to a painful early death is difficult to assign an economic value but it is very real.)

If the full costs of the nicotine addiction were included at the point of purchase, each pack of cigarettes would cost about $70 ($1,000,000 / 14,600). Very few people could afford a habit that costs $140 per day ($51,000 per year).

What are the full costs of the current addiction to social media? These costs are even more difficult to measure than the consequences of widespread addiction to nicotine, but they exist regardless of our unwillingness or inability to measure the costs.

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A “Market” Crash Is Baked In–Here’s Why

The last thing punters and pundits expect is a stock “market” crash, yet a “market” crash is already baked in and here’s why: real markets have internal resilience (they’re anti-fragile, to use Nassim Taleb’s phrase), and central-planning manipulated “markets” don’t.

Few look at markets as obeying systems-level dynamics that have little to do with “news” or conventional metrics. The media makes money by reporting every tiny change in mood, metrics, rumors, etc., as if these drive markets. But we all know that the reality is much simpler: The Federal Reserve is the “market.”

In other words, the “market” is no longer a functioning (real) market; it is a central-planning signaling utility of the Fed and other central banks. This hollowing-out of the real market in favor of a central-planning, top-down controlled “market” destroys the system-level functions of markets.

If you want a refresher on the legitimate functions of a market, please read The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, which explains why all the hundreds of billions of dollars of top-down, central-planning “aid” to impoverished nations has failed, enriching kleptocrats and autocratic regimes while assuaging the guilt of the poverty-pimps in the IMF, UN, and all the philanthro-capitalist foundations.

The only programs that actually improve the lives of the impoverished are those that enable small-scale markets in which participants make their own decisions rather than suffer the consequences of decisions made by central-planners who not only know nothing of local conditions, they’re uninterested in local conditions because we know best.

This is the core of central-planning: a handful of those with power make decisions that cripple markets’ ability to respond to reality by allocating goods, services, capital and credit as participants see fit.

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