Blog Archives

Financial Storm Clouds Gather

The financial storm clouds are gathering, and no, I’m not talking about impeachment or the Fed and repo troubles–I’m talking about much more serious structural issues, issues that cannot possibly be fixed within the existing financial system.

Yes, I’m talking about the cost structure of our society: earned income has stagnated while costs have soared, and households have filled the widening gap with debt they cannot afford to service once the long-delayed recession grabs the economy by the throat.

Everywhere we look, we find households, enterprises and local governments barely able to keep their heads above water–in the longest expansion in recent history. This is as good as it gets, and we’re only able to pay our bills by borrowing more, draining rainy-day funds or playing accounting tricks.

So what happens when earned income and tax revenues sag? Households, enterprises and local governments will be unable to pay their bills, and borrowing more will become difficult as the financial markets awaken to the re-emergence of risk: as shocking as it may be in the era of Central Bank Omnipotence, borrowers can still default and lenders can be destroyed by the resulting losses.

The era of Central Bank Omnipotence has been characterized by two things:

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Labor Day Reflections on Retirement and Working

Let’s start by stipulating that if I’d taken a gummit job right out of college, I could have retired 19 years ago. Instead, I’ve been self-employed for most of the 49 years I’ve been working, and I’m still grinding it out at 65.

By the standards of the FIRE movement (financial independence, retire early), I’ve blown it. The basic idea of FIRE is to live frugally and save up a hefty nestegg to fund an early comfortable retirement. As near as I can make out, the nestegg should be around $2.6 million–or if inflation kicks in, maybe it’ll be $26 million. Let’s just say it’s a lot.

You’ve probably seen articles discussing how much money you’ll need to “retire comfortably.” The trick of course is the definition of comfortable. The conventional idea of comfortable (as I understand it) appears to be an income which enables the retiree to enjoy leisurely vacations on cruise ships, own a boat and well-appointed RV for tooling around the countryside, and spend as much time golfing or boating as he/she might want.

FIRE retirees might opt for socially aware volunteer work or hiking trips in remote regions. Whatever the activities, the basic idea here is: retirement = no work = enough cash to do whatever I please.

Needless to say, Social Security isn’t going to fund a comfortable retirement, unless the definition is watching TV with an box of kibble to snack on.

Where do you put your expanding nestegg so it earns a positive yield? In the good old days, regular savings accounts earned 5.25% annually by federal law. Buying a house was not a way to get rich quick, it was more like a forced savings plan, as over time real estate earned about 1% above the core inflation rate.

But all the safe ways of securing a return have been eradicated by the Federal Reserve. The Fed’s “fix” for economic stagnation was to financialize the U.S. economy, effectively eliminating low-risk returns and forcing everyone to become a speculator in high-risk financial casinos.

As a result, the saver seeking a yield above zero is gambling that all the asset bubbles don’t all pop before he/she cashes out. If the bubbles keep inflating steadily for another decade, making assets ever-more overvalued and unaffordable, then maybe the saver can exit the asset bubbles with the desired nestegg. But what if the bubbles in stocks, bonds, real estate, etc. pop?

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If “Getting Ahead” Depends on Asset Bubbles, It’s Not “Getting Ahead,” It’s Gambling

Beneath the endlessly hyped expansion in gross domestic product (GDP) of the past two decades, the economy has changed dramatically. The American Dream boils down to social and economic mobility, a.k.a. getting ahead through hard work, merit and wise investments in oneself and one’s family.

The opportunities for this mobility in the post World War 2 era broadened as civil rights and equal rights expanded. The 1970s saw a disruption of working-class mobility as high-paying factory jobs disappeared, leaving services jobs that paid less or required more training, i.e. a college degree.

The U.S. economy took off in the 1980s for a number of reasons, including computer technologies, federal stimulus (deficit spending) and financialization (a topic I’ve covered many times). With millions more college graduates entering the workforce and the Internet creating entire new industries, the opportunities to “get ahead” increased across the social and economic spectrum.

But something changed in the aftermath of the dot-com bubble bursting. The fruits of financialization–highly leveraged debt gambled for short-term gains in markets–were extended to everyone with a job (or a willingness to lie) via liar loans, no-document loans and subprime mortgages.

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Blind Faith vs. the Bottom Line

We’ve reached an interesting moment in history where we each have a simple choice: we either go with blind faith or we go with the bottom line, i.e. the facts of the matter. So far, 2019 is the year of Blind Faith, as the charts below illustrate: the bottom line no longer matters.

Let’s start with the Ray Dalio Effect, which strikes financiers who’ve exploited our rigged system to skim billions while creating zero goods and services or public good: discerning that the millions whose labor has created the actual goods, services and public good will eventually tear down his Bastille of ill-gotten wealth stone by stone, Mr. Dalio rigs a corporate media appearance (the door is always open to billionaire financiers) to weep alligator tears while decrying the very system he exploited and suggesting we throw a few more crumbs to the mob to distract them from the awareness that his billions were ultimately skimmed from the wealth they generated.

Nice timing, Mr. Dalio: It’s awfully convenient of you to decry the system you helped create after you’ve skimmed your ill-gotten billions rather then before.

Then there’s the blind faith that nose-bleed stock valuations can only go higher. Courtesy of The era of ‘price-insensitive buying’ has led to this troubling chart(MarketWatch), here’s a chart of the valuation of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJI), which now exceeds the insane extremes of the dot-com bubble circa 1999-2000.

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Pensions Now Depend on Bubbles Never Popping (But All Bubbles Pop)

The nice thing about the “wealth” generated by bubbles is it’s so easy: no need to earn wealth the hard way, by scrimping and saving capital and investing it wisely. Just sit back and let central bank stimulus push assets higher.

The problem with bubble “wealth” is it’s like an addictive narcotic: now our entire pension system, public and private, is dependent on the current bubbles in stocks, real estate, junk bonds and other risk assets never popping.

But a funny thing eventually happens to financial bubbles: they all pop. And when the current bubbles pop, they will gut pension reserves, projections and promises.

Take a look at the chart below of taxpayer contributions to Calpers, the California public pension fund. Note that in the heady days of Bubble #1, the dot-com era, enormous gains in Calpers’ stock holdings meant taxpayers’ contributions were a modest $159 million annually.

Based on bubbles never popping and monumental annual gains continuing forever, Calpers projected taxpayer contributions in 2010 of $6.6 billion. But since Bubble #2 had popped in 2008-09, stock market gains had cratered and as a consequence taxpayers had to pay almost four times the Calpers projection: $24.6 billion.

In a few short years, taxpayer contributions have nearly doubled, despite the outsized returns generated by Bubble #3, the largest of them all. By 2015, taxpayer contributions to Calpers totaled $45 billion, even as Calpers reaped huge gains in its stock portfolio.

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We’re All Speculators Now

One of the most perverse consequences of the central banks “saving the world” (i.e. saving banks and the super-wealthy) is the destruction of low-risk investments: we’re all speculators now, whether we know it or acknowledge it.

The problem is very few of us have the expertise and experience to be successful speculators, i.e. successfully manage treacherously high-risk markets. Here’s the choice facing money managers of pension funds and individuals alike: either invest in a safe low-risk asset such as Treasury bonds and lose money every year, as the yield doesn’t even match inflation, or accept the extraordinarily high risks of boom-bust bubble assets such as junk bonds, stocks, real estate, etc.

The core middle-class asset is the family home. Back in the pre-financialization era (pre-1982), buying a house and paying down the mortgage to build home equity was the equivalent of a savings account, with the added bonus of the potential for modest appreciation if you happened to buy in a desirable region.

In the late 1990s, the stable, boring market for mortgages was fully financialized and globalized, turning a relatively safe investment and debt market into a speculative commodity. 

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Once the Bubbles Pop, We’re Broke

OK, I get it–the Bull Market in stocks is permanent. Bulls will be chortling in 2030 that skeptics have been wrong for 22 years–an entire generation. Bonds will also be higher, thanks to negative interest rates, and housing will still be climbing higher, too. Household net worth will be measured in the gazillions.

Here’s the Fed’s measure of current household net worth: a cool $100 trillion, about 750% of disposable personal income (DPI):

Household net worth has soared $30 trillion in the past decade of permanent monetary and fiscal stimulus. No wonder everyone is saying Universal Basic Income (UBI)– $1,000 a month for every adult, no questions asked–is affordable, along with Medicare For All (never mind that Medicare is far more expensive than the healthcare provided by other advanced nations due to rampant profiteering, fraud and paperwork costs–we can afford it!)

And we get to keep the Endless Wars ™, trillion-dollar white elephant F-35 program, and all the other goodies–we can afford it all because we’re rich!

We’re only rich until the bubbles pop, which they will. All speculative bubbles deflate, even those that are presumed permanent, And when the current everything bubble pops, net worth–and all the taxes generated by bubble-era capital gains–vanish.

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Are You Prepared to Invest in Troubled Times?

There are two Grand Narratives about the U.S. economy and asset markets: the mainstream narrative is that nothing is fundamentally wrong with the economy, and so no structural changes (and the sacrifices such changes entail) are needed.

In this narrative, the only problem that needs solving is markets stop bubbling higher. The mainstream always expects markets to keep bubbling higher essentially forever, but reality intrudes and the asset bubbles pop.

The solution in this narrative is to “fix” markets with massive stimulus: fiscal stimulus from the Savior State and monetary stimulus from the central bank — Federal Reserve (reinflating bubbles that enrich the already-wealthy is our primary job).

I’ve marked up a chart of the S&P 500 stock index to reflect this narrative:

Note that the mainstream never expects bubbles to deflate. The economy is always doing great at the bubble top, and expectations are always that assets will consequently continue bubbling higher.

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How Much Longer Can We Get Away With It?

This chart of “debt securities and loans”–i.e. total debt in the U.S. economy–is also a chart of the creation and distribution of new money, as the issuance of new debt is the mechanism in our financial system for creating (or “emitting” in economic jargon) new currency: when a bank issues a new home mortgage, for example, the loan amount is new currency created out of the magical air of fractional reserve banking.

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Three Bubbles/Strikes and You’re Out

The conventional investment wisdom holds that central banks will never let markets decline. This is an interesting belief, given that two previous asset bubbles based on central bank “easy money” both imploded, impoverishing believers in central bank omnipotence.

So perhaps we can say that the conventional investment wisdom holds that any asset bubble that bursts will quickly be reflated into an even more extreme asset bubble. That’s certainly been the history of the past 17 years.

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Beware the Marginal Buyer, Borrower and Renter

When times are good, the impact of the marginal buyer, borrower and renter on the market is often overlooked. By “marginal” I mean buyers, borrowers and renters who have to stretch their finances to the maximum to afford the purchase, loan or rent.

In bubble manias, buyers of real estate reckon the potential appreciation gains are worth the risk of buying a house they really can’t afford with the intention of flipping the home for a profit.

Workers moving to high-rent cities reckon they’ll either make more money going forward or find a cheaper flat later, so they pony up the high rent.

When there’s steady overtime or generous tips adding to the household income, buying a new car or getting a new auto lease looks do-able.

It’s difficult to assess how many recent buyers, borrowers and renters are marginal, but given the stagnation in household incomes and rising debt loads, it seems reasonable to guess that a substantial number of recent buyers, borrowers and renters are one lay-off or one missed bonus or one unexpected expense away from being unable to pay their mortgage, loan payment or rent.

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The Trouble with Asset Bubbles: If You Stop Pumping, They Pop

The trouble with inflating asset bubbles is that you have to keep inflating them or they pop. Unfortunately for the bubble-blowing central banks, asset bubbles are a double-bind: you cannot inflate assets forever. At some unpredictable point, the risk and moral hazard that are part and parcel of all asset bubbles trigger an avalanche of selling that pops the bubble.

This is another facet of The Fed’s Double-Bind: if you stop pumping asset bubbles, they pop as participants realize the music has stopped, and if you keep pumping them, they expand to super-nova criticality and implode.

There are several dynamics at play in this double-bind.

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