Blog Archives

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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The Fantasy of Central Bank “Growth” Is Finally Imploding

It was such a wonderful fantasy: just give a handful of bankers, financiers and corporations trillions of dollars at near-zero rates of interest, and this flood of credit and cash into the apex of the wealth-power pyramid would magically generate a new round of investments in productivity-improving infrastructure and equipment, which would trickle down to the masses in the form of higher wages, enabling the masses to borrow and spend more on consumption, powering the Nirvana of modern economics: a self-sustaining, self-reinforcing expansion of growth.

But alas, there is no self-sustaining, self-reinforcing expansion of growth; there are only massive, increasingly fragile asset bubbles, stagnant wages and a New Gilded Age as the handful of bankers, financiers and corporations that were handed unlimited nearly free money enriched themselves at the expense of everyone else.

Central banks’ near-zero interest rates and trillions in new credit destroyed discipline and price discovery, the bedrock of any economy, capitalist or socialist.

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No Fix for Recession: Without a Financial Crisis, There’s No Central Bank Policy Fix

The saying “never let a crisis go to waste” embodies several truths worth pondering as the stock market nears new highs. One truth is that extreme policies that would raise objections in typical times can be swept into law in the “we have to do something” panic of a crisis.

Thus wily insiders await (or trigger) a crisis which creates an opportunity for them to rush their self-serving “fix” into law before anyone grasps the long-term consequences.

A second truth is that crises and solutions are generally symmetric: a moderate era enables moderate solutions, crisis eras demand extreme solutions. Nobody calls for interest rates to fall to zero in eras of moderate economic growth, for example; such extreme policies may well derail the moderate growth by incentivizing risk-taking and excessive leverage.

Speculative credit bubbles inevitably deflate, and this is universally viewed as a crisis, even though the bubble was inflated by easy money, fraud, embezzlement and socializing risk and thus was entirely predictable.

The Federal Reserve and other central banks are ready for bubble-related financial crises: they have the extreme tools of zero-interest rate policy (ZIRP), negative-interest rate policy (NIRP), unlimited credit lines, unlimited liquidity, the purchase of trillions of dollars of assets, etc.

But what if the current speculative credit bubbles in junk bonds, stocks and other assets don’t crash into crisis? What if they deflate slowly, losing value steadily but with the occasional blip up to signal “the Fed has our back” and all is well?

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Politics Has Failed, Now Central Banks Are Failing

Those living in revolutionary times are rarely aware of the tumult ahead: in 1766, a mere decade before the Declaration of Independence, virtually no one was calling for American independence. Indeed, in 1771, a mere 5 years before the rebellion was declared, the voices promoting independence were few and far between.

The shift from a pre-revolutionary era to a revolutionary era took less than a year. Perhaps no one exemplified the rapidity and totality of radicalization more than Benjamin Franklin, who went from an avowed Loyalist bent on reform to a dedicated, zealous revolutionary at the tender age of 70. (Old dogs can learn new tricks, at least in revolutionary eras.)

Recall that news could only travel as fast as a ship between seaports or a horse on the colonies’ minimalist roads, and it took days to travel between Boston, Philadelphia and New York, and much longer to reach Williamsburg and Charleston and points west. Communications were slow and limited, and this makes the rapid change of the political tide even more extraordinary.

Are we in a pre-revolutionary era? Here’s clue #1: politics has failed. When the political process can no longer fix what’s broken, politics has failed. When entire classes of citizenry no longer feel represented, politics has failed. When the system delivers a steadily declining standard of living to the bottom 80% of households, politics has failed.

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The Coming Crisis the Fed Can’t Fix: Credit Exhaustion

Having fixed the liquidity crisis of 2008-09 and kept a perversely unequal “recovery” staggering forward for a decade, central banks now believe there is no crisis they can’t defeat: Liquidity crisis? Flood the global financial system with liquidity. Interest rates above zero? Create trillions out of thin air and use the “free money” to buy bonds. Mortgage and housing markets shaky? Create another trillion and use it buy up mortgages.

And so on. Every economic-financial crisis can be fixed by creating trillions of out thin air, except the one we’re entering–the exhaustion of credit. Central banks, like generals, always prepare to fight the last war and believe their preparation insures their victory.

China’s central bank created over $1 trillion in January alone to flood China’s faltering credit system with new credit-currency. Pouring new trillions into the financial system has always restarted the credit system, triggering renewed borrowing and lending that then powered yet another cycle of heedless consumption and mal-investment–oops, I meant development.

The elixir of new central bank money isn’t working as intended, and this failure is now eroding trust in the central bank’s fixes. Central banks can issue new credit to the private sector and it can can buy bonds, empty flats and mortgages, but no central bank can force over-indebted borrowers to borrow more or force wary lenders to lend to uncreditworthy borrowers.

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The Global Distortions of Doom Part 1: Hyper-Indebted Zombie Corporations

It’s funny how unintended consequences so rarely turn out to be good. The intended consequences of central banks’ unprecedented tsunami of stimulus (quantitative easing, super-low interest rates and easy credit / abundant liquidity) over the past decade were:

1. Save the banks by giving them credit-money at near-zero interest that they could loan out at higher rates. Savers were thrown under the bus by super-low rates (hope you like your $1 in interest on $1,000…) but hey, bankers contribute millions to politicos and savers don’t matter.

2. Bring demand forward by encouraging consumers to buy on credit now.Nothing like 0% financing to incentivize consumers to buy now rather than later. Since a mass-consumption economy depends on “growth,” consumers must be “nudged” to buy more now and do so with credit, since that sluices money to the banks.

3. Goose assets based on interest rates by lowering rates to near-zero. Bonds, stocks and real estate all respond positively to declining interest rates. Corporations that can borrow money very cheaply can buy back their shares, making insiders and owners wealthier. Housing valuations go up because buyers can afford larger mortgages as rates drop, and bonds go up in value with every notch down in yield.

This vast expansion of risk-assets valuations was intended to generate a wealth effect that made households feel wealthier and thus more willing to binge-borrow and spend.

All those intended consequences came to pass: the global economy gorged on cheap credit, inflating asset bubbles from Shanghai to New York to Sydney to London. Credit growth exploded higher as everyone borrowed trillions: nation-states, local governments, corporations and households.

While much of the hot money flooded into assets, some trickled down to the real economy, enabling enough “growth” for everyone to declare victory.

But the unintended consequences also came to pass: 

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The Fantasy of “Balanced Returns” Funding Retirement

The fantasy that a “balanced portfolio” yielding “balanced returns” will fund a stable retirement for decades to come is widely accepted as a sure thing:inflation will stay near-zero essentially forever, assets such as stocks and bonds will continue yielding hefty income and capital gains, and all the individual or fund needs to do is maintain a “balanced portfolio” of various asset classes that yield “balanced returns,” i.e. some safe “value” lower-yield returns and some higher risk “growth” returns.

This fantasy is based on the belief that yields will exceed real inflation for decades to come. That is, if inflation is 2%, and the average yield of a “balanced portfolio” is 6%, then the inflation-adjusted return is 4% annually–not great, but enough to secure retirement income.

What few dare ask is: what happens if inflation is 7% and yields drop to 2%?Then the retirement fund loses 5% of its purchasing power every year. In a decade, the fund’s value will decline by roughly half.

Oops. Analysts such as John Hussman have been pointing out that historically, eras of outsized returns such as the past decade are followed by eras of low or even negative returns. So assuming a “balanced portfolio” of corporate and sovereign bonds, growth stocks, index funds, etc. will yield 6% to 7% like clockwork is essentially betting that this time is different: high growth will never pause or reverse.

But let’s say things really unravel, and inflation is 8% and yields are negative 2% for a few years. Retirement funds will lose 10% of their purchasing power every year. In a few years, the fund will lose half its value.

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Gresham’s Law and Bitcoin

Gresham’s law holds that “bad money drives out good money,” meaning that given a choice of currencies (broadly speaking, “money” that serves as a store of value and a means of exchange), people use depreciating “bad” money to buy goods and services and hoard “good” money that is appreciating or holding its value.

As this dynamic plays out, eventually there is little “good money” in circulation and the economy suffers accordingly.

Correspondent AK recently submitted an insightful discussion of Gresham’s law and bitcoin:

1: Discussions surrounding Bitcoin and Gresham’s law immediately devolve into a debate about historical formulation or wording of Gresham’s law. Gresham’s law includes the notion that one or several currencies must be accepted at a defined value under legal tender law. However, the wider economic phenomenon that “powers” Gresham’s law is a universal phenomenon that is independent of any particular legal or cultural context.

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Central Banks: From Coordination to Competition

The mere mention of “central banks” will likely turn off many readers who understandably have little interest in convoluted policies and arcane mumbo-jumbo, but bear with me for a few paragraphs while I make the case for something to happen in 2018 that will impact us all to some degree.

That something is the decay of the synchronized central bank stimulus policies that have pumped trillions of dollars, yuan, yen and euros into the global financial markets over the past nine years. Here are two charts that depict the “tag team” coordinated approach central banks have deployed: when one CB tapers its stimulus, another ramps up its money-creation/asset-purchases stimulus:

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The Fascinating Psychology of Blowoff Tops

The psychology of blowoff tops in asset bubbles is fascinating: let’s start with the first requirement of a move qualifying as a blowoff top, which is the vast majority of participants deny the move is a blowoff top.

Exhibit 1: a chart of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJ-30):

Is there any other description of this parabolic ascent other than “blowoff top” that isn’t absurdly misleading? Can anyone claim this is just a typical Bull market? There is nothing even remotely typical about the record RSI (relative strength index), record Bull-Bear ratio, and so on, especially after a near-record run of 9 years.

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Could Central Banks Dump Gold in Favor of Bitcoin?

Exhibit One: here’s your typical central bank, creating trillions of units of currency every year, backed by nothing but trust in the authority of the government, created at the whim of a handful of people in a room and distributed to their cronies, or at the behest of their cronies.

And this is a “trustworthy” currency?

Exhibit Two: central banks can’t become insolvent, we’re told, because they can create as much currency as they want, whenever they want. And this is a “trustworthy” currency?

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The 5 Steps to World Domination

World Domination–it has a nice ring, doesn’t it? Here’s how to achieve it in 5 steps:

1. Turn everything into a commodity that can be traded on the global market:land, leases on land, options to purchase land, houses, buildings, rooms in slums, labor, tools, robots, water, water rights, mineral rights, rights to air routes, ships, aircraft, political power, shares in corporations, government bonds, municipal bonds, corporate bonds, student loans that have been bundled into debt-based instruments, the income from city parking meters, electricity, software, advertising, marketing, media, social media, food, energy, insurance, gold, metals, credit, interest-rate swaps and last but not least, financial instruments that control and/or pyramid all the real-world goods and assets that have been commoditized (i.e. almost everything).

Why is this the essential first step in World Domination? Once something has been commoditized, it can be bought and sold in the global marketplace in fiat currencies–currencies that are not backed by any real-world asset and that can be created out of thin air by central and private banks.

You see the dynamic, right? Create credit-currency out of thin air, and then use this “free money” to buy up the real world. Quite a trick, isn’t it? Get a means of exchange for essentially nothing (i.e. money at near-zero interest rates) and then trade this for assets that produce goods and services everyone else needs or wants.

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