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Nothing Is Guaranteed

The American lifestyle and economy depend on a vast number of implicit guarantees— systemic forms of entitlement that we implicitly feel are our birthright.

Chief among these implicit entitlements is the Federal Reserve can always “save the day”: the Fed has the tools to escape either an inflationary spiral or a deflationary collapse.

But there are no guarantees this is actually true. In either an inflationary spiral or deflationary collapse of self-reinforcing defaults, the Fed’s “save” would destroy the economy, which is now so fragile that any increase in interest rates (to rescue us from an inflationary spiral) would destroy our completely debt-dependent economy: were mortgage rates to climb back to historical averages, the housing bubble would immediately implode.

Hello negative wealth effect, as every homeowner watches their temporary (and illusory) “wealth” dissipate before their eyes.

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Main Street Small Business on the Precipice

As a generality, the average employee (including financial pundits) has no real experience or understanding of what it takes to start and operate a small business in the U.S. Government employees in the agencies that oversee and enforce regulations on small businesses also generally lack any experience in the businesses they regulate.

A third generality is the endlessly promoted ethos of entrepreneurism cultivates the illusion that there is an essentially endless supply of entrepreneurs who are itching to start businesses and throw everything they have into the risky gamble.

All we ever hear when a restaurant owner is interviewed is how much they love their business, their work, their customers, their neighborhood, etc. etc. Sadly, enthusiasm isn’t enough to pay the rent when belt-tightening reduces sales while costs notch ever higher.

The story plays out the same everywhere; the only variation is the relative scale of the costs that are squeezing small businesses and the limits on how much they can raise prices:

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Why Is the Fed Paying So Much Interest to Banks?

“If you invest your tuppence wisely in the bank, safe and sound,
Soon that tuppence safely invested in the bank will compound,

“And you’ll achieve that sense of conquest as your affluence expands
In the hands of the directors who invest as propriety demands.”

Mary Poppins, 1964

When Mary Poppins was made into a movie in 1964, Mr. Banks’ advice to his son was sound. Banks were then paying more than 5% interest on deposits, enough to double young Michael’s investment every 14 years.

Now, however, the average savings account pays only 0.10% annually – that’s 1/10th of 1% – and many of the country’s biggest banks pay less than that. If you were to put $5,000 in a regular Bank of America savings account (paying 0.01%) today, in a year you would have collected only 50 cents in interest.

That’s true for most of us, but banks themselves are earning 2.4% on their deposits at the Federal Reserve. (more…)

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The Neutered Fed Is Politically Trapped

In this era of fake news and deep-fake digital recordings and images, it’s important to use unedited images. With this firmly in mind, here is an unedited photo of Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell and former Fed Chairs Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke from their recent unprecedented appearance on 60 Minutes:

The purpose of the Fed chiefs’ dog-and-pony show was to promote the notion that the Fed really really really (try not to laugh out loud) “cares” about the average American, even though 85% of the $30 trillion in gains generated by the Fed’s policies flowed to the top 10% and roughly two-thirds of the gains flowed to the top few percent.

The bottom 80% got essentially nothing except a drastic reduction in the purchasing power of their stagnating wages. If this is how the Fed “cares” about average Americans, I wonder what they’d do if they chose to impoverish average Americans. Oh wait a minute, they already did.

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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 Doomsday Scenario for the Stock and Housing Bubbles

The Doomsday Scenario for the stock and housing bubbles is simple: the Fed’s magic fails. When dropping interest rates to zero and flooding the financial sector with loose money fail to ignite the economy and reflate the deflating bubbles, punters will realize the Fed’s magic only worked the first three times: three bubbles and the game is over.

So what happens when punters realize there won’t be a fourth bubble? They sell. Bids disappear because who’s dumb enough to bet (with Japan and Europe as lessons) that more liquidity and negative interest rates will magically work when zero interest rates didn’t move the needle?

Who’s foolish enough to catch the falling knife (i.e. buying plummeting assets on the way down) on the unsupported assumption that the next dose of Fed magic will reverse a bidless market?

And should the Fed start buying stocks, mortgages, housing and bonds to prop up those bidless markets, what’s the message it will be sending? Desperation.If the only buyer is the money-printing central bank, that’s pretty good evidence that your economy and markets are in free-fall.

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QE Forever: The Fed’s Dramatic About-face

“Quantitative easing” was supposed to be an emergency measure. The Federal Reserve “eased” shrinkage in the money supply due to the 2008-09 credit crisis by pumping out trillions of dollars in new bank reserves. After the crisis, the presumption was that the Fed would “normalize” conditions by sopping up the excess reserves through “quantitative tightening” (QT) – raising interest rates and selling the securities it had bought with new reserves back into the market.

The Fed relentlessly pushed on with quantitative tightening through 2018, despite a severe market correction in the fall. In December, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said that QT would be on “autopilot,” meaning the Fed would continue to raise interest rates and to sell $50 billion monthly in securities until it hit its target. But the market protested loudly to this move, with the Nasdaq Composite Index dropping 22% from its late-summer high.

Worse, defaults on consumer loans were rising. December 2018 was the first time in two years that all loan types and all major metropolitan statistical areas showed a higher default rate month-over-month. Consumer debt – including auto, student and credit card debt – is typically bundled and sold as asset-backed securities similar to the risky mortgage-backed securities that brought down the market in 2008 after the Fed had progressively raised interest rates.

Chairman Powell evidently got the memo. (more…)

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What Happens When More QE Fails to Reverse the Recession?

The Federal Reserve’s sudden return to “accommodative” dovishness in response to the stock market’s swoon telegraphs its intent to fire up QE once the recession kicks into gear. QE (quantitative easing) are monetary policies designed to ease borrowing and the issuance of credit, and to prop up assets such as stocks and real estate.

The basic idea is that the Fed creates currency out of thin air and uses the new money to buy Treasury bonds and other assets. This injects fresh money into the financial system and lowers the yield on Treasury bonds, as the Fed will buy bonds at near-zero yield or even less than zero in pursuit of its policy goals of goosing assets higher and increasing borrowing/spending.

This is pretty much the Fed’s only lever, and it pulls this lever at any sign of weakness in stocks or the economy. That sets up an obvious question that few seem to ask: what happens when QE fails? What happens when the Fed launches QE and stocks fall as punters realize the rally is over? What happens when lowering interest rates doesn’t spark more borrowing?

What happens is the smart money sells everything that isn’t nailed down, a process that is arguably already well underway.

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In Defense of Powell’s Restoration of Price Discovery

Let’s start with a chart of the S&P 500:

Having become addicted to the Federal Reserve’s nearly free money for financiers and the infamous Fed Put, stock market players are now weeping and thrashing about in the agony of withdrawal as Fed chair Jay Powell has instituted a cold-turkey withdrawal from the financial stimulus of the Bernanke-Yellen days.

Let’s be clear: the policies of nearly free money for financiers (QE) and the Fed Put were unmitigated disasters, as they distorted financial markets so severely that the markets’ pricing mechanisms have been crippled.

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Trump Takes on the Fed

The president has criticized Federal Reserve policy for undermining his attempts to build the economy. The best way to make the central bank serve the needs of the economy is to make it a public utility.

For nearly half a century, presidents have refrained from criticizing the “independent” Federal Reserve; but that was before Donald Trump. In response to a question about Fed interest rate policy in a CNBC interview on July 19, 2018, he shocked commentators by stating, “I’m not thrilled. Because we go up and every time you go up they want to raise rates again. . . . I am not happy about it. . . . I don’t like all of this work that we’re putting into the economy and then I see rates going up.” He acknowledged the central bank’s independence, but the point was made: the Fed was hurting the economy with its “Quantitative Tightening” policies and needed to watch its step.

In commentary on CNBC.com, Richard Bove contended that the president was positioning himself to take control of the Federal Reserve. Bove said Trump will do it “both because he can and because his broader policies argue that he should do so. . . . By raising interest rates and stopping the growth in the money supply [the Fed] stands in the way of further growth in the American economy.” (more…)

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Fox in the Hen House: Why Interest Rates Are Rising

The Fed is aggressively raising interest rates, although inflation is contained, private debt is already at 150% of GDP, and rising variable rates could push borrowers into insolvency. So what is driving the Fed’s push to “tighten”?

On March 31st the Federal Reserve raised its benchmark interest rate for the sixth time in 3 years and signaled its intention to raise rates twice more in 2018, aiming for a fed funds target of 3.5% by 2020. LIBOR (the London Interbank Offered Rate) has risen even faster than the fed funds rate, up to 2.3% from just 0.3% 2-1/2 years ago. LIBOR is set in London by private agreement of the biggest banks, and the interest on $3.5 trillion globally is linked to it, including $1.2 trillion in consumer mortgages.

Alarmed commentators warn that global debt levels have reached $233 trillion, more than three times global GDP; and that much of that debt is at variable rates pegged either to the Fed’s interbank lending rate or to LIBOR. Raising rates further could push governments, businesses and homeowners over the edge. In its Global Financial Stability report in April 2017, the International Monetary Fund warned that projected interest rises could throw 22% of US corporations into default. (more…)

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Observations on Wealth-Income Inequality (from Federal Reserve Reports)

To those of us nutty enough to pore over dozens of pages of data on wealth and income in the U.S., the Federal Reserve’s quarterly Z.1 reports and annual Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) are treasure troves, as are I.R.S. tax and income reports.

Allow me to share a few observations on family wealth and income drawn from my review of these documents:

Changes in U.S. Family Finances from 2013 to 2016 (42 pages)

Financial Accounts of the United States (198 pages)

Corporate profits clock in at $2.135 trillion annually, around 11% of the nation’s GDP (gross domestic product). (Page 10 of Z.1) This has changed very little over the past few years; corporate profits totaled $2.140 trillion in 2014.

Most people who follow financial matters closely probably know corporate profits have been around $2 trillion annually for awhile.

But how many know that proprietors’ income from small businesses ($1.375 trillion) and rental income of persons–i.e. not corporations–($740 billion) together equal corporate profits? ($2.115 trillion for small biz/rentals, $2.135 trillion for corporate profits.

How many financially savvy people know that proprietors’ income and private rental income rose by $189 billion since 2014, while corporate profits flatlined?

Clearly, the families that own the proprietorships and rentals pulling down $2.1 trillion in annual profits are doing a bit better than OK.

As the charts below reveal, most of this profitable business equity is owned by the top 10% of families. There are a few clues that suggest that family-owned business equity is distributed along a power-law curve, i.e. a highly unequal distribution in which most of the wealth/income goes to the top few.

On Page 28 of the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), we find that the business equity owned by families in the bottom 50% of family incomes has a mean value of $208,000, up marginally from $204,000 in 2010, the business equity held by the top 10% of families rose from $2.265 million in 2010 to $3.3 million in 2016–a gain of over $1 million.

As always, I want to stress the profound difference between assets that produce no income and those that produce net income. This excludes hobby businesses that lose money or tax shelters that are intended to lose money. I’m talking about businesses that generate revenues in excess of all expenses: net profit that is taxable.

Owning a vacation home that is rented out a few weeks a year is one thing, owning a rental property that’s rented out 50 weeks a year is considerably different. The first is an expense, the second generates net income.

Somewhat to my surprise, almost 14% of households own some residential property equity other than their primary residence (page 18 of the SCF). Unfortunately, the Fed lumps second homes and vacation properties in with rental properties of up to 4 units, while rentals with 5 or more units are lumped in with farmland and commercial properties in equity in nonresidential property.

Only 6% of households own any equity in nonresidential property, a category of wealth that gained 72% from 2013 to 2016. Interestingly, the percentage of families owning this form of wealth actually declined from 7.2% in 2013 to 6.2% in 2016, suggesting to me that the corporations and hedge funds snapping up multi-unit residential properties are buying properties from families.

Based on my previous surveys of I.R.S. income tax data, much of this small-business equity and family owned-rental property is owned by the top 4% to 5% of families, with the majority owned by the top 10%, as shown in the chart below.

The number of families with business equity has been declining, eroded by recession and stagnation, despite the recent bounce higher.

Most of the biz-equity is owned by the top 10%:

While the financial media focuses on billionaires and hedge fund managers playing for billions, much of the wealth and income of the nation is firmly in the hands of families that own proprietorships and rental properties.

These assets have risen sharply in value, and they’ve also generated gains in income.

If you want to get rich, you can climb into a time machine, return to 2010 and buy a couple thousand bitcoin for $1 each. Alternatively, you can marry extremely well. If neither of these options is available, then starting a profitable proprietorship that enables the purchase of rental properties is another option. 

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