More Consideration of “Considerable”

October 16th, 2014

Yes, we’ve already discussed the word “considerable” at considerable length, in relation to its use by the Federal Reserve Board in its recent policy statement.

But apparently we are on to something of a considerable size.  Maybe it was a slow news day, but The New York Times devoted an article to the Fed’s use of the word, noting that “Federal Reserve officials are looking for a new way to reassure investors that they are not ready to start raising interest rates.” 

Fed Chair Janet Yellen

Fed Chair Janet Yellen

Commenting on the “considerable time” reference in the policy statement, The New York Times article reported that an account of the meeting “suggests that officials are trying to find a new way to say the same thing.”

Think about that.  Unemployment remains high, inflation goals are not being met, the Fed is holding trillions in bonds it will eventually have to sell and the stock market is acting wobbly … but the Fed is looking for a “new way” to say “considerable.”

Fed Chair Janet Yellen could just say the Fed is not ready to start raising interest rates.  She could say the Fed is not planning to raise rates “for a long time,” which would be reassuring to investors.  Or members of the Federal Open Market Committee could go to an online thesaurus and come up with more than a dozen synonyms in seconds.

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Satan Is a High-Frequency Trader

October 10th, 2014

Satan is now firmly in control of the markets.

No, we’re not talking about Ben Bernanke, aka Edward Quince.  His time has passed.  We’re talking about a high-frequency trader who also happens to be hell’s CEO.

satanAs evidence, consider Thursday’s market plunge.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) fell 334.97 points, its largest loss of the year.  The drop took place, as Zerohedge noted, after “ ‘someone’ canceled-and-replaced orders for 666 contracts 26 times in the 1130ET to 1200ET period,” after which “selling accelerated lower, no reversal, to close at the lows on heavy volume.”

The number 666 is, of course, the winning number in hell’s lottery.  To trade 666 contracts 26 times, you need a lot of capital in your account.  Most traders would avoid using the devil’s number, but someone – or, more likely, some firm – was trying to make a statement.

What could it mean?  That Satan is in charge, of course.

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Too Much Interest in Interest Rates

October 3rd, 2014

There has been much market panic of late over the possibility that the Federal Reserve Board will be raising interest rates sometime in the not-too-distant future.

Small cap stocks were the first casualty.  As September ended, the S&P 500 was still up 7.3% for the year, while the Russell 2000 was down 3.8% and off 7.4% from its high in July.  Even after being up more than 40% year-over-year at the end of December, the Russell 2000 was negative year-over-year on Wednesday before having its best day in six weeks on Thursday. 
20141002_RTY

As The Wall Street Journal explained, “Given that periods of market turmoil tend to buffet small stocks more than their larger counterparts, many investors in small companies are fearful as the Federal Reserve moves toward raising interest rates.  Even investors hopeful for small stocks are proceeding with caution.”

But should the markets be this skittish over interest rates?

In September, Fed Chair Janet Yellen announced that interest rates will remain low for “a considerable time” even after quantitative easing (QE), the Fed’s bond-buying program, ends.  QE is scheduled to end this month, but could be extended.

Economic data continues to be mixed.  The official U-3 unemployment rate dropped to 5.9%, but the percentage of Americans participating in the workforce is at a 36 year low.  Jobs are increasing, but four out of five of them are for low or minimum wages.  So QE could be extended, since its alleged purpose is to help the economy grow.

Even if QE ends this month, the “considerable time” Ms. Yellen cites could, indeed, be considerable, given the consequences of raising interest rates.

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It’s Only Money

September 26th, 2014

“Money often costs too much.”                                                                               Ralph Waldo Emerson

It really does all come down to money.

Money decides the outcome of wars and elections.  It ensures that we are properly fed and clothed.  It buys us an education and pays for all of our material needs.  And it may not be able to buy happiness, but it does have a dramatic impact on that vague thing that’s often referred to as “quality of life.”

All of us, if we’re being honest, would rather have more of it than less of it.

But the value of money is variable.  The currency of one country continuously fluctuates in value relative to the currency of every other country – and those fluctuations can have a dramatic economic impact.

A Stronger Dollar

You’d think countries would be striving to make their currencies stronger, but in recent years, we’ve had “currency wars” as competing countries have tried to weaken their currencies to increase demand for their imported goods.

DollarThe United States has criticized China for its currency manipulation, but in the meantime, the Federal Reserve Board’s easy money policies have deliberately weakened the dollar.

Now, though, as other countries’ currencies have become weaker, the dollar has strengthened.  In fact, the dollar reached a four-year high this week against a basket of major currencies, as The Wall Street Journal reported, “amid mounting expectations the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates next year while its counterparts in Europe and Japan consider further measures to raise inflation and spur growth.”

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Janet Yellen Takes Us Through the Looking Glass

September 18th, 2014

“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”  

               Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

The word for today is “considerable,” as in interest rates will remain low for “a considerable time.”

How long is “a considerable time?”

Long enough, apparently, for investors, who boosted the stock market to yet another new record this week, after Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen announced that the Fed would keep interest rates near historic lows for “a considerable time.”  The Dow Jones Industrial Average crossed 17,200 for the first time ever, closing at a new high of 17,157.

Apparently, investors are like kittens, because, as Alice notes, “whatever you say to them, they always purr.”

Looking-glass-lewis-carrollCNN Money interprets, with certainty, that “considerable” means summer 2015 “at the earliest.”  Yet The Wall Street Journal, referring to the policy statement, admitted, “we have no idea what it says about the future of monetary policy.  We doubt even Fed Chair Janet Yellen knows.”

“Better say nothing at all. Language is worth a thousand pounds a word!”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass                                        

Having read the policy statement, we conclude that it means whatever you want it to mean, as it contains more hedges than the Palace of Versailles.  Consider this single sentence …

“The Committee continues to anticipate (hedge 1), based on its assessment of these factors (hedge 2), that it likely will be appropriate (hedge 3) to maintain the current target range for the federal funds rate for a considerable time after the asset purchase program ends, especially if projected inflation continues to run below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal (hedge 4), and provided that (hedge 5) longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored.”

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A Not-So-United Kingdom

September 12th, 2014

                                   “Separation is forever.”                               Alistair Darling, former Chancellor of the Exchequer

Any time you divide one number by another number, you end up with a smaller number.

And so it is with Scotland’s vote to succeed from the not-so-United Kingdom, which is scheduled to take place on Sept. 18.

The vote appears too close to call, but even the fact that it’s taking place is disconcerting.  As Rupert Murdoch tweeted, “Scottish poll reflects world-wide disillusion with political leaders and old establishments, leaving openings for libertarians and far left.”

Well, at least the less-Great Britain will still have Wales.  For now, anyway.scotland_colour_map

Why should we care about what’s happening across the Atlantic?  Asking what tiny Scotland has to do with the fate of the U.S. is like asking what tiny Greece has to do with the fate of Europe.

Putting aside the economic impact, this is a time when the world’s democracies need to be united against a growing terrorist threat.  Even President Obama acknowledged this week that ignoring the world’s problems won’t make them go away, when he declared war on the Islamic State.  (OK, he didn’t call it a war, he called it a “counter-terrorism campaign.”  And his predecessors called fighting in Vietnam a “conflict.”)

So, at a time when America is seeking to rally its allies in battle against the Islamic State, one of America’s strongest allies is distracted by an internal split.  Consider what The Spectator had to say about the upcoming vote:

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Now Bad News Is Bad News

September 12th, 2014

With the end of quantitative easing due to take place next month, reality may once again have an impact on financial markets.

Since QE began more than five years ago, markets have soared on bad news and dropped on good news.  That’s because investors believed that bad news would prolong QE and good news would make it unnecessary.

And there’s been enough bad news over the past five years for the stock market to repeatedly surge to new record levels.20140911_claims

With QE ending in the U.S., but probably soon beginning in Europe, the Federal Reserve Board needs a different tool to manipulate the markets.  While Chairman Janet Yellen and others have been talking about “macroprudential supervision” as the next step, that line is selling like old fish, because no one has explained what Ms. Yellen means by “macroprudential supervision.”

The good news is that good news should finally be good news.  Fundamental performance and economic recovery should mean something again.

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Less than “Less than Zero”

September 5th, 2014

In June, the ECB lowered the interest rate on bank deposits, including reserve holdings in excess of the minimum reserve requirements, from zero to -0.10%.  This week, surprising just about everyone not named Mario Draghi, the ECB lowered the rate by another 10 basis points to -0.20%.

14950766600_d52f0bba78_zAs we wrote when the less-than-zero rate was announced, “banks will pay a fee on money they fail to lend out.  Whether or not that stimulates the economy, it could encourage banks to take more risk, approving loans that otherwise may not have been approved.  Isn’t that what caused the financial crisis?”

Zerohedge explained that while rates were already negative, “Now they’re even more negative. Because in the world of Central Banking if something doesn’t work at first the best thing to do is do more of it. Whatever you do, DO NOT question your thinking or your economic models at all.”

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Going Prudential In a Macro Way

August 28th, 2014

Obfuscation is an art form in which the Federal Reserve Board excels.  It follows a few simple rules:

  • Never use a word or phrase that is simple and widely understood when a word is available that is less well known (e.g., “obfuscation” instead of “confusion”).
  • Act as though you know what you’re talking about.
  • Act as though everyone else knows what you’re talking about.
  • Ignore failure and act as though you’ve succeeded.  No one will know the difference.

The Fed’s expertise in obfuscation is clear in its choice of strategies that are allegedly designed to create economic growth, but are really designed to prop up the bloated stock market.Janet Yellen

First, we had “quantitative easing.”  The Fed couldn’t just call it bond buying.  What does “quantitative easing” mean?  Is it the opposite of qualitative easing?  Or quantitative hardening?  How does one go about easing quantitatively?  What exactly is being eased?

The Fed couldn’t just reduce its bond buying – it had to “taper” its bond purchases.

The Fed also flirted with “forward guidance,” which, as we’ve previously explained, is simply talking about what you’re going to do without doing it.  Mario Draghi, chair of the European Central Bank has perfected this technique.  Too bad The Fed hasn’t, because it could have avoided buying trillions of dollars in bonds it will soon have to sell. Read the rest of this entry »

The Economy Is Booming – For the Repo Man

August 22nd, 2014

“Credit is a sacred trust, it’s what our free society is founded on. Do you think they give a damn about their bills in Russia?”                                                                                                                                                 Bud in “Repo Man”

The good news for the economy is that consumers are buying more.  The bad news is that they’re not paying for what they buy.

The Urban Institute found that more than a third of Americans are not only in debt, but are being chased down by debt collectors.  Debt collectors are, of course, a last resort; they’re used when all else fails and the debtor is more than 180 days past due.  When a consumer goes six months without paying a bill, it’s a good sign the person either has no intention of paying or is unable to pay.

Yet about 77 million Americans – 35% of adults with a credit file – have debt in collections.  They owe an average of $5,178, which doesn’t sound like much, but keep in mind that’s debt that’s gone into collection, not total household debt.  It does not include mortgage debt, but does include credit card, medical and utility debt.

Consumer creditThe average American household has $15,480 in credit card debt alone and consumer debt totals $11.74 trillion.  Add in federal debt, corporate debt, state government debt, municipal debt and the debt of other countries and it’s a wonder that anyone anywhere is still solvent.

You may recall the cheering that took place in 2009, when consumer debt levels decreased.  But, as the chart shows, that was a small mogul on a steep and steadily rising mountain of IOUs.

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