The Flim-Flam Economy

May 2nd, 2016

The absurdity of today’s flim-flam economy can be summarized when the events of the past week are considered together:

  • The U.S. economy grew at an annualized rate of just 0.5% during the first quarter
  • Corporate profits are the lowest they’ve been since 2009
  • The current bull market is now the second longest in history
  • The Federal Reserve Board, to no one’s surprise, elected yet again not to raise interest rates

The conclusion that can be drawn is that, while the U.S. is not yet a socialist country, it is no longer a capitalist country, either.  There is a seeming collusion between political leaders and central bankers with the net result being more and more government control over our lives amid the illusion that all is well, because, after all, the stock market moves in only one direction. Equities

Mainstream media, with few exceptions, reinforce the illusion, cheerleading for the Obama Administration as it continues to break records for its ever-increasing volume of new regulations.  Burdensome new regulations reduce corporate profits, which should result in lower stock prices.  But the Fed has somehow managed to circumvent reality and juice the market ever higher.  Read the rest of this entry »

Upending the World

April 25th, 2016

Logic has taken a 180-degree turn, running at full sprint in the opposite direction from where it should be.

As one small example, consider the good fortune of Hans Peter Christensen, recently profiled in The Wall Street Journal, who is currently being paid by his bank to borrow money.  Christensen owns a home in Aalborg, Denmark, where negative interest rates resulted in his bank paying him the equivalent of $38 in interest for the quarter for borrowing money.

Meanwhile, in other countries with negative interest rates, some banks are charging customers for their deposits.  So the bank pays you to take its money and charges you to take your money. Zero Rates

Such is the logic of today’s central bankers in much of Europe and Japan, where rates have been negative for more than a year.

The United States has not adopted negative interest rates—but Fed Chair Janet Yellen said in February that the Fed is studying the feasibility of doing so, “to give the economy an extra boost,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Read the rest of this entry »

Fed Family Feud

April 18th, 2016

Is it a mutiny?  A family feud?  Sibling rivalry?  Or an attempt to provide more accurate estimates of economic growth?

Greater accuracy would certainly be a good thing, but that may be the least plausible explanation for the New York Federal Reserve Bank’s launch of Nowcast.

Traders need real-time economic data that they can use to guide trading decisions.  Providing it has been a role that the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank took on when it created GDPNow in July 2014. Today, GDPNow is widely used by traders—even though, as we’ve previously noted, Fed projections of economic growth are almost always overly optimistic.Fed v. Fed

So why add a second source of inaccurate estimates of GDP growth?  There are several possible explanations:

  • New York is the center of the universe and New York Fed Chair William Dudley found it unacceptable that the Atlanta Fed was grabbing all of the attention with its GDP forecasts.
  • With two different forecasts, the Fed doubles its probability of getting it right (although two times zero is still zero).
  • The Fed wants to show that it does more than just manipulate the stock market and buy bonds.
  • The New York Fed needs to justify its budget and figured it is a good use of taxpayers’ money to produce two separate and distinct GDP growth estimates.
  • The New York Fed wants to prove that it is as capable as the Atlanta Fed of producing inaccurate estimates of GDP growth.

Whatever the reason, the second Fed GDP growth estimate was added “to the puzzlement of some traders,” as The Wall Street Journal put it.  Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Ignore the Central Banks

April 11th, 2016

What if we all decided to ignore the central banks?

Granted, they have provided material for this blog non-stop from the day it started.  They keep financial journalists, economists, analysts, pundits and other financial fortune tellers employed.  They keep the stock market pumped up when it can’t achieve new records of its own merit. They appear be the only people in the world tasked with managing the economy (even if they are mismanaging it, rather than managing it).

So why should we ignore them?

They’re frequently wrong.  The Federal Reserve Board, our country’s central bank, has a history of causing, not solving crises.  Former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan is not even mentioned in “The Big Short,” but some give him top blame for causing the 2007 housing bubble and the financial crisis that followed. Benchmark

“Alan Greenspan will go down in history as the person most responsible for the enormous economic damage caused by the housing bubble and the subsequent collapse of the market,” according to The Guardian.

Noting the plunging housing prices and high unemployment in 2013, when the article was written, The Guardian reported that, “The horror story could have easily been prevented had there been intelligent life at the Federal Reserve Board in the years when the housing bubble was growing to ever more dangerous proportions (2002-2006). But the Fed did nothing to curb the bubble. Arguably, it even acted to foster its growth with Greenspan cheering the development of exotic mortgages and completely ignoring its regulatory responsibilities.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Something’s Rotten …

April 4th, 2016

“That it should come to this!”

                                  Hamlet, Act I, Scene II

Any student of Shakespeare will recall that Hamlet’s procrastination did not bode well for Denmark.

Centuries later, the Scandinavian country has Tivoli and perhaps the world’s best ice cream, but it’s not exactly a world power.  It may not be Hamlet’s fault–after all, Denmark is even more socialistic than the U.S. and Canada–but his hesitation was not a good thing for him or his country.YellenHamlet 2

So what does this have to do with Janet Yellen?  She chairs the Federal Reserve Board, which, like Denmark, has wielded its power clumsily, although it doesn’t even produce ice cream.  And, like the tragic prince, she will likely be remembered more for her inaction than for her action.

Even Hamlet didn’t procrastinate for years, although it may seem that way if you watch a poor production of the famous play. Also, like the melancholy Prince of Denmark, Ms. Yellen seems to be collapsing under the weight of the world and fretting over the potential consequences of her actions. And so, like Hamlet, she does nothing.

Her words before the New York Economic Club last week could have come straight out of Hamlet. Princess Yellen may be far less eloquent than the young prince of Denmark, but the parallels between what she said and what he said are significant. Read the rest of this entry »

Wages Will Increase When Productivity Does

March 28th, 2016

There are three things we can say about income with a degree of certainty:

  1. You’re earning less than you did before the financial crisis.
  2. You are overdue for a raise.
  3. You are unlikely to get a raise anytime soon.

If these three statements fit your personal circumstances, you can take some consolation in knowing that you are not alone and that there is likely not much you can do about it.  Using the financial crisis that began in 2007 as a baseline, the Economic Policy Institute found that wages have dropped by an average of up to 5.9%, depending on the category of worker to which you belong. Employees with advanced degrees are the only group that didn’t see its income drop, but that group didn’t see its income rise, either. declining-wages

While the rate of inflation has been low throughout that period, it is still eroding your purchasing power and affecting your standard of living.

Why is income lower today than it was in 2007?

Lower Profits.  A major reason you’re earning less—and why you’re unlikely to get a raise anytime soon—is that your employer is earning less. Read the rest of this entry »

Set. Down. No Hike.

March 21st, 2016

The economic outlook can be summed up in five words: Everything’s great, except what isn’t.

We’ll lead with the “everything’s great” part, as seen through the filter of the Federal Reserve Board.  As Fed Chair Janet Yellen reminds us after every meeting, the Fed has two goals—lowering the unemployment rate and stabilizing prices.

The Fed’s target unemployment rate is 4.7% to 5.8% and, if you believe the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (see below re: why you shouldn’t), the Fed has accomplished that goal, as the current rate is at an eight-year low of 4.9%.  The Fed’s target inflation rate is 2% and, depending on how you measure inflation, it’s close to that number.Stock Prices

“The Fed’s preferred measure, the personal consumption expenditures price index, rose 1.3% in January from the previous year, and so-called core inflation—which excludes volatile food and energy prices—was 1.7%,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “The consumer-price index rose 1% in February from a year earlier, but core CPI was up 2.3% for the year, the largest 12-month increase since May 2012.”

So the Fed could have logically declared its mission accomplished and begun to gradually increase interest rates, as was expected after December’s initial miniscule rate increase.  So why was the vote at last wek’s meeting 10-1 against a rate hike? Read the rest of this entry »

Mutually Assured Destruction

March 14th, 2016

Iran, North Korea and the world’s other despots may be able to take over the world without going nuclear or even firing a single shot.

That’s because much of the free world seems bent on destruction from within, done in by a Keynesian death spiral.

Apparently, no one believes in capitalism anymore.  Instead, central bankers, who now control the economy in most of the world, are hell-bent on continuing to dig the negative-interest-rate hole ever deeper, until it is impossible to climb out.

While central bankers have only made matters worse with their easier-than-easy monetary policies, they’re so deeply invested, and so far down the rabbit hole of negative interest rates, they can’t turn back. Draghi

It may not be working, but admitting as much would bruise many strong egos, scare investors and sink stock prices.  So they keep digging.

A Bigger Bazooka

A year ago, Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank, announced the start of an asset-purchasing program similar to the Federal Reserve Board’s quantitative easing (QE) program through which the ECB would spend €60 billion a month on Eurozone government bonds.

Read the rest of this entry »

Making America Great Again

March 7th, 2016

It’s clear that in spite of boisterous bad behavior, a lack of workable policies and a few very bad ideas, Donald Trump is the odds-on favorite to become the Republican nominee for president of the United States.

Why?  It may be that his theme of “Making America Great Again” is resonating with voters.

While starting trade wars and building a wall to keep out Mexicans would have the opposite impact, American greatness could emerge as the theme of this campaign.

That’s because, as the charts below demonstrate, America’s greatness has faded mightily during President Obama’s administration.  Home ownership, median family income and labor force participation has plummeted.  Meanwhile, student loan debt, the use of food stamps (aka the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP), federal debt, money printing, healthcare costs and—not coincidentally—black inequality have soared.20160301_obama_0

So voters have latched onto The Donald as the anti-Obama.

Why Candidate Trump Exists

In fact, former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, whose own presidential candidacy never gained any traction, notes in The Wall Street Journal that Presidential candidate Trump would not exist if not for President Obama. Read the rest of this entry »

Going Negative

February 29th, 2016

“More money cannot cure what too much money created.”

                                   Frank Hollenbeck

There’s nothing positive to say about negative interest rates.

If seven years of zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) has left the U.S. economy is such sad shape, how could negative interest rates help?  Negative rates have already been tried in Europe and Japan, and they have failed to boost the economy.

And yet some believe the Federal Reserve Board is considering replacing ZIRP with NIRP.  We’ve written plenty about the failings of ZIRP, or zero interest rate policy, and believe it would be foolish for the Fed to consider NIRP, or negative interest rate policy.

The bank of the future.

The bank of the future.

How does NIRP work?  As Zerohedge explained, “The process can be as simple as the central bank charging its member banks for holding excess reserves, although the same thing can be accomplished by more roundabout methods such as manipulating the reverse repo market.”

In other words, central banks created trillions of dollars in excess reserves throughout the banking system and now they want to charge banks for holding those reserves.  The idea is to coerce banks to lend the money, which should stimulate the economy.  Read the rest of this entry »