Bubble Busters

March 30th, 2015

“I had a stick of CareFree gum, but it didn’t work. I felt pretty good while I was blowing that bubble, but as soon as the gum lost its flavor, I was back to pondering my mortality.”                                                                                                                                                                             Mitch Hedberg

When the news about U.S. markets and the U.S. economy is depressing, I usually read about Europe and feel better about the U.S.

I spent a lot of time reading about Europe this week, but it didn’t do much good – even with Greece continuing to defy logic by pretending that it’s OK to live off of someone else’s money.

The problem is that easy money policy is not so easy anymore.  It never did prop up the U.S. economy, in spite of Keynesian enthusiasm, but at least it created the illusion of economic health by propping up the stock market.  Now, it’s unable to do even that. burst-your-bubble

U.S. markets fell throughout the week, but especially on Wednesday, which saw declines of more than 2% in the Nasdaq and Russell 2000. The Dow dropped nearly 300 points, or 1.6%, while the S&P 500 finished the day about 1.5% lower.  The New York composite stock exchange is now back to where it was last July and the S&P 500 is approaching November levels.

And there’s likely to be more trouble ahead, as a 4% drop in the biotech and semiconductor sectors showed a “classic parabolic reversal,” according to Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at the Lindsey Group.  A parabolic reversal is a technical indicator that signals a change in an asset’s momentum.

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No Animals Harmed in Drafting Fed Policy Statement

March 23rd, 2015

Thousands of years ago, Roman soothsayers would visit the oracles and interpret the entrails of slaughtered animals.  We haven’t advanced much since then.

Fortunately, no animals are slaughtered today, but many brain cells seem to die in the reading and interpretation of policy statements of the Federal Open Market Committee.  Like the soothsayers of old, today’s economists, journalists and pundits interpret the news and report it as fact – even though they generally haven’t a clue about what’s being said.  We’re not even sure the FOMC has a clue about what’s being said. Animal

The policy statements themselves are an anachronism.  In today’s world, most news is immediate.  By the time a newsworthy event ends, it’s been tweeted, blogged and reported on by anyone and everyone who is interested.

Yet the Fed issues policy statements on its Federal Open Market Committee meetings two months after the meetings take place.  Apparently, it takes the FOMC that long to agree on language that says nothing and can be interpreted however the reader would like it to be interpreted.

Many well-paid experts make a living off of these interpretations.  They will tell you, with certainty, that the Fed will definitely maybe raise interest rates sometime this year – or maybe next year – but they’re just guessing.

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Bazooka or Blunderbuss?

March 16th, 2015

Any day now, it seems that European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s full head of hair will migrate to his chin and turn gray, as the central banker morphs into former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke.Bazooka 2

Last week, the ECB began its purchase of €60 billion ($64.2 billion) a month in Eurozone government bonds, with total purchases expected to eventually exceed €1 trillion.

He’s called the purchase his “big bazooka,” but it could turn out to be a blunderbuss, an antiquated weapon that’s prone to misfiring.

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President Underwood Goes Keynesian

March 9th, 2015

In the latest season of “House of Cards,” President Frank Underwood stakes his political future on a $500 billion program called America Works, which will allegedly create 10 million jobs and bring the U.S. to full employment.Underwood for President

Well, “House of Cards” is fiction.  Ten million jobs creating full employment?  It would help, but it would still be 82,898,000 short, since there are a record 92,898,000 Americans not participating in the workforce. 

Speaking of fiction, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate has fallen from 5.7% to 5.5%.  That’s because, according to Zerohedge, “while the number of unemployed Americans dropped by 274K (and) those employed rose by 96K, the underlying math is that the civilian labor force dropped (by) 157,180 to 157,002 (following the major revisions posted last month), while the people not in the labor force rose by 354,000 in February.”Obama

So once again, a worsening economy brings us closer to full employment in the mythical land of Keynesian America.

How Not to Create Jobs

The bigger fiction, though, is that government spending can fix unemployment.  When it comes to spending, President Underwood is an amateur compared with President Obama, whose first-term stimulus legislation was 66% larger than President Underwood’s.  And it didn’t produce anywhere near 10 million jobs – although President Obama claimed in 2008 that it would put 7 million people to work, including 5 million in “green jobs.”

Know anyone working in a green job created by the stimulus bill?  Tom Steyer doesn’t count. Read the rest of this entry »

The Inflation Straw Man

March 2nd, 2015

 “When real interest rates start to move up, that’s when the crisis could hit.”

                                                  Alan Greenspan

So the Federal Reserve Board spent six years and boosted its bond portfolio to $4 trillion in an effort to boost the rate of inflation to 2%.

How did that go?  Not so well.

This week, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) declined 0.7% in January on a seasonally adjusted basis.  It was the third consecutive month of decline; over the past year, the “all-items index” decreased 0.1% before seasonal adjustment. CPI

In other words, the U.S. has joined Europe and is in deflation mode.  It’s the first time the CPI hit negative territory for the year since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2009.  Imagine how low prices would be if the Fed didn’t buy all those bonds!

That dropping oil prices caused U.S. deflation underscores the foolishness of the Fed fantasy about a 2% inflation rate.

As David Stockman’s Contra Corner put it, “the CPI measure of inflation is so distorted by imputations, geometric means, hedonic adjustments and numerous other artifices, that targeting to 2% versus 1% or even a zero rate of short-term measured consumer price inflation is a completely arbitrary, unreliable and unachievable undertaking. Yet, (Fed Chair Janet) Yellen’s latest exercise in monetary pettifoggery is apparently driven by just that purpose … ”

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AP Poll: Americans Want Less Economic Growth

March 2nd, 2015

Well, here’s a shocker.  A new AP poll shows that a majority of Americans want a higher minimum wage.  They also want paid sick leave and parental leave, free community college and more gender equality laws.  And, of course, they want wealthy taxpayers to pay for all of it.

Who wouldn’t?  The poll doesn’t ask about the resulting economic impact of these feel-good policies.

Polls are supposed to be objective.  They rarely are.  Asking Americans if they support a higher minimum wage isn’t too far removed from asking, “Do you want to help poor people?” Transfer Payments

Pollsters will never ask questions such as, “Studies show that increasing the minimum wage results in fewer jobs and slower economic growth.  Do you favor an increase in the minimum wage?”

The Poll That Will Never Be

To provide some balance, perhaps AP should poll Americans about the following questions.

Do you favor higher unemployment and lower economic growth?

It’s basic economics that when the price of something goes up, demand falls.  Increasing the minimum wage, and requiring paid sick leave and parental leave may be desirable for employees, but many would lose their jobs as a result.

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Alexis the Not-So-Great

February 16th, 2015

A lot can happen in 2,500 years.

Back in its day, Greece ruled the world – albeit, it was a much smaller world.  But that was a long, long time ago.  So long ago, we routinely refer to the Greece of those days as “ancient Greece;” the only thing it has in common with the Greece of today is its geography.

Greece has gone from Alexander the Great to Alexis the Not-So-Great.  That would be Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Coalition of the Radical Left, who was elected prime minister in January.  Tsipras’ plan for bringing his country back to solvency is to pretend its debts don’t exist and to keep on spending.  After all, that worked so well for Argentina.Greek debt

After being bailed out twice by Eurozone leaders, Greece is no closer to solving its economic problems.  The only difference now is that it has more debt.  If Greece were a person, you’d cross the street if you saw him approaching, because you know he’d bum money off of you and use it to bet on the ponies.

The Eurozone’s bailouts were contingent upon Greece following an austerity program.  But Greeks have had enough of austerity and elected Tsipras as the anti-austerity candidate.  So after two bailouts, Greece is still an economic failure – and it’s all Germany’s fault, since Germany actually wants Greece to stick to its austerity program and pay back its loans.

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Economic Dissonance

February 9th, 2015

In today’s economy, the theory of cognitive dissonance is itself dissonant.

Social psychologist Leon Festinger believed that humans strive for internal consistency, and that two or more contradictory beliefs cause mental stress.  Yet in today’s world, it seems that every policy, every vote, every executive order is designed to contradict rationality and add to our collective mental stress.

We’ve given a few examples of economic dissonance in the past:

The stock market.  During six years of quantitative easing (QE), bad economic news caused the stock market to rise and good economic news caused the stock market to fall.  That’s because bad news meant more Fed bond buying and good news made bond buying unnecessary.

Higher inflation.  Lower oil prices have done more to give the economy a boost than trillions of dollars in bond buying – yet the Federal Reserve Board has fretted that the U.S. is headed toward deflation.  Its policies were designed to increase inflation to the magic rate of 2%.  Why 2%?  No one seems to know.College Costs

The unemployment rate.  The widely used U-3 unemployment rate drops when people give up looking for work and leave the workforce.  As a result, we have absurdities such as this latest report from The Boston Globe:

“U.S. employers hired at a stellar pace last month, wages rose by the most in six years, and Americans responded by streaming into the job market to find work.

“The Labor Department says the economy gained a seasonally adjusted 257,000 jobs in January. The unemployment rate rose slightly to 5.7 percent from 5.6 percent.”

So Americans are “streaming into the job market” – causing an increase in the unemployment rate! Read the rest of this entry »

Another Year of ZIRP?

February 2nd, 2015

When the economy recovers, interest rates will go up, right?

That’s been the Federal Reserve Board’s line for years now.  Yet as the Fed gushes about an allegedly booming economy, some are saying that interest rates are unlikely to increase this year.

So what gives?Interest Rate Chart

Last week’s Federal Open Market Committee Statement, which summarizes monetary policy, noted that since the FOMC’s December meeting, “the economy has been expanding at a solid pace.”  The statement notes that the unemployment rate is declining, consumer spending is increasing and, if not for that troublesome housing market, everything would be just dandy.

As if to put an exclamation point on the FOMC statement, Fed Chair Janet Yellen met with Congressional Democrats last week to reiterate just how fine the economy is doing.  (The real purpose of the meeting may have been to explain the FOMC statement to members of Congress, as it contains phrases such as, “underutilization of labor resources continues to diminish;” which could have been worded more clearly by saying, “Many former middle managers are still working as greeters at WalMart.”) Read the rest of this entry »

The United States of Europe

January 26th, 2015

The U.S. has been imitating Europe for years, boosting government spending and racking up debt, creating a healthcare system that doesn’t work and adding costly new social benefits.

Now it’s Europe’s turn to imitate the U.S.  As expected, European Central Bank head Mario Draghi announced a quantitative easing (QE) program for Europe last week.

Does this look like deflation to you?

Does this look like deflation to you?

Over the past six years, the U.S. Federal Reserve Board’s three QE programs boosted the Fed’s balance sheet from less than $1 trillion to $4.48 trillion.  In comparison, the ECB’s QE program is modest; the ECB will purchase $1.24 trillion of existing sovereign bonds and debt securities over the next 18 months.

But any QE program would be modest in comparison with the Fed’s.  And, long term, maybe the first round of QE doesn’t work, the ECB will continue to imitate the U.S. and follow with additional rounds of bond buying.

The ECB’s action raises a few questions:

If Draghi believes that bond buying is going to help Europe, why hasn’t he tried it before now?  The ECB has tried everything but QE, but primarily relied on forward guidance, which amounts to talking about the economy.  Forward guidance would be an absurd economic policy anywhere, but in a central bank – but not as absurd as QE.  Forward guidance also doesn’t require the purchase of trillions of dollars’ worth of assets. Read the rest of this entry »