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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Baby Boomer Bust

August 15th, 2014

Each day, another 8,000 baby boomers turn 65.

The U.S. Census Bureau says there are more than 77 million baby boomers, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964.  By 2030 all boomers will be over 65 and will represent about 20% of the population.

So, given the growing number of boomers who have reached retirement age, why is the unemployment rate still so high?Over 65 retirement

Based on the official U-3 statistics, unemployment is still at 6.2%.  That’s much better than the 10% rate we had in 2009, but it’s considerably higher than the 3.9% rate the U.S. enjoyed in 2000 – which was long before baby boomers even thought about retirement.

If Americans are retiring at 65, that should open up more than a quarter million new jobs per month – on top of job growth caused by economic recovery.  So when the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 205,000 jobs were created in July 2014, it’s not exactly a sign of prosperity.

The U-6 unemployment rate, which includes those who have given up looking for work, is still 12.2%, which is practically European.

So why is the unemployment rate still stubbornly high?

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It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

August 8th, 2014

Isn’t summer supposed to be the time when life slows down and the world takes a vacation?

That may be the case for some of us, but the despots of the world are working overtime.  Consider just a few of the world crises taking place this summer:

  • Russia’s conflict with Ukraine continues.  The downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 by pro-Russian rebels has done little to stop it.
  • Hamas is fighting with Israel over Gaza.  A cease fire is in place, but Hamas has shown little respect for previous cease fires and it is unlikely that this crisis has ended.
  • Muslim terrorists known as ISIS are making inroads in Iraq.  It’s reached the point where President Obama has reversed his policy and announced that U.S. military airstrikes will take place “if necessary.”
  • Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad continues to slaughter his people, while the country’s conflict threatens to spill over into Lebanon.
  • The newly inaugurated Libyan parliament has called for a cease fire and threatened to act against warring militias that continue fighting.
  • Al-Qaeda-linked sect Boko Haram continues to hold more than 200 schoolgirls captive in Nigeria.
  • Iran is developing nuclear weapons, although the U.S. State Department said U.S. and Iranian officials had a “constructive discussion” this week about Iran’s nuclear program.  There’s some conjecture that, even if Iran were to agree to halt its nuclear development program, it could outsource the program to North Korea.

    Gaza today.

    Gaza today.

Remember the end of the Cold War, the resulting “peace dividend” and the economic growth of the ’90s?  Remember life before the financial crisis?  Much has happened since then and most of it has not been good.

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Bad News – The Economy May be Recovering

August 1st, 2014

“This is what it sounds like when doves cry.”

                                                                    Prince

Imagine this.  After more than five years of mediocre economic growth and a quarter of “negative growth,” the economy grew at a rate of 4.0% in the second quarter.

At least that’s what the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) said.  The BEA previously estimated that the economy shrank by 2.9% during the first quarter, but has readjusted its analysis and now says that the economy shrank by 2.1% in the first quarter.Inventory

From 2.9% “negative growth” to 4.0% positive growth is a swing of nearly 7% in a span of just three months.

That’s quite a swing … but do you believe it?  After all, Q1 growth was reported at -1%, -2.9% and finally -2.1%, so how much confidence should we have in the BEA’s first report for Q2?

Meteorologists are often criticized for erring on the weather, but they’re forecasting.  The BEA is trying to tell us what happened more than a month ago – and still can’t get it right.

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Only a Half Trillion Dollars

July 24th, 2014

It’s a sign of how much trouble we’re in when a budget deficit of a half trillion dollars seems like fiscal restraint.

It is progress, given that annual budget deficits were running above $1 trillion a year throughout President Obama’s first term and have been as high as $1.4 trillion.  And it could have been worse.  Recall the effort made by President Obama to stop the automatic spending cuts that took place when sequestration was adopted.

But a half trillion dollars is still a mountain of money.  It helps to give the number some context.CBO Chart

To reach a half trillion dollars, you would have to spend $8 per second beginning with the year 0 and continue spending through today.  If you had a stack of $1 bills adding up to $500 billion and were able to put them one on top of another, the stack would be 34,000 miles high.

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The Dollar Is In Danger

July 17th, 2014

It’s a sign of America’s strength and its position as leader of the free world that the dollar is the world’s reserve currency.

Just as English is the closest we’ve come to an internationally accepted language, the dollar is a common denominator, held in reserve by governments and institutions around the world, and used in international transactions.

But that may be changing.  And if it does, we can blame ourselves – or, more specifically, the Federal Reserve Board.Reserve Currency Status

Why should we care?  With reserve currency status, the U.S. can:

  • Purchase imports and borrow internationally at a lower rate than other nations, because we don’t need to exchange our currency to do so.  The lower rate saves America about $100 billion a year.
  • Avoid a potential currency crisis.  When countries don’t have enough foreign exchange reserves to maintain the country’s fixed exchange rate, they face a currency crisis.  The result is typically attacks by speculators in the foreign exchange market and the devaluation of the currency.
  • Run higher trade deficits with less economic impact.
  • Print money to pay off its debts.
  • Preserve America’s status as a world leader.  The dollar’s reserve currency status is a symbol of American strength.  A loss of that role would be a sign of the country’s diminished status.

So if the dollar loses its reserve currency status, America is in trouble.  Government debt will rise, the cost of imports will be higher and the economy will suffer.

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The QE Apocalypse

July 11th, 2014

The end is near.

The Federal Reserve Board has now put a date on the quantitative easing apocalypse, letting us know that bond buying will end in October – unless the central bank changes its mind, of course.

The October ending is not unexpected.  The Fed has been cutting back bond purchases by $10 billion a month since last year and it doesn’t take a math wizard to figure out that there will be nothing left to taper post-October.

Yet this news, reported in the just-released minutes to last month’s meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, is being treated as a revelation.  It was, for example, the lead story in The Wall Street Journal, which typically doesn’t lead with news that was discussed last year and made official at a meeting that took place a month ago. Portugal

The real news, though, is what wasn’t discussed – the end of near-zero interest rates.  As a result, rather than pushing yields up and bond prices down, release of the meeting minutes had the opposite impact.

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Sprinkling the Fairy Dust of Illusory Riches

July 3rd, 2014

When the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) calls central bank market rigging “the fairy dust of illusory riches,” it’s time to pay attention.

The BIS is the central banks’ central bank.  Its role is “to serve central banks in their pursuit of monetary and financial stability, to foster international cooperation in those areas and to act as a bank for central banks.”

To provide the statement with some context, and to alert you about what else you can expect from central banks moving forward, we provide a summary of other key points made in this year’s BIS annual report, which is appropriately titled, “In Search of a New Compass.”Compass

First, there’s recognition that easy money policy has gone far enough.  That’s self-evident, but of special interest when you consider the source.  BIS notes that despite a pickup in economic growth, the world economy “has not shaken off its dependence on monetary stimulus.  Monetary policy is still struggling to normalize after so many years of extraordinary accommodation.”

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Prozac Nation

June 27th, 2014

It’s all stress-free bliss these days … at least for anyone who’s not paying attention.

Has someone been putting anti-depressants in the water supply?  That’s one way to explain Wednesday’s non-reaction to the report that the economy shrank by 2.9% in the first quarter – not the 1% drop previously reported.

It would also explain continued investor complacency reported last week, with the VIX (volatility index) approaching single digits.  And it would explain the plunge in junk bond yields to 5.6%, which is a full 3.4% points lower than the decade-long average of 9%.

GDP GrowthYet investors showed that they still have a pulse, when they took the Dow down 100 points after James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Federal Reserve, announced that an interest rate hike may take place in the first quarter of 2015.

So consider this in context.  In addition to the slumping economy, we have Russia’s continued takeover of Ukraine, which is now being overshadowed by the continued takeover of Iraq by Muslim terrorists known as ISIS and the possibility of U.S. military intervention.  We have civil war continuing in Syria and continued nuclear development in Iran, in spite of the lifting of sanctions.  We have U.S. veterans in need of medical treatment being ignored while the Veterans Administration fudges numbers.  We have the missing e-mails of Lois Lerner and six other IRS employees who allegedly targeted conservative groups.  We have continuing fallout in the healthcare industry from the pains of implementing Obamacare.  We have a stock market so overblown that price-to-earnings ratios are at levels higher than they’ve been through 89% of the history of the S&P 500.

So what’s moving the market?  A statement made by a Fed board member that repeats a statement he previously made.

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