Prozac Nation

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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The Market’s Missing Mojo

Easy money policy has its share of side effects.  The stock market continues to hit new highs, thanks to the Fed, but the level of risk that investors and taxpayers are exposed to also may be close to new highs.

The market for U.S. Treasuries, as one example, is a “risk on” market.  As Bloomberg put it, “Just because U.S. Treasuries look more and more stable doesn’t mean they are.”

Some may mistake a lack of volatility for low risk, but the lack of volatility appears to be the result of less liquidity, not lower risk, as the Fed has purchased trillions of dollars in bonds and banks are pulling back from debt trading. Bubble PE_0

Before the financial crisis, lower volatility resulted in more trading, but in this case trading volume has dropped.

“What’s happening instead,” Bloomberg reported, “is unprecedented central-bank stimulus has sent everyone into the same risk-on bets, while it’s also becoming more difficult to trade as banks shore up their balance sheets in the face of new regulations.”

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Attention Deficit Capitalism

“Democracy would not be democracy, rule of the people, without at least a modicum of political attention and activity from its citizens.”                                                                                                                                                                                              James Bovard, Attention Deficit Democracy

Is anyone paying attention?

It seems as though the faster the world moves, the shorter our attention span becomes.  And today, speed is measured in nanoseconds.

Many have become complacent as technology has taken over.  High frequency trading, in which computers make the decisions, accounts for the majority of trades today.  HFT is based on arbitrage.  Computers look for discrepancies in pricing and take advantage of them, and that’s how money is made.  A company’s performance is irrelevant.

Humans created computers, but can’t compete with them.  They can try to produce a better algorithm, but the computers will make the decisions.epi_college_unemployment.png.CROP.promovar-mediumlarge

Technology has affected much more than just trading, of course.  Consider communications.  The telephone made it possible to communicate almost instantly.  The Internet, though, has made communications even faster.  Anyone with a computer can send a message to a database of thousands with the click of a mouse.  We can not only hear, but see people anywhere in the world while we talk to them, and our smartphones guarantee that we remain virtually connected at all times.

These and other technological developments have been a big boost to productivity, but they remove the human element.  Life in real time is also life on auto pilot.  We’re connected electronically, but disconnected socially and emotionally.

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Mario the Magnificent

It will take more than higher prices to cure what ails the European economy, but Wall Street reacted to the European Central Bank’s inflation-boosting efforts by setting new records yesterday.

Action by the ECB has been widely anticipated since last month, when ECB President Mario Draghi announced that the ECB would be “comfortable acting” at this month’s meeting.  With a report this week that Eurozone inflation was just 0.5%, action by the ECB was all but certain.  The ECB’s target rate of inflation is just under 2%.

Anticipation of ECB action has been helping to prop up the U.S. market at a time when the Federal Reserve Board is winding down its quantitative easing program by reducing its purchase of bonds by $10 billion per month.  Apparently, as long as someone is following easy money policies, the markets are happy.

The actions announced by ECB President Mario Draghi did not include bond buying (although there are no Eurozone bonds).  That’s in keeping with previous actions by Draghi, who previously relied on “forward guidance” to boost European markets and achieve monetary goals.

Forward guidance, as we’ve previously explained, is simply the act of talking about what the central bank will do in the future.  Keeping interest rates low, for example, by saying that the ECB will keep interest rates low.

Banks to Pay for Deposits

The most significant action announced by the ECB was to lower the interest rate on bank deposits, including reserve holdings in excess of the minimum reserve requirements, from zero to -0.10%.

In other words, banks will pay a fee on money they fail to lend out.  Whether or not that stimul

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