Friday, December 11, 2009

Fractional Naked Shorting

Every dollar-denominated loan can be viewed functionally as a partial naked short position in FRNs (Federal Reserve Notes, 1.e. cash). The extent of the naked short is the inverse of the reserve ratio, so at 10% reserve, the position is written as 90% naked short. The entry is created where the bank shorts notional dollars into existence where none existed before. The Fed is a mechanism for supporting those naked shorts against margin calls that would otherwise happen in the real world - that's what a bank run really is, a margin call by lenders (depositors).

The continued existence of this naked shorting depends utterly on the willingness of the lenders to accept repayment in virtual instead of real dollars. Wire transfers, checks and book entries are all dollar substitutes, not actual dollars. An entire massive infrastructure has been erected to push people towards the conclusion that these are actually identical to FRNs. Banks will freely exchange your book entry with them for cash - until they can't anymore. The FDIC exists to guarantee that you will get cash for that book entry or other cash substitute. The Fed holds stocks of FRNs which it can exchange on a limited basis to commercial banks in danger of running out.

The scale of the pyramid scheme can be measured by the ratio of actual cash to virtual cash. Total cash in circulation (real cash) is $923 billion per the H.4.1 release dated December 10. The amount of virtual cash is the total credit outstanding, which is $52.6 TRILLION as of September 30 per the Z.1 release also dated December 10. In other words, each one dollar of cash is supporting nearly 57 dollars of credit. Through the mechanism of this gigantic naked short position, the value of the underlying security - the US dollar has been driven down to a huge extent. In fact, the short ratio can also be expressed as 98%. Not coincidentally, that is also the extent to which the US dollar's purchasing power has been reduced since the advent of the Federal Reserve.

This gives you some idea of the extent to which the value of the supply of dollars has been diluted by all of the substitutes that have been introduced into the system. If the dollar were a drug, it would be so heavily cut as to have no discernible effect. It also explains the desperation with which the financial world is attempting to save "the system" - by which they mean the machine that issues dollar substitutes and convinces you to accept them. There are sufficient dollars to cover less than 2% of domestic debt outstanding. That takes no account of the naked short positions of foreign banks. The bankers are short 57 dollars for each dollar that actually exists. You can well imagine what would happen if such a short position were to be squeezed to any significant extent.

One can justify banking to the extent than it increases productive capacity and therefore ultimately wealth. The increase in the pool of dollar substitutes will have minimal inflationary impact as that growth will be counter-balanced by an increase in the pool of goods those dollars can buy. This is a social good and one of the few philosophical reasons to support banking. Of course we are long past the point at which such banking was the norm, or even a large minority of credit activity.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Great Reversal

It's been a while since I've had the time to add to the blog. Thanks to everyone for their patience and hopefully it was worth the wait.

Sometimes changes occur occur quickly and other times they seem to happen in geologic time. The later are usually referred to as secular changes and the former as cyclical, at varying degrees of trend. The distinction is somewhat arbitrary and depends on the perspective of the observer. Being admittedly human ourselves, we will generally refer to a trend playing out over a generation or longer as secular but many brilliant minds will refer to even longer-term trends as cyclical - such as the Kondratieff Wave Cycle. With that definition in mind let's move on to the subject of today's blog entry.

The Big Shift

Over the last two generations we have seen an enormous shift in social attitudes and structure, with women and especially married women entering the job market. This shows up in many ways in the labor statistics but the most stable measurement and the one least subject to manipulation is the employment to population ratio, which measures those working to the total non-institutional adult population. Forty years ago in late 1969 58.1% of all adults in the US were employed. For over a generation, more working women swelled that number - which reached a peak of 65.7% in April 2000, the very peak month of the tech bubble. Last month, September 2009 saw the employment to population ratio fall back to 58.8%. This essentially means that the busts which followed the serial bubbles have wiped out the effects a multi-decade secular social trend.

This does not at all imply that women have withdrawn from the workforce en masse. It simply demonstrates the power of the economic decline which we are currently experiencing and suggests that the decline is simply a continuation of the one which began in 2000 and was interrupted by the final desperate act of housing bubble. Facts give the lie to our government's attempt to put a happy face on the situation. To illustrate the size of the reversal, let's look at a 60-year chart of the employment-population ratio:

Does that clear things up a bit?

Sunday, August 9, 2009


This weekend we would like to take a look back at the economic contraction that the talking heads would have you believe is already over. Of course there is no way that it true. The extreme deficit spending we referred to in Federal Funhouse could result in a short euphoria before the creditors pull the plug - just like maxing out your credit cards before declaring bankruptcy. But the real economy is in horrible shape and nowhere is this more apparent than in the labor market.

Today's critical data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Their
unemployment data released Friday was loudly trumpeted as good news when all it really said is we're bleeding to death a little slower. Others have commented on and analyzed this data so we'd like to take a longer view of things - examining the size of the pool of blood on the ground as it were.

We're going to use the BLS
monthly data for the last two years. Note that at the end of 2007, the potential labor pool (civilian non-institutional population) was 231.9 million and last month it was 235.9 million - an increase of 4 million potential workers. But the numbers for the labor force have lagged badly behind. At the end of 2007 it stood at 153.1 million and by July 2009, that had only increased to 154.5. Population growth would suggest that number should have been 155.5 million, with two thirds of the added adult population contributing to the labor force. Since the Labor Force is the basis for calculating the unemployment rate, clearly the current numbers are understated. As a mental exercise, let's see what happens if a million workers aren't shuffled off into statistical never-never land. That would be another million unemployed with an unemployment rate of 10.1%. I suspect that a lot of statistical games will go into keeping that number in the single digits as long as possible.

Further, the labor force participation rate (percentage of adult population in the labor force) has been falling since the late 1990s. This indicates that the recovery from the post-tech bubble crash never made it back to the highs of that period and the current further decline indicates that people think the economy is so bad they've quit looking for work. This allows the BLS to conveniently eliminate them from the unemployed category though they are still just as jobless. The bottom line is that the economy has to generate nearly 10 million jobs just to get us back to that lower high of the mid 2000s but it is still destroying jobs even as the population continues to grow.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Command and Control?

Much is made of the rebound in China's 2nd quarter GDP and the drivers certainly merit a closer look. We are going to focus on just one key metric today - credit. In an effort to reach escape velocity from the global collapse, China has ordered its banks to make lots of loans and the banks have complied. So just how much lending has occurred and what is the scale of the likely impact. Let's look at the numbers, shall we? Various sources have reported the lending numbers and this article from the Globe and Mail is typical:

Chinese banks lent 1.5 trillion yuan ($220-billion U.S.) in June, the central bank reported on its Web site Wednesday. That exceeded forecasts and was up from May's 665 billion yuan ($97-billion) in lending and April's 590 billion yuan ($86-billion).

Keep in mind that the entire Chinese economy was approximately 30 trillion yuan in 2008. Another way to look at things is that China's economic output is roughly 2.5 trillion yuan per month and in June bank lending was equal to 60% of that output. One might safely say that credit expansion on that scale might have some impact on the economy. Keep in mind, this does NOT include bond issuance by corporations, the government in Beijing or the provincial and local governments; but the amount is enormous even without them. For perspective, the Flow of Funds shows total non-financial debt added in the US economy during 2006, the last full year of the UDB was $2.41 trillion in a $13.4 trillion economy - so borrowing was 18% of GDP in an extreme environment. Maybe this was just an aberration of one month? After all April and May were much lower. Well, let's look further down in the article:

The latest figure would push total bank lending for the first half of the year to 7.3 trillion yuan (just under $1.1-trillion).
So monthly loans averaged over 1.2 trillion yuan and June was more typical than the prior months. Interestingly, CNBC reports that Beijing's minimum bank lending target for all of 2009 is 5 trillion yuan and the banks have already exceed that number by 46% in just six months. Having established that the lending spree is enormous, the other key question is how much of a change it represents. For that, we will take words straight from the horse's mouth - a PBOC press release:

At end-June, outstanding RMB loans reached RMB 37.74 trillion, up 34.44% year on year, accelerating by 15.71 percentage points year on year and by 3.83 percentage points month on month. In the first half of the year, RMB loans increased by RMB 7.37 trillion, up RMB 4.92 trillion year on year.

Total debt grew 34.4%, while lending TRIPLED from 2.45 trillion to 7.37 trillion yuan year over year. Are the mental alarms going off yet? Again we will refer to the Flow of Funds for perspective. During the peak of the US housing bubble, mortgage lending took 6 years to triple from the trough in 1995. Yet China has compressed the impact of a historic multi-year bubble into 12 months. There also has to be dramatic deterioration in credit quality. There is no realistic way to triple lending without severely compromising lending standards - as we saw so dramatically with liar loans, nothing down, NINJA lending and option ARMs. Does anyone doubt that something comparable or worse is happening in China now?

The game plan for China should be obvious by now. They are following the path of every other participant in the UDB with a vengeance. Tripling lending until it reaches nearly half of GDP for the first half is the real stimulus in China. By contrast the US Federal government borrowing 14% of GDP looks downright conservative. China is attempting to reinflate their bubble economy but even if they "succeed" the price will be hideous. The price of failure is nearly unthinkable.

The Federal Funhouse

Washington DC has now become the linchpin of lies regarding the US economy. When one looks at the numbers, it is easy to see why this must be so. The Federal budget deficit is now running at somewhere between 14% and 15% of GDP. Because the administration has postponed the budget update past the mandatory deadline, we do not have any official figures so we must estimate based on other data but Americans should be quite used to that by now.

The latest
Monthly Treasury Statement through June 30 gives us a lot of very useful data. Tax receipts are falling rapidly; for the fiscal year to date, taxes are down from $1,934 billion to $1,589 billion - a drop of 17.8%. The trend has been for the monthly numbers to get worse as the FY has gone on but if that applies to the full year then revenues will be $2,073 billion. The current budget estimate is just under $4,000 billion but will likely be higher as unemployment and related expense rise with a tanking economy. This leaves the US government with a $2 trillion deficit in a $14 trillion economy. In other words deficit spending is on pace to equal 14.3% of the economy.

Looked at another way, approximately one-seventh of the economy should not exist, currently exists only due to Washington spending money it doesn't have and will cease to exist as soon as that spending stops. The spending can continue only so long as creditors are foolish enough to supply more capital for the Federal government to destroy. Once the funhouse mirror of massive deficit spending is removed, we will likely see at least a 10% further decline in the economy within 6 months - taking huge chunks of other nations' economies with it.

Wall Street Wacko
We have also now seen the "confidence" return to Wall Street. What this really means it that speculators have put aside their fully justified fears and returned to blind, stupid buying. The "reasoning" behind this is that they managed to rob the taxpayers to cover their last set of enormous losses so their is no longer any such thing as risk. Heads they win, tails the taxpayer loses. As we have pointed out before, the Fed has aligned themselves with the speculators and is feeding such delusions. But these folks obviously haven't been paying any attention to the political climate at all. Congressmen that voted to bail out Wall Street at our expense are facing hostile crowds in their home districts. Many of them are now cancelling public appearances. Politicians now fear for their safety as their victims are beginning to realize what has happened. Even if the bond market allows this foolishness to continue, there is unlikely to be any support for another bailout when the next bubble bursts - which is likely to be either commercial real estate or commodities (again).

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Price of Ponzi

Faking Bank
First let's be clear that prices for the majority of asset classes around the world are unsustainably high. This is an obvious corollary to the very inflated state of the global financial system and economy due to the excessive leverage that we have commented upon many times. It bears repeating that central banks (CBs) have little actual power, they merely serve as rallying points and fetish-totems for optimistic, true-believing speculators. The evidence is quite clear that CBs often fail to accomplish their goals, in recent cases despite extraordinary actions to "inspire confidence" - i.e. reignite speculation.

If the CBs were as powerful as most think, they could not possibly fail to accomplish their goals. Like voodoo, it is the BELIEF of the victim that causes the damage - a negative application of the well-documented placebo effect. While they have succeeded in restarting speculation to some extent in equities and commodities, they have utterly failed to do so in most of the securitization and especially the re-securitization markets. Other than the Fed itself, there is very little demand for MBS and ABS. CDOs have fallen flat on their face and can't get up. The investment bankers' efforts to re-securitize garbage and get it rated as AAA again have largely met with derision. Assets in the real economy are seeing no increase in demand at all to this point. Housing, commercial RE, private businesses, capital equipment and others are all in the doldrums with hardly any positives even in the second derivative.

Flee(t)ing Confidence
Take note of which asset classes are seeing speculation and which are not. It is only those that can be sold instantly with a mouse click that are getting any action - equities and commodities which trade as futures on an exchange. The exceptions are revealing. Iron ore, which requires long-term contracts instead of futures isn't going up and in fact is going down, with users essentially buying at spot by refusing to commit to L-T deals. Assets that are theoretically liquid but actually trade by appointment only are seeing little help. This would include the aforementioned MBS and ABS. Those that require a real commitment and have payback periods measured in years continue to crater. Basically, the only confidence at this time is the confidence of the daytrader.

Yet we now see speculation among economists that there could be a return to growth in the next four quarters and actually, it's hard to disagree that such a thing is technically possible. The key here is the massive amount of deficit spending by governments around the world. Official US Treasury estimates place the FY 2009 deficit at $1.8 trillion but $2 trillion is more likely. The DEFICIT will likely represent 14% of GDP this year. China is in a similar situation, with a "stimulus" package of nearly $600 billion in a $4.4 trillion dollar economy - which works out to just under 14% of GDP. Hmm, that number sounds familiar.

Large segments of both economies are ponzi schemes, though China's most vulnerable sectors are both larger and more leveraged relatively speaking. In the US, the most affected sector is finance; in China, construction and fixed investment. Consider for a moment that both governments are spending enormous sums of money they don't have - effectively borrowing it from the future to spend now. Once again hoping to ignite a chain reaction of speculation and a new bubble.

We actually expect a slight positive print in US GDP in early 2010, with a larger collapse to follow as soon as the government can no longer borrow cheaply. This is the inevitable result of spending twice your income (tax revenue) just to keep the current illusion alive. When the bond market cuts off this foolishness, the portion of the economy that is unsustainable without a bubble dies and all of the capital spent to keep it alive dies with it - a complete waste. Instead of a mere depression, we have a depression compounded with the destruction of capital that should have been preserved to start rebuilding afterwards.

Pricing Ponzi
If you think about it, both the US and China are expending one-seventh of their respective GDPs to support a lie. Another way to think of it is the rate of return the market (in the form of speculators) demands to continue to invest in the ponzi schemes. In effect, the government's best guess at the required RoR is 14%. Antal Fekete has written about the falling marginal productivity of debt. In other words, the debt-based ponzi scheme is becoming less and less effective. As a result the sponsor of the scheme (governments) are having to increase the amount pumped into the bubble to keep the speculators in and prevent a UNIVERSAL recognition of the failure that has already occurred. This is typical of late-stage ponzi schemes where a critical mass of investors become suspicious and demand their money. The sponsor has to come up with it somewhere and in this case they can conveniently pledge their citizens' future income (taxes) as collateral for more loans.

It is impossible to calculate the precise cost but we can look at deficit and "stimulus" spending as a good first approximation of the price to keep the ponzi scheme rolling. If 14% of GDP can be spent and not even produce a single quarter of positive numbers then the decay is even larger and more advanced than we have previously postulated. As an example, the latest Personal Income Report from the BEA showed the scale of government attempts to manipulate the economy. Wages dropped sharply but personal income rose 1.4%. The money quotes:

Private wage and salary disbursements decreased $12.4 billion in May, compared with a decrease of $0.7 billion in April.

Personal current transfer receipts increased $162.6 billion in May, compared with an increase of $59.1 billion in April. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provides for one-time payments of $250 to eligible individuals receiving social security, supplemental security income, veterans benefits, and railroad retirement benefits. These benefits boosted the level of personal current transfer receipts by $157.6 billions at an annual rate in May.

Once the long-end of the Treasury yield curve resumes its upward march, the financing will get more difficult. If short-term money ever becomes expensive for the US government then the deception is over. But for right now we may get further upticks in optimism as long as the government can continue to create doubt and obscure the real state of the economy. In the near term, it's all in the hands of the speculators and their mood swings and isn't that a sad commentary on the state of the world.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Great Pyramid of Geezer

An update by Karl Denninger at Market Ticker today got the old synapses firing. Denninger points out that pension plans are in trouble and cites a Wall Street Journal article strongly suggesting accounting fraud in public pension plans. The WSJ says:

Based on their preferred accounting methods -- which discount future liabilities based on high but uncertain returns projected for investments -- these plans are underfunded nationally by around $310 billion.

The numbers are worse using market valuation methods (the methods private-sector plans must use), which discount benefit liabilities at lower interest rates to reflect the chance that the expected returns won't be realized.

Last year we warned about the same phenomenon in private sector pensions in Some Key Questions and The Limits of Optimism. In every case the culprit was the same - overly optimistic assumptions about investment returns allowed a financially deficient structure to be sold to key constituencies as safe and sound. The wild optimism that causes managers to overreach like this and causes others to believe their literally incredible assumptions are part and parcel of the Universal Debt Bubble (UDB). Only in such a manic environment can such outlandish claims be regarded as anything other than the fantasies they are in reality. Even worse, a bubble atmosphere makes those assumptions even more dangerous than normal by burdening assets with inflated starting values, making the required price appreciation even less likely than usual. But as long as such tales are believed, a small sliver of capital can be made to support grand promises in the future.

Unfortunately, the credulous public has been misled in any number of similar ways. Robert Prechter of
Elliott Wave International recently described the process by which banks also shrank the capital supporting their balance sheets to a tiny fraction of what had previously been required and considered prudent:
In the early 1990s, the Federal Reserve Board under Chairman Alan Greenspan took a controversial step and removed banks’ reserve requirements almost entirely.

To do so, it first lowered to zero the reserve requirement on all accounts other than checking accounts. Then it let banks pretend that they have almost no checking account balances by allowing them to
“sweep” those deposits into various savings accounts and money market funds at the end of each business day... The net result is that banks today conveniently meet their nominally required reserves (currently about $45b.) with the cash in their vaults that they need to hold for everyday transactions anyway.

Sure or Insure
Yet the problems of inadequate capital hardly end there. Like pensions and banks, insurance is another area that succumbed to the ubiquitous optimism of the UDB. Insurance companies became so accustomed to capital appreciation well above the historic norm that they began to take them for granted. Many annuity policies and guaranteed investment contracts were written promising high fixed rates of return based on that experience. This has proven devastating for many insurers, who are now rushing to rewrite such contracts. This is a microcosm for the weak capital position of much of the industry as key asset classes for most life and casualty companies are stocks, bonds and real estate. Like every other leveraged institution out there, the insurers have taken a beating on those assets and their promises to deliver future benefits are increasingly in doubt. Which brings us to a similar structure with the biggest capital shortfall of all.

GovernMENTAL Institutions
For the most part, capital is literally a foreign concept in this sector. Few governments have significant reserves, much less any real capitalization. Except in regions where government-owned enterprises dominate the economy, the primary source of revenue for most institutions is taxes - on the private sector naturally. So instead of actual capital, governments have something even more volatile - a projected future revenue stream. As with every other sector we have examined so far, those projections about the future are subject to the psychological distortions that accompany large-scale financial manias. In an environment of historic extremes like the UDB, those distorted perceptions can easily become fatal. We see that today in the sad case of California - where the state is issuing IOUs because they are out of money. Having accustomed themselves to double-digit annual rises in tax revenue, Sacramento (and other state capitals) simply spent it all. Those projections and plans aren't working out so well anymore.

The US Federal Government is arguably in even worse shape. Borrowing this year is likely to approximately equal tax income. No entity can spend twice its income for long and hope to survive. The remnant optimism of the UDB has settled in one of its last-ditch redoubts: faith in government. In addition to the spending spree, Washington has also embarked on a series of empty promises that would make a serial polygamist blush. Not content to merely guarantee deposits through the FDIC, the Feds now do the same for bank bonds through TLGP. Fannie and Freddie debt is backed thorough a de facto nationalization and money market mutual funds are guaranteed by the Federal Reserve. Many trillions of government "guarantees" are piled atop the roughly $1 trillion of deficit spending for this fiscal year. These promises are lighter than a feather but certainly worth their weight in gold. In other words there is no way Washington can deliver but they are hoping nobody notices and that the empty promises will inspire "confidence" in the economy. Like many other sectors, various levels of government are attempting to cover huge obligations with inadequate resources.

Frankly, it's sad that so many people fail to see the little man behind the curtain putting up the front that is the Great Oz. These large and varied institutions have stretched themselves far too thin and are praying for another bubble to bail them out again. The title of this missive refers to those who will bear the brunt of the damage from our return to reality - those who bought into the promises of these institutional pyramid schemes and don't have the time to recover financially. The frenzy of financial pyramid construction certainly put the Egyptians' little excursion in stonework to shame. In reality, the old truths would have served us well, but like every bubble generation in history, ours has convinced themselves that "this time it's different" when it never really is. Like those who have gone before, we will learn the hard way when two things we all learned as children would have prevented much of this mess:
  • Never count your chickens before they hatch.
  • Save for a rainy day.

It seems so simple and most of us will never forget. With the optimistic assumptions that undergirded the psychology of the UDB evaporating, any program sporting the words insurance or guarantee must be treated with great skepticism.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Over Extended

We note with some amusement all of the talk about cash "on the sidelines" as if it's ready to pour into the stock market at the drop of a hat and take us to new highs. Nobody wants to admit that this is the cash that doesn't really exist. That fact was recognized by the market last year and earlier this year but has been obscured by a massive campaign of deception, propaganda and guarantees from Washington and Wall Street. Because the current mutant economic system depends on citizens digging themselves ever deeper into debt slavery, anything which causes them to save instead of borrow and spend is seen as the enemy and this includes the truth.

Much of the "cash" is in banks and money market mutual funds, both of which invest in debt that has become extremely dubious. The truth is that none of the "assets" (loans) that are backing the "cash" have gotten better and most have gotten significantly worse over the last 3-4 months. Credit card default rates now stand at a record high (again) for the fourth straight month. Auto loans are nearly as bad. 12% of all mortgages are now either in foreclosure, default or delinquent - but in any case they are not being paid. Commercial mortgages are quite bad now on the way to much worse and the State of California is so broke it is issuing IOUs instead of checks.

So what is going on here? The government-banker campaign has succeeded in getting one important group of people to dig themselves deeper into debt - speculators. If you look at the NYSE margin data, you will see that the ratio of margin debt to credit balances in margin accounts is at the highest it has been in a long time - 1.61. One can think of this as the ratio of margin actually used to unencumbered cash balances in those same accounts and so it measures the willingness of brokerage account holders to take on leverage as a percentage of their portfolios. The last time the ratio was this high was July 2007, just before the crisis began with the first round of emergency Fed intervention. Slightly lower levels were seen at the absolute top in October 2007 and again in September 2008, just before the largest leg of the stock market crash.

The latest data is from May and we await the June report with anticipation. The recent data show the speed with which a wildly speculative spirit has returned to stocks despite the small gains relative to the preceding decline. The fact that so many speculators have already leveraged up so heavily means that much of the fuel has already been burned off, leaving the market in a very vulnerable and over-extended position. These speculators have set themselves up for more crushing losses - note how much smaller both the margin and credit balances are than at any time in the recent past. Any significant decline at this point holds the potential to become self-sustaining as heavily leveraged positions become unsustainable in the face of the decline and subsequent margin call. In fact a cascade of margin calls could easily result.

Stocks are being bought but not by the cash on the sidelines. It appears that existing speculators margining themselves deeper into debt are the key driver of the bear market rally. The fact that they have used nearly all of their firepower and exposed themselves to potential forced selling is hardly bullish.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Printing Currency, Not Money

This sounds like an academic distinction but it is not. Especially at times like these, knowing the difference is key to understanding the behavior of financial systems.

What is Money?
Let's start with a textbook definition of money and proceed from there. Most definitions include two parts, some add a third. According to them, money is:
  1. a medium of exchange
  2. a store of value
  3. a standard of value or unit of account (widely but not universally accepted)

If you look closely at the first two definitions, you will see that money exists in the minds of those who use it. This is partially true for the third definition as well. (note: For all of you monetary theory geeks, please relax. These are deliberate simplifications designed to make the ideas accessible to a general audience, not a detailed exposition of precise financial models.)

  1. I can exchange my money for stuff.
  2. I can exchange my money for stuff later.
  3. I can exchange my money for a predictable amount of stuff later.

Let's think about what is happening here. Money has value because people will give you stuff for it, both now or in the future. But why will they do that? They have to believe that they can trade it onward in turn for stuff they want. So the utility value of money is based on a set of collective beliefs - what Carl Jung referred to as the Collective Unconscious. This is the set of beliefs that are widely held by a group of people at a deep level and upon which they will act without thinking about it. One can think of this as the unstated assumptions of a society. In the US, the dollar has had a stable or relatively stable value for so long that few would ever consider NOT accepting it in exchange for stuff. The dollar as money is a deeply embedded part of our Collective Unconscious, both here and around the world.

Though there are many who are beginning to question the value of the dollar as money, the number is still miniscule as a percentage of society. Even if a person were to cease to believe in the dollar as money in their own mind, they would still accept it as long as they believed that others would accept it from them in exchange for goods. So externally, they would act as if the dollar was still money, even if they no longer held that belief. That is what puts the collective in unconscious. At some point, things deteriorate sufficiently that everyone KNOWS that everyone else is just pretending. That is the point of universal hypocracy just before the belief system breaks down.

The great Adam Smith said it well:

"All money is a matter of belief."

Printing Money?

Now we get back to the title of this entry. It is clear that from a purely physical point of view, a central bank can create as much currency (physical or electronic) as it wishes - subject of course to certain practical constraints such as logistics. But MONEY exists solely in the minds of people. It is essentially a matter of faith and faith is not something a government or central bank can print or conjure from thin air. The value of the dollar is the credibility built up over two centuries of the US Treasury always meeting its obligations. The money, is the widely held belief that the US government will guarantee that dollar holders will always be able to get things of value in return for their dollars, which is backed by generations of positive experience.

Now, please ask yourself "Does creating more currency enhance or damage that belief system?" The answer should be self-evident. The very act of creating more dollars ensures that the purchasing power of every existing dollar is diluted. There is only one scenario under which this will not damage the purchasing power of the dollar - if and only if those created dollars can be used to add a roughly comparable amount of value to the pool of available goods and services available for purchase. That is precisely the role of well-functioning credit system: to allocate capital to useful expansions of capacity and new business ventures in order to create that added value. This is why such a credit system can actually create money through credit. Because the act of printing dollars would have no such offsetting value-added, the arbitrary creation of more dollars undermines the faith which is at the root of money's very existence.

A central bank like the Fed can print currency but it cannot print belief - which is what money really is. A central bank can assist money creation by making the commercial credit system (banks) more credible with a backstop during normal times but that is a supporting role. When it takes the lead by acting unilaterally, it can only destroy money.

Printing dollars destroys money.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Circle of Lies

Circular Money(TM): at least that's the PG-version of what several correspondents are calling it and we'll explain later. But first a little background. Quite a few folks have expressed concern about the Fed "printing" massive amounts of dollars and putting them into the economy, which will trigger inflation. This is certainly a reasonable fear given the numbers being thrown around and the rhetoric coming out of the Treasury and the Fed. However, we do not believe that the fear is well-founded and our evidence come from the Fed itself. Consider the latest report on reserve balances.

The total balance sheet has expanded by an alarming $1 trillion or 110% in 12 months - very disturbing. But the key question would be is any of this actually printed into existence? To determine this, look at the other side of the balance sheet - the liabilities and capital. Liabilities have expanded by $1,032 billion and capital by $3 billion. Liabilities mean the the assets are funded by borrowing. Real printing would go straight to capital since it creates no offsetting liability. The minuscule increase in capital is easily accounted for by interest on the Fed's bond portfolio so we may safely conclude that little or no actual printing is taking place - much less the monstrous quantities that some would suggest. So the money is being borrowed; now let's look at the liability details to see from where the incremental money is being borrowed.
  • $78 billion worth of Federal Reserve Notes has been issued - increasing the amount in circulation by 10%. This is a function of demand for cash, not Fed policy. Increasing distrust of banks naturally leads to an increased preference for cash instead of deposits.
  • $32 billion of reverse repos - that is the Fed borrowing from other financial institutions using its Treasury holdings as collateral
  • $917 billion of "deposits" - now a deposit is a loan so this is the Fed borrowing once again. Let's break this down further:
  • $216 billion is borrowed from the US Treasury - through the general and supplemental accounts
  • $699 billion is from "depositary institutions" - i.e. banks.
This last one really should get your attention. You might say "I thought the Fed was lending money to the banks!?!" and you'd be right. Then the banks are turning right around and lending that money back to the Fed. It would be as if George "lent" money to Bob and then Bob turned around and "lent" that money right back to George. If the "loans" were for $1, they each now have an asset (the loan) and a liability (obligation to repay) of $1. But that is a sham transaction, whether for $1 or $1 billion. They have both expanded their balance sheet, but how much actual lending took place there? In reality, nothing changed except a meaningless book entry and the same is true with the Fed and the banks. George and Bob could exchange "loans" of $1 billion dollars and it would be just as ineffective as what the Fed has done. This is what we have dubbed Circular Money(TM).

Keep in mind, this is Circular Money(TM) only to the extent to which the entries offset and that is not a perfect match but very close. TAF loans increased by $388 billion and "other loans" (the rest of the alphabet soup) by $139 billion for a total of $527 billion vs $599 billion the banks lent to the Fed. The remainder comes from assets the banks sold to the Fed to raise cash. Clearly a large portion of the $34 billion in agency bonds and $65 billion in mortgage-backed securities (MBS) also was sold by banks. The money comes from the Fed and goes right back to them. Here again we see the Fed's actions in light of their attempts to maintain the deception. They started to pay interest to the commercial banks on required and excess reserves in October 2008. They are currently paying the banks 25 basis points (0.25%) on all reserves deposited with the Fed. Note that the Effective Fed Funds rate is a nearly identical 22-24 basis points. The ability to pay interest on the reserves was critical to offset the interest cost of borrowing. This way the imaginary accounting entries can be maintained nearly indefinitely with interest paid neatly offsetting interest received as well. The interest differential on huge sums of non-existent money would have unmasked the deception fairly quickly otherwise.

The Big Con
This game has no effect in reality, so what is the purpose of the Circular Money(TM) deception? It is yet another con game by the Fed to convince people that dead banks aren't really dead because Ben Bernanke says so. As long as a critical mass of people continue to buy the party line, the zombie banks will continue to lurch about spastically. We have long contended that the Federal Reserve is a very weak entity in reality and it's greatest power is that people THINK it is powerful. They announce things intended to influence the behavior of those under this illusion. They threaten to "print" in order to stoke fear of inflation and get people to act accordingly - they seem to be hoping to restart financial speculation by scaring people into draining their savings or taking on debt. But if the Fed could actually induce inflation, then we should already have it already as they've been taking radical action now for over 18 months. When the current threats fail to become reality, the already damaged credibility of the Fed will be severely compromised.

The concerns about inflation would be very serious if any actual printing were taking place but that would destroy the banking system - which is the last thing they want. As things stand, the money exists only in theory and cannot be lent outside the banking system since it doesn't really exist. In order for it to exist outside this circle of lies, the Fed would have to find a large funding source beyond the banks themselves to replace any funds the banks lend out to the economy rather than back to the Fed. They would have to compete for that funding with the Treasury who needs to borrow over $1 trillion in short order. Now do you see why the Fed prefers this deception to going to the market and trying to get that funding? If they tried and failed, it would reveal the Great Oz as the helpless little man behind the curtain that he really is.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Smaller Piece of a Smaller Pie

We would just like to summarize the macro picture of the era we are leaving in order to understand the era we are entering. We have been blogging about the credit dangers on Financial Jenga since 2007 and warning about them even longer than that. The global scope of the financial crisis should surprise no one. Didn't we hear all about "globalization" for many years during the synchronized boom? That level of integration virtually guaranteed that any bust would be synchronized as well.

Nearly all other economic ills stem from the mainspring of a deformed and distorted credit system. For many years now, the foundation of the entire world economic system has been the willingness of the average American to spend their entire income - and more besides. This blog described the magnitude of that "more" in its very first entry. That foundation is collapsing and the global system is flying apart as American households suddenly realize that they are in a hole and stop digging. Savings rates have rebounded from negative territory almost back to 3% per the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The fact that Americans are saving again is viewed as a disaster by the Keynesian orthodoxy, which seems oblivious to the need for savings as a source of capital. They are going to have an absolute coronary when US savings rates begin to approach the historical norm of 10% +/- 2%.

The renewed interest in savings certainly will impose short-term pain on a distorted economy based on excessive consumption. The foundation of the economy will have to shift to something more balanced. The simultaneous and related desire to reduce debt is going to accelerate the shift. The pie of funds available to spend is shrinking as income falls in real terms and willingness to take on debt disappears. In addition, the slice of the pie going to consumption is shrinking (it couldn't exactly grow much beyond 100%) as a tiny piece is actually being allocated to savings again. Activities dependent on profligate spending are suffering badly. It was this insight that led us to forecast the consumer spending collapse and the subsequent implosion of the export-dependent economies.

As the cure of a mountain of debt, our government now proposes to borrow in OUR name thus fitting our children and grandchildren for the chains of debt slavery. We must exert ourselves to stop the madness. Though it is financial rather than political, this quote from George Orwell's 1984 seem utterly apt. As Inner Party member O'Brien explains to the protagonist:
If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Trade Grinds to a Halt

Over the last 6-9 months, we have seen many indicators of weakening demand and the impact on trade. For example, the collapse of the Baltic Dry Index - down more than 90%. This reflected lease rates for freighters and indirectly demand for bulk cargo capacity. The initial drops in shipping volume were modest but had a severe impact on commodity prices and shipping rates as the global economy swung from a sellers market to a buyers market. Now we are starting to see the full impact of credit withdrawal. Our thesis has long been that excessive and EZ credit (TM) were the root cause of massive false demand that radically distorted the consumer economies, those who manufactured and exported to them and the raw material suppliers to the manufacturers. The chain of causation has proven out and now we will see just how large that distortion was.

Domestic Strife

Our back of the envelope calculation is that first-order effects in the US will be 10% of GDP, with further ripple effects from there. Our assumptions are fairly simple. Net additions to household debt ranged between $800 billion to $1.2 trillion from 2002 to 2007. That number fell to $77 billion in Q2 and negative $117 billion in Q3. All data come from the Fed Z.1 Flow of Funds release. We merely assume that net consumer credit will go to zero, whereas it could go severely negative as defaults and debt repayment have already caused outstanding credit to fall. We further assume that household savings will rebound from approximately zero to halfway back to the historic 10% range. The cumulative impact would be to reduce personal consumption by $1.3-1.6 trillion or between 9% and 12% of GDP.

Granted not all of this will hit US production. Much of the damage will occur in the export economies as we stop buying from them. We have repeatedly argued as much. Outsourcing which destroyed jobs in the US and made the target nations prosperous is now going in reverse and this should provide a partial circuit-breaker to the US economy which MAY prevent a consumption-employment-income-consumption death spiral like the 1930s. On the other hand, business spending is also falling and that swing is far more difficult to estimate. For modeling purposes, the hit to US output from lower capital spending should be roughly equal in size to the reduced demand for imports so US GDP probably declines 9-12% - straddling the 10% line of the textbook definition of depression.

Unless people dig themselves even deeper into a debt hole, households will not take on further debt - either out of prudence or inability. It would have been extraordinarily difficult to stop this a year and virtually impossible now. Once the (misplaced) confidence evaporated, the conclusion became inevitable.

Globo Stop
I'd like to thank Karl Denninger of Ticker Forum for his inimitable description of the current crisis. The PG version of which runs:

We're screwed, but they're screwed worse.
We are indeed seeing just how bad the rest of the world has it right now. The NY Times did an excellent piece over the weekend that described the rapid decline of world trade. Here's the money quote:

Over all, the total reported exports from those 43 countries peaked in July, at $1.03 trillion. By November, the figure was down 26 percent, to $766 billion. Since the figures are seasonally adjusted, the monthly figures should be comparable.
This is not just a problem for Asia but a global one. German exports fell 21%. Over a quarter of all world trade went away in only FOUR MONTHS. I think this is a pretty good example of just how much credit distorted the US and world economy. At some point, credit goes from a useful organ to a cancer. We have often spoken of the Universal Debt bubble and the breathtaking size and scope of it. It was "fun" while it lasted but the bill for the UDB is about to come due. The check is on its way to the table and we're going to spend a lot of time arguing over who gets to pay for it. George Washington spoke of government but it applies to credit as well and the distinction between the government and the banks grows ever smaller:
... a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.