150+ years of inflation-adjusted oil prices.

The average is about $47 in real terms.

oil

What does this tell us? Well, not much, except it’s the $100-ish prices that were more of an anomaly than the recent price situation.

— Thanks to David Stockman —

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The Central Planning Gambit: Can Central Banks Avoid a Crash?

The Bank for International Settlements put out its annual report on June 29. It says that the recovery is driven primarily by new fiat money generated by central banks. As a result, the pricing of capital assets is badly distorted. The overall theme is Austrian, not Keynesian.

Here is the summary:

A new policy compass is needed to help the global economy step out of the shadow of the Great Financial Crisis. This will involve adjustments to the current policy mix and to policy frameworks with the aim of restoring sustainable and balanced economic growth.

The global economy has shown encouraging signs over the past year but it has not shaken off its post-crisis malaise. Despite an aggressive and broad-based search for yield, with volatility and credit spreads sinking towards historical lows, and unusually accommodative monetary conditions, investment remains weak. Debt, both private and public, continues to rise while productivity growth has extended further its long-term downward trend. There is even talk of secular stagnation. Some banks have rebuilt capital and adjusted their business models, while others have more work to do.

To return to sustainable and balanced growth, policies need to go beyond their traditional focus on the business cycle and take a longer-term perspective — one in which the financial cycle takes centre stage. They need to address head-on the structural deficiencies and resource misallocations masked by strong financial booms and revealed only in the subsequent busts. The only source of lasting prosperity is a stronger supply side. It is essential to move away from debt as the main engine of growth.

Resources have been grossly misallocated by these interventions. Chapter VI begins with the following observations:

Nearly six years after the apex of the financial crisis, the financial sector is still coping with its aftermath. Financial firms find themselves at a crossroads. Shifting attitudes towards risk in the choice of business models will influence the sector’s future profile. The speed of adjustment will be key to the financial sector again becoming a facilitator of economic growth.

The banking sector has made progress in healing its wounds, but balance sheet repair is incomplete. Even though the sector has strengthened its aggregate capital position with retained earnings, progress has not been uniform. Sustainable profitability will thus be critical to completing the job. Accordingly, many banks have adopted more conservative business models promising greater earnings stability and have partly withdrawn from capital market activities.

Looking forward, high indebtedness is the main source of banks’ vulnerability. Banks that have failed to adjust post-crisis face lingering balance sheet weaknesses from direct exposure to overindebted borrowers and the drag of debt overhang on economic recovery (Chapters III and IV). The situation is most acute in Europe, but banks there have stepped up efforts in the past year. Banks in economies less affected by the crisis but at a late financial boom phase must prepare for a slowdown and for dealing with higher non-performing assets.

Then it discusses commercial banks — they are relying on the low interest rate environment to keep submarginal borrowers afloat. This is postponing inevitable losses.

In the United States, non-performing loans tell a different story. After 2009, the country’s banking sector posted steady declines in theaggregate NPL ratio, which fell below 4% at end-2013. Coupled with robust asset growth, this suggests that the sector has madesubstantial progress in putting the crisis behind it. Persistent strains on mortgage borrowers, however, kept the NPL ratios of the two largest government-sponsored enterprises above 7% in 2013.Enforcing balance sheet repair is an important policy challenge in the euro area. The challenge has been complicated by a prolonged period of ultra-low interest rates. To the extent that low rates support wide interest margins, they provide useful respite for poorly performing banks. However, low rates also reduce the cost of – and thus encourage – forbearance, ie keeping effectively insolvent borrowers afloat in order to postpone the recognition of losses. The experience of Japan in the 1990s showed that protracted forbearance not only destabilises the banking sector directly but also acts as a drag on the supply of credit and leads to its misallocation (Chapter III). This underscores the value of the ECB’s asset quality review, which aims to expedite balance sheet repair, thus forming the basis of credible stress tests.

The holy grail of central banking is this: shrink asset bubbles without crashing the economy.

No central bank has ever accomplished this. Yet monetary central planners have big egos — they think they are the smartest people in the entire universe. Right now, they think they have the economy under their control — unemployment slowly falling, economic activity slowly improving, and consumer price inflation is nowhere in sight.

Business cycle “recovery” phases (even weak ones) can’t last forever. The question is, can they pull off their ultimate gambit?

If central banks can unwind the massive increases to their balance sheets without causing recessions, it will show that Keynesian economics works. It will be nothing short of a miracle.

Do you believe in miracles?

Bank of Canada’s Balance Sheet: Still Trending Higher

The Bank of Canada has somewhat arrested the rate of growth on its balance sheet. The monetary base has reached a bit of a “plateau” for now, very close to all-time highs from December 2013 ($91.045 billion on the books as of April 30 2014).

It seems Poloz is trying to follow along with the general “tapering” strategy of the Fed. In order to maintain the “boom” of this business cycle (as lame a boom as it might be), the balance sheet’s size must continue to trend higher. But the flattening of the curve means that the BoC’s purchases are slowing. This will tend to push down asset prices.

boc april14

Marc Faber: Central Bank Intervention “Will Be Very Painful”

Continuing the theme from our last post, Marc Faber — publisher of The Gloom Boom and Doom Report — argues how central bank policy distorts asset prices. The unwavering commitment to monetary expansion will reach its conclusion when inflation explodes or the system becomes so unwieldy it just collapses.

He takes this analysis a step further, to the social implications of central bank intervention. He says monetary intervention ultimately foments social unrest and must culminate in disaster, be it financial meltdown or war.

 

Why the Fed Will Not “Taper”

Is the Fed going to “taper”? In other words, will it slow the rate of monetary expansion? When will the Fed do this?

That’s what everyone wants to know. As the central bank for the world’s biggest consumer, the Fed is especially important. Their actions have a major effect on the actions of other central banks. The Bank of Canada’s policy is in many ways a function of the Fed’s.

Canada’s head central banker Poloz will not rock the boat. He fears price deflation. The central bankers in Europe and Britain are explicitly committed to inflation. More and more central banks are joining to cause of money printing, like Japan and Australia, yet the Fed seems to be a bit of a wild card.

That’s because because of Bernanke’s remarks on June 19, where he appeared to raise the Fed’s unemployment target from 6.5% to 7%. He suggested the Fed might slow its bond purchases sooner than previously indicated.

Bernanke went out on a limb and changed the target numbers for unemployment in his speech from what was written in the FOMC report.

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard was critical of Bernanke’s comments, in a wishy-washy bureaucratic sort of way. He tried to tell us that Bernanke didn’t really mean what he said. Bernanke even later came out and confirmed his position is the same as it’s always been: “When the economy gets better, we’ll stop. Someday. Maybe.”

Which sort of goes without saying. Of course the Fed plans to execute its promised “exit plan” when the economy gets better. That’s the whole idea behind extraordinary measures like quadrupling its monetary base since the 2008 crisis with QE 1-3. So what’s the big deal?

Other than Bernanke’s 7% comment, the FOMC has been very clear about what it plans to do. The position in the June 19 press release was unchanged from their March press release. The March release was the same as the January release. Literally the sameword for word.

In these press releases, the FOMC has been explicit. The Federal Reserve will maintain its current policy of QE if the US unemployment rate remains above 6.5% and price inflation remains below 2.5%.

All this debate over whether the Fed will “taper,” and all because no one seems to read what the FOMC says.

A few FOMC members said maybe they should taper later this year. But unemployment is not falling fast enough. Price inflation is not rising fast enough. The Fed’s policy is unlikely to change.

Even if it does change, and they slow the rate of monetary expansion, they will be forced to intervene again. No one mentions that there was tapering after the previous QE’s. Heck, they didn’t just taper in 2012: they actually deflated slightly.

But these little taper episodes don’t last. They simply led to further expansion later. So why not a little bit of tapering after QE3? But that will eventually necessitate QE4. When central banks begin slowing their monetary expansion, the correction will manifest and they will intervene again in desperation.

Despite this reality, economists, investors, and financial reporters are obsessed with rumors and hypotheticals because they do not understand central bank policy.

The spastic reaction of investors was very interesting. Markets fell. Yields shot up quickly as a massive $80 billion was pulled from bond funds in June. Gold briefly fell below $1200. Clearly this illustrates that this economic error cycle is perpetuated entirely by faith in central bank bureaucrats to keep the money pumping. Which is, by the way, exactly what the Austrian business cycle tells us.

You can quite clearly see how the Fed’s expansion is correlated with stock market performance in the last few years. Any time the markets have been worried, the Bernanke Fed has stepped up to deliver QE.

s&p and fed

I don’t think the Fed is communicating any kind of serious change in policy. And regardless of what they say, they are completely trapped by their own policy.

FRED Graph

The Fed cannot pull off a smooth “Exit Plan” with that monster they call a balance sheet without causing a crash far more vicious than 2008.

Is there any way the Federal Reserve could avoid this?

Actually, yes. Their asset sales would have to be offset by the releasing of commercial banks’ excess reserves into the economy. Currently these reserves are massive, corresponding to the Fed’s expansion.

Graph of Excess Reserves of Depository Institutions (DISCONTINUED SERIES)

If the Fed stopped QE entirely and started selling assets, but the banks lent out their excess reserves, you wouldn’t even notice the Fed’s exit. In fact, there would be price inflation. That’s because the fractional reserve process could generate nearly $10 trillion in new money out of those excess reserves.

But this will never happen. This becomes obvious as soon as you ask: “Why would the big banks want to release their excess reserves?”

They are not lending now, so why would they want to lend it when the Fed is selling assets and therefore bringing about a recession? The banks are hoarding their excess reserves now due to extreme uncertainty and impaired balance sheets. They are less likely to lend those funds if the Fed tapers.

But what if the Fed tapers and stops paying interest on excess reserves? Yes, the could do this if they wanted. This is a relatively new policy implemented in 2008. But halting this would have little effect.

The banks earn almost nothing on their deposits at the Fed: close to zero percent. Going from almost-zero to zero will be insufficient motivation to lend, especially when the economy is expected to slowdown. Better to make zero return than risk losing 5% or 10% or more when the economy goes bad.

But what if Bernanke went further? He could charge the banks fees and penalties for having too high a level of reserves. I do not believe he will do this because the banks would not like it. Due to counter-party risk and the danger of short-term creditors doing a bank run on a major institution, it’s least risky for the banks to hold their reserves at the Fed.

Another reason why he and other central banks will not force their big banks to lend: they fear massive inflation would result, and no one wants to deal with that. Bringing it under control would bring about a crippling depression.

An interesting possibility that should be considered is the Fed reducing the rate of QE3 just before Bernanke departs in Feb 2014. They could then safely blame him for any negative effects which follow. If the Fed announces a reduction in QE in September, that would fit with this scenario. However, I do not believe they will do this. Bernanke wants to ride off into the sunset without any additional controversy. He is not even speaking at the Jackson Hole meeting this summer, due to “personal reasons.” He wants to get out his position stealthily rather than in a flurry of disputation. He doesn’t want to push a tapering policy that will reflect badly on him as he leaves his position.

And what’s true of Bernanke is true of all the central bankers — none of them want to look bad in front of their friends. So they will continue to inflate.

CONCLUSION

After the NASDAQ bubble exploded and the US went into recession, Alan Greenspan pumped money into the economy to generate a new boom cycle. Over that time, the economy responded to the resulting misshapen financial markets with the formation of a housing bubble. Greenspan departed and Bernanke began to raise rates. The result was the 2008 crash, during which Bernanke & Friends carried out an unprecedented expansion of the monetary base. Another boom period was generated. The US stock market is again making all-time highs, optimism is much more widespread, and all forecasts and experts seem to agree that the recovery is robust and genuine. This means we are in the economic danger zone.

The Fed’s 100-year pattern of propagating booms and busts will continue either until they crash the economy by selling assets, or a monetary crisis arises that they cannot control.

The Fed may tinker with its money supply here and there, but we are a long way from any “exit plan.” Until then, don’t count on any real tapering for any significant amount of time.

Investing: Silver vs. Gold

Many people want to know about silver. They want to know how it compares to gold as an investment.

Some call silver a “poor man’s gold.” In other words, the average man on the street is more able to go to a dealer and buy a few ounces of silver than he is a few ounces of gold. Yet “poor man’s gold” is not a fair characterization, because it assumes silver and gold belong in the same category simply because they are both precious metals. The reality is that silver and gold are different in important ways.

I recommend that one’s precious metal holdings be MAXIMUM 25% silver. 15% is probably better. Gold should make up the rest.

First, I invite you to check out the Kitco charts and look at recent price behavior.

In April 2011, silver reached a high of $49. But by June 2012, it hit $27. As I write this, it is $29. Measured from the 2011 highs, this is a massive loss. Nearly 50%.

Now look at gold. In September 2011, gold hit a high of $1895. In May 2012, it bottomed at $1540. As of right now, it is $1580. Measured from the 2011 highs, this is a moderate loss. Nearly 20%.

The idea reflected here is that silver is much more volatile.

Look back to 1980. Silver fell from $50 to $3.60 in 1991. Gold, at its worst, fell from $850 in 1980 to $255 in 2001. It’s like losing your house and all your money, instead of just all your money.

So when gold sells off, silver will sell off  harder and faster. Silver bulls will argue that the potential gains are much, much higher with silver than with gold. This is plausible, if only because silver is 40% down from its all time high and gold is 17% down from its all time high, and there are strong reasons to believe that both will move upwards.

Why the volatility? The primary reason is industrial demand, which for gold is very small. It is significant for silver, however. During a panic, the price for raw materials plummets.

Gold is different. You could say it commands a premium. This is essentially because gold is regarded as a monetary metal even though it is not money. Central banks buy and sell gold. They have it in their vaults. Central banks don’t stock silver. Wealthy people want gold in a crisis, and silver is much less interesting. Indian families buy it when their daughters get hitched. Asians use it to protect against inflation.  Silver really doesn’t serve that purpose, and I do not believe it will in the near future.

Silver will probably have a bigger bull market than gold by the time Great Depression 2 hits. But if you want to buy precious metals because you are afraid of people like Bernanke and Carney, then you want gold. Silver is a higher risk trade. Gold will perform better in a panic, which is when silver will perform horribly.

In either case, your objective is to hold until the error cycle reaches its final moments before we enter a deflationary depression. Because at that point, you want to unload all your gold and silver and get currency and bonds from institutions that won’t go broke. It’s a trade that would be harder to time correctly with silver than with gold.

All this being said, there is one other important advantage gold has over silver: your wife or girlfriend will like gold jewelry more than silver jewelry.

WHOA — here comes QE3

There’s been a lot of talk on QE3 and not a lot of action. At least not in what was reflected in the net expansion of the monetary base.

That has changed quite dramatically. Check out the short-term monetary base at the Fed now:

Fed AMB feb 2013

That is a very notable change, because last year the Fed’s policy was actually deflationary. For the first time since the end of QE2, we are seeing Bernanke and the gang really firing up the presses, without a corresponding sell-off in other assets.

The Fed is expected to add about $1 trillion dollars to the economy this year. It is unlikely to cause a surge in monetary prices. It will help bolster the price of US debt and mortgage-backed securities. But as with previous QE’s, I expect commercial banks to stockpile this newly created money in their excess reserves.

This will not help the economy — it will merely sustain the grossly distorted world economic system a little bit longer.

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