Baseball91's Weblog

August 2, 2009

Those Dog Days of August

There was a true revolution in the world markets last September that anyone buying stocks last week seems to have missed. The new world order was now all about social engineering on capitalism. It was only the start, back in September. Bill Gross is the Warren Buffet of the bond market and his PIMCO website with current outlook is must reading.

The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash is by Charles R. Morris, a former banker who “comes to his conclusions based on objectivity, knowledge, and lucid thought.” He wrote this book before the 2008 market collapse which I have not read. I have however read a few pieces by Mr. Morris over the last 12 months, as he is on occasion featured in the Jesuit magazine America.

Credit is the air that financial markets breathe, and when the air is poisoned, there’s no place to hide.” –
Charles R. Morris

With an estimate that 20% of the population was really unemployed, there is no reason for the optimism reflected at July’s end in the Wall Street indexes. The procedure for identifying ends of a recession is by looking at when the contraction ends. Per the Wall Street Journal, “The elements that will drive a recovery –rising wages, consumer demand, production and sales — haven’t appeared.”

Government fears throughout the world are that of deflation, because they have no arrows in their quiver to fight it, when it occurs. Paul Virgen wrote on July 31st in the Wall Street Journal that economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires estimate the Commerce Department’s GDP report later today likely would show a contraction of about 1.5% for the second quarter, a less-severe decline than the first quarter’s 5.5% figure.

For me the word contraction is a synonym for “DEFLATION.”

Credit markets froze between September 15th and October 7th when Congress was voting on bailouts, while the battle of ideology was going on between the credit markets and the equity markets as reflected in the spread of about 3.0 percent in the LIBOR rate which one bank charged another bank. That is 3.0 higher than the Fed rate at the time, an unheard of differential. Banks in that environment, no matter the moves put on by the Treasury, were not buying in to the bailout in October 2008. When everything was overvalued, why lend money? So government came to the rescue. Because of government fear about DEFLATION.

I continue to live in a neighborhood where real estate values have barely budged, where the bubble has not burst. The American illusion persists. About values.

Read the current Atlantic Monthly piece about Dr. Doom. Learn about the economist, Hyman Minsky. Read Paul Krugman’s piece now 4 years old. ‘The news that the US housing bubble is over won’t come in the form of plunging prices….” He won the last Pulitizer prize in economics.

On May 2009, Paul McCulley of PIMCO wrote, “The longer people make money by taking risk, the more imprudent they become in risk-taking. While they’re doing that, it’s self-fulfilling on the way up. If everybody is simultaneously becoming more risk-seeking, that brings in risk premiums, drives up the value of collateral, increases the ability to lever and the game keeps going. Human nature is inherently pro-cyclical, and that’s essentially what the Minsky thesis is all about.”

Hyman Minsky was an economist who has gained a lot of disciples over the past few years. He wrote about bubbles that occur in an economy. He theorized that a bubble begins with displacement caused by a significant invention, like the internet. A displacement creates profitable opportunities in any given affected sector but, rather than invention alone, financial innovation is necessary for access to cheap credit before a kick-off to an over-trading phase. Euphoria ensues as people pile into the sector, with a driving demand to affect higher prices, often with borrowed money. Ponzi’ investors join in speculation that someone will buy their assets at higher prices. But markets eventually, whether due to lenders tightening lending criteria or insiders selling out, hit a peak. Panic then sets in. With a stampede out of the market, bankruptcies ensue.

That was why credit markets froze in September 2008. Bankers who have always been conservative. Do you know any? They were not buying into the social engineering on capitalism. There was a revolution in capitalism with this bailout. No one wanted to purchase shares in these banks that were illiquid. Based on the value of real estate, there was a bubble. A huge illusion about valuations of homes. The banks owned all the real estate. And it is said that the banks in Europe were in worse shape. In September 2008, bankers neither trusted the balance sheet of another bank nor the government. Thus the state of the credit markets. Bankers understood too well the persisting illusion.

By the end of October 2008, more than half of the U.S. banks were pretend banks. With no capital. Citibank. Bank of America. Wachovia. The bailout has worked to avoid an immediate collapse that would have had consequences worse than in Russia in 1906. Or in Russia in 1917. The panic, the revolution did not occur as a result of a couple years of events. Immediately.

“If drugs continue to be injected which mask symptoms rather than address the disease (medicine in the form of debt destruction), the likelihood of a seismic readjustment increases in kind, writes Todd Harrison, about the dollar. “As governments take on more risk” as they price assets on behalf of the market and transfer debt from private to public, “the common denominator, or release valve, becomes the currency.”

Some facts:

World GDP $47 trillion
World stock valuation $121 trillion
Bond market $85 trillion
Credit derivatives $473 trillion

There would be turmoil in currencies in the coming year as a consequence of the political fallout over American debt, before this was over. It was all because there was $460 trillion to $560 trillion in derivatives, and there is not enough money in the world to keep the system of capitalism going. The social engineering last September was all about government trying to keep capitalism going. Those derivatives, not backed up by reserves. When the laws of survival of the fittest in the market place had been always about letting systems collapse.

These news items in July 2009 you might have missed:

“Joining the growing chorus questioning the U.S. dollar’s unofficial position as global reserve currency, in India, chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, Suresh Tendulkar, is urging India to diversify its foreign-exchange reserves and hold fewer dollars,” according to Bloomberg News.

“Zeng Peiyan, the head of China Center for International Economic Exchanges and the former Chinese Vice-Premier, in a speech in Beijing on Friday called for a new system to ensure the stability of the major reserve currencies,” the China Daily reported.

“To prevent speculative and manipulative attacks on their currencies, the world’s central banks must acquire and hold dollar reserves in corresponding amounts to their currencies in circulation. The higher the market pressure to devalue a particular currency, the more dollar reserves its central bank must hold. This creates a built-in support for a strong dollar that in turn forces the world’s central banks to acquire and hold more dollar reserves, making it stronger.” –2008 piece by Henry Liu

“Tensions mounting between the People’s Bank of China’s economic concerns over China’s holdings of dollars, with the earlier call by central bank chief Zhou Xiaochuan for the development of a new super-sovereign currency largely taking the place of the dollar, and the Chinese government, with their “diplomatic reasons” for toning down their criticism, said Stephen Gallo, head of market analysis at Schneider Foreign Exchange. The Chinese government is still more happy to play to the tune of the Bernanke-Geithner camp which sees leaning against the wind in order to protect the U.S. dollar as a necessary evil,” Gallo said.”

And in April 2009, the head of the China Banking Regulatory Commission issued a statement published on its website that banks need to guard against making risky loans and instead focus more on sustainable lending practices. Banks must be “on high alert for the accumulation of hidden risks as loans surge,” Liu Mingkang said. According to published reports in remarks made at the Boao Forum for Asia, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao last spring called for more surveillance of countries that issue major reserve currencies. That would be the United States. This statement comes on the heels of discussion at the G20 meeting of a new world currency. There is growing distrust of America and the politics involved in our currency. Last spring in an essay published on the central bank’s web site, the head of the People’s Bank of China, Zhou Xiaochuan, proposed the creation a new international reserve currency. Seeking to expand currency swap agreements that are seen as a step toward eventually making the yuan more of a global reserve asset, Wen said, “We should give full play to bilateral currency swap agreements and will study expanding currency swaps in scale and to more countries.”

“There is no chance that a nation as reputationally scarred and maimed as the US is today, could extract any true ‘alpha’ from foreign investors for the next 25 years or so. So the US will have to start to pay a normal market price for the net resources it borrows from abroad. It will therefore have to start to generate primary surpluses, on average, for the indefinite future. A nation with credibility as regards its commitment to meeting its obligations could afford to delay the onset of the period of pain. It could borrow more from abroad today, because foreign creditors and investors are confident that, in due course, the country would be willing and able to generate the (correspondingly larger) future primary external surpluses required to service its external obligations. I don’t believe the US has either the external credibility or the goodwill capital any longer to ask, Oliver Twist-like, for a little more leeway, a little more latitude. I believe that markets – both the private players and the large public players managing the foreign exchange reserves of the PRC, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, the Gulf states, Japan and other nations – will make this clear.

“Keynesian demand stimulus may work for a while (a couple of years, say). When the consequences for the public debt of both the Keynesian stimulus and the realization of the losses from the assets and commitments the Fed and the Treasury have taken onto their balance sheets become apparent, the demand stimulus will fade and may be reserved as precautionary behavior takes over in the private sector. My recommendation is to go easy on the fiscal stimulus. The US government is ill-placed financially and fiscally, to engage in short-term fiscal heroics. All they can really do is pray for a stronger-than-expected revival of global demand, without any major stimulus from the US.” -Willem H. Buiter of the European Institute, Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science

William McChesney Martin was the Fed’s chairman from 1951 through 1970. Martin said his job as central-bank chief was “to take away the punchbowl just as the party gets going” to keep the economy from overheating. Paul McCulley said that the government’s efforts to aid financial firms in effect are reversing this well-known quip. “Now they are actually creating ‘punchbowl banks’ where you have the equity coming in from the Treasury,” McCulley said. “They are de facto banks owned by the Treasury and funded by the Fed. If the U.S. is putting its ‘full faith and credit’ behind the liabilities of the various financial institutions, then I want to be a co-investor with Uncle Sam, which is another way of saying I want to invest with the American taxpayer. It sounds a little like socialism only because it is.” The government’s attempts to revive lending have led policy makers to use taxpayer money to recreate “the shadow banking system,” he said.

According to Pimm Fox and Daniel Kruger, “So far, that has included expanding the Fed’s assets to $2.2 trillion, injecting $270 billion of capital into what Paul McCulley called ‘punchbowl banks,’ and promising to buy $600 billion in mortgage securities related to government-sponsored enterprises.” The government’s attempts to revive lending have led policy makers to use taxpayer money to recreate “the shadow banking system,” he said. Before the start of the financial crisis in August 2007, that comprised institutions which lacked access to the Fed’s discount window and whose customer accounts were not insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

So that 12 months later, we are all back to where the world was, with just a little more transparency, recreating “the shadow banking system.”
Money always seemed to affect the outcome of elections.

In June 2009 there was a summit of the world’s four largest emerging economies, as leaders from of China, India Russia, and Brazil met in Yekaterinburg, Russia to discuss reforming the global financial system and lessening reliance on the United States. These four countries hold nearly 40 percent of the world’s currency reserves and make up 15 percent of the global economy.

A joint BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) statement issued before the summit expressed a commitment to advance the reform of international financial institutions so as to reflect changes in the world economy. The statement said. “The emerging and developing economies must have a greater voice and representation in international financial institutions,” calling for a greater role for developing nations in global financial institutions and the United Nations. Leaders discussed investing their reserves in one another’s bonds, swapping reserve currencies and increasing the role of Special Drawing Rights, an international reserve asset. Discussions took place earlier in the day in the Urals city at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization about the creation of a supranational currency and lessening global reliance on the U.S. dollar. President Dmitry Medvedev was an outspoken a critic of the current world financial system, reserving his most bold comments for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. “There cannot be a successful global currency system if the financial instruments it uses are denominated in only one currency, which is the case today. And that currency is the dollar.”

But the idea of replacing the dollar found little traction with China, which holds $2 trillion in foreign currency reserves.

Other notable quotes this year, not dealing with currency:

“With stocks tied to bonds, bonds tied to housing, housing tied to the credit crisis, and everyone hitched to the government, this was all like the conga line to the poor house.” -Craig Rappaport, wealth manager at Janney Montgomery Scott

Bob Prince hedge fund manager of Bridgewater Associates, on downward spirals: “The pressure on corporate margins is now passing through to employment cuts. Employment cuts will reduce incomes which will raise defaults. Rising defaults will hinder bank capital adequacy, which will constrain credit growth, which will slow spending, which will hurt profit margins, then employment. This chain of events was virtually sealed when demand dropped off the table in October, although it was highly probable earlier this year when credit conditions deteriorated rapidly. We are now in the middle of it and there really isn’t much that anyone can do besides hang on.”

“My transgenerational stock market outlook is this: stocks are cheap when valued within the context of a financed-based economy once dominated by leverage, cheap financing, and even lower corporate tax rates. That world, however, is in our past not our future. More regulation, lower leverage, higher taxes, and a lack of entrepreneurial testosterone are what we must get used to – that and a government checkbook that allows for healing, but crowds the private sector into an awkward and less productive corner. Dow 5,000? We don’t have to go there if current domestic and global policies are focused on asset price support and eventual recapitalization of lending institutions. But 14,000 is a stretch as well. One only has to recognize that roughly 20% of bank capital is now owned by the U.S. government and that a near proportionate share of profits will flow in that direction as well. Better to own corporate bonds than corporate stocks, but that’s a story for another Investment Outlook.” -William H. Gross , Managing Director, PIMCO, December 1, 2008

Bill Gross, in October 2008: “What we are witnessing is essentially the breakdown of our modern-day banking system, a complex of leveraged lending so hard to understand that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke required a face-to-face refresher course from hedge fund managers in mid-August 2007.

I have never taken creative accounting….full disclosure. But anyone who was investing might recognize that the greatest opportunity to make money is now in the credit markets and not equities.

Now about the political consequences over the social engineering on capitalism which would be studied in history books in a thousand years, if the world survived this mess……. oh, that’s another lecture.


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