Tag Archives: deflation

Falling Oil Prices An Economic Warning Sign

On Tuesday morning, I got engaged in a debate on the recent decline in oil prices following my report on COT Positioning in the space. To wit:

“The inherent problem with this is that if crude oil breaks below $48/bbl, those long contracts will start to get liquidated which will likely push oil back into the low 40’s very quickly. The decline in oil is both deflationary and increases the risk of an economic recession.”

It didn’t take long before the debate started.

“Aren’t low oil prices good for the economy? They are a tax cut for the consumer?”

There is an old axiom which states that if you repeat a falsehood long enough, it will eventually be accepted as fact.

Low oil prices equating to stronger economic growth is one of those falsehoods.

Oil prices are indeed crucial to the overall economic equation, and there is a correlation between the oil prices, inflation, and interest rates.

Given that oil is consumed in virtually every aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to the products and services we buy, the demand side of the equation is a tell-tale sign of economic strength or weakness. We can see this clearly in the chart below which combines rates, inflation, and GDP into one composite indicator. One important note is that oil tends to trade along pretty defined trends (black trend lines) until it doesn’t. Importantly, since the oil industry is very manufacturing and production intensive, breaks of price trends tend to be liquidation events which has a negative impact on manufacturing and CapEx spending and feeds into the GDP calculation.

“It should not be surprising that sharp declines in oil prices have been coincident with downturns in economic activity, a drop in inflation, and a subsequent decline in interest rates.

We can also view the impact of oil prices on inflation by looking at breakeven inflation rates as well.

The short version is that oil prices are a reflection of supply and demand. Global demand has already been falling for the last several months, and oil prices are sending warnings that “market hopes” for a “global reflation” are likely not a reality. More importantly, falling oil prices are going to put the Fed in a very tough position in the next couple of months as deflationary pressures rise. The chart below shows breakeven 5-year and 10-year inflation rates versus oil prices.

Zero Sum

The argument that lower oil prices give consumers more money to spend certainly seems entirely logical. Since we know that roughly 80% of households in America effectively live paycheck-to-paycheck, they will spend, rather than save, any extra disposable income.

However, here is the most important part of the fallacy:

“Spending in the economy is a ZERO-SUM game.”

Falling oil prices are an excellent example since gasoline sales are part of the retail sales calculation.

Let’s take a look at the following example:

  • Oil Prices Decline By $10 Per Barrel
  • Gasoline Prices Fall By $1.00 Per Gallon
  • Consumer Fills Up A 16 Gallon Tank Saving $16 (+16)
  • Gas Station Revenue Falls By $16 For The Transaction (-16)
  • End Economic Result = $0

Now, the argument is that the $16 saved by the consumer will be spent elsewhere, which is true. However, this is the equivalent of “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

So, let’s now extend our example from above.

Oil and gasoline prices have dropped, so Elaine, who has budgeted $100 to spend each week on retail-related purchases, goes to the gas station to fill up.

  • Elaine fills up her car for $60, which previously cost $80. (Savings +$20)
  • Elaine then spends her normal $20 on lunch with her friends. 
  • She then spends her additional $20 (saved from her gas bill) on some flowers for the dining room.

————————————————-
Total Spending For The Week = $100

Now, economists quickly jump on the idea that because she spent $20 on flowers, there has been an additional boost to the economy.

However, this is not the case. Elaine may have spent her money differently this past week, but she still spent the same amount. Here is the net effect on the economy.

Gasoline Station Revenue = (-$20)
Flower Store Revenue = +$20
—————————————————-
Net Effect To Economy = $0

Graphically, we can show this by analyzing real (inflation-adjusted) gasoline prices compared to total Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE). I am using “PCE” as it is the broadest measure of consumer spending and comprises almost 70% of the entire GDP calculation.

As shown, falling gasoline prices have historically equated to lower personal consumption expenditures, and not vice-versa. In fact higher oil and gasoline prices have actually been coincident with higher rates of PCE previously. The chart below show inflation-adjusted oil prices as compared to PCE.

While the argument that declines in energy and gasoline prices should lead to stronger consumption sounds logical, the data suggests this is not the case.

What we find is there is a parity between oil price and the economy. Like “Goldilocks,” prices which are too hot, or too cold, has a negative impact on consumption and economic growth.

Importantly, regardless of the level of oil prices, the only thing which increases consumer spending are increases in INCOME, not SAVINGS. Consumers only have a finite amount of money to spend. They can choose to “save more” which is a drag on economic growth in the short-term (called the “paradox of thrift”), or they can spend what they have. But they can’t spend more, unless they take on more debt. 

Which is what has been occurring as individuals struggle to fill the gap between the cost of living and incomes. (Read more on this chart)

A Bigger Drag Than The Savings

Importantly, falling oil prices are a bigger drag on economic growth than the incremental “savings” received by the consumer.

The obvious ramification of the plunge in oil prices is to the energy sector itself. As oil prices decline, the loss of revenue eventually leads to cuts in production, declines in capital expenditure plans (which comprises almost 1/4th of all CapEx expenditures in the S&P 500), freezes and/or reductions in employment, not to mention the declines in revenue and profitability.

Let’s walk through the impact of lower oil prices on the economy.

Declining oil prices lead to declining revenue for oil and gas companies. Given that drilling for oil is a very capital intensive process requiring a lot of manufactured goods, equipment, supplies, transportation, and support, the decrease in prices leads to a reduction in activity as represented by Capital Expenditures (CapEx.) The chart below shows the 6-month average of the 6-month rate of change in oil prices as compared to CapEx spending in the economy.

Of course, once CapEx is reduced the need for employment declines. However, since drilling for oil is a very intensive process, losses in employment may start with the energy companies, but eventually, all of the downstream suppliers are impacted by slower activity. As job losses rise, and incomes decline, it filters into the economy.

Importantly, when it comes to employment, the majority of the jobs “created” since the financial crisis has been lower wage-paying jobs in retail, healthcare and other service sectors of the economy. Conversely, the jobs created within the energy space are some of the highest wage paying opportunities available in engineering, technology, accounting, legal, etc.

In fact, each job created in energy-related areas has had a “ripple effect” of creating 2.8 jobs elsewhere in the economy from piping to coatings, trucking and transportation, restaurants and retail.

Given that oil prices are a reflection of global economic demand, falling oil prices have a negative feedback loop in the economy as a whole. The longer oil prices remain suppressed, the negative impacts of loss of employment, reductions in capital expenditures, and declines in corporate profitability will begin to outstrip any small economic benefit gained through consumption.

Simply put, lower oil and gasoline prices may actually have a bigger detraction on the economy than the “savings” provided to consumers.

Newton’s third law of motion states:

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

In any economy, nothing works in isolation. For every dollar increase that occurs in one part of the economy, there is a dollars’ worth of reduction somewhere else.

Powell’s Revelation And A TIP For Defense

I think we would need to see a really significant move up in inflation that’s persistent before we even consider raising rates to address inflation concerns.” – Jerome Powell 10/30/2019

The recent quote above from Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell is powerful, to say the least. We cannot remember a time in the last 30 years when a Fed Chairman has so clearly articulated such a strong desire for more inflation.

In particular, let’s dissect the bolded words in the quote for further clarification. 

  • “Really Significant”– Powell is not only saying that the Fed will allow a substantial boost to inflation but does one better by adding the word “really.”
  • “Persistent”– Unlike the prior few Fed Chairman who claimed to be vigilant towards inflation, Powell is clearly telling us that he will not react to inflation that is not only a “really significant” leap from current levels, but a rate that lasts for a while.
  • “Even Consider”– The language he uses here conveys the seriousness of the Fed’s commitment. The rise in inflation must not only be “really significant” but also “persistent.” Powell is saying both conditions must be met before they will even discuss rate hikes. A significant rise in inflation but one they do not deem to be persistent will not suffice. Nor would a persistent move in inflation but one they do not measure as significant. Both conditions must be present together based on his language.

We are stunned by the choice of words Powell used to describe the Fed’s view on inflation. We are even more shocked that the markets and the media are ignoring it. Maybe, they are failing to focus on the three bolded sections.

In fact, what they probably think they heard was:

I think we would need to see a move up in inflation before we consider raising rates to address inflation concerns.

Such a statement is more in line with traditional Fed-speak. The other alternative is that Powell has altered his language in so many different ways over the past year that nobody seems to be paying attention to his words anymore. If so, he has lost credibility.

This article presents Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) as a hedge against Jerome Powell and the Fed getting what they want.

Inflation and Stable Prices – Apples and Oranges

Before a discussion on using TIPS as a way to protect your investments from the deleterious effects of inflation, we need to examine how the Fed gauges inflation and debunk the narrative that terms inflation and price stability as one and the same. Price data going back about 250 years, as shown below, shows the stark difference between inflation and price stability.  

Data Courtesy: Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, ‘The Annual Consumer Price Index for the United States, 1774-Present

The orange line plots annual price changes before the Fed was established in 1913. As shown, prices were volatile year to year, but cumulative inflation over the entire 138 year period was negligible at 23% or .15% annualized. Dare we say prices were stable?

Compare that to the era after the Fed’s creation (represented by the blue line above). Annual inflation rates were less volatile but largely positive. The cumulative growth of prices has been an astonishing 2491% in the post-Fed area, which equates to 3.1% annually. There is nothing stable about such massive price inflation. 

Here is another graph to shed more light on price stability.

Stable prices should be defined as prices that are constant. In other words, a dollar today can purchase the same basket of goods that it did yesterday. Inflation must be near zero over longer periods for this to occur.

The Fed’s definition of stable denotes a consistent rate of annual inflation. Based on their actions and words, they have little regard for the destruction of a dollar’s purchasing power caused by a steady inflation rate. The Fed benefits from this linguistic imprecision because it allows for economic expansion via the accumulation of debt while their Congressional mandates are achieved. This is why the Fed wants to produce inflation. It reduces the amount of debt on an inflation-adjusted basis. The Fed wants inflation but disguises it under the banner of price stability.

With Federal deficits now topping $1 trillion and corporate debt and consumer debt and financial liabilities at all-time highs as a percentage of GDP, we must think about hedging our equity and fixed income portfolios in case the Fed gets more inflation than the 2% goal they consider stable.

Despite what the Fed leads us to believe, they have little control over the rate of inflation and they do not know how to accurately measure it. As occurred 50 years ago, they can easily lose control of prices.

We urge you to focus on the forgotten leg of wealth, purchasing power. The opportunity costs of owning TIPS are minimal and the potential hedge value of TIPS tremendous. Change can happen in a hurry, and the only way to protect yourself or profit from it is to anticipate it.

The rest of this article is for RIA Pro subscribers only. If you are not a subscriber and want to learn about the mechanics of TIPS and how they can protect you in an inflationary or deflationary environment, please SIGN UP HERE for a 30-day free trial.

Powell’s Revelation And A TIP For Defense

I think we would need to see a really significant move up in inflation that’s persistent before we even consider raising rates to address inflation concerns.” – Jerome Powell 10/30/2019

The recent quote above from Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell is powerful, to say the least. We cannot remember a time in the last 30 years when a Fed Chairman has so clearly articulated such a strong desire for more inflation.

In particular, let’s dissect the bolded words in the quote for further clarification. 

  • “Really Significant”– Powell is not only saying that the Fed will allow a substantial boost to inflation but does one better by adding the word “really.”
  • “Persistent”– Unlike the prior few Fed Chairman who claimed to be vigilant towards inflation, Powell is clearly telling us that he will not react to inflation that is not only a “really significant” leap from current levels, but a rate that lasts for a while.
  • “Even Consider”– The language he uses here conveys the seriousness of the Fed’s commitment. The rise in inflation must not only be “really significant” but also “persistent.” Powell is saying both conditions must be met before they will even discuss rate hikes. A significant rise in inflation but one they do not deem to be persistent will not suffice. Nor would a persistent move in inflation but one they do not measure as significant. Both conditions must be present together based on his language.

We are stunned by the choice of words Powell used to describe the Fed’s view on inflation. We are even more shocked that the markets and the media are ignoring it. Maybe, they are failing to focus on the three bolded sections.

In fact, what they probably think they heard was:

I think we would need to see a move up in inflation before we consider raising rates to address inflation concerns.

Such a statement is more in line with traditional Fed-speak. The other alternative is that Powell has altered his language in so many different ways over the past year that nobody seems to be paying attention to his words anymore. If so, he has lost credibility.

This article presents Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) as a hedge against Jerome Powell and the Fed getting what they want.

Inflation and Stable Prices – Apples and Oranges

Before a discussion on using TIPS as a way to protect your investments from the deleterious effects of inflation, we need to examine how the Fed gauges inflation and debunk the narrative that terms inflation and price stability as one and the same. Price data going back about 250 years, as shown below, shows the stark difference between inflation and price stability.  

Data Courtesy: Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, ‘The Annual Consumer Price Index for the United States, 1774-Present

The orange line plots annual price changes before the Fed was established in 1913. As shown, prices were volatile year to year, but cumulative inflation over the entire 138 year period was negligible at 23% or .15% annualized. Dare we say prices were stable?

Compare that to the era after the Fed’s creation (represented by the blue line above). Annual inflation rates were less volatile but largely positive. The cumulative growth of prices has been an astonishing 2491% in the post-Fed area, which equates to 3.1% annually. There is nothing stable about such massive price inflation. 

Here is another graph to shed more light on price stability.

Stable prices should be defined as prices that are constant. In other words, a dollar today can purchase the same basket of goods that it did yesterday. Inflation must be near zero over longer periods for this to occur.

The Fed’s definition of stable denotes a consistent rate of annual inflation. Based on their actions and words, they have little regard for the destruction of a dollar’s purchasing power caused by a steady inflation rate. The Fed benefits from this linguistic imprecision because it allows for economic expansion via the accumulation of debt while their Congressional mandates are achieved. This is why the Fed wants to produce inflation. It reduces the amount of debt on an inflation-adjusted basis. The Fed wants inflation but disguises it under the banner of price stability.

With Federal deficits now topping $1 trillion and corporate debt and consumer debt and financial liabilities at all-time highs as a percentage of GDP, we must think about hedging our equity and fixed income portfolios in case the Fed gets more inflation than the 2% goal they consider stable.

Despite what the Fed leads us to believe, they have little control over the rate of inflation and they do not know how to accurately measure it. As occurred 50 years ago, they can easily lose control of prices.

We urge you to focus on the forgotten leg of wealth, purchasing power. The opportunity costs of owning TIPS are minimal and the potential hedge value of TIPS tremendous. Change can happen in a hurry, and the only way to protect yourself or profit from it is to anticipate it.

Part two of this article is for RIA Pro subscribers only. If you are not a subscriber and want to learn about the mechanics of TIPS and how they can protect you in an inflationary or deflationary environment, please SIGN UP HERE for a 30-day free trial.

TIPS Mechanics

Few investors truly understand the mechanics of TIPS, so let’s review the basics.

TIPS are debt securities issued by the U.S. government.  Like most U.S. Treasury securities, TIPS have a stated maturity and coupon. Unlike other securities, the principal value of TIPS adjust based on changes in the rate of inflation. The principal value can increase or decrease but will never fall below the bond’s initial par value. The semi-annual coupon on TIPS are a function of the yield of a like-maturity Treasury bond less the expected inflation rate over the life of the security, known as the break-even inflation rate.

The tables below compare the cash flows of a typical fixed coupon Treasury bond, referred to as a nominal coupon bond, and a TIPS bond to help further clarify.

The table above shows the cash flows that an investor pays and receives when purchasing a five-year bond with a fixed coupon of 4% a year. The investor initially invests $1,000 in the bond and in return receives $40 or 4% a year plus a return of the original investment ($1,000) at maturity. In our example, the annual return to the bondholder is 4%. While the price and yield of the security will change during the life of the bond, an investor holding the bond to maturity will be guaranteed the cash flows, as shown.

The TIPS table above shows the cash flows an investor pays and receives when purchasing a five-year TIPS bond with a fixed coupon of 2% a year. Like the fixed coupon bond, the investor initially pays $1,000 to purchase the bond. The similarities end here. Every six months the principal value adjusts for inflation. The coupon payment for each period is then calculated based on the new principal value (and not on the original par value. The principal value can adjust downward, but it cannot fall below the original value. This is an important safety feature that guarantees a minimum return equal to the coupon times the original principal value.  At maturity, the investor receives the final adjusted principal value, not the original principal value. Please note that if a TIPS is bought in the secondary market at a principal value exceeding its original value, the investor can lose the premium and returns can be negative in a deflationary environment.

In the hypothetical example above and excluding reinvestment of coupon payments, an investor in the nominal bond will receive $1,200 in cumulative cash flows over the life of the security. The TIPS investor would receive $1,209.12 in cumulative cash flows.

TIPS are a bet or a hedge on the breakeven inflation rate. If realized inflation over the life of a TIPS is less than the breakeven rate the investor earns a lower return than on a nominal Treasury bond with the same coupon rate. As shown in our example, if inflation is greater than the breakeven rate, then the TIPS investor earns a higher return than a nominal Treasury bond with the same coupon.

The following charts show the return profiles under various inflation scenarios, for the fixed coupon and TIPS examples used in the tables above.

The first graph shows the real (inflation-adjusted) coupon payments at various levels of inflation and deflation. In deflationary environments, both bonds provide positive real returns with the fixed coupon bond outperforming by the 2% breakeven rate. As inflation rises above the breakeven rate, the real return on the TIPS bond increasingly outperforms the fixed bond.

The next graph shows the nominal coupons of both bonds, assuming the investor holds them to maturity. The fixed bond earns the 4% coupon through all inflation scenarios. The TIPS bond earns a constant 2% coupon through all deflationary scenarios while the coupon rises in value as inflation increases. 

At any point in a TIPS life, investors may incur mark to market losses, and if the bonds are sold before maturity, this can result in a permanent loss. Any TIPS bond held from issuance to maturity will have a real positive gain assuming the coupon is above zero, the same is not true for a fixed rate bond.

Current environment

Various inflation surveys, as well as market-implied readings, suggest investors expect low levels of inflation to continue for at least the next ten years. The following graph provides a historical perspective on inflation trends and current long term inflation expectations as measured by 5, 10, and 20-year TIPS breakeven inflation rates.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve (FRED)

The rate of inflation over the last 20 years, as measured by the consumer price index, has generally been decelerating. In other words, prices are rising but at a progressively slower pace.  Since 1985, the year over year change in inflation has averaged 2.6%, and since 2015, it has averaged 1.5%.

The market determined break-even inflation rate, or the differential between TIPS yields and like maturity fixed coupon yields, for the next 5, 10, and 20 years is currently 1.39%, 1.59%, and 1.65%, respectively. Inflation expectations for the next twenty years are consistent with the actual rate of inflation for the last ten years.

The Case For TIPS

While most forecasts are based on the past and therefore do not predict meaningful inflation, we must remain cognizant that since the Great Financial Crisis in 2008/09, the Federal Reserve (FED) and many other central banks have taken extraordinary monetary policy actions. The Fed lowered their targeted interest rates to zero while central banks in Japan and Europe have gone even further and introduced negative interest rates. Additionally, banks have sharply increased their balance sheets. These actions are being employed to incentivize additional borrowing to foster economic growth and boost inflation. More recently, as we are now seeing with a new round of QE, it appears the Fed is now using monetary policy to help facilitate trillion-dollar Federal deficits. 

Investors must be careful with the market’s assumption that the Fed’s efforts to stimulate inflation will lead to the same inflation rates of the past decade. Further, if “warranted”, a central bank can literally print money and hand it out to its citizens or directly fund the government. These alternative methods of monetary policy, deemed “helicopter money” by Ben Bernanke, would most likely cause prices to rise significantly.   

“Too much” inflation would be a detriment to the equity and bond markets. If inflation rates greater than three or four percent were to occur, a large majority of investors would pay dearly. Such circumstances would depreciate investor asset values and simultaneously reduce their purchasing power. With this double-edged sword in mind, TIPS should be considered by all investors.

The graph below, courtesy Doug Short and Advisor Perspectives, shows that equity valuations tend to be at their highest when inflation ranges between zero and two percent. Outside of that band, valuations are lower.  Currently, the market is making a big bet that valuations can remain near historical highs and inflation will remain in its recent range.

The worst case scenario for TIPS, as shown in the graphs, is a continuation of the inflation trends of yesterday. In those circumstances, TIPS would provide a return on par with or slightly less than comparable maturity nominal Treasury bonds. Investors also need to incorporate the opportunity cost of not allocating those funds towards stocks or riskier bonds should inflation remain subdued.

For those conservative investors sitting on excess cash, TIPS can be effectively employed as a surrogate to cash but with the added benefits of coupon payments and protection against the uncertainty of inflation.  In a worst case scenario, TIPS provide a return similar to those found on money market mutual funds. In the event of deflation and/or negative rates, TIPS should outperform these funds, which could easily experience negative returns.

Summary

Markets have a long history of assuming the future will be just like the past. Such assumptions and complacency work great until they don’t.  We do not profess to know when inflation may pick up in earnest, and we do not have a good economic explanation for what would cause that to happen. That being said, monetary policy around the world is managed by aggressive central bankers with strong and misplaced beliefs about the benefits of inflation. At some point, there is a greater than zero likelihood central bankers will be pushed to take actions that are truly inflationary. While the markets may initially cheer, the inevitable consequences may be dire for anyone not focused on preserving their purchasing power.

We urge you to focus on the forgotten leg of wealth, purchasing power. The opportunity costs of owning TIPS are minimal and the potential hedge value of TIPS is tremendous. Change can happen in a hurry, and the only way to protect and or profit from it is to anticipate it. As has been said, you cannot predict the future, but you can prepare for it.

We leave you with an important quote from our recent article- Warning, No Life Guards on Duty.

Another “lifeguard” is Daniel Oliver of Myrmikan Capital. In a recently published article entitled QE for the People, Oliver eloquently sums up the Fed’s policy situation this way:

The new QE will take place near the end of a credit cycle, as overcapacity starts to bite and in a relatively steady interest rate environment. Corporate America is already choked with too much debt. As the economy sours, so too will the appetite for more debt. This coming QE, therefore, will go mostly toward government transfer payments to be used for consumption. This is the “QE for the people” for which leftwing economists and politicians have been clamoring. It is “Milton Friedman’s famous ‘helicopter drop’ of money.” The Fed wants inflation and now it’s going to get it, good and hard.”

Debt & The Failure Of Monetary Policy To Stimulate Growth

A fascinating graphic was recently produced by Oxford Economics showing compounded economic growth rates over time.

What should immediately jump out at you is that the compounded rate of growth of the U.S. economy was fairly stable between 1950 and the mid-1980s. However, since then, there has been a rather marked decline in economic growth.

The question is, why?

This question has been a point of a contentious debate over the last several years as debt and deficit levels in the U.S. have soared higher.

Causation? Or Correlation?

As I will explain, the case can be made the surge in debt is the culprit of slowing rates of economic growth. However, we must start our discussion with the Keynesian theory, which has been the main driver both of fiscal and monetary policies over the last 30-years.

Keynes contended that ‘a general glut would occur when aggregate demand for goods was insufficient, leading to an economic downturn resulting in losses of potential output due to unnecessarily high unemployment, which results from the defensive (or reactive) decisions of the producers.’

In such a situation, Keynesian economics states that government policies could be used to increase aggregate demand, thus increasing economic activity and reducing unemployment and deflation. Investment by government injects income, which results in more spending in the general economy, which in turn stimulates more production and investment involving still more income and spending. The initial stimulation starts a cascade of events, whose total increase in economic activity is a multiple of the original investment.”

Keynes’ was correct in his theory. In order for deficit spending to be effective, the “payback” from investments being made must yield a higher rate of return than the debt used to fund it.

The problem has been two-fold.

First, “deficit spending” was only supposed to be used during a recessionary period, and reversed to a surplus during the ensuing expansion. However, beginning in the early ’80s, those in power only adhered to “deficit spending part” after all “if a little deficit spending is good, a lot should be better,” right?

Secondly, deficit spending shifted away from productive investments, which create jobs (infrastructure and development,) to primarily social welfare and debt service. Money used in this manner has a negative rate of return.

According to the Center On Budget & Policy Priorities, roughly 75% of every tax dollar goes to non-productive spending. 

Here is the real kicker. In 2018, the Federal Government spent $4.48 Trillion, which was equivalent to 22% of the nation’s entire nominal GDP. Of that total spending, ONLY $3.5 Trillion was financed by Federal revenues and $986 billion was financed through debt.

In other words, if 75% of all expenditures is social welfare and interest on the debt, those payments required $3.36 Trillion of the $3.5 Trillion (or 96%) of revenue coming in

Do you see the problem here? (In the financial markets, when you borrow from others to pay obligations you can’t afford it is known as a “Ponzi-scheme.”)

Debt Is The Cause, Not The Cure

This is one of the issues with MMT (Modern Monetary Theory) in which it is assumed that “debts and deficits don’t matter” as long as there is no inflation. However, the premise fails to hold up when one begins to pay attention to the trends in debt and economic growth.

I won’t argue that “debt, and specifically deficit spending, can be productive.” As I discussed in American Gridlock:

“The word “deficit” has no real meaning. Dr. Brock used the following example of two different countries.

Country A spends $4 Trillion with receipts of $3 Trillion. This leaves Country A with a $1 Trillion deficit. In order to make up the difference between the spending and the income, the Treasury must issue $1 Trillion in new debt. That new debt is used to cover the excess expenditures, but generates no income leaving a future hole that must be filled.

Country B spends $4 Trillion and receives $3 Trillion income. However, the $1 Trillion of excess, which was financed by debt, was invested into projects, infrastructure, that produced a positive rate of return. There is no deficit as the rate of return on the investment funds the “deficit” over time.

There is no disagreement about the need for government spending. The disagreement is with the abuse, and waste, of it.”

The U.S. is Country A.

Increases in the national debt have long been squandered on increases in social welfare programs, and ultimately higher debt service, which has an effective negative return on investment. Therefore, the larger the balance of debt becomes, the more economically destructive it is by diverting an ever growing amount of dollars away from productive investments to service payments.

The relevance of debt versus economic growth is all too evident, as shown below. Since 1980, the overall increase in debt has surged to levels that currently usurp the entirety of economic growth. With economic growth rates now at the lowest levels on record, the growth in debt continues to divert more tax dollars away from productive investments into the service of debt and social welfare.

The irony is that debt driven economic growth, consistently requires more debt to fund a diminishing rate of return of future growth. It now requires $3.02 of debt to create $1 of real economic growth.

However, it isn’t just Federal debt that is the problem. It is all debt.

When it comes to households, which are responsible for roughly 2/3rds of economic growth through personal consumption expenditures, debt was used to sustain a standard of living well beyond what income and wage growth could support. This worked out as long as the ability to leverage indebtedness was an option. Eventually, debt reaches levels where the ability to consume at levels great enough to foster stronger economic growth is eroded.

For the 30-year period from 1952 to 1982, debt-free economic growth was running a surplus. However, since the early 80’s, total credit market debt growth has sharply eclipsed economic growth. Without the debt to support economic growth, there is currently an accumulated deficit of more than $50 Trillion.

What was the difference between pre-1980 and post-1980?

From 1950-1980, the economy grew at an annualized rate of 7.70%. This was accomplished with a total credit market debt to GDP ratio of less 150%. The CRITICAL factor to note is that economic growth was trending higher during this span going from roughly 5% to a peak of nearly 15%.

There were a couple of reasons for this.

  1. Lower levels of debt allowed for personal savings to remain robust which fueled productive investment in the economy.
  2. The economy was focused primarily on production and manufacturing which has a high multiplier effect on the economy.  

The obvious problem is the ongoing decline in economic growth. Over the past 35 years, slower rates of growth has kept the average American struggling to maintain their standard of living. As wage growth stagnates, or declines, consumers are forced to turn to credit to fill the gap in maintaining their current standard of living. (The chart below is the inflation-adjusted standard of living for a family of four as compared to disposable personal incomes and savings rate. The difference comes from debt which now exceeds $3400 per year.)

It isn’t just personal and corporate debt either. Corporations have also gorged on cheap debt over the last decade as the Fed’s “Zero Interest Rate Policy” fostered a scramble for cash for diminishing investment opportunities, such as share buybacks. These malinvestments ultimately have a steep payback.

We saw this movie play out “real-time” previously in everything from sub-prime mortgages to derivative instruments. Banks and institutions milked the system for profit without regard for the risk. Today, we see it again in non-financial corporate debt. To wit:

“And while the developed world has some more to go before regaining the prior all time leverage high, with borrowing led by the U.S. federal government and by global non-financial business, total debt in emerging markets hit a new all time high, thanks almost entirely to China.”

“Chinese corporations owed the equivalent of more than 155% of Global GDP in March, or nearly $21 trillion, up from about 100% of GDP, or $5 trillion, two decades ago.”

The Debt End Game

Unsurprisingly, Keynesian policies have failed to stimulate broad based economic growth. Those fiscal and monetary policies, from TARP, to QE, to tax cuts, only delayed the eventual clearing process. Unfortunately, the delay only created a bigger problem for the future. As noted by Zerohedge:

“The IIF pointed out the obvious, namely that lower borrowing costs thanks to central banks’ monetary easing had encouraged countries to take on new debt. Amusingly, by doing so, this makes rising rates even more impossible as the world’s can barely support 100% debt of GDP, let alone 3x that.”

Ultimately, the clearing process will be very substantial. As noted above, with the economy currently requiring roughly $3 of debt to create $1 of economic growth, a reversion to a structurally manageable level of debt would involve a nearly $40 Trillion reduction of total credit market debt from current levels. 

This is the “great reset” that is coming.

The economic drag from such a reduction in debt would be a devastating process. In fact, the last time such a reversion occurred, the period was known as the “Great Depression.”

This is one of the primary reasons why economic growth will continue to run at lower levels going into the future. We will witness an economy plagued by more frequent recessionary spats, lower equity market returns, and a stagflationary environment as wages remain suppressed while cost of living rise.

The problem of debt will continue to be magnified by the changes in structural employment, demographics, and deflationary pressures derived from changes in productivity. As I showed previously, this trend has already been in place for the last decade and will only continue to confound economists in the future.

“The U.S. is currently running at lower levels of GDP, productivity, and wage growth than before the last recession. While this certainly doesn’t confirm Shelton’s analysis, it also doesn’t confirm the conventional wisdom that $33 Trillion in bailouts and liquidity, zero interest rates, and surging stock markets, are conducive to stronger economic growth for all.”

Correlation or causation? You decide.

The Mind Numbing Spin Of Peter Navarro

“The market is reacting in a way which does not comport with the strength, the unbelievable strength in President Trump’s economy. I mean, everything in this economy is hitting on all cylinders because of President Trump’s economic policies. We’ve cut taxes. That’s stimulating investment in a way which will be noninflationary. That’s going to drive up productivity and wages. That’s all good.” -Peter Navarro

Unfortunately, as much as we would like to believe that Navarro’s comment is a reality, it simply isn’t the case. The chart below shows the 5-year average of wages, real economic growth, and productivity.

Notice that yellow shaded area on the right.  As I wrote previously:

“Following the financial crisis, the Government and the Federal Reserve decided it was prudent to inject more than $33 Trillion in debt-laden injections into the economy believing such would stimulate an economic resurgence. Here is a listing of all the programs.”

If $33 Trillion dollars didn’t “unleash” the U.S. economy, or even change the trends of the prior years, there should be serious doubt that just reducing some outdated regulations, giving corporations a tax cut, and engaging in a “trade war” with China is going to be the fix. But nonetheless, here goes Navarro:

“We’ve got an unleashing, historically, of the energy sector, which is going to drive down costs to the American manufacturers–make them competitive even as it drives down costs to consumers, and allows them to spend more and get more out of their dollar.”

Wait a second.

Read carefully what Navarro said. By unleashing the energy sector the supply of oil will increase, lowering the price of oil, which is an input into manufacturing thereby lowering their costs.

This is a good thing?

Let’s dissect his statement. The decline in energy costs may be beneficial to parts of the economy, but we must remember it is offset because of the drag from the energy sector which loses revenue on each barrel of oil. As we have discussed many times previously, the energy patch is a huge CapEx contributor and also provides some of the highest wage paying jobs. As we found out previously, energy is a much bigger contributor to the health of the economy than not.

However, according to Navarro, the decline in oil alone will make manufacturing more competitive in the global marketplace. If that were true, wouldn’t the U.S. already be a leading competitive manufacturer considering oil has plunged over the last few years from over $100/bbl to the low $30’s? Furthermore, following Navarro’s logic, wages should have skyrocketed.

None of those things happened.

Navarro isn’t done yet.

“In terms of trade policy, by reducing the trade deficit, which is the intent of the president’s fair and reciprocal trade policies, that will add thousands of jobs to this economy; and bring in foreign investment. I mean, when we put the tariffs on solar and washing machines in January, that brought in a flood of new investment.”

We do indeed have a trade deficit because there are 300+ million American’s demanding cheaper foreign goods and services than there are foreigners demanding our exports.

While people rail about the amount of goods that we import, the simple reality is that we “export” our deflation and import “deflation.” We do this so we can buy flat screen televisions for $299 versus $2999 if they were made in America. The simple problem is that American workers demand higher wages, vacation, health care, benefits, leave, etc. all of which increase the costs of goods made in America. Not to mention the additional costs born by goods and services producers to comply with the myriad of regulations from EPA to OSHA. A previous interview of Greg Hayes, CEO of Carrier Industries, made this point very clearly.

So what’s good about Mexico? We have a very talented workforce in Mexico. Wages are obviously significantly lower. About 80% lower on average. But absenteeism runs about 1%. Turnover runs about 2%. Very, very dedicated workforce.

Which is much higher versus America.  And I think that’s just part of these — the jobs, again, are not jobs on an assembly line that people really find all that attractive over the long term.

This leads to the “American Conundrum.” While we believer our “labor” is worth “MORE” than anywhere else in the world, we also want to “buy” cheap products.

In order for that equation to work companies must “export” our “inflation.” This is accomplished by off-shoring labor at substantially lower rates which allows products and services to be provided more cheaply (deflation) to fill American demand. As I wrote yesterday, there is little ability for Americans to absorb the higher costs of goods and services brought about through “tariffs” or other inflationary goals of “balancing trade.”

“The chart below shows is the differential between the standard of living for a family of four adjusted for inflation over time. Beginning in 1990, the combined sources of savings, credit, and incomes were no longer sufficient to fund the widening gap between the sources of money and the cost of living. With surging health care, rent, food, and energy costs, that gap has continued to widen to an unsustainable level which will continue to impede economic rates of growth.”

Of course, while Navarro is optimistic that Trump policies will generate a net creation of a few thousand jobs, such aspirations will fall far short of what is needed to balance the economy.

But honestly, you can’t make up his last statement.

So you wonder–and if I put my old hat on as a financial market analyst, I’m looking at that – this market and the economy and thinking, the smart money will buy on the dips here because the economy is as strong as an ox.”

One chart dispels that notion.

So, be careful taking financial advice from Peter Navarro as well.

But, let me defer to my friend Doug Kass:

“To me, the views that animate Navarro’s policy prescriptions demonstrate his economic illiteracy.

There is no inverse relationship between imports and GDP as Navarro asserts.

In fact, there is a strong positive relationship between changes in trade deficits and changes in GDP.

Both Navarro and Ross are proponents of steel tariffs. As I have mentioned, such tariffs hurt producers that utilize steel products much more than they benefit a smaller population of steel producers. The byproduct of which could be rising steel costs which may ripple throughout the economy.

In reality, the US depends on China – we are in a flat, networked and interconnected global economy:

  1. The Chinese export market is important to the U.S.
  2. China produces low cost goods that benefit American consumers.
  3. China funds our budget deficit, their surplus of savings is imported to the US – squaring the circle. If China stops buying our Treasuries, where do we get funding?

Misguided Policies Continue

For the last 30 years, each Administration, along with the Federal Reserve, have continued to operate under Keynesian monetary and fiscal policies believing the model works. The reality, however, has been that most of the aggregate growth in the economy has been financed by deficit spending, credit expansion and a reduction in savings. In turn, this reduced productive investment in the economy and the output of the economy slowed. As the economy slowed and wages fell the consumer was forced to take on more leverage which also decreased savings. As a result of the increased leverage more of their income was needed to service the debt.

Secondly, most of the government spending programs redistribute income from workers to the unemployed. This, Keynesians argue, increases the welfare of many hurt by the recession. What their models ignore, however, is the reduced productivity that follows a shift of resources toward redistribution and away from productive investment.

All of these issues have weighed on the overall prosperity of the economy and it citizens. What is most telling is the inability for people like Navarro, and many others, who create monetary and fiscal policies, to realize the problem of trying to “cure a debt problem with more debt.”

This is why the policies that have been enacted previously have all failed, be it “cash for clunkers” to “Quantitative Easing”, because each intervention either dragged future consumption forward or stimulated asset markets. Dragging future consumption forward leaves a “void” in the future that has to be continually filled, and creating an artificial wealth effect decreases savings which could, and should have been, used for productive investment.

The Keynesian view that “more money in people’s pockets” will drive up consumer spending, with a boost to GDP being the end result, has been clearly wrong. It hasn’t happened in 30 years.

The Keynesian model died in 1980. It’s time for those driving both monetary and fiscal policy to wake up and smell the burning of the dollar and glance at the massive pile of debts that have accumulated.

We are at war with ourselves, not China, and the games being played out by Washington to maintain the status quo is slowing creating the next crisis that won’t be fixed with another monetary bailout.