Tag Archives: FOMC

Warning! No Lifeguards On Duty

In a poll administered by the CFA Institute of America {Link}, readers, many of whom are professional investors, were asked which behavioral biases most affect investment decisions. The results are shown in the chart below.

We are not surprised by the results, but we believe a rational investor would put these in reverse order.

Compounding wealth, which should be the primary objective of every investor, depends first and foremost on avoiding large losses. Based on the poll, loss aversion was the lowest ranked bias. Warren Buffett has commented frequently on the importance of limiting losses. His two most important rules are: “Rule #1 of investing is don’t lose money. Rule #2 is never forget rule #1.”

At Real Investment Advice, we have covered a lot of ground on investor behavioral biases. In 5 Mental Traps Investors are Falling In To Right Now, Lance Roberts lucidly points out, “Cognitive biases are a curse to portfolio management as they impair our ability to remain emotionally disconnected from our money. As history all too clearly shows, investors always do the “opposite” of what they should when it comes to investing their own money.”

Lance’s quote nicely sums up the chart above. These same biases driving markets higher today also drove irrational conduct in the late 1920s and the late 1990s. Currently, valuations are at or near levels reached during those two historical market peaks. Current valuations have long since surpassed all other prior valuation peaks.

One major difference between the late 1920s, the late 1990s, and today is the extent to which the Federal Reserve (Fed) is fostering current market conditions and imprudent investor behavior. To what extent have investors fallen into the overconfidence trap as the herd marches onward?

This “ignorance is bliss” type of behavior raises some serious questions, especially in light of the recent changes in Fed policy.

Not QE

As predicted in QE By Any Other Name, the Fed recently surprised investors with a resumption of quantitative easing (QE). The announcement of $60 billion in monthly Treasury bill purchases to replenish depleted excess reserves and another $20 billion to sustain existing balances was made late in the afternoon on Friday October 11. With a formal FOMC meeting scheduled in less than three weeks, the timing and substance of this announcement occurred under unusual circumstances.

The stated purpose of this new round of QE is to address recent liquidity issues in the short-term funding markets. Up to this point, the Fed added additional liquidity through its repo facility. These are actions not taken since the financial crisis a decade ago. The liquidity problems, though not resolved, certainly have largely subsided.

So why the strange off-cycle announcement? In other words, why did the Fed seemingly scramble over the prior few days to announce a resumption of QE now? Why not wait to make this announcement through the normal FOMC meeting statement and press conference process? The answer to those questions tells us more about current circumstances than the actual policy change itself.

The Drowning Man

As is always the case with human beings, actions speak louder than words. If you observe the physical behavior of someone in distress and know what to look for, you learn far more about their circumstance than you would by listening to their words. As an example, the signs of drowning are typically not what we would expect.  A person who is drowning can often appear to be playing in the water. When a person in the water is in distress, their body understands the threat and directs all energy toward staying alive.

People who drown seldom flail and scream for help as is often portrayed on television. If you ask a drowning person if they are okay, you might not receive a response. They are often incapable of producing the energy to speak or scream as all bodily functions are focused on staying afloat.

Since the Financial Crisis, investors, market analysts, and observers are helplessly watching the Fed, a guardian that does not realize the market is drowning. The Fed, the lifeguard of the market, is unaware of the signs of distress and unable to diagnose the problem (see also The Voice of the Market – The Millennial Perspective).

In this case, it is the global banking system that has become so dependent on excess reserves and dollar liquidity that any shortfall, however temporary, causes acute problems. Investor confidence and Fed hubris are blinding many to the source of the turbulence.

Lifeguards

Fortunately, there are a few other “lifeguards” who have not fallen into the behavioral traps that prevent so many investors from properly assessing the situation and potential consequences.

One of the most articulate “lifeguards” on this matter is Jeff Snyder of Alhambra Investments. For years, he has flatly stated that the Fed and their army of PhDs do not understand the global money marketplace. They set domestic policy and expect global participants to adjust to their actions. What is becoming clear is that central bankers, who more than anyone else should understand the nature of money, do not. Therefore, they repeatedly make critical policy errors as a result of hubris and ignorance.

Snyder claims that without an in-depth understanding of the dollar-based global lending market, one cannot grasp the extent to which problems exist and monetary policy is doomed to fail. Like the issues that surfaced around the sub-prime mortgage market in 2007, the funding turmoil that emerged in September was a symptom of that fact. Every “solution” the Fed implements creates another larger problem.

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.”

We added the emphasis in the quote because we believe that to be a critically important point of consideration. Inflation is the one thing no one is looking for or even considering a possibility.

Summary

Today, similar to the months leading up to the Financial Crisis, irrational behavioral biases are the mindset of the market. As such, there are very few “lifeguards” that know what to look for in terms of distress. Those who do however, are sounding the alarm. Thus far warnings go largely unheeded because blind confidence in the Fed and profits from yesteryear are blinding investors. Similar to the analogy James Grant uses, where he refers to the Fed as an arsonist not a firefighter, here the Fed is not the lifeguard on duty but the invisible undertow.

Investors should frequently evaluate a list of cognitive biases and be aware of their weaknesses. Humility will be an enormous asset as this economic and market expansion ends and the inevitable correction takes shape.  We have attached links to our other behavioral investing articles as they may be helpful in that difficult task of self-evaluation.

Finally, we must ask what asset can be a life preserver that is neither being chased higher by the herd nor providing any confirmation bias.

Gold is currently one of the most hated investments by the media and social media influencers. The only herd following gold are thought to be relics of ancient history and doomsday preppers. Maybe, as we saw in the aftermath of the prior valuation peaks, those who were ridiculed for their rigor and discipline will once again come out on top.

Gold provides ballast to a portfolio during troubling times and should definitely be considered today as the distress becomes more pronounced and obvious.

Please find below links to some of our favorite behavioral investing articles:  

Dalbar 2017: Investors Suck at Investing and Tips for Advisors

8 Reasons to Hold Some Extra Cash

The 5-Laws Of Human Stupidity & How To Be A “Non-Stupid” Investor

The Money Game & the Human Brain

The Definitive Guide to Investing for the Long Run

The Wisdom of Peter Fisher

“In recent years, numerous major central banks announced objectives of achieving more rapid rates of inflation as strategies for fostering higher standards of living. All of them have failed to achieve their objectives.” – Jerry Jordan, former Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank President

In March 2017, former Treasury and Federal Reserve (Fed) official, Peter R. Fisher, delivered a speech at the Grant’s Interest Rate Observer Spring Conference entitled Undoing Extraordinary Monetary Policy. It is one of the most insightful and compelling assessments of the Fed’s post-financial crisis policy actions available.

Now a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, Fisher is a true insider with experience in the government and private sector that affords him unique insight. Given the recent policy “pivot” by Chairman Powell and all members of the Fed, Fisher’s comments from two years ago take on fresh relevance worth revisiting.

In the past, when Fed leadership discussed normalizing the Fed’s post-crisis policy actions, they exuded confidence that it can and will be done smoothly and without any implications for the economy or markets. Specifically, in a Washington Post article from 2010, Bernanke stated, “We have made all necessary preparations, and we are confident that we have the tools to unwind these policies at the appropriate time.” More recently, Janet Yellen and others have echoed those sentiments. Current Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, tasked with normalizing policy, appears to be finding out differently.

Define “Normal”

Taking a step back, there are important issues at stake if the Fed truly wants to unshackle the market economy from the influences of extreme monetary policy and the harm it may be causing. To normalize policy, the Fed first needs to explicitly define “normal.”

For instance:

  • The Fed should take steps to raise interest rates to what is considered “normal” levels. Normal can be characterized as a Federal Funds target rate in line with the average of the past 30 years or it might be a level that reflects sufficient “dry powder” were the Fed to need that policy tool in a future economic slowdown.
  • The Fed should reduce the size of their balance sheet. In this case, normal under reasonable logic would be the size of the balance sheet before the financial crisis either in absolute terms or as a percentage of nominal gross domestic production (GDP). Despite some reductions, it is not close on either count.

The Fed consistently feeds investors’ guessing games about what they deem appropriate. There appears to be little rigor, debate, or transparency about the substance of those decisions. Neither Ben Bernanke nor Janet Yellen offered details about how they would accurately characterize “normal” in either context. The reason for this seems obvious enough. If they were to establish reasonable parameters that defined normal levels in either case, they would be held accountable for differences from their prescribed benchmarks. It might force them to take actions that, while productive and proper in the long-run, may be disruptive to the financial markets in the short run. How inconvenient.

In most instances, normal is defined as something that conforms to a standard or that which has been common under historical experience. Begin by looking at the Fed Funds target rate. A Fed Funds rate of 0.0% for seven years is not normal, nor is the current rate range of 2.25-2.50%.

As illustrated in the chart below, in each of the past three recessions dating back to 1989, the Fed cut the fed funds rate by an average of 5.83%. In that context, and now resting at less than half the average historical pre-recession level, a Fed Funds rate of 2.25-2.50% is clearly abnormal and of greater concern, insufficient to combat a downturn.

Interest rates should mimic the structural growth rate of the economy. As we have illustrated in prior analysis and articles, particularly Wicksell’s Elegant Model, using a 7-year cycle for economic growth reflective of historical expansions, that time-frame should offer a reasonable proxy for “structural” economic growth. The issue of greater concern is that, contrary to the statement above, structural growth appears to be imitating the level of interest rates meaning the more the Fed suppresses interest rates, the more growth languishes.

Next, let’s look at the Fed balance sheet. Quantitative tightening began in late 2017 gradually increasing as the Fed allowed their securities bought during QE to mature without replacing them. As shown in the blue shaded area in the chart below, QT reduced the Fed balance sheet by about $500 billion, but it remains absurdly high at nearly $4.0 trillion. As a percentage of GDP, it has dropped from a peak of 25.3% to 19%. Before the point at which QE was initiated in September 2008, the size of the Fed balance sheet was roughly $900 billion or 6% of nominal GDP and was in a tight range around that level for decades. Now, with the Fed halting any further reductions in the balance sheet, are we to assume 20% of GDP to be a normal level? If so, what is the basis for that conclusion?

The bottom line: simple analysis, straight-forward logic, and common sense dictate that monetary policy remains abnormal.

Fisher helps us understand why the Fed is so hesitant to normalize policy, despite their outward confidence in being able to do so.

Second-Order Effects

As Fisher stated in his remarks at the conference, The challenge of normalizing policy will be to undo bad habits that have developed in how monetary policy is explained and understood.” This is a powerfully important statement highlighting second-order effects. He continues, “…the Fed will have to walk back from their early assurances that the “exit would be easy.” Prophetic indeed.

The “easy” part of getting rates and the balance sheet back to “normal” is now proving to be not so easy. What the Fed did not account for when they unleashed unprecedented policy was the habits and behaviors among governments, corporations, households, and investors. Modifying these behaviors will come at a debilitating cost.

Think of it like this: Nobody starts smoking cigarettes with a goal of smoking two packs a day for 30 years, but once introduced, it is difficult to stop. Furthermore, trying to stop smoking can be very painful and expensive. NOT stopping is medically and scientifically proven to be even more so.

Fisher goes on to explain in real-world terms how two households are impacted in an environment of extraordinary policy actions. One household possesses savings; the other does not. Consider their traditional liabilities such as mortgage and auto loans, “but also their future consumption expenditures, their liability to feed and clothe themselves in the future.” The family with savings may feel wealthier from gains in their invested savings and retirement accounts as a result of extraordinary policies pushing financial markets higher, but they also must endure an increase in the cost of living. In the final analysis, they end up where they started. “They may… perceive a wealth effect but, ultimately, there is only a wealth illusion.”

As for the family without savings, they had no investments to go up in value, so there is no wealth effect. This means that their cost of living rose and, wages largely stagnant, it occurred without any form of a commensurate rise in income. That can only mean their standard of living dropped. As Fisher states, given extraordinary policy imposed, “There was no wealth effect, not even a wealth illusion, just a cruel hoax.” He further adds, “…the next time you hear that the net-wealth of American households is at an all-time high, do spend a minute thinking about the present value of the unrecorded future consumption expenditures, particularly of households with no savings.”

What is remarkable about Fisher’s analysis is contrasting it with the statements of Fed officials who say they are acting in the best interest of all U.S. citizens. Quoting from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

A man can easily drown crossing a stream that is on average 3 feet deep. Household wealth as a macro measure of monetary policy success in a period when wealth inequality is at such extremes perfectly illustrates this imperfection. As Fisher states, “Out of both humility and self-preservation, let’s hope the Fed finds a way to stop targeting the level of wealth.”

Linear Extrapolation

Fisher also addresses the issue of Fed forward guidance stating, “Implicit in forward guidance…is the idea that dampening short-term market uncertainty and volatility is a good thing. But removing uncertainty from our capital markets is not, in my view, an unambiguous blessing.”

Forward guidance, whereby the Fed provides expectations about future policy, targets an optimal level of volatility without being clear about what “optimal” means. How does the Fed know what is optimal? As we have stated before, a market made up of millions of buyers and sellers is a much better arbiter of prices, value, and the resulting volatility than is the small group of unelected officials at the Fed. Yet, they do indeed falsely portray an understanding of “optimal” by managing the prices of interest rates but theirs is a guess no better than yours or mine. Based upon their economic track record, we would argue their guess is far worse.

Fisher goes on to reference John Maynard Keynes on the subject of extrapolative expectations which is commonly used as a basis for asset pricing. Referring to it as the “conventional valuation” in his book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Keynes said this reflects investors’ assumptions “that the existing state of affairs will continue indefinitely, except in so far as we have specific reasons to expect a change.” Connecting those dots, Fisher states that “forward guidance is the process through which the Fed – through its more explicit influence on the expected rate of interest – becomes the much more explicit owner of the “conventional valuation” of asset prices… the Fed now has a heightened responsibility and sensitivity to asset pricing.

That conclusion is critically important and clarifies the behavior we see coming out of the Eccles Building. In becoming the “explicit owner” of valuations in the stock market, the Fed now must adhere to a pattern of decisions and actions that will ultimately support the prices of risky assets under all circumstances. Far from rigorous scrutiny of doubts and assumptions, the Fed fails in every way to apply the scientific method of analyzing their actions before and after they take them. So desperate are they to manage the expectations of the public, their current posture leaves no latitude for uncertainty. As Fisher further points out, the last time we saw evidence of a similar stance was in 2007 when the Fed rejected the possibility of a nation-wide decline in house prices.

Summary

Fisher fittingly sums up by restating the point he made at the beginning:

“…the Fed and other central banks appear to have avoided being candid about the uncertainty (of extraordinary monetary policies) in order to maintain their credibility. But this is backwards. They cannot regain their credibility unless they are candid about the uncertainty and how they confront it.”

The power of Fisher’s perspectives is in his candor. Now at a time when the Fed is proving him correct on every count, it is worthwhile to refresh our memories. We would encourage investors to read the transcript in full. Given the clarity of the insights he shares, summarized here, their importance cannot be overstated.

Undoing Extraordinary Monetary Policy

RIA Pro Supplement for Beware of the Walking Dead

In Beware of the Walking Dead, we revealed an analysis illustrating those companies in the S&P 1500 that qualify as zombie corporations. As promised in the article, we are providing a full list of those companies here for RIA Pro members.

According to James Grant of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, zombie companies fail to generate enough operating income to cover the interest on their outstanding debt. The screen we used evaluates companies based on their three-year average for that metric. Those companies highlighted in yellow in Table 1 are the worst offenders with three consecutive years of a negative zombie metric. The remaining zombie companies are in Table 2.

The list of stocks that qualify as zombies under this definition is based on Bloomberg data through Q1 2019, revealing a total of 128 companies or 9% of the S&P 1500. The listing below also includes the three-year annualized total rate of return on those stocks as well as S&P rating and rating outlook when available.

Beware of the Walking Dead

In a previous article, The Fed’s Body Count, we stated:

“Markets and economies, like nature itself, are beholden to a cycle, and part of the cycle involves a cleansing that allows for healthy growth in the future. Does it really make sense to prop up dead “trees” in the economy rather than allow them to fall and be used as a resource making way for new growth?”

We come back to that thought in this article inspired by the notion that investors find themselves in a forest increasingly littered with dead trees. In today’s market parlance, the dead trees (corporations) are called zombies.  This article details the corporate zombie concept in-depth and provides a few examples to illustrate the topic.

The Walking Dead

It is no small irony that one year after the end of the great recession, a television show about the zombie apocalypse quickly became one of the most successful shows on TV. The Walking Dead features a large cast of “survivor” characters under near-constant threat of attack from mindless zombies, or “walkers” as they are called.

In the investment world, the term zombie has a special connotation generally referring to a company that might otherwise not be around had the Federal Reserve not suppressed interest rates for so long. The zombie label is fitting as these companies do not die as they should and at the same time, they devour capital and resources that could otherwise be used by healthy companies. They are a drain on the economy.

Although not a matter of life and death, investing in zombie companies or failing to understand the implications of their existence poses a unique risk to one’s economic well-being.

Zombies Defined

The generic description used for zombified companies is too obtuse to use to precisely identify such companies. If the suppression of interest rates served a key role in maintaining these firms, what would be the circumstances fundamental to that condition?

Corporate zombies are generally described as companies that cannot function without bailouts and/or those firms that can only afford to service the interest on their debt while deferring repayment of principal indefinitely. In our view, those definitions do not go far enough.

In a recent interview, James Grant of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer offered what seems to be the most precise definition – zombie companies fail to generate enough operating income to cover the interest on their outstanding debt. Furthermore, that condition would have to persist for more than one year to eliminate any anomalous results.

In other words, a corporation that fails to cover its interest expense can, for a time, keep borrowing to make up the shortfall, especially if money is cheap. On the other hand, true zombie status is revealed, and the “headshot” of demise ultimately comes, when the company runs out of borrowing runway. That circumstance can unfold rather quickly in an economic downturn or a period of rising interest rates when the negative differential between operating income and interest expense widens further.

Operating Income is defined as gross revenue minus wages, cost of goods sold, and selling, general and administrative expenses (SG&A). Operating income does not include items such as investments in other companies, taxes, or interest expense. Isolating the difference between operating income and interest expense is a way of comparing the revenue that a company expects to become profit versus the cost incurred for borrowed funds. It is a variation of a leverage ratio.

Zombie Hunt

We analyzed the broad S&P 1500 to identify companies having zombie characteristics under Grant’s definition. Namely, does their interest expense exceed their operating income and has it done so when averaged over the last three years?

The list of stocks that qualify as zombies under this definition using Bloomberg data through Q1 2019 reveals 204 companies or 13.5% of the S&P 1500. Some of these companies do not show any interest expense but have operating income losses, so we removed those companies. That leaves 128 companies or 9% of the members of the index. Using a stricter methodology of requiring three consecutive years of interest expense exceeding operating income returns 43 companies that meet the criteria or roughly 3% of the index. These 43 companies are the worst in class of the zombie population.

While defining and identifying the zombies is a good start, what we care about is a divergence between fundamentals and valuations. In other words, we want to truly protect ourselves from the zombies who appear alive due solely to a well-performing share price. In doing this, we find that 34% of the 128 companies have positive 3-year annualized total returns. Of these firms, the average 3-year annualized return of that population through June 30, 2019, is 13.6%. There are also another 11 companies that have been relatively stable as defined by annualized total returns of zero to -5%.

Such returns do not reflect the underlying fundamentals of companies that cannot service their debt and are a recession away from going bankrupt. The graph below charts operating income less interest expense with the three-year total returns for the 128 zombie companies.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

For the 128 companies represented in the graph, they either have weak revenue generation and/or onerous debt levels. That, however, raises another issue for consideration – just how bad is the situation if the company cannot cover the interest expense on their debt due to weak demand for their products and/or services? Equally concerning, what if there is so much debt that even solid demand for their products and accompanying revenues do not cover that expense?

Deeper Dive

Awareness of this issue and quantifying it is useful and important to help us understand the kinds of imbalances that exist in the economy. At the same time, while most zombie companies would not exist were it not for years of suppressed interest rates, those that do should be priced for the uncertainty of an economic downturn and the higher probability of their demise in that event. As mentioned, many are not. Out of the 128 companies whose operating income cannot cover interest expense, many are priced at valuations that imply they are a normal going concern.

To gain a better perspective of zombies, we selected three individual candidates to explore in-depth. As discussed, the market is crawling with these companies that bear very similar characteristics. A table of the relevant fundamental statistics for each company is shown below each summary.

RIA Pro subscribers are being provided a complete list of zombie companies beyond the three detailed below.

Rent-A-Center, Inc. (RCII)

RCII, a BB-rated company with a stable outlook, operates and franchises rent-to-own merchandise stores offering electronics, appliances, and furniture under “flexible rental purchase agreements” (lucrative financing plans). Based in Plano, Texas, they have 14,000 employees and a market capitalization of $1.3 billion. RCII stock has a three-year annualized return of 30.7% and three-year average EBITDA (earnings before interest taxes depreciation and amortization) through the end of 2018 of $51.2 million. Meanwhile, three-year average net income and free cash flow are negative $30.0 million and negative $106.2 million respectively.

Their zombie metric of operating income less interest expense was positive $18.3 million in 2018, but the three-year average is negative $69.9 million. Additionally, revenue for 2018 was the lowest since 2006 at $2.66 billion and total debt for the company increased by 52% (from $540 million to $825 million) in the first quarter of this year alone. It is hard to imagine the consumer showing enough strength to bail out the circumstances facing RCII. However, apart from us, most analysts are constructive in their outlook.

Scientific Games Corp. (SGMS)

Based in Las Vegas, Nevada, SGMS is a single-B-rated company with a stable outlook that provides gambling products and services under four operating divisions of gaming, lottery, digital, and social. The company has 9,700 employees and a market cap of $1.7 billion. Despite a significant correction since June 2018, SGMS stock has a stellar three-year annualized return of 29.2%. Given their negative earnings per share, the current price-to-earnings (PE) multiple cannot be calculated, but the expected PE for the end of the year based on earnings projections is 1,693. The company generated over $3.3 billion in revenue in 2018 but had net income of negative $352 million. The company sports a net debt obligation (net of cash) of $8.8 billion at the end of 2018.

Their zombie metric is -$332 million and has been negative every year since 2008. Despite their fundamentals, through June 30, 2018, SGMS produced a 47% 3-year annualized return showing the power and irrationality of momentum investing. The enthusiasm for SGMS revolves around the legalization and commercialization of nation-wide sports betting. Over the last ten years, insider selling dominated executive transaction flows. Our guess is they will wish they had sold even more.

The Williams Companies (WMB)

WMB, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is an energy infrastructure company focused on connecting North America’s hydrocarbon resources to markets for natural gas. The company owns and operates midstream gathering and processing assets, and interstate natural gas pipelines. It has 5,300 employees and a market cap of $33 billion. WMB is rated BBB by Standard & Poors with a negative outlook. Through the end of June 2019, WMB shares have a 3-year annualized total return of 14.0%. Net income for 2018 was -$155 million on revenue of $8.7 billion. Revenue grew at a three-year average of 5.7%, but net income was negative in three of the past four years. The company has net debt outstanding of over $22 billion, which is up 200% from $7.4 billion in 2011. Interest expense on that debt has exceeded operating income (zombie metric) in each of the past four years. Since 2017, insider selling of company shares was 4.4 times larger than insider purchases.

The following table compares our three zombies:

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Summary

Loose monetary policy contributed to the financial crisis as the Fed held interest rates at 1.0% in 2003-2004 despite an economy that was rebounding and a housing bubble that was inflating well beyond its natural means. The Fed also imprudently used forward guidance to keep rates low for “a considerable period” which further prompted investors to speculate. In a troubling parallel, and proving lessons learned in finance are cyclical, not cumulative, the Fed has maintained and extended emergency policies following the crisis for nearly a decade. New bubbles have since replaced those that popped in 2008.

Upon receiving the Alexander Hamilton award in 2018, Stan Druckenmiller said, “If I were trying to create a deflationary bust, I would do exactly what the world’s central banks have been doing for the past six years.” The important point of his comment is that the deflationary episodes most feared by central bankers are caused by imploding asset bubbles. Those asset bubbles are invariably caused, in large part, by imprudent monetary policies that encourage market participants – households, corporations, and governments – to misallocate resources.

Corporate zombies are but one example. Their existence is evident, but the true extent to which they populate the market landscape cannot be known. Our analysis here reveals only the easiest to identify but rest assured, when economic twilight comes, many more zombies will be fully exposed.

Investors Are Grossly Underestimating The Fed – RIA Pro UNLOCKED

 If you think the Fed may only lower rates by .50 or even .75, you may be grossly underestimating them.  The following article was posted for RIA Pro subscribers two weeks ago.

For more research like this as well as daily commentary, investment ideas, portfolios, scanning and analysis tools, and our new 401K manager sign up today at RIA Pro and test drive our site for 30 days before being charged.


Currently, the December 2019 Fed Funds futures contract implies that the Fed will reduce the Fed Funds rate by nearly 75 basis points (0.75%) by the end of the year. While 75 basis points may seem aggressive, if the Fed does embark on a rate-cutting policy and history proves reliable, we should prepare ourselves for much more.

The prospect of three 25 basis point rate cuts is hard to grasp given that the unemployment rate is at 50-year lows, economic growth has begun to slow only after a period of above-average growth, and inflation remains near the Fed’s 2% goal.  Interest rate markets are looking ahead and collectively expressing deep concerns based on slowing global growth, trade wars, and diminishing fiscal stimulus that propelled the economy over the past two years. Meanwhile, credit spreads and stock market prices imply a recession is not in the cards.

To make sense of the implications stemming from the Fed Funds futures market, it is helpful to assess how well the Fed Funds futures market has predicted Fed Funds rates historically. With this analysis, we can hopefully avoid getting caught flat-footed if the Fed not only lowers rates but lowers them more aggressively than the market implies.

Fed Funds vs. Fed Funds Futures

Before moving ahead, let’s define Fed Funds futures. The futures contracts traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), reflect the daily average Fed Funds interest rate that traders, speculator, and hedgers think will occur for specific one calendar month periods in the future. For instance, the August 2019 contract, trades at 2.03%, implying the market’s belief that the Fed Funds rate will be .37% lower than the current 2.40 % Fed Funds rate. For pricing on all Fed Funds futures contracts, click here.

To analyze the predictive power of Fed Funds futures, we compared the Fed Funds rate in certain months to what was implied by the futures contract for that month six months earlier. The following example helps clarify this concept. The Fed Funds rate averaged 2.39% in May. Six months ago, the May 2019 Fed Funds future contract traded at 2.50%. Therefore, six months ago, the market overestimated the Fed Funds rate for May 2019 by .11%. As an aside, the difference is likely due to the recent change in the Fed’s IOER rate.

It is important to mention that we were surprised by the conclusions drawn from our long term analysis of Fed Funds futures against the prevailing Fed Funds rate in the future.

The graph below tracks the comparative differentials (Fed Funds vs. Fed Fund futures) using the methodology outlined above. The gray rectangular areas represent periods where the Fed was systematically raising or lowering the Fed funds rate (blue line). The difference between Fed Funds and the futures contracts, colored green or red, calculates how much the market over (green) or under (red) estimated what the Fed Funds rate would ultimately be. In this analysis, the term overestimate means Fed Funds futures thought Fed Funds would be higher than it ultimately was. The term underestimate, means the market expectations were lower than what actually transpired.

To further help you understand the analysis we provide two additional graphs below, covering the most recent periods when the Fed was increasing and decreasing the Fed Funds rate.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Looking at the 2004-2006 rate hike cycle above, we see that the market consistently underestimated (red bars) the pace of Fed Funds rate increases.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

During the 2007-2009 rate cut cycle, the market consistently thought Fed Funds rates would be higher (green bars) than what truly prevailed.

As shown in the graphs above, the market has underestimated the Fed’s intent to raise and lower rates every single time they changed the course of monetary policy meaningfully. The dotted lines highlight that the market has underestimated rate cuts by 1% on average, but at times during the last three rate-cutting cycles, market expectations were short by over 2%. The market has underestimated rate increases by about 35 basis points on average.

Summary

If the Fed initiates rate cuts and if the data in the graphs prove prescient, then current estimates for a Fed Funds rate of 1.50% to 1.75% in the spring of 2020 may be well above what we ultimately see. Taking it a step further, it is not farfetched to think that that Fed Funds rate could be back at the zero-bound, or even negative, at some point sooner than anyone can fathom today.

Heading into the financial crisis, it took the Fed 15 months to go from a 5.25% Fed funds rate to zero. Given their sensitivities today, how much faster might they respond to an economic slowdown or financial market dislocation from the current level of 2.25%?

We remind you that equity valuations are at or near record highs, in many cases surpassing those of the roaring 1920s and butting up against those of the late 1990s. If the Fed needs to cut rates aggressively, it will likely be the result of an economy that is heading into an imminent recession if not already in recession. With the double-digit earnings growth trajectory currently implied by equity valuations, a recession would prove extremely damaging to stock prices.

Treasury yields have fallen sharply recently across the entire curve. If the Fed lowers rates and is more aggressive than anyone believes, the likelihood of much lower rates and generous price appreciation for high-quality bondholders should not be underestimated.

The market has a long history of grossly underestimating, in both directions, what the Fed will do. The implications to stocks and bonds can be meaningful. To the extent one is inclined and so moved to exercise prudence, now seems to be a unique opportunity to have a plan and take action when necessary.

Are Fireworks Coming July 31st?

As a portfolio manager and fiduciary, it is vital that we constantly assess the risks to our market and economic forecasts. To better quantify risk we must frequently go a step further and understand where the markets may be neglecting to appreciate risk. While tricky, those that properly detect when the market is offside tend to either protect themselves and/or profit handsomely. It is with contrarian glasses on that we look beyond July 4th and towards July 31st for fireworks.

Through June the stock and bond markets priced in, with near certainty, a 50 basis point rate cut at the July 31, 2019, Federal Reserve FOMC meeting. In doing so, volatility in many markets could surge if the Fed does not follow the market’s lead.

Given this concern, we ask what might cause the Fed to disappoint the markets. We approach the answer from two angles, economic and political.

Economic

On the economic front, there are a growing number of indicators that point to slowing domestic economic growth. The following graph from Arbor shows seven important leading indicators (surveys and outlooks).

While the graph is concerning, hard economic data which tends to lag the survey data graphed above has yet to weaken to the same degree. If the weakening in the indicators graphed above prove to be a false signal or transitory, the Fed might cut rates less than expected or even delay taking policy actions.

A second reason the Fed might delay or not take action would be an increase in inflation expectations. The Fed has been outspoken about the need to bolster inflation expectations which have recently drifted lower. Given that unemployment is at 50 years lows and inflation close to their target, inflation expectations seems to be the rationale the Fed is using to justify action. If inflation expectations were to increase the Fed may not be able to defend reducing rates. The following events could temporarily increase inflation expectations:

  • Weaker dollar due to perceived easy monetary policy.
  • Iran tensions could push oil prices higher.
  • Excessive weather conditions in the Midwest are affecting consumer prices for certain commodities.
  • Tariffs are likely to increase prices paid by businesses and consumers.
  • Fed independence compromised (as discussed in the following paragraph).

Political

Beyond economics, politics is playing a role in the Fed’s thought process. The Fed was set up as an independent organization to insulate monetary policy from the often self-serving demands of the executive and legislative branches. Despite the Fed’s independence, many Presidents have bullied the Fed to take policy actions. Such tactics always occurred behind closed doors with the media and public having little idea that they were occurring.

Currently, President Trump is taking his criticism to the public airways and has gone as far as threatening to demote or fire Chairman Powell. A Fed Chairman has never been fired or demoted, leading many to question whether Trump has the legal authority to do so. The Federal Reserve Act states that the Chairman shall serve his stated term “unless sooner removed for cause by the President.” That sentence opens the door to much uncertainty under this President. The language is even less vague about demotion, which, in our opinion, is more likely.

If the Fed wants to assert its independence from the executive branch, they may be inclined to cut by 25 basis points or possibly not cut at all.  Anything short of a 50 basis point rate cut would inevitably irritate the President and increase the risk that Trump fires or demotes Powell. If such an unprecedented action were to transpire the markets would likely react violently. For more on how certain asset classes might perform in this scenario, please read our article Market Implications for Removing Fed Chair Powell.

Beyond the initial market responses to the news, a greater problem could arise. The peril of openly piercing the veil of independence at the Fed could impair many of the communication tools the Fed uses to influence policy and markets. In turn, the Fed will be limited in their ability to coax or pacify markets when needed.

While this spat may be brushed off as Beltway politics aired for the public in the Twittersphere and media, the consequences are large, and as such we must pay attention to this political soap opera.

Summary

We believe a 50 basis point cut is likely on July 31st and afterward the markets will renew their focus on the next few months and what that may have in store. However, unlike the vast majority, we believe that there are factors that may cause the Fed to sit on their hands. If the Fed disappoints the market, especially if not accompanied by warnings, the July fireworks this year may be coming 27 days late.

Market Implications For Removing Fed Chair Powell

  • John Kelly – White House Chief of Staff
  • James Mattis – Secretary of Defense
  • Jeff Sessions – Attorney General
  • Rex Tillerson – Secretary of State
  • Gary Cohn – Chief Economic Advisor
  • Steve Bannon – White House Chief Strategist
  • Anthony Scaramucci – White House Communications Director
  • Reince Priebus – White House Chief of Staff
  • Sean Spicer – White House Press Secretary
  • James Comey – FBI Director

Every week is shark week in the Trump White House,” wrote The Hill contributing author Brad Bannon in August of 2018.  A recent Brookings Institution study shows that the turnover in the Trump administration is significantly higher than during any of the previous five presidential administrations. The concern is that for a president without government experience, a rotating cast of top administration officials and advisors presents a unique challenge for the effective advancement of U.S. policies and global leadership. Bannon (no relation to former White House Chief Strategist Steve) adds, “Inexperience breeds incompetence.”

Although the sitting president has broken just about every rule of traditional politics, it is irresponsible and speculative to assume either ineffectiveness or failure by this one argument. One area of politics that falls within our realm of expertise is a “rule” that Donald Trump has not yet broken; firing the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Following the December Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting in which the Fed raised rates and the stock market fell appreciably, Bloomberg News reported that President Trump was again considering relieving the Fed Chairman of his responsibilities. This has been a continuing theme for Trump as his dissatisfaction with the Fed intensifies.

Not that Trump appears concerned about it, but firing a Fed Chairman is unprecedented in the 106-year history of the central bank. Having tethered all perception of success to the movements of the stock market, it is quite apparent why the president is unhappy with Jerome Powell’s leadership. Trump’s posture raises questions about whether he is more worried about his barometer of success (stock prices) or the long-term well-being of the economy. Acquiescing to either Trump or a genuine concern for the economic outlook, Chairman Powell relented in his stance on rate hikes and continuing balance sheet reduction.

Clamoring for Favor

Notwithstanding the abrupt reversal of policy stance at the Fed, President Trump continues to snipe at Powell and express dissatisfaction with what he considers to have been policy mistakes. Before backing out of consideration, Steven Moore’s nomination to the Fed board fits neatly with the points made above reflecting the President’s irritation with the Powell Fed. Moore was harshly critical of Powell and the Fed’s rate hikes despite a multitude of inconsistent remarks. Shortly after his nomination, Moore and the President’s Director at the National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow, stated that the Fed should immediately cut interest rates by 50 basis point (1/2 of 1%). Those comments came despite rhetoric from various fronts in the administration that the economy “has never been stronger.”

Now the Kudlow and Moore tactics are coming from within the Fed. St. Louis Fed President James Bullard dissented at the June 19th Federal Open Market Committee meeting in favor a rate cut. Then non-voting member and Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari publicly stated that he was an advocate for a 50-basis point rate cut at the same meeting.

All this with unemployment at 3.6% and GDP tracking better than the 10-year average of 2.1%. Given Trump’s stated grievance with Powell, Bullard and Kashkari could easily be viewed as trying to curry favor with the administration. Even if that is not the case, to appear to be so politically inclined is very troubling for an institution and board members that must optically maintain an independent posture. It is unlikely that anyone has influence over Trump in his decision to replace or demote Powell. He will arrive at his conclusion and take action or not. If the first two years of his administration tells us anything, it is that public complaints about his appointed cabinet members precede their ultimate departure. Setting aside his legal authority to remove Powell, which would likely not stand in his way, the implications are what matter and they are serious.

For more on our thoughts on the ability of Trump to fire the Fed Chairman, please read our article Chairman Powell You’re Fired.

Prepare For This Tweet

Given Trump’s track record and his displeasure with Powell, we should prepare in advance for what could come as a surprise Tweet with little warning.

Ignoring legalities, if Trump were to demote or fire Powell, it is safe to assume he has someone in mind as a replacement. That person would certainly be more dovish and less prudent than Powell.

Under circumstances of a voluntary departure, a replacement with a more dovish disposition might be bullish for the stock market. However, the global economy is a complex system and there are many other factors to consider.

The first and largest problem is such a move would immediately erode the perception of Fed independence. Direct action taken to alter that independence would cast doubts on Fed credibility. Other sitting members of the Federal Reserve, appointed board members, and regional bank presidents, would likely take steps to defend the Fed’s independence and credibility which could create a functional disruption in the decision-making apparatus within the FOMC. Further, there might also be an active move by Congress to challenge the President’s decision to remove Powell. Although the language granting Trump the latitude to fire Powell is obtuse (he can be removed for “cause”), it is unclear that Presidential unhappiness affords him supportable justification. That would be an argument for the courts. Financial markets are not going to patiently await that decision.

With that in mind, what follows is an enumeration of possible implications for various key asset classes.

FX Markets

The most serious of market implications begin with the U.S. dollar (USD), the world’s reserve currency through which over 60% of all global trade transactions are invoiced.  The firing of Powell and the likely appointment of a Trump-friendly Chairman would drop the value of the USD on the expectations of a dovish reversal of monetary policy. The question of Fed independence, along with the revival of an easy money policy, would likely cause the dollar to fall dramatically relative to other key currencies. An abrupt move in the dollar would be highly disruptive on a global scale, as other countries would take action to stem the relative strength of their currencies versus the dollar and prevent weaker economic growth effects. The term “currency war” has been overused in the media, but in this case, it is the proper term for what would likely transpire.

Additionally, the weaker dollar and new policy outlook would heighten concerns about inflation. With the economy at or near full employment and most regions of the country already exhibiting signs of wage pressures, inflation expectations could spike higher.

Fixed Income

The bond market would be directly impacted by Fed turbulence. A new policy outlook and inflation concerns would probably cause the U.S. Treasury yield curve to steepen with 2-year Treasuries rallying on FOMC policy change expectations and 10-year and 30-year Treasury bond yields rising in response to inflation concerns. It is impossible to guess the magnitude of such a move, but it would probably be sudden and dramatic.

Indecision and volatility in the Treasury markets are likely to be accompanied by widening spreads in other fixed income asset classes.

Commodities

In the commodities complex, gold and silver should be expected to rally sharply.  While not as definitive, other commodities would probably also do well in response to easier Fed policy. A lack of confidence in the Fed and the President’s actions could easily result in economic weakness, which would lessen demand for many industrial commodities and offset the benefits of Fed policy changes.

Stock Market

The stock market response is best broken down into two phases. The initial reaction might be an extreme move higher, possibly a move of 8-10% or more in just a few days or possibly hours. However, the ensuing turmoil from around the globe and the potential for dysfunction within the Fed and Congress could cause doubt to quickly seep into the equity markets. Two things we know about equity markets is that they do not like changes in inflation expectations and they do not like uncertainty.

Economy

Another aspect regarding such an unprecedented action would be the economic effects of the firing of Jerome Powell. Economic conditions are a reflection of millions of households and businesses that make saving, investing, and consumption decisions on a day-to-day basis. Those decisions are dependent on having some certitude about the future.

If the disruptions were to play out as described, consumers and businesses would have reduced visibility into the future path for the economy. Questions about the global response, inflation, interest rates, stock, and commodity prices would dominate the landscape and hamstring decision-making. As a result, the volatility of everything would rise and probably in ways not observed since the financial crisis. Ultimately, we would expect economic growth to falter in that environment and for a recession to ensue.

Summary

Although economic growth has been sound and stocks are once again making record highs, the market and economic disruptions we have recently seen have been a long time coming. Market valuations across most asset classes have been engineered by excessive and imprudent monetary policy. The recent growth impulse is artificially high due to unprecedented expansion of government debt in a time of sound economic growth and low unemployment. In concert, excessive fiscal and monetary policy leave the markets and the economy vulnerable.

The evidence this year has been clear. Notwithstanding the Federal Reserve’s role in constructing this false reality, President Trump has not served the national interest well by his public criticism of the Fed. If Trump were to remove Powell as Fed chair, the prior sentence would be an understatement of epic proportions.

Investors Are Grossly Underestimating The Fed

Currently, the December 2019 Fed Funds futures contract implies that the Fed will reduce the Fed Funds rate by nearly 75 basis points (0.75%) by the end of the year. While 75 basis points may seem aggressive, if the Fed does embark on a rate-cutting policy and history proves reliable, we should prepare ourselves for much more.

The prospect of three 25 basis point rate cuts is hard to grasp given that the unemployment rate is at 50-year lows, economic growth has begun to slow only after a period of above-average growth, and inflation remains near the Fed’s 2% goal.  Interest rate markets are looking ahead and collectively expressing deep concerns based on slowing global growth, trade wars, and diminishing fiscal stimulus that propelled the economy over the past two years. Meanwhile, credit spreads and stock market prices imply a recession is not in the cards.

To make sense of the implications stemming from the Fed Funds futures market, it is helpful to assess how well the Fed Funds futures market has predicted Fed Funds rates historically. With this analysis, we can hopefully avoid getting caught flat-footed if the Fed not only lowers rates but lowers them more aggressively than the market implies.

Fed Funds vs. Fed Funds Futures

Before moving ahead, let’s define Fed Funds futures. The futures contracts traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), reflect the daily average Fed Funds interest rate that traders, speculator, and hedgers think will occur for specific one calendar month periods in the future. For instance, the August 2019 contract, trades at 2.03%, implying the market’s belief that the Fed Funds rate will be .37% lower than the current 2.40 % Fed Funds rate. For pricing on all Fed Funds futures contracts, click here.

To analyze the predictive power of Fed Funds futures, we compared the Fed Funds rate in certain months to what was implied by the futures contract for that month six months earlier. The following example helps clarify this concept. The Fed Funds rate averaged 2.39% in May. Six months ago, the May 2019 Fed Funds future contract traded at 2.50%. Therefore, six months ago, the market overestimated the Fed Funds rate for May 2019 by .11%. As an aside, the difference is likely due to the recent change in the Fed’s IOER rate.

It is important to mention that we were surprised by the conclusions drawn from our long term analysis of Fed Funds futures against the prevailing Fed Funds rate in the future.

The graph below tracks the comparative differentials (Fed Funds vs. Fed Fund futures) using the methodology outlined above. The gray rectangular areas represent periods where the Fed was systematically raising or lowering the Fed funds rate (blue line). The difference between Fed Funds and the futures contracts, colored green or red, calculates how much the market over (green) or under (red) estimated what the Fed Funds rate would ultimately be. In this analysis, the term overestimate means Fed Funds futures thought Fed Funds would be higher than it ultimately was. The term underestimate, means the market expectations were lower than what actually transpired.

To further help you understand the analysis we provide two additional graphs below, covering the most recent periods when the Fed was increasing and decreasing the Fed Funds rate.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Looking at the 2004-2006 rate hike cycle above, we see that the market consistently underestimated (red bars) the pace of Fed Funds rate increases.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

During the 2007-2009 rate cut cycle, the market consistently thought Fed Funds rates would be higher (green bars) than what truly prevailed.

As shown in the graphs above, the market has underestimated the Fed’s intent to raise and lower rates every single time they changed the course of monetary policy meaningfully. The dotted lines highlight that the market has underestimated rate cuts by 1% on average, but at times during the last three rate-cutting cycles, market expectations were short by over 2%. The market has underestimated rate increases by about 35 basis points on average.

Summary

If the Fed initiates rate cuts and if the data in the graphs prove prescient, then current estimates for a Fed Funds rate of 1.50% to 1.75% in the spring of 2020 may be well above what we ultimately see. Taking it a step further, it is not farfetched to think that that Fed Funds rate could be back at the zero-bound, or even negative, at some point sooner than anyone can fathom today.

Heading into the financial crisis, it took the Fed 15 months to go from a 5.25% Fed funds rate to zero. Given their sensitivities today, how much faster might they respond to an economic slowdown or financial market dislocation from the current level of 2.25%?

We remind you that equity valuations are at or near record highs, in many cases surpassing those of the roaring 1920s and butting up against those of the late 1990s. If the Fed needs to cut rates aggressively, it will likely be the result of an economy that is heading into an imminent recession if not already in recession. With the double-digit earnings growth trajectory currently implied by equity valuations, a recession would prove extremely damaging to stock prices.

Treasury yields have fallen sharply recently across the entire curve. If the Fed lowers rates and is more aggressive than anyone believes, the likelihood of much lower rates and generous price appreciation for high-quality bondholders should not be underestimated.

The market has a long history of grossly underestimating, in both directions, what the Fed will do. The implications to stocks and bonds can be meaningful. To the extent one is inclined and so moved to exercise prudence, now seems to be a unique opportunity to have a plan and take action when necessary.

Chairman Powell – You’re Fired (Update)

Since President Trump first discussed firing Jerome Powell, out of a sense of frustration that his Fed Chair pick was not dovish enough, he has regularly expressed his displeasure at Powell’s lack of willingness to do whatever it takes to keep the economy booming beyond its potential. Strong economic growth serves Trump well as it boosts the odds of winning a second term.

This thought of firing the Fed Chair took an interesting turn yesterday when Mario Draghi, Jerome Powell’s counter-part in the ECB, commented that he was open to lowering interest rates and expanding quantitative easing measures if economic growth in the E.U. didn’t start to pick up soon.

This led to the following Trump tweet:

The bottom line is that the ECB will push Trump harder to lean on the Fed to be more aggressive with lower rates and QE. Trump’s urgency for Fed action also increases the odds that Powell could be replaced or demoted, as such a discussion was rumored to have been discussed. Look for fireworks on Trumps Twitter page today if the Fed does not take a dovish tact. We remind you:

“[Powell]’s my pick — and I disagree with him entirely,” Trump said last week in an interview with ABC News.

“Frankly, if we had a different person in the Federal Reserve that wouldn’t have raised interest rates so much we would have been at least a point and a half higher.”

The following article was published last October and is even more relevant today. If Powell becomes an impediment to aggressive Federal Reserve policy and therefore hurts Trump’s chances of winning in 2020, we might just see Chairman Powell get fired or demoted. Is that possible?


On Donald Trump’s hit TV show, The Apprentice, contestants competed to be Trump’s chief apprentice. Predictably, each show ended when the field of contestants was narrowed down by the firing of a would-be apprentice. While the show was pure entertainment, we suspect Trump’s management style was on full display. Trump has run private organizations his entire career. Within these organizations, he had a tremendous amount of unilateral control. Unlike what is required in the role of President or that of a corporate executive for a public company, Trump largely did what he wanted to do.

On numerous occasions, Trump has claimed the stock market is his “mark-to-market.” In other words, the market is the barometer of his job performance. We think this is a ludicrous comment and one that the President will likely regret. He has made this comment on repeated occasions, leading us to conclude that, whether he believes it or not, he has tethered himself to the market as a gauge of performance in the mind of the public. We have little doubt that the President will do everything in his power to ensure the market does not make him look bad.

Warning Shots Across the Bow

On June 29, 2018, Trump’s Economic Advisor Lawrence Kudlow delivered a warning to Chairman Powell saying he hoped that the Federal Reserve (Fed) would raise interest rates “very slowly.”

Almost a month later we learned that Kudlow was not just speaking for himself but likely on behalf of his boss, Donald Trump. During an interview with CNBC, on July 20, 2018, the President expanded on Kudlow’s comments voicing concern with the Fed hiking interest rates. Trump told CNBC’s Joe Kernen that he does not approve [of rate hikes], even though he put a “very good man in” at the Fed referring to Chairman Jerome Powell.

“I’m not thrilled,” Trump added. “Because we go up and every time you go up they want to raise rates again. I don’t really — I am not happy about it. But at the same time I’m letting them do what they feel is best.”

“As of this moment, I would not see that this would be a big deal yet but on the other hand it is a danger sign,” he said.

Two months later in August of 2018, Bloomberg ran the following article:

Trump Said to Complain Powell Hasn’t Been Cheap-Money Fed Chair

“President Donald Trump said he expected Jerome Powell to be a cheap-money Fed chairman and lamented to wealthy Republican donors at a Hamptons fundraiser on Friday that his nominee instead raised interest rates, according to three people present.”

On October 10, 2018, following a 3% sell-off in the equity markets, CNBC reported on Donald Trump’s most harsh criticism of the Fed to date.  Trump said, “I think the Fed is making a mistake. They’re so tight. I think the Fed has gone crazy.”

Again-“I think the Fed has gone crazy

These comments and others come as the Fed is publicly stating their preference for multiple rate hikes and further balance sheet reduction in the coming 12-24 months. The markets, as discussed in our article Everyone Hears the Fed but Few are Listening, are not priced for the same expectations. This is becoming evident with the pickup in volatility in the stock and bond markets.  There is little doubt that a hawkish tone from Chairman Powell and other governors will increasingly wear on an equity market that is desperately dependent on ultra-low interest rates.

Who can stop the Fed?

We think there is an obstacle that might stand in the Fed’s way of further rate hikes and balance sheet reductions.

Consider a scenario where the stock market drops 20-25% or more, and the Fed continues raising rates and maintaining a hawkish tenor.

We believe this scenario is well within the realm of possibilities. Powell does not appear to be like Yellen, Bernanke or Greenspan with a finger on the trigger ready to support the markets at early signs of disruption. In his most recent press conference on September 26, 2018, Powell mentioned that the Fed would react to the stock market but only if the correction was both “significant” and “lasting.”

The word “significant” suggests he would need to see evidence of such a move causing financial instability. “Lasting” implies Powell’s reaction time to such instability will be much slower than his predecessors. Taken along with his 2013 comments that low rates and large-scale asset purchases (QE) “might drive excessive risk-taking or cause bubbles in financial assets and housing” further seems to support the notion that he would be slow to react.

Implications

President Trump’s ire over Fed policy will likely boil over if the Fed sits on their hands while the President’s popularity “mark-to-market” is deteriorating.

This leads us to a question of utmost importance. Can the President of the United States fire the Chairman of the Fed? If so, what might be the implications?

The answer to the first question is yes. Pedro da Costa of Business Insider wrote on this topic. In his article (link) he shared the following from the Federal Reserve Act (link):

Given that the President can fire the Fed Chairman for “cause” raises the question of implications were such an event to occur.  The Fed was organized as a politically independent entity. Congress designed it this way so that monetary policy would be based on what is best for the economy in the long run and not predicated on the short-term desires of the ruling political party and/or President.

Although a President has never fired a Fed Chairman since its inception in 1913, the Fed’s independence has been called into question numerous times. In the 1960’s, Lyndon Johnson is known to have physically pushed Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin around the Oval Office demanding that he ease policy. Martin acquiesced. In the months leading up to the 1972 election, Richard Nixon used a variety of methods including verbal threats and false leaks to the press to influence Arthur Burns toward a more dovish policy stance.

If hawkish Fed policy actions, as proposed above, result in a large market correction and Trump were to fire Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, it is plausible that the all-important veil of Fed independence would be pierced. Although pure conjecture, it does not seem unreasonable to consider what Trump might do in the event of a large and persistent market drawdown. Were he to replace the Fed chair with a more loyal “team player” willing to introduce even more drastic monetary actions than seen over the last ten years, it would certainly add complexity and risk to the economic outlook. The precedent for this was established when President Trump recently nominated former Richmond Fed advisor and economics professor Marvin Goodfriend to fill an open position on the Fed’s Board of Governors. Although Goodfriend has been critical of bond buying programs, “he (Goodfriend) has a radical willingness to embrace deeply negative rates.” –The Financial Times

Such a turn of events might initially be very favorable for equity markets, but would likely raise doubts about market values for many investors and raise serious questions about the integrity of the U.S. dollar. Lowering rates even further leaves the U.S. debt problem unchecked and potentially unleashes inflation, a highly toxic combination. A continuation of overly dovish policy would likely bolster further expansion of debt well beyond the nation’s ability to service it. Additionally, if inflation did move higher in response, bond markets would no doubt eventually respond by driving interest rates higher. The can may be kicked further but the consequences, both current and future, will become ever harsher.

How Inflation Drives Interest Rates

 

The Bond Rally Was No Surprise, published December 13, 2018, described how the long-term economic and demographic trends along with the burden of excessive debt all but ensure that interest rates will not rise much further.

While there is little room left for interest rates to fall in the current environment, there is no ability for rates to rise before you push the economy back into recession. Of course, you don’t have to look much further than Japan for a clear example of what I mean.”

This sad dynamic reminds us of the arcade game Whack-a-Mole. Higher rates are a drain on the economy which stymies growth, lessening demand to borrow, and as a result, rising interest rates get hammered back down.

In addition to the level of economic growth and activity, the rate of inflation is also a key determinant of demand for money and therefore plays a large role in influencing the level of interest rates.

The Value of Money

Milton Friedman, Nobel Laureate, once famously stated: “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.

In The Fed’s Mandate To Pick Your Pocket we provide an example of what Milton Friedman is conveying.

To better appreciate this thought, let’s use a simple example of three people stranded on a deserted island. One person has two bottles of water, and she is willing to sell one of the bottles to the highest bidder. Of the two desperate bidders, one finds a lonely one-dollar bill in his pocket and is the highest bidder. But just before the transaction is completed, the other person finds a twenty-dollar bill buried in his backpack. Suddenly, the bottle of water that was about to sell for one-dollar now sells for twenty dollars. Nothing about the bottle of water changed. What changed was the money available among the people on the island.

As we discussed in What Turkey Can Teach Us About Gold, most people think inflation is caused by rising prices, but rising prices are only a symptom of inflation. As the deserted island example illustrates, inflation is caused by too much money sloshing around the economy in relation to goods and services. What we experience is goods and services going up in price, but inflation is actually the value of our money going down.

The last sentence bears repeating as it is the truest understanding of inflation. Inflation is not the price of things going up but the value of money going down.

Before we explain how the price (interest rates) and value of money are affected by inflation, the graphs below put the relationship between interest rates and inflation in a statistical context.

The first graph compares CPI and the two-year U.S. Treasury yield. The difference shaded gray, is what is known as the real rate, or the yield after inflation.  The second graph plots the same data in a scatter plot format. As shown the R-squared is .5708, which denotes that 57% of the change in the two-year U.S. Treasury is attributed to changes in the CPI.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Supply and Demand for Money

A high rate of inflation is beneficial to those with fixed-rate debt. In such a scenario the value of assets rises while the cost of the debt stays the same. To put this in personal terms, think about how the value of your house tends to rise while the amount of the mortgage payment stays fixed. The ability to pay off the mortgage and take capital gains becomes easier due to inflation At the same time, that environment is detrimental for prudent savers who choose to live within their means and do not incur debt. Their value of their savings deteriorates as the value of the dollar declines.

A deflationary environment has the opposite effect as the burden of debt rises relative to stagnant or falling prices. Those conditions are unfavorable for borrowers (households, corporations, and the government) especially when debt is not used for productive purposes which aim for investment returns greater than the inflation rate. Because most outstanding debt is not productive today, sinister perceptions of deflationary conditions are peddled by the Fed and the government.

Given the effects mentioned above of inflation or deflation on the borrower, the demand for money rises when the current and expected rate of inflation is greater than the cost of money or interest rates. Conversely, demand declines when the level of interest rates is greater than the current and expected rate of inflation. This is due to the expectations of borrowers. Holding interest rates below the rate of inflation pulls demand forward which helps explain the inclination of central bankers and the government in a world that desires “growth at all cost”.

To help with this concept, we show basic supply and demand curves below. The first graph shows a hypothetical scenario in which the level of interest rates and the rate of inflation are in equilibrium.  The second graph shows the same curves, along with the shift in the demand curve when the rate of inflation is lower than interest rates. As shown by the yellow equilibrium points, the price of money, or interest rate, declines in this scenario. The third graph highlights the opposite effect when the rate of inflation is greater than interest rates.

The Federal Reserve aims to maintain steady economic growth. It accomplishes this by manipulating the supply of money via their Fed Funds interest rate policy (monetary policy). Since the financial crisis, they have used monetary policy to push interest rates lower than economic growth rates and inflation to stimulate borrowing. This can be seen in the negative real rate as shown in the first graph.

As we showed in the last supply/demand graph above when interest rates are below the level of inflation and expected inflation, demand for borrowing rises. This pulls demand forward and encourages the consumption of goods and services today which temporarily boosts economic growth.

Summary

Habitually using the Fed Funds rate to spur current levels of economic growth causes debt to grow faster than the natural economic growth rate of the economy. The risk is that debt growth eventually eclipses the pace of economic growth. That is precisely the current circumstance in the United States. As such, the marginal effectiveness of new debt in spurring economic growth declines as the burden of servicing that debt rises. To foster similar levels of growth in such an environment requires that the Fed be ever more aggressive in lowering interest rates. As we see in the U.S. economy, weaker growth resulting from rising levels of debt is self-reinforcing.

Thus far the Fed’s actions have not caused observable levels of inflation to rise in a manner that would cause concern among policy-makers. Traditional measures of price inflation such as the consumer price index (CPI) remain benign. However, the manifestation of their control over the price of money is showing up other ways. For instance, inflation in financial asset prices, as opposed to real assets, has never been higher. The visual evidence shows up in a chart of the ratio of stock prices to crude oil, copper, cotton or a dozen other “real assets.” Those with access to leverageable capital choose to speculate in stocks and bonds as opposed to investing in productive projects that would help the economy grow. Not surprisingly, when speculation appears to produce easy and predictable returns, the incentive to invest in productive ventures is weak. As such the current dynamic will likely continue to produce low levels of traditional inflation and allow the Fed to rationalize artificially low-interest rates.

If, however, the economy slips into a recession and low, or even negative, interest rates are not enough to generate growth, the Fed may take even more extreme measures to combat the downturn. In what would be yet another advancement of extraordinary monetary policy, the Fed may elect to print money for direct distribution into the economy. Although the effect may be temporarily beneficial for a struggling economy, such a move would be more likely to eventually cause inflation over which the Fed could easily lose control.

In that instance, we will be fortunate if a bottle of water only costs $20.

Preview: Federal Reserve Meeting 12/19/2018

In our article, Everyone Hears the Fed But Few Listen we showed the divergence between the market (Fed Funds Futures) and Federal Reserve members in regards to the future path of the Fed Funds rate. We believed at the time we wrote the article, and still do, that the differing views could be setting the stock market up for extreme volatility. This opinion does not necessarily mean an extreme sell-off but the potential for large movements up or down.

In July, when the article was published and Fed Funds stood at 2.00%, market levels implied that Fed Funds would average 2.50% in 2019 and 2.625% in 2020. In September, with the stock market on firm footing, approaching record highs, and the economy humming along, the market’s estimates rose by 0.125% for both years. At that time, the market implied levels were 0.32% and 0.44% lower than current average forecasts from the members of the Federal Reserve. Said differently, the market thought the Fed would raise rates twice in quarter point increments while the Fed was leaning to between three and four more hikes.

On September 20, 2018, the stock market peaked and has since declined over 10%. Further, global economic growth has weakened measurably with Germany, Italy, Japan, and Switzerland all reporting a negative rate of economic growth in the last quarter. Possibly more important, China, has reported a sharp slowdown in economic activity. While the U.S. economy has only shown vague signs of economic weakness, the number of economists issuing growth warnings has increased.

The clouding of the economic skies along with trade concerns and a host of geopolitical issues has certainly affected the market’s Fed Funds expectations. Before the Fed meeting on Wednesday December 19, 2018, the market is expecting a 0.25% increase and a tiny chance of another 0.25% hike by summer of next year. In other words, over the last two months, the market has taken a 0.25% hike off the table. More interesting, the market is also implying that the Fed starts lowering rates in 2020. The graph below charts the changes in the Fed Funds implied curve today versus September 2018. The orange dot on the orange line shows when the market implied levels begin declining and Fed rate cuts become more probable.

Given the decline in the market-based implied Fed Funds rate, the difference between market opinion and the Fed’s forecast has widened to 0.43% in 2019 and 0.76% in 2020. When we wrote the article in July the gap between the market and the Fed members was concerning. Our concern is only heightened given the stark increase in the gap.

What to Expect

If the Fed does not change their hawkish tone at Wednesday’s meeting it is likely the stock market will continue to head lower and possibly in a disorderly fashion. The yield curve would likely continue to flatten in this scenario as the Fed continues to signal rising rates despite growing signs of economic weakness. Therefore, short-term interest rates would track Fed rate hikes higher while longer term interest rates would decline on recession concerns.

Alternatively, if the Fed relents and uses more dovish language, short-term interest rates may rally as they reverse out prior expected rate hikes. While we do not expect a surge in equity prices to new highs, we do think, given the oversold conditions, stocks could rally on the order of 3-5%. As we have said, such a scenario is likely an opportunity to reduce equity exposure. Our chief concern in this short-term bullish situation is that the market begins to worry about the sudden change in the Fed’s language and the rising implications for a recession.

“Blind Faith” Isn’t A Strategy For “Late-Cycle” Markets

 The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”  – Lao Tzu

In a tiny first step on December 16, 2015, the Federal Reserve (Fed) did something they had not done in over nine years. From the unprecedented starting point of zero, they raised the Fed Funds rate. Since, they have begun to allow their swollen balance sheet to contract in what can only be characterized as another unprecedented event. Although monetary policy remains extreme and real rates only recently have turned positive, these measures mark the end of an era of maintaining extreme financial crisis monetary policy in the United States.

Reversing these experimental policies initiates a new set of dynamics which will gradually reduce excessive liquidity from the financial system. Just as quantitative easing (QE) and zero interest rates were a grand experiment, the removal of these policy measures is equally experimental. Now, over 325 million domestic lab rats and the rest of the world wait to see how it plays out.  Importantly, if the Fed continues down this path, investors should carefully consider potential risks and the appropriate market exposure in this brave new world.

Despite the multitude of unanswerable questions about the implications of these events, what we know is that the economy is in the late stages of an economic expansion. Just as low tides follow high tides, we can use prior cycles as a guide to consider prudent, late-stage portfolio positioning.

Market Expectations

As discussed in, Everyone Hears the Fed but Few Listen, the difference between Fed officials’ expected path of Fed rate hikes and market expectations for the Fed Funds rate is important. The implications for the market and investors are especially compelling when considering asset allocation weightings. For example, if the Fed continues on their path of more rate hikes and surpasses market expectations, stocks are likely to struggle as much needed liquidity evaporates. The bond market, on the other hand, will probably continue to do what it has been doing, but to a greater extent. A flatter and possibly an inverted yield curve would be in order unless inflation rises by more than is currently expected. Conversely, if the Fed backs away from their current commitment, it will likely be bullish for risk assets and the yield curve would probably steepen, led by a decline in 2-year Treasury yields.

Context

Through September this year, the U.S. economy has posted an average growth rate of 3.3% (average quarterly annualized) and S&P 500 earnings have grown over 20% so far this year. The news from consumer and business surveys is favorable, and the country is essentially at full employment. That all sounds good, but is it sustainable?

The table below, courtesy of the Committee for a Responsible Fiscal Budget (CRFB), shows that recent tax and budget legislation along with soybean purchases in anticipation of trade tariffs drove recent economic growth at the margin.

While the stimulative impact of fiscal policy remains favorable, it will steadily decline toward neutral for the rest of this year and throughout 2019. Policies regarding tariffs and trade are likely to weigh on economic growth throughout this year and next year. Most importantly, the Fed is clear that their plans are to continuing raising rates and reducing the holdings on their balance sheet that resulted from QE.

Late-Cycle Adjustments

Since the end of the recession in June 2009, the economy has clearly moved from recovery to expansion. That means the U.S. economy is nearing the “slowdown” phase of the cycle and heading toward the contraction (recession) phase. The evidence of the U.S. now being in a late-cycle environment is compelling and strongly suggests that investors modify their asset allocation weightings to protect against losses as the cycle progresses.

The Path Forward

The past does not provide investors with perfect information about how we should invest, but it does offer excellent clues. It may be helpful to look at the major asset classes and consider portfolio adjustments for late-cycle positioning.

U.S. Stocks: To evaluate late-cycle performance, we looked at equity performance by sector in the 12-months leading up to each of the prior three recessions (1990, 2001, and 2007).

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Every environment is different, and what outperformed in the past may not on this occasion as the cycle unfolds. Prior to the last three recessions, investors preferred defensive sectors, such as staples, healthcare, utilities, energy and industrials during late-cycle periods.

U.S. Bonds: Using the same framework, we looked at various bond categories in the period leading up to the three prior recessions (due to limited data, some categories do not have return information for the 1990 period).

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

The important takeaway is that investors prefer lower risk bonds leading into a recession. This is also evident across the rating categories of the high yield bond market.  Note how much better BB-rated bonds perform relative to lower-rated B and CCC bonds.

The quality of the securities within both the investment grade and high yield market is so poor in this cycle (highly levered, high percentage of covenant-lite structures, high percentage of BBB-rated securities in the IG sector) that we urge a very conservative position in both cases. Indeed, the “up-in-quality” theme holds for any credit instrument in the late stages of the cycle.

Commodities: Despite the rise in oil and gas prices in 2018, commodities remain the most undervalued of all major asset classes. Some soft and hard commodities have been hurt by the tariffs initiated by the Trump administration, but there is a reason they are characterized as “commodities.” We need them, and they are staples to our standard of living. Supply fluctuations will occur between nations as trade negotiations evolve, but the demand will remain intact.

Additionally, global central bank interventionism remains alive and well as demonstrated by recent actions of the Peoples Bank of China (PBOC). To the extent that central bankers continue to take the easy route of solving problems by printing money to calm markets when disruptions occur, natural resources and agricultural products will likely do well as a store of value – much like gold. They all reside in the same zip code as a means of protecting wealth.

Cash is King: In addition to the ideas illustrated above, it is always a good late-cycle idea to raise cash. As American financier and statesman, Bernard Baruch said, “I made my money selling too soon.” Although the low return on cash is a disincentive, the discipline affords opportunity and peace of mind. Having cash on hand is also a reflection of the discipline of selling into high prices, a skill at which most investors fail. Cash is an undervalued asset class heading into a recession because most investors panic as markets correct. Those with “dry powder” are better able to rationally assess market changes and more clearly see opportunities as certain assets fall out of favor and are cheap to acquire.

Investment Tourist

Many investors elect to leave the “serious” decision-making to their investment advisors on the assumption that the advisor will make the right decision “on my behalf.” They delegate with full autonomy the task of adjusting risk posture, when the advisor ultimately bears far less risk in the equation. Being inquisitive, asking good questions and challenging the “hired help” is a proper prerogative.  One should always operate and engage with humility but never on blind faith.

Given the complexities and the risks of the current environment, investors should not be silent passengers on the journey. One who has wealth and takes that responsibility seriously should have valid questions that are both difficult to answer and enlightening to debate. Iron sharpens iron as the proverb says.

Summary

The Fed has now taken eight steps in their path to normalizing interest rates and trying to set the economy on a sustainable growth path. Although he probably did not consider its application in the realm of monetary policy, Sir Isaac Newton’s law of inertia states that a body in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. Rate hikes are in motion and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future unless and until some outside force comes in to play (crisis).

Given the extreme nature of past policy actions and the likely impact of their reversal, forecasting future events and market behavior promises to be more difficult than usual. Reliable guideposts of prior periods may or may not hold the same predictive power. Although unlikely to afford investors with prescriptive solutions this time around, there is value to doing that analytical homework and gaining awareness of those patterns. Finally, as the cycle unfolds, successfully navigating what is to come and preserving wealth will also require investors to apply sound decision-making using clear guidance and input from those who dare to be contrary.

The Fed’s Mandate To Pick Your Pocket – The Real Price Of Inflation

Inflation is everywhere and always a monetary phenomenon.” – Milton Friedman

This oft-cited quote from the renowned American economist Milton Friedman suggests something important about inflation. What he implies is that inflation is a function of money, but what exactly does that mean?

To better appreciate this thought, let’s use a simple example of three people stranded on a deserted island. One person has two bottles of water, and she is willing to sell one of the bottles to the highest bidder. Of the two desperate bidders, one finds a lonely one-dollar bill in his pocket and is the highest bidder. But just before the transaction is completed, the other person finds a twenty-dollar bill buried in his backpack. Suddenly, the bottle of water that was about to sell for one-dollar now sells for twenty dollars. Nothing about the bottle of water changed. What changed was the money available among the people on the island.

As we discussed in What Turkey Can Teach Us About Gold, most people think inflation is caused by rising prices, but rising prices are only a symptom of inflation. As the deserted island example illustrates, inflation is caused by too much money sloshing around the economy in relation to goods and services. What we experience is goods and services going up in price, but inflation is actually the value of our money going down.

Historical Price Levels

The chart below is a graph of price levels in the United States since 1774. In anticipation of a reader questioning the comparison of the prices and types of goods and services available in 1774 with 2018, the data behind this chart compares the basics of life. People ate food, needed housing, and required transportation in 1774 just as they do today. While not perfect, this chart offers a reasonable comparison of the relative cost of living from one period to the next.

Chart Courtesy: Oregon State LINK

Three characteristics about this chart leap off the page.

  1. Prices were relatively stable from 1774 to 1933
  2. Before 1933, disruptions in the price level coincided with major wars
  3. The parabolic move higher in price levels after 1933

Pre-1933

As is evident in the graph, prior to 1933 major wars caused inflation, but these episodes were short lived. After the wars ended, price levels returned to pre-war levels. The reason for the temporary bouts of inflation is the surge in deficit spending required to fund war efforts. This type of spending, while critical and necessary, has no productive value. Money is spent on making highly specialized technical weaponry which are put to use or destroyed. Meanwhile, the money supply expands from the deficit spending.

To the contrary, if deficit spending is incurred for the purposes of productive infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, dams and schools, the beneficial aspects of that spending boosts productivity. Such spending lays the groundwork for the creation of new goods and services that will eventually offset inflationary effects.

Post 1933

After 1933, price levels begin to rise, regardless of peace or war, and at an increasing rate. This happened for two reasons:

First, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) took the United States off the gold standard in June 1933, setting the stage for the government to increase the money supply and run perpetual deficits. FDR, through executive order 6102, forbade “the hoarding of gold coin, gold bullion and gold certificates within the continental Unites States.” Further, this action ordered confiscation of all gold holdings by the public in exchange for $20.67 per ounce. Remarkably, one year later in a deliberately inflationary act, the government, via the Gold Reserve Act, increased the price of gold to $35 per ounce and effectively devalued the U.S. dollar. This move also had the effect of increasing the value of gold on the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet by 69% and allowed a further increase in the money supply while meeting the required gold backing.

That series of events was followed 38 years later by President Nixon formally closing the “gold window”, which was enabled by the actions of FDR decades earlier. This act prevented foreign countries from exchanging U.S. dollars for gold and essentially eliminated the gold standard. Nixon’s action eradicated any remaining monetary restrictions on U.S. budget discipline. There would no longer be direct consequences for debauching the currency through expanded money supply. For more information on Nixon’s actions, please read our article The Fifteenth of August.

The second reason prices escalated rapidly is that, following World War II, the U.S. government elected not to dismantle or meaningfully reduce the war apparatus as had been done following all prior wars. With the military industrial complex as a permanent feature of the U.S. economy and no discipline on the budget process, the most inflationary form of government spending was set to rapidly expand. Excluding World War I, defense spending during the first 40 years of the 1900’s ran at approximately 1% of GDP. Since World War II it has averaged around 5% of GDP.

Returning to Milton Friedman’s quote, it should be easier to see exactly what he meant. Re-phrasing the quote gives us an effective derivation of it.  Inflation is a deliberate act of policy.

Fed Mandate

The Fed’s dual mandate, which guides their policy actions, is a commitment to foster maximum employment and price stability. Referring back to the price level graph above, the question we ask is which part of that graph best represents a picture of price stability? Pre-1933 or post-1933? If someone earned $1,000 in 1774 and buried it in their back yard, their great, great, great grandchildren could have dug it up 150 years later and purchased an equal number of goods as when it was buried. Money, over this long time period, did not lose any of its purchasing power. On the other hand, $1,000 buried in 1933 has since lost 95% of its purchasing power.

What does it mean to live in the post-1933, Federal Reserve world of so-called “price stability”? It means we are required to work harder to keep our wages and wealth rising quicker than inflation. It means two incomes are required where one used to suffice. Both parents work, leaving children at home alone, and investments must be more risky in an effort to retain our wealth and stay ahead of the rate of inflation. Somehow, the intellectual elite in charge of implementing these policies have convinced us that this is proper and good. The reality is that imposing steadily rising price levels on all Americans has severe consequences and is a highly destructive policy.

Cantillon Effect

The graph below uses the same data as the price level graph above but depicts yearly changes in prices.

Chart Courtesy: Oregon State LINK

What is clear is that, prior to 1933, there were just as many years of falling prices as rising prices and the cumulative price level on the first chart remains relatively stable as a result. After 1933, however, Friedman’s “monetary phenomenon” takes hold. The money supply continually expands and periods of falling prices that offset periods of rising prices disappear altogether. Prices just continue rising.

There is an important distinction to be made here, and it helps explain why sustained inflation is so important to the Fed and the government. It is why inflation has been undertaken as a deliberate act of policy. As mentioned, periods of falling prices are not necessarily periods of deflation. Falling prices may be the result of technological advancements and rising productivity. Alternatively, falling prices may result from an accumulation of unproductive debt and the eventual inability to service that debt. That is the proper definition of deflation. This occurs as a symptom of excessive debt build-ups and speculative booms which lead to a glut of unfinanceable inventories. This is followed by an excess of goods and services in the market and falling prices result.

Furthermore, there are periods of hidden inflation. This occurs when observed price levels rise but only because of policies that intentionally expanded the money supply. In other words, healthy improvements in technology and productivity that should have brought about a healthy and desirable drop in prices or the cost of living are negated by easy monetary policy acting against those natural price moves. By keeping their foot on the monetary gas pedal and myopically using low inflation readings as the justification, the Fed enables a sinister and criminal transfer of wealth.

This transfer of wealth euthanizes the economy like deadly fumes which cannot be smelled, seen or felt. It works via the Cantillon Effect, which describes the point at which different parts of the population are impacted by rising prices. Under our Fed controlled monetary system, new money enters the economy through the banking and financial system. The first of those with access to the new money – the government, large corporations and wealthy households – are able to invest it before the uneven effects of inflation have filtered through the economic system. The transfer of wealth occurs quietly between the late receivers of new money (losers) and the early receivers of it (winners). Although a proponent of inflationary policies as a means of combating the depression, John Maynard Keynes correctly observed that “by continuing a process of inflation, government can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.”

Conclusion – Investment Considerations

In the same way that only a very small percentage of recent MBA grads could, with any coherence, tell you what inflation truly is, the investing public has been effectively brainwashed into thinking that they should benchmark their investment performance against the movements of the stock market. Unfortunately, wealth is only accumulated when it grows faster than inflation. In our modern society of continually comparing ourselves with those around us on social media, we obsess about what the S&P 500 or Dow Jones are doing day by day but fail to understand that wealth should be measured on a real basis – net of inflation.  For more on this concept, please read our article: A Shot of Absolute – Fortifying a Traditional Investment Portfolio.

Mainstream economists, either unable to decipher this process of confiscation or intentionally complicit in its rationalization, have convinced an intellectually lazy populace that some degree of rising prices is “optimal” and normal. Individuals that buy this jargon are being duped out of their wealth.

Holding elected and unelected officials accountable for a clear and proper measurement of inflation is the only way to uncover the truth of the effects of inflation. In his small but powerful book, Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt reminded us that policies should be judged based on their effect over the longer term and for society as a whole. On that simple and clear basis, we should dismiss the empty counterfactuals used as the central argument behind inflation targeting and most other monetary and fiscal policy platitudes. The policy and process of inflation is both toxic and malignant.

Higher Rates Are Crushing Investors

There is an old saying that proclaims, “it’s not the size of the ship, but the motion of the ocean.” Since this is a family-friendly publication, we will leave it at that. However, the saying has a connotation that is pertinent to the bond market today. Much of the media’s focus on the recent surge in yields has been on the absolute increase in numerical terms. The increase in rates and yields, while important, fails to consider the bigger forces that can inflict pain on bond holders, or sink the ship. When losses accumulate and fear of further losses mount, volatility and other instabilities can arise in the bond market and bleed to other markets, as we are now beginning to see in the equity markets.

Since 1983, fixed-income investors have been able to put their portfolios on autopilot, clip coupons and watch prices rise and yields steadily fall. Despite a few bumps on this long path, which we will detail, yields, have declined gradually from the mid-teens to the low single digits.

In this piece, we discuss the effect that higher yields are having on debt investors today and compare it to prior temporary increases in yield. It is from the view of debt investors that we can better appreciate that the “motion” is much bigger today than years past.

The Motion of the Bond Ocean

As we alluded in the opening, the losses felt by bond investors cannot be calculated based solely on the amount that yields rise. For instance, if someone told you that yields suddenly rose by 1%, you have no way of estimating the dollar losses that entails for any investor or the entire universe of bond holders. For example, an investor holding a 1-month Treasury bill will have a temporary and inconsequential loss of less than 0.10%, but it will be erased when the bill matures next month. Conversely, a holder of a 30-year bond will see the bond’s value drop by approximately 20%. This example demonstrates why a bond’s duration is so important. In addition to duration, it is critical to know the cumulative amount of bonds outstanding to understand the effects of changes in yields or interest rates.

Comparing yield changes to prior periods without respect for duration and amount of debt outstanding is a critical mistake and has led to an under-appreciation of the losses already incurred by the recent rise in rates and the potential future losses if rates increase further. The importance of this analysis comes back to the central premise of an investor’s objective – wealth is most effectively compounded by avoiding large losses. In the end, we care less about the change in interest rates than we do the impact of that change on the value of a portfolio.

Amount of Debt Outstanding: Since 1993 total U.S. debt outstanding, including federal government, municipalities, consumers, and corporations have risen from about $14 trillion to nearly $60 trillion, a 318% increase as graphed below. The table below the graph compares the surge in outstanding debt among the various issuers of debt as well as the nation’s GDP.

Data Courtesy: Bloomberg

Duration of Debt Outstanding: The duration of a bond is a measure of the expected change of a bond’s price for a given change in yield. For example, the U.S. Treasury 10-year note currently has a duration of 8.50, meaning a 1% change in its yield should result in an approximate 8.50% decline in price. Since it quantifies the price change of a bond for a given change in interest rates, it affords a pure measure of risk. For simplicity’s sake, we omit a discussion of convexity, which measures the second order effect of how duration changes as yields change.

Think of duration as a fulcrum as shown below.

As illustrated, an investor of these cash flows would receive the weighted average of the present value of all of the expected cash flows at the three year mark.

Duration is a function of the current level of yields, the nominal coupon of the security, and the time to maturity of the debt issued.

The following graph highlights that the weighted average duration of total U.S. debt outstanding (including Federal, consumer, municipal and corporate) has increased by approximately 1.30 years to almost 6 years since 1993. All else equal, a 1% increase in yields today would result in an approximate 6.0% loss across all U.S. debt versus a 4.7% loss in the early 1990’s.

Data Courtesy: Bloomberg

The table above shows the changes in duration for various classes of fixed-income instruments since 1993. Consumer debt includes mortgages, credit cards and student loans. As an aside, the increase in yields since 2016 has caused the duration of mortgage-backed securities (MBS) to increase by over 3.0 years from 2.25 to 5.30 years.

Duration and Amount of Debt Outstanding

If we combine the duration and debt outstanding charts, we gain a better appreciation for how fixed-income risk borne by investors has steadily increased since 1993. The following graph uses the data above to illustrate the sensitivity of bond investors’ wealth to a 1% change in yields. For this analysis, we use the change in 5-year U.S. Treasury yields as it closely approximates the aggregate duration of the bond universe.

Data Courtesy: Bloomberg

The table below displays the way that the recent uptick in bond yields has been commonly portrayed over the prior few months.

Tables like the one above have been used to imply that the 2.13% increase in the 5-year U.S. Treasury yield since 2016 is relatively insignificant as three times since 1993 the trough to peak yield change has been larger. However, what we fear many investors are missing, is that the change in rates must be contemplated in conjunction with the amount of debt outstanding and the duration (risk) of that debt.

The table below combines these components (yield change, duration, and debt outstanding) to arrive at a proxy for cumulative dollar losses. Note that while yields have risen by only about two-thirds of what was experienced in 1993-1994, the dollar loss associated with the change in yield is currently about three times larger. Said another way, yields would have needed to increase by 9.73% in 1993-1994 to create losses similar to today.

Data Courtesy: Bloomberg

Summary

We have often said that our current economic environment is much more sensitive to changes in interest rates because of the growth in debt outstanding since the financial crisis and the recent emergence from the ultra-low interest rate period that crisis produced. Although 5-year yields have only risen by 2.13% from the 2016 lows, losses, as shown above, are accumulating at a faster pace than in years past.

Furthermore, because of the difference between the amount of debt outstanding and the actual currency in the economic system, most of that debt represents leverage. It is beyond the scope of this article to explore those implications but, as illustrated in the table above, rising rates will decidedly reveal the instabilities we fear are embedded in our economy but have yet to fully emerge.

If we are near the peak in interest rates for this cycle, then unrealized losses are likely manageable despite the anxiety they have induced. On the other hand, if we are in the process of a secular change in the direction of rates and they do continue higher, then nearly every fixed-income investor, household, corporation and the government will be adversely impacted.

Chairman Powell – You’re Fired

I’m a low interest rate person – Donald Trump 2016

On Donald Trump’s hit TV show, The Apprentice, contestants competed to be Trump’s chief apprentice. Predictably, each show ended when the field of contestants was narrowed down by the firing of a would-be apprentice. While the show was pure entertainment, we suspect Trump’s management style was on full display. Trump has run private organizations his entire career. Within these organizations, he had a tremendous amount of unilateral control. Unlike what is required in the role of President or that of a corporate executive for a public company, Trump largely did what he wanted to do.

On numerous occasions, Trump has claimed the stock market is his “mark-to-market.” In other words, the market is the barometer of his job performance. We think this is a ludicrous comment and one that the President will likely regret. He has made this comment on repeated occasions, leading us to conclude that, whether he believes it or not, he has tethered himself to the market as a gauge of performance in the mind of the public. We have little doubt that the President will do everything in his power to ensure the market does not make him look bad.

Warning Shots Across the Bow

On June 29, 2018, Trump’s Economic Advisor Lawrence Kudlow delivered a warning to Chairman Powell saying he hoped that the Federal Reserve (Fed) would raise interest rates “very slowly.”

Almost a month later we learned that Kudlow was not just speaking for himself but likely on behalf of his boss, Donald Trump. During an interview with CNBC, on July 20, 2018, the President expanded on Kudlow’s comments voicing concern with the Fed hiking interest rates. Trump told CNBC’s Joe Kernen that he does not approve [of rate hikes], even though he put a “very good man in” at the Fed referring to Chairman Jerome Powell.

“I’m not thrilled,” Trump added. “Because we go up and every time you go up they want to raise rates again. I don’t really — I am not happy about it. But at the same time I’m letting them do what they feel is best.”

“As of this moment, I would not see that this would be a big deal yet but on the other hand it is a danger sign,” he said.

Two months later in August of 2018, Bloomberg ran the following article:

Trump Said to Complain Powell Hasn’t Been Cheap-Money Fed Chair

“President Donald Trump said he expected Jerome Powell to be a cheap-money Fed chairman and lamented to wealthy Republican donors at a Hamptons fundraiser on Friday that his nominee instead raised interest rates, according to three people present.”

On October 10, 2018, following a 3% sell-off in the equity markets, CNBC reported on Donald Trump’s most harsh criticism of the Fed to date.  Trump said, “I think the Fed is making a mistake. They’re so tight. I think the Fed has gone crazy.”

Again-“I think the Fed has gone crazy

These comments and others come as the Fed is publicly stating their preference for multiple rate hikes and further balance sheet reduction in the coming 12-24 months. The markets, as discussed in our article Everyone Hears the Fed but Few are Listening, are not priced for the same expectations. This is becoming evident with the pickup in volatility in the stock and bond markets.  There is little doubt that a hawkish tone from Chairman Powell and other governors will increasingly wear on an equity market that is desperately dependent on ultra-low interest rates.

Who can stop the Fed?

We think there is an obstacle that might stand in the Fed’s way of further rate hikes and balance sheet reductions.

Consider a scenario where the stock market drops 20-25% or more, and the Fed continues raising rates and maintaining a hawkish tenor.

We believe this scenario is well within the realm of possibilities. Powell does not appear to be like Yellen, Bernanke or Greenspan with a finger on the trigger ready to support the markets at early signs of disruption. In his most recent press conference on September 26, 2018, Powell mentioned that the Fed would react to the stock market but only if the correction was both “significant” and “lasting.”

The word “significant” suggests he would need to see evidence of such a move causing financial instability. “Lasting” implies Powell’s reaction time to such instability will be much slower than his predecessors. Taken along with his 2013 comments that low rates and large-scale asset purchases (QE) “might drive excessive risk-taking or cause bubbles in financial assets and housing” further seems to support the notion that he would be slow to react.

Implications

President Trump’s ire over Fed policy will likely boil over if the Fed sits on their hands while the President’s popularity “mark-to-market” is deteriorating.

This leads us to a question of utmost importance. Can the President of the United States fire the Chairman of the Fed? If so, what might be the implications?

The answer to the first question is yes. Pedro da Costa of Business Insider wrote on this topic. In his article (link) he shared the following from the Federal Reserve Act (link):

Given that the President can fire the Fed Chairman for “cause” raises the question of implications were such an event to occur.  The Fed was organized as a politically independent entity. Congress designed it this way so that monetary policy would be based on what is best for the economy in the long run and not predicated on the short-term desires of the ruling political party and/or President.

Although a President has never fired a Fed Chairman since its inception in 1913, the Fed’s independence has been called into question numerous times. In the 1960’s, Lyndon Johnson is known to have physically pushed Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin around the Oval Office demanding that he ease policy. Martin acquiesced. In the months leading up to the 1972 election, Richard Nixon used a variety of methods including verbal threats and false leaks to the press to influence Arthur Burns toward a more dovish policy stance.

If hawkish Fed policy actions, as proposed above, result in a large market correction and Trump were to fire Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, it is plausible that the all-important veil of Fed independence would be pierced. Although pure conjecture, it does not seem unreasonable to consider what Trump might do in the event of a large and persistent market drawdown. Were he to replace the Fed chair with a more loyal “team player” willing to introduce even more drastic monetary actions than seen over the last ten years, it would certainly add complexity and risk to the economic outlook. The precedent for this was established when President Trump recently nominated former Richmond Fed advisor and economics professor Marvin Goodfriend to fill an open position on the Fed’s Board of Governors. Although Goodfriend has been critical of bond buying programs, “he (Goodfriend) has a radical willingness to embrace deeply negative rates.” –The Financial Times

Such a turn of events might initially be very favorable for equity markets, but would likely raise doubts about market values for many investors and raise serious questions about the integrity of the U.S. dollar. Lowering rates even further leaves the U.S. debt problem unchecked and potentially unleashes inflation, a highly toxic combination. A continuation of overly dovish policy would likely bolster further expansion of debt well beyond the nation’s ability to service it. Additionally, if inflation did move higher in response, bond markets would no doubt eventually respond by driving interest rates higher. The can may be kicked further but the consequences, both current and future, will become ever harsher.

Why Fed’s Monetary Policy Is Still Very Accommodative

Here are two statements from the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) immediately following their interest rate decisions of August 1, 2018 and September 26, 2018.

August 1, 2018 – In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 1.75-2.00%. The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting strong labor market conditions and a sustained return to 2 percent inflation.

September 26, 2018 – In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 2.00-2.25%. The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting strong labor market conditions and a sustained return to 2 percent inflation.

As you can see, the second statement eliminated language around its belief that monetary policy remained accommodative, which it clearly stated in the August release. Since the media and analysts closely track changes in Fed statements to glean intent with regards to future rate increases and current and future economic conditions, the natural conclusion was that the 25 bps rate hike in September moved the Fed from “accommodative” to “not accommodative”, though not necessarily “restrictive”.

Interestingly, Chairman Powell’s subsequent comments to PBS six days after the September FOMC meeting seem to cast doubts on that conclusion.

“The really extremely accommodative low interest rates that we needed when the economy was quite weak, we don’t need those anymore. They’re not appropriate anymore,” Powell said.

Interest rates are still accommodative, but we’re gradually moving to a place where they will be neutral,” he added. “We may go past neutral, but we’re a long way from neutral at this point, probably.”

So, is monetary policy currently accommodative or not?

This article provides a few charts aimed toward making sense of the contradictory statements from Fed officials so you can decide for yourself if policy is accommodative. Given the importance that monetary policy plays in asset pricing, a clear understanding of the Fed’s intent is extremely valuable. For more on our latest thoughts regarding Fed policy intentions and market expectations, please read our article Everyone Hears the Fed, But Few Listen.

Fed Funds

The Fed manages the level of the fed funds rate to influence other interest rates and thus meet their congressionally mandated employment and price objectives for the U.S. economy. To do so, the Fed conducts various operations in the money markets.

The graph below shows fed funds rate and its long-term average.  Since the end of 2015, the fed funds rate has risen 2% from its level near 0% that persisted for many years in the wake of the financial crisis.  Yet, the fed funds rate is still at a level that has only been experienced in a few short-lived instances in the last 70 years.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Comparing the fed funds rate over time is not the best determinant of whether policy is accommodative or restrictive. Better context is gained by looking at the fed funds rate relative to the rate of nominal economic growth (GDP) and inflation (CPI).

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

As shown in the graphs, the current fed funds rate is 3.69% below the rate of nominal economic growth (based on Q2 2018 data) and 0.95% below the rate of inflation. It is also worth noting that longer-term real (adjusted for inflation) Treasury yields, as shown in the second graph, are all near zero. This means that the current yields on Treasury securities are about equal with the current rate of inflation. While real rates have finally risen from financial crisis-era levels, history shows us that real rates remain far from normal.

To better understand why this is important, please read our article Wicksell’s Elegant Model.

The bottom line is that, while the fed funds rate is on the rise, it is far below absolute and relative levels that serve as historical norms. Based on the data shown above, further increases of 2-4% would put the fed funds rate on par with historical comparisons.

Balance Sheet

In 2009, with the fed funds rate pinned at zero percent, the Fed introduced Quantitative Easing (QE). Through three separate acts of buying U.S. Treasuries and mortgage backed securities (QE 1,2, and 3) the Fed’s balance sheet rose five-fold from about $800 billion to $4.3 trillion. The graph below charts the monetary base, which soared as a direct result of QE and has recently begun to decline due to Quantitative Tightening (QT), the Fed’s active effort to reduce the amount of assets on their balance sheet.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Quantifying Stimulus

The next graph marries the two methods the Fed uses to conduct policy to quantify the amount of stimulus in interest rate terms. The amount of excess fed funds rate stimulus (teal) is calculated as nominal GDP growth less the fed funds rate. QE related stimulus (orange) is based on a rule Ben Bernanke laid out in 2010. He approximated that every additional $6-10bn of excess reserves held by banks (a byproduct of QE) was roughly equivalent to lowering interest rates one basis point. Together the total represents the amount of interest rate stimulus.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Currently, between QE and a historically low fed funds rate, the amount of stimulus being applied would, under normal conditions, be equivalent to dropping the Fed Funds rate by 6.08%. While that figure may seem beyond belief, consider that excess reserves are currently $1.9 trillion as compared to near zero for the decades preceding the financial crisis and the fed funds rate is currently 3.69% below nominal GDP.

Essentially, the combination of an abnormally low fed funds rate coupled with the still outsized, but declining gradually, effects of QE argue that stimulus is still grossly accommodative. Incredibly, this is all occurring at a point in time when most economists believe the economy to be at full employment, growth is improving, stocks are at all-time highs and all sentiment indicators are at or near record high levels.

Global Accommodation

Thus far, we have only focused on the amount of accommodation provided by the Fed. Also worthy of consideration, the policies of the world’s largest economic powers have an impact on the U.S. economy. The following graph demonstrates the amount of stimulus being provided by the largest central banks.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve and Bloomberg

Summary

Is Fed policy accommodative?

YES!

If you believe, as we do, that it is not only accommodative but irresponsibly accommodative, you will also appreciate the fact that the Fed has room to raise interest rates far more than investors are currently pricing in. Furthermore, any threats of inflation will likely push the Fed to restrain rising prices by acting more aggressively. This too falls outside the realm of current market expectations.

What we know is that financial asset prices have been the primary beneficiary of years of accommodative monetary policy at the expense of economic and social stability. As Stanley Druckenmiller said in his recent interview on RealVision TV:

“You know, intuitively, you can make a case that we’re going to have a financial crisis bigger than the last one because all they (the central bankers) did was triple down on what, in my opinion, caused it. I don’t know who the boogeyman is this time. I do know that there are zombies out there. Are they going to infect the banking system the way they did the last time? I don’t know. What I do know is we seem to learn something from every crisis, and this one we didn’t learn anything. And in my opinion, we tripled down on what caused the crisis. And we tripled down on it globally.”

Given the boost to asset prices caused by Fed policy, investors would be well-advised to pay close attention to the Fed’s words, their actions and critically, their inconsistencies.

Kevin Warsh May Be the Next Fed Head: Let’s See What He Really Thinks

As reported earlier this morning by the Wall Street Journal, President Trump and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin met with Kevin Warsh yesterday to discuss the potential vacancy at the Fed next February.

Warsh already has central banking experience, having sat on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) from February 2006 until March 2011.

Two and a half years after he resigned from the Fed, he emerged as a vocal critic of FOMC policies, including those policies he helped craft. He published an op-ed in the WSJ on November 12, 2013, and it was quite the editorial. As that happened to be the first week of hunting season, we suggested that Warsh had declared open season on his ex-colleagues, and we came up a gimmicky picture to go along with our reporting:

But we also thought his op-ed needed translation. It was written with the polite wording and between-the-lines meanings that you might expect from such an establishment figure. He seemed to be holding back. We offered our guesses on what he was really trying to say. And with today’s breaking news, we thought it would be a good time to reprint our translation.

So, if you’re wondering what the current frontrunner as Trump’s choice for the Fed chairmanship really thinks, here are Warsh’s comments on nine topics, followed by our translations.

Quantitative Easing

“The purchase of long-term assets from the U.S. Treasury to achieve negative real interest rates is extraordinary, an unprecedented change in practice since the Treasury-Fed Accord of 1951.

The Fed is directly influencing the price of long-term Treasurys—the most important asset in the world, the predicate from which virtually all investment decisions are judged. Earlier this year the notion that the Fed might modestly taper its purchases drove significant upheaval across financial markets. This episode should engender humility on all sides. It should also correct the misimpression that QE is anything other than an untested, incomplete experiment.”

What he really wants to say:

We’d all be better off if the central banking gods (myself included) hadn’t been so damn arrogant to think that we actually understood QE. We don’t, and it never should have been attempted.

The Fed’s Focus On Inflation

“Low measured inflation and anchored inflationary expectations should only begin the discussion about the wisdom of Fed policy, not least because of the long and variable lags between monetary interventions and their effects on the economy. The most pronounced risk of QE is not an outbreak of hyperinflation. Rather, long periods of free money and subsidized credit are associated with significant capital misallocation and malinvestment—which do not augur well for long-term growth or financial stability.”

What he really wants to say:

The inflation target is stupid. It’s not the CPI that’s killing us, it’s the credit booms and busts. The best way out of this mess is to lose the inflation target and go back to the old-fashioned approach of “taking the punch bowl away when the party gets going.”

Pulling Off The Exit From Extraordinary Measures

“[T]he foremost attributes needed by the Fed to end its extraordinary interventions and, ultimately, to raise interest rates, are courage and conviction. The Fed has been roundly criticized for providing candy to spur markets higher. Consider the challenge when a steady diet of spinach is on offer.”

What he really wants to say:

Pundits who praise the courage of our central bankers are clueless. The true story is that we consistently take the easy way out. If the current cast of characters wanted to show courage, they’d man up and replace the short-term sugar highs with long-term thinking.

The Fed’s Relationship To The Rest Of Washington

“The administration and Congress are unwilling or unable to agree on tax and spending priorities, or long-term structural reforms. They avoid making tough choices, confident the Fed’s asset purchases will ride to the rescue. In short, the central bank has become the default provider of aggregate demand. But the more the Fed acts, the more it allows elected representatives to stay on the sidelines. The Fed’s weak tea crowds out stronger policy measures that can only be taken by elected officials. Nobel laureate economist Tom Sargent has it right: ‘Monetary policy cannot be coherent unless fiscal policy is.’”

What he really wants to say:

And if we don’t man up, you can count on Congress to continue its egregious generational theft and destroy our nation’s finances, just as Stan, Geoff and I have been warning.

Who Benefits From QE And Who Doesn’t?

“Most do not question the Fed’s good intentions, but its policies have winners and losers, which should be acknowledged forthrightly.

The Fed buys mortgage-backed securities, thereby providing a direct boost to balance sheet wealth of existing homeowners to the detriment of renters and prospective future homeowners. The Fed buys long-term Treasurys to suppress yields and push investors into riskier assets, thereby boosting U.S. stocks.

The immediate beneficiaries: well-to-do households and established firms with larger balance sheets, larger risk appetites, and access to low-cost credit. The benefits to workers and retirees with significant fixed obligations are far more attenuated. The plodding improvement in the labor markets offers little solace.”

What he really wants to say:

Unbelievably, my ex-colleagues still don’t acknowledge their policies are killing the middle class to support the plutocracy. Their silence on this is wholly unacceptable and has to stop (and so do the policies).

Domestic Versus Global Policy Considerations

“[T]he U.S. is the linchpin of an integrated global economy. Fed-induced liquidity spreads to the rest of the world through trade and banking channels, capital and investment flows, and financial-market arbitrage. Aggressive easing by the Fed can be contagious, inclining other central banks to ease as well to stay competitive. The privilege of having the dollar as the world’s reserve currency demands a broad view of global economic and financial-market developments. Otherwise, this privilege could be squandered.”

What he really wants to say:

We really need to climb out of our shell and look at things from a global perspective. The rest of the world knows that we’re selling a bill of goods and won’t continue buying it forever. If we don’t change, you can kiss the dollar goodbye.

Forward Guidance

“Since QE began, Fed policy makers have tried to explain that asset purchases and interest rates are different. Hence their refrain that tapering is not tightening, and that very low interest rates will continue after QE. Investors do not agree. Once the Fed begins to wind down its asset purchases, these market participants are likely to reassert their views with considerable force.

Recently, the Fed has elevated forward guidance as a means of persuading investors that it will indeed keep interest rates exceptionally low even after QE. Forward guidance is intended to explain how the central bank will react to incoming data. Fed projections for example, may show below-target inflation and a residual output gap justifying very low interest rates several years from now. But words are not equal to concrete policy action. And the Fed hasn’t received many awards for prescience in recent years.”

What he really wants to say:

Forward guidance is a load of crap. First, you won’t convince the market of any of your dumb ideas. Investors can and will think for themselves. Second, talk is cheap. And talk that’s based on the Fed’s ability to foresee the future? C’mon, that’s ridiculous.

Transparency

“[T]ransparency in communications about future policy is not a virtue unto itself. The highest virtue is getting policy right. Given manifest uncertainties about the state of the economy, oversharing policy deliberations is not useful if markets are led astray, or if public commitments reduce policy makers’ flexibility to call things the way they see them.”

What he really wants to say:

Transparency, shmansparency. I’ve had it up to here with taper, untaper, maybe taper, maybe not taper. I’ll trade a transparent central bank for one that knows what it’s doing any day.

Obama’s Nomination Of Janet Yellen As The Next FOMC Chair

“The president has nominated a person with a well-deserved reputation for probity and good judgment. The period ahead will demand these qualities in no small measure.”

What he really wants to say:

The president made a bad choice.

Disclaimer

These are only our guesses, not actual thoughts from Kevin Warsh, who hasn’t told us what he really wants to say.  We don’t even know if he hunts.  (We’re guessing no.)

Our Up-To-Date Reflections

Back to the present now, we’ve reread our translations and have to admit that the last one—on the Janet Yellen nomination—was purely smart-alecky. But we don’t think the others were far-fetched—they seem consistent enough with Warsh’s carefully expressed opinions. If we were right, we could be facing big-time changes at the Fed. Then again, many Trump supporters expected a less war-mongering foreign policy from the presidential candidate who claimed we were being overly aggressive overseas.

So, if Warsh is indeed appointed as Yellen’s replacement, the key question is this:

Will the individual change the institution, or will the institution change the individual?

We’ll see…