Notes From Underground: Today’s Surprise Announcement

April 16, 2015

It is the day before the beginning of the IMF and G20 meetings in Washington,D.C. In preparation for dissecting the communiques that will be released this weekend it is important to digest some of the key data and speeches that have forced the markets to rethink some of its previous certainties.

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Notes From Underground: The Fed, Simon Potter and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice

April 15, 2015

Another day of market volatility caused by __________ (fill in the blank). It seems that many pundits and talking heads have a cacophony of excuses for the recent bout of market moves that seem to be random and non-correlative. Poor economic news begets DOLLAR SELLING, SPOOS RALLYING AND BONDS GOING EVERY WHICH WAY. Throw in the recent erratic behavior in OIL and PRECIOUS METALS  and all previous relationships are, for the moment, non-existent. The FED has been warning that BOND markets are subject to severe volatility because markets fail to respect the FOMC‘s views on economic growth and the need to raise rates sooner than investors appear to want to believe.

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Notes From Underground: From Zero Coupons to Zero Coupons, A Journey

April 14, 2015

In the 1980s it was very popular to use of ZERO COUPON BONDS. The name was derived from the idea that bonds didn’t pay regular interest but rather the instrument was purchased at a steep discount and the interest accrued all the way to time of the BOND maturing: No coupons to clip but aggregated interest to collect. Now the idea of ZERO COUPONS has morphed into ZERO COUPONS, meaning that all interest payments are virtually ZERO, or maybe even less. Anyone buying the new mode of ZERO COUPON is hoping that interest rates go negative and the BOND itself has some capital appreciation. The world has changed dramatically and the beauty of the original zero coupon has morphed backed into  a caterpillar. All bondholders are insects in search of the cocoon of equities.

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Notes From Underground: Waiting For The Fed To Raise Rates … Hold On

April 8, 2015

The Fed released the minutes from the March 17-18 FOMC meeting and we would all do well to remember to be PATIENT and not be so quick to react to the headlines. (Again, I am going on record to plead that the Fed not release any data early to journalists so they may be able to release their headlines in unison with the actual Fed release. Many journalists write headlines that are misleading and allow the HFT algorithms to exploit key word phrases that are not substantiated by the actual story.) A case in point is the CNBC headline that appeared at the moment of the Fed release: “Several Participants Judged That Economic Data And Outlook Were Likely To Warrant Beginning Normalization At The June Meeting.” Yes, this is a direct quote from the minutes but it comes with a QUALIFIER. Following that line is this: “HOWEVER [emphasis mine], others anticipated that the effects of energy price declines and the dollar’s appreciation would continue to weigh on inflation in the near term, suggesting that conditions likely would not be appropriate to begin raising rates until later in the year, and a couple of participants suggested that the economic outlook likely would not call for liftoff until 2016.”

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Notes From Underground: The Fed and John Lennon … HOW?

April 6, 2015

In the song “HOW” from John Lennon’s Imagine, he asks:

How Can We Go Forward When We Don’t Know Which Way we ‘re facing?
How can we go forward when we don’t know which way to turn?
How can we go forward into something we’re not sure of?
Oh no, oh no.

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Notes From Underground: You Take Bernanke. I’ll Take Kevin Warsh

March 31, 2015

The most important interview held on ACCESS JOURNALISM TV was the Squawk Box interview with former FED Governor Kevin Warsh. When I say access journalism I mean: The compromises journalists must make in order to have access to sources and places that would be denied them. For years mainstream financial media would treat Alan Greenspan with great deference and the result was a cult of personality that led to the “oracle” falling in love with a flawed policy. If Sir Alan was attacked it may mean that he would never grant another interview to the offending media outlet. The same holds for the Bernanke and Yellen Fed,e specially as the mainstream media wants access to Fed officials and to be invited to all the relevant press conferences. So my point is this: It took a former Fed official to attack the policies of the FOMC for the established media has not the gumption to challenge those sitting on the throne of power. Kevin Warsh criticized the present policies from multiple perspectives:

  1. Policy cannot be based on what is happening on our ticker machine. “The Fed should be focused on what’s happening three or four years out…” This is a justified criticism and certainly pertains to James Bullard. It was October 15 that the St. Louis Fed President spoke out about a new round of QE in an effort to the counter the sell off taking place in the equity markets. Bullard’s comments caused the massive rally in the bond markets and eventually led to the beginning of the recent six month rally in stocks. Fed policy cannot be a minute-to-minute, day-to-day, month-to-month affair;
  2. Central banks need humility. The Fed has provided the impetus for all the world’s central banks to embark on QE even though the exit strategy is uncertain  and its outcomes not riskless. FED Chair Yellen suffers from the effects of the “taper tantrum” and now the “dollar tantrum” for these have caused the Fed to be fearful of any misstep. If the FED raises rates and the DOLLAR has a sizable rally the FED worries about headwinds for the economy. As Warsh so elegantly stated: “The financial markets have Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s number.” This is a very dangerous development for as Warsh argued, “The tail is wagging the dog”;
  3. Most importantly ,markets are not setting rates but rather central banks. This is in direct contradiction of what Ben Bernanke posted on his blog yesterday. Bernanke wrote, “The bottom line is that the state of the economy, not the Fed, ultimately determines the real rate of return attainable by savers and investors. The Fed influences market rates but not in an unconstrained way; if it seeks a healthy economy, then it must try to push market rates toward levels consistent with the underlying equilibrium rate.” Warsh believes that the Fed and other central banks have to give the market a chance to determine rates and not be afraid of every selloff in equity markets. The May 2013 taper tantrum was a classic example of the FED being afraid of the market beginning to set a real rate of interest based on underlying market forces. A real-time example of the flaws in Bernanke’s post is the level of interest rates in Germany. Today German unemployment made a new low and housing prices are rising as the weak euro strengthens all segments of the German economy. It is because of the ECB policy that interest rates in Germany are artificially low by any economic metrics. Therefore, central bank policy and not market dynamics are instrumental in determining interest rates and financial outcomes.

In summation: Kevin Warsh took the FOMC to task for policy flaws, which is something the new blogger on the block Ben Bernanke will never do. The Bernanke blog will be educational but don’t look for it to be an honest voice in the discussion of Fed and central bank policy. The previous Fed Chairman cannot criticize the Board he was so instrumental in constructing.

***Other articles that were missed but have importance:
 In Sunday’s March 22 London Telegraph, reporter Szu Ping Chan wrote, “France Is Europe’s ‘Big Problem’, Warns Mario Monti.” This is a significant criticism coming from one of the beloved members of the Brussels elite. When Silvio Berlusconi was ousted from the Prime Minister post, Brussels was able to ‘”parachute “in the ultimate Eurocrat to right the situation in Italy. The article quotes Monti: “France is the big problem of the European Union because the whole construct has been leveraged on the foundation of a solid Franco-German entente. If it isn’t there then there is a poor destiny for Europe.” Monti went on to say: “Germany reluctantly accepted the euro to get approval of the other countries for its reunification process. It would have much rather kept to the Deutsche Mark. It was France who insisted to have the single currency and now it’s so uneasy with it.”
     This is amazing criticism from a consummate insider but reflects the fears of the European elite about the rise of anti-euro parties in several European states: Podemos in Spain; National Front in France; Five Star in Italy; and even the Alternative for Deutschland in a very economically healthy Germany. The European bond markets are not pricing in the fears of the establishment because the ECB‘s QE program and Draghi’s “whatever it takes” jawboning has created a sense of complacency. Also, as Bernanke would maintain, the underlying fundamentals of the EU are so weak. However, look at a chart of sovereign debt as percentage of GDP and tell me that sovereign debt is realistically priced. But as J.M.Keynes advised us: “Markets can remain irrational for longer then we can remain solvent” (especially when the balance sheet of the most powerful actors are virtually infinite … or so they believe).
     Today, Reuters posted an interesting article, “Three Weeks Into ECB Quantitative Easing, Markets Begin Taper Talk.” While I think the article is lacking in substance and probably the musings of some banks long euros it is an interesting proposition. The proponents of a quick ECB tapering of its QE make the case that the economic winds are tailwinds in Europe because the ECB waited so long to enact a genuine QE and can therefore remove the program at an earlier date. A shortened QE would result in a EURO rally and give Yellen room to raise rates without a resultant massive rise in the DOLLAR. A Fed rate rise would also curtail too large a EURO rally, thus both the ECB and the FED could proclaim mission accomplished. The only problem would be the volatility unleashed in the European sovereign debt markets and global equity markets. There will be no easy exit from the QE programs of the central banks but at some point the FED and others will have to allow the markets to find their genuine values. I’ll take Kevin Warsh.

Notes From Underground: Santelli Exchange — A World Awash In Reserves

March 31, 2015

Yra With Rick Santelli on CNBC, March 30, 2015Click on the image to watch Rick and I discuss Janet Yellen’s March 27 speech.

Notes From Underground: The Even-More Complex Map of Currencies and Politics

March 29, 2015

On Friday afternoon Chair Janet Yellen delivered a speech at a conference sponsored by the San Francisco Fed, titled “Normalizing Monetary  Policy: Prospects and Perspectives.” Many analysts will delve into the speech to find a possible nugget of “forward guidance” in the predisposition of Chair Yellen’s desire to raise rates. After a second read and reviewing several pages of analysis, I am left with the same outlook of President Harry Truman: Please bring me a one-armed economist. The speech is filled with a back and forth on the desire to raise rates to a level of “NORMALIZTION” but with the headwinds facing the U.S. and global economies caution is to be maintained. The headwinds prevailing in the U.S. and acting as a drag on economic growth are:

  1. Tighter underwriting standards;
  2. Continued household balance sheet reduction;
  3. Contractionary fiscal policy at local, state and federal levels;
  4. Lack of capex for lack of robust demand; and
  5. Recent appreciation of the dollar is likely to weigh on U.S. exports.

Chair Yellen opines that if the FOMC waits too long it could result in higher than targeted inflation levels. The Fed Chair cites the recent experiences of Japan and Sweden as a reason to be cautious “… in removing accommodation until the Committee is more confident that aggregate demand will continue to expand in line with its expectations.” Also, with “… an already large balance sheet. For example, the FOMC might be concerned about potential costs and risks associated with further asset purchases.” It seems it is better to err on the side of what Fed President Dudley has referred to as the economy running “hot,” which is inflation being sustained above the 2 percent level.

In a post-Yellen comment, Rick Santelli noted that during the brief Q&A session the Fed Chair said unequivocally, “Cash is not a very convenient store of value.” Santelli said this is the bogeyman of deflation and Gillian Tett picks up the argument in the weekend Financial Times with a piece, “How Deflation Gave Lower prices A Bad Name.” Readers of Notes from Underground have known that I refer to Ben Bernanke as a ’37er: An economist grounded in the belief that the early moves by the FED and the U.S. Treasury to prematurely tighten fiscal and monetary policy in 1937 led to a stifling of incipient growth and a renewed recession. “Cash is not a very convenient store of value” certainly signals that the Yellen Fed will keep rates as low as possible in order not to abort economic growth.

It has been my argument that the reason GOLD maintains its long-term strength is because of the fear of deflation and the policies employed by central banks to curb the possible threat of falling prices. In a continual effort to combat DEFLATION the world is awash in reserves, which presently support global equity markets. (It appears as if stocks are presently a better store of value than gold.) But as Tett wrote in her piece, falling prices are not always the BOGEYMAN of capitalism. Deflation is only a grave concern when an economy has accumulated for too much debt and then the fear of asset deflation brings about the asset liquidation of the 1930s and all the societal pain.

I believe the Bernanke Fed was correct in employing the first round of QE for it forestalled a massive round of asset liquidation in a very fragile financial environment. It is the continued use of QE that has created potential problems for the FED. Yes, I know as Senator Schumer proclaimed, “You are the only game in town.” I guess after reading the Yellen speech it appears that the Fed will remain data dependent but, more importantly, an aggressive easing of fiscal policy might be the real impetus for the Fed to raise rates. The ’49ers play in San Francisco while the ’37ers  dominate the Washington monetary scene.

***Global Politics — The news from the Middle East last week sent momentary scares into oil, precious metals and stock markets. The military response by the Saudis and a possible Sunni coalition of armed forces to recent events in Yemen was seen as a precursor of a new flash point in the already tense ME. By Friday, the oil markets sold off and the precious metals were in retreat as the conflict in Yemen was seen to be contained. IN MY OPINION THIS MOVE BY THE SAUDIS IS NOT TO BE MINIMIZED. WHY? If you look at a map of Yemen and its relationship to Saudi Arabia, and, of course Iraq, you will notice that both countries border the House of Saud. The Saudi family controls something greater than oil reserves. It controls the Islamic Holy Sites of Mecca and Medina.

The desire by Isis to rebuild the Caliphate necessitates the need to control the pivotal centers of the Muslim religion. While Isis is Sunni  the rebels in Yemen are a sect of SHIA and it is their Iranian support that causes the Saudis and other Arab states to militarily act to counter the perceived threat to the Saudi homeland. I have long believed that Mecca and Medina are the desired targets of any group or nation desiring to control the center of Islam. Those believing that Yemen is only about the control of Mandab Strait or Bab el Mandeb are fooling themselves. Yes, a choke point of oil transport is important. More than 3 million barrels of oil daily flow through the strait as crude moves to the Red Sea and out to the Mediterranean by way of the Suez canal. Yet there are also important elements in play in the struggle between Sunni and Shia.

In Friday’s FT, Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote: “There are other reasons to predict limits to what the Saudis can be expected to do in Yemen. They lack much in the way of capable ground forces. Saudi arabia also has to worry about the home front. It is only a matter of time before it faces direct challenge from groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant who will see ousting the government that controls the two holiest cities of Islam as essential to their ambitions.” If you believe the world is getting easier to decipher, think again. You need more than an MBA to know which way money will flow. The world is caught in the imbalances of 2+2=5.

***NOTE: I will be on with Mr. Santelli tomorrow morning at 9:40am Chicago time. I don’t know the topic but as my readers know, we’ll be prepared to go many places.

Notes From Underground: The Fed Came, Saw and Failed to Conquer Its Fear

March 19, 2015

The results of the FOMC meeting: Ray Dalio–1, Janet Yellen–0 (h/t KM). It seems that the FED is fearful of upsetting the Dalio apple cart by raising rates and possibly tipping off a sell off in global assets. As I wrote on Tuesday, the walk back of taking the “patient” off the respirator would result in a DOLLAR selloff as long dollar positions were hopeful of an unequivocal position statement from the Fed on a near-term interest rate increase. Notes From Underground believed the FOMC statement would remove patient from the release and then Yellen would defang the hawks by being cautious about the strong dollar and continuing concern over the lack of wage growth in an economy with improving employment metrics.

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Notes From Underground: Fed Loses Its Patience While I Regain My Voice

March 17, 2015

Never has so much money been riding on ONE WORD from a monetary authority. The issue isn’t the idea of FED PATIENCE in regards to raising rates for if the FED increases the effective rate to 37 basis points from 12 basis points IT IS MEANINGLESS. The issue for the FED is the huge pile of bank reserves sitting at the central bank to the tune of $2.7 TRILLION (and let’s not forget the FED‘s $4.5 TRILLION balance sheet). If the economy begins to heat up and banks begin to circulate those RESERVES, the FED will have a velocity of money problem as the ECONOMY MAY BE AT SOME LEVEL OF FULL EMPLOYMENT. It’s not an interest rate problem for the FED but a RESERVE PROBLEM.

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