Posted on October 19th, 2012

European defaults on Sovereign Debt may trigger Double – Digit Global Inflation

The European crisis used to be called the European sovereign debt crisis. Later on, it was referred to as the European banking crisis. Finally, it winds up being just the European crisis. Is there a difference? Not really. Experience in Japan, the US, Ireland, Spain and numerous other countries reveals what ought to have been clear: no developed economy can afford to have one of its large banks go under and when the risk is severe,  the local government (including the central bank) is forced to take over the ailing bank and/or back its liabilities. And vice versa, when the government cannot find buyers for its debt, the local banks will buy it, because if the government reneges on its debt, so will the local banks who normally own much of the existing government debt. Of course if the government and the banks go bankrupt, so will the whole economy.
These facts are best demonstrated by the evolving story of Spain. At present, nobody would buy Spanish government debt except for domestic banks or an occasional large speculator who thinks he is buying these bonds cheap and will eventually be able to sell them (directly or indirectly) to the ECB. After all didn’t the president of the ECB, Mario Draghi, say he will do everything necessary to support the EMU? And didn’t the EU summit decide that the ECB will buy any amount of Spanish government debt necessary to support their prices. And wasn’t the only precondition that Spain will ask for aid (and by the way also sign a memorandum transferring the power to run fiscal policy to Germany)?
Meantime, only a slight delay. German finance minister, Schauble, said he does not believe the Bundestag will approve this aid to Spain so soon after € 100 billion was allocated to support the Spanish banks. But there could be another slight problem. If the Germans are worried about a `measly`  € 100 billion, what will they say when they find out that the ECB has to finance all the maturing Spanish and Italian debt plus their budget deficits, over 3 years, a total of € 3 trillion or more? Yes, the IMF, Japan and even China may possibly come to the rescue – provided they miscalculate the amount involved. But they all, including Germany, the Dutch and other smaller economics cannot shoulder this task.
Shortly, when all of this becomes clear, what else will follow? The Spaniards may revolt when they see the punishment the Germans have in store for them, but assume for the moment that they are so demoralized already that they will not go to the streets. And assume also that that applies to the Italians and the Greeks (and the Cypriots) too. To be optimistic, assume also that Catalonia does not secede so fast from Spain. And in the same  optimistic vein, assume that not all holders of Spanish and Italian debt with up to 3 years to maturity will line up to sell it to the ECB. And that Chancellor Merkel survives all of this for a while. So the ECB will only be called upon to buy several hundreds of billions in the next few months, and so it does. The money paid for Italian and Spanish debt will of course flood Europe, including Italian and Spanish banks and French and German banks that own Italian and Spanish debt. And the ECB may be called upon to bail out the latter group of banks too if they own obligations other than short- term soverign debt.

This flood of newly created money will come on top of € 1 trillion in “liquidity” the ECB already injected several months ago and a few hundred billions injected into or now expected by the Spanish banks and in the support programs for Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus. But given the size of the needed aid for Spain and Italy, it is likely that all of this will not suffice and the Eurozone will eventually have to be taken apart.
Meantime, the Fed has engaged in money (reserve) creation on an enormous scale as well. Its balance sheet has increased 200% in the last 4 years. And since the banks were not able to use all of the reserves they accumulated, their excess reserves grew to $1.5 trillion. China actually increased its money supply much faster.
Eventually Germany will have to  decide that the burden of keeping the euro intact is too heavy whether before or after funneling a few more hundred billions of euros into the weak Eurozone economies .  When it comes, the decision may be made by the Bundestag, by Merkel, by the courts or by the general public. (This decision reportedly has already been made by the Bundesbank). As it stands now, Spain will soon after that default on its obligations, followed in short order by Italy and probably by France. Investors the world over will re-learn that government obligations are not “risk free”, and neither are bank obligations. But there is no reason to believe that this lesson will be confined to Europe. Investors (savers) in Japan may finally conclude that their government obligations are too large to be safe, and investors in US federal debt securities may soon reach the conclusion that these obligations are increasing too fast for comfort. Finally, China which holds all these obligations in huge quantities may be hurt too.
Obviously, there is a big difference between the Eurozone members who can’t each just print more Euros on their own and the US, for example,  that has been doing just that (in US. dollars, of course) big time in recent years. Therefore the process in the US will be different. As people lose confidence in government obligations they will naturally also lose trust in those little government pieces of paper (or plastic, or book entry) called money.  After all they are only different from bonds in that they say “In God We Trust” and other interesting imprints. As investors lose confidence in government paper and rush for real assets such as real estate or gold or even stocks that represent some real income stream, inflation will start rising.
The inflation foreseen here is not the type of “cost push” or “demand pull” that the US experienced in the 1970’s. Rather, it is more akin to the hyperinflation experienced by Germany in the early twenties in that it is caused by loss of confidence in government obligations. It is unlikely to reach anywhere near the levels seen then, but could reach levels not even imagined by most analysts, let alone being reflected in the markets.
In some respects the risk of inflation now is even harder to fight than it was in Germany. First, its nature is global. So much so that it is not even possible to tell where it will develop earlier. Second, some governments and central banks are actually trying to boost inflation intentionally for various reasons. These include Germany, Japan and the US. Finally the speed at which it could develop and ratchet around the globe may make it intractable.
All of this does not have to happen but it will take a lot of ingenuity and flexibility on the part of several major decision makers to avoid it. Some, like Merkel, Draghi, Bernanke and others would have to reverse policies. And the chances of that are slim at best.
The writer is Chief Economist and strategist of 4L Macro Opportunities SP

A World at Risk

Posted on August 3rd, 2011

♦ The pace of global economic growth started to slow down at the beginning of the year and is now close to zero.

♦ The main cause of this slowdown in growth is an almost universal tightening of economic policy. In the developing world, interest rates were raised to stop inflation. In the developed world, government spending was cut in order to reduce the debt. Thus, irrespective of its motives, tightening of monetary or fiscal policy has caused a slowdown around the world.



Posted on July 13th, 2011

Net from end of the first quarter to the end of the second quarter the US stock market has not moved (S&P500 1,325), and it’s still there today. “Boring” would say an uninvolved observer.  “Anything but that” would retort anybody who had to make ongoing investment decisions over the period. Given the news background, the fact that the stock market is unchanged is a testimony to the assessment that it wants to go up.  And if and when it gets some pause in the bad news, it will.
The second quarter started with the realization of one of the grave risks that had been visible before (The US Stock Market Wants to Go Up: Part I, The US Stock Market Wants to Go Up: Part II). The Japanese interruption of the supply chain worldwide, together with some bad weather plunged US economic growth into a ‘soft patch’. A very visible example of this effect is in the auto industry that cut back production well below what had been planned and is now expecting a major boost in production in the present and next quarters. In Japan itself, production has already recovered much of its post Tsunami plunge.
Some of the other risks that had been easily foreseen in the first quarter were also aggravated in the second quarter. One of the most threatening of these developments is the worldwide planned and executed tightening of economic policies. To understand the force of such uniform action in a globalized economy it’s enough to look at the way the world economy shook off the last recession.  When the dimensions of the collapse became clear, practically all governments adopted expansionary fiscal and monetary policies that almost in a whiff translated into an economic turnaround.
In China and India, such policy moves proved pretty soon to be an overshoot that with an unrelated rise in food and oil prices caused an unacceptable upturn of inflation. Both countries had turned policy around and have been tightening economic policies for quite a few months now. In the case of China, that is reflected not only in a rapid increase in interest rates and in bank reserve requirements but also in placing more stringent limitations on off- balance sheet bank lending and other means of government persuasion. In his latest visit to Europe, premier Wen declared victory over inflation a week ago.  But interest rates were raised almost immediately afterwards. And since monetary policy has no direct effect on food prices, the chances are that China isn’t done yet and that eventually it will overshoot again.
Many other Emerging Market economies (e.g. Brazil and to a lesser extent Russia, Korea, Taiwan etc.) have suffered from overheating and inflation. These were aggravated by an influx of hot money whenever it was possible and the geopolitical environment seemed stable. And as interest rates were raised, barriers had to be erected against such fund flows.
Meanwhile, in most of the developed world, after the bounce from the recession, economic growth slowed down. Despite that, economic policies have been tightened and further tightening is being debated practically worldwide.
In Japan, the rehabilitation after the tsunami required a large increase in government spending. But Japan already has a large sovereign debt, albeit mostly domestically held. Thus the Japanese authorities are now planning tax increases and spending cuts to reduce its budget deficit.
In Europe, one of the major measures taken in view of the debt problems of the peripheral countries was a cutback in the budget deficits all across the Euro zone. England joined in that move and while some of these measures are already effective, others will become so in the near future. Of course, these measures have further weakened the weaker economies of Europe.  What such measures can cause in the extreme case can be seen in Greece, whose economy had shrunk 5.5 percent in the year ending Q1 2011, and this may have accelerated by now, all despite a €110 billion of subsidized EMU and IMF loans budgeted. It is not clear if such measures have reduced the budget deficit in Greece or in the other weaker economies of Europe. It is likely that the deficit as a share of GDP has actually been increased. It is obvious, however, that the aid already given or now being contemplated was designed to help the lenders and sellers of CDS’s, rather than its recipients.
Against this background it had to be expected that the short sellers of sovereign debt would turn next to the larger economies of Europe.  Not that the debts of Spain and Italy were unattractive short sales on their own.  But speculators certainly were emboldened by their successes in the debts of the small peripherals and since those are already trading at prices that reflect the restructuring, other targets had to be found. In reaction, Spain and Italy are now in the final stages of accelerating major, long-term fiscal tightening moves.
Finally, back in the US, the economy rebounded smartly with the aid of large federal government deficits. But these have been increasingly neutralized by cutbacks in much larger state and local government sectors. Receipts of the latter sector have also recovered nicely but those government entities that were slow to adjust are still laying off tens of thousands per month.
Turning back to where it all started, the amounts budgeted to help the housing sector in general and homeowners in particular were very small relative to the size of the problem and the number of people affected, even if one only counts those people that can pay their mortgage with reasonably little help from the government and write-down from the lender. Worse still, even the funds budgeted went unused because terms and conditions were too stringent . In particular, the means test should have been eased or even better dropped altogether and replaced by limited size government support. As a result, house prices are still going down, although excluding forced sales they may have turned up on very small volume.
Against this background, it is no surprise that the U.S. government and the Fed seem to be trying to push the dollar down in order to reduce the trade deficit. Congress did come to the rescue here with its debate on raising the debt ceiling. But in this battle to debase the currency, Europe does seem to have the upper hand. And U.S. economic growth in the second quarter did come dangerously close to a stalling race.

The US stock market is attempting to go higher, based on actual and expected corporate profits and low interest rates. It can’t do so, however, as long as the foreseen risks keep materializing or just aggravating over time.
The list of major risks has not changed dramatically over the past quarter. Topping it in terms of potential damage is the risk of loss of confidence in all fiat money. This may be triggered by a collapse of the Euro, the Dollar – if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling, or even from China. Geopolitical risks emanating from Libya, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere are also near the top. So also is the risk of concurrent tightening of fiscal and monetary policies worldwide.
The risks are of course heightened by widespread economic weakness in the developed world. They are well reflected in the new highs made by gold prices.


The US Stock Market Wants to Go Up: Part II

Posted on March 31st, 2011

Having despaired halfway through listing just the major risks to the stock market (as well as to the US economy, to the world economy, and generally to the world as we know it – – see Part 1) the question arises why own any stocks. Why not get out or go short? The answer, as usual, was given by the market. It has gone up over one percent since I wrote Part 1 two days ago against the background of news that the Japanese found plutonium in the ground near the Fukushima nuclear power plant, house prices went down again in January and February, consumer confidence declined in both the US and Europe, Gaddafi forces advanced again despite NATO action, and Fitch threatened to downgrade both Ireland and Portugal. Bad news it is, but apparently not bad enough to stop the rally.
So why does the market persist in its effort to move higher  and is only 2% off its recent high (basis S&P futures) and a few percent off the all time highs made in 2000 and again in 2007? (See charts 1-3). After all there is no bubble in high tech or housing markets now and if there is a bubble in commodities now it probably has little net effect on the stock market.
The detailed solution to this enigma is somewhat involved but the gist of it is simple: sharply lower interest rates and higher corporate profits.

Lower Interest rates


The US Stock Market Wants to Go Up : Part I

Posted on March 28th, 2011

A well known Wall Street adage says that the market likes to climb a wall of worries. This sounds strange but is true for a very simple reason: If there is no wall of worries the market is probably too high and/or too overbought to go up. Even so, I have never in my professional life (which is a long time) seen the market climb such a long series of very tall walls as it is doing today.

Yet the market does want to go up, and, if none of the possible horror scenarios now materializes, it will. How do I know that? Well, on any day that the news is not awful but just bad – – a day when oil prices go up only $1 or the minuscule housing starts just fall another twenty odd percent – – the market does go up. (more…)

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