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Making stuff up

April 30, 2016

This will be the shortest TSI blog post to date. I just wanted to point out that newsletter writers, bloggers and other posters on the internet who claim knowledge of what was discussed in secret conversations between high-level policy-makers are just making up stories. If you take this BS at face value, more the fool you.

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Who gets the new money first?

April 27, 2016

The main reason that monetary inflation (creating new money out of nothing) is an economic problem isn’t the effect it has on the economy-wide purchasing power of money. The general decline in money purchasing-power is very much a secondary negative. The primary negative revolves around the fact that new money does not get evenly spread throughout the economy. Instead, it gets injected at specific points, causing some people (the early recipients of the new money) to benefit at the expense of others and causing some prices to rise relative to others. One consequence is an undeserved transfer of wealth to the early recipients of the new money and another consequence is the falsification of price signals. I’ve discussed both of these consequences in detail in the past, but I have never homed-in on the question: Who gets the new money first?

The answer to the above question will depend on whether the new money is created by the private banks or the central bank, and in the case where the private banks are doing the bulk of the money-pumping it will vary from one cycle to the next. A comprehensive answer to the question would therefore require a lot more words than I want to use in this blog post, so rather than trying to cover all the possibilities I am narrowing-down the question to: Who gets the new money first when the Fed implements QE (Quantitative Easing)?

By the way, if you think that the Fed’s QE adds to bank reserves and doesn’t add to the total quantity of money available to be spent within the economy then you do not understand the mechanics of the QE process. An explanation of how the Fed’s QE creates money can be found HERE.

Since about 60% of the assets monetised in the Fed’s various QE programs were US government debt securities it could superficially appear that the government was the first receiver of most of the new money created by the Fed, but this was not actually the case. The government benefited from the Fed’s QE programs to the extent that these programs lowered the cost of debt*, but it’s unlikely that QE resulted in the government borrowing more than it would otherwise have borrowed. In other words, the amount of money borrowed by the government probably wouldn’t have been materially less if QE had never happened. It’s therefore more correct to view the government as an indirect beneficiary of the Fed’s QE rather than as an early receiver of the new money.

It helps to answer the question “who got the new money first in the Fed’s QE programs?” by re-wording it thusly: As a result of the Fed’s QE, who initially found themselves with a lot more money than would otherwise have been the case?

The answer is the group called “bond speculators”. This group comprises institutions and individuals, including banks, hedge funds and mutual funds, who invest in and trade large dollar-amounts of debt securities.

To explain, the government issued about $2.5T of debt that was purchased by the Fed with newly-created dollars. If not for the Fed, the issuing of this debt would have necessitated the transfer of $2.5T of money from “bond speculators” to the government. It is therefore fair to say that the Fed’s monetisation of Treasury debt left “bond speculators” with $2.5T of extra money. This money was naturally ‘invested’ in other financial assets, giving the prices of those assets a boost.

Under its QE programs the Fed also monetised (purchased with newly-created dollars) about $1.7T of mortgage-backed securities (MBSs). In this case the fact that “bond speculators” ended up with a lot of extra money is obvious, since the Fed replaced existing MBSs owned by “bond speculators” with cash created out of nothing.

In total, “bond speculators” found themselves with about 4.2 trillion additional dollars** courtesy of the Fed’s QE programs. The average productive salary-earner found himself with a negative real return on savings and negative real earnings growth courtesy of the same programs. And yet, Bernanke and Yellen appear to genuinely believe that the Fed’s actions were righteous.

    *The Fed’s debt monetisation not only lowered the interest rate on all new debt issued by the government, for the $2.5T of Treasury securities bought by the Fed the interest rate was effectively reduced to zero. This is because interest paid on government debt held by the Fed gets returned to the government.

    **Just to be clear, the Fed’s QE didn’t directly create $4.2T of additional wealth for “bond speculators”, since the Fed replaced bonds with money. Bond speculators initially had more money and less assets as the result of Fed asset monetisation, but the new money was a proverbial ‘hot potato’ and was quickly used to bid-up the prices of other bonds and financial assets.

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Gold manipulation is apparently OK as long as the Chinese are doing it

April 26, 2016

The usual suspects made a big deal out of evidence that the banks involved in the London “gold fix” had used the ‘fixing’ process to clip unwarranted profits. As I explained last week, this evidence did not in any way support the claims that a grand price suppression scheme had been successfully conducted over a great many years, but unsurprisingly that’s exactly how it was presented in some quarters. Anyhow, the purpose of this post isn’t to rehash the reasons that manipulation related to the London “gold fix” could only have resulted in brief price distortions and definitely could not have been used to shift the directions of multi-month trends. Rather, the purpose is to marvel at the inconsistency of those who loudly and relentlessly complain that the gold market is dominated by the manipulative actions of a banking cartel.

The latest example of the inconsistency is the collective cheering by the aforementioned complainers of last week’s introduction of a twice-daily ‘gold fixing’ process in China. The “Yuan gold fix” will be implemented by a group of 18 banks (16 Chinese banks and 2 international banks) and will be subject to exactly the same conflicts of interest and abilities to clip unwarranted profits as the traditional London ‘gold fix’.

So, are we supposed to believe that manipulation of the gold price by Chinese banks would be perfectly fine, or are we supposed to believe that the average Chinese bank, which, by the way, has non-performing loans (NPLs) of greater than 20% but claims to have NPLs of less than 2%, is a paragon of virtue? It would be impossible for a rational and knowledgeable person to hold either of these beliefs, but those who regularly complain about gold-market manipulation by banks and also cheered the implementation of the “Yuan gold fix” must hold one of them.

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What happened to the “global US$ short position”?

April 22, 2016

At this time last year there was a lot of talk in the financial press about the huge US$ short position that was associated with the dollar-denominated debts racked up over many years in emerging-market countries. This debt-related short position supposedly guaranteed additional large gains for the Dollar Index over the ensuing 12 months. But now, with the Dollar Index having drifted sideways for 12 months and having had a downward bias for the past 5 months it is difficult to find any mention of the problematic US$ short position. Did the problem magically disappear? Did the problem never exist in the first place?

Fans of the US$ short position argument needn’t fret, because the argument will certainly make a comeback if the Dollar Index eventually breaks above the top of its drawn-out horizontal trading range. It will make a comeback regardless of whether or not it is valid, because it will have a ring of plausibility as long as the Dollar Index is rising.

I’m not saying that the argument for a stronger US$ driven by the foreign-debt-related US$ short position is invalid. I’m not saying it yet, anyway. The point I’m trying to make above is that if the argument was correct a year ago then it is just as correct today (since debt levels haven’t fallen) and should therefore be just as popular today. It is nowhere near as popular, though, because most fundamentals-based analysis is concocted to match the price action.

I actually view the “global US$ short position” as more of an effect than a cause of exchange-rate trends. Major currency-market trends are caused by differences in stock-market performance, real interest rates and monetary inflation rates. When these factors conspire to create a downward trend in the US dollar’s foreign exchange value it becomes increasingly attractive for people outside the US to borrow dollars. And when these factors subsequently conspire to create an upward trend in the US dollar’s foreign exchange value, debt repayment becomes more costly for anyone with US$-denominated debt outside the US.

So, if the Dollar Index resumes its upward trend later this year then anyone outside the US with hefty US$-denominated debt will have a problem, but the deteriorating collective financial position of these foreign US$ borrowers won’t be the cause of the dollar’s strength. It will just be a popular justification for the strength.

In general, fundamentals-based analysis will look correct and achieve popularity if it matches the price action, even if it is complete nonsense. A related point is that if fundamentals-based analysis is contrary to the recent price action then hardly anyone will believe it, irrespective of the supporting facts and logic.

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News of gold and silver price manipulation is not news

April 19, 2016

It was reported last week that Deutsche Bank has settled lawsuits over allegations it manipulated gold and silver prices via the “London Fix“. This is not really news, in that experienced traders would already be aware that banks and other large-scale operators regularly attempt to shift prices one way or the other in most financial markets to benefit their own bottom-lines. I just wanted to point out that this “news” does not, in any way, shape or form, constitute evidence that there has been a successful long-term price suppression scheme in the gold and silver markets.

As far as I can tell, the banks that were involved in setting the twice-daily levels for the London gold and silver fixes had two ways of using or manipulating the ‘fix’ to generate profits. The first is that the participants in the fixing process were privy, for two very brief periods (10-15 minutes, on average) each day, to non-public supply-demand information, making it possible for them to obtain a very brief advantage in their own trading. For example, if the volume of gold being bid for was significantly greater than the volume being offered near the start of a particular day’s fixing process, a participant would know that the price was likely to rise over the ensuing few minutes and could enter a long position with the aim of exiting at around the time the ‘fix’ was announced.

The other way of using or manipulating the ‘fix’ to generate profits is more sinister, as it essentially involves the ‘fix’ participants stealing from their clients. I’m referring to the fact that although the ‘fix’ is primarily a market price, in that it is designed to reflect the bids and offers in the market at a point in time, the participating banks would have the ability to nudge the price in one direction or the other. Situations could arise where a participating bank could improve its bottom line at the expense of a client by influencing the ‘fix’ in a way that, for example, prevented an option held by the client from expiring in the money or allowing the bank to purchase gold from the client at a marginally lower price.

I don’t know that the participants in the London ‘fixing’ process sometimes used the process to increase their own profits at their clients’ expense, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if they did. There was certainly a huge conflict of interest inherent in the way the ‘fix’ was conducted.

Anyhow, it’s important to understand that price distortions resulting from the ‘fix’ would have existed only briefly (for less the 20 minutes in all likelihood) and could not have affected the price trends of interest to anyone other than intra-day traders. In particular, there is simply no way that a multi-month price trend could have been shifted from bullish to bearish or bearish to bullish by manipulating the London gold or silver fix.

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A great crash is coming, part 2

April 18, 2016

Last November I entered the crash-forecasting business. As explained in a blog post at the time, my justification for doing so was the massively asymmetric reward-risk associated with such an endeavour. Whereas failed crash predictions are quickly forgotten, you only have to be right (that is, get lucky) once and you will be set for life. From then on you will be able to promote yourself as the market analyst who predicted the great crash of XXXX (insert year) and you will accumulate a large herd of followers who eagerly buy your advice in anticipation of your next highly-profitable forecast. Furthermore, since a crash will eventually happen, as long as you keep predicting it you will eventually be right.

My inaugural forecast was for the US stock market to crash during September-October of 2016. The forecast was made with tongue firmly planted in cheek, since I have no idea when the stock market will experience its next crash. What I do know is that it will eventually crash. My goal is simply to make sure that when it does, there will be a written record of me having predicted it.

That being said, when I published my crash forecast last November I gave a few reasons why it wasn’t a completely random guess. One was that stock-market crashes have a habit of occurring in September-October. Another was that the two most likely times for the US stock market to crash are during the two months following a bull market peak and roughly a year into a new bear market, with the 1929 and 1987 crashes being examples of the former and the 1974, 2001 and 2008 crashes being examples of the latter. The current situation is that either a bear market began in mid-2015, in which case the next opportunity for a crash will arrive during the second half of this year, or the bull market is intact, in which case a major peak will possibly occur during the second half of this year. A third was that market valuation was high enough to support an unusually-large price decline.

A fourth reason, which I didn’t mention last November, is that if the bull market didn’t end last year then it is now very long-in-the-tooth and probably nearing the end of its life. A fifth reason, which I also didn’t mention last year because it wasn’t apparent at the time, is that the monetary backdrop has become slightly less supportive.

So, I hereby repeat my prediction that the US stock market will crash in September-October of this year, but if not this year then next year or the year after. My prediction will eventually be right, at which point I’ll bathe in the glow of my own prescience and start raking in the cash from book sales.

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The folly of staying bearish on oil due to “excess supply”

April 15, 2016

When the oil price was bottoming at around $26/barrel in February, most fundamentals-oriented oil-market analysts were anticipating additional weakness due to the likelihood of a continuing supply glut. In most cases they have remained bearish throughout the price recovery from the mid-$20s to the low-$40s due to the same supply-glut belief. Regardless of whether or not a sustainable oil price bottom was put in place in February*, this line of reasoning was/is wrong.

The line of reasoning was/is wrong because in the commodity markets the fundamentals always appear to be lousy at major price bottoms. In fact, as far as I can tell there has never been a major price low in the commodity markets when there did not appear to be excessive supply relative to demand for as far as the eye could see. Similarly, there has never been a major price high in the commodity markets when there did not appear to be either abundant price-boosting demand or inadequate supply for as far as the eye could see. The markets work this way because at some point during a bearish trend or a bullish trend the supply-demand story underpinning the trend becomes so well known that it is more than fully discounted by the current price.

Was the oil market’s bearish supply-demand situation more than fully discounted by the current price when oil was trading in the mid-$20s in February? Quite likely, because a) in real terms oil was near its lowest price of the past 40 years and b) at that point there was hardly anyone who didn’t know about the oil glut and who wasn’t well-versed in the argument that the glut would persist for years to come.

*I think that the oil price bottomed in February and thought so at the time, as evidenced by comments in TSI reports in mid-February and at the blog a little later. The price action hasn’t yet definitively signaled a reversal, but it’s possible that an intermediate-term reversal signal will be generated at the end of this week.

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Money should NOT be backed by gold

April 14, 2016

Contrary to the opinions of some hard-money advocates, money should not be backed by gold. In fact, money should not be backed by anything.

Money is the most commonly used means of final payment in an economy. Consequently, something cannot be money (a means of FINAL payment) and at the same time be backed by something else, because in that case it’s the thing that does the backing that is actually money. For example, during the period in which the US was on a Gold Standard the US dollars in circulation were not money; they were receipts for money (gold). To put it another way, during the Gold Standard period the US dollars in circulation were not money backed by gold. Rather, gold was money.

Criticism of today’s money on the basis that it is not backed by anything therefore contains a fundamental misunderstanding of money. Money (the general medium of exchange) can be almost anything, but if something is money then it cannot, by definition, be ‘backed’ by something else.

On a related matter, the Gold Standard is not a good idea. This is because it necessarily involves the government fixing a price (the price of an ounce of gold or the price of a currency unit). When the government has the power to manage/control something in accordance with certain rules, the government will always be able to change the rules to suit itself. A successful attempt to return to a Gold Standard would therefore inevitably be followed by rule changes that led back to where we are today.

What would be a good idea is to get the government completely out of the money business.

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The true meaning of gold’s COT data

April 12, 2016

This post is a slightly-modified excerpt from a recent TSI commentary.

The COT (Commitments of Traders) data for gold is portrayed by some commentators as an us-versus-them battle, with “them” (the bad guys) being the Commercials. Whether this is done out of ignorance or because it makes a good story that attracts readers/subscribers, it paints an inaccurate picture.

As I’ve explained in numerous TSI commentaries over the years, the Commercial position is effectively just the mathematical offset of the Speculative position. Speculators, as a group, cannot go net-long by X contracts unless Commercials, as a group, go net-short by X contracts. Furthermore, we can be sure that Speculators are the drivers of the process because most of the time the Speculative net-long position moves in the same direction as the price.

With Speculators becoming increasingly long as the price rises, it will always be the case that the Speculative net-long position will be near a short-term maximum when the price is near a short-term high. This means that the Commercial net-short position must always be near a short-term maximum when the price is near a short-term high, creating the false impression that the Commercials are always right at price tops.

The reality is that the Commercials are neither right nor wrong, since they generally don’t bet on price direction. In some cases they are selling-short the futures to hedge long positions in the physical, but in the gold market the dominant Commercials are the bullion banks that trade spreads between the physical and futures. If trading and other costs are low enough and volumes are high enough, the bullion banks can guarantee themselves profits — regardless of subsequent price direction — by buying/selling gold for future delivery and simultaneously selling/buying the physical metal.

Consider, for example, the situation where Speculators increase their collective demand for gold futures. If this additional Speculative demand causes the futures price to rise relative to the spot price it can create an opportunity for a bullion-bank Commercial to simultaneously sell the futures and buy the physical, thus locking-in a profit equal to the spread (between the futures price and the spot price) less the costs of storage, insurance and financing. At a time when the official interest rate is near zero, even a tiny futures-physical spread in the gold market can create the opportunity for a profitable trade.

I’m going back over this old ground to make sure that TSI readers aren’t taken-in by the popular, but wrongheaded, conspiracy-centric us-versus-them characterisation of the COT information.

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ZeroHedge tries to create more drama out of nothing

April 11, 2016

A post at ZeroHedge (ZH) on 8th April discusses an 11th April Fed meeting as if it were an important and unusual event. According to the ZH post:

With everyone’s focus sharply attuned on anything to do with the Fed’s rate hike policy, many will probably wonder why yesterday the Fed announced that this coming Monday, April 11, the Fed will hold a closed meeting “under expedited procedures” during which the Board of Governors will review and determine advance and discount rates charged by the Fed banks.

As a reminder, the last time the Fed held such a meeting was on November 21, less than a month before it launched its first rate hike in years.

As explained at the TSI Blog last November in response to a similar ZH post, these “expedited, closed” Fed meetings happen with monotonous regularity. For example, there were 5 in March, 4 in February and 5 in January. Furthermore, ZH’s statement that 21 November was the last time the Fed held such a meeting to “review and determine advance and discount rates charged by the Fed banks” is an outright falsehood. The fact is that a meeting for this purpose happens at least once per month. For example, there were 2 such meetings in March and 1 in February.

Is it possible that the misinformation in the above-linked ZH post was an honest mistake? Yes, it’s possible, but it isn’t likely.

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