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Will the Fed be able to fight the next recession?

September 27, 2016

If you are asking the above question then your understanding of economics is sadly lacking or you are trying to mislead.

The Fed will never be completely out of monetary ammunition, because there is no limit to how much new money the central bank can create. The Fed will therefore always be capable of implementing some form of what Keynesians call stimulus. However, the so-called stimulus cannot possibly help the economy.

To believe that the central-bank monetisation of assets can help the economy you have to believe that an economy can benefit from counterfeiting. And to believe that the economy can be helped by lowering interest rates to below where they would otherwise be you have to believe that fake prices can be economically beneficial. In other words, you have to believe the impossible.

The reality is that the Fed never fights recession or helps the economy recover from recession, but it does cause recessions and gets in the way of genuine recovery after a recession occurs. For example, the monetary stimulus put in place by the Fed in response to the 2001 recession caused mal-investments — primarily associated with real estate — that were the seeds of the 2007-2009 recession. The price distortions caused by the Fed’s efforts to support the US economy from 2008 onward then firstly prevented a full liquidation of the mal-investments of 2002-2007 and then promoted a range of new mal-investments*. It’s therefore not a fluke that the most aggressive ‘monetary accommodation’ of the past 60 years occurred alongside the weakest post-recession recovery of the past 60 years. Moreover, the cause of the next recession will be the mal-investments stemming from the Fed’s earlier attempts to stimulate.

Unfortunately, if you have unswerving faith in a theoretical model that shows stronger real growth as the output following interest-rate cutting and/or money-pumping, then in response to economic weakness your conclusion will always be that interest-rate cutting and/or money-pumping is the appropriate course of action. And if the economy is still weak after such a course of action then your conclusion will naturally be that the same remedy must be applied with greater force.

For example, if cutting the interest rate to 1% isn’t followed by the expected strength then you will assume that the correct next step is to cut the interest rate to zero. If the expected growth still doesn’t appear then you will conclude that a negative interest rate is required, and if the economy stubbornly refuses to show sufficient vigor in response to a negative interest rate then your conclusion will be that the rate simply isn’t negative enough. And so on.

Whatever happens, the validity of the model that shows the economy being given a sustainable boost by central-bank-initiated monetary stimulus must never be questioned. After all, if doubts regarding the validity of the model were allowed to enter mainstream consciousness then people might start to ask: Should there be a central bank?

Circling back to the question posed at the top of this blog post, the question, itself, is a form of propaganda in that it presupposes the validity of the stimulus model (it presumes that the Fed is genuinely capable of fighting a recession, which it patently isn’t). Anyone who asks the question is therefore either a deliberate promoter of dangerous propaganda or a victim of it.

*Examples of the mal-investments promoted by the Fed’s money-pumping and interest-rate suppression during the past several years include the favouring by corporate America of stock buybacks over capital investment, the debt-funding of an unsustainable shale-oil boom, a generally greater amount of risk-taking by bond investors as part of a desperate effort to obtain a real yield above zero, the large-scale extension of credit to ‘subprime’ borrowers to artificially boost the sales of new cars, and the debt-funded investing in college degrees for which there is insufficient demand in the marketplace (a.k.a. the student loan scam).

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Corporate America has been in recession since 2014

September 23, 2016

This blog post is an excerpt from a recent TSI commentary.

The following three charts tell an interesting story.

The first chart shows that the real output of the US manufacturing sector has essentially flat-lined since Q4-2014.

The next chart shows that Total US Business Sales has been down on a year-over-year basis during every month subsequent to December-2014.

The third chart shows that US corporate profits peaked in Q4-2014 and in the latest completed quarter (Q2-2016) were almost 10% below their peak.

The story is that there has been a business recession in the US since the end of 2014. The business recession hasn’t yet transformed into a full-blown economic recession, but it will possibly do so within the next three months and it will probably do so by mid-2017.

The US business recession hasn’t been caused by the relatively strong US$. We know this firstly because a strong currency logically cannot be the cause of persistent economic weakness and secondly because the following chart shows that Net US Exports have improved slightly since the end of 2014.

Economic weakness outside the US has almost certainly played a part in the US slowdown, but the biggest part has been played by the Fed. Monetary policy has simultaneously caused stock prices to remain high and underlying businesses to languish, with the most obvious evidence being the favouring of debt-funded stock buybacks over capital investment.

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Using statistics to distort reality

September 19, 2016

Two months ago I posted a short article in which I discussed an example of how the change in an economic statistic was greatly exaggerated — in order to paint a misleading picture — by showing the percentage change of a percentage. I’ll now discuss another example of using the same trick to make the change in an economic number seem far more dramatic than was actually the case.

Before getting to the specific example, the general point is that when analysing economic data — or any other data for that matter — it won’t make sense to consider the percentage of a percentage unless it’s the second derivative that you are primarily interested in. When you take the percentage change of a percentage you cause a change in the underlying number from 0.5 to 1.0 to become the same as a change in the underlying number from 5 to 10 or 100 to 200, but in the real world the change in an economic number from 5 to 10 will usually have vastly different implications to the change in the same number from 0.5 to 1.0. For example, there is a huge difference between a change in the rate of GDP growth from 0.5% to 1.0% and a change in the rate of GDP growth from 5% to 10%, but both constitute a 100% increase in the rate of growth.

On a related matter, it can also be problematic to look at percentage changes of economic numbers when the numbers are fluctuating near zero. This is because a move from one miniscule value to another can be large in percentage terms. For example, a move from 0.01 to 0.03 is a 200% increase.

The specific example that prompted this post appeared in John Mauldin’s recent article titled “Negative Rates Nail Savers“. The gist of the Mauldin piece is completely correct, but during the course of the long article some mistakes were made. I’m zooming-in on the mistake contained in the following excerpt:

Here is a long-term chart of the federal funds rate, the Fed’s main policy tool:

The gray vertical bars represent recessions. You can see how the Fed has historically dropped rates in response to recessions and then tightened again when those recessions ended. I red-circled the particularly drastic loosening and retightening under Paul Volcker in the early 1980s and Ben Bernanke’s cuts to near-zero in 2008.

To this day, the Volcker rate hikes are legendary. No Fed chair has ever done anything like that, before or since. You hear it all the time. Problem: it’s not true.

Here is the same chart again, this time with a log scale on the vertical axis. This adjusts the rate changes to be proportionate with percentage rises and falls. The percentage change between 5% and 10% is the same as between 10% and 20%, since both represent a doubling of the lower number.

Looking at it this way, the Volcker hikes are tame, almost unnoticeable. Meanwhile the Bernanke cuts dwarf all other interest rate changes since 1955. Nothing else is even close. Bernanke’s rate cuts were far, far more aggressive than Volcker’s rate hikes.

The fact that looking at it this way “the Volcker hikes are tame, almost unnoticeable” should have told Mr. Mauldin that it was the wrong way to look at it. Moreover, looking at it Mr. Mauldin’s preferred way, even the tiny up-tick in the Fed Funds Rate last December makes Volcker’s hikes seem tame. After all, when the Fed nudged the target Fed Funds Rate up from 0.125% to 0.375% last December it could be described as a 200% rate increase (since 0.375 is three-times 0.125). This means that by taking the percentage change of a percentage, or in this case by charting percentages using a log scale, it can be shown that last December’s rate hike was the most aggressive monetary tightening in the Fed’s history!

I suspect that Mr. Mauldin’s mistake was innocent, but a sure way to reduce the credibility of an otherwise good argument is to use flawed statistical methods to support it.

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What is/isn’t a risk to the global economy

September 16, 2016

This post is an excerpt from a recent TSI commentary.

Quantitative Easing (QE) is a risk. Negative Interest Rate Policy (NIRP) is a big risk. Governments using the threat of terrorism as an excuse to dramatically increase their own powers and reduce individual freedom is a huge risk. X hundred trillion dollars of notional derivative value is meaningless.

The hundreds of trillions of dollars of notional derivative value and the associated counterparty risk is a potential life-threatening problem for some of the major banks, but if you believe that derivatives are like a sword of Damocles hanging over the global economy then you’ve swallowed the propaganda hook, line and sinker. The claim during 2008-2009 that the major banks had to be bailed out to prevent a broad-based economic collapse was a lie and it will be a lie when it re-emerges during the next financial crisis.

The global economy could easily handle JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Citigroup and Deutsche Bank all going out of business. The shareholders of these companies would suffer 100% losses on their investments, the bondholders of these companies would suffer substantial ‘haircuts’, most employees in the investment-banking and proprietary-trading parts of these companies would lose their jobs, but it’s unlikely that depositors would be adversely affected as the basic banking businesses would simply come under new management. Furthermore, while there would be short-term disruption, Apple would continue to sell loads of iPhones, Exxon-Mobil would continue to sell loads of oil, Toyota would continue to sell loads of cars, and both Walmart and Amazon would continue to sell loads of everything. Life would go on and in less than 12 months most people would not notice that some of history’s banking behemoths had departed the scene.

The real economic threat posed by derivatives is that when there is a blow-up the central banks and governments will swing into action in an effort to keep the major banks afloat. Rather than doing nothing other than ensuring that there is a smooth transfer of ownership for the basic banking (deposit-taking/loan-making) parts of the businesses, we will likely get a lot more of the policies that transfer wealth from the rest of the economy to the banks. That is, we will get a lot more price-distorting QE and programs similar to TARP.

The justification will be that saving the banks is key to saving the economy, but in reality the biggest threat to the economy will come from the policies put in place to save the banks.

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Is the Fed surreptitiously tightening?

September 14, 2016

The following chart shows that on a monthly closing basis, bank reserves held at the Fed peaked in August of 2014 at $2.79T and by August-2016 had shrunk to $2.35T. This amounts to a $440B decline in bank reserves over the space of two years. Furthermore, $320B of this $440B decline happened since last October. Does this mean that while the financial world vigorously debates whether the Fed will/should take a ‘baby step’ along the rate-hiking path next week, behind the scenes the Fed has been tightening the monetary screws for 2 years and especially over the past 10 months?


In a word, no. Up until now the Fed has done nothing to tighten monetary conditions.

I am, of course, aware that there was a tiny increase in the Fed’s targeted interest rate last December, but this rate hike was not implemented via a money-supply or reserve reduction and therefore did not constitute genuinely-tighter monetary policy. What, then, is the explanation for the significant reduction in bank reserves held at the Fed?

Before getting to the explanation I’ll reiterate that there are only three ways for US commercial bank reserves to decline. They can be converted to physical currency in circulation in response to increasing demand on the part of the public for notes and coins, they can be shifted to other accounts at the Fed, or they can be removed by the Fed. Only the last of these constitutes monetary tightening by the Fed.

Part of the explanation for the decline in bank reserves is the increasing demand on the part of the public for notes and coins. Due to “inflation”, this demand increases almost every year and is satisfied by the conversion of reserves into physical currency. This naturally has the effect of reducing bank reserves, but the process does not change the money supply because the physical currency replaces electronic currency. For example, when you withdraw $100 at an ATM, $100 is converted from electronic form to paper form while the total money supply is obviously unaffected. This $100 of ‘paper’ comes from the bank’s reserves.

The following chart shows the steady increase in “Currency in Circulation” over the past 5 years. As noted above, this increase involves the siphoning of reserves (in physical form) out of the banking system to replace electronic money. An implication is that if the Fed does nothing and the public’s demand for physical notes/coins is rising, bank reserves will dissipate over time.


Since last October, when the rate of decline in bank reserves accelerated, “Currency in Circulation” has risen from $1392B to $1464B, or by $72B. In other words, increasing demand for physical notes/coins only explains $72B of the $320B reduction in reserves since last October. If the remaining $248B reduction wasn’t due to the actions of the Fed, what caused it?

Before I answer the above question I’ll provide evidence that the reserve reduction wasn’t engineered by the Fed. The evidence is the following chart showing total Federal Reserve Credit. Notice that Total Fed Credit has flat-lined since the end of QE in October-2014. This indicates that since October-2014 the Fed has not made any sustained additions to or deletions from the quantity of money or the quantity of bank reserves.


Getting back to the question asked above, the answer is the US Treasury. More specifically, about 90% of the remaining $248B reduction in bank reserves has been caused by the US Treasury hoarding a lot more cash than usual at the Fed.

As I mentioned earlier in this piece, bank reserves can’t leave the Fed unless they are removed by the Fed or get converted to physical currency in response to increasing public demand for notes/coins, but they can get shifted to other (non-reserve) accounts at the Fed. One of these accounts is called the US Treasury General Account, which, as the name suggests, is the US government’s account at the Fed.

As illustrated by the following chart, the Treasury General Account was about $50B at the end of October last year and was about $275B at the end of August this year. This means that over the 10-month period beginning in November of last year the US Treasury removed about $225B from the economy-wide money supply and removed the equivalent amount from bank reserves.

Just to be clear, the government removes trillions of dollars per year from the economy, but it normally recycles the money very quickly. Usually, money comes in one door via taxation or borrowing and immediately goes out another door. The difference this year is that the Federal Government has been maintaining a much higher ‘cash float’ than usual.


I don’t know why the US Federal government has suddenly started keeping a lot more cash in reserve. Perhaps the leadership wants to make sure that, come what may, there will always be plenty of ready cash to pay the salaries/benefits of politicians and senior bureaucrats.

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Explaining the moves in the gold price

September 9, 2016

Here is a brief excerpt, with updated charts, from a recent commentary posted at TSI.

If you read some gold-focused web sites you could come away with the belief that movements in the gold price are almost completely random, depending more on the whims/abilities of evil manipulators and the news of the day than on genuine fundamental drivers. The following two charts can be viewed as cures for this wrongheaded belief.

The first chart compares the performance of the US$ gold price with the performance of the bond/dollar ratio (the T-Bond price divided by the Dollar Index). The charts are almost identical, which means that the gold price has been moving in line with a quantity that takes into account changes in interest rates, inflation expectations and currency exchange rates. The second chart shows that the US$ gold price has had a strong positive correlation with the Yen/US$ exchange rate. As we’ve explained in the past, gold tends to have a stronger relationship with the Yen than with any other currency because the Yen carry trade makes the Yen behave like a safe haven.



There are two possible explanations for the relationships depicted above. One is that the currency and bond markets, both of which are orders of magnitude bigger than the gold market, are being manipulated in a way that is designed to conceal the manipulation of a market that hardly anyone cares about. The other is that the gold price generally does what it should do given the performances of other financial markets. Only one of these explanations makes sense.

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Sorry, the trend is not your friend

September 7, 2016

There’s an old saying in the financial markets that the trend is your friend, meaning that you will do well as long as you position your trades in line with the current price trend. This sounds good. The only problem is that you can never know what the current trend is; you can only know what the trend was during some prior period. How is it possible for something you can never know to be your friend?

Market ‘technicians’ often make comments such as “the trend for Market X is up” and “Market Y is in a downward trend” as if they were stating facts. They are not stating facts, they are stating assumptions that have as much chance of being wrong as being right.

A statement such as “Market X’s trend is up” would more correctly be worded as “I’m going to assume that Market X’s trend is up unless proven otherwise”. The proving otherwise will generally involve the price moving above or below a certain level, but the selection of this level is yet another assumption and the price moving above/below any particular level will provide no factual information about the current trend.

To further explain, let’s say that a market made a sequence of higher highs and higher lows over a 3-month period. It can be said that during this period the market’s trend was up. That’s a fact, since the definition of an upward trend is a sequence of rising highs and lows. However, even if this market has just made a new high it is not a fact that the current trend is up, because the high that was just made could turn out to be the ultimate high prior to the start of a downward trend. Nobody knows whether it will or won’t be the ultimate high, but some traders will assume that it was — or was very close to — the ultimate high and sell, while other traders will assume that the trend is still up. The members of the first group have approximately the same probability of being right as the members of the second group, but many members of the second group (the trend-followers) will unequivocally state “the trend is up”.

In the above hypothetical case, let’s assume that the first group was right and that the price immediately started to trend downward. Most members of the second group will have in mind price levels at which they will stop assuming that the trend is up, but the point at which their assumption changes could turn out to be the bottom. In other words, having wrongly assumed that the trend was still up after the price had just peaked, they might subsequently make the incorrect assumption that the trend has changed from up to down at the time that it is actually changing from down to up.

The impossibility of knowing the direction of the trend in real time is one of the reasons that the majority of trend-following traders end up losing money. Looking from a different angle, if it were possible to KNOW the direction of the trend in real time then every half-decent trend-follower would generate good returns, but very few of them do generate good returns over the long haul.

As an aside, the majority of non-trend-following traders also end up losing money. The fact is that regardless of what method is used, trading success over the long haul is primarily about risk management.

So, just be aware that when you read comments along the lines of “the trend is up”, the author is not stating a fact. He is, instead, announcing an opinion (making an assumption) that could be wrong.

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Is the US economy too weak for a Fed rate hike?

September 6, 2016

Some analysts argue that the US economy is strong enough to handle some rate-hiking by the Fed. Others argue that with the economy growing slowly the Fed should err on the side of caution and continue to postpone its next rate hike. Still others argue that the economy is so weak that the Fed not only shouldn’t hike its targeted interest rate, it should be seriously considering a rate CUT and other stimulus measures. All of these arguments are based on a false premise.

The false premise is that the economy is boosted by forcing interest rates to be lower than they would otherwise be. It should be obvious — although apparently it isn’t — that an economy can’t be helped by falsifying the most important of all price signals.

When a central bank intervenes to make interest rates lower than they would be in a free market, a number of things happen and none of these things are beneficial to the overall economy.

First, there will be a forced wealth transfer from savers to borrowers, leading to less saving. To understand why this is an economic problem in addition to being an ethical problem, think of savings as the economy’s seed corn. Consume enough of the seed corn and there will be no future crop.

Second, construction, mining and other projects that would not be economically viable in a less artificial monetary environment are temporarily made to look viable. A result is that a lot of real resources are directed towards projects that end up failing.

Third, investors seeking an income stream are forced to take bigger risks to meet their requirements and/or obligations. In effect, conservative investors are forced to become aggressive speculators. This inevitably leads to massive and widespread losses down the track.

Fourth, debt becomes irresistibly attractive and starts being used in counter-productive ways. The best example from the recent past is the trend of US corporations taking-on increasing amounts of debt for the sole purpose of buying back their own equity. Going down this path is a much quicker way of boosting earnings per share than investing in the growth of the business, so, naturally, the increasing popularity of debt-financed share buy-backs has gone hand-in-hand with reduced capital spending.

Fifth, “defined benefit” pension funds end up with huge deficits.

The reality is that the economy cannot possibly be helped by centrally forcing interest rates to be either lower or higher than they would be if ‘the market’ were allowed to work. The whole debate about whether the US economy is strong enough to handle another Fed rate hike is therefore off base.

The right question is: How much more of the Fed’s interest-rate manipulation can the US economy tolerate?

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An exploration-stage gold miner bets against gold

September 2, 2016

I saw a press release today that boggled my mind. The press release is from Gold Road Resources (GOR.AX), a company in the process of exploring/developing a large gold deposit in Western Australia, and is linked HERE.

According to the press release, GOR is pleased with itself for having short-sold 50K ounces of gold and having given itself the option of short-selling an additional 100K ounces of gold.

Now, it’s one thing for a current gold producer to forward-sell part of the coming year’s production in order to ensure a certain cash-flow, but GOR is not a current producer. It doesn’t even have a completed Feasibility Study and is therefore years away from having any production. In fact, there is no guarantee that it will ever have any production.

What GOR is doing cannot be called hedging. It is an outright bet against a further rise in the A$-denominated gold price. Moreover, the bet is subject to margin calls, so GOR shareholders better hope that the gold price doesn’t skyrocket over the next 12 months.

It’s quite possible that GOR won’t be hurt by its bearish gold bet. It’s also quite possible that I won’t be hurt if I play Russian roulette, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for me to play.

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