Revisiting the US yield curve

September 11, 2017

In a blog post in February of last year I explained that an inversion of the US yield curve has never been a recession signal. Instead, the genuine recession signal has always been the reversal in the curve from ‘flattening’ (short-term interest rates rising relative to long-term interest rates) to ‘steepening’ (short-term interest rates falling relative to long-term interest rates) after an extreme is reached. It just so happens that under normal monetary conditions an extreme usually isn’t reached and the reversal therefore doesn’t occur until after the yield curve becomes inverted.

The fact is that it doesn’t matter how ‘flat’ or inverted the yield curve becomes, there’s a good chance that the monetary-inflation-fueled economic boom will be intact as long as short-term interest rates are rising relative to long-term interest rates. The reason, in a nutshell, is that the boom periods are dominated by¬†borrowing short to lend or invest long, a process that puts upward pressure on short-term interest rates relative to long-term interest rates. It’s when short-term interest rates begin trending downward relative to long-term interest rates that we know the boom is in trouble.

The following chart shows that the spread between the 10-year T-Note yield and the 2-year T-Note yield is much narrower now than it was a few years ago. This means that there has been a substantial flattening of the US yield curve. Also, the chart shows no evidence of a trend reversal. This implies that the inflation-fueled boom is still intact.

yieldcurve_110917

Print This Post Print This Post

The most useful leading indicator of the global boom-bust cycle

September 1, 2017

The long-term economic oscillations between boom and bust are caused by changes in the money-supply growth rate. It can therefore make sense to monitor such changes, but doing so requires knowing how to calculate the money supply. Unfortunately, most of the popular monetary aggregates are not useful in this regard because they either include quantities that aren’t money or omit quantities that are money.

What “Austrian” economists refer to as TMS (True Money Supply) is the most accurate monetary aggregate. Whereas popular measures such as M2, M3 and MZM contain credit instruments, TMS only contains money. Specifically, TMS comprises currency (notes and coins), checkable deposits and savings deposits.

The following chart shows the year-over-year TMS growth rate (the monetary inflation rate) in the US. It has fallen sharply over the past 8 months — from around 11% to around 5% — and is now at its lowest level since 2008.

The chart displayed above suggests that the US economic boom* is on its last legs. It may well be, but the 2002-2006/7 boom continued for almost 2 years after the US monetary inflation rate fell to near its current level in early-2005.

The reason for the long delay during 2005-2007 between the decline in the US TMS growth rate to a level that ordinarily would have ended the boom in less than 12 months and the actual ending of the boom was the offsetting effect of rapid monetary inflation in the euro-zone. This prompted me to develop a monetary aggregate that I call “G2 TMS”, which combines the US and euro-zone money supplies. Here is a monthly chart showing the growth rate of G2 TMS.

The rate of change in the G2 TMS growth rate has been the most useful leading indicator of the global boom-bust cycle over the past two decades. Of particular significance, a decline in the G2 TMS growth rate from well above 6% to below 6% warns of a shift from boom to bust within 12 months.

At the end of July the G2 TMS growth rate was slightly above the boom-bust transition level.

*An economic boom is defined as a multi-year period during which the creation of a lot of money out of nothing causes an unsustainable increase in economic activity.

Print This Post Print This Post

Interest Rates and Gremlins

August 29, 2017

Everyone is familiar with the term “interest rate”, but most people don’t understand what the term means. Unless you understand what the term means, you won’t fully understand why the central bank’s ‘management’ of interest rates damages the economy.

To understand what the interest rate is, it helps to understand what it isn’t. It isn’t the price of money. The price of money is what money buys, which can be different in every transaction. For example, if an apple is priced at $1, a new car is priced at $30,000 and a dental checkup is priced at $100, then the price of a dollar can be said to be 1 apple or 1/30000th of a car or 1/100th of a dental checkup.

The interest rate is the price paid by a borrower for a temporary increase in his purchasing power, or, looking at it from a different angle, the price received by a lender in consideration for temporarily giving up some of his purchasing power. This price will naturally take into account the risk that the borrower will be unable to make full repayment (credit risk) and the risk that money will be worth less in the future than it is at the time the loan is made (inflation risk). However, even if there were no credit or inflation risk to consider the interest rate would still be positive. The reason is that a unit of money in the hand today will always be worth more than a promise to pay a unit of the same money in the future.

This means that as well as being determined by the risk of default and the risk of inflation, the interest rate in any transaction will be determined by the time preferences of the borrower and lender. Someone with a strong desire to consume in the present has a high time preference. It’s likely that if this person has insufficient money to satisfy his immediate desire to consume then he will be willing to pay a high rate of interest to temporarily increase his purchasing power. Alternatively, it’s likely that someone whose desire to consume in the present is low relative to the amount of cash he has on hand will be willing to lend money to the right borrower at a relatively low rate of interest.

In any given transaction the credit risk component of the overall interest rate will end up being part of the lender’s real return if the borrower doesn’t default, but if credit risk is priced correctly then over a large number of transactions the amount received to compensate for this risk will be offset by actual borrower default. For example, if the risk of borrower default is correctly priced at 5%/year, then over a large number of transactions enough borrowers will default to impose a cost on the lender of 5%/year. Therefore, the time component of the interest rate is the same as the expected real return to the lender.

The implication is that on an economy-wide basis the real interest rate should be determined by the average of people’s time preferences.

To further explain, when the quantity of real savings is high relative to the general desire to consume in the present, the average time preference is low and the real interest rate SHOULD be low. Entrepreneurs and other businessmen will respond to this interest-rate signal by embarking on long-term projects that assume a future increase in consumer spending (high savings in the present implies higher consumer spending in the future). Capital equipment will be purchased, office buildings and shopping malls will be built, etc. When the quantity of real savings is low and people throughout the economy are consuming with abandon, the average time preference is high and the real interest rate SHOULD be high. Entrepreneurs and other businessmen will respond to this interest-rate signal by holding-off on new long-term projects. Although they won’t look at it in these terms, in effect they are being told, by the way the market is pricing time, that the future level of consumer spending will be insufficient to support certain investments.

The word “should” is capitalised in the previous paragraph because in the real world there exists a gremlin with the power to distort the interest rate. The gremlin is constantly tinkering with the interest rate, the result being that this vital price signal is always misleading to some degree. In fact, thanks to the mischievous acts of this gremlin the interest-rate signal is occasionally the opposite of what it should be.

Of particular relevance, due to the gremlin’s preference for distorting the interest rate in a downward direction the real interest rate is sometimes low during periods when the quantity of savings is low and the majority of people are spending like crazy, that is, when the average time preference is high. The result is that entrepreneurs and other businessmen throughout the economy embark on long-term projects that have no hope of being profitable. Individuals will naturally make mistakes, but for a large proportion of the population to make the same investing error the interest-rate signal must be wrong.

No prize for guessing the identity of the gremlin.

Print This Post Print This Post

The weakest boom ever

August 21, 2017

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

The US economic boom that followed the bust of 2007-2009 is still in progress. It has been longer than average, but at the same time it has been unusually weak. The weakness is even obvious in the government’s own heavily-manipulated and positively-skewed data. For example, the following chart shows that during the current boom* the year-over-year growth rate of real GDP peaked at only 3.3% and has averaged only about 2.0%. Why has the latest boom been so weak and what does this say about the severity of the coming bust?

Before attempting to answer the above question it’s important to explain what is meant by the terms “boom” and “bust”.

An economy doesn’t naturally oscillate between boom and bust. The oscillations are related to fractional reserve banking and these days are driven primarily by central banks. When I use the term “boom” in relation to an economy I am therefore not referring to a period of strong and sustainable economic progress, I am referring to a period during which monetary inflation and interest-rate suppression bring about an unsustainable surge in economic activity.

Booms are always followed by and effectively give birth to busts, with each bust wiping out a good portion (sometimes 100%) of the gain achieved during the preceding boom. Putting it another way, once a boom has been set in motion by the central bank a bust becomes an inevitable consequence. The only unknowns are the timing of the bust and how much of the boom-time gain will be erased.

Returning to the question asked in the opening paragraph, the main reason for the unusual weakness of the latest boom is the unprecedented aggressiveness of the central bank’s response to the 2007-2009 bust. In broad terms, this response came in two parts. First, there was the initial knee-jerk reaction during 2008-2009 that involved massive bailouts for banks and bondholders. In particular, by various means the Fed channeled many hundreds of billions of dollars into financial institutions to keep these institutions in business and ensure that their largest creditors remained whole. Because the Fed cannot create new wealth, this effectively involved a huge transfer of wealth from the rest of the economy to financial institutions and the associated bondholders. Second, the Fed continued to ramp up the money supply and keep its targeted interest rates near zero for several years after a recovery had begun, that is, the Fed’s ‘crisis-fighting’ persisted for many years after the crisis was over. Ironically, this got in the way of the recovery.

A related point is that from a monetary perspective the biggest difference between the current boom and earlier booms is that a lot of the monetary fuel for the current boom was directly provided by the Fed, whereas almost all of the monetary fuel for earlier booms was loaned into existence by the commercial banks. When commercial banks lend money into existence the first receivers of the new money are individual and corporate customers of the banks, but when the Fed creates money via its QE programs the first receivers of the new money are Primary Dealers (PDs). The PDs invest the money in bonds, which means that the second receivers of the new money will be bond investors. These investors then use the money to buy other securities (bonds or stocks). The upshot is that when the Fed creates money the money gets shuffled around between the accounts of financial-market operators for an extended period, only leaking slowly into the real economy.

This explains why the economy has fared unusually poorly during the current boom while the stock and bond markets have fared unusually well. In effect, due to the way the new money was injected it had a much greater impact on financial asset prices than the real economy.

This could actually be a blessing in disguise. If the boom were to end within the coming 12 months, which it will if monetary conditions continue to tighten, then the ensuing recession may be far more severe in the financial markets (where the monetary inflation had its greatest impact) than in the real economy. In other words, the bust may look more like 2000-2002, when a short and mild economic recession was accompanied by a 50% decline in the stock market, than 2007-2009, when a devastating economic recession was accompanied by a similar decline in the stock market.

*The booms in the GDP growth chart included herewith are roughly equal the periods between the shaded areas, except that the official recessions (the shaded areas on the chart) typically didn’t begin until 6-12 months after the preceding boom ended. For example, whereas the most recent official recession began in December-2007, the bust probably began in late-2006 — when (mal) investments in sub-prime lending started ‘blowing up’.

Print This Post Print This Post