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Broken Promises

Demanding More Debt

Consumer debt, corporate debt, and government debt are all going up.  But that’s not all.  Margin debt – debt that investors borrow against their portfolio to buy more stocks – has hit a record of $642.8 billion.  What in the world are people thinking?

A blow-off in margin debt mirroring the blow-off in stock prices. Since February of 2016 alone it has soared by ~$170 billion – this is an entirely new level insanity. The current total of 643 billion is more than double the level of margin debt at the tech mania peak and 15.4 times the amount of margin debt just before the crash of 1987. [PT]

Clearly, they’re not thinking.  Because thinking takes work.  Most people don’t like to work.  They like to pretend to work.

Similarly, people may say they care about debt.  But, based on their actions, they really don’t.  When it comes to the national debt, the overarching philosophy is that it doesn’t matter. Government debt certainly doesn’t matter to Congress.  Nor does it matter to the President.  In fact, their actions demonstrate they want more of it.

Big corporations with big government contracts want more government debt too. Their businesses demand it. They’ve staked their success on the expectation that the debt slop will continue flowing down the trough where they consume it like rapacious pigs.

The higher education bubble is also based on a faulty foundation of debt. The business model generally requires signing credulous 18 year-olds up for massive amounts of government backed student loans. From what we gather, federal student loan debt is closing in on $1.4 trillion.


Total student loans outstanding (red line – the data are only available from 2007 onward) and total federal government-owned student loans (black line). The former figure was closing in on $1.5 trillion as of Q4 2017. [PT]

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Haunted by Ghosts of the Old Eastern Bloc

Ridiculous Minutia

Jerome Powell, the new Chairman of the Federal Reserve, just completed his third week on the job.  He’s hardly had enough time to learn how to operate the office coffee maker, let alone the all-in-one printer.  He still doesn’t know what roach coach menu items induce a heinous gut bomb.

The perpetually slightly worried looking new Fed chairman Jerome Powell, here seen warily inspecting the Rose Garden at the White House. Everybody wants to know if he has a “better plan” – but there is no better plan, thus no-one has one. [PT]

Photo credit: A. Brandon / AP

Yet across the planet, folks high and low are already telling him exactly how he should do his job.  What’s more, they’re passing advance judgment on things that may or may not happen. For example, the South China Morning Post recently offered the following opinion:

“President Donald Trump may have done Janet Yellen a favor by not giving her a second term as Chairwoman of the Federal Reserve.  Her successor, Jerome Powell, may have inherited a poisoned chalice.  The Fed will have to up the pace of U.S. rate hikes or risk accusations of being behind the curve as markets react to signs of rising inflation.”

When Powell showed up to work on February 5, for his first day on the job, the general consensus was that the Fed would raise the federal funds rate three times this year, at 25 basis points – or 0.25 percent – per increase. But now that consumer prices are rising at an annual rate of 2.1 percent, average hourly earnings are increasing at an annual rate of 2.9 percent, and Congress has passed a massive two year budget deal, twitchy economists are questioning if three rate hikes will be enough to keep inflation in check.


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When Budget Deficits Will Really Go Vertical

Mnuchin Gets It

United States Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin has a sweet gig.  He writes rubber checks to pay the nation’s bills.  Yet, somehow, the rubber checks don’t bounce.  Instead, like magic, they clear. How this all works, considering the nation’s technically insolvent, we don’t quite understand.  But Mnuchin gets it.  He knows exactly how full faith and credit works – and he knows plenty more.

Master of the Mint and economy wizard Steven Mnuchin and his wife at the annual ritual greenback burning festival. [PT]

In fact, Mnuchin’s wife, Louise Linton, says she admires him because “he understands the economy.”  And Mnuchin, no doubt, admires Linton, a Scottish actress 18 years younger, because “she loves SoulCycle Snapchat filters that make people look like puppies and piglets.”  Naturally, Mnuchin gets the importance of puppy and piglet filters and how this bizarre fad fits into the big picture of the economy.

Unlike Mnuchin, we find the economy, and its infinite and dynamic relationships, to be beyond comprehension.  But that doesn’t deter us from attempting to make some sense of it each week.  When it comes to Snapchat filters we know nothing – and we could care less.  Still, who are we to question Snap Inc.’s $24 billion market capitalization?

What we do understand is simple arithmetic.  So, too, we care a great deal about the increasingly precarious predicament the 115th U.S. Congress is putting the American people in.  As far as we can tell, the approaching disaster is much closer than Mnuchin will publicly recognize.

US public debtberg-to-GDP ratio – cruising for a bruising. The growth in public debt in recent years is unprecedented in peace time (arguably, the term “peace time” is not an accurate description of the current era). Lettuce not forget, this is just the debt they actually admit to, so to speak.

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What Kind of Stock Market Purge Is This?

Actions and Reactions

Down markets, like up markets, are both dazzling and delightful. The shock and awe of near back-to-back 1,000 point Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) free-falls is indeed spectacular. There are many reasons to revel in it.  Today we shall share a few. To begin, losing money in a multi-day stock market dump is no fun at all.  We’d rather get our teeth drilled by a dentist.  Still, a rapid selloff has many positive qualities.

Memorable moments from the annals of dentistry [PT]

For example, the days following a market correction are full of restoration and redemption.  Like the prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi, Tuesday’s 567 point DJIA bounce brought hope where there was despair, light where there was darkness, and joy where there was sadness.  President Trump even acknowledged that his powers over the stock market are less than omnipotent.

From a practical standpoint, a market correction clarifies that we live in a world that is exacting and just, as opposed to a fabricated fantasy.  A stock market purge demonstrates that the central planners haven’t entirely broken the markets just yet.  Markets still go both up and down. This important detail is always forgotten at the worst possible time.

The stock market purge also clarifies that Fed actions provoke reactions. The Fed’s rate raising and quantitative tightening efforts are having an effect.  After pumping stock and credit markets up for the last decade they are now, by design, deflating them. What a delicate and unnecessary game these central bankers play.

The tree month t-bill yield and total assets held by the Federal Reserve system – moving in opposite directions. Amazingly, many market participants seem to believe that when these data change direction, the stock market will remain unaffected. That is probably wishful thinking. [PT]

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As the Controlled Inflation Scheme Rolls On

Controlled Inflation

American consumers are not only feeling good.  They are feeling great. They are borrowing money – and spending it – like tomorrow will never come.

After an extended period of indulging in excessive moderation (left), the US consumer makes his innermost wishes known (right). [PT]

On Monday the Federal Reserve released its latest report of consumer credit outstanding.  According to the Fed’s bean counters, U.S. consumers racked up $28 billion in new credit card debt and in new student, auto, and other non-mortgage loans in November. This amounted to an 8.8 percent increase in consumer borrowing.  It also ran total outstanding consumer debt up to $3.83 trillion.

US non-mortgage consumer debt – this exercise in admirable restraint seems to have served as a template for corporations and the government. [PT] – click to enlarge.

Perhaps this consumer spending binge will finally propel price inflation, as measured by the personal consumption expenditure (PCE) deflator, up to the Fed’s elusive 2 percent target.  Academic economists and central planners consider 2 percent price inflation to be the sweet spot for attaining economic heaven on earth.  We have some reservations.

Controlled inflation, or what is sometimes called financial repression, is what the Fed is after.  Because controlled inflation is the grease that keeps the gears of the debt based monetary system turning.  You see, through controlled inflation, and the subsequent slow erosion of debt burdens, borrowers can make good on their debts with dollars of diminished value.

And, of course, the biggest debtor of all is the federal government.  Controlled inflation benefits Washington more than anyone else.  The government can borrow massive amounts of money and inflate its debts away.  Yet this isn’t without consequences…

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Why You Should Embrace the Twilight of the Debt Bubble Age

Why You Should Embrace the Twilight of the Debt Bubble Age

People are hard to please these days.  Clients, customers, and cohorts – the whole lot.  They’re quick to point out your faults and flaws, even if they’re guilty of the same derelictions.

The recently retired always seem to have the biggest axe to grind.  Take Jack Lew, for instance.  He started off the New Year by sharpening his axe on the grinding wheel of the GOP tax bill.  On Tuesday, he told Bloomberg Radio that the new tax bill will explode the debt and leave people sick and starving.

“It’s a ticking time bomb in terms of the debt.

“The next shoe to drop is going to be an attack on the most vulnerable in our society.  How are we going to pay for the deficit caused by the tax cut?  We are going to see proposals to cut health insurance for poor people, to take basic food support away from poor people, to attack Medicare and Social Security.  One could not have made up a more cynical strategy.”

The tax bill, without question, is an impractical disaster.  However, that doesn’t mean it’s abnormal.  The Trump administration is merely doing what every other administration has done for the last 40 years or more.  They’re running a deficit as we march onward towards default.

We don’t like it.  We don’t agree with it.  But how we’re going to pay for it shouldn’t be a mystery to Lew.  We’re going to pay for it the same way we’ve paid for every other deficit: with more debt.

A Job Well Done

Of all people, Jack Lew should know this.  If you recall, Lew was the United States Secretary of Treasury during former President Obama’s second term in office.  Four consecutive years of deficits – totaling over $2 trillion – were notched on his watch.

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Several Simple Suppositions and Suspicions for 2018

A New Year of Symbiotic Disharmony

The New Year is nearly here. The slate’s been wiped clean. New hopes, new dreams, and new fantasies, are all within reach. Today is the day to make a double-fisted grab for them. Without question, 2018 will be the year in which everything happens exactly as it should. Some things you will be able to control, others will be well beyond your control.


How new years generally work… [PT]

Certainly, your ability to stop your neighbor’s cat from relieving itself in your side yard is limited, barring extreme measures. What we mean is each day shall unfold before you – both good and bad – in symbiotic disharmony. You can count on it.

But what are the specifics and particulars for the year ahead? What about stocks, the 10-Year Treasury note, gold, bitcoin, and everything else? Are we fated for World War III? Will this be the year Hillary Clinton finally croaks?

Today we endeavor to answer these questions – and more – with hesitation and humility. Obviously, predicting the future is more art than science. But so is Fed monetary policy, or a charted wave pattern that extends resistance and support lines out into the future.

Predictive Methodology and Disclaimer

Past performance is no guarantee of future results,” counsels your broker. Thus, we eschew common forecasting techniques for a conjectural approach. We look to connect seemingly unrelated big picture nodes with the illogical grace of an Irish joke.

To be clear, our methodology is as unscientific as your street corner palm reader’s. First, we engage all matters of fact, fiction, fakery, and fraud. Then, through induction, deduction, biased interpolation, and metaphysical reduction, we arrive at precise, unequivocal answers.

But before we get to it, a brief disclaimer’s in order. This proviso from King Solomon should suffice:

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The Rug Yank Phase of Fed Policy

Bogus Jobs Pay Big Bucks

The political differences of today’s two leading parties are not over ultimate questions of principle.  Rather, they are over opposing answers to the question of how a goal can be achieved with the least sacrifice.  For lawmakers, the goal is to promise the populace something for nothing, while pretending to make good on it.

The short and sweet definition of democratic elections by eminent American wordsmith and political philosopher H.L. Mencken [PT]

Take the latest tax bill, for instance.  The GOP wants to tax less and spend more.  The Democrat party wants to tax more and spend even more.  We don’t recall seeing any proposals to tax less, spend less, and shrink the size of the state.  And why would we?

When the government cuts back…  [PT]

Today’s central planners and social engineers are enlightened and progressive.  They know much more about anything and everything than the rest of us. In particular, they share a general sense that they know how to spend your money better than you.

At best, the central planners call your money to Washington so they can then distribute it back to your friends and neighbors.  In reality, the lawmakers call your money to Washington where they distribute it to their friends and neighbors – not yours.  This is not a matter of opinion.  It’s a matter of fact.

Is it a coincidence that the top three wealthiest counties in the country are in the shadow of the Capitol in the D.C. suburbs?  What exactly the residents of these counties do that is of tangible value is unclear.  However, what is clear is that bogus government jobs in Loudoun County and Fairfax County, Virginia, pay big bucks.  But that’s not all…

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The Zealous Pursuit of State-Sponsored Collapse

When Bakers Go Fishing

Government intervention into a nation’s economy is as foolish as attempting to control the sun’s rise and fall by law or force.  But that doesn’t mean governments don’t meddle each and every day with the best – and worst – of intentions.  The United States government is no exception.

From the “When the government helps the economy” collection: Breaking a few eggs while baking the bridge to nowhere omelet. [PT]

Over the years, layers and layers of interference by various federal, state, and local agencies have built up like grime on a kitchen window.  The grease shines and smells of something fierce.  The layers of government grime also drip and ooze into every crack and crevice of the economy.

These days, for example, it is impossible to carry out a simple private transaction with your barber or barista without some form of government interference.  Has your barber obtained the required license and paid the obligatory fees to be able to legally taper your neck line?  Has your barista’s espresso bean grinder passed city health inspection?

Is the hot Cup of Joe served in a paper cup of appropriate recycled material composition?  Did the hot beverage exceed the legally accepted temperature standard?  Did state and local governments receive their tax exaction upon payment?

The licensing racket – left panel: the basic definition of the racket; middle panel: how long it takes and what it costs to obtain licenses for assorted jobs in the US; right panel: the inexorable growth of rules and regulations. One shouldn’t be surprised that the pace of real economic growth has steadily declined since peaking in the late 19th century (or if one wants to focus on the modern era, since it peaked not too long after WW2).

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How Uncle Sam Inflates Away Your Life

How Uncle Sam Inflates Away Your Life

“Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon,” once remarked economist and Nobel Prize recipient Milton Friedman.  He likely meant that inflation is the more rapid increase in the supply of money relative to the output of goods and services which money is traded for.

As more and more money is issued relative to the output of goods and services in an economy, the money’s watered down and loses value.  By this account, price inflation is not in itself rising prices.  Rather, it’s the loss of purchasing power resulting from an inflating money supply.

Indeed, Friedman offered a shrewd insight.  However, he also accompanied it with an opportunist mindset.  Friedman saw promise in the phenomenon of monetary inflation.  Moreover, he saw it as a means to improve human productivity and economic growth.

You see, a stable money supply was not good enough for Friedman.  He advocated for moderate levels of monetary growth, and inflation, to perpetually stimulate the economy.  By hardwiring consumers with the expectation of higher prices, policy makers could compel a relentless consumer demand.

This desire to harness and control the inflation phenomenon has infected practically every government economist’s brain since the early 1970s.  Over the decades they’ve somehow come to a consensus that 2 percent price inflation is the idyllic rate for provoking economic nirvana.  The Fed even tinkers with its federal funds rate for the purpose of targeting this magic 2 percent rate of price inflation.

Shadow Stats

On Wednesday the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) published its October Consumer Price Index (CPI) report.  According to the government number crunchers, consumer prices are increasing at an annual rate of 2 percent.  Of course, anyone who lives and works in the real world knows prices are rising much faster.

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The Downright Sinister Rearrangement of Riches

Simple Classifications

Let’s begin with facts.  Cold hard unadorned facts. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at standard atmospheric pressure.  Squaring the circle using a compass and straightedge is impossible.  The sun is a star.

The sun is not just a star, it is a benevolent star. Look, it is smiling…  sort of. [PT]

Facts, of course, must not be confused with opinions, which are based upon observations.  Barack Obama throws like a girl.  The Federal Register is for idiots.  Two slices of chocolate cake are one too many.  Are these opinions right or wrong?

The answer depends on who you ask.  What’s certain about opinions, however, is that like bellybuttons, everybody has one.  Moreover, unlike free drugs from the government, everyone is in fact entitled to their own opinion.

Moving on from facts and opinions, the next classification we encounter is the wholly asinine.  This broadly contains the absurd and ridiculous.  Take most university teachers, barring natural science professors, for instance.  They’re wholly asinine.  The wholly asinine also extends to editors at the New York Times, Washington Post, circus hunchbacks, and the like.

Lastly, we want to mention the downright sinister.  This includes sociopaths like Hillary Rodham Clinton, John McCain, nearly all of Congress, the Federal Reserve, fractional reserve banking, Washington lobbyists, a good part of Wall Street, and much, much more.  Clearly, such people and professions don’t represent honest work.  Rather, they epitomize less than honest work that’s performed by less than honest people.
Sinister mafia boss from Arkansas, possibly checking classified material on private phone… [PT]     Photo credit: AP

Nixon Casts the Die

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Federal Reserve President Kashkari’s Masterful Distractions


The True Believer

How is it that seemingly intelligent people, of apparent sound mind and rational thought, can stray so far off the beam?  How come there are certain professions that reward their practitioners for their failures? The central banking and monetary policy vocation rings the bell on both accounts.  Today we offer a brief case study in this regard

Minneapolis Fed president Neel Kashkari attacking a block of wood with great zeal. [PT]    Photo credit: Linda Davidson / The Washington Post

Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Neel Kashkari is a man with strong convictions.  He is what the late Eric Hoffer would have classified as “the true believer.”  According to Hoffer:

“It is the true believer’s ability to ‘shut his eyes and stop his ears’ to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy.  He cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacle nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence.”

For starters, Kashkari believes the Federal Reserve, an unelected board of bureaucrats, can crunch economic data into pie graphs and bar charts and draw conclusions as to what they should fix the price of credit at.  Moreover, he believes that by fixing credit at the “correct” price, the Fed can somehow “optimize” the economy.

This idea is patently false.  Remember, the economy is comprised of billions of people with ever changing interactions.  Activities and exchanges are always adapting.

What may be the correct price of credit at one time is precisely the wrong price of credit at another.  Only a free market for credit, where rates are agreed to by willing borrowers and lenders, and unobstructed by government decree, can self-correct in real time to properly meet changing supply and demand.

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Fed Quack Treatments are Causing the Stagnation

Bleeding the Patient to Health

There’s something alluring about cure-alls and quick fixes. Who doesn’t want a magic panacea to make every illness or discomfort disappear? Such a yearning once compelled the best and the brightest minds to believe the impossible for over two thousand years.

Instantaneous relief! No matter what your affliction is, snake oil cures them all. [PT]

For example, from antiquity until the late-19th century, bloodletting was used to treat nearly every disease. Reputable medical references recommended bloodletting as a cure for acne, asthma, cancer, epilepsy, gout, indigestion, insanity, leprosy, pneumonia, scurvy, tuberculosis, and everything in between. Bloodletting was even used to treat hemorrhaging.

The practice was simple enough. A surgeon, often a barber, would open a vein and drain blood from the patient. Somehow, this was supposed to cure them of disease.

The fundamental idea was that a sick person could be bled to health. Induced fainting, via bloodletting, was even considered beneficial. However, the results were often fatal.

On December 13, 1799, George Washington returned from a cold-winters horseback ride across his estate with a raspy throat. So, he requested bloodletting to make his sore throat better. Over a ten-hour period, roughly 126 ounces of blood was drained from his system.

The next day Washington’s treatment culminated in perfect success. Because of the bloodletting, Washington never suffered from a sore throat again. He had received a permanent cure. Namely, he croaked.

Wouldn’t a tablespoon or two of honey and lemon have been a better solution to the sore throat problem? Sure, it would have been less effective. But it would have been a great deal less terminal as well.

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Janet Yellen’s 78-Month Plan for the National Monetary Policy of the United States

Adventures in depravity are nearly always confronted with the unpleasant reality that stopping the degeneracy is much more difficult than starting it.  This realization, and the unsettling feeling that comes with it, usually surfaces just after passing the point of no return.  That’s when the cucumber has pickled over and the prospect of turning back is no longer an option.

Depravity and bedlam through the ages. The blue barge of perdition in the lower middle ferries the depraved and degenerate to their final destination, a small slice of which can be glimpsed above… [PT]

In late November 2008, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke put in place a fait accompli.  But he didn’t recognize it at the time.  For he was blinded by his myopic prejudices.

Bernanke, a self-fancied Great Depression history buff with the highest academic credentials, gazed back 80 years, observed several credit market parallels, and then made a preconceived diagnosis.  After that, he picked up his copy of A Monetary History of the United States by Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, turned to the chapter on the Great Depression, and got to work expanding the Fed’s balance sheet.

Now here is something all those “Great Depression experts” always neglect to mention: the Fed’s holdings of government securities expanded my more than 400% between late 1929 and early 1933. Friedman’s often repeated assertion that the Fed “didn’t pump enough” in the early 1930s – which is held up as the gospel truth by nearly everyone – is simply untrue. It is true that the money supply collapsed anyway – but not because the Fed didn’t try to pump it up.

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To Hell In A Bucket

To Hell In A Bucket

“No one really cares about the U.S. federal debt,” remarked a colleague and Economic Prism reader earlier in the week.  “You keep writing about it as if anyone gives a lick.”

We could tell he was just warming up.  So, we settled back into our chair and made ourselves comfortable.

“The voters certainly don’t care about the federal debt,” he continued.  “They keep electing the same spendthrifts to office.

“And the politicians know the voters don’t care.  They also know that making more and more promises is the formula for getting reelected.

“Deep down, the aging masses know they need massive amounts of government debt to pay their social security, medicare, and disability checks.  On top of that, many of the so-called gainfully employed are really on corporate welfare; they hang their hats on government contracts to fund their paychecks.

“You know as well I do how this crazy debt based fiat money system works.  The debt must perpetually increase or the whole financial system breaks down.  The best we can hope for is that the ongoing currency debasement merely leads to a subtle erosion of living standards.  That’s the best-case scenario.

“But, again, no one except maybe a handful of your readers’ gives a rip about the federal debt.  Plus, if you’re gonna keep writing about it you need to use better terminology.

“The federal debt has grown at such a rapid rate that standard dollar units no longer capture what’s going on.  The debt numbers are so large it is difficult to distinguish between hundreds of billions and tens of trillions of dollars.

Going Broke at Mach 30

“For better perspective, you need to describe the debt growth in astronomical terms.  You see, astronomers use light years to adjust for large distances.  A light year, as its name suggests, is the distance light travels in one year.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai II: Exodus
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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Olduvai III: Cataclysm
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