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In The Fed We Trust – Part 1

In The Fed We Trust – Part 1

This article is the first part of a two-part article. Due to its length and importance, we split it to help readers’ better digest the information. The purpose of the article is to define money and currency and discuss their differences and risks. It is with this knowledge that we can better appreciate the path that massive deficits and monetary tomfoolery are putting us on and what we can do to protect ourselves.   

How often do you think about what the dollar bills in your wallet or the pixel dollar signs in your bank account are? The correct definitions of currency and money are crucial to our understanding of an economy, investing and just as importantly, the social fabric of a nation. It’s time we tackle the differences between currency and money and within that conversation break the news to you that deficits do matter, TRUST me. 

At a basic level, currency can be anything that is broadly accepted as a medium of exchange that comes in standardized units. In current times, fiat currency is the currency of choice worldwide. Fiat currency is paper notes, coins, and digital 0s and 1s that are governed and regulated by central banks and/or governments. Note, we did not use the word guaranteed to describe the role of the central bank or government. The value and worth of a fiat currency rest solely on the TRUST of the receiver of the currency that it will retain its value and the TRUST that others will accept it in the future in exchange for goods and services. 

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

UNLOCKED: The Curious Case of Rising Fuel Prices and Shrinking Inflation

UNLOCKED: The Curious Case of Rising Fuel Prices and Shrinking Inflation

On Friday, April 26, 2019, the market was stunned with a much stronger than expected 3.2% rate of first-quarter economic growth. Wall Street expectations were clearly off the mark, ranging from 1.3-2.3%. The media took this as a sign the economy is roaring. To wit, a headline from the Washington Post started “US Economy Feels Like the 1990s.”

Upon first seeing the GDP report, we immediately looked with suspicion at the surprisingly low GDP price deflator.  The GDP price deflator is an inflation measure used to normalize GDP so that prior periods are comparable to each other without the effects of inflation. 

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reports nominal and real GDP. Real GDP is the closely followed number that is reported by the media and quoted by the Fed and politicians. Since the GDP price deflator is subtracted from the nominal GDP number, the larger the deflator, the smaller the difference between real and nominal GDP.  

The BEA reported that the first quarter GDP price deflator was 0.9%, well below expectations of 1.7%. Had the deflator met expectations, the real GDP number would have been about 2.4%, still high but closer to the upper range of economists’ expectations. 

Fueling the Deflator

Like Wall Street, we were expecting a deflator that was in line or possibly higher than its recent average. The average deflator over the last two years is 2.05%, and it is running slightly higher at 2.125% over the last four quarters. Our expectation for an average or above average deflator in Q1 2019 were in large part driven by oil prices which rose by 32% over the entire first quarter. Due to the price move and the contribution of crude oil effects on inflation, oil prices should have had an unusually high impact on inflation measures in the first quarter of 2019. 

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

Why Warning About A Bubble For A Decade Is Completely Rational

Why Warning About A Bubble For A Decade Is Completely Rational

In my experience as someone who warns about the development of dangerous economic bubbles (both the mid-2000s U.S. housing bubble and the post-2009 “Everything Bubble“), I have been criticized literally thousands of times as the stock market surges year after year and the economy continues to grow. The criticisms typically take the form of “you’ve been warning about bubbles for years – you’re a broken clock!,” “you’re a permabear!,” and “you’ve been missing out on tons of profits!” I’ve heard every criticism in the book and I’m completely unfazed by them because those criticisms are based on misunderstandings of my approach and because I know that my analyses are correct. 

The number one mistake that my critics make is assuming that I am calling to sell the market and go short at the very same time that I warn about a bubble. This is completely untrue because my goal is to spot and warn about bubbles as early as possible as an activist for the purpose of warning society that it is going down the wrong path. As someone who graduated college straight into the 2008 financial crisis and struggled for a number of years after, I know from first-hand experience how destructive bubbles are to the economy and overall society. As a result, I feel that it is my moral duty to help spot and warn about bubbles in an effort to prevent another 2008-style crisis. 

Though my goal is to warn about bubbles as early as possible as an activist, I do not approach trading and investing the same way. I am able to separate anti-economic bubble activism from tactical trading and investing.

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

Contrarian Alert: “Is Inflation Dead?” Makes The Cover Of Businessweek

Contrarian Alert: “Is Inflation Dead?” Makes The Cover Of Businessweek

In the financial world, those who subscribe to the contrarian school of thought (including myself) keep an eye out for certain cues or indications that a trend has become overcrowded and is nearing its end. Some examples of these contrarian indicators are investor sentiment indexes, fear gauges such as the CBOE Volatility Index or VIX, the construction of record-breaking skyscrapers, and also the topics that are chosen for finance and business magazine covers. The last example is called the Magazine Cover Indicator and the logic behind it is that, by the time a trend has gained enough momentum or attention to justify its own cover story, it is about to become passé. In an infamous example, Businessweek published the cover story “The Death Of Equities” on August 13, 1979, right before the secular bull market began. 

Bloomberg Businessweek’s latest cover story is called “Is Inflation Dead?,” which should make contrarians question whether the actual risk is higher inflation (or hidden inflation, as I will explain).

Here are the first few paragraphs from this piece – 

If economics were literature, the story of what happened to inflation would be a gripping whodunit. Did inflation perish of natural causes—a weak economy, for instance? Was it killed by central banks, with high interest rates the murder weapon? Or is it not dead at all but just lurking, soon to return with a vengeance?

Like any good murder mystery, this one has a twist. What if the apparent defeat of inflation blew back on the central bankers themselves by making them appear expendable? Far from being lauded for a job well done, they’re under populist attack.

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

The Fed’s Body Count

The Fed’s Body Count

The problem with the war (Vietnam), as it often is, are the metrics. It is a situation where if you can’t count what’s important, you make what you can count important. So, in this particular case what you could count was dead enemy bodies.” – James Willbanks, Army Advisor, General of the Army George C. Marshall Chair of Military History for the Command and General Staff College

If body count is the measure of success, then there’s a tendency to count every enemy body as a soldier. There’s a tendency to want to pile up dead bodies and perhaps to use less discriminate firepower than you otherwise might in order to achieve the result that you’re charged with trying to obtain.” – Lieutenant Colonel Robert Gard, Army and military assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara

Verbal Jenga

In recent press conferences, speeches, and testimony to Congress, Federal Reserve (Fed) Chairman Jerome Powell emphasized the Fed’s plan to be “patient” regarding further adjustments to interest rates. He also implied it is likely the Fed’s balance sheet reductions (QT) will be halted by the end of the year. 

The support for this sudden shift in policy is obtuse considering his continuing glowing reports about the U.S. economy. For example, the labor market is “strong with the unemployment rate near historic lows and with strong wage gains. Inflation remains near our 2% goal. We continue to expect the American economy will grow at a solid pace in 2019…” The caveats, according to Powell, are that “growth has slowed in some major foreign economies” and “there is elevated uncertainty around several unresolved government policy issues including Brexit, ongoing trade negotiations and the effect from the partial government shutdown.” 

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

Economic Theories & Debt Driven Realities

Economic Theories & Debt Driven Realities

One of the most highly debated topics over the past few months has been the rise of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). The economic theory has been around for quite some time but was shoved into prominence recently by Congressional Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “New Green Deal” which is heavily dependent on massive levels of Government funding.

There is much debate on both sides of the argument but, as is the case with all economic theories, supporters tend to latch onto the ideas they like, ignore the parts they don’t, and aggressively attack those who disagree with them. However, what we should all want is a robust set of fiscal and monetary policies which drive long-term economic prosperity for all.

Here is the problem with all economic theories – they sound great in theory, but in practice, it has been a vastly different outcome. For example, when it comes to deficits, John Maynard Keynes contended that:

“A general glut would occur when aggregate demand for goods was insufficient, leading to an economic downturn resulting in losses of potential output due to unnecessarily high unemployment, which results from the defensive (or reactive) decisions of the producers.”

In other words, when there is a lack of demand from consumers due to high unemployment, then the contraction in demand would force producers to take defensive actions to reduce output. Such a confluence of actions would lead to a recession.

In such a situation, Keynesian economics states that government policies could be used to increase aggregate demand, thus increasing economic activity and reducing unemployment and deflation. Investment by government injects income, which results in more spending in the general economy, which in turn stimulates more production and investment involving still more income and spending and so forth.The initial stimulation starts a cascade of events, whose total increase in economic activity is a multiple of the original investment.

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

Fables, Fairy Tales and the Gold Standard

Fables, Fairy Tales and the Gold Standard

President Trump often tweets about the strength and health of the U.S. economy, and two weeks ago, he tweeted that the U.S. economy was the Gold Standard throughout the World.

The fact that Trump capitalized the words “Gold Standard” may have piqued the interest of those who believe in sound money principles.  Trump has in fact spoken in the past about a return to the Gold Standard, and some of the issues surrounding this are summarized in an October 2018 article: Trump Puts Gold Standard On The Table.

A simple interpretation of Trump’s tweet means that the U.S. economy is the envy of the world, the benchmark by which other economies measure themselves.

Nevertheless, Trump’s tweet can be viewed as valid in another way, whether this interpretation was intended or not.  When the U.S. dollar was de-linked from the value of gold in 1971, the U.S. dollar and its economy became the Gold Standard.  The U.S. dollar is the primary reserve currency throughout the world, and therefore almost everything bought or sold in the world has a reference point to the value of the dollar.

The value of the dollar is related to the health of the U.S. economy, and the U.S. economy, absent a “real” gold standard, IS the monetary standard throughout the world.

We are not suggesting that Trump will help navigate the world back to a Gold Standard, and any political, strategic or tactical discussions on that point are above our pay grade.  In fact, we prefer to summarize our understanding of the gold market by way of two children’s stories.

Fables and Fairy Tales

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

Why Another 50% Correction Is Possible

Why Another 50% Correction Is Possible

All of sudden….volatility.

Well, that is what it seems like anyway after several years of a steady grind higher in the markets. However, despite the pickup in volatility, the breaks of previous bullish trends, and a reversal in Central Bank policy, it is still widely believed that bear markets have become a relic of the past.

Now, I am not talking about a 20% correction type bear market. I am talking about a devastating, blood-letting, retirement crushing, “I am never investing again,” type decline of 40%, 50%, or more.

I know. I know.

It’s the “doom-and-gloom” speech to try to scare investors into hiding in cash.

But that is NOT the point of this missive.

While we have been carrying a much higher weighting in cash over the last several months, we also still have a healthy dose of equity related investments.

Why? Because the longer-term trends still remain bullish as shown below. (Note: The market did break the bullish trend with a near 20% correction in 2016, but was bailed out by massive interventions from the ECB, BOE, and BOJ.)

Now, you will note that I keep saying a 20% “correction.” Of course, Wall Street classifies a bear market as a decline of 20% or more. However, as I noted recently:

“During a bull market, prices trade above the long-term moving average. However, when the trend changes to a bear market prices trade below that moving average. This is shown in the chart below which compares the market to the 75-week moving average. During ‘bullish trends’ the market tends to trade above the long-term moving average and below it during ‘bearish trends.’”

In other words, at least for me, it is the overall TREND of the market which determines a bull or bear market. Currently, that trend is still rising. But such will not always be the case, and we may be in the process of the “trend change” now.

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

Oil Sends A “Crude Warning”

Oil Sends A “Crude Warning”

As with many Americans, I am on the road with the family making the traditional holiday rounds. Of course, my family is more “The Griswolds” than “The Waltons. but even with all of the antics, comedy, and occasional drama, it is always an enjoyable time of the year.

However, I did wake up from my tryptophan-induced coma long enough to pen a few thoughts on the crash in crude oil and the message it is sending.

On Monday, I am publishing an article on the fallacy that “falling energy prices are an economic boost.” It isn’t, and we dig into all the reasons why in that article.

However, the short version is that oil prices are a reflection of supply and demand. Global demand has already been falling for the last several months and oil prices are now waking up that reality. More importantly, falling oil prices are going to put the Fed in a very tough position in the next couple of months as the expected surge in inflationary pressures, in order to justify higher rates, once again fails to appear. The chart below shows breakeven 5-year and 10-year inflation rates versus oil prices.

Oil prices also tend to lead the broad economic cycle as well. The chart below is one of the broadest measures of economic activity and is comprised of leading economic indicators, Fed regional manufacturing surveys, NFIB small business survey, ISM, CFNAI, and Chicago PMI.

Since most of the economic data we look at is trailing, and subject to heavy negative revisions, the collapse in oil prices suggests that coming economic reports will likely be materially weaker than currently expected.

Can I Have A Side Of Debt

But there is another enormous problem currently for the oil and gas sector currently at risk – the debt.

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

Bear Market Growls As Market Remains Weak 11-16-18

Bear Market Growls As Market Remains Weak 

Several months ago, I penned an article about the problems with “passive indexing” and specifically the problem of the “algorithms” that are driving roughly 80% of the trading in the markets. To wit:

“When the ‘robot trading algorithms’  begin to reverse (selling rallies rather than buying dips), it will not be a slow and methodical process, but rather a stampede with little regard to price, valuation, or fundamental measures as the exit will become very narrow.”

Fortunately, up to this point, there has not been a triggering of margin debt, as of yet, which remains the “gasoline”to fuel a rapid market decline. As we have discussed previously, margin debt (i.e. leverage) is a double-edged sword. It fuels the bull market higher as investors “leverage up” to buy more equities, but it also burns “white hot”on the way down as investors are forced to liquidate to cover margin calls. Despite the two sell-offs this year, leverage has only marginally been reduced.

If you overlay that the S&P 500 index you can see more clearly the magnitude of the reversions caused by a “leverage unwind.”

The reason I bring this up is that, so far, the market has not declined enough to “trigger” margin calls.

At least not yet.

But exactly where is that level? 

There is no set rule, but there is a point at which the broker-dealers become worried about being able to collect on the “margin lines” they have extended. My best guess is that point lies somewhere around a 20% decline from the peak. The correction from intraday peak to trough in 2015-2016 was nearly 20%, but on a closing basis, the draft was about 13.5%. The corrections earlier this year, and currently, have both run close to 10% on a closing basis.

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

How The Bubbles In Stocks And Corporate Bonds Will Burst

How The Bubbles In Stocks And Corporate Bonds Will Burst

As someone who has been warning heavily about dangerous bubbles in U.S. corporate bonds and stocks, people often ask me how and when I foresee these bubbles bursting. Here’s what I wrote a few months ago:

To put it simply, the U.S. corporate debt bubble will likely burst due to tightening monetary conditions, including rising interest rates. Loose monetary conditions are what created the corporate debt bubble in the first place, so the ending of those conditions will end the corporate debt bubble. Falling corporate bond prices and higher corporate bond yields will cause stock buybacks to come to a screeching halt, which will also pop the stock market bubble, creating a downward spiral. There are extreme consequences from central bank market-meddling and we are about to learn this lesson once again.

Interestingly, Zero Hedge tweeted a chart today of the LQD iShares Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF saying that it was “about to break 7 year support: below it, the buybacks end.” That chart resonated with me, because it echos my warnings from a few months ago. I decided to recreate this chart with my own commentary on it. The 110 to 115 support zone is the key line in the sand to watch. If LQD closes below this zone in a convincing manner, it would likely foreshadow an even more powerful bond and stock market bust ahead.

Corporate Grade Bonds - LQD

Thanks to ultra-low corporate bond yields, U.S. corporations have engaged in a borrowing binge since the Global Financial Crisis. Total outstanding non-financial U.S. corporate debt is up by an incredible $2.5 trillion or 40 percent since its 2008 peakwhich was already a precariously high level to begin with.

Corporate Debt

U.S. corporate debt is now at an all-time high of over 45% of GDP, which is even worse than the levels reached during the dot-com bubble and U.S. housing and credit bubble:

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

The Economic Consequences Of Debt

The Economic Consequences Of Debt

Not surprisingly, my recent article on “The Important Role Of Recessions” led to more than just a bit of debate on why “this time is different.” The running theme in the debate was that debt really isn’t an issue as long as our neighbors are willing to support continued fiscal largesse.

As I have pointed out previously, the U.S. is currently running a nearly $1 Trillion dollar deficit during an economic expansion. This is completely contrary to the Keynesian economic theory.

Keynes contended that ‘a general glut would occur when aggregate demand for goods was insufficient, leading to an economic downturn resulting in losses of potential output due to unnecessarily high unemployment, which results from the defensive (or reactive) decisions of the producers.’  In other words, when there is a lack of demand from consumers due to high unemployment, the contraction in demand would force producers to take defensive actions to reduce output.

In such a situation, Keynesian economics states that government policies could be used to increase aggregate demand, thus increasing economic activity, and reducing unemployment and deflation.  

Investment by government injects income, which results in more spending in the general economy, which in turn stimulates more production and investment involving still more income and spending and so forth. The initial stimulation starts a cascade of events, whose total increase in economic activity is a multiple of the original investment.”

Of course, with the government already running a massive deficit, and expected to issue another $1.5 Trillion in debt during the next fiscal year, the efficacy of “deficit spending” in terms of its impact to economic growth has been greatly marginalized.

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

Kass: High Anxiety In The Markets

Kass: High Anxiety In The Markets

“Brophy: I got it. I got it. I got it.

[thump]

Brophy: I ain’t got it.” – Mel Brooks, High Anxiety

Arriving at Los Angeles International Airport, Dr. Richard Thorndyke has several odd encounters (such as a flasher impersonating a police officer, and a passing bus with a full orchestra playing inside it). Dr. Thorndyke remarks:

“What a dramatic airport!”

He is taken by his driver, Brophy, to the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous, where he has been hired as a replacement for Dr. Ashley, who died mysteriously. Brophy has a condition of nervousness, and he takes pictures when he gets nervous. Upon his arrival, Thorndyke is greeted by the staff, Dr. Charles Montague, Dr. Philip Wentworth, and Nurse Charlotte Diesel. When he goes to his room, a large rock is thrown through the window, with a message of welcome from the violent ward.

During the movie, Thorndyke suffers from a neural disorder called “High Anxiety”, a mix of acrophobia and vertigo, and tries to overcome the infliction.

We Live In Mel Brook’s Crazy World Now

With an intraday move of almost 4% – the S&P futures fell by a remarkable 100 points from the day’s high to the day’s low. A large sell program at around 3:30 p.m. abruptly moved the market down by fifty handles in one of the largest sell programs I have ever seen hit the floor. (The day’s swing in the Dow Jones Industrial Average exceeded 900 points!)

The Spyders peaked at over $270 at around 10:10 a.m. and bottomed at under $260 (with 30 minutes left in the trading session). Spyders closed the day at $263.86.

Talk about High Anxiety!

As I write this morning’s missive the market volatility has continued. When I started writing this column, S&P futures were +18 and Nasdaq futures were +38 . They are now essentially flat, on no new news.

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

Markets Get Crash(ier)

Markets Get Crash(ier)

Over the last three weeks, as interest rates surged above 3%, we explored the question of whether something had “just broken” in the market.

As I stated last week:

“This past week has been a decidedly tough struggle for stocks to pick themselves up after last week’s drubbing. While we saw a sharp reflexive bounce earlier this week, that bounce quickly faded as stocks returned to retest support at critically important levels.”

While the market was oversold last week, there was no follow through on bounces which ultimately led to “crash”open on Friday morning.

Now, all this SOUNDS terrible. And, after having THE single longest uninterrupted bull run in the history of the market with record low volatility it FEELS even worse. 

So, before we get into the not so good news, let’s keep this all in perspective for a minute.

For the year:

  • The S&P 500 index, not including dividends, is down 0.56%.
  • The S&P 500 Total Return index is still positive by 0.98%
  • A 60/40 model (60% Vanguard S&P 500 and 40% Vanguard Bond Fund) is down 1.72%

What has been different this year so far, is that bonds, while they have reduced the volatility of the recent decline in the S&P 500 index, have not contributed to portfolio returns this year so far. So, the only place to hide has been cash.

However, if we take a look at the market from 2009 to present, we can gain some better context.

The recent decline is very much like the previous corrections in the market. The red circles denote when both “sell signals” align (a correction of overbought conditions and a triggered sell signal). These corrections have specifically coincided with periods where the market was extremely deviated above the running bullish trend line (gold boxes.)  

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

The Market Isn’t The Economy: A Snapshot From The Depression

The Market Isn’t The Economy: A Snapshot From The Depression

“We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.

And time went by, drawn by slow horses.

Somewhere beyond our windows shone the world.

The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.” – Pantoum of the Great Depression – Donald Justice.

Wall Street insiders relish market troughs.

They bask sanguine in their confidence of history. Tenured pros are comforted in the belief that monetary and fiscal stimulus triggers are cocked and at the ready, reinforced in the knowledge that taxpayers without choice in the matter, will again, be the bail-out solution.

In a last irony to turn the blade in the back slowly, this group confidently takes credit for saving a system they helped to bust in the first place.

They are the strong hands who patiently await to scoop up shares when markets falter. As the smart money, these players unload inflated shares to the ‘dumb’ money or retail investors at “FOMO” or fear-of-missing-out emotional peaks.

The masses are advised to blind buy and hold. Retail investors are cajoled as “brave” if they “ride it out.” And whatever “it” is can be counted in years, even decades. Time is precious to us mere mortals. Our lives are finite; Wall Street lives on forever. The precious time it takes to break-even is ignored. Not relevant.

One of my favorite Nashville-based songwriters Drew Holcomb begins a song with a seminal line:

“Time steals every paradise I’ve been looking for.”

When Wall Street prospers, Main Street doesn’t necessarily follow a similar, prosperous path.

For example, Pew Research Center outlines that overall, American Household wealth has not fully recovered from the Great Recession. As early as 2016, median wealth of all U.S. households was $97,300; well below median wealth of $139,700 before the recession began in 2007.

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

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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Olduvai III: Cataclysm
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