Tagged: inflation

Interest(ing) Rates

Cathie Wood says don’t do it.

Raise interest rates, that is.  The founder of Ark Investment Management and guru to retail traders of Tech stocks says the Federal Reserve is playing with fire.

Why?  Because growth is fragile and consumer confidence is woeful.  Hike rates, and we plunge into recession.

Illustration 44644519 © Tashatuvango | Dreamstime.com

I enjoy economics almost as much as market structure. I’ve got observations.

What’s the big threat Ms. Woods sees in higher rates? US Gross Domestic Product is 70% consumption – the stuff we buy.  The consumption linchpin is home equity.

As homes increase in value, consumers borrow equity to fuel both the confidence to go out and buy stuff, and the means to consume big-ticket items like cars and appliances.

If interest rates rise, people stop buying and refinancing homes, and the torrent of cash driving consumption shrivels.

I think the Federal Reserve knows it’s going to muzzle the economy. But The Fed will try to rapidly raise interest rates so it can hack them back to zero as the economy slips. Maybe that’ll juice consumption anew, forestalling recession.

The whole concept is jacked. The Fed shouldn’t be manipulating consumer behavior at all, because then it’s artificial.

The Fed touts its dual mandate – stable prices, low unemployment – as an unassailable hieratic purpose. Well, why should the Fed allocate labor and capital? You’d expect that from a despotic politburo, not a free country.

Yet nobody questions it.

Listen to a Fed press conference and all you’ll hear is how many times will you hike rates?  Do you support 25 or 50 basis points?  Is the Fed too late in the curve?  Will higher rates choke off growth?  Will higher rates bring inflation to heel?

In my entire adult life, not one economist at a Fed presser has asked a good question.  

So here’s one.  Why set rates so low in the first place that they discourage savings and promote borrowing and spending? Isn’t that the opposite of sound financial strategy?

Or how about this?  The US Constitution directs Congress to fix exchange rates for our currency and to back it with just weights and measures, which means with gold and silver. Why does the Fed defy the Constitution?

Because, Tim, gold and silver are stupid antiquated notions about money.

Well, it’s the law in black and white, hasn’t been changed. But government has decided its opinions are superior to the law. In many instances. But I digress.

John Maynard Keynes, the father of deficit spending, said, “The best way to destroy the capitalist system is to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.”

You can’t suck all the value out of money backed by metal.

How does inflation debauch capitalism? Businesses struggle to deploy labor and capital to produce goods and services at predictable returns. Consumers who trade time for money can’t make ends meet and become state dependents.

Yes, hourly workers are hurt most. Then the government has the audacity to blame capitalism for the growing wealth gap. No, the Fed does it. Rich people can surf the inflation wave. Poor people can’t.

The problem isn’t higher rates. It’s LOW RATES to begin.

Low rates increase the supply of currency faster than output, which means everybody’s money buys less. The money supply the last two years rose from $16-$22 trillion.

The definition of inflation should be “low interest rates,” because the inevitable consequence is more money chasing the same goods instead of getting saved, invested.

If we wanted people to save, we’d reward them for it. Why don’t we? Because the Fed exists – no matter its pronouncements of independence – to keep the federal government and its policies afloat. Which requires CONSUMPTION. Not saving.

Even if it’s contrary to the interests of the citizenry.

What if we lifted rates to 10% and left them there?  A bunch of stuff would go broke.  Probably our government.

Too high a price? If we want money that buys more over time rather than less, that generates a return when you save it so we become less indebted, less dependent, we have to either bankrupt the government or take away its printing press.

Maybe both.

We will never be financially responsible as a society so long as the Federal Reserve uses interest rates to allocate labor and capital, and the government is printing money.

That is the problem to solve. Everything else is a failure to address the problem.

So, will we?  I’d wager all that Fed paper blighting the fruited plain that it’ll continue until nobody wants dollars (we’re helping Russia, in fact).

Or we could instead fix it.  Anyone?

Fed Up

We’re in New York hoping to run into Janet Yellen because today the Federal Reserve probably raises rates.

In December last year the Fed hiked, and markets jumped – and then imploded. Worst January start ever for the stock market.

If you’re not right now feeling a deadening of your senses, you’re an outlier. Assemble a focus group and you’ll find folks have roughly the same reaction to the words “monetary policy” that they do to “dental appointment.”  It’s all floss, scraping and blood.

With stocks at all-time highs due more to the growth of the Fed’s balance sheet than verve in the economy, one wonders if it’s held together with dental floss. The world’s leading currency manipulator by my estimation isn’t China but us. The USA.  We micromanage the supply of dollars, and all currencies turn on the value of the dollar.

So we have to talk monetary policy. If the supply of money expands faster than the economy, inflation will show up somewhere. Inflation simply means your money doesn’t go as far as it used to.  See everything from real estate to education to stocks now.

The Fed from 2009-15 increased the supply of dollars by 62% while the economy grew 24% (about 2% per year). The adult population expanded 7%. Those employed increased 10% (but only 4% if you back up to peak mid-2008 pre-crisis jobs).

The only way an economy grows faster than population is if productivity – doing more with less – increases. Our most productive year by far in recent times was…wait for it…2009.  Yes, when the economy imploded and the value of the dollar exploded, suddenly our money went farther, and the bloat came out, and productivity spiked 5.5%.

But the Fed immediately shoved the entire economy full of bucks. Productivity nose-dived because our money didn’t go as far as it used to, as prices for everything from houses to stocks climbed sharply.  Productivity since has averaged less than 1% growth per year and totals but 5% from 2010 through the third quarter this year.

So if the supply of money is the only thing growing rapidly, we have an economy built on what the sellside analysts call multiple-expansion, which is just another name for your money doesn’t go as far as it used to.  You’re paying more for the same thing.

This, while we’re at it, is how income inequality increases.  When governments expand the supply of money, people with more (the rich) spend it on houses and cars and art and stocks, increasing the prices of those things, and the rich get richer.

But for the poor who do not have assets, the money they have doesn’t go as far because stuff like toilet paper and cereal and toothpaste costs more.  So they have less (we thus have a curious confluence in which the Fed rails against income inequality while promoting it with policies).

The ideal structure is for money to have timeless value so that technology for making things boosts productivity, and prices come down some over time (prices declined by 50% from 1800-1900 and we had our most explosively productive stretch ever) and everybody’s money goes a little farther.

The Trump administration brings a message of opportunity. That unstoppable force of hope is slamming into the immovable object of economic fact. Stocks are up some 10% without underlying change. It says how much we long for the good times to roll again.

There are two questions here as we conclude. First, do we want to build the future atop a giant pile of wobbly Fed pillows stuffed full of cash, or would it be better to ground it firmly on economic output?  Hope is a powerful elixir but it’s not empirical. Empirically, there should be a massive sale – everything must go – in America before we begin again.

And question number two is will that happen?  The US dollar strengthened sharply before the Internet bubble burst in 2001, putting everything on sale. We have valuations now matched only by those then.  The dollar is at the strongest level since then.

The strong dollar will mean weaker Q4 revenue and profits for multinationals and if it continues into Q1 next year, the economy will first slow before Trump policies may put wind in the sails. When record stock markets mash into falling corporate profits and slowing economic outcomes, expect trouble.

I’m excited about the future in America. Before it comes, we should first get Fed up.  Dump these asset prices created by a vast accumulation of cash.  Start fresh. Will it happen?  That’s the unknowable part.

The Vessel

Will markets collapse?

We’re a day late this week, steering clear of election bipolarity marked by the vicissitudes of demography and the barest palimpsest of republicanism, a diaphanous echo of Madison and Jefferson and Hamilton, names people now think of as inner city high schools.

Back to markets. We’ve seen a curious change. A year ago, the top refrain from clients was: “What is our Rational Price?” For those not in the know, we calculate where active investors compete against market chaos to buy shares.

That’s not the top metric now. It’s this: “What’s your take on macro factors?” Management appears to have traded its focus on caring for trees for fearing the forest – so to speak. If so, the clever IRO will equip herself with good data.

We’ve been writing since early October about the gap between stocks and the US dollar. The dollar denominates the value of your shares. As the currency fluctuates in value, so do your shares, because they are inversely proportional.

In past decades since leaving the gold standard in 1971, those fluctuations have generally proven secondary to the intrinsic value of your businesses. But that changed in 2008. Currency variance replaced fundamentals as principal price-setter as unprecedented effort was undertaken by governments and central banks globally to refloat currencies.

Imagine currencies as the Costa Concordia, the doomed luxury liner that foundered fatally off the Tuscan coast. Suppose global forces were marshaled to place around it Leviathan generators blowing air through the ships foundered compartments at velocity sufficient to expectorate the sea and set the ship aright.

Thus steadied on air, the ship is readied for sail again, surrounded by a flotilla of mighty blowers filling the below-decks with air and keeping the sea back from fissures in the ravaged hull by sheer force. Passengers are loaded aboard for good times and relaxation and led to believe that all is again as it was. As seaworthy as ever.

That’s where we are. We are coming off the peak now of our fourth stocks-to-dollars inflationary cycle since 2008. In each case, markets have retreated at least 10%. The cycles are shortening. And despite retreat we right now retain the widest gap between the two since July 2008, right before the Financial Crisis.

Why does the pattern keep repeating? Because central banks keep juicing the blowers as the vessel wilts and founders. That’s what you saw yesterday after the election. The Euro crisis, having gone to the green room for a smoke is back center stage as it a year ago. Money – air – leaves variable securities for the dollar. As air leaves, stocks falter.

We don’t say these things to be discouraging. It is what it is. The wise and prudent IRO develops an understanding of market behavior – so the wise and prudent IRO will be cool in the IR chair and valuable to management and able to retain sanity and job security in markets depending on giant turbines.

If you’re relying on the same information you did in the past, you’re ill-prepared. We are in a different world now.