Even After All The QE, The Money Supply Is Still Shrunken

Here are the broadest measures of the US money supply, M3 and M4 as estimated by the Center for Fiscal Stability:

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With the total money supply still at an absolute level lower than its 2008 peak, it is obvious that the Federal Reserve in tripling the monetary base — an expansion by what is in comparison to other components of M4 a relatively small amount — has been battling staggering deflationary forces. And with the money supply still lower than the 2008 peak and far-below its pre-2008 trend, the Fed is arguably struggling in this battle (even though by the most widely-recognised measure, the CPI-U the Fed has kept the US economy out of deflation). 

Those who have pointed to massively inflationary forces in the American economy based on a tripling of the monetary base, or even expansion of M2 clearly do not understand that the Fed does not control the money supply. It controls the monetary base, which influences the money supply but the big money in the US economy is created endogenously through credit-creation by traditional banks and shadow banks. The Fed can lead the horse to water by expanding the monetary base, but in such depressionary economic conditions it cannot make the horse drink.

What does this imply? Well, either the monetary transmission mechanism is broken, or monetary policy at the zero bound is ineffectual.

What it also implies is that hyperinflation (and even high inflation) remains the remotest of remote possibilities in the short and medium terms. The overwhelming trend remains deflationary following the bursting of the shadow intermediation bubble in 2008, and to offset this powerful deflationary trend the Fed is highly likely to have to continue to prime the monetary pump Abenomics-style into the foreseeable future.

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The Magazine Cover Top?

John Hussman makes an entirely unscientific but still very interesting point about market euphoria — as epitomised by a recent Barron’s professional survey leading a magazine cover triumphantly proclaiming “Dow 16000” — as a contrarian indicator:

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I have no idea whether or not the Dow Jones Industrial Average will hit 16,000 anytime soon. A P/E ratio of 15.84 seems relatively modest even in the context of some weakish macro data (weak employment numbers, weak business confidence, high energy input costs) and that priced in real GDP they look considerably more expensive, but it’s healthy to keep in mind the fact that euphoria and uber-bullishness very often gives way to profit-taking, stagnating prices, margin calls, shorting, panic and steep price falls. That same scenario has taken place in both gold and Bitcoin in the past couple of weeks. Leverage has been soaring the past couple of months, implying a certain fragility, a weakness to profit-taking and margin calls.

Psychologically, there seems to be a bubble in the notion that the Fed can levitate the DJIA to any level it likes. I grew up watching people flip houses in the mid-00s housing bubble, and there was a consensus among bubble-deniers like Ben Stein that if the housing market slumped, central banks would be able to levitate the market. Anyone who has seen the deep bottom in US housing best-exemplified by a proliferation of $500 foreclosed houses knows that even with massive new Fed liquidity, the housing market hasn’t been prevented from bottoming out. True, Bernanke has been explicit about using stock markets as a transmission mechanism for the wealth effect. But huge-scale Federal support could not stop the housing bubble bursting. In fact, a Minskian or Austrian analysis suggests that by making the reinflation of stock indexes a policy tool and implying that it will not let indexes fall, the Fed itself has intrinsically created a bubble in confidence. Euphoria is always unsustainable, and the rebirth of the Dow 36,000 meme is a pretty deranged kind of market euphoria.

Nonetheless, without some kind of wide and deep shock to inject some volatility — like war in the middle east or the Korean peninsula, or a heavy energy shock, a natural disaster, a large-scale Chinese crash, a subprime-scale financial blowup, or a Eurozone bank run  — there is a real possibility that markets will continue to levitate. 16,000, 18,000 and 20,000 are not out of the question. The gamble may pay off for those smart or lucky enough to sell at the very top. But the dimensions of uncertainty make it is a very, very risky gamble.

Why the Gold Crash? The Failure of Inflation to Take Off

One of the key features of the post-2008 gold boom was the notion that inflation was soon about to take off due to Bernanke’s money printing.

But so far — by the most-complete inflation measure, MIT’s Billion Prices Project — it hasn’t:

AnnualInflation

To me, this signifies that the deflationary forces in the economy have so far far outweighed the inflationary ones (specifically, tripling the monetary base), to such an extent that the Fed is struggling to even meet its 2% inflation target, much less trigger the kind of Weimar or Zimbabwe-style hyperinflation that some gold enthusiasts have projected.

The failure of inflation to take off (and thus lower real interest rates) is probably the greatest reason why gold’s price stagnated from 2011 and why gold has gone into liquidation the last week. With inflation low, investors became more cautious about holding gold. With the price stagnant, the huge gains that characterised gold’s rise from 1999 dried up, leaving more and more long-term investors and particularly institutional investors leaving the gold game to hunt elsewhere for yield.

I myself am an inflation agnostic, with deflationista tendencies. While I tend to lean toward the notion of deeply-depressed Japan-style price levels during a deleveraging trap, price levels are also a nonlinear phenomenon and could both accelerate or decelerate based on irrational psychological factors as much as the level of the money supply, or the total debt level, or the level of deleveraging. And high inflation could certainly take off as a result of an exogenous shock like a war, or series of natural disasters. But certainly, betting the farm on a trade tied to very high inflation expectations when the underlying trend is largely deflationary was a very bad idea, and those who did like John Paulson are being punished pretty brutally.

The extent to which this may continue is uncertain. Gold today fell beneath its 200-week moving average for the first time since 2001. How investors, and particularly institutional investors react to this is uncertain, but I tend to expect the pendulum to swing very far toward liquidation. After all, in 2011 most Americans named gold the safest investment, and now that psychological bubble is bursting. That means that for every goldbug buying the dip, many more may panic and sell their gold. This could easily turn to a rout, and gold may fall as low as the cost of production ($900), or even lower (especially considering gold’s high stock-to-flow ratio). Gold is a speculation in that it produces no return other than price rises. The last time gold got stuck in a rut, it was stuck there for almost 20 years.

However, my case for physical gold as a small part of a diverse portfolio to act as a hedge against systemic and counterparty risks (default cascades, Corzine-style vaporisation, etc) still stands, and lower prices are only good news in that regard. The financial system retains very many of its pre-2008 fragilities as the deregulated megabanks acting on margin continue to speculate in ways that systematise risk through balance sheet interconnectivity. Another financial crisis may initially lower the price of gold on margin calls, but in the long run may result in renewed inflows into gold and a price trend reversal. Gold is very much a barometer of distrust in the financial, governmental and corporate establishment, and as middle class incomes continue to stagnate and income inequality continues to soar there remain grave questions over these establishments’ abilities to foster systemic prosperity.

Of Bitcoin & the State

Bitcoin is very much in ascendancy. While it has for over three years existed as a decentralised and anonymous electronics payments system and medium of exchange for online black markets and gambling, more attempts to integrate Bitcoin into the wider economic system — most notably the integration of Bitpay with Amazon.com — have brought Bitcoin to the attention of a wider segment of the population. Alongside this, the egregious spectacle of depositor haircuts in Cyprus, and the spectre that depositor haircuts might happen elsewhere seems to have spurred a great new interest in alternatives to bank deposits in particular and state fiat currency in general. Consequently, the price is soaring — pushing up above $140 per bitcoin at the time of writing. Of course, this is still far less than a single ounce of gold currently priced at $1572.

There are many similarities between Bitcoin and gold. Gold is cooked up in the heart of supernovae, and is therefore exceedingly rare on Earth. It has a distinctive colouring, is non-perishable, fungible, portable, hard-to-counterfeit, and even today so expensive to synthesise that the supply is naturally limited. That made it a leading medium-of-exchange and store of purchasing power. Even today, in an age where it has been eclipsed in practice as a medium-of-exchange and as a unit-of-account for debts by state-backed fiat monies, it remains an enduring store of purchasing power.

Bitcoin is an even more limited currency — limited by the algorithms that control its mining. The maximum number of Bitcoins permitted by the code is 21 million (and in practice will gradually fall lower than this due to lost coins). Gold has been mined for over 5000 years, yet there is still gold in the ground today. Bitcoin’s mining will be (in theory) complete in a little over ten years — all the Bitcoins that there will ever be are projected to exist by 2025. True, there are already additional new currencies like Namecoin based on the Bitcoin technology but these do not trade at par with Bitcoin. This implies that Bitcoin will have a deflationary bias, as opposed to modern fiat currencies which tend toward inflation.

Many people have been attracted to the Bitcoin project by the notion of moving exchange outside of the scope of the state. Bitcoin has already begun to facilitate many activities that the state prohibits. More importantly, Bitcoin transactions are anonymous, and denominated outside of state fiat currency, so the state’s power to tax this economic activity is limited. As the range of Bitcoin-denominated merchants grows, it may become increasingly plausible to leave state  fiat currency behind altogether, and lead an anonymous economic life online fuelled by Bitcoins.

So is Bitcoin really a challenge to state power? And if it is, is it inevitable that the state will try to destroy Bitcoin? Some believe there can only be one survivor — the expansive modern state, with fiat currency, central banking, taxation and redistribution, or Bitcoin, the decentralised cryptographic currency.

The 21st Century is looking increasingly likely to be defined by decentralisation. In energy markets, homes are becoming able to generate their own (increasingly cheap!) decentralised energy through solar panels and other alternative and renewable energy sources. 3-D printing is looking to do the same thing for manufacturing. The internet has already decentralised information, learning and communication. Bitcoin is looking to do the same thing for money and savings.

But I don’t think that conflict is inevitable, and I certainly don’t foresee Bitcoin destroying the state. The state will have to change and adapt, but these changes will be gradual. Bitcoin today is not a competitor to state fiat money, but a complement. It would be very difficult today to convert all your state fiat currency into Bitcoins, and live a purely Bitcoin-oriented life, just as it would be very difficult to convert into gold or silver and life a gold or silver-oriented life. This is a manifestation of Gresham’s law — the idea that depreciating money drives out the appreciating money as a medium of exchange. Certainly, with Bitcoin rampaging upward in price — (a trend that Bitcoin’s deflationary nature encourages — holders will want to hold onto it rather than trade it for goods and services. If I had $1000 of Bitcoin, and $1000 of Federal reserve notes, I’d be far more likely to spend my FRNs on food and fuel and shelter than my Bitcoin, which might be worth $1001 of goods and services (or at current rates of increase, $1500 of goods and services) next week.

Bitcoin, then, is emerging as a savings instrument, an alternative to the ultra-low interest rates in the dollar-denominated world, the risks of equities, and a recent slump in the prices of gold and silver which have in the past decade acted in a similar role to that which Bitcoin is emerging into. (This does not mean that Bitcoin is a threat to gold and silver, as there are some fundamental differences, not least that the metals are tangibles and Bitcoin is not).

This means that the state is far more likely to attempt to regulate Bitcoin rather than destroy it. The key is to make Bitcoin-denominated income taxable. This means regulating and taxing the entry-and-exit points — the points where people convert from state fiat currency into Bitcoin.

This is so-far the approach that the US Federal government has chosen to take:

The federal agency charged with enforcing the nation’s laws against money laundering has issued new guidelines suggesting that several parties in the Bitcoin economy qualify as Money Services Businesses under US law. Money Services Businesses (MSBs) must register with the federal government, collect information about their customers, and take steps to combat money laundering by their customers.

The new guidelines do not mention Bitcoin by name, but there’s little doubt which “de-centralized virtual currency” the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) had in mind when it drafted the new guidelines. A FinCEN spokesman told Bank Technology News last year that “we are aware of Bitcoin and other similar operations, and we are studying the mechanism behind Bitcoin.”

America’s anti-money-laundering laws require financial institutions to collect information on potentially suspicious transactions by their customers and report these to the federal government. Among the institutions subject to these regulatory requirements are “money services businesses,” including “money transmitters.” Until now, it wasn’t clear who in the Bitcoin network qualified as a money transmitter under the law.

For a centralized virtual currency like Facebook credits, the issuer of the currency (in this case, Facebook) must register as an MSB, because the act of buying the virtual currency transfers value from one location (the user’s conventional bank account) to another (the user’s virtual currency account). The same logic would apply to Bitcoin exchanges such as Mt. Gox. Allowing people to buy and sell bitcoins for dollars constitutes money transmission and therefore makes these businesses subject to federal regulation.

Of course, the Bitcoin network is fully decentralized. No single party has the power to issue new Bitcoins or approve Bitcoin transactions. Rather, the nodes in the Bitcoin network maintain a shared transaction register called the blockchain. Nodes called “miners” race to solve a cryptographic puzzle; the winner of each race is allowed to create the next entry in the blockchain. As a reward for its effort, the winning miner gets to credit itself a standard amount, currently 25 Bitcoins. Given that Bitcoins are now worth more than $50 and a new block is created every 10 minutes, Bitcoin mining has emerged as a significant business.

If a lot of economic activity were to move totally into Bitcoin, then the state might react more aggressively, seeking to tax transactions within the Bitcoin network (which may or may not be technically possible given Bitcoin’s anonymous nature) rather than just at the entry and exit points. There are, of course, risks for those wishing to move their entire economic life into Bitcoin — not just Gresham’s law, but transaction risks (Bitcoin has no clearing house, so all transactions are uninsured), and the risk that Bitcoin will be superseded (perhaps via the cryptography being rendered obsolete by some black swan advance in processing power, mathematics or cryptography?)

This current boom, where awareness of Bitcoin is growing considerably and many more individuals are joining the network, may soon be over. It is inevitable that at some stage the number of profit-takers seeking to cash out of Bitcoin into a currency where they can spend their profits will exceed the number of new investors trying to buy Bitcoin. At that stage, the price will fall. Just how much it falls will impact to what extent Bitcoin establishes itself as a decentralised and trusted store of purchasing power.

The last consolidation phase in Bitcoin’s price — between 2011 and 2013 — was not overwhelmingly encouraging, as prices remained far below the 2011 peak for a long while:

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Yet they remained far above the pre-2011 levels. And while the 2011 boom was marked by curious scepticism, this boom seems to be marked by the notion of decentralised virtual currency going viral. Due to this increased awareness, it is highly probable that Bitcoin will end 2013 above whether it started it, even if the present prices do not prove sustainable. Ultimately, Bitcoin has no fundamentals (P/E, EBITDA, cash flow, etc) and so is worth what people will pay for it. And as Max Keiser, an early champion of Bitcoin put it:

In my view, Bitcoin has a much better chance of being part of the future of money than Groupon ever did of being part of the future of commerce.

Ben Bernanke Must Be Hoping Rational Expectations Doesn’t Hold…

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In the theory of rational expectations, human predictions are not systematically wrong. This means that in a rational expectations model, people’s subjective beliefs about the probability of future events are equal to the actual probabilities of those future events.

Now, I think that rational expectations is one of the worst ideas in economic theory. It’s based on a germ of a good idea — that self-fulfilling prophesies are possible. Almost certainly, they are. But expressed probabilities are really just guesses, just expressions of a perception. Or, as it is put in Bayesian probability theory: “probability is an abstract concept, a quantity that we assign theoretically, for the purpose of representing a state of knowledge, or that we calculate from previously assigned probabilities.”

Sometimes widely-held or universally-held beliefs turn out to be entirely irrational and at-odds with reality (this is especially true in the investment industry, and particularly the stock market where going against the prevailing trend is very often the best strategy). Whether a belief will lead to a reality is something that can only be analysed on a case-by-case basis. Humans are at best semi-rational creatures, and expectations effects are nonlinear, and poorly understood from an empirical standpoint.

Mainstream economic models often assume rational expectations, however. And if rational expectations holds, we could be in for a rough ride in the near future. Because an awful lot of Americans believe that a new financial crisis is coming soon.

According to a recent YouGov/Huffington Post survey:

75 percent of respondents said that it’s either very or somewhat likely that the country could have another financial crisis in the near future. Only 12 percent said it was not very likely, and only 2 percent said it was not at all likely.

From a rational expectations perspective, that’s a pretty ugly number. From a general economic perspective it’s a pretty ugly number too — not because it is expressing a truth  (it might be — although I’d personally say a 75% estimate is rather on the low side), but because it reflects that society doesn’t have much confidence in the recovery, in the markets, or in the banks.

Why? My guess is that the still-high unemployment and underemployment numbers are a key factor here, reinforcing the idea that the economy is still very much in the doldrums. The stock market is soaring, but only a minority of people own stocks directly and unemployed and underemployed people generally can’t afford to invest in the stock market or financial markets. So a recovery based around reinflating the S&P500, Russell 3000 and DJIA indices doesn’t cut it when it comes to instilling confidence in the wider population.

Another factor is the continued and ongoing stories of scandal in the financial world — whether it’s LIBOR rigging, the London Whale, or the raiding of segregated accounts at MF Global. A corrupt and rapacious financial system run by the same people who screwed up in 2008 probably isn’t going to instill much confidence in the wider population, either.

So in the context of high unemployment, and rampant financial corruption, the possibility of a future financial crisis seems like a pretty rational expectation to me.

Stocks Priced in Real GDP

Since the 1990s, priced in Real GDP the Dow Jones Industrial Average (as well as the S&P500) has been far above their 20th-century norm:

STockspricedinRealGDP

There is an unsurprising coincidence — as stock prices (and corporate profits) have soared above their historical norm, wage growth has been very stagnant. The economy has come to be tilted toward bankers, financiers, insurance brokers and away from wage-earners, manufacturers and artisans. 

Does that mean that as Hassett and Glassman projected in Dow 36,000, stock prices have climbed to a new plateau? Well, while it is impossible to say exactly what prices will do in future (nominal, or otherwise) the “new plateau” has been very much supported by the Federal Reserve, first by lowering rates and keeping them low:

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And second through expanding the monetary base by buying securities directly (Bernanke estimates a simulated interest rate decrease of 0.25% for each 250 billion dollars of quantitative easing):

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Each time stocks have turned cheaper, the Fed has stepped in and eased, and stocks have reversed upward.

Some might take that as a sign that stocks aren’t going to get much cheaper, because the Fed won’t let them get much cheaper. First under Greenspan, and second under Bernanke the Fed has succeeded at reinflating the bubble. But the secular trend is back toward the pre-1990s norm. Gravity is against the Fed. The Fed (to use a tired old metaphor) is Atlas, holding stock prices up on its shoulders. Will it be third-time unlucky for the Fed, hell-bent on wealth-effecting and financialising the US economy to prosperity?

Whose Insured Deposits Will Be Plundered Next?

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According to Zero Hedge, it could be Spain:

 Spain, it would appear, has changed constitutional rules to enable a so-called ‘moderate’ levy on deposits.

New legislation in New Zealand suggests that depositor funds could be used to bail out banks there, too.

Far more worrying for American and British depositors though is this paragraph Golem XIV brings up from a joint Bank of England and FDIC paper from 2012 which points to the possibility of using deposit insurance funds to bail out illiquid banks:

The U.K. has also given consideration to the recapitalization process in a scenario in which a G-SIFI’s liabilities do not include much debt issuance at the holding company or parent bank level but instead comprise insured retail deposits held in the operating subsidiaries. Under such a scenario, deposit guarantee schemes may be required to contribute to the recapitalization of the firm, as they may do under the Banking Act in the use of other resolution tools. The proposed RRD also permits such an approach because it allows deposit guarantee scheme funds to be used to support the use of resolution tools, including bail-in, provided that the amount contributed does not exceed what the deposit guarantee scheme would have as a claimant in liquidation if it had made a payout to the insured depositors.

Of course, if deposit insurance money is used as a resolution tool to bail out a bank which then goes on to fail anyway (as we have already seen multiple times since 2008 — a bank receives a large liquidity injection, and goes onto fail anyway) depositors could end up moneyless.

As Golem XIV notes:

The new system makes the Deposit Guarantee fund available for use as bail out money.

The rationale is that if using your deposit guarantee fund for propping up the bank ‘saves’ the bank from collapse then you wouldn’t need that deposit guarantee would you? This overlooks the one lesson we have all learned from the bank bail outs of the last 5 years, that the bail outs are never, ever, ever, a one off. The first one fails to save the bank as does the second and third and and and.

So if I have read the above correctly – the new system raids the Deposit Protection scheme, gives it to the bank instead of you  and when that fails to save the bank…then what? The bank fails again and there is no money left in the Deposit Guarantee scheme.

Now, in the case of this kind of scenario actually happening, it seems probable that governments and central banks would try to replenish the deposit insurance fund. Whether the fund would be replenished to its full extent, or whether insured depositors would suffer an effective haircut remains to be seen.

These kinds of policy suggestions coming from governments and central banks are extremely worrying for depositors, because it implies that what is happening to Cypriot depositors and Cypriot banks could be forced onto British and American depositors. In a worst-case-scenario, criminally minded bankers (of which there seem to be many) could even use this provision to intentionally run off with deposits.

We know that the TBTF banking sector (or G-SIFI’s — global systemically important financial institutions — as they are now known) remains fragile, over-connected and dependent on insider advantages. That means that over the next few years, it remains possible that there could be another severe banking crisis in Britain or America or both.

Just what in the world do financial regulators think they are doing even implying that depositor guarantee funds could be used to bail out banks under such an eventuality? Such a recommendation — and the attendant possibility of insured depositor haircuts — could severely impact confidence in the banking sector, just as it has done in Cyprus. The possibility that insurance money may go down the toilet to bail out illiquid banks will make some uneasy to invest their money in the banks. If a severe banking crisis looms, it could lead to bank runs, just as is happening in Cyprus. The trend, if events in Cyprus and Europe continue to escalate, and if other jurisdictions do not take steps to protect depositors from banker greed, is toward depositors losing faith in the banking system, and seeking other stores of purchasing power — mattress stuffing, bitcoin, tangibles.

Essentially, if there is to be any confidence in the banking system, the possibility of depleting liquidity insurance funds to bail out banks needs to be taken off the table completely. The possibility of insured depositor haircuts needs to be taken off the table completely. If banks need bailing out, the money must not come from insured depositors, or funds designed to compensate insured depositors. If banks fail, the losers should be the uninsured creditors.