Economy Tanking, Precious Metals in Liquidation

Silver is getting pummelled:


So is gold:

What does this mean?

Hedge funds and speculators who were long gold are trying to get a buffer of cash to soak up hits from the coming default cascade.

What does that mean for gold’s long term fundamentals?

Continue reading

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Will the Fed Trigger Big Inflation?

What now after the Italian downgrade?

From Forbes:

Standard & Poor’s pulled another late move on Monday, downgrading Italy’s sovereign credit rating by one notch to A/A-1.  The credit rating agency cited weakening economic growth prospects as public and private borrowing costs rise, and a fragile political coalition failing to adequately respond to a challenging economic environment.

While the downgrade doesn’t come as a shock, as S&P had Italy under a negative outlook since May, it will rattle markets.  Europe’s sovereign debt woes have grappled nervous markets the last couple of weeks, with every word coming from Greece, Germany, or the ECB sparking massive moves on both sides of the Atlantic.

This has sent certain (risk-addled) European banks spiralling downward, leading the European Systemic Risk Board to warn policy-makers that the time may soon come to make a massive liquidity injection into European markets (i.e., throwing money at saving bad banks)

BNP Paribas:



SocGen:

In America, traders today were in a more bullish mood.

From Zero Hedge:

Shrugging off Italy’s rating downgrade (somewhat expected but continued negative outlook), funding stress in Europe (Libor levitating and Swiss/French banks divergent), cuts in global growth expectations (IMF and World Bank), concerns over systemic risk contagion (ESRB and World Bank), and escalating rhetoric in Sino-US trade wars, US equities have managed to reach up to Friday’s highs as rumors of AAPL being added to the Dow seemed enough for hapless traders.

More significant than excitement over Apple — and the main reason that markets today are levitating, in spite of all the turmoil — is the hope that Bernanke will throw more policy tools at the American economy.

Will he?

Although I have been specific about the idea that QE3 is definitely coming I don’t foresee QE3 being initiated this week. Why?

Firstly, because I think Joe Biden promised Wen Jiabao that America would hold off QE3 in the short-term to preserve the value of Chinese holdings.

Bernanke will probably initiate a program to roll the Fed’s holdings onto the long-end of the spectrum of bonds: as 2-year bonds in the Fed’s portfolio reach maturity, the Fed will replace those with 10-year bonds, to reduce net interest rates.

More significantly, I expect Bernanke to announce that the Federal Reserve will announce that it will no longer pay interest on excess reserves. Banks have accumulated massive excess reserves since the 2008 crisis, when the Fed determined to pay interest on reserves not lent — ostensibly to increase flexibility in the banking system in case of further collapse:


In theory, unleashing these excess reserves into the economy would get capital to productive ventures without infuriating bondholders and retirees any further with more quantitative easing. But in practice a surge in lending might do the precise opposite — unleashing a tidal wave of inflation, further diminishing the purchasing power of dollars.

The potential loans possible on these reserves could be up to $16 trillion. GDP is currently $14.99 trillion. Unless the GDP keeps pace with the money supply, these new loans would create the potential for substantial amounts of inflation.

Could this be the spark that triggers a runaway inflationary spiral? It could be. It’s not in the interest of either debtors, nor creditors — but that doesn’t remove the risk.

Is Leverage the Problem (Again)?

So the European Monetary Union is (slowly failing). Nations are reaching ever-closer to default, bringing about the prospect of shockwaves and turmoil throughout the region and the world. Why can’t nations just default? Well — they can. But policy-makers fear the consequences of blowing holes in the balance sheets of too-big-to-fail megabanks. Sovereign default would lead to the same problems as in 2008 — margin calls on banks’ highly leveraged positions, fire sales, a market crash, and the deaths (and potential bailouts) of many global financial institutions.

From Lawrence Kotlikoff:

Sovereign defaults are only the proximate cause of this euro-killing nightmare. The real culprit is bank leverage. If the lenders had no debt, sovereign defaults would reduce the value of their equity, but wouldn’t shut them down, thereby destroying the financial-intermediation system.

Non-leveraged banks are, effectively, mutual funds. If appropriately regulated, mutual funds don’t make promises they can’t keep and never go bankrupt. Yet they can readily handle all manner of financial intermediation as 10,000 of them in the U.S. make abundantly clear.

Countries get into trouble, just like households and firms. Similarly, nations should be permitted to default without threatening the global economy. Forcing the banks to operate with 100 percent equity by transforming them into mutual funds – – as I have advocated in my Purple Financial Plan – is the answer to Europe’s growing sovereign-debt crisis.

In a nutshell, the ECB tells the banks: “No more borrowing to buy risky assets, including sovereign debt, and forcing taxpayers to take the hit when things go south. You’re now limited to marketing mutual funds, including ones that hold nothing but cash and will constitute our new payment system.”

Now I don’t doubt that this is a very good idea that could potentially restore meritocracy — allowing good businesses to succeed and bad ones to fail. But would it solve the problems at the heart of the Eurozone?

In a word — no. As was noted at the Eurozone’s inception, the chasm opened up between a nation’s fiscal policy (as determined by a nation’s government), and its monetary policy (as determined by the ECB) necessarily leads to crisis, because monetary policy cannot be tailored to each economy’s individual needs. Kotlikoff’s suggestion would reduce systemic risk to the banking system (largely a good thing), but would merely postpone the choice that European policy makers will have to make — integration, or fracture.

Will China Bail Out the World?

With fear running high on global markets, particularly regarding sovereign debt in the Eurozone, many commentators are asking: will developing nations flush with cash (i.e. China) ride into town and save the day?

From Reuters:

Italian Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti said on Thursday that Asian investors are reluctant to buy Italian bonds because it sees they are not being bought by the European Central Bank.

Speaking at a news conference, Tremonti also said it would be desirable for the central bank to follow the lead of the Japanese and Swiss central banks in taking expansionary steps to tackly the euro zone’s crisis.

“I note that the Bank of Japan today launched quantitative easing and the Swiss cen bank cut rates to zero, we are waiting for decisions if possible, but desirable (from the ECB),” Tremonti said.

When you talk to Asia they say: “We don’t understand what Europe is,” he continued. “The second point is that they say ‘if your central bank doesn’t buy your bonds, why should we buy them”?

That is a fairly unqualified no. And why should they? As Amschel Mayer de Rothschild famously put it:

Buy when there is blood on the streets

And China are entitled to hang onto their money and let asset prices depreciate further to get more bang for their buck. But some signs suggest they will act. The more Europe and America deteriorate, the weaker the demand for Chinese goods.  And China’s massive FX holdings’ value is dependent on the system of international trade and the economies of various Western nations retaining functionality. Most importantly, the only remedies that Western governments have are money-printing, and (China’s worst nightmare) debt-forgiveness, neither of which the Chinese would like to see.

Of course, China stepping in to buy shoddy debt isn’t going to offer any  solutions to underlying problems. At best it will kick the can do the road awhile, as Europe muddles around and continues to fail to come to any kind of meaningful or coherent agreement on its future. So as as Europeans clutch furiously at (Chinese manufactured) straws, there is still only one bailout party in town:

The Death of the Euro in 2011?

Is the Euro shaping towards a long, slow death in 2011? From Megan Greene at the Guardian:

The euro is dying a slow death. Political leaders are unlikely to take the steps necessary to address the underlying factors creating the current euro crisis, and the eurozone will eventually break up as a result.

To highlight the severity of the euro crisis, one only needs to glance at credit default swap (CDS) spreads for the peripheral euro area countries. CDS is a form of insurance against default or restructuring. The higher the CDS spread, the more likely investors think a sovereign default is.

In the first week of June, five-year CDS spreads for Greece were a whopping 1495 basis points, for Portugal 708, for Ireland 650 and for Spain 255. This compares with only around 200 for Iceland, a country that underwent a private default only two and a half years ago. Continue reading

Warren Buffett & CreditAnstalt

Is Warren Buffett shooting himself in the head? There’s one issue (okay — a couple of issues) I have been silent on in the past few weeks. But on Bank of America, it’s time to break the silence — because the issue of bank failures and bailouts can have huge, violent ramifications. So let’s look at Bank of America’s credit default swap spreads:


The red dot is where we leaped to just before Warren Buffett — the so-called Oracle of Omaha —  piled $5 billion into less than 24 hours after an Archimedean bathtub epiphany. I hope he did his due diligence:

“The Investor acknowledges that it has had an opportunity to conduct such review and analysis of the business, assets, condition, operations and prospects of the Company and its subsidiaries, including an opportunity to ask such questions of management (for which it has received such answers) and to review such information maintained by the Company, in each case as the Investor considers sufficient for the purpose of making the Purchase. The Investor further acknowledges that it has had such an opportunity to consult with its own counsel, financial and tax advisers and other professional advisers as it believes is sufficient for purposes of the Purchase. For purposes of this Agreement, the term “Transaction Documents” refers collectively to this Agreement, the Warrant and the Registration Rights Agreement, in each case, as amended, modified or supplemented from time to time in accordance with their respective terms.”

Of course, if Warren Buffet wants to throw billions of dollars at an institution which may or may not be sitting on a powder-keg of bad debt, then that is his prerogative. The problems begin when said Oracle’s new investments tank, are declared “too big to fail”, and are propped-up by the taxpayer. And it just so happens that there is an historical precedent for this. From Seeking Alpha:

As a former NLO dividend watchlist stock, Bank of America (BAC) has fallen on hard times that in many respects were predestined. In a posting titled Financial Panic Chronicles dated May 9, 2009, we pointed out the similarities of the October 1929 forced merger between Austria’s number-two bank BodenKreditAnstalt with number-one ranked CreditAnastalt, and the forced mergers between Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, Wells Fargo/Wachovia, and J.P. Morgan/Bear Stearns in 2008.

Our point of making the comparison between distinctly different institutions in different eras was to show what the hazards might be when an ailing bank isn’t allowed to fail. It was only two years after the merger of BodenKreditAnstalt with CreditAnstalt that the remaining “super bank”, CreditAnstalt, collapsed which resulted in the worldwide banking crisis.

The failure of CreditAnstalt in 1931 did not arrive without a fight. F.M. Rothschild committed enormous amounts of money from 1930 to 1931 in an effort to use his name and financial largess to sway public opinion of the health of CreditAnstalt, not unlike Warren Buffett’s most recent investment in Bank of America. Buffett’s announcement that he’ll invest up to $5 billion may be a significant win for the Oracle of Omaha, and has temporarily boosted the share price of Bank of America by nearly 13%. However, even the biggest money interests cannot forestall the inevitable consequence of forced mergers if hobbled banking institutions.

The culmination for CreditAnstalt was nationalisation. Will it be the same for Bank of America?