Posts tagged ‘deflation’

Helicopter Ben to QE3 Rescue

Faster than a speedy credit default swap, more powerful than a federal funds interest rate cut, and able to leap a tall Mario Draghi in a single bound, look…it’s Helicopter Ben! How did Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke become a monetary superhero with such a cool nickname as Helicopter Ben (a.k.a. “HB”)? Bernanke, a former Princeton University professor, has widely been known to be a diligent student of the Great Depression, and his aviation nickname stems from a 2002 speech in which he referenced dropping money from a helicopter to combat deflation. While investors may worry about HB’s ability to fight the inflation thugs, there should be no questions about his willingness to implement accommodative, deflation-fighting monetary policies.

Chairman Bernanke may not epitomize your ideal superhero, however this slightly past middle-aged bearded and balding man has helped mastermind some of the most creative and aggressive monetary rescue efforts our country and globe has seen in the history of man (and woman). This week’s money-printing QE3 announcement solidified Bernanke’s historic capital saturating ranking.

Since Helicopter Ben’s heroic appointment as Federal Reserve Chairman in 2006 by George W. Bush, Bernanke has instituted numerous monetary gadgets in hopes of meeting the Federal Reserve’s dual mandate, which is i) to achieve low inflation and ii) to strive for maximum employment. Arguably, given the anemic growth here in the U.S.; the recession in Europe; and slowing growth in the emerging markets (i.e., China, Brazil, India, etc.), slack in the economy and static labor wages have largely kept inflation in check. With the first part of the dual mandate met, Bernanke has had no problem putting his monetary superpowers to work.

As referenced earlier, Bernanke’s bazooka launch of QE3, an open ended MBS (Mortgage Back Securities) bond binging program, will add $40 billion of newly purchased assets to the Fed’s balance sheet on a monthly basis until the labor market improves “substantially” (whatever that means). What’s more, in addition to the indefinite QE3, Bernanke has promised to keep the federal funds rate near zero “at least through mid-2015,” even for a “considerable time after the economic recovery strengthens.”

HB’s Track Record

Throughout superhero history, Superman, Spider-man, and Batman have used a wide-array of superhuman powers, extraordinary gadgets, and superior intellect to conquer evil-doers and injustices across the globe. Bernanke has also forcefully put his unrivaled money-printing talents to work in an attempt to cure the financial ills of the world. Here’s a quick multi-year overview of how Bernanke has put his unique talents to print trillions of dollars and keep interest rates suppressed:

Rate Cuts (September 2007 – December 2008): Before “quantitative easing” was a part of our common vernacular, the Fed relied on more traditional monetary policies, such as federal funds rate targeting, conducted through purchases and sales of open market securities. Few investors recall, but before HB’s fed funds rate cut rampage of 10 consecutive reductions in 2007 and 2008 (the fed funds rate went from 5.25% to effectively 0%), Bernanke actually increased rates three times in 2006.

Crisis Actions (2007 – 2009): Love him or hate him, Bernanke has been a brave and busy soul in dealing with the massive proportions of the global financial crisis. If you don’t believe me, just check out the Financial Crisis Timeline listed at the St. Louis Federal Reserve. Many investors don’t remember, but Bernanke helped orchestrate some of the largest and most unprecedented corporate actions in our history, including the $30 billion loan to JPMorgan Chase (JPM) in the Bear Stearns takeover; the $182 billion bailout of AIG; the conversion of Morgan Stanley (MS) and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) into bank holding companies; and the loan/asset-purchase support to Fannie Mae (FNMA) and Freddie Mac (FMCC). These actions represented just the tip of the iceberg, if you also consider the deluge of liquidity actions taken by the Fed Chairman.

HB Creates Acronym Soup

In order to provide a flavor of the vastness in emergency programs launched since the crisis, here is an alphabet soup of program acronyms into which the Fed poured hundreds of billions of dollars:

  • Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF)
  • Term Auction Facility (TAF)
  • Money Market Investor Funding Facility (MMIFF)
  • Commercial Paper Funding Facility (CPFF)
  • Primary Dealer Credit Facility (PDCF)
  • Asset-Backed Commercial Paper Money Market Fund Liquidity Facility (AMLF)
  • Temporary Reciprocal Currency Arrangements (Swap lines)
  • Term Securities Lending Facility (TSLF)

Plenty of acronyms to go around, but these juicy programs have garnered most of investors’ attention:

QE1 (November 2008 – March 2010): In hopes of lowering interest rates for borrowers and stimulating the economy, HB spearheaded the Fed’s multi-step, $1 trillion+ buying program  of MBS (mortgage backed securities) and Treasuries.

QE2 (November 2010 – June 2011): Since the Fed felt QE1 didn’t pack enough monetary punch to keep the economy growing at a fast enough clip, the FOMC (Federal Open Market committee) announced its decision to expand its holdings of securities in November 2010. The Committee maintained its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its securities holdings and to also purchase a further $600 billion of longer-term Treasury securities by the end of the second quarter of 2011 (an equivalent pace of about $75 billion per month).

Operation Twist (September 2011 – December 2012): What started out as a $400 billion short-term debt for longer-term debt swap program in September 2011, expanded to a $667 billion program in June 2012. With short-term rates excessively low, Bernanke came up with this Operation Twist scheme previously used in the early 1960s. Designed to flatten the yield curve (bring down long-term interest rates) to stimulate economic activity, Bernanke thought this program was worth another go-around. Unlike quantitative easing, Operation Twist does not expand the Fed’s balance sheet – the program merely swaps short-term securities for long-term securities. Currently, the program is forecasted to conclude at the end of this year.

The Verdict on HB

So what’s my verdict on the continuous number of unprecedented actions that Helicopter Ben and the Fed have taken? Well for starters, I have to give Mr. Bernanke an “A-” on his overall handling of the financial crisis. Had his extreme actions not been taken, the pain and agony experienced by all would likely be significantly worse, and the financial hole a lot deeper.

With that said, am I happy about the announcement of QE3 and the explosion in the Fed’s money printing activities? The short answer is “NO”. It’s difficult to support a program with questionable short-run interest rate benefits, when the menacing inflationary pressures are likely to outweigh the advantages. The larger problem in my mind is the massive fiscal problem we are experiencing (over $16 trillion in debt and endless trillion dollar deficits). More importantly, this bloated fiscal position is creating an overarching, nagging crisis of confidence. A resolution to the so-called “fiscal cliff,” or the automated $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts, is likely to have a more positive impact on confidence than a 0.05% – 0.25% reduction in mortgage rates from QE3. Once adequate and sustained growth returns, and inflation rears its ugly head, how quickly Helicopter Ben tightens policy will be his key test.

Until then, Bernanke will probably continue flying around while gloating in his QE3 cape, hoping his quantitative easing program will raise general confidence. Unfortunately, his more recent monetary policies appear to be creating diminishing returns. Even before QE3’s implementation, Helicopter Ben has witnessed his policies expand the Fed’s balance sheet from less than $900 billion at the beginning of the recession to almost $3 trillion today. Despite these gargantuan efforts, growth and confidence have been crawling forward at only a modest pace.

No matter the outcome of QE3, as long as Ben Bernanke remains Federal Reserve Chairman, and growth remains sluggish, you can stay confident this financial man of steel will continue dumping money into the system from his helicopter. If Bernanke wants to create a true legendary superhero ending to this story, the kryptonite-like effects of inflation need to be avoided. This means, less money-printing and more convincing of Congress to take action on our out-of-control debt and deficits. Now, that’s a comic book I’d pay to read.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in JPM, AIG, MS, GS, FNMA, FMCC,  or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

September 16, 2012 at 5:46 pm 1 comment

My 10 Holiday Thank You’s of 2010

Source: Photobucket

10.) I am thankful for “QE2” (Quantitative Easing) because it broadens my thesaurus with another acronym meaning “printing press.”

9.) I am thankful for the Goldilocks “-flation” fears. Not too hot inflation and not too cold deflation makes Goldy feel just right.

8.) I am thankful for weak housing prices. Who wants to pay high property taxes?!

7.) I’m thankful to have another bloody, partisan midterm election behind us resulting in gridlock. Oops, I forgot, we just started a bloody, partisan 2012 Presidential election cycle. 

6.) I am thankful for May’s “Flash Crash” because I’m an adrenaline junkie and the financial crisis did not provide enough excitement in 2008-2009.

5.) I am thankful for the Irish banking system bailout. Misery loves company.

4.) I am thankful for higher commodity prices, specifically my long wheat futures position. I’ve effectively hedged my daily breakfast bowl of Wheaties

3.) I am thankful for the Chinese…for supporting our gluttonous consumerism by purchasing all our debt.

2.) I am thankful for a record year at Sidoxia. The launch and leading performance of Fusion added  to a memorable 2010 (read more).  

1.) I am thankful for the thousands of readers and followers who stopped by my site in 2010. Not only were the compliments appreciated by the die-hards (“Caffeiners”), but also the constructive feedback from casual visitors (i.e., “Slome, you’re a moron”).

Happy New Year and best wishes for a prosperous 2011!

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in BP, wheat futures, or any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

December 22, 2010 at 1:08 am Leave a comment

V-Shaped Recovery or Road to Japan Lost Decades?

The Lost Decades from the 1989 Peak

The Lost Decades from the 1989 Peak

On the 6th day of March this year, the S&P 500 reached a devilish low of 666. Now the market has rebounded more than 50% over the last five months. So is this a new bull market throttled into gear, or is it just a dead-cat bounce on route to a lost two decades, like we saw in Japan?

Smart people like Nobel Prize winner and economist Paul Krugman make the argument that like Japan, the bigger risk for the U.S.  is deflation (NY Times Op-Ed), not inflation.

Now I’m no Nobel Prize winner, but I will make a bold argument of why Professor Krugman is out to lunch and why we will not go in a Japanese death-like, deflationary spiral.

Let’s review why our situation is dissimilar from our South Pacific friends.

Major Differences:

  • Japanese Demographics: The Japanese population keeps getting older (see UN chart), which will continue to pressure GDP growth. According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, by 2055 the Japanese population will fall 30% to 90 million (equivalent to 1955 level). Over the same time frame, the number of elderly under age 65 is expected to halve. To minimize the effects of the contraction of the working population, it will be necessary both to increase labor productivity, loosen immigration laws, and to promote the employment of woman and people over 65. Japan’s population is expected to expected contraction in Japan’s labor force of almost 1% a year in 2009-13.

    Source: The Financial Times

    Source: The Financial Times/UN (Declining Workforce Per 65 Year Old)

  • Bank of Japan Was Slow to React: Japan recognized the bubble occurring and as a result hiked its key lending discount rate from 1989 through May 1991. The move had the desired effect by curbing the danger of inflation and ultimately popped the Nikkei-225 bubble. Stock prices soon plummeted by 50% in 1990, and the economy and land prices began to deteriorate a year later.  Belatedly, Japan’s central bank began a series of interest rate-cuts, lowering its discount rate by 500-basis points to 1% by 1995. But the Japanese economy never recovered, despite $1-trillion in fiscal stimulus programs.
  • The Higher You Fly, the Farther You Fall: The relative size of the Japanese bubble was gargantuan in scale compared to what we experienced here in the United States. The Nikkei 225 Index traded at an eye popping Price-Earnings ratio of about 60x before the collapse. The Nikkei increased over 450% in the eight years leading up to the peak in 1989, from the low of about 6,850 in October 1982 to its peak of 38,957 in December 1989. Compare those extreme bubble-icious numbers with the S&P 500 index, which rose approximately a more meager 20% from the end of 1999 to the end of 2007 (U.S. peak) and was trading at more reasonable 18x’s P-E ratio.

    Source: Dow Jones

    Source: Dow Jones

  • Debt Levels not Sustainable:  Japan is the most heavily indebted nation in the OECD. Japan is moving towards that 200% Debt/GDP level rapidly and the last time Japanese debt went to 200% of GDP (during WWII), hyper-inflation ensued and forced many fixed income elderly into poverty. Although our debt levels have yet to reach the extremes seen by Japan, we need to recognize the inflationary pressure building. Japan’s debt bubble cannot indefinitely sustain these debt increases, leaving little option but to eventually inflate their way out of the problem.
  • Banking System Prolongs Japanese Deflation: Despite the eight different stimulus plans implemented in the 1990s, Japan lacked the fortitude to implement the appropriate corrective measures in their banking system by writing off bad debts. An article from July 2003 Barron’s article put it best:
After the collapse of the property bubble, many families and businesses had debts that far exceeded their devalued assets. When a version of this happened in America in the savings-and-loan crisis, the resulting mess was cleaned up quickly. The government seized assets, sold them off, bankrupted ailing banks and businesses, sent a few crooks to jail and everything started fresh, so that deserving new businesses could get loans. The process is like a tooth extraction — painful but mercifully short. In Japan this process has barely begun. Dynamic new businesses cannot get loans, because banks use available credit to lend to bankrupt businesses, so they can pretend they are paying their debts and avoid the pain of write-offs. This is self-deception. The rotten tooth is still there. And the Japanese people know it.

 

The Future – Rise of the Rest: Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek editor wrote about the “Rise of the Rest” in an incredible article (See Sidoxia Website) describing the rising tide of globalization that is pulling up the rest of the world. The United States population represents only 5% of the global total, and as the technology revolution raises the standard of living for the other 95%, this trend will only accelerate the demand of scarce resources, which will create a constant inflationary headwind.

For those countries in decline, like Japan, demand destruction raises the risk of deflation, but historically the innovative foundation of capitalism has continually allowed the U.S. to grow its economic pie. Economic legislation by our Congress will help or hinder our efforts in dealing with these inflationary pressures.  One way is to incentivize investment in innovation and productive technologies. Another is to expand our targeted immigration policies towards attracting college educated foreigners, thereby relieving aging demographics pressures (as seen in Japan). These are only a few examples, but regardless of political leanings, our country has survived through wars, assassinations, terrorist attacks, banking crises, currency crises, and yes recessions, to only end up in a stronger global position.

This crisis has been extremely painful, but so have the many others we have survived. I believe time will heal the wounds and we will eventually conquer this crisis. I’m confident that historians will look at the coming years in favorable light, not the lost decades of pain as experienced in Japan.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

August 10, 2009 at 4:00 am 4 comments


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