Don’t Mess With the U.S. (Financially)

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I’ve been documenting financial warfare in my articles for years, but it still doesn’t get the mainstream attention it deserves.

Because as you’ll see below, it can directly impact your wealth.

Financial warfare tools include account seizures and freezes, expulsion from global payment systems, secondary fines and penalties on banks that do business with targeted entities, embargoes, tariffs and many other impositions.

These tools are amplified by the unique role of the U.S. dollar, which is the currency behind 60% of global reserves, 80% of global payments and almost 100% of transactions in oil.

The U.S. controls the banks and payments systems that process dollar transactions. This leaves the U.S. well positioned to impose dollar-related sanctions.

Much has been made of the recent killing of Iranian terrorist mastermind Qasem Soleimani. Many say it was an act of war. But guess what, folks?

We’ve been in a full-scale war with Iran for two years now. It’s just that most people don’t realize it.

It’s not a kinetic war with troops, missiles and ships (except Iran’s use of terrorist bombs and the U.S.’ use of drones). And it’s severely damaged the Iranian economy, which has led to protests against the regime.

From the U.S. side, it’s a financial war. People need to stop thinking about financial sanctions as an extension of trade policy, for example.

This is warfare. It’s just a different form of warfare.

It’s critical to understand that financial war is not a sideshow. It may actually be the main event in today’s deeply connected and computerized world.

North Korea is also the current target of a U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign, where harsh sanctions are applied to a wide range of banks, companies and individuals.

As with Iran, sanctions have been instrumental in destabilizing the regime and bringing North Korea to the bargaining table to discuss its nuclear weapons programs.

Now, Iraq is the latest country to feel the sting of U.S. dollar sanctions.

Following the killing of Soleimani on Iraqi soil, Iraq threatened to expel all U.S. troops from Iraq. Trump answered in two parts.

He said U.S. troops would not leave until Iraq repaid the U.S. for building bases and other infrastructure in Iraq. Trump also warned that Iraq’s access to its account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York could be terminated.

That would make it impossible for Iraq to purchase and sell oil in dollars. It could also cause Iraq to lose access to about $3 billion currently held in that account.

Iraq has heard the U.S. threats loud and clear. As of now, U.S. troops are still in Iraq and not planning to leave anytime soon.

The fact that Iraqi policy could be conditioned without a shot being fired shows the raw power of financial warfare.

The trouble is private businesses and investors can get caught in the crossfire of financial warfare.

According to one survey, last year saw a 42% increase in cyberattacks on private companies around the world (attributable to foreign governments).

About 20% of businesses reported daily attacks, many in the banking and financial services sectors. Only 6% of businesses in the survey claimed they weren’t targeted by a cyberattack in 2019.

You as an investor trying to mind your own business or build wealth or expand your portfolio may get caught in the crossfire of a financial war. So you have to take that into account in your portfolio allocations and risk management.

In today’s world, everyone’s a potential casualty of financial warfare.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

The post Don’t Mess With the U.S. (Financially) appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

5,000 Years of Interest Rates, Part II

This post 5,000 Years of Interest Rates, Part II appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Yesterday we hauled out evidence that interest rates have gone persistently down 500 years running.

And the high interest rates of the mid- to late 20th century?

These may be history’s true aberration, a violent but brief lurch in the chart… like a sudden burst of blood pressure.

Let us here reintroduce the graphic evidence:

IMG 1

Here is an extended picture of downward-trending rates — with the fabulous exception of the mid-to-late 20th century.

As Harvard economics professor Paul Schmelzing reckoned yesterday, as summarized by Willem H. Buiter in Project Syndicate:

Despite temporary stabilizations such as the periods 1550–1640, 1820–1850 or in fact 1950–1980… global… real rates have persistently trended downward over the past five centuries…

Can you therefore expect the downward journey of interest rates to proceed uninterrupted?

We have ransacked the historical data further still… rooted around for clues… and emerged with worrisome findings.

Why worrisome?

Details to follow. Let us first look in on another historical oddity, worrisome in its own way — the present stock market.

A Lull on Wall Street

It was an inconsequential day on Wall Street. The Dow Jones took a very slight slip, down nine points on the day.

The S&P scratched out a single-point gain; the Nasdaq gained 12 points today.

Gold and oil largely loafed, budging barely at all.

Meantime, humanity’s would-be saviors remained huddled at Davos. There they are setting the world to rights and deciding how we must live.

But let us resume our study of time… and money.

For light, we once again resort to the good Professor Schmelzing.

The arc of interest rates bends lower with time, he has established. But as he also establishes… no line bends true across five centuries of history.

Put aside the drastic mid-to-late 20th century reversal. Even the long downturning arc has its squiggles and twists, bent in the great forges of history.

To these we now turn…

“Real Rate Depression Cycles”

Over seven centuries, Schmelzing identifies nine “real rate depression cycles.”

These cycles feature a secular decline of real interest rates, followed by reversals — often sudden and violent reversals.

The first eight rate depression cycles tell fantastic tales…

They often pivoted upon high dramas like the Black Death of the mid-14th century… the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century… and World War II.

IMG 2

The world is currently ensnared within history’s ninth rate depression cycle. This cycle began in the mid-1980s.

Schmelzing says one previous cycle comes closest to this, our own. That is the global “Long Depression” of the 1880s and ’90s.

This “Long Depression” witnessed “low productivity growth, deflationary price dynamics and the rise of global populism and protectionism.”

Need we draw the parallels to today?

It is here where our tale gathers pace… and acquires point.

A Thing of Historic Grandeur

Schmelzing’s research reveals this information:

This present cycle is a thing of historical grandeur, in both endurance and intensity.

Of the entire 700-year record… only one cycle had a greater endurance. That was in the 15th century.

And only one previous cycle — also from the same epoch — exceeded the current cycle’s intensity.

By almost any measure… today’s rate depression cycle is a thing for the ages.

Turn now to this chart. The steep downward slope on the right gives the flavor of its fevered intensity:

IMG 3

Schmelzing’s researches show the real rate for the entire 700-year history is 4.78%.

Meantime, the real rate for the past 200 years averages 2.6%.

Beware “Reversion to the Mean”

And so “relative to both historical benchmarks,” says this fellow, “the current market environment thus remains severely depressed.”

That is, real rates remain well beneath historical averages.

And if the term “reversion to the mean” has anything in it, the world is in for a hard jolt when the mean reverts. Why?

Because when rates do regain their bounce — history shows — they bounce high.

Schmelzing:

The evidence from eight previous “real rate depressions” is that turnarounds from such environments, when they occur, have typically been both quick and sizeable… Most reversals to “real rate stagnation” periods have been rapid, nonlinear and took place on average after 26 years.

Twenty-six years? The present rate depression cycle runs to 36 or 37 years. We must conclude it goes on loaned time. What happens when the loan comes due?:

Within 24 months after hitting their troughs in the rate depression cycle, rates gained on average 315 basis points [3.15%], with two reversals showing real rate appreciations of more than 600 basis points [6%] within two years.

The current rate depression cycle ranges far beyond average.

It is, after all, the second longest on record… and the second most intense.

If the magnitude of the bounceback approximates the magnitude of the cycle it ends… we can therefore expect a fantastic trampolining of rates.

That is, we can likely expect rate appreciations of 6% or more.

What Happens When Rates Rise?

The stock market and the decade-long economic “recovery” center upon ultra-low interest rates. And so we recoil, horrified, at the prospect of a “rapid, nonlinear” rate reversal.

We must next consider its impact on America’s ability to finance its hellacious debt…

A violent rate increase means debt service becomes an impossible burden.

How would America service its $23 trillion debt — a $23 trillion debt that jumps higher by the minute?

Debt service already represents the fastest-growing government expense.

Interest payments will total $460 billion this year, estimates the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

CBO further projects debt service will scale $800 billion by decade’s end.

$800 billion exceeds today’s entire $738 billion defense budget. As it exceeds vastly present Medicare spending ($625 billion) and Medicaid spending ($412 billion).

CBO Doesn’t Account for Possible End to Rate Depression Cycle

But CBO pays no heed to the rate depression cycle. It — in fact — projects no substantial rate increases this decade.

But what if the present rate depression cycle closes… and interest rates go spiraling?

Debt service will likely swamp the entire federal budget.

Financial analyst Daniel Amerman:

If the interest rate on that debt were to rise by even 1%, the annual federal deficit rises by $200 billion. A 2% increase in interest rate levels would up the federal deficit by $400 billion, and if rates were 5% higher, the annual federal deficit rises by a full $1 trillion per year.

Recall, rates rocketed 6% or higher after two previous rate reversals.

Given the near-record intensity of the present rate depression cycle… should we not expect a similar rebound next time?

Hard logic dictates we should.

But what might bring down the curtain on the current cycle?

Unforeseen Catastrophe

Most previous rate depression cycles ended with death, destruction, howling, shrieking.

Examples, again, include the Black Plague, the Thirty Years War and World War II.

Perhaps a shock on their scale will close out the present cycle… for all that we know. Or perhaps some other cause entirely.

Of course, we can find no reason in law or equity why the second-longest, second-most intense rate depression cycle in history… cannot become the longest, most intense rate depression cycle in history.

The cycle could run years yet. Or it could end Friday morning.

The Lord only knows — and He is silent.

Regards,

Brian Maher
Managing editor, The Daily Reckoning

The post 5,000 Years of Interest Rates, Part II appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

5,000 Years of Interest Rates, Part II

This post 5,000 Years of Interest Rates, Part II appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Yesterday we hauled out evidence that interest rates have gone persistently down 500 years running.

And the high interest rates of the mid- to late 20th century?

These may be history’s true aberration, a violent but brief lurch in the chart… like a sudden burst of blood pressure.

Let us here reintroduce the graphic evidence:

IMG 1

Here is an extended picture of downward-trending rates — with the fabulous exception of the mid-to-late 20th century.

As Harvard economics professor Paul Schmelzing reckoned yesterday, as summarized by Willem H. Buiter in Project Syndicate:

Despite temporary stabilizations such as the periods 1550–1640, 1820–1850 or in fact 1950–1980… global… real rates have persistently trended downward over the past five centuries…

Can you therefore expect the downward journey of interest rates to proceed uninterrupted?

We have ransacked the historical data further still… rooted around for clues… and emerged with worrisome findings.

Why worrisome?

Details to follow. Let us first look in on another historical oddity, worrisome in its own way — the present stock market.

A Lull on Wall Street

It was an inconsequential day on Wall Street. The Dow Jones took a very slight slip, down nine points on the day.

The S&P scratched out a single-point gain; the Nasdaq gained 12 points today.

Gold and oil largely loafed, budging barely at all.

Meantime, humanity’s would-be saviors remained huddled at Davos. There they are setting the world to rights and deciding how we must live.

But let us resume our study of time… and money.

For light, we once again resort to the good Professor Schmelzing.

The arc of interest rates bends lower with time, he has established. But as he also establishes… no line bends true across five centuries of history.

Put aside the drastic mid-to-late 20th century reversal. Even the long downturning arc has its squiggles and twists, bent in the great forges of history.

To these we now turn…

“Real Rate Depression Cycles”

Over seven centuries, Schmelzing identifies nine “real rate depression cycles.”

These cycles feature a secular decline of real interest rates, followed by reversals — often sudden and violent reversals.

The first eight rate depression cycles tell fantastic tales…

They often pivoted upon high dramas like the Black Death of the mid-14th century… the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century… and World War II.

IMG 2

The world is currently ensnared within history’s ninth rate depression cycle. This cycle began in the mid-1980s.

Schmelzing says one previous cycle comes closest to this, our own. That is the global “Long Depression” of the 1880s and ’90s.

This “Long Depression” witnessed “low productivity growth, deflationary price dynamics and the rise of global populism and protectionism.”

Need we draw the parallels to today?

It is here where our tale gathers pace… and acquires point.

A Thing of Historic Grandeur

Schmelzing’s research reveals this information:

This present cycle is a thing of historical grandeur, in both endurance and intensity.

Of the entire 700-year record… only one cycle had a greater endurance. That was in the 15th century.

And only one previous cycle — also from the same epoch — exceeded the current cycle’s intensity.

By almost any measure… today’s rate depression cycle is a thing for the ages.

Turn now to this chart. The steep downward slope on the right gives the flavor of its fevered intensity:

IMG 3

Schmelzing’s researches show the real rate for the entire 700-year history is 4.78%.

Meantime, the real rate for the past 200 years averages 2.6%.

Beware “Reversion to the Mean”

And so “relative to both historical benchmarks,” says this fellow, “the current market environment thus remains severely depressed.”

That is, real rates remain well beneath historical averages.

And if the term “reversion to the mean” has anything in it, the world is in for a hard jolt when the mean reverts. Why?

Because when rates do regain their bounce — history shows — they bounce high.

Schmelzing:

The evidence from eight previous “real rate depressions” is that turnarounds from such environments, when they occur, have typically been both quick and sizeable… Most reversals to “real rate stagnation” periods have been rapid, nonlinear and took place on average after 26 years.

Twenty-six years? The present rate depression cycle runs to 36 or 37 years. We must conclude it goes on loaned time. What happens when the loan comes due?:

Within 24 months after hitting their troughs in the rate depression cycle, rates gained on average 315 basis points [3.15%], with two reversals showing real rate appreciations of more than 600 basis points [6%] within two years.

The current rate depression cycle ranges far beyond average.

It is, after all, the second longest on record… and the second most intense.

If the magnitude of the bounceback approximates the magnitude of the cycle it ends… we can therefore expect a fantastic trampolining of rates.

That is, we can likely expect rate appreciations of 6% or more.

What Happens When Rates Rise?

The stock market and the decade-long economic “recovery” center upon ultra-low interest rates. And so we recoil, horrified, at the prospect of a “rapid, nonlinear” rate reversal.

We must next consider its impact on America’s ability to finance its hellacious debt…

A violent rate increase means debt service becomes an impossible burden.

How would America service its $23 trillion debt — a $23 trillion debt that jumps higher by the minute?

Debt service already represents the fastest-growing government expense.

Interest payments will total $460 billion this year, estimates the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

CBO further projects debt service will scale $800 billion by decade’s end.

$800 billion exceeds today’s entire $738 billion defense budget. As it exceeds vastly present Medicare spending ($625 billion) and Medicaid spending ($412 billion).

CBO Doesn’t Account for Possible End to Rate Depression Cycle

But CBO pays no heed to the rate depression cycle. It — in fact — projects no substantial rate increases this decade.

But what if the present rate depression cycle closes… and interest rates go spiraling?

Debt service will likely swamp the entire federal budget.

Financial analyst Daniel Amerman:

If the interest rate on that debt were to rise by even 1%, the annual federal deficit rises by $200 billion. A 2% increase in interest rate levels would up the federal deficit by $400 billion, and if rates were 5% higher, the annual federal deficit rises by a full $1 trillion per year.

Recall, rates rocketed 6% or higher after two previous rate reversals.

Given the near-record intensity of the present rate depression cycle… should we not expect a similar rebound next time?

Hard logic dictates we should.

But what might bring down the curtain on the current cycle?

Unforeseen Catastrophe

Most previous rate depression cycles ended with death, destruction, howling, shrieking.

Examples, again, include the Black Plague, the Thirty Years War and World War II.

Perhaps a shock on their scale will close out the present cycle… for all that we know. Or perhaps some other cause entirely.

Of course, we can find no reason in law or equity why the second-longest, second-most intense rate depression cycle in history… cannot become the longest, most intense rate depression cycle in history.

The cycle could run years yet. Or it could end Friday morning.

The Lord only knows — and He is silent.

Regards,

Brian Maher
Managing editor, The Daily Reckoning

The post 5,000 Years of Interest Rates, Part II appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

5,000 Years of Interest Rates

This post 5,000 Years of Interest Rates appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

“At no point in the history of the world has the interest on money been so low as it is now.”

Here the good Sen. Henry M. Teller of Colorado hits it square.

For 10 years plus, the Federal Reserve has waged a nearly ceaseless warfare upon interest rates.

Savers have staggered under the onslaughts. But the timeless laws of economics will not be forever put to rout.

We suspect they will one day prevail, and mightily. Interest rates will then revert to historical averages.

When they do, today’s crushing debt loads will come down in a heap. They will fall directly on the heads of governments and businesses alike.

This fear haunts our days… and poisons our nights.

Wait… What?

Let us check the date on the senator’s declaration…

Kind heaven, can it be?

Our agents inform us Sen. Teller’s statement entered the congressional minutes on Jan. 12… 1895.

1895 — some 19 years before the Federal Reserve drew its first ghoulish breath!

Were the late 19th century’s interest rates the lowest in world history?

Here at The Daily Reckoning, we are entertained infinitely by the dazzling present.

Its five-minute fads, its 15-minute fames, its popinjay actors strutting vainly across temporary stages…

All amuse us vastly and grandly.

They amuse us, that is — but they do not fascinate us.

It is the long view that draws us in — the view of the soaring eagle high overhead, the view from the mountaintop.

So today we rise above the daily churn, canvass history’s broad sweep… and report strange findings.

Quite possibly scandalous findings. Scandalous?

That is, we will investigate the theory that falling interest rates the historical norm… rather than the exception.

And are central banks powerless to direct them?

The Lowest Rates in 5,000 Years

The chart below gives 5,000 years of interest rate history. It shows the justice in Sen. Teller’s argument.

Direct your attention to anno Domini 1895. Rates had never been lower. Not in all of recorded history:

IMG 1

Rates would sink lower only on two subsequent occasions — the dark, depressed days of the early 1930s — and the present day, dark and depressed in its own way.

The Arc of the Universe Bends Toward Low Interest Rates

Paul Schmelzing professes economics at Harvard. He is also a visiting scholar at the Bank of England. And he has conducted a strict inquiry into interest rates throughout history.

Many take the soaring interest rates of the later 20th century as their guide, he begins:

The discussion of longer-term trends in real rates is often confined to the second half of the 20th century, identifying the high inflation period of the 1970s and early 1980s as an inflection point triggering a multidecade fall in real rates. And indeed, in most economists’ eyes, considering interest rate dynamics over the 20th century horizon — or even over the last 150 years — the reversal during the last quarter of the 1900s at first appears decisive…

Here the good professor refers to “real rates.”

The real interest rate is the nominal rate minus inflation. Thus it penetrates the monetary illusion. It exposes inflation’s false tricks — and the frauds who put them out.

In one word… it clarifies.

And the chart reveals another capital fact…

The Long View

Revisit the chart above. Now take an eraser in hand. Run it across the violent lurch of the mid-to-late 20th century. You will then come upon this arresting discovery:

Long-term interest rates have trended downward five centuries running. It is this, the long view, that Schmelzing takes:

Despite temporary stabilizations such as the period between 1550–1640, 1820–1850 or in fact 1950–1980 global real rates have shown a persistent downward trend over the past five centuries…

This downward trend has persisted throughout the historical gold, silver, mixed bullion and fiat monetary regimes… and long preceded the emergence of modern central banks.

What is more, today’s low rates represent a mere “catch-up period” to historical trends:

This suggests that deeply entrenched trends are at work — the recent years are a mere “catch-up period”…

In this sense, the decline of real returns across a variety of different asset classes since the 1980s in fact represents merely a return to long-term historical trends. All of this suggests that the “secular stagnation” narrative, to the extent that it posits an aberration of longer-term dynamics over recent decades, appears fully misleading.

Is it true? Is the nearly vertical interest rate regime of the mid-to late 20th century a historical one-off… a chance peak rising sheer from an endless downslope?

What explains it?

Interest Rate Spikes, Explained

Galloping economic growth explains it, says analyst Lance Roberts of Real Inves‌tment Advice.

He argues that periods of sharply rising interest rates are history’s lovely exceptions.

Why lovely?

Interest rates are a function of strong, organic, economic growth that leads to a rising demand for capital over time.

In this view, rates soared at the dawn of the 20th century. It was, after all, a time of rapid industrialization and dizzying technological advance.

Likewise, the massive post-World War II rate spike owes directly to the economic expansion then taking wing. Roberts:

There have been two previous periods in history that have had the necessary ingredients to support rising interest rates. The first was during the turn of the previous century as the country became more accessible via railroads and automobiles, production ramped up for World War I and America began the shift from an agricultural to industrial economy.

The second period occurred post-World War II as America became the “last man standing”… It was here that America found its strongest run of economic growth in its history as the “boys of war” returned home to start rebuilding the countries that they had just destroyed.

Let the record show that rates peaked in 1981. Let it further show that rates have declined steadily ever since.

And so we wonder…

Was the post-World War II period of dramatic and exceptional growth… itself the exception?

The Return to Normal

Let us widen our investigation by summoning additional observers. For example, New York Times senior economic correspondent Neil Irwin:

Investors have often talked about the global economy since the crisis as reflecting a “new normal” of slow growth and low inflation. But just maybe, we have really returned to the old normal.

More:

Very low rates have often persisted for decades upon decades, pretty much whenever inflation is quiescent, as it is now… The real aberration looks like the 7.3% average experienced in the United States from 1970–2007.

That is precisely the case Schmelzing argues.

Now consider the testimony of a certain Bryan Taylor. He is chief economist at Global Financial Data:

“We’re returning to normal, and it’s just taken time for people to realize that.”

Just so. We must nonetheless file a vigorous caveat…

A Pursuit of the Wind

Drawing true connections between historical eras can be a snare, a chasing after geese, a pursuit of the wind.

Success requires a sharpshooter’s eye… a surgeon’s hand… and an owl’s wisdom.

The aforesaid Schmelzing knew the risks before setting out. But he believes he has emerged from the maze, clutching the elusive grail of truth.

Today’s low rates are not the exceptions, he concludes in reminder. They represent a course correction, a return to the long, proper path.

How long will this downward trend continue, professor Schmelzing?

The Look Ahead

Whatever the precise dominant driver — simply extrapolating such long-term historical trends suggests that negative real rates will not just soon constitute a “new normal” — they will continue to fall constantly. By the late 2020s, global short-term real rates will have reached permanently negative territory. By the second half of this century, global long-term real rates will have followed…

But can the Federal Reserve throw its false weights upon the scales… and send rates tipping the other way?

With regards to policy, very low real rates can be expected to become a permanent and protracted monetary policy problem…

The long-term historical data suggests that, whatever the ultimate driver, or combination of drivers, the forces responsible have been indifferent to monetary or political regimes; they have kept exercising their pull on interest rate levels irrespective of the existence of central banks… or permanently higher public expenditures. They persisted in what amounted to early modern patrician plutocracies, as well as in modern democratic environments…

We have argued previously that central banks wield far less influence than commonly supposed. Here we are validated.

But we are unconvinced rates are headed inexorably and unerringly down.

Tomorrow, another possible lesson — a warning — from the book of interest rates.

Regards,

Brian Maher
Managing editor, The Daily Reckoning

The post 5,000 Years of Interest Rates appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

A World Gone Mad

This post A World Gone Mad appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Today we gasp, stagger, reel.

The enormity of it all has finally overmatched our capacities. Consider…

Total global debt presently piles up to 322% of GDP — a record.

Total “developed world” debt piles higher yet — 383% of GDP — another record.

The world’s stock markets combine to $88 trillion, or 100% of global GDP. That is another record yet.

Record upon record upon record has come down… as debt has gone relentlessly up.

And what does the world have to show for the deluge?

Little Bang for the Buck

Real United States GDP growth gutters along under 2%. Fair estimates place European and Japanese 2020 growth under 1%.

Interest rates, meantime, are coming down. And so the supply of “dry powder” available to the central banks is coming down. They will require heaps of it come the next crisis.

Project Syndicate, in summary:

The major developed economies are not only flirting with overvalued financial markets and still relying on a failed monetary-policy strategy, but they are also lacking a growth cushion just when they may need it most.

Direct your attention now to the Bank of England. Specifically, to its balance sheet…

Where’s the Crisis?

As a percentage of GDP…

Not once in three centuries has this balance sheet swollen to today’s preposterous extreme…

Not when England was life and death with Napoleon, not when England was life and death with the kaiser, not when England was life and death with Hitler:

IMG 1

The Bank of England’s balance sheet — again, as a percentage of GDP — presently nears 30%.

It never cleared 20% even when England was absorbing obscene debts to put down Herr Hitler.

Where is today’s Napoleon? Where is today’s kaiser? Indeed… where is today’s Hitler?

Yet the balance sheet indicates England is battling the three at once. And on 1,000 fronts the world across.

We razz our English cousins only because the Bank of England is nearly the oldest central bank going (est.1694) and keeps exquisite records.

It therefore offers a detailed, three-century sketch of central banking’s shifting moods.

Our own Federal Reserve’s history stretches only to 1913. But its compressed history offers a parallel example…

Crisis-Level Balance Sheet

Its balance sheet expanded to perhaps 20% of GDP against the twin calamities of the Great Depression and Second World War.

It then came steadily, inexorably and appropriately down, decade after decade. Pre-financial crisis… that percentage dropped to a stunning 6%.

But then the great quake of ’08 rumbled on through… and shook the walls of Jericho to their very foundations.

The Federal Reserve got out its mason kits and set to patching the damage.

Patching the damage? It built the walls up higher than ever…

By 2014 quantitative easing and the rest of it swelled the balance sheet to 25% of GDP. That, recall, is five full percentage points above its 20th-century crisis peaks.

Mr. Powell’s subsequent quantitative tightening knocked down some of the recent construction.

The balance sheet — as a percentage of GDP — slipped beneath 20% by 2018.

But last year he pulled back the sledgehammers. Then, in September, the short-term money markets began giving out… and Powell rushed in with the supports.

The Fastest Expansion Ever

He has since expanded the balance sheet some $400 billion in a four-month span — over 10%. Not even the financial crisis saw such a violent expansion.

As we have presented before, the visual evidence:

IMG 2

The balance sheet presently nears $4.2 trillion, only slightly beneath its 2015 maximum.

Here then is irony…

“A Magnet for Trouble”

Observe the 2012–14 comments of Carlyle Group partner Jerome Powell — before he was Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell:

I have concerns about more purchases. As others have pointed out, the dealer community is now assuming close to a $4 trillion balance sheet and purchases through the first quarter of 2014. I admit that is a much stronger reaction than I anticipated, and I am uncomfortable with it for a couple of reasons.

First, the question, why stop at $4 trillion? The market in most cases will cheer us for doing more. It will never be enough for the market. Our models will always tell us that we are helping the economy, and I will probably always feel that those benefits are overestimated…. What is to stop us, other than much faster economic growth, which it is probably not in our power to produce?…

[W]hen it is time for us to sell, or even to stop buying, the response could be quite strong; there is every reason to expect a strong response…

Continues the present chairman:

My [next] concern… is the problem of exiting from a near $4 trillion balance sheet… It just seems to me that we seem to be way too confident that exit can be managed smoothly. Markets can be much more dynamic than we appear to think…

I think we are actually at a point of encouraging risk-taking, and that should give us pause…

I kind of think that a large balance sheet might prove to be a magnet for trouble over time… So I tentatively land on a floor system with the smallest possible balance sheet…

“Why stop at $4 trillion?”… “It will never be enough for the market”… “faster economic growth, which it is probably not in our power to produce”… “a large balance sheet might prove to be a magnet for trouble over time”… “I tentatively land on a floor system with the smallest possible balance sheet”…

Again — here is irony.

What Happened to Powell?

Where a fellow stands often depends upon where he sits. And this particular fellow sits in the chairman’s seat at the Federal Reserve.

The Federal Reserve has a certain institutional… perspective.

And so he leans whichever way it slants.

Our co-founder Bill Bonner puts it this way:

“People come to believe whatever they must believe when they must believe it.”

What does Mr. Powell’s 2012–14 self, the conscience tapping naggingly on his shoulder, tell him?

That no enormity is ever enough for the market? Something about a magnet for trouble? A preference for the smallest possible balance sheet perhaps?

But Jerome Powell has come to believe what he must… when he needed to believe it.

We shudder at what he will come to believe come the crisis — or whatever his successor will come to believe.

Meantime, the world runs to record debt, its stock markets run to record highs…

And we are about ready to run for the hills…

Regards,

Brian Maher
Managing editor, The Daily Reckoning

The post A World Gone Mad appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Now What?

This post Now What? appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Stocks were up and away this morning, aloft on happy wings. And as stocks went up… records came down.

Both the Dow Jones and S&P established fresh highs today.

Today is — after all — when the United States and China stowed their differences… and came formally to terms.

President Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He signed their names to a “phase one” trade accord late this morning.

What precisely did they pledge? AP draws the overall sketch:

Under the Phase 1 agreement, which the two sides reached in mid-December, the administration dropped plans to impose tariffs on an additional $160 billion in Chinese imports. And it halved, to 7.5%, existing tariffs on $110 billion of goods from China.

For its part, Beijing agreed to significantly increase its purchases of U.S. products. According to the Trump administration, China is to buy $40 billion a year in U.S. farm products — an ambitious goal for a country that has never imported more than $26 billion a year in U.S. agricultural products.

Once the handshakes were over, the president seized a microphone and gushed:

Today we take a momentous step, one that has never been taken before with China, toward a future of fair and reciprocal trade with China. Together we are righting the wrongs of the past.

And so there is more joy in heaven this day. But will there be more joy on Earth the next?

We are not half so convinced. The wrongs of the past — if they be wrongs at all — may well remain wrong.

The warring parties have signed a truce, it is true. But truce is not peace.

Truce may be no more than a mere respite from arms, a temporary cessation of fire, a brief clearing of battlefield smoke.

Consider the terms of this truce…

It cuts in half tariffs on certain Chinese wares from 15% to 7.5%. Yet tariffs on some $360 billion of Chinese exports stand in place.

Perhaps two-thirds of Chinese goods remain under penalty. As do more than half of all United States shipments to China.

Today’s signing scarcely budges them.

Meantime, this phase one armistice leaves unaddressed China’s war aims, its peace terms, its strategic objectives.

Continues the AP wire:

The so-called Phase 1 pact does little to force China to make the major economic reforms — such as reducing unfair subsidies for its own companies — that the Trump administration sought when it started the trade war by imposing tariffs on Chinese imports in July 2018…

Most analysts say any meaningful resolution of the key U.S. allegation — that Beijing uses predatory tactics in its drive to supplant America’s technological supremacy — could require years of contentious talks. And skeptics say a satisfactory resolution may be next to impossible given China’s ambitions to become the global leader in such advanced technologies as driverless cars and artificial intelligence.

Adds The New York Times:

The deal also does not address cybersecurity or China’s tight controls over how companies handle data and cloud computing. China rejected American demands to include promises to refrain from hacking American firms in the text, insisting it was not a trade issue.

Affirms Eswar Prasad, who formerly directed the International Monetary Fund’s China desk:

“[The deal] hardly addresses in any substantive way the fundamental sources of trade and economic tensions between the two sides, which will continue to fester.”

And so the generals remain huddled over their charts… the cannons are still loaded… and the troops are ready to answer the bugle.

They only await orders from the commander in chief.

Ultimate peace — lasting peace — will therefore require a “phase two” treaty…

The president has vowed to tackle China’s multiple trade atrocities in phase two of negotiations.

That is why he has held most existing tariffs in place. These represent the stick end of the “carrot and stick” polarity.

He will wield them as clubs, forcing Chinese concessions in this crucial second phase.

But phase two must wait. The president has suggested — strongly — that negotiations may not proceed until this year’s election is decided.

Assume they do proceed…

Will Mr. Trump club China into submission? Will China throw down its arms… and come marching into camp?

Not if it means losing “face,” argues Jim Rickards:

Culturally, saving face may be more important to the Chinese. The Chinese are all about saving face and gaining face. That means they can walk away from a trade deal even if it damages them economically.

Meantime, the truce, the uneasy truce, enters force.

The Lord only knows if it holds…

Regards,

Brian Maher
Managing editor, The Daily Reckoning

The post Now What? appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Now What?

This post Now What? appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Stocks were up and away this morning, aloft on happy wings. And as stocks went up… records came down.

Both the Dow Jones and S&P established fresh highs today.

Today is — after all — when the United States and China stowed their differences… and came formally to terms.

President Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He signed their names to a “phase one” trade accord late this morning.

What precisely did they pledge? AP draws the overall sketch:

Under the Phase 1 agreement, which the two sides reached in mid-December, the administration dropped plans to impose tariffs on an additional $160 billion in Chinese imports. And it halved, to 7.5%, existing tariffs on $110 billion of goods from China.

For its part, Beijing agreed to significantly increase its purchases of U.S. products. According to the Trump administration, China is to buy $40 billion a year in U.S. farm products — an ambitious goal for a country that has never imported more than $26 billion a year in U.S. agricultural products.

Once the handshakes were over, the president seized a microphone and gushed:

Today we take a momentous step, one that has never been taken before with China, toward a future of fair and reciprocal trade with China. Together we are righting the wrongs of the past.

And so there is more joy in heaven this day. But will there be more joy on Earth the next?

We are not half so convinced. The wrongs of the past — if they be wrongs at all — may well remain wrong.

The warring parties have signed a truce, it is true. But truce is not peace.

Truce may be no more than a mere respite from arms, a temporary cessation of fire, a brief clearing of battlefield smoke.

Consider the terms of this truce…

It cuts in half tariffs on certain Chinese wares from 15% to 7.5%. Yet tariffs on some $360 billion of Chinese exports stand in place.

Perhaps two-thirds of Chinese goods remain under penalty. As do more than half of all United States shipments to China.

Today’s signing scarcely budges them.

Meantime, this phase one armistice leaves unaddressed China’s war aims, its peace terms, its strategic objectives.

Continues the AP wire:

The so-called Phase 1 pact does little to force China to make the major economic reforms — such as reducing unfair subsidies for its own companies — that the Trump administration sought when it started the trade war by imposing tariffs on Chinese imports in July 2018…

Most analysts say any meaningful resolution of the key U.S. allegation — that Beijing uses predatory tactics in its drive to supplant America’s technological supremacy — could require years of contentious talks. And skeptics say a satisfactory resolution may be next to impossible given China’s ambitions to become the global leader in such advanced technologies as driverless cars and artificial intelligence.

Adds The New York Times:

The deal also does not address cybersecurity or China’s tight controls over how companies handle data and cloud computing. China rejected American demands to include promises to refrain from hacking American firms in the text, insisting it was not a trade issue.

Affirms Eswar Prasad, who formerly directed the International Monetary Fund’s China desk:

“[The deal] hardly addresses in any substantive way the fundamental sources of trade and economic tensions between the two sides, which will continue to fester.”

And so the generals remain huddled over their charts… the cannons are still loaded… and the troops are ready to answer the bugle.

They only await orders from the commander in chief.

Ultimate peace — lasting peace — will therefore require a “phase two” treaty…

The president has vowed to tackle China’s multiple trade atrocities in phase two of negotiations.

That is why he has held most existing tariffs in place. These represent the stick end of the “carrot and stick” polarity.

He will wield them as clubs, forcing Chinese concessions in this crucial second phase.

But phase two must wait. The president has suggested — strongly — that negotiations may not proceed until this year’s election is decided.

Assume they do proceed…

Will Mr. Trump club China into submission? Will China throw down its arms… and come marching into camp?

Not if it means losing “face,” argues Jim Rickards:

Culturally, saving face may be more important to the Chinese. The Chinese are all about saving face and gaining face. That means they can walk away from a trade deal even if it damages them economically.

Meantime, the truce, the uneasy truce, enters force.

The Lord only knows if it holds…

Regards,

Brian Maher
Managing editor, The Daily Reckoning

The post Now What? appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Central Banker Comes Clean

This post Central Banker Comes Clean appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Reuters broadcasts the confession:

I do think the growth in the balance sheet is having some impact on the financial markets and on the valuation of risk assets…

Here we have the unassailable and unimpeachable testimony of one Robert Kaplan. He, Mr. Kaplan, presides over the Federal Reserve’s Dallas branch office.

And so a central bank grandee gives it straight… and stamps our dark suspicions with an official seal.

For this has been our claim:

The latest stock market fever owes not to trade, not to economics, not to “fundamentals.”

It owes rather to a delirious four-month expansion of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet.

Irrefutable Evidence

Let us re-enter Exhibit A into evidence:

IMG 1

And Exhibit B:

IMG 2

This, as we have noted repeatedly, is a direct response to liquidity shortages in the short-term lending markets. In brief summary:

The Federal Reserve has expanded its balance sheet $400 billion these past four months — a $1.2 trillion annualized rate.

The same balance sheet presently rises near $4.2 trillion… a mere holler from its $4.5 trillion record.

As Goes the Balance Sheet, so Goes the Stock Market

Now let Exhibit C go into the record:

IMG 3

As revealed, the stock market pandemonium since October matches nearly perfectly the balance sheet engorgement.

The Dow Jones once again crossed 29,000 today, as it did briefly last week. As last week, it lost its purchase… and skidded back down.

It ended the day at 28,939.

But tomorrow promises a fresh assault upon the peaks.

Should we then be surprised that investor sentiment presently runs to extreme greed?

Extreme Greed

Behold CNN’s Fear & Greed Index:

IMG 4

This Fear & Greed Index presently reads a sinfully avaricious 90 — “extreme greed.”

What did it read one year ago today?

It read 30… verging on “extreme fear.”

But that was before the Federal Reserve furled back its sleeves, spat upon its hands… and set to work…

Before it began hacking interest rates, before it halted quantitative tightening — before it sent the balance sheet ballooning.

One year later the stock market rises to record highs and sentiment runs to extreme greed.

“The Bullish Sentiment We’re Getting Now Has Reached the Uncomfortable Stage”

Here at The Daily Reckoning, our distrust of crowds approximates our distrust of politicians, sellers of used autos… and statistics.

When the crowd goes herding into the same railcar, we instinctively jump tracks.

And the railcar is filling fast…

“The bullish sentiment we’re getting now has reached the uncomfortable stage,” affirms Jeff deGraaf, chairman of Renaissance Macro Research, adding:

“Some of the levels we’ve seen are, frankly, similar to what we saw in January of 2018.”

In reminder: The stock market “corrected” over 10% between Jan. 26 and Feb. 8, 2018.

We believe it is preparing to correct again. But not until the market uncorrects further yet…

“Peak Bullishness and Dovishness”

Tomorrow the president puts his signature to the “phase one” trade accord with China.

The United States will cancel scheduled tariffs on Chinese wares… and China will agree to purchase additional American bounty.

The computer algorithms will pluck the joyful news from the wires. They will proceed to pummel the “buy” button.

Thus you can expect CNN’s Fear & Greed Index to lurch even further into greed.

Meantime, the Federal Reserve huddles at Washington in two weeks.

It will not lower rates — but nor will it raise them up. Federal funds futures presently give 87.3% odds that rates remain in place.

Conditions will remain accordingly benign. And markets can continue their journey into the record books, unruffled and undisturbed.

That is why Bank of America warns markets presently careen toward “peak bullishness and dovishness.”

What lies the other side of these lofty and treacherous peaks?

We hazard the stock market will correct in February, once across. We suspect it will correct on the same general scale as 2018.

Let us now turn our attention to the great bugaboo of today’s market, the skunk lurking in this growing woodpile…

Too Many Eggs in Too Few Baskets

Merely five stocks — Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Amazon and Facebook — presently constitute 18% of the S&P’s total market capitalization.

As Morgan Stanley reminds us, that is the highest percentage in history.

“A ratio like this is unprecedented, including during the tech bubble,” says Mike Wilson, who directs Morgan Stanley’s U.S. equity strategy.

These stocks account for much of the S&P’s 2019 outperformance. Apple and Microsoft accounted for nearly 15% of all S&P gains.

Rarely before, we conclude, have so many investors… owed so much… to so few stocks.

But what if these wagon-pullers crack under the strain — and throw off the burden of leadership?

CNBC:

These mega tech firms have been the front-runners in this record-long bull market as investors bet on superior growth and dominant market share in their respective industries. They were the biggest contributors to the market’s historic gains last year and the trend shows no signs of stopping in 2020. However, multiple Wall Street strategists are sounding alarms on the increasing dominance of Big Tech, warning of a potential pullback in the stocks ahead.

Will anyone carry the standard forward should the leaders falter?

No, suggests Goldman Sachs:

“Narrow bull markets eventually lead to large drawdowns.”

The Tide Rises, Until It Doesn’t

Next we come to the strategy of “passive investing.”

Passive, because it rises or falls with the prevailing tide.

After the 2008 near-collapse, the Federal Reserve inundated markets with oceans of liquidity.

The tide rose, and all boats with it.

Technology stocks like Apple and Microsoft have led the way up.

Much of Wall Street has poured into these stocks… sat back on its oars… and rode the current to record highs.

The biblical-level flooding flattened existing financial signposts. “Fundamentals” no longer mattered.

“Active” asset managers fishing for winners could no longer separate them from the losers. The nets came up full of winners and losers alike.

All is peace while the tide of liquidity rises. But the danger is this, as we have written before:

When the tide recedes… it recedes.

Panic Selling Begets Panic Selling

The same handful of stocks that hauled markets up on an incoming tide can drag them rapidly down on an outgoing tide.

Panic selling begins. And panic selling begets panic selling — which begets panic selling.

Explains Jim Rickards:

In a bull market, the effect is to amplify the upside as indexers pile into hot stocks like Google and Apple. But a small sell-off can turn into a stampede as passive investors head for the exits all at once without regard to the fundamentals of a particular stock…

The technical name for this kind of spontaneous crowd behavior is hypersynchronicity, but it’s just as helpful to think of it as a herd of wildebeest that suddenly stampede as one at the first scent of an approaching lion. The last one to run is mostly likely to be eaten alive.

Meantime, the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet continues to expand, the fools continue to rush in…

And the gods continue to plot.

Regards,

Brian Maher
Managing editor, The Daily Reckoning

The post Central Banker Comes Clean appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Helicopter Money Is No Panacea

This post Helicopter Money Is No Panacea appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

In recent decades, the Fed has engaged in a series of policy interventions and market manipulations that have paradoxically left it more powerful even as those interventions left a trail of crashes, collapses and calamities.

This contradiction between Fed omnipotence and Fed incompetence is coming to a head. The economy has been trapped in a prolonged period of subtrend growth. I’ve referred to it in the past as the “new depression.” And the Fed has been powerless to lift the economy out of it.

You may think of depression as a continuous decline in GDP. The standard definition of a recession is two or more consecutive quarters of declining GDP and rising unemployment. Since a depression is understood to be something worse then a recession, investors think it must mean an extra-long period of decline. But that is not the definition of depression.

The best definition ever offered came from John Maynard Keynes in his 1936 classic, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Keynes said a depression is, “a chronic condition of subnormal activity for a considerable period without any marked tendency towards recovery or towards complete collapse.”

Keynes did not refer to declining GDP; he talked about “subnormal” activity. In other words, it’s entirely possible to have growth in a depression. The problem is that the growth is below trend. It is weak growth that does not do the job of providing enough jobs or staying ahead of the national debt. That is exactly what the U.S. is experiencing today.

Long-term growth is about 3%. From 1994 to 2000, the heart of the Clinton boom, growth in the U.S. economy averaged over 4% per year.

For a three-year stretch from 1983 to 1985 during the heart of the Reagan boom, growth in the U.S. economy averaged over 5.5% per year. These two periods were unusually strong, but they show what the U.S. economy can do with the right policies. By contrast, growth in the U.S. from 2007 through today has averaged something like 2% per year.

That is the meaning of depression. It is not negative growth, but it is below-trend growth.  And growth under Trump has been no greater than it was under Obama.

The bigger problem is there’s no way out, as I said. One manipulation leads to another. My greatest fear is that the U.S. is becoming like Japan, which has used every trick in the book to no avail.

In my 2014 book, The Death of Money, I wrote, “The United States is Japan on a larger scale.” That was six years ago now.

Japan started its “lost decade” in the 1990s. Now their lost decade has dragged into three lost decades. The U.S. began its first lost decade in 2009 and is now entering its second lost decade with no real end in sight.

What I referred to in 2014 was that central bank policy in both countries has been completely ineffective at restoring long-term trend growth or solving the steady accumulation of unsustainable debt.

In Japan this problem began in the 1990s, and in the U.S. the problem began in 2009, but it’s the same problem with no clear solution.

Now in 2020, central banks have been cutting rates again, as the trade war and slowing global growth have policymakers considering the implications of a new recession without the firepower they need. As things stand, the next recession may be impossible to get out of. And the odds of avoiding a recession are low.

The only way out is for the Fed to guarantee inflation “whatever it takes.” Nothing else has worked. So why not try a more active fiscal policy? Why not load the helicopters with cash and dump it out over Main Street?

First, we need to understand what helicopter money is, and what it isn’t.

The image of the Fed printing paper money, and dumping it from helicopters to consumers waiting below who scoop it up and start spending is a popular, but not very informative way to describe helicopter money.

In reality, helicopter money is the coordination of fiscal policy and monetary policy in a way designed to provide stimulus to a weak economy and to fight deflation.

Helicopter money starts with larger deficits caused by higher government spending. This spending is considered to have a multiplier effect. For each dollar of spending, perhaps $1.50 of additional GDP is created since the recipients of the government spending turn around and spend that same money on additional goods and services. The U.S. Treasury finances these larger deficits by borrowing the money in the government bond market.

Normally this added borrowing might raise interest rates. The economic drag from higher rates could cancel out the stimulus of higher spending and render the entire program pointless.

This is where the Fed steps in. The Fed can buy the additional debt from the Treasury with freshly printed money. The Fed also promises to hold these newly purchased Treasury bonds on its balance sheet until maturity.

By printing money to neutralize the impact of more borrowing, the economy gets the benefit of higher spending, without the headwinds of higher interest rates. The result is mildly inflationary offsetting the feared deflation that would trigger helicopter money in the first place.

It’s a neat theory, but it’s full of holes.

The first problem is there’s not much of a multiplier at this stage of the U.S. expansion. The current expansion is already the longest in U.S. history. It’s also been the weakest expansion in history, but an expansion nonetheless. The multiplier effect of government spending is strongest at the beginning of an expansion when the economy has more spare capacity in labor and capital.

At this point, the actual multiplier is probably less than one. For every dollar of government spending, the economy might only get $0.90 of added GDP; not the best use of borrowed money.

The second problem with helicopter money is there is no assurance that citizens will actually spend the money the government is pushing into the economy. They are just as likely to pay down debt or save any additional income. This is the classic “liquidity trap.” This propensity to save rather than spend is a behavioral issue not easily affected by monetary or fiscal policy.

Finally, there is an invisible but real confidence boundary on the Fed’s balance sheet. After printing $4 trillion in response to the last financial crisis, how much more can the Fed print without risking confidence in the dollar itself?

Quantitative tightening brought the balance sheet back down to $3.8 trillion. But now it’s over $4 trillion again, as the Fed has added hundreds of billions to its balance sheet since September, when it starting shoring up short-term money markets. It’s basically been “QE-lite.”

Modern monetary theorists and neo-Keynesians say there is no limit on Fed printing, yet history says otherwise.

Importantly, with so much U.S. government debt in foreign hands, a simple decision by foreign countries to become net sellers of U.S. Treasuries is enough to cause interest rates to rise thus slowing economic growth and increasing U.S. deficits at the same time.

If such net selling accelerates, it could lead to a debt-deficit death spiral and a U.S. sovereign debt crisis of the type that hit Greece and the Eurozone periphery in recent years.

In short, helicopter money could have far less potency and far greater unintended negative consequences than its supporters expect.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

The post Helicopter Money Is No Panacea appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

“Last Hurrah” for Central Bankers

This post “Last Hurrah” for Central Bankers appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

We’ve all seen zombie movies where the good guys shoot the zombies but the zombies just keep coming because… they’re zombies!

Market observers can’t be blamed for feeling the same way about former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke.

Bernanke was Fed chair from 2006–2014 before handing over the gavel to Janet Yellen. After his term, Bernanke did not return to academia (he had been a professor at Princeton) but became affiliated with the center-left Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Bernanke is proof that Washington has a strange pull on people. They come from all over, but most of them never leave. It gets more like Imperial Rome every day.

But just when we thought that Bernanke might be buried in the D.C. swamp, never to be heard from again… like a zombie, he’s baaack!

Bernanke gave a high-profile address to the American Economic Association at a meeting in San Diego on Jan. 4. In his address, Bernanke said the Fed has plenty of tools to fight a new recession.

He included quantitative easing (QE), negative interest rates and forward guidance among the tools in the toolkit. He estimates that combined, they’re equal to three percentage points of additional rate cuts. But that’s nonsense.

Here’s the actual record…

That QE2 and QE3 did not stimulate the economy at all; this has been the weakest economic expansion in U.S. history. All QE did was create asset bubbles in stocks, bonds and real estate that have yet to deflate (if we’re lucky) or crash (if we’re not).

Meanwhile, negative interest rates do not encourage people to spend as Bernanke expects. Instead, people save more to make up for what the bank is confiscating as “negative” interest. That hurts growth and pushes the Fed even further away from its inflation target.

What about “forward guidance?”

Forward guidance lacks credibility because the Fed’s forecast record is abysmal. I’ve counted at least 13 times when the Fed flip-flopped on policy because they couldn’t get the forecast right.

So every single one of Bernanke’s claims is dubious. There’s just no realistic basis to argue that these combined policies are equal to three percentage points of additional rate cuts.

And the record is clear: The Fed needs interest rates to be between 4% and 5% to fight recession. That’s how much “dry powder” the Fed needs going into a recession.

In September 2007, the fed funds rate was at 4.75%, toward the high end of the range. That gave the Fed plenty of room to cut, which it certainly did. Between 2008 and 2015, rates were essentially at zero.

The current fed funds target rate is between 1.50% and 1.75%. I’m not forecasting a recession this year, but if we do have one, the Fed doesn’t have anywhere near the room to cut as it did to fight the Great Recession.

I’m not the only one to make that point. Here’s what former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers said:

[Bernanke] argued that monetary policy will be able to do it the next time. I think that’s pretty unlikely given that in recessions we usually cut interest rates by five percentage points and interest rates today are below 2%… I just don’t believe QE and that stuff is worth anything like another three percentage points.

Summers goes on to call Bernanke‘s speech “a kind of last hurrah for the central bankers.”

He’s right. But if monetary policy isn’t the answer, what does Summers think the answer is?

Fiscal policy. The government is going to have to spend money directly into the economy instead of relying upon some trickle-down “wealth effect” to stimulate the economy.

Here’s what Summers said:

“We’re going to have to rely on putting money in people’s pockets, on direct government spending.”

Remember the term “helicopter money”? Milton Friedman coined the term 50 years ago when he made the analogy of dropping money from a helicopter to illustrate the effects of aggressive fiscal policy.

That’s essentially what Summers is advocating. It might sound a lot like the idea behind Modern Monetary Theory, or MMT, but it’s not necessarily the same thing. MMT takes helicopter money to a whole new level, and Summers has actually been highly critical of MMT.

But the idea of direct government spending to stimulate the economy is the same, and it’s gaining traction in official circles.

There’s good reason to believe it’s coming to a theater near you. And maybe sooner than you think.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

The post “Last Hurrah” for Central Bankers appeared first on Daily Reckoning.