Ben's Rocket to Nowhere

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Herd mentality can be as frustrating as it is inexplicable. Once a crowd starts moving, momentum can be all that matters and clear signs and warnings are often totally ignored. Financial markets are currently following this pattern with respect to the unshakable belief that the Federal Reserve is ready, willing, and most importantly, able, to immediately execute a wind down of its quantitative easing program. How this notion became so deeply entrenched is a mystery, but the stampede it has sparked is getting more violent, and irrational, by the day.

The release last week of the minutes of the October Fed policy meeting was a case study in dangerous collective delusion. Although the report did not contain a shred of hard information about the certainty or timing of a “tapering” campaign, most observers read into it definitive proof that the Fed would jump into action by December or March at the latest.

But while the Fed was gaining much attention by saying nothing, the Chinese made a blockbuster statement that was summarily ignored. Last week, a deputy governor of the People’s Bank of China said that buying foreign exchange reserves was now no longer in China’s national interest. The implication that China may no longer be accumulating U.S. government debt would amount to the “mother of all tapers” and could create a clear and present danger to the American economy. But the story barely rated a mention in the American media.

Instead, the current environment is all about the imminent Fed taper: the process of winding down the Fed’s monthly purchases of $85 billion of treasury debt and mortgage-backed securities. However, the crowd fails to grasp that the Fed has embarked on an impossible mission. The herd is blissfully unaware that the Fed may not be able to reverse, or even slow, the course of QE without immediately sending the economy back into recession.

In an interview this week, outgoing Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke likened the QE program to the first stage in a multiple stage rocket that gets the spacecraft off the ground and accelerates it to the point where it is close to achieving permanent orbit. Like a first stage that has spent its fuel and has become dead weight, Bernanke seems to concede that QE is no longer capable of providing positive thrust, and as a result can now be jettisoned (like a first stage) so that the remainder of the spacecraft/economy can now move higher and faster. The Chairman’s nifty metaphor provides some inspiring visuals, but is completely flawed in just about every way imaginable.

In real rocketry, when the first stage separates, it falls back to earth and is no longer a burden to the remainder of the ship. Subsequent booster rockets (which in economic terms Bernanke imagines would be continuation of zero interest rate policies) build on the gains made by the first stage. But the almost $4 trillion in assets that the Fed has accumulated as a result of the QE program will not simply vaporize into the stratosphere like a discarded rocket engine. In fact it will remain tethered to the rest of the economy with chains of solid lead.

In the process of accumulating the world’s largest cache of Treasuries, the Fed has become the most important player in that market. I believe the Fed can’t stop accumulating and dispose of its inventory without creating major market disruptions that will drag the economy down.

This would be true even if the economic rocket were actually approaching escape velocity. In reality, we are still sitting on the launch pad. By keeping interest rates far below market levels and by channeling newly created dollars directly into the financial markets, the QE program has resulted in major gains in the stock, real estate, and bond markets. Many have argued that all three are currently in bubble territory. Yet to the casual observer, these gains are proof of America’s surging economic vitality.

But things look very different on Main Street, where the employment picture has not kept pace with the rising prices of financial assets. The work force participation rate continues to shrink (recently falling back to levels last seen in 1978), real wages have declined, and since the end of 2009 the temporary workforce has grown at a pace that is 14 times faster than those with permanent jobs. Americans are driving less, vacationing less, and switching to lower quality products and services in order to deal with falling purchasing power.

But the herd is closely watching the Fed’s rocket show and does not understand that stocks and housing will likely fall, and bond yields rise steeply, once the QE is removed. The crowd is similarly ignoring the significance of the Chinese announcement.

Over the past decade or so, the People’s Bank of China has been one of the largest buyers of U.S. Treasuries (after various U.S. government entities that are essentially nationalizing U.S. debt). China currently sits on $1 trillion or more in U.S. bond obligations.

So, just as many expect that the #1 buyer of Treasuries (the Fed) will soon begin paring back its purchases, the top foreign holder may cease buying, thereby opening a second front in the taper campaign. This should cause any level-headed observer to conclude that the market for such bonds will fall dramatically, causing severe upward pressure on interest rates. But the possibility is not widely discussed.

Also left out of the discussion is the degree to which remaining private demand for Treasuries is a function of the Fed’s backstop (the Greenspan put, renewed by Bernanke, and expected to be maintained by Yellen). The ultra-low yields currently offered by long-term Treasuries are only acceptable to investors so long as the Fed removes the risk of significant price declines. If the private buyers, the Fed, China (and other central banks that may likely follow China’s lead) refuse to buy Treasuries, who will take on the slack?  Absent the Fed’s backstop, prices will likely have to fall considerably to offer an acceptable risk/reward dynamic to investors. The problem is that any yield high enough to satisfy investors may be too high for the government or the economy to afford.

Little thought seems to be given to how the economy would react to 5% yields on 10-year Treasuries (a modest number in historical standards). The herd assumes that our stronger economy could handle such levels. In reality, 5% rates would likely deeply impact the financial sector, prick the bubbles in housing and stocks, blow a hole in the federal budget, and cause sizable losses in the value of the Fed’s bond holdings. These developments would require the Fed to devise a rocket with even more power than the one it is now thinking of discarding.

That is why when it comes to tapering, the Fed is all bark and no bite. In fact, toward the end of last week, Dennis Lockhart, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, said that the Fed “won’t taper its bond-buying until the economy is ready.” He must know that the economy will never be ready. It’s like a drug addict claiming that he’ll stop using when he no longer needs them to stay high.

But the market understands none of this. Instead it is operating under dangerous delusions that are creating sky-high valuations for the latest social media craze, undermining the investment case for gold and other inflation hedges, and encouraging people to ignore growing risks that are hiding in plain sight.

This is not unusual in market history. When the spell is finally broken and markets wake up to reality, we will scratch our heads and wonder how we could ever have been so misguided.

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