This Time It's For Real

A little over a year ago, I wrote a column about Modern Monetary Theory. Don't look now, but it's no longer a theory, it's reality. Depending on how it eventually turns out, we'll find out if the economic cure to the coronavirus was worse than the disease.

In simple terms, MMT adherents believe that countries that issue and back their currencies, like the U.S., can print as much money as they need and still stay solvent. (Compare the eurozone, where the European Central Bank issues the currency, not the individual member countries). And without creating runaway inflation.

You can try this at home, too, you know, although it doesn't work nearly as well for individuals as it does for governments. Pay off one of your credit card balances with a balance transfer from another bank, then keep repeating the process. This will work for a while until the merry-go-round eventually stops when the banks stop lending you money, and you'll have to either pay everything you owe or wind up in bankruptcy court.

Of course, it's different for the government, which is one of MMT's main arguments, since it can just print more money when it runs out, which means the merry-go-round keeps going, even if investors stop buying Treasury bonds. If that happens, which it never has, the Federal Reserve, a separate but "independent" arm of the government, will pick up the slack.

Neat, huh? Continue reading "This Time It's For Real"

Why Inflation?

The simple answer is that is what they are doing, inflating.

The slightly less simple answer is that they inflated in 2001 and it worked (for gold, silver, commodities and eventually stocks, roughly in that order). It also worked in 2008-2009 (for gold, silver, commodities and eventually stocks, roughly in that order).

The more complicated answer is that we are down a rabbit hole of debt and the hole appears bottomless. What’s a few more trillion on top of un-payable trillions? As long as confidence remains intact in our monetary and fiscal authorities – and COVID-19 or no COVID-19, stock mini-crash or not, confidence to my eye is intact, speaking of my country, anyway – they will inflate, and what’s more, they will be called upon to inflate.

Confidence may be failing in other parts of the world but the average American is behind this thing they don’t even really understand, known as the Fed. The average American expects the bailout checks from the fiscally reflating government too. Angst, of which there has been plenty lately, is much different from lack of confidence.

I can’t include here all the ways and means the Fed has (frankly, I don’t know about them all) to prop the system, but if you go to the St. Louis Fed website you will find a whole slew of Keynesian egghead stuff. They are on it! Continue reading "Why Inflation?"

Does The Fed Have Any Ammo Left?

So, far, the Fed has done an enormous amount of heavy lifting to try to keep the U.S. – and global – economy afloat during this unprecedented crisis, which – just so far – easily dwarfs the 2008 financial crisis in severity. As scary as things were back then, with many of the largest financial institutions in the world threatened with collapse, we didn’t have to worry about thousands of people dying as a result. This crisis is far worse, and we still haven’t the vaguest notion of how bad it still might get.

Let’s review all of the various Fed moves since the beginning of this month, then let’s talk about what else it might be able to do:

  • On March 3, the Fed held its first of what would be two emergency meetings this month, announcing a 50-basis point rate cut in its benchmark federal funds rate to a range of 1% to 1.25%. That move bombed.
  • It followed that up less than two weeks later on March 15 – a Sunday no less – with another 50 bp cut, to a range of 0.25% to zero. That also had little effect.
  • At the same time, the Fed said it would increase “over coming months” its holdings of Treasury securities by at least $500 billion and its holdings of mortgage-backed securities by at least $200 billion. However, by the end of last week, the Fed had already bought about $275 billion of those securities. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, “this means the Fed will have bought more than half of the $500 billion in Treasury securities in one week with little sign of restored market functioning, pointing to a growing likelihood for a much more aggressive round of purchases.”
  • The Fed created a Money Market Mutual Fund Lending Facility that would make loans to banks secured by assets from money market funds, similar to what it did during the 2008 crisis, although this time, it would be purchasing a broader range of assets. On Friday, it extended the facility to include short-term debt issued by cities and states.
  • The Fed also said it was creating a new Primary Dealers Credit Facility that would provide major players in the government securities market with short-term loans.

As bold as all of these moves have been, have they actually done anything to restore public and investor confidence? Hardly. While the Fed has driven already low-interest rates back down to zero, it doesn’t mean very much when nobody wants to own any financial assets – whether it’s Treasury bonds or gold or anything else. Not blaming the Fed, but there’s only so much it can do when just about everyone is acting like the world is coming to an end.

But is there more it can do, either under its existing powers or some new Congressional mandate? Continue reading "Does The Fed Have Any Ammo Left?"

Are Bonds Still Relevant?

Do bonds have a place anymore in your portfolio in the new Federal Reserve paradigm?

The Fed has a long history of creating asset bubbles, then later – sometimes years later – letting the air out of the balloon through monetary policy or regulatory change, leaving investors licking their wounds.

The most recent and most dramatic bubble inflation and subsequent deflation, of course, occurred in the first decade of this millennium. Through a policy of low-interest rates, the Fed largely encouraged American consumers to borrow heavily against their homes, while its laissez-faire regulation of the banks it’s supposed to monitor allowed these same consumers to borrow whether or not they had the wherewithal to pay the loans back.

We all know what happened when the Fed suddenly reversed course and raised interest rates and, perhaps more importantly, required banks to make their customers actually prove that they were good credit risks (imagine that?). We’re still feeling the fallout more than 10 years later, as millions of people defaulted on their loans because they couldn’t borrow any more money.

Now we have a similar story, only with stocks and bonds, but the Fed has taken a different attitude. It’s showing no inclination to prick the bubble it has created in financial assets through historically low-interest rates for a historically long period of time and through quantitative easing, i.e., attempting to corner the market on U.S. Treasury and mortgage-backed securities basically.

Yields on long-term government securities are now at their all-time lows, mortgage rates are at or near their all-time lows, while stocks are near their all-time highs even after this week’s coronavirus-inspired panic selloff. Yet the Fed has not responded as it has in the past, by letting some air out of the bubble, Continue reading "Are Bonds Still Relevant?"

The Times They Are A' Changin'

Talk about charter creep. This is more like a charter leap.

As we know well by now, the Federal Reserve’s famous “dual mandate” is to promote price stability and maximum sustainable employment. But as we also know, the Fed really has a third mandate, maintaining moderate long-term interest rates (don’t ask me why they still call it a dual mandate).

So it should be no surprise, then, that the Fed has now gone way beyond that dual (or treble) mandate by wholeheartedly injecting itself into what is really a political debate, namely climate change. And how ironic it is that it rose to the forefront during the same week that the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Last week Fed officials were out in force, declaring that climate change would now be a major factor in not only how it regulates federally chartered commercial banks but also how it conducts U.S. monetary policy.

On Thursday, in a speech at the GARP Global Risk Forum, Kevin Stiroh, an executive vice president responsible for regulating banks at the New York Fed, said financial firms need to take the dangers and costs of climate change into their risk-management decisions.

“Climate change has significant consequences for the U.S. economy and financial sector through slowing productivity growth, asset revaluations, and sectoral reallocations of business activity,” he said. “The U.S. economy has experienced more than $500 billion in direct losses over the last five years due to climate and weather-related events.” Continue reading "The Times They Are A' Changin'"