December 27, 2013

Part II: The Long-Term Outlook – Even a Strong Economy Doesn’t Change the Ultimate Outcome

Posted in business, debt, Economic Growth, Economy, Europe, Finance, Foreign, Inflation, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, Markets, National Deblt, Robert Barone at 4:46 PM by Robert Barone

If you’ve read Part I of this year end outlook, you know that it is our view that the underlying private sector is healthy and, except for the fact that the real rate of inflation is much faster than the ‘official’ rate, we could well have a short period of prosperity.

Unfortunately, our long-term outlook is not as sanguine as our short-term view.  The eventual recognition of the inflation issue, the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency, the bloated Fed balance sheet and the resulting excess bank reserves, and the freight train of unfunded liabilities and its impact on the debt and deficit are issues that have large negative long-term consequences.  Remember, the long-term unfolds slowly, and we don’t expect that we will wake up one day to find that all has changed.  Still, the changes discussed below could very well take place over the next decade, and investors need to be prepared.

The Dollar as the Reserve Currency

The dollar is currently the world’s reserve currency.  Most world trade takes place in dollars, even if no American entity is involved.  Because world trade has rapidly expanded over the past 20 years, more dollars have been needed than those required for the U.S. economy alone.  As a result, the U.S. has been able to run large deficits without any apparent significant impact on the dollar’s value relative to other major currencies.  Any other country that runs a large deficit relative to their GDP suffers significant currency devaluation.  Current policy in Japan is a prime example.  A weakening dollar has implications for the prices of hard assets.

In addition, the Fed’s policy of Quantitative Easing (essentially money printing) has disrupted emerging market economies.  Zero rates and money creation caused hedge fund managers to leverage at low rates and move large volumes of money offshore to emerging nations where interest rates were higher.  The initial fear of “taper” in May and June caused huge and sudden capital outflows from those countries resulting in massive economic dislocation in those markets.  In India, for example, the Rupee was pummeled as the hedge fund investors, fearing that interest rates were about to suddenly rise, all tried to unwind their Rupee investments at the same time.  And now that ‘taper’ has officially started and longer-term rates are expected to rise, these issues will continue.  Those countries have all taken defensive measures.  India, for example, imposed taxes on gold imports, which has impacted the gold markets but has reduced India’s balance of payments deficit.

As a result of such tone deafness on the part of the Fed, and because there now appears to be enough dollars in the world for the current level of trade, the international appetite for U.S. dollars is clearly on the wane.  Japan and China, the two largest holders of Treasury debt, have recently reduced purchases.  Most emerging market nations and large players like Russia and China have vocally called for an alternative to the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.  This movement is alive and well.

The Fed’s Balance Sheet

As the economy expands, the size of the Fed’s balance sheet and the level of excess bank reserves will become a problem.  There are $2.3 trillion of bank reserves in excess of what are ‘required’  under the law and regulations.  (Required reserves for the U.S. banking system are $.067 trillion; so, the system has 34x more reserves than it needs.)  Under ‘normal’ conditions, and the way the system was designed to work, if the economy got too hot, the Fed could sell a small amount of securities out of its portfolio which would reduce bank reserves to the point where banks would have to ‘borrow’ from the Fed.  Because bankers are hesitant to do that, and because the Fed could raise the ‘discount’ rate, the rate charged for the borrowings, the Fed could control new lending and thus the economic expansion.  This isn’t possible today as the Fed would have to sell $2.2 trillion to cause banks to have to borrow.  Such a volume of sales would likely cause a crisis in the financial system, or even collapse.  Today, the only way the Fed has to stop the banks from lending is to pay them not to lend – this is exactly the opposite of the intent of the original legislation and the opposite of how the Fed has worked for most of its 100 year history.

Furthermore, given the growing lack of confidence in the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, if fiscal budget deficits grow in the future, the Fed may end up as the major lender (i.e., lender of last resort) for the U.S. Treasury.  That simply means more money creation.

Unfunded Liabilities-

The U.S. Treasury officially recognizes $85 trillion as the amount of unfunded liabilities of the Federal Government.  Other professionals set this number near $120 trillion.  For comparison, the annual U.S. GDP is about $16 trillion.  The budget deficit reported in the media is a cash flow deficit (tax collections minus expenditures).  The budget deficit doesn’t include promises made for future payments (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, government pensions) which have been running between $4 and $5 trillion annually for the past few years.  These amounts simply get added to the ‘unfunded’ liability number.

As the population ages, these payments will have to be made, and the budget may become overwhelmed. (You see the relevance of the remark made above about the Fed being the lender of last resort for the Treasury.)   This is the heart of the debate about ‘entitlements’ that has been front and center for the past decade.

 Solutions (none of which you will like)

 Philipp Bagus is a fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Europe.  He is well known in Europe for his work on financial issues there.  In a recent paper, Bagus says that there are several possible ways out of the current money printing predicament.  Any one or a combination is possible.  We have put them in an order of most likely to least likely to be used:

  •  Inflation – this is the natural outcome of printing money;
  • Financial Repression – this is current Fed policy; savers and retirees bear a disproportionately large burden as inflation eats at their principle but there is no safe way to earn a positive real rate of return;
  • Pay Off Debt – this means much higher levels of taxation, and is definitely a real possibility.  In Europe, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has proposed a one-time 10% wealth tax.  As the unfunded liabilities push up the federal deficit, expect such proposals in the U.S.;
  • Bail-In – In ’08-’09 we saw ‘bail-outs’ where the government saved GM, Chrysler, AIG and the Too Big to Fail banks by buying stock or otherwise recapitalizing them.  A ‘bail-in’ refers to the financial system.  Banks and other depositories have liabilities called deposits.  The depositors do not consider themselves ‘lenders.’  But, in a ‘bail-in,’ it is the depositors who lose.  Their deposits are ‘converted’ to equity in the bank.  When they try to sell their bank shares, they find that it will fetch only a fraction of the value of their deposits.  A variant of this is what happened in Cyprus in the spring of 2013.  Because of the distaste the public now has for ‘bail-outs,’ if there is another financial crisis, this is likely to be the method used;
  • Default on Entitlements – when we talk about ‘entitlement reform’ in the U.S., we really mean at least a partial default.  It is likely that some people simply won’t get what they were promised.  We put this low on the list because we have witnessed a political process that won’t deal with the issue;
  • Repudiate Debt – Because the government can simply print money to pay it debts, this is the least likely of all of the possibilities in the U.S.

The long-term issues are serious.  And not addressing them simply means a higher level of pain when addressing them is required.   Remember, these are long-term issues.  They are all not likely to occur at the same time, nor will they simply appear overnight.  The first signs of trouble will occur when markets begin to recognize that the ‘official’ inflation rate significantly understates reality, or that the inflation data become so overwhelming that they can no longer be masked.  Even then, markets may come to tolerate higher inflation, as after 100 years of fighting inflation, the Fed and the world’s major central banks have embraced it as a good thing.

Meanwhile, as set forth in Part I of this paper, the immediate outlook for the economy is upbeat.  Enjoy it while it lasts.

December 20, 2013

Robert Barone, Ph.D.

Joshua Barone

Andrea Knapp Nolan

Dustin Goldade

Robert Barone (Ph.D., economics, Georgetown University) is a principal of Universal Value Advisors, Reno, a registered investment adviser. Barone is a former director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco and is currently a director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Co., where he chairs the investment committee. Barone or the professionals at UVA (Joshua Barone, Andrea Knapp  and Marvin Grulli) are available to discuss client investment needs.
Call them at 775-284-7778.
Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources. Universal Value Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information.

February 27, 2013

When Push Comes to Shove, Central Banks Print

Posted in Inflation, National Deblt, Uncategorized tagged , , at 4:52 PM by Robert Barone

Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon– Milton Friedman

With worldwide demand for oil ebbing [.5% growth in ’11 and .3% since ’08 (compound annual growth rate – CAGR)], and with huge new discoveries, it would be logical that the price of related commodities would be falling. The price of gasoline, for example, is currently 2.3 times its $1.61/gallon low of four years ago. The price of gold, while down from its peak, is still much higher than its $1,100/oz price at that time.

The question: Why have the prices of these hard assets risen so rapidly despite high unemployment, weak demand, and excess capacity in the economy? To answer this question, one must understand the underlying structural issues facing the U.S. and the developed world, and the responses to these issues from governments and central banks.

Structural Budget Issues

The National Debt of the U.S. currently stands at $16.5 trillion, and unless current economic growth improves dramatically, and soon, the actual National Debt is likely to be closer to $22 trillion by 2017.

 

 

(millions $)

USDebtClock.org

2013 Spending Estimate

% of 2013 Federal Spending

 

2017 Spending Estimate

 

2017

Source

% of 2017 Federal Spending

Medicare/Medicaid

$808,743

22.8%

$1,058,498

CBO

25.8%

Social Security

$773,149

21.8%

$959,742

CBO

23.4%

Defense

$667,670

18.9%

$618,839

CBO

15.1%

Income Security

$353,387

10.0%

$353,387

No change

8.6%

Interest on Debt

$223,123

6.3%

$333,912

CBO

8.2%

Federal Pensions

$213,084

6.0%

$266,065

At current rate

6.5%

   Total

$3,039,156

85.9%

$3,590,443

 

87.7%

Tax Collections

$2,480,788

70.1%

$3,612,352

CBO

88.2%

The table shows estimates of spending for the six largest federal expense categories using USDebtclock.org 2013 estimates and CBO estimates for 2017. The issue is that these six categories eat up 100% of total tax collections even under CBO’s optimistic set of assumptions. On top of these six categories is the cost of the other functions of government including all of the internal departments (DOJ, Homeland Security, EPA, Commerce, Interior, State, etc.) and the off budget expenses of the agencies (FNMA, FHA, GNMA, FHLMC, Post-Office, Amtrak, etc.).

The Debt Cost Issue

In Japan, the Debt/GDP ratio is more than 200%, and the interest cost of the debt is 20% of tax collections. The coupon cost of the debt is about 1%. If rates rose to 3%, 4%, or 5%, the cost of their debt would rise to 60%, 80%, or 100% of their tax collections. Clearly, they could not allow this to happen, and either default or massive inflation would occur. Interestingly, Japan has embarked on a massive money printing scheme and has compromised the independence of its central bank in the process.

Using the maturity structure of the existing U.S. Treasury marketable debt, the table below shows estimates of what would happen to the cost of the debt in five years under different rising interest rate scenarios. A return to a “normal” interest rate structure may truly be a budget busting event.

 

Yield Curve Rises By

Change in Cost (bill $) if Debt is $22 Trillion Total Interest Cost (bill $) (CBO + Change Due to Yield Curve Shift) Total Interest Cost as a % of CBO Estimated 2017 Tax Collections

200 bps

$299

$633

17.5%

300 bps

$433

$767

21.2%

500 bps

$699

$1,033

28.6%

700 bps

$966

$1,300

36.0%

The Real Budget Deficit Issue

On January 17, the U.S. Treasury announced that the deficit for the 2012 fiscal year, using Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) was $6.6 trillion, of which $5.3 trillion was the net present value of the future promises that were made in 2012 alone. This isn’t really a surprise, as the GAAP deficits have been in excess of $5 trillion since the Recession. Unfortunately, the number is simply ignored by the media and the markets. Due to demographics, such annual promises will only increase under the current social programs in the U.S. for the next ten years. The structural deficit is most likely the most critical economic issue of our time.

Scary Scenario

We all hope that the economy picks up, the unemployment rate falls, and that economic growth returns to a more normal pace. But, if that doesn’t soon happen, investors, both foreign and domestic, may begin to lose faith in the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and, despite an under performing economy, demand higher interest returns. This type of scenario is what played out in Europe in 2011-2012 when rates rose on the debt of Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy. Note that the European Central Bank rode to the rescue of the European Union periphery by printing tons of money and by purchasing the debt of the above named countries.

Here is the dilemma: If interest rates rise back to normal levels, the cost of the debt becomes a huge issue, especially if the economy is under performing. In the U.S., add to that the inability to control the debt issuance due to the structural problem outlined above. Those issues keep the Deficit/GDP ratio high and start a death spiral of ever rising rates which chokes the economy. And, as we saw in Europe last fall, the only relief that will satisfy the capital markets (i.e., the “bond vigilantes“) is a massive money creation.

For politicians, inflation via money printing is the easiest choice even if it means a subjugation of the independence of the central bank to the government’s will, as we are witnessing in Japan. Gold and other hard assets have, over the last few years, also been influenced. The precedents have clearly been set both in Europe and Japan. When faced with the choice of higher rates or money printing in an under performing economy, it is clear what the choice will be.

Robert Barone (Ph.D., economics, Georgetown University) is a principal of Universal Value Advisors, Reno, a registered investment adviser. Barone is a former director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco and is currently a director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Co., where he chairs the investment committee. Barone or the professionals at UVA (Joshua Barone, Andrea Knapp, Matt Marcewicz and Marvin Grulli) are available to discuss client investment needs. Call them at 775-284-7778.

Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources. Universal Value Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information.