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The Fed Plays All Its Cards
Posted by Peter Schiff on 10/02/2012 at 6:34 PM

There never really could be much doubt that the current experiment in competitive global currency debasement would end in anything less than a total war. There was always a chance that one or more of the principal players would snap out of it, change course and save their citizenry from a never ending cycle of devaluation. But developments since September 13, when the U.S. Federal Reserve finally laid all its cards on the table and went "all in" on permanent quantitative easing, indicate that the brainwashing is widely established and will be difficult to break. The vast majority of the world's leading central bankers seem content to walk in lock step down the path of money creation as a means to economic salvation. Never mind that the path will prevent real growth and may ultimately lead off a cliff. The herd is moving. And if it can't be turned, the only thing that one can do is attempt to get out of its way. 

The details of the Fed's new plan (which I christened Operation Screw in last week's commentary) are not nearly as important as the philosophy it reveals. The Federal Reserve has already unleashed two huge waves of quantitative easing (purchases of either government securities or mortgage-backed securities) in order to stimulate consumer spending and ignite business activity. But the economy has not responded as hoped. GDP growth has languished below trend, the unemployment rate has stayed north of 8%, and the labor participation rate has fallen to all-time lows. In the meantime, America's fiscal position has grown significantly worse with government debt climbing to unimaginable territory. Despite the lack of results, the conclusion at the Federal Reserve is that the programs were too small and too incremental to be effective. They have determined that something larger, and potentially permanent, would be more likely to do the trick.    

However, in making its new plan public, the Fed made a startling admission. At his press conference, Ben Bernanke backed away from previous assertions that printed money would be effective in directly pushing up business activity. Instead he explained how the new stimulus would be focused directly at the housing market through purchases of mortgage backed securities. He made clear that this strategy is intended to spark a surge in home prices that will in turn pull up the broader economy.  Such a belief requires a dangerous amnesia to the events of the last decade. Despite the calamity that followed the bursting of our last housing bubble, economists feel this to be a wise strategy, proving that a poor memory is a prerequisite for the profession.    

But now that the Fed is thus committed, the focus has shifted to foreign capitals. Not surprisingly, the dollar came under immediate pressure as soon as the plan was announced. In the 24 hours following the announcement, the Greenback was down 2.2% against the euro, 1.6% against the Australian Dollar, and 1.1% against the Canadian Dollar. A week after the Fed's move, the Mexican Peso had appreciated 2.7% against the US dollar. Many currency watchers noted that more dollar declines would be likely if foreign central banks failed to match the Fed in their commitments to print money. On cue, the foreign bankers responded.    

It is seen as gospel in our current "through the looking glass" economic world that a weak currency is something to be desired and a strong currency is something to be disdained. Weak currencies are supposed to offer advantages to exporters and are seen as an easy way to boost GDP. In reality, weak currencies simply create the illusion of growth while eroding real purchasing power. Strong currencies confer greater wealth and potency to an economy. But in today's world,no central banker is prepared to stand idly by while their currency appreciates. As a result, foreign central banks are rolling out their own heavy artillery to combat the Fed.    

Perhaps anticipating the Fed's actions, on September 6th the European Central Bank announced its own plan of unlimited buying of debt of troubled EU nations (however, the plan did come with important concessions to the German point of view - see John Browne's commentary). On September 17th, the Brazilian central bank auctioned $2.17 billion of reverse swap contracts to help push down the Brazilian Real. The next day, Peru and Turkey cut rates more than expected. On September 19th, the Bank of Japan increased its asset purchase program from 70 trillion yen to 80 trillion and extended the program by six months. It's clear we are seeing a central banking domino effect that is not likely to end in the foreseeable future.    

Although the Fed is directing its fire towards the housing market, the needle they are actually hoping to move is not home prices, but the unemployment rate.  Until that rate falls to the desired levels (some at the Fed have suggested 5.5%), then we can be fairly certain that these injections will continue. This will place permanent pressure on banks around the world to follow suit.    

All of this simultaneous money creation will likely be a boon for nominal stock and real estate prices. But in real terms such gains will likely not keep pace with dollar depreciation. Inflation pushes up prices for just about everything, so stocks and real estate are not likely to prove to be exceptions.   Even bond prices can rise in the short term, but their real values are the most vulnerable to decline.   In fact, even nominal bond prices will ultimately fall, as inflation eventually sends interest rates climbing. But prices for hard assets, precious metals, commodities, and even those few remaining relatively hard currencies should be on the leading edge of the upward trend in prices. 

While I believe the Fed's plan will be a disaster for the economy, the silver lining is that it provides investors with a road map. As the policy of the Fed is to debase the currency, those holding dollar based assets may seek alternatives in hard assets and in the currencies of the few remaining countries whose bankers have not drunken so freely from the Keynesian Kool-Aid. We believe that such opportunities do exist. Some broad ideas are outlined in the latest edition of my Global Investor Newsletter, which became available for download this week. I encourage those looking for ways to distance their wealth from the policies of Ben Bernanke to start their search today.

Peter Schiff is the CEO and Chief Global Strategist of Euro Pacific Capital, best-selling author and host of syndicated Peter Schiff Show. 

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Operation Screw
Posted by Peter Schiff on 09/14/2012 at 9:42 AM

With yesterday's Fed decision and press conference, Chairman Ben Bernanke finally and decisively laid his cards on the table. And confirming what I have been saying for many years, all he was holding was more of the same snake oil and bluster. Going further than he has ever gone before, he made it clear that he will be permanently binding the American economy to a losing strategy. As a result, September 13, 2012 may one day be regarded as the day America finally threw in the economic towel.

Here is the outline of the Fed's plan: buy hundreds of billions of home mortgages annually in order to push down mortgage rates and push up home prices, thereby encouraging people to build and buy homes and spend the extracted equity on consumer goods. Furthermore, the Fed hopes that ultra-cheap money will push up stock prices so that Wall Street and stock investors feel wealthier and begin to spend more freely. He won't admit this directly, but rather than building an economy on increased productivity, production, and wealth accumulation, he is trying to build one on confidence, increased leverage, and rising asset prices. In other words, the Fed prefers the illusion of growth to the restructuring needed to allow for real growth.

The problem that went unnoticed by the reporters at the Fed's press conference (and those who have written about it subsequently) is that we already tried this strategy and it ended in disaster. Loose monetary policy created the housing and stock bubbles of the last decade, the bursting of which almost blew up the economy. Apparently for Bernanke and his cohorts, almost isn't good enough. They are coming back to finish the job. But this time, they are packing weaponry of a much higher caliber. Not only are they pushing mortgage rates down to historical lows but now they are buying all the loans!

Last year, the Fed launched the so-called "Operation Twist," which was designed to lower long-term interest rates and flatten the yield curve. Without creating any real benefits for the economy, the move exposed US taxpayers and holders of dollar-based assets to the dangers of shortening the maturity on $16 trillion of outstanding government debt. Such a repositioning exposes the Treasury to much faster and more painful consequences if interest rates rise. Still, the set of policies announced yesterday will do so much more damage than "Operation Twist," they should be dubbed "Operation Screw." Because make no mistake, anyone holding US dollars, Treasury bonds, or living on a fixed income will have their purchasing power stolen by these actions.

Prior injections of quantitative easing have done little to revive our economy or set us on a path for real recovery. We are now in more debt, have more people out of work, and have deeper fiscal problems than we had before the Fed began down this path. All the supporters can say is things would have been worse absent the stimulus. While counterfactual arguments are hard to prove, I do not doubt that things would have been worse in the short-term if we had simply allowed the imbalances of the old economy to work themselves out. But in exchange for that pain, I believe that we would be on the road to a real recovery. Instead, we have artificially sustained a borrow-and-spend model that puts us farther away from solid ground.

Because the initials of quantitative easing - QE - have brought to mind the famous Queen Elizabeth cruise ships, many have likened these Fed moves as giant vessels that are loaded up and sent out to sea. But based on their newly announced plans, the analogy no longer applies. As the new commitments are open-ended, quantitative easing will now be delivered via a non-stop conveyor belt that dumps cheap money on the economy. The only variable is how fast the belt moves.

Fortunately, the crude limitations of the Fed's only policy tool have become more apparent to the markets. If you must stick with the nautical metaphors, QE3 has sunk before it has even left port. The move was explicitly designed to push down long-term interest rates, but interest rates spiked significantly in the immediate aftermath of the announcement. Traders realize that an open-ended commitment to buying bonds means that inflation and dollar weakness will likely destroy any nominal gains in the bonds themselves. To underscore this point, the Fed announcement also caused a sharp selloff in Treasuries and the dollar and a strong rally in commodities, especially precious metals.

Given that 30-year fixed mortgages are already at historic lows, there can be little confidence that the new plan will succeed in pushing them much lower, especially given the upward spike that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the announcement. Instead, Bernanke is likely trying to provide the confidence home owners need to exchange fixed-rate mortgages for lower adjustable rate loans - which would free up more cash for current consumer spending. He is looking for homeowners to do their own twist. If he succeeds, more homeowners will be vulnerable to increasing rates, which will further limit the Fed's future ability to increase rates to fight rising prices.

The goal of the plan is to create consumer purchasing power by raising home and stock prices. No one seems to be considering the likelihood that unending QE will fail to lift bond, stock, or home prices, but will instead bleed straight through to higher prices for food, energy, and other consumer staples. If that occurs, consumers will have less purchasing power as a result of Bernanke's efforts, not more.

The Fed decision comes at the same time as the situation in Europe is finally moving out of urgent crisis mode. While I do not think the ECB's decision to underwrite more sovereign debt from troubled EU members will work out well in the long term, at least those moves have come with some German strings attached [For more on this, see John Browne's article from earlier this week]. As a result, I feel that the attention of currency traders may now shift to the poor fundamentals of the US dollar, rather than the potential for a breakup of the euro.

In the meantime, the implications for American investors should be clear. The Fed will try to conjure a recovery on the backs of currency debasement. It will not stop or alter from this course. If the economy fails to respond to the drugs, Bernanke will simply up the dosage. In fact, he is so convinced we will remain dependent on quantitative easing that he explicitly said he won't turn off the spigots even if things noticeably improve. In other words, the dollar is screwed.

 



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The Fed's Campaign
Posted by Peter Schiff on 09/07/2012 at 3:39 PM

This past Friday, as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke delivered his annual address from Jackson Hole - the State of the Dollar, if you will - I couldn't help but hear it as an incumbent's campaign speech. While Wall Street was hoping for some concrete announcement, what we got was a mushy appraisal of the Fed's handling of the financial crisis so far and a suggestion that more 'help' is on the way. 

It is important to remember that it's not just President Obama's job on the line in this election; in two years time, the next President will have the opportunity to either reappoint Bernanke or choose someone else. So we must understand what platform Bernanke is running on, as his office has an even greater effect on global markets than the President's.

Bernanke has been the perfect tag-team partner for George W. Bush and then Barack Obama as they have pursued an economic policy of deficits, bailouts, and stimulus. Without the Fed providing artificial support to housing and US debt, Washington would have already been shut out of foreign credit markets. In other words, they would have faced a debt ceiling that no amount of bipartisan support could raise. Fortunately for the politicians, Helicopter Ben was there to monetize the debts.

As far back as his time as an academic, Bernanke made clear that when the going got tough, he wouldn't hesitate to fire up the printing presses. He specialized in studying the Great Depression and, contrary to greater minds like Murray Rothbard, determined that the problem was too little money printing. He went on to propose several ways the central bank could create inflation even when interest rates had been dropped to zero through large-scale asset purchases (LSAPs). Sure enough, the credit crunch of 2008 gave the Fed Chairman an opportunity to test his theory.

All told, the Fed spent $2.35 trillion on LSAPs, including $1.25 trillion in mortgage-backed securities, $900 billion in Treasury debt, and $200 billion of other debt from federal agencies. That means the Fed printed the equivalent of 15% of US GDP in a couple of years. That's a lot of new dollars for the real economy to absorb, and a tremendous subsidy to the phony economy.

This has bought time for President Obama to enact an $800 billion stimulus program, an auto industry bailout, socialized medicine, and other economically damaging measures. In short, because of the Fed's interventions, Obama got the time and money needed to push the US further down the road to a centrally planned economy. It is also now much more unlikely that Washington will be able to manage a controlled descent to lower standards of living. Instead, we're going to head right off a fiscal cliff.

The Fed Chairman even admitted to this reality in his statement. Here are two choice quotes:

"As I noted, the Federal Reserve is limited by law mainly to the purchase of Treasury and agency securities. ... Conceivably, if the Federal Reserve became too dominant a buyer in certain segments of these markets, trading among private agents could dry up, degrading liquidity and price discovery." [emphasis added]

"...expansions of the balance sheet could reduce public confidence in the Fed's ability to exit smoothly from its accommodative policies at the appropriate time. ... such a reduction in confidence might increase the risk of a costly unanchoring of inflation expectations, leading in turn to financial and economic instability." [emphasis added]

So we all agree that the prospect of inflationary depression was made worse by the Fed's actions - but at least Ben Bernanke has pleased his boss. As a guaranteed monetary dove, Ben Bernanke appears to be a shoo-in if Obama is re-elected.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has pledged to fire Bernanke if elected. While I am not confident that Mr. Romney has the economic understanding to appoint a competent replacement - let alone pursue a policy of restoring the gold standard or legalizing competing currencies - he may well be seen as a threat not only to the Fed Chairman's self-interest, but also to his inflationary agenda.

Given this background, let's look at Bernanke's quotes that have been the focus of media speculation for the past week: the US economy is "far from satisfactory," unemployment is a "grave concern," and the Fed "will provide additional policy accommodation as needed." These comments seem designed to reassure markets (and Washington) that there will be no major shift toward austerity in the near future. The party can go on. But they also hint that Bernanke might be planning to double down again. I have long written that another round of quantitative easing is all but inevitable. It now seems to be imminent.

In reality, when the money drops may have more to do with politics than economics. The Fed may not want to appear to be directly interfering in the election by stimulating the economy this fall, but there are strong incentives for Bernanke to try to perk up the phony recovery before November and deliver the election to Obama. However, if Romney wins, Bernanke can at least fall back on his appeal as a team player as he lobbies for another term.

For gold and silver buyers, either scenario is likely to continue to stoke our market in the short- and medium-term. As the past week's rally indicates, there is no longer a fear that the Fed has had enough of money-printing - in fact, it looks prepared for much more.

 

Peter Schiff is CEO and Chief Global Strategist of Euro Pacific Precious Metals.        

If you would like more information about Euro Pacific Precious Metals, click here. For the fastest service, call 1-888-GOLD-160  



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The QE Debate
Posted by Peter Schiff on 09/04/2012 at 2:28 PM

There is an ongoing three way debate between those who believe the Fed should do more to strengthen the recovery, those who believe that the recovery is strong enough to continue on its own, and those who believe that the economy has been so fundamentally altered by the recession that no amount of stimulus can succeed in pushing unemployment down to pre-crash levels. As usual, they all have it wrong (although some are more wrong than others).

The false conclusions are being made by the likes of bond king Bill Gross, who has suggested that the economic fundamentals have changed. They argue that a "new normal" is now in place that sets an 8% unemployment rate as a floor below which we will never fall. This is absurd. America can once again prosper if we put our trust in first principles and let the free markets work. Unfortunately, that is not happening. Government is taking an ever greater role in our economy where its efforts will continue to stifle economic growth. A close second in cluelessness comes from those who believe that we are currently on the road to a real recovery. I'm not sure what economy they are looking at, but in just about every important metric, we continue to be essentially comatose.

More accurate are the opinions of those who believe that without a more serious intervention from the Fed, which can only mean another round of quantitative easing (QE III), the current quasi-recovery will soon fade and the tides of recession will overtake us once again. They are correct. And even though this time the water will be rougher and deeper than it was four years ago, it does not mean that the Fed will do the economy any good by breaking out its heavy artillery once again. 

In his widely anticipated speech at Jackson Hole last week, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke sounded a supremely optimistic note:  "It seems clear, based on this experience, that such (easing) policies can be effective, and that, in their absence, the 2007-09 recession would have been deeper and the current recovery would have been slower than has actually occurred."

The simple truth however, is that our economy has a disease that all the quantitative easing in the world can't cure. And while the wrong medicine may make us appear healthier in the short term, we will continue to deteriorate beneath the surface. Not only should the Fed not provide additional QE, but it should remove the accommodation currently in place. Although these moves would most certainly send us back into recession, it would simultaneously provide a needed course correction that would put us finally on the road to a sustainable recovery.

The recession the Fed is trying so desperately to prevent must be allowed to run its course so that the economy that we have developed over the last decade, the one that is overly reliant on low interest rates, borrowing and consumer spending, can finally restructure itself into something healthier. By enabling this diseased economy to overstay its welcome, QE does more harm than good. To recover for the long haul, the market must be allowed to correct the misallocations of resources that resulted from prior stimulus. Additional stimulus inhibits this process, and exacerbates the size of the misallocations the markets must eventually correct.

In the interim, any GDP growth or employment gains that result from stimulus actually compounds the difficulty in restructuring the economy. Any jobs created as a result of cheap monetary stimulus are jobs that won't be able to survive absent that support. They will require a continual misallocation of resources in order to survive. Unfortunately, these jobs must ultimately be lost before a real recovery can actually begin.

Holding rates of interest far below market levels (which is the goal of stimulus) alters patterns of consumption, savings, and investment. Fed intervention short-circuits the market driven process that resolves misallocations. The more stimulus that is provided, the harder market forces must work to try to restore equilibrium. As the misallocations grow over time, the efficacy of monetary measures diminishes. In the end, the market will overwhelm the Fed. The only question is how long it will take.

The Fed is trying to build skyscrapers on a bad foundation. Each subsequent structure it builds not only collapses, but also weakens the foundation that much more. The result is that subsequent structures collapse at increasingly lower heights and require more effort to build. Instead of trying to build, the Fed could concentrate on repairing the underlying foundation. That might delay construction, but in the end the buildings will be much sturdier. 

Because the Fed has kept interest rates too low for too long, Americans have saved too little and borrowed too much; consumed too much and produced too little; and imported too much and exported too little.  Too much of our labor is devoted to the service sectors and not enough to goods production.  Too much capital goes to Wall Street speculators and not enough to Main Street entrepreneurs.  We built too many homes but not enough factories. We have developed too many shopping centers, and not enough natural resources. The list of Fed induced misallocations goes on.

By trying to preserve the jobs associated with this old economy, the Fed prevents the market from creating the ones we actually need. Unfortunately no one seems to understand that, and we continue to chase blindly after failed economic models. Look for such misunderstanding to be on high display this week in Charlotte as Democrats gather to call for even greater intervention to perpetuate a failed economic model.   



Tags:  Ben Bernankedollarfedquantitative easing
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The Not So Super Hero
Posted by Peter Schiff on 08/06/2012 at 5:27 PM
The past week provided clear lessons not just in how central bankers have a limited ability to positively influence the economy but also how they are limited in their capacity to deliver the shortsighted policy actions that investors currently crave. The developments should provide new reasons for investors and economy watchers to abandon their faith in central bankers as super heroes capable of saving the economy.
The employment report released on Friday confirmed that the U.S. economy is stagnating at best and actively deteriorating at worst. While the numbers of jobs created in July was actually better than many economists expected, it was still far below the levels that would indicate a growing economy.  But more important than the official unemployment rate (which ticked up to 8.3%) or the number of jobs created, is the number of people who have left the workforce out of frustration or despair. This number continues to head higher. The labor force participation rate, which is the percentage of healthy working age Americans who actually have jobs, is at one of the lowest points since women first started working en masse in the 1970's. It's also instructive to add back into the unemployment rate those who want full time jobs but who have had to settle for part time work. This figure, reported under the "U6" category, currently stands at 15.0%. This is just a 12% decline from the 17.1% high seen December 2009. In contrast the "official" (U3) unemployment figure has declined 17% from its peak.
In explaining these bad results, most economists simply look at the stimulating effects of monetary and fiscal policynot at the problems that those measures create. As a result, it is assumed that not enough stimulation, in the form of quantitative easing or federal deficit spending has been applied to the economy. The next logical assumption is that if the measures of the past few years had not been applied, we would have seen much weaker results over that time. In other words, no matter how bad things are now, defenders of the status quo will always describe how bad things "could have been" if the Fed hadn't stepped in. This counterfactual argument gets increasingly threadbare as the years wear on.
 
Rather than admit that its policies have failed, the Fed statement last week gave all indications that it will continue with its current inflationary policy to the bitter end. These are the same errors that inflated the stock and real estate bubbles and ultimately resulted in the 2008 financial crisis and our continuing economic malaise. Without any fresh ideas, Fed press releases have become a Groundhog Day repetition of the same pronouncements and diagnoses. Oddly, many market watchers are frustrated that the Fed has not telegraphed that more stimulus is forthcoming. While it should be obvious that our current "recovery" is dependent on monetary support, it should be equally plain that the Fed can't actually admit that fragility without spooking markets. To be clear, QE III is coming, but the markets should not expect Bernanke to supply a precise timetable.

Without question, if the Fed had not stimulated the economy with zero percent interest rates, two rounds of quantitative easing and operation twist, the initial economic contraction would have been sharper. But such short-term pain would have been constructive. By not taking away the cheap-money punch bowl, the Fed has delayed the pain and prolonged the party. But to what end? So far all we have received is a tepid phony recovery that has sown the seeds of its own destruction.

In contrast, real economic restructuring would have resulted if the Fed had withdrawn its monetary props. This would have paved the way for a robust, sustainable recovery. Instead, the Fed helped numb the pain with unprecedented (and apparently permanent) liquidity injections. Its actions merely exacerbate the underlying imbalances that lie at the root of our structural problems, and thus act as a barrier to a real recovery. So long as the Fed fails to learn from its prior mistakes, the phony recovery it has concocted will continue to fade until we find ourselves in an even deeper recession than the one we experienced in 2008.

Those who believe that artificially low interest rates are needed now, fail to see the price that will be paid down the road. By keeping rates too low, the Fed continues to lead an overly indebted economy deeper into the financial abyss. However, its ability to maintain rates at such low levels is not without limits. Just as real estate prices could not stay high forever, interest rates cannot stay low forever.  When rates finally rise, the extent of the economic damage will finally be revealed. 

The sad fact is that no matter how impotent and dishonest Fed officials become, their elected rivals on Capitol Hill (who control the fiscal side of the equation) have become even less significant. The complete lack of any political conviction to take steps to confront our fiscal imbalances means that Ben Bernanke and his cohorts are seen as the only cavalry capable of riding to the rescue. But no matter how often they blow their bugles, our economy will continue to deteriorate until we stop waiting for a savior and instead fight the battle for prosperity ourselves.



Tags:  Ben Bernankeeconomyfedfederal reservestimulus
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Waist Deep in the Big Muddy
Posted by Peter Schiff on 01/27/2012 at 1:51 PM

With its announcement this week that it will keep interest rates near zero until at least late 2014, the Federal Reserve has put another large crack into the foundations underlying the US dollar. In a misguided attempt to provide clarity and transparency, Ben Bernanke has instead laid out a simple road map for economists and investors to follow. The signposts are easily understood: the Fed will stop at nothing in pursuing its goals of creating phantom GDP growth, holding down unemployment, propping up stock and housing prices, and monetizing government debt. To do so, it will continue to pursue a policy of negative interest rates, while ignoring the collateral damage of unsustainable debt, virulent inflation, misallocated resources and credit, suffering yield-dependent retirees, and a devalued U.S. currency.  

 

Not surprisingly, precious metals and foreign currencies rallied strongly on the news - with gold up more than 4.3% and the Dollar Index down nearly 1.6% in the days following the announcement. The Dollar Index is now down more than 3.5% from its highs in mid-January.

 

In coming to the momentous decision to extend the Fed's prior low-rate promises by another 18 months, Bernanke and his cohorts relied on a somber view of the economy that is at odds with the sunnier view presented the night before by President Obama in his State of the Union address. To justify holding rates so low for so long, the Fed is choosing to ignore the fact that CPI inflation is currently running north of 3%. Instead, it has conveniently chosen to look at a hand-picked alternative measure, the chain-weighted core PCE, which comes in just a shade below the Fed's arbitrary 2% target. How convenient.

 

After some changes in key membership at the Federal Reserve's policy-setting Open Markets Committee, in which a few long-time hawks were put out to pasture, the Fed has now established itself at the extreme dovish end of the policy spectrum. Among other central banks around the world, it may now be outflanked only by some very profligate ones in South America and sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, the FOMC has its hands on the wheel of the world's reserve currency, and therefore its decisions may lead the planet into financial chaos as long as other nations are content to follow the Fed farther and farther into a swamp of liquidity. To paraphrase Pete Seeger's protest of the escalation of the war in Vietnam, "we are waist deep in the Big Muddy and the damn fool yells 'press on.'"

 

The only bright side of the announcement is that it provides precious-metal and foreign-equity investors a fairly good sense that they are on the right side of history. In order to keep rates low, especially at the long end of the yield curve where it matters most, the Fed must continually print money to buy U.S. Treasuries. This will likely push more investors into gold and away from dollar-denominated assets.

 

As a testament to their own faith in themselves to forecast economic conditions, 6 of the 17 voting FOMC members indicated that they would have preferred to keep rates close to zero at least through 2015. Some even had the audacity to prefer no change until 2016! This comes from the body that couldn't predict the 2008 financial crisis, even while it stared at them from point-blank range. To look into a completely uncertain future and determine that negative interest rates can persist for another four years without igniting inflation is to me the height of economic insanity. Sadly, the inmates have the keys to the institution.

 

The lunacy persists in the rest of the government as well, with Congress and the White House still failing to address our nation's long-term debt issues. The Fed's commitment gives these politicians a "Get Out of Jail Free" card to continue avoiding responsibility. The deficits will be monetized, so no real efforts need be made to cut spending or raise taxes on middle-class Americans. Central to these plans is the assumption that the rest of the world will happily park their savings in U.S. dollars forever. If the latest announcement does not disabuse the world of this notion, I don't know what will.

    

As long as interest rates remain far below the rate of inflation, the U.S. economy will fail to equitably restructure itself for a lasting recovery. As a secondary effect, U.S. savers will likely continue to suffer from a lack of yield and a weakening currency.  In the end, the collapse of the U.S. economy will be that much more spectacular due to the great lengths we have gone to postpone it.  


Tags:  Ben Bernankedollarfedinterest ratesprecious metals
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Twist Paves the Way for QE III
Posted by Peter Schiff on 09/23/2011 at 1:33 PM

Earlier this week the Federal Reserve ignited a firestorm in the global markets by admitting that the U.S. economy is facing downside risks. Although it continues to sugar coat the unpleasant reality, never has such a stunningly obvious statement resulted in so much turmoil.

Once again we are seeing the knee-jerk market reaction to seek refuge in the perceived safety of the U.S. dollar and U.S. Treasuries. However I expect investors will soon discover that such assets are firmly in the eye of the storm.  As the tempest moves on, those enjoying the dollar's current stability may soon find themselves battered by a category five monster.

Market disappointment was compounded when the Fed failed to follow up its dire outlook with a new round of quantitative easing (QE). Instead, through a policy entitled "Operation Twist" the Fed promised to sell $400 billion of short-term Treasuries and use the proceeds to buy an equivalent amount of long-term Treasuries. The markets evidently perceived this "balance sheet neutral" policy as too timid.

From my perspective, the Twist really amounts to another Fed "Hail Mary" pass that will fall short of the end zone. But, by putting the squeeze on banks and further restricting credit availability to small business the move will likely do more harm than good.

The policy rests on the false premise moving already historically low interest rates even lower will stimulate the economy into recovery. But low interest rates are part of the problem, not part of the solution. 

Even by the government's debased standards, trailing headline inflation is already hovering above 4%, and, at current rates, 30-year Treasuries are negative by 100 basis points. This distortion is inflicting untold damage on the economy. Pushing rates further into negative territory seems only to invite more problems in the future.

With the Twist, the Ben Bernanke wing of the increasingly divided Fed is offering debtors the short-term gain of low long rates in exchange for its own long-term pain of limited balance sheet flexibility and diminished power to deal with surging inflation. By selling on the short end (thereby pushing up short term yields) and buying on the long end (thereby pushing down long-term yields), the Fed will flatten the yield curve. But to attain these insignificant benefits, the plan exposes the Fed, and the economy, to great risks.

First the "benefits": Mortgage rates are already at generational lows and have recently lagged the declines seen in long dated Treasuries. Is it reasonable to believe that mortgage rates will go much lower as a result of this policy?  Even if they do, what would be the net economic benefit of a new refinancing wave? Do we really want to encourage consumers once again to use their homes as ATM machines? Even if they do, any short-term boost in consumer spending would be transitory and counter-productive to a genuine recovery.  The last thing we want to encourage is more spending, particularly on the imported products that would likely be purchased by those who refinanced. 

What's more, the program will actually increase borrowing costs for small businesses. By increasing the cost of short-term borrowing and lowering returns on long-term loans, it will severely pressure the profitability of the beleaguered financial sector. In other words the borrower's gain is the lender's pain. In such conditions, should we expect banks to provide more credit to small business? In fact, the move will be a devastating blow to bank balance sheets and further enfeeble a financial sector on life support.  Business credit will instead be diverted to dead end consumer spending, resulting in less business activity to grow the economy and create jobs. 

Now the costs: The Fed severely underestimates the danger of loading up its own balance sheet with long dated securities. Not only does the move expose the Fed to severe losses when interest rates inevitably rise, but it drastically reduces its ability to withdraw liquidity to fight inflation. Short-term securities provided flexibility as they could be sold into a falling market with little price risk, or if need be, held to maturity. Such options do not exist with bonds maturing in 6-30 years. So when inflation continues to rise, as I'm sure it will, the Fed will be powerless to slow it without crushing the bond market and causing yields to soar.

In any event, the markets did not want the Twist program, they wanted additional liquidity injections in the form of QE III. In this respect, the market is like a heroin junkie. It needs ever-greater doses of money to continue moving higher. When it gets its fix, it will rally.

But a growing popular mistrust of stimulus is currently pressuring the Fed to forestall the launch of QE III. But a few more whiffs of financial turbulence could cause the Fed to fold. When the market rally ensues the Fed will claim victory.  But the celebration will be hollow. The nominal gain in stock prices will likely be eclipsed by dollar declines and a more rapid gain in gold, oil, or other commodity prices. The result for investors will be higher nominal portfolio values but lower real purchasing power and a reduced standard of living.

But many of those who oppose QE3 do so because they believe the economy doesn't need more stimulus not because the stimulus itself is causing the economic weakness. As a result when the economy deteriorates, support for QE III could grow. In the end QE3 will likely be far more popular than another bank bailout (possibly to be called TARP II), which may be on the table if the Fed fails to rescue the banks it may be pushing over the edge with the Twist.

But our zombie economy does not need to be perpetuated by more QE. It must be allowed to die so that a living, breathing, self-sustaining economy can replace it. By feeding our addiction now the Fed is impeding the recovery. QE may goose the markets and provide a short-term boost to spending, but it will also increase debt and grow the government. This process exacerbates the structural imbalances underlying the U.S. economy, making what may be the inevitable crash that much more spectacular. 



Tags:  Ben BernankefedGeithneroperation twistqetreasury
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It Ain't Money If I Can't Print It!
Posted by Peter Schiff on 07/15/2011 at 7:21 AM

I have been forecasting with near certainty that QE2 would not be the end of the Fed's money-printing program. My suspicions were confirmed in both the Fed minutes on Tuesday and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's semi-annual testimony to Congress yesterday. The former laid out the conditions upon which a new round of inflation would be launched, and the latter re-emphasized - in case anyone still doubted - that Mr. Bernanke has no regard for the principles of a sound currency.

 

Tuesday's release of the Fed minutes contained the first indication that a third round of quantitative easing (QE3) is being considered. The notes described unanimous agreement that QE2 should be completed, along with the following comment: "depending on how economic conditions evolve, the Committee might have to consider providing additional monetary policy stimulus, especially if economic growth remained too slow to meaningfully reduce the unemployment rate in the medium run." Since the unemployment situation is deteriorating, and by all accounts will continue to do so, the Fed is essentially pledging to keep the spigot turned on. The committee also decided to look only at current "overall inflation" in making their judgments, as opposed to "inflation trends." Since new dollars take awhile to circulate around the economy and raise prices, this means the Fed is sure to be too late in tightening once inflation starts to run away, causing more dislocations in the American economy.

If anyone had lingering faith that Mr. Bernanke actually has a plan to end the US government's addiction to cheap money, the Chairman's semi-annual testimony to Congress should have washed it away. In addition to claiming that his money-printing has helped the US economy, Bernanke told Congress that gold is not money, people buying gold are not concerned about inflation, and the external value of the dollar has no influence on its domestic purchasing power. He even took a moment to stump for President Obama's plan to raise the debt ceiling.

By claiming that gold is not money, the Chairman demonstrates his ignorance of much of monetary history. He told Congressman Ron Paul that he had no idea why central banks hold gold, before speculating that it might have something to do with tradition. Yes, traditionally gold is money, which is precisely why central banks hold it. And gold is money because central bankers like Mr. Bernanke cannot be trusted with a paper substitute. 

Bernanke further disputes the facts by claiming that the only reason people are buying gold is to hedge against uncertainty, or "tail risks" as he calls them. My advice to the Chairman is to ask the people who are actually buying it. As someone who has been buying gold myself for a decade, I can assure him that my gold buying has nothing to do with "uncertainty." In fact, it's just the opposite. I am buying gold because of what is certain, not what is uncertain. I am certain that Mr. Bernanke's incompetence will destroy the value of the dollar and unleash runaway inflation.

If it were true that people bought gold to protect themselves from market uncertainty, as the Chairman claims, then the metal should have spiked in the midst of the '08 credit crunch. Instead, it fell along with most other assets. People instinctively fled into US dollars and Treasuries because of their long record of stability. What Bernanke doesn't understand is that his irresponsible monetary policy is undermining that faith in US assets, built up over generations. That is what's driving gold: easy money, negative interest rates, and quantitative easing.

Finally, by claiming that the dollar's exchange rate has no effect on domestic prices, Mr. Bernanke demonstrates that he probably lacks the competence to be a bank teller, let alone Chairman of the Federal Reserve. A weaker dollar means Americans have to pay more for imported goods. But it also means domestic producers have to pay more for raw materials and imported components, which raises domestic production costs as well. It also means that more domestically produced goods are exported, reducing the supply and raising the price of what is left for Americans to consume. This is Econ 101.

Given the Chairman's confusion on the basics of economics, perhaps it's no surprise that he's put quantitative easing right back on the table, where, despite prior rhetoric, it has been all along. The Fed has always known that QE3 is coming; it's just looking for an excuse to launch it.

The problem is that fighting a recession with QE is like fighting a fire with gasoline. As the flames of recession reignite, more QE, while dousing it momentarily, will only produce an even larger economic inferno.

At one point, Bernanke said, "The right analogy for not raising the debt ceiling is going out and having a spending spree on your credit card and then refusing to pay the bill." He's got the analogy right, but his conclusions are completely wrong. Yes, Congress has gone on a spending spree and it's time to pay up. But raising the debt ceiling is like taking out a Mastercard to pay the Visa... it just makes the problem worse. If you or I go out one night, get drunk, and run up a huge credit card bill, we know that the way to fix it is to buckle down and pay it back. We might postpone vacation plans or put off buying a new car, we might cancel our cable TV subscription or gym membership. The point is that we would have to reduce current consumption to make up for the overspending in the past.

Obama claims that raising the debt ceiling is about getting a hold of the federal debt. Have you ever heard of anyone getting out of debt by taking on more debt? Has anyone ever reduced their debt without reducing current consumption? How can the Fed Chairman endorse such a preposterous idea?

Bernanke actually went a step further and warned against reducing current federal spending too sharply, claiming that such a move might impede the "recovery." He apparently believes that it is the role of the Congress to go on spending sprees, and his role to pay the mounting bills with freshly printed dollars. The fact that this formula has produced larger and larger economic crises does not seem to bother him. I guess ignorance is bliss.



Tags:  Ben Bernankedebt ceilingdollarfedfederal reserve
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Pentonomics - Central Bankruptcy - Why QE3 is Inevitable
Posted by Michael Pento on 06/13/2011 at 3:46 PM

As the U.S. economy seemingly limps out of the Great Recession most analysts now assume that the Federal Reserve will soon join the tide of other central banks and bring an end to the current era of unprecedented monetary expansion. Markets expect that Fed will begin withdrawing liquidity this summer, not too long after this latest round of the quantitative easing comes to an end. But this is simply a delusion.

 

There are many political and economic reasons why the Fed will find it extremely difficult to absorb the liquidity that it has relentlessly pumped into the economy since the beginning of the financial crisis. But its biggest problem may be that the ammunition it carries on its balance sheet is insufficient to the task.

 

In order to withdraw liquidity the Fed must sell most, if not all, of the assets on its balance sheet. The questions are: what types of assets will it sell, how fast will they sell them, who will buy, and what price will the market bear?

 

In December 2007, before the Great Recession began the Fed had an equity ratio of around 6% on a balance sheet that totaled approximately $900 billion. The assets it held at that time were almost exclusively comprised of short term Treasury debt. This had been the norm for the vast majority of Fed history. Given the size of the Treasury market and the bankability of its short term debt, the value of such a portfolio was considered virtually bulletproof.

 

But beginning in late 2008, as financial institutions careened towards insolvency, the alphabet soup of Fed lending facilities (TAF, TSLF, PDCF and the CPFF just to name a few) bought all kinds of assets that the Fed never before held. Through quantitative easing efforts alone, Ben Bernanke has added $1.8 trillion of longer term GSE debt and Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS). (In fact, the Fed now holds more of these mortgage instruments than their entire balance sheet before the crash.) This has drastically changed the complexion of the assets it must now sell.

 

But as the size of the Fed's balance sheet ballooned, the dollar amount of capital held at the Fed has remained fairly constant. Today, the Fed has $52.5 billion of capital backing a $2.7 trillion balance sheet. While the size of the portfolio expanded three fold (and the quality of its assets diminished), the Fed's equity ratio plunged from 6% to just 2%. Prior to the bursting of the credit bubble, the public was shocked to learn that our biggest investment banks were levered 30 to 1. When asset values fell, those banks were quickly wiped out. But now the Fed is holding many of the same types of assets and is levered 51 to 1! If the value of their portfolio were to fall by just 2% the Fed itself would be wiped out.



Tags:  fedqe3quanititative easingrecessionstimulus
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Pentonomics - Training Wheels Off, Crash Helmets On
Posted by Michael Pento on 05/20/2011 at 12:09 PM

Based on many pronouncements by economic policy makers, reams of articles by the top financial journalists and near continuous discussion on the financial news channels, it appears that the quantitative easing juggernaut that has steamed the high seas of macroeconomics for the last three years is finally pulling into port...supposedly for the last time. According to the dominant narrative, QEI and QEII helped stabilize the economy during the Great Recession and now the Federal Reserve is ready to take the training wheels off. If so, the economy may need a helmet because there is virtually no chance that it can avoid major contractions without central banking support. 

It is ironic, but there is no doubt that the proposed removal of artificial stimulus would be the best thing for the country in the long term. But very few observers understand how it will inflict short term pain. So confident is the Fed that earlier this week, St. Louis Fed President James Bullard indicated that any notion of additional quantitative easing is off the table. In fact, he said the central bank may tighten policy in 2011 by allowing its balance sheet to shrink. Investors would do well to remember that Bullard was the first Fed official to support the second round of bond purchases now known as QEII. It is likely that he will make a similar reversal if the economy shows any signs of weakening in the months ahead.

Fed policy makers like Bullard are guilty of reckless optimism if they believe the economy has truly healed. The evidence of a pending slowdown is abundant. The Empire State's business conditions index decreased 10 points from April to just 11.9 in May. Meanwhile, the prices paid index rose sharply, with about 70% of respondents reporting price increases for inputs, and none reporting price reductions. That inflation index advanced 12 points to 69.9, its highest level since mid-2008. And things are even worse in Philadelphia. The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia's general economic index fell to 3.9 in May from 18.5 a month earlier.

Turning to the labor front, the four week moving average of initial jobless claims rose to 439,000 last week, from 437,750 in the week prior. Of course, the real estate market continues in its malaise. According to the National Association of Realtors, April existing home sales dropped to an annual rate of just 5.05 million. Prices continue to set new post crash lows, with prices down 5% YOY. Despite the fact that the government still accounts for nearly the entire mortgage market and the Fed has rates near zero percent, inventory of existing homes jumped from 3.52 to 3.87 million units and the months' supply climbed from 8.3 to 9.2. Does it sound like the economy is ready to get up on its own two feet?

But the Fed is under pressure to do something about the growing inflation threat. Year over year increases of CPI, PPI and Import prices are 3.2%, 6.8% and 11.1%, respectively. As price increases hit middle class consumers, the Fed is facing intense pressure to push down inflation by draining the balance sheet and raising interest rates. It's a dangerous game.

In its simplest terms quantitative easing is nothing more than the government's attempt to boost consumption by borrowing trillions of dollars. Over the long haul this is no way to run an economy, and a sustainable recovery will be impossible as long as such borrowing continues. But in the short term, a cessation of government borrowing will lift the veil on our artificial economy, and reveal how dependent we have become. U.S. fiscal and monetary austerity will cause GDP to fall as the deleveraging process that was interrupted in 2009 returns with a vengeance. I do not believe the Fed or the Administration has the intestinal fortitude to let that happen.

A bona fide Fed exit from interest rate manipulation means that both nominal and real interest rates would rise significantly. The ten year note yield is less than half its average over the past 40 years. Normalization of rates would provide a serious headwind to markets and the economy.

The high leverage that brought on the Great Recession has not been addressed in the slightest. U.S. household, corporate and government debt as a percentage of GDP has never been greater. So, if interest rates were to rise, why should we expect a different result from what occurred in 2008?

Whether or not the Fed is bluffing has dramatic implications for investors and the country. Mr. Bernanke will eventually have to choose whether he wants another depression or more of the inflation the Fed is so adept at causing and then denying.



Tags:  fedGDPquantitative easingrecession
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