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Posted by Peter Schiff on 03/21/2014 at 12:54 PM
The red flags contained in the national and global headlines that have come out thus far in 2014 should have spooked investors and economic forecasters. Instead the markets have barely noticed. It seems that the majority opinion on Wall Street and Washington is that we have entered an era of good fortune made possible by the benevolent hand of the Federal Reserve. Ben Bernanke and now Janet Yellen have apparently removed all the economic rough edges that would normally draw blood. As a result of this monetary "baby-proofing," a strong economy is no longer considered necessary for rising stock and real estate prices.

But unfortunately, everything has a price, even free money. Our current quest to push up asset prices at all costs will come back to bite all Americans squarely in the pocket book. Death and taxes have long been linked by a popular maxim. However, there also exists a similar link between debt and taxes. The debt we are now incurring in order to buttress current stock and real estate will inevitably lead to higher taxes down the road. However, don't expect the taxes to arrive in their traditional garb. Instead, the stealth tax of inflation will be used to drain Americans of their hard earned purchasing power.

I explore this connection in great length in my latest report Taxed By Debt, available for free download at www.taxedbydebt.com. But diagnosing a problem is just half the battle. I also present investing strategies that I believe can help Americans avoid the traps that are now being laid so carefully.

The last few years have proven that there is no line Washington will not cross in order to keep bubbles from popping. Just 10 years ago many of the analysts now crowing about the perfect conditions would have been appalled by policies that have been implemented to create them. The Fed has held interest rates at zero for five consecutive years, it has purchased trillions of dollars of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities, and the Federal government has stimulated the economy through four consecutive trillion-dollar annual deficits. While these moves may once have been looked on as something shocking...now anything goes.

But the new monetary morality has nothing to do with virtue, and everything to do with necessity. It is no accident that the concept of "inflation" has experienced a dramatic makeover during the past few years. Traditionally, mainstream discussion treated inflation as a pestilence best vanquished by a strong economy and prudent bankers. Now it is widely seen as a pre-condition to economic health. Economists are making this bizarre argument not because it makes any sense, but because they have no other choice.

America is trying to borrow its way out of recession. We are creating debt now in order to push up prices and create the illusion of prosperity. To do this you must convince people that inflation is a good thing...even while they instinctively prefer low prices to high. But rising asset prices do little to help the underlying economy. That is why we have been stuck in what some economists are calling a "jobless recovery." The real reason it's jobless is because it's not a real recovery!  So while the current booms in stocks and condominiums have been gifts to financial speculators and the corporate elite, average Americans can only watch from the sidewalks as the parade passes them by. That's why sales of Mercedes and Maseratis are setting record highs while Fords and Chevrolets sit on showroom floors. Rising prices to do not create jobs, increase savings or expand production. Instead all we get is debt, which at some point in the future must be repaid.

As detailed in my special report, when President Obama took office at the end of 2008, the national debt was about $10 trillion. Just five years later it has surpassed a staggering $17.5 trillion. This raw increase is roughly equivalent to all the Federal debt accumulated from the birth of our republic to 2004! The defenders of this debt explosion tell us that the growth eventually sparked by this stimulus will allow the U.S. to repay comfortably. Talk about waiting for Godot. To actually repay, we will have few options. We can cut government spending, raise taxes, borrow, or print. But as we have seen so often in recent years, neither political party has the will to either increase taxes or decrease spending.

So if cutting and taxing are off the table, we can expect borrowing and printing. That is exactly what has been happening. In recent years, the Fed has bought approximately 60% of the debt issued by the Treasury. This has kept the bond market strong and interest rates extremely low. But a country can't buy its own debt with impunity indefinitely. In fact the Fed, by winding down its QE program by the end of 2014, has threatened to bring the party to an end.

Although bond yields remain close to record low territory, thanks to continued QE buying, we have seen vividly in recent years how the markets react negatively to any hint of higher rates. That's why any indication that the Fed will lift rates from zero can be enough to plunge the markets into the red. The biggest market reaction to Yellen's press conference this week came when the Chairwoman seemed to fix early 2015 as the time in which rates could be lifted from zero. That possibility slapped the markets like a frigid polar wind.

Janet Yellen may talk about tightening someday, but she will continue to move the goalposts to avoid actually having to do so. (Or as she did this week, remove the goalposts altogether). As global investors finally realize that the Fed has no credible exit strategy from its zero interest policy, they will fashion their own exit strategy from U.S. obligations. Should this happen, interest rates will spike, the dollar will plunge, and inflation's impact on consumer prices will be far more pronounced than it istoday. This is when the inflation tax will take a much larger bite out of our savings and paychecks.  The debt that sustains us now will one day be our undoing.

But there are steps investors can take to help mitigate the damage, particularly by moving assets to those areas of the world that are not making the same mistakes that we are. In my new report, I describe many of these markets. Just because the majority of investors seem to be swallowing the snake oil being peddled doesn't mean it's wise to join the party. I urge you to download my report and decide for yourself.

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

Catch Peter's latest thoughts on the U.S. and International markets in the Euro Pacific CapitalWinter 2014 Global Investor Newsletter!


Tags:  debteconomytaxes
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Posted by Peter Schiff on 03/07/2014 at 5:45 PM

Everyone agrees that the winter just now winding down (hopefully) has been brutal for most Americans. And while it's easy to conclude that the Polar Vortex has been responsible for an excess of school shutdowns and ice related traffic snarls, it's much harder to conclude that the it's responsible for the economic vortex that appears to have swallowed the American economy over the past three months. But this hasn't stopped economists, Fed officials, and media analysts from making this unequivocal assertion. In reality the weather is not what's ailing us. It's just the latest straw being grasped at by those who believe that the phony recovery engineered by the Fed is real and lasting. The April thaw is not far off. Unfortunately the economy is likely to stay frozen for some time to come.    

Over the past few weeks, I have seen just about every weak piece of economic news being blamed on the weather. First it was lackluster retail sales that were chalked up to consumers being unable or unwilling to make it to the mall. (This managed to ignore the fact that online sales were similarly weak - which would be unexpected for a nation of snowed in consumers). Then came the weak auto sales that were ascribed to similarly holed up potential car buyers. However, this ignores that while GM and Chrysler sales were way down, sales for luxury cars like BMW, Mercedes and Maserati, surged to record high levels (more on that later). No one offered a reason why wealthier motorists were able to brave the cold. A number of other data points, such as lower GDP, productivity, ISM and factory orders were also ascribed to the elements.

Analysts also blamed the weather for weak housing sales and mortgage applications, which both hit multi-year lows. The idea being that hibernating buyers could not get to real estate open houses or to the bank to process loans. This idea ignores the fact that the weakest home sales over the last few months have come from the states west of the Rockies, where temperatures have been above average.

Of course the biggest weakness ascribed to the snow and ice has been the very disappointing employment reports over the last few months. Analysts faced a very difficult task in squaring these reports, which showed fewer than 187,000 new jobs created in December and January combined, with the accepted narrative that the recovery was firmly underway and that the economy was no longer dependent on the Fed's monetary support. 

For these desperate economists the weather was a godsend. Mark Zandi had virtually guaranteed that job creation was being deferred by the weather and that hiring would come roaring back once the mercury started rising. The weather has become such a handy and versatile tool for economic apologists that we may expect that financial news stations will start featuring meteorologists more heavily than financial analysts. Move over Jim Cramer, hello Al Roker. 

The weather continued to be horrible in February and as a result, there were wide expectations thattoday's February jobs report would be similarly bleak. But this morning's release of a detailed a slightly better than expected 175,000 new jobs, thereby convincing economists that the economy was so strong that it is overcoming the drag created by the weather. This lays aside the fact that 175,000 jobs should not be causing any optimism. After years of sub-par job growth, I believe a recovering economy would be expected to create more than 300,000 jobs per month in order to make a real dent in underemployment. Those levels, once routine in past decades, seem untouchable today. But weather-related pessimism had caused economist to ratchet down their predictions to just 150,000 jobs in February. Based on that, today's numbers were seen as a win.

But economists are ignoring the likelihood that the weather was never a major factor. Take the cold out of the equation and you would be left with a mediocre February number following two consecutive monthly disasters. This does not change the downward trajectory. In fact, the number may be revised lower in future months, as has been the norm in the years since the economic crisis began.

Drilling deeper into the report will provide little reason for optimism. The labor force participation rate stayed at generational low and the unemployment rate edged up. On the other hand, the long-term unemployed (those out of work for more than 27 weeks) increased by 203,000 to 3.8 million. Furthermore, over half of the jobs created were low-paying or part-time jobs in education, health care, leisure and hospitality, government, and temporary services. Higher paying information jobs declined by another 16,000 following last month's 8,000 loss, and manufacturing added a scant 6,000 jobs. 

The report also contained data that shows how older workers are coming out of, or postponing retirement. This trend is likely caused inadequate savings rates, low interest rates, and increases in the cost of living that are rising faster than official CPI numbers. Not only does this point to falling living standards, but the jobs being taken by these older workers would normally be filled by younger, less skilled workers, who are left unemployed, buried beneath a pile of student debt and living in their parent's basements.

In truth, economic activity persists in good weather and bad. Winter is largely predictable. It comes around once a year, basically on schedule. Consumers are used to the patterns and know how to deal them. But don't tell this to today's economists.

A much more plausible explanation to me is that the economy has been weak recently because it is weak fundamentally. The data deterioration corresponds not just to unseasonably low temperatures but also to the diminishment of monthly QE from the Federal Reserve. If you recall the highly anticipated "taper" finally began in mid- December. From my perspective the Quantitative Easing has become the sunshine that drives our phony economy. Diminish that sunshine and the economic winter spreads.

But the sad fact is that QE can push up prices in stocks and real estate, but can do very little to affect positive change in the real economy. That's why I believe that BMW's are selling like hotcakes even as Chevies sit on the lot. Our current policies help the wealthy at the expense of everybody else. Unfortunately, I don't think the economy will improve as long as the QE keeps us locked into a failing model. What's worse, once the weather warms and the economy does not, look for Janet Yellen to first taper the taper, then to reverse the process completely.

So be very wary of the rationalizations that come from economists. I believe they are being used to hide the truth. I just can't wait to see the excuses they come up with once the flowers start blooming in April. They will be doozies.

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

Catch Peter's latest thoughts on the U.S. and International markets in the Euro Pacific CapitalWinter 2014 Global Investor Newsletter!


Tags:  economy
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Posted by Peter Schiff on 02/21/2014 at 10:41 AM

Two pieces of business news announced this week provide a convenient frame through which to view our dysfunctional and distorted economy. The first (which has attracted tremendous attention), is Facebook's blockbuster $19 billion acquisition of instant messaging provider WhatsApp. The second (which few have noticed) is the horrific earnings report issued by Texas-based retail chain Conn's. While these two developments don't seem to have much in common, together they shed some very unflattering light on where we stand economically.

Given the size and extravagance of the Facebook deal, it may go down as one of those transactions that define an era (think AOL and Time Warner). Facebook paid $19 billion for a company with just 55 employees, little name recognition, negligible revenues, and little prospects to earn much in the future. For the same money the company could have bought American Airlines and Dunkin' Donuts, and still have had $2 billion left over for R&D. Alternatively they could have used the money to lock in more than $1 billion in annual revenue through an acquisition of any one of the numerous large cap oil producing partnerships. Instead they chose a company that is in the business of giving away a valuable service for free. Come again?

Mark Zuckerberg, the owner of Facebook, is not your typical corporate CEO. Through a combination of technological smarts, timing, luck, and questionable business ethics, he became a billionaire before most of us bought our first cars. And in the years since social media became the buzzword of the business world, Wall Street has been falling over backward to funnel money into the hot sector. As a result, it may be that Zuckerberg looks at real money the way the rest of us look at Monopoly money. It also helps that a large portion of the acquisition is made with Facebook stock, which is also of dubious value.

But even given this highly distorted perspective, it's still hard to figure out why Facebook would pay the highest price ever paid for a company per employee - $345 million (more than four  times the old record of $77 million per employee, set last year when Facebook bought Instagram). The popular talking point is that the WhatsApp has gained users (450 million) faster than any other social media site in history, faster even than Facebook itself. Based on its rate of growth, the $42 per user acquisition cost does not seem so outrageous. But WhatsApp gained its users by giving away a service (text messaging) for which cellular carriers charge up to $10 or $20 per monthIt's very easy to get customers when you don't charge them, it's much harder to keep them when you do.

Boosters of the deal expect that WhatsApp will be able to charge customers after the initial 12-month free trial period ends (it now charges 99 cents per year after the first year). Based on this model, the firm had revenues of $20 million last year. But what happens if another provider comes in and offers it for free? After all, the technology does not seem to be that hard to replicate. Google has developed a similar application. More importantly, no one seems to be projecting what the cellular carriers may do to protect their texting cash cows.

WhatsApp gives away what AT&T and Verizon offer as an a la carte texting service. As these carriers continue to lose this business we can expect they will simply no longer offer texting as an a la carteoption. Instead it will likely be bundled with voice and data at a price that recoups their lost profits. If texting comes free with cell service, a company giving it away will no longer have value. People will still need cellular service to send mobile texts, so unless Facebook acquires its own telecom provider, it can easily be sidelined from any revenue the service may generate.

Some say that texting revenue is unimportant, and that the real value comes from the new user base.  But how many of the 450 million users it just acquired don't already have Facebook accounts? And besides, Facebook itself hasn't really figured out how to fully monetize the users it already has. In other words, it is very difficult to see how this mammoth investment will be profitable.

From my perspective, the transaction reflects the inflated nature of our financial bubble. The Fed has been pumping money into the financial sector through its continuous QE programs. The money has pushed up the value of speculative stocks, even while the real economy has stagnated. With few real investments to fund, the money is plowed right back into the speculative mill. We are simply witnessing a replay of the dot com bubble of the late 1990's. But this time it isn't different.

In another replay of that spectacular crash fourteen years ago, the appliance and furniture retailer Conn's has just showed the limits of a business built on vendor financing. In the late 1990's telecom equipment companies almost went bankrupt after selling gear to dot com start-ups on credit. For a while, these "sales" made growth and profits look great, but when the dot coms went bust, the equipment makers bled. Conn's makes its money by selling TVs and couches on credit to Americans who have difficulty scraping up funds for cash purchases. For a while, this approach can juice sales. Not surprisingly, Conn's stock soared more than 1500% between the beginning of 2011 and the end of 2013. These financing options are part of the reason why Conn's was able to keep up the appearance of health even while rivals like Best Buy faltered in 2013.

But if people stop paying, the losses mount. This is what is happening to Conn's. The low and middle-income American consumers that form the company's customer base just don't have the ability to pay off their debt. The disappointing repayment data in the earnings report sent the stock down 43% in one day.

In essence, Conn's customers are just stand-ins for the country at large. In just about every way imaginable, America has borrowed beyond its ability to repay. Meanwhile our foreign creditors continue to provide vendor financing so that we can buy what we can't really afford.

So thanks for the metaphors Wall Street. Too bad most economists can't read the tea-leaves.

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

Catch Peter's latest thoughts on the U.S. and International markets in the Euro Pacific CapitalWinter 2014 Global Investor Newsletter!


Tags:  economy
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The GDP Distractor
Posted by Peter Schiff on 08/20/2013 at 10:06 AM
Albert Einstein, a man who knew a thing or two about celestial mechanics, supposedly once called compound interest "the most powerful force in the universe." While the remark was likely meant to be funny (astrophysicists can be hilarious), it sheds light on the often overlooked fact that small changes, over time, can yield enormous results. Over eons, small creeks can carve large canyons through solid rock. The same phenomenon may be at work in our economy. A minor, but persistent under bias in the inflation gauge used in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) may have created a wildly distorted picture of our economic health.

It would be impossible to measure the economy without "backing out," inflation. That is why economists are very careful to separate GDP reports into two categories: "nominal" (which are not adjusted for inflation), and real (which are). Only the real reports matter. The big question then becomes, how do we measure inflation? Just as I reported last week with respect to the biases baked into the government's GDP revisions, the devil is in the details. 

As it turns out there are a number of official inflation gauges that vie for supremacy. Most people tend to follow the Consumer Price Index (CPI) which is compiled by Bureau of Labor Statistics, a division of the Department of Labor. The CPI is regarded as the broadest measurement tool, but it has been changed many times over the years. Most famously, its formulas were loosened in the late 1990's as a result of the "Boskin Commission" which said that the CPI overstated inflation by failing to account for changes in consumer behavior. I believe those changes seriously undermined the reliability of the index. But the CPI itself has to contend for relevance with its stripped down rival, the "Core CPI," which factors out food and energy, which many believe are too volatile to be accurately counted. The core CPI is almost always lower than the "headline" number.

Another set of inflation data, the "GDP Deflator" is compiled by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (part of the Commerce Department), and is used by them to calculate GDP. The deflator differs from the CPI in that it has much more flexibility in weighting and swapping out items that are in its sample basket of goods and services. While the CPI attracts the lion's share of the media and political attention, it is the deflator that is relevant when looking at economic growth.

On a quarterly basis the two numbers are usually close enough to escape scrutiny. (However, the most recent 2nd quarter GDP estimates relied on annualized inflation of a ridiculously low .7%!). But if you look at a broader time horizon a very clear pattern emerges that makes a great difference in how we perceive the economic landscape.  

Available data sets for both the CPI and the GDP deflator go back to 1947. That 66 year period falls neatly into two phases. From 1947 to 1977 both yardsticks moved together almost identically, both rising 173% over that time. But in the ensuing 36 years (until 2013), the CPI is up almost three fold (292%) while the deflator is only up about two fold (209%). The CPI rising 40% more than the GDP deflator is an extremely significant factor. How did that happen? As it turns out, quarterly inflation assumptions have been, on average, .17% lower for the deflator than for the CPI since 1977. That is a small number. But as with compound interest small numbers add up to big numbers over time.

If you replace the GDP quarterly growth rates using the higher CPI rather the deflator, our current economy would be closer to $13 trillion than 16.6 trillion, about 28% smaller. Even if you were to split the difference between the CPI and the deflator you would still get an economy that is significantly smaller than it appears.

The $64,000 question ($188,000 adjusted by CPI inflation since 1977) is what happened in 1977 to make the CPI and the deflator diverge? Sadly, the details aren't really made public. What we do know is that the BEA took over the task in 1972, and that the separation occurred a few years later when inflation really started to run out of control. We also know that the deflator is more flexible than the CPI and that the interests of the government are better served by reporting low inflation and higher growth. So in other words, the deflator is likely lower for the same reasons that dogs lick themselves in intimate places: because they want to and they can.

If we had been growing as quickly as the official GDP indicates, why would our labor force have contracted so significantly? Why are we continuously replacing middle class jobs with lower paying ones? Why would we be using 3 percent less energy nationally than we did 10 years ago despite an 8.8% growth in population? Why would Americans be spending a higher percentage of their disposable incomes on basic necessities than they were 10 years ago? These trends don't conform to healthy GDP growth. So maybe the growth is largely an illusion?

When you take into consideration the likelihood that even the CPI drastically understates inflation, you get a much clearer picture of the true state of the U.S. economy. If you ever wondered how we went from being the world's largest creditor to its biggest debtor despite all this economic growth, now you know. As the growth was merely a statistical illusion, we have been forced to borrow money to maintain a life style our economy can no longer support.

So the next time you see a GDP report remind yourself that the "deflator" should really be called the "distractor." It's there to distract you from the truth.  

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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Tags:  CPIeconomyGDPinflation
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The Half Full Economy
Posted by Peter Schiff on 08/09/2013 at 10:20 AM

The marginal economic strength that was described in the most recent GDP release from Washington has caused many to double down on their belief that the Federal Reserve will begin tapering Quantitative Easing sometime later this year. While I believe that is a fantasy given our economy's extreme dependence on QE, market observers should have learned long ago that the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) initial GDP estimates can't be trusted. A perusal of their subsequent GDP revisions in the last five years reveals a clear trend: They are almost twice as likely to revise initial estimates down rather than up, and the downward adjustments have been much larger on average.

As a result of this phenomenon, an overall optimism has pervaded the economic discussion that has consistently been unfulfilled by actual performance. The government is continuously over promising and under delivering. Unfortunately, no one seems to care.

Measuring the size of the economy accurately in anything close to real time is difficult, inexact, and messy. That is why the BEA has long pursued a policy of initial quarterly estimates (known as the "advanced estimate"), followed by two or three subsequent revisions as more thorough analysis comes to bear. The first estimates come out about a month after the conclusion of a particular quarter. The second and third revisions then come in monthly intervals thereafter. But in the minds of the media, the public and the politicians, the initial report carries much more weight than the revisions. It is the initial report that attracts the screaming headlines and sets the tone. The revisions are typically buried and ignored. This creates an unfortunate situation where the initial estimates are both the most important and the least reliable.

However, logic would dictate that revisions would fall equally in the up and down categories. After all, government bean counters are expected to report objectively, not to create a narrative or manage expectations. If anything, I believe that the public would be better served if they would adhere to the conservative playbook of under promising. That is exactly what they seemed to be doing before the economic crash of 2008. From 2002 to mid-summer 2008, the BEA revised initial GDP estimates a total of 25 times, 80% of which (20 revisions) were higher than their initial estimate. However, the average amplitude of the upward and downward revisions were equal at .5%. The difference may have been a function of the relatively strong economy that the nation saw over that time (which I believe was a result of the unsustainable and artificial housing boom). See the chart below.

But since mid-2008 we have seen a very different story. 67% of the revisions (12 of 18) have been downward, and those adjustments have been, on average, 50% larger than the upward revisions (.75% vs. .5%). Here's another way of looking at it: Since mid-2008, revisions have shaved a total of 6 points of growth off the initial estimates. This works out to be an average of 1.3 points of growth per year that some may have expected but that never actually happened.

The pattern of early optimism may stem from the lack of understanding in Washington about how monetary stimulus actually retards economic growth. Many of the statisticians may be former academics who take it as gospel that government spending and money printing create growth. As a result, they expect the initial boost created by stimulus to be sustainable. The evidence suggests that it is not.   

But there can be little doubt that these overly optimistic projections have worked wonders on the public relations front. The big Wall Street firms and the talking heads on financial TV set the tone by jumping on the new releases and ignoring the revisions to prior releases. That is precisely what happened last week when the better than expected 1.7% growth in 2nd quarter GDP overshadowed the .7% downward revision to 1st quarter GDP from 1.8% to 1.1%. The initial estimate for 1st quarter GDP, released back in April, was 2.5%. Since the consensus expectation for 2nd quarter GDP was just 1%, the media jumped all over the "good" news, while ignoring the revisions to the prior quarter, and discounting the strong likelihood that Q2 GDP will be revised downward. The nature of our short-term 24-hour news cycle is a big factor in this. Reporters are always looking for the big story of the day, not the minutia of last month. The lack of critical thinking and economic understanding also play a role.

Of course even if you have the discipline to focus on the final estimates, you still aren't getting the real story. All GDP estimates are based on imperfect inflation measurement tools, which I believe are designed to under report inflation and over report growth. The most recent GDP projection used an annualized .71% inflation deflator to arrive at 1.7% growth. Anyone who believes that inflation is currently running below 1% has simply no grasp of our current economy. Look for more analysis of this topic in my upcoming columns. In the meantime, don't get excited by initial reports of a healthy recovery. The reality is likely to be more sobering.

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

Subscribe to Euro Pacific's Weekly Digest: Receive all commentaries by Peter Schiff, John Browne, and other Euro Pacific commentators delivered to your inbox every Monday

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Tags:  economyGDPquantitative easing
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What Doesn't Kill Gold Makes It Stronger
Posted by Peter Schiff on 08/06/2013 at 9:47 AM

I've been emphasizing for months that the current correction in the gold price is a result of speculative money fleeing the market and not any reflection of gold's long-term fundamentals. Unfortunately, there is so much money to be made (and lost) by day trading that my cautions have once again fallen on deaf ears.

Well, it looks like the so-called "technicals" are starting to support my theory, and so this month I'm going to depart from my typical discussion of market fundamentals and take a look at the COMEX gold futures market. It turns out that the same paper markets that helped drive the price of gold down are beginning to run into the hard reality of physical gold demand; their reversal may push gold to new highs.

Reading the Futures

The world of futures contracts is often confusing for ordinary investors. It is mainly the domain of institutions seeking to hedge and professional speculators. I do not recommend passive investors get involved in futures trading, but it is helpful to understand how these financial instruments affect gold's spot price.

In its most basic form, a gold futures contract is an agreement to buy a set amount of gold at the current spot price with delivery guaranteed at a future date. The attractive part is that you don't need to pay the full price up front. You can put a down payment on 100 ounces of gold today, knowing that you will only have to complete the payment when the contract comes due. If the price of gold rises in the intervening time, you've made a nice profit, because you end up paying today's price for a product that is worth more in the future. Of course, the person who sold you the contract takes a loss for the same reason. The person buying the contract is said to be "long" gold, while the seller is "short."

One of the reasons gold futures are so risky is because of the sheer quantity of gold that transactions represent. When you buy a single COMEX gold futures contract, you gain control - and responsibility for - 100 troy ounces of the yellow metal. So when the gold futures market was said to have made "big moves" this last April, that was an understatement - on April 12th, it opened with a sell off of 100 tons of gold!

It gets worse. Traders often leverage (borrow cash) to buy futures contracts, with the down payment they supply known as the "maintenance margin." The minimum maintenance margin for a single futures contract is only $8,800. If spot gold is at $1,300, then a trader can gain control of $130,000 worth of gold with less than 7% down! Depending on a combination of luck and experience, this massive leveraging can lead to either amazing profits or devastating losses.

Let's walk through an example, keeping in mind that my figures are very simplified, because a futures contract is not exactly equal to 100 times the current gold spot price. Most of the time, futures prices are a little higher than spot gold.

Say gold is at $1,300, which means a COMEX gold futures contract gives the investor control of about $130,000 worth of gold. A trader buys a contract with only a $8,800 margin. If the price of gold goes up to $1,500, the futures contract is now worth $150,000. The trader can now sell that contract and pocket the difference. He just netted about $20,000 with only $8,800 in seed money. If the trader had simply bought $8,800 worth of physical gold, he would have only earned about $1,350 in the same time period. It is not hard to see how futures trading can seem exciting and profitable on its face.

But what if the price of gold goes down in this scenario? The more the price of gold drops below the contract price of $1,300, the more the investor will be required to add to his margin to maintain the same ratio of down payment to loan value. This is required as assurance that he will not abandon the contract. In the worst case scenario, the trader cannot put up the additional funds and the entire position is liquidated by his broker.

So far, this example is of a trader "going long" with a futures contract. It can be risky, but the potential losses of a long futures trader are nothing compared to the losses someone shorting the market might experience.

Consider the same scenario above, except this time the trader has a short contract. He is desperately betting that the price of gold will drop enough for him cover his short position (buy back the contract he sold) at a lower price. After all, he can not hold the contract to maturity, as he does not actually own any physical gold, and thus would not be able to deliver to the buyer.

The key difference between long and short traders is that shorts are forced to add to margin when the price of gold goes up. Unlike a drop in the price gold, which can only go so low, there is theoretically no limit to how high the price of gold can rise. Someone betting on gold's demise with short futures contracts when gold enters a big bull market can be completely devastated by their margin calls.

It's risky enough leveraging into a deal as aggressively as futures traders do, but if traders don't understand the fundamentals of the asset underlying the contract (in this case, actual physical gold), they can get into a lot of trouble and in turn distort the price of the commodity they are trading. This is precisely what is happening now.

The Short Squeeze

When gold began its price drop in April, we saw a rush of paper gold flee the market, including record-high ETF outflows. Major money managers and hedge funds began selling their gold positions, issuing lower and lower forecasts for the year-end gold price. All of this became a major signal for futures traders to short gold.

The selling feeds on itself as the traders seek to cut their losses, or retain some of the paper profits the earned on the way up. Sometimes the selling is fueled by "stop sell orders," which are orders on the books that are automatically triggered when prices decline to a specific level, in many cases just below key technical support levels. Stops generally become market sell orders as they are hit, accelerating the decline and thereby triggering even more stops as prices fall lower. Some stops represent long positions being covered; others represent new short positions being established.

This ongoing shorting of gold builds a cycle that feeds on itself. The shorts see others fleeing the market and so continue to short. Meanwhile, the fund managers see the net-short positions increasing and so they continue to sell gold.

This cycle continued right up until gold's rebound - in July, the gold net-short positions reached record highs.

When gold began to rebound last month, a massive number of shorts were left exposed and many still remain exposed. Gold shorts are stuck holding the losing bet on an asset that is going to do the opposite of what they anticipated.

If the price rally continues, these traders will feel increasing pressure to unwind their shorts before their losses become catastrophic. This "short squeeze," as it is known in finance, will reverse the vicious cycle and could send gold dramatically higher than when the correction started.

An Unbalanced Ecosystem

To understand this short squeeze, imagine a brand new predator entering a pristine natural ecosystem. The newly introduced predator finds a smorgasbord of prey that have never learned to outrun, outsmart, or avoid this particular predator. Before long, the predator becomes "invasive" and begins to devastate the natural population of its easily-captured food source. Thriving on the newfound resources, the population of the invasive predator surges to new highs - until the prey population collapses.

This is akin to what has happened with gold shorts in the past three months. The more the price of gold (the prey) was driven down, the more gold speculators (invasive species) entered the market to profit from this trend, which only served to drive the price down further.

However, as in a natural ecosystem, this relationship is unsustainable. Eventually there are so many predators that they run out of enough prey to share. This forces the predators to starvation, and eventually the population drops to a sustainable level while the prey manage to grow back to a natural equilibrium.

The overwhelming problems for the shorts is that the gold they sold on the way down will not likely be for sale on the way up. My guess is that the buyers who previously stepped up to the plate were not short-term traders like the speculators who sold. These were buyers who bought gold to own it, not to trade it. For these buyers, like foreign central banks, the gold they bought is not for sale at any price (at least not a price the speculators can afford to pay). The buyers over the past few months have been lying in wait for this opportunity for years.

The result of this price decline is that gold has moved from weak hands to strong. In addition, the weakness in the price of gold has caused gold miners to shut mines, reduce capital expenditures, and limit exploration/development. So gold that was once on the market will be gone, and future supply coming from new production will be diminished. So when the market turns around, how will the shorts cover? Where will the gold they need to buy come from? When traders want back into the ETFs, where will the ETFs get the physical gold they need to buy? How much higher will prices have to rise to bring that supply back onto the market? I really have no answers to these questions, but it sure will be fun for the longs, and painful for the shorts, to find out.

What you and I can really hope for is that this massive short-squeeze becomes the impetus to focus the market back on gold's fundamentals and begins to drive the yellow metal back toward its previous highs. If I'm right that gold is still grossly undervalued, then this might be the beginning of the biggest rally we've yet seen.

Peter Schiff is Chairman ofEuro Pacific Precious Metals, a gold and silver dealer selling reputable, well-known bullion coins and bars at competitive prices. 

Click here for a free subscription to Peter Schiff's Gold Letter, a monthly newsletter featuring the latest gold and silver market analysis from Peter Schiff, Casey Research, and other leading experts. 

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Tags:  economygold
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Sock Puppet Kabuki; Nikkei Today Parallels Dot-Com Bust
Posted by Peter Schiff on 06/26/2013 at 7:28 PM
The Japanese stereotype of excessive courtesy is being confirmed by the actions of prime minster Shinzo Abe who is giving the world a free and timely lesson on the dangers of overly accommodative monetary policy. Whether or not we benefit from the tutorial (Japan will surely not) depends on our ability to understand what is currently happening there.

For now most economists still believe that Abe has stumbled upon the magic elixir of economic revitalization. His commitment to pull his country out of the mud by doubling the amount of yen in circulation, and raising the nation's official inflation rate to 2%, had conferred rock star status on the formerly bland career politician. But just one year after his first critical raves arrived, the audience is heading for the exits. As it turns out, the Japanese miracle may be a simple tale of confidence easily gained, and just as rapidly lost. 

In many ways the 75% nine month rally in the Nikkei 225 (that began when Abe was elected prime minister in September 2012), and the subsequent crash that began on May 22, is not all that different from the turbocharged rally, and spectacular crash, that occurred in technology heavy Nasdaq more than a dozen years ago here in the United States.

At the time that Pets.com (the company behind the iconic Sock Puppet) made its IPO, other high flying tech stocks had racked up 1000% gains. While investors scratched their heads, pundits offered reasons why common sense no longer applied to the new economy. We were told that valuations, revenue and profits no longer mattered. And to an extent that now seems absurd, the investing establishment bought into the insanity. But then a funny thing happened, investors woke up and realized that they had nothing but a handful of magic beans that couldn't grow a beanstalk. When the fog lifted, stocks plummeted...Wile E. Coyote style.

This time around investors in the Japanese market were similarly deluded by fairy tales. Leading economists told them that Japan could cheapen its currency to improve trade, use inflation to create real growth, increase prices to encourage spending, and drastically increase inflation without raising interest rates. In short, monetary policy was seen as substitute for an actual economy.

Initially at least the economic data seemed to confirm the success of Abe's program. The leading indicator was the yen itself, which dropped like a stone. Given the widely held view that a weak currency is the key to economic success, the 25% decline in the yen was welcomed as good news. Soon thereafter, the inflation that Abe so eagerly sought began to materialize in various sectors of the economy. When the Nikkei reacted positively to these developments, momentum traders from around began to take notice, thereby creating self-fulfilling prophecy.

But it's no great trick to weaken a currency. Any two bit economy could accomplish that objective. For a nation like Japan that imports nearly all of its raw materials it was inevitable that a drastically cheaper yen would to push up prices. However the rest of the plan, the part about surging exports and growing economic activity, has been much harder to achieve. In fact the data has been downright disheartening. The plunging yen has failed to reverse Japan's weakening trade balance which has declined for 28 straight months. The trend finally sent Japan into an overall trade deficit 10 months ago for the first time in 30 years. The latest data confirms that while the yen value of exports has increased, actual trade volume has fallen.

While the broad economic data failed to impress, economists and investors were nevertheless hopeful that Abenonmics would eventually work its magic. But recently the bottom has fallen out in a way that should have surprised no one, but somehow managed to do just that. Beginning in April Japanese Government bonds began to sell off sharply. Previously, the Japanese government could borrow funds for 10 years at just 36 basis points.

The truth is that the sub 40 basis point yield on Japanese Government bonds was the most important data point for their economy. At those levels, Japan needed to spend 25% of its tax revenue to service its outstanding debt. While that figure is high, most it is manageable given Japan's high savings rate.  However, with a national debt that exceeds 200% of GDP, the Japanese government could quickly become insolvent in the face of higher debt service costs. If rates on 10 year debt were to ever match the 2% of their inflation target, more half of total tax revenue would be needed to service debt payments.  

But the central premise of Abenomics seems to be that the Bank of Japan could push up inflation to 2% without raises the rates on long-term debt. To do this one would have to assume that bond investors would accept negative interest rates, even while a falling yen was eating away at principle and returns on alternative investments would be expected to be more attractive. Such an outcome is not consistent with human behavior. 

As a result, in late May a strong sell off in Japanese government bonds caused yields to nearly triple to almost 100 basis points on 10 year debt. And while one percent doesn't sound like much, it was the rapidity of the ascent that got everyone's attention. This grim, but very simple, reality seems to have hit Japanese stock investors with a panic unseen since Mechagodzilla took aim at Tokyo. Knowing that even moderately higher rates could counteract any economic gains made by stock market or export growth, the faith in Abenomics has seemed to evaporate almost overnight. Sounds a little like the dot-com bubble, doesn't it? 

Any more rapid escalation in Japanese bond yields should tell us that quantitative easing and growth through devaluation is a cul-de-sac that should be avoided. Japan should be our canary in the coal mine. In the meantime, the drama in Japan is diverting attention away from more important shifts in Asia, more of that in our latest newsletter

An expanded version of this commentary will appear in the June Edition of the Europac's Global Investment Newsletter, which will be available for download later today. 

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

Subscribe to Euro Pacific's Weekly Digest: Receive all commentaries by Peter Schiff, John Browne, and other Euro Pacific commentators delivered to your inbox every Monday! 

And be sure to order a copy of Peter Schiff's recently released NY Times Best Seller, The Real Crash: America's Coming Bankruptcy - How to Save Yourself and Your Country



Tags:  economyinflationJapanNikkei
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Tapering The Taper Talk
Posted by Peter Schiff on 06/21/2013 at 12:52 PM

As usual the Federal Reserve media reaction machine has fallen for a poorly executed head fake. It has fallen for this move many times in the past, and for its efforts, it has tackled nothing but air. Yet right on cue, it took the bait once more. Somehow the takeaway from Wednesday's release of the June Fed statement and Chairman Ben Bernanke's press conference was that the central bank is likely to begin scaling back, or "tapering," its $85 billion per month quantitative easing program sometime later this year, and that the program may be completely wound down by the middle of next year. 

Although this scenario is about as likely as an NSA-sponsored ticker tape parade for whistle blower Edward Snowden, all of the market segments reacted as if it were a fait accompli. The stock market - convinced that it will lose the support of ultra-low, long-term interest rates and the added consumer spending that results from a nascent housing bubble - sold off in triple digits. The bond market, sensing that its biggest and busiest customer will be exiting the market, followed a similarly negative trajectory. The sell-off in government and corporate debt pushed yields up to 21 month highs. In foreign exchange markets, the dollar rallied off its four-month lows based on the belief that Fed tightening will support the currency. And lastly, the gold market, sensing that an end of quantitative easing would eliminate the inflationary fears that have partially fueled gold's spectacular rise, sold off nearly five percent to a new two-and-a-half year low.
 
All of this came as a result of Bernanke's mild commitments to begin easing back on permanent QE sometime later this year if the economy continued to improve the way he expected. The chairman did not really elaborate on what types of improvements he had seen, or how much farther those unidentified trends would need to go before he would finally pull the trigger. He was however careful to point out that any policy shift, be it for less or more quantitative easing, would not be dependent on incoming data, but on the Fed's interpretation of that data. By stressing repeatedly that its data goalposts were "thresholds rather than triggers," the chairman gained further latitude to pursue any stance the Fed chooses regardless of the data. 
 
Yet the mere and obvious mention that tapering was even possible, combined with the chairman's fairly sunny disposition (perhaps caused by the realization that the real mess will likely be his successor's problem to clean up), was enough to convince the market that the post-QE world was at hand. This conclusion is wrong.   
             
Although many haven't yet realized it, the financial markets are stuck in a "Waiting for Godot" era in which the change in policy that all are straining to see will never in fact arrive. Most fail to grasp the degree to which the "recovery" will stall without the $85 billion per month that the Fed is currently pumping into the economy.
 
What exactly has convinced the Fed that the economy is improving? From what I can tell, the evidence centered on the rise in stock and real estate prices, and the confidence and spending that follow as a result of the wealth effect. But inflated asset prices are completely dependent on QE and are likely to reverse course even before it is removed. And while it is painfully clear that expectations about QE continuance have made a far bigger impact on the stock, bond, and real estate markets than any other economic data points, many must be assuming that this dependency will soon end.
 
Those who hold this belief have naively described QE as the economy's "training wheels." (In reality the program is currently our only wheels.) They are convinced that the kindling of QE will inevitably ignite a fire in the larger economy. But the big lumber is still too dampened by debt, government spending, regulation, and high asset prices to catch fire - all we have gotten is smoke instead. A few mirrors supplied by the Fed merely completed the illusion. The larger problem of course is that even though the stimulus is the only wheels, the Fed must remove them anyways as we are cycling toward the edge of a cliff. 
 
Although Bernanke dodged the question in his press conference, the Fed has broken the normal market for mortgage backed securities. While it's true that the Fed only owns 14% of all outstanding MBS (the "small fraction" he referred to in the press conference), it is by far the largest purchaser of newly issued mortgage debt. What would happen to the market if the Fed were no longer buying? There are no longer enough private buyers to soak up the issuance. Those who do remain would certainly expect higher yields if the option of selling to the Fed was no longer on the table. Put bluntly, the Fed is the market right now and has been for years.
 
A clear-eyed look at the likely consequences of a pull-back in QE should cause an abandonment of the optimistic assumptions behind the Fed's forecast. Interest rates are already rising rapidly based simply on the expectation of tapering. Imagine how high rates would go if the Fed actually tried to sell some of the mortgages it already owns. But the fact is the mere anticipation of such an event has already sent mortgage rates north of 4%, and without a lifeline from the Fed in the form of more QE, those rates will soon exceed 5%. This increase will greatly impact the housing market. Speculative buyers who have lifted the market will become sellers. More foreclosure will hit the market, just as higher home prices and mortgage rates price any remaining legitimate buyers out of the market. Housing prices will fall to new post bubble lows, sinking the phony recovery in the process. The wealth effect will work in reverse: spending and confidence will fall, unemployment will rise, and we will be back in recession even before the Fed begins to taper.
 
In fact, the rise in mortgage rates seen over the last month has already produced pain in the financial world, with banks reporting a rapid decline in refinancing applications. By the time rates hit 5%, the current rally in real estate will have screeched to a halt. With personal income and wage growth essentially stagnant, individual buyers are extremely dependent on the affordability allowed by ultra-low rates. A near 50% increase in mortgage rates, which would result from an increase in rates from 3.25% to 5.0%, would price a great many buyers out of the market. Higher rates would also cool much of the housing demand that has been coming from the private equity funds that have been a factor in pushing up real estate prices in recent years. Falling home prices would likely trigger a new wave of defaults and housing related bankruptcies that plunged the economy into recession five years ago.
       
A similar dynamic would occur in the market for U.S. Treasury debt. Despite Bernanke's assurances that the Fed is not monetizing the government's debt, the central bank has been buying nearly 70% of the new issuance in recent years. Already, rates on 10-year treasury debt have creeped up by more than 50% in less than two months to over 2.5%. Any actual decrease or cessation in buying - let alone the selling that would be needed to unwind the Fed's multi-trillion dollar balance sheet - would place the Treasury market under extreme pressure. Since low rates are the life blood of our borrow and spend economy, it is highly likely that higher rates will lead directly to lower stock prices, lower GDP growth, and higher unemployment. Since rising asset prices and the confidence and spending they produce is the basis for Bernanke's rosy forecast, new lows in house prices and a bear market in stocks will likely reverse those forecasts on a dime. 
 
Lost on almost everyone is the effect higher interest rates and a slowing economy will have on federal budget deficits. As unemployment rises, tax revenues will fall and expenditures will rise. In addition, rising rates will not only make it more expensive for the Fed to finance larger deficits, it will also make it more expensive to refinance maturing debts. Furthermore, the profit checks Fannie and Freddie have been paying the Treasury will turn into bills for losses, as a new wave of foreclosures comes tumbling in. 
 
It's fascinating how the goal posts have moved quickly on the Fed's playing field. Months ago the conversation focused on the "exit strategy" it would use to unwind the trillions in bonds and mortgages that it had accumulated over the last few years. Despite apparent improvements in the economy, those discussions have given way to the more modest expectations for the "tapering" of QE. I believe that we should really be expecting a "tapering" of the tapering conversations.
 
As a result, I expect that the Fed will continue to pantomime that an eventual Exit Strategy is preparing for a grand entrance, even as their timeline and decision criteria become ever more ambiguous. In truth, I believe that the Fed's next big announcement will be to increase, not diminish QE. After all, Bernanke made clear in his press conference that if the economy does not perform up to his expectations, he will simply do more of what has already failed. 
 
Of course, when the Fed is forced to make this concession, it should be obvious to a critical mass that the recovery is a sham. Investors will realize that years of QE have only exacerbated the problems it was meant to solve. When the grim reality of QE infinity sets in, the dollar will drop, gold will climb, and the real crash will finally be upon us. Buckle up.

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

Subscribe to Euro Pacific's Weekly Digest: Receive all commentaries by Peter Schiff, John Browne, and other Euro Pacific commentators delivered to your inbox every Monday! Or get the Global Investor Newsletter.

And be sure to order a copy of Peter Schiff's recently released NY Times Best Seller, The Real Crash: America's Coming Bankruptcy - How to Save Yourself and Your Country

Tags:  Ben Bernankeeconomyfederal reservehousinginflationquantitative easing
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The Great Reflation
Posted by Peter Schiff on 05/31/2013 at 10:36 AM

This week economists, investors and politicians were treated to some of the "best" home price data since the frothy days of 2006 when home loans were given out like cotton candy and condo flipping was a national pastime. The Case-Shiller 20 City Composite Home price index was up a startling 10.9% for the 12 month period ending in March. Prices in all 20 cities were up, with some (Las Vegas, Phoenix, and San Francisco) notching gains of more than 20%. Meanwhile the National Association of Realtors announced that April pending home sales volume reached the highest level in nearly three years.

The strong housing data is taken as proof that the economy has turned around and that a recovery is under way. Cooler heads may simply see how government policies have channeled money into real estate in order to reflate a bubble that has been collapsing for the last five years. Although the money is entering the market through slightly different paths than it did in 2005 and 2006, its effects on housing, and the broader economy, are the same as they were before the bubble burst. When the inevitable happens again, the ensuing damage will be eerily familiar.
 
After five years of dismal real estate performance and a lackluster economy, it's hard to fault people for believing that rising home prices are a good barometer of economic health. There can be little doubt that rising home prices feel good. Even single digit appreciation can make modest home buyers feel like mini-moguls. The effect is magnified in a falling interest rate environment where any appreciation can be instantly turned into an opportunity for cash out refinancing. The "wealth effect" created by such activities then translates into consumer spending and other seemingly positive economic developments. But some things can taste great but be very harmful (cinnamon buns come to mind). It felt good when real estate prices were rising during the pre-financial crisis bubble, but that rise only exacerbated the problems when the bubble burst. The questions we should now be asking ourselves is why are prices rising, are those higher prices sustainable, and what are the costs to the broader economy?
 
The truth is that most buyers cannot afford today's prices without the combination of government guarantees and artificially low mortgage rates. The Federal Reserve has been conducting an unprecedented experiment in economic manipulation. By holding interest rates near zero and by actively buying more than $40 billion monthly of mortgage-backed securities and $45 billion of Treasury bonds, the Fed has engineered the lowest mortgage rates in generations. At the same time, Federal control of the mortgage industry has become nearly complete, with government agencies Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the FHA buying or guaranteeing virtually all new mortgages. In addition, a variety of Federal programs, such as the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) are in place to help keep underwater homeowners in homes that they could not otherwise afford. Taken together, these programs create far more favorable terms for home buyers than those that existed before the crash.

The big difference between then and now however is that banks are much more reluctant to extend loans to people with bad credit. But that has not stopped money from flowing into real estate.  Ultra low interest rates also mean that fixed income investments, that have long been the staple of hedge funds and private equity funds, no longer deliver decent returns. To find yields in such an environment, many of these professional investment funds have scooped up single family homes out of foreclosure and put them into the rental market in order to generate a decent return on equity. These buyers come to the table with war chests full of cash which puts them in a position to avoid all of the credit obstacles that continue to plague individual buyers.
 
This trend has allowed a recovery in home sales even while the national home ownership rate has dropped to 65%, the lowest rate since 1995 (down from almost 70% during the last decade). Now that most of the available foreclosures have been picked through (with the rest log jammed with litigation and red tape), many of the new classes of investment buyers are striking deals directly with the large home builders to buy homes before they are even built. It is no coincidence that the southern tier markets with the fastest appreciation, and the fastest declines in inventories, have been those with the greatest participation of institutional investors.
 
But their activities have a latent downside. The new ownership class is not motivated to buy and hold the way Mom and Dad would. They are not looking for a place to live, raise families, and retire. They are simply looking for a decent return on equity relative to other investments. Many would happily put money in higher yielding bonds where landlord headaches don't exist. If better deals beckon, or if risks increase in the real estate market, the homes they bought will be dumped even faster.
 
In the meantime, bidding wars involving hedge funds are forcing real buyers to pay more, oftentimes pricing them out of the market completely. Then as these properties hit the rental market, an absence of qualified tenants will depress rents. Lower rents will in turn put downward pressure on property values. Many rental houses will also sit vacant. Though hedge funds are cash buyers, most borrow large percentages of that cash to lever up their returns. However, when interest rates rise and rents fall, hedge funds will be forced to sell. But where will the buyers come from? The current crop of renters cannot afford to buy even with mortgage rates at historic lows. When rates rise, prices will have to plunge before real buyers could even qualify for mortgages.
 
The current combination of low rates and investor demand has succeeded in pushing up prices. But that doesn't mean the market is healthy. For the first quarter of 2013, the Federal Reserve reports a 10% delinquency rate for residential mortgages (those with payments that are at least 90 days past due). This is more than 6 times the rate in the first quarter of 2006. In contrast, credit card delinquencies currently stand at 2.65%, the lowest rate in decades and 31% lower than the rate in the first quarter of 2006. Whether it is by choice, or simply by the ability to pay, Americans are clearly placing a low priority on paying their mortgages.
 
But rising home prices are currently creating residual benefits even for those who have no intention of selling. In the second quarter of this year, rates on 30 year mortgages hit the lowest level on record. Although the data has not yet been published, it would be logical to assume that homeowners have taken the opportunity to refinance, lower their payments, and in some cases, pull money out. But even if they haven't, there is evidence to suggest that an owner's belief that his home has appreciated is enough to encourage greater spending.
 
The "wealth effect' from rising home prices combined with the similar influence of rising stock prices creates an aura of recovery. In fact, this week's revisions to first quarter GDP revealed that consumer confidence and spending are up despite real discretionary per capita incomes plunging at a 9.03% annualized rate. That is worse than the largest plunge during the 2008-2009 crisis (7.52%). Additionally, the household savings rate fell to an abysmal 2.3%, the lowest since the 3rd quarter 2007. Debt-financed consumption supported by inflated asset prices is what led to the financial crisis of 2008. It's amazing how willing we are to travel down that road again.
 
Of course rising asset prices are completely dependent on continued Fed support. As we have seen time and again, whenever the Fed even hints at tapering its massive QE programs the stock market sells off. The housing market is even more dependent on that support. Given the risks, it is arguable that no private market for home loans would even exist without government intervention. The bubble that popped in 2008 consisted mainly of government-guaranteed mortgages. This time, the mortgages are not merely government-guaranteed, but government owned.
 
In the meantime, by blowing more air into a deflating housing bubble, the Fed is misdirecting money into a sector that investment capital should be avoiding. A successful economy can't be built on housing. Rather, a robust real estate market must result from a healthy economy. You can't put the cart before the horse. As a nation, we do not need more houses. We built enough over the last decade to keep us well sheltered for years. Private equity funds should be using their investment capital to fund the next technology innovator, not wasting it on townhouses in Orlando and Phoenix.
 
Of course the real risks in housing center on the next leg down, in what I believe will be a continuation of the real estate crash. We can't afford to artificially support the market indefinitely. When significantly higher interest rates eventually arrive, the fragile market will again be impacted. We saw that movie about five years ago. Do we really want to see it again?

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

Subscribe to Euro Pacific's Weekly Digest: Receive all commentaries by Peter Schiff, John Browne, and other Euro Pacific commentators delivered to your inbox every Monday

And be sure to order a copy of Peter Schiff's recently released NY Times Best Seller, The Real Crash: America's Coming Bankruptcy - How to Save Yourself and Your Country

Tags:  economyhousinginflation
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Symptoms Don't Lie
Posted by Peter Schiff on 05/10/2013 at 11:41 AM

A good doctor will not simply make a diagnosis based on measurements. The symptoms and complaints expressed by the patient are at least as important in making a determination as the data provided by diagnostic tools. When the data says one thing and the symptoms continuously say another, it makes sense to question the reliability of the instruments. This would be particularly true if the instruments are furnished by a party with a stake in a favorable diagnosis, say an insurance company on the hook for treatment costs. The same holds true for the U.S. economy. Although our government-supplied data suggests we are experiencing low inflation and modest economic growth, the economy shows symptoms of low growth, rising prices, and diminishing purchasing power.

In my latest commentary I discussed how the Big Mac Index (The Economist Magazine's 30 year data set on Big Mac prices) provided strong anecdotal evidence that inflation in the United States is higher than official figures. More information has come in since then that tells me the same thing: that Americans are downsizing their lives as their incomes fail to keep pace with rising prices. These symptoms are at odds with the widespread belief in an accelerating recovery that has resulted in braggadocio in Washington and euphoria on Wall Street.

Earlier this week Tyson Foods, one of the nation's largest providers of packaged meat products, announced that although their top line sales revenue increased by almost 2% (roughly in line with U.S. GDP growth), operating margins collapsed by almost 50%, leading to a 43% decline in profit. Consumer shifts away from relatively higher priced/higher margin beef and pork products to lower cost/lower margin chicken products were to blame. Tyson also noted that cost conscious consumers shifted away from higher margin packaged chicken products to fresh meat cuts, thereby sacrificing convenience for cost.

According to government statisticians, the Tyson announcement would reveal modest growth and low inflation. After all, revenue at the company grew and spending on their products had increased modestly. But rising prices were obscured by consumers purchasing lower quality products. Not only are consumers avoiding the beef and pork that they otherwise may have preferred, but they are opting out of the convenience of prepared foods. This behavior is symptomatic of diminished consumer purchasing power. This is known as getting poorer.

The trend corresponds with the steady increase in the share of income that Americans devote to food and energy. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis data, in 2002 Americans spent about 17.8% of income on food and energy. In the first quarter of 2013 the share had risen by a factor of 20% to 21.3% of income. Increased share of spending on necessities like food and energy is consistent with falling living standards. In the poorest countries almost all of income is devoted to such things.

This week we also learned the seemingly positive news that the March trade deficit narrowed to $38.8 billion.  But the reduction didn't come from increased exports (which actually declined), but by the sharpest drop in imports since February 2009. Oil imports declined to a seventeen-year low, in part due to rising domestic production, but also due to a record low in 13 years in gasoline consumption. While some may argue that is a function of greater energy efficiency, I believe it's more likely that usage is down because of high prices and high unemployment. Even more significant is that our trade deficit with China in March dropped by a whopping 23.6%, hitting a three-year low. On a year over year basis, the decline in our deficit with China was 90% attributable to the decline in imports.

In contrast to the declining import figures, the government reported that personal spending rose by .2% in March. If we are buying less stuff from abroad, where are Americans spending the extra money? If the prices are stable, and imports are way down, consumer spending should also be down and savings should be up. But the savings rate in March held steady at a meager 2.7%. The sad truth is that Americans are buying fewer Chinese products because they are spending more money on food, rent, utilities, healthcare, insurance, and other necessities that can't be imported. Again, this is consistent with a falling standard of living, as inflation forces consumers to forgo the things they want in order to buy the things that they need.  

It was also announced this week that the big three airlines (United, Delta, and American) will be raising their "change fees" for booked tickets by 33%, from $150 to $200. However, it's unlikely that such a hike will make much of an impact on CPI. According to the CPI, airline fares in the United States increased only .3% from 2011 to 2012. This mild increase came at a time when airlines were rolling out more new fees than most air travelers could have possibly imagined. 

But even if the government fully factored in the increase in fees, they would likely ignore the change in behavior that the increase would elicit. With the cost of changing a ticket so dramatically higher than it has been in the past, it is likely that far fewer Americans would be willing to change their travel plans once their tickets have been purchased. So even while the spending increase may be relatively small, the lost convenience is not factored into the equation. A ticket with low price (or no price) change option is a much better product than a ticket with high penalties.

CPI reports that from 2007 to 2012 air travel increased on average 4% per year. But that's only half the story. A new study released by MIT reports that during those five years, U.S. airlines cut the number of domestic flights by 14%,with the cuts falling most heavily on mid-sized regional airports. By 2012, the industry also closed more than 20 smaller airports, began using a higher percentage of larger airplanes, and reported record crowding on remaining flights. In other words, air travel not only became more expensive but less convenient and more crowded.

How much loss in value does this inconvenience and lack of flexibility create? It's hard to say, but we all have experienced it with varying degrees of frustration. But what is sure is that the government isn't interested in such trivialities.

The combination of these symptoms suggests that the extent to which people are being impoverished by accelerating inflation is not reflected in official government measurements. This explains why unemployment remains high even as GDP appears to rise. It is my belief that the unprecedented expansion of the money supply under the current Fed leadership is pushing up prices for stocks, bonds, real estate, and consumer goods. Market indices neatly capture the price increases for all of these categories except for the latter, which has been concealed by an overly adjusted CPI.

If consumer inflation data were reported more accurately, it would be revealed that much of the apparent growth is an illusion. The patient is getting sicker, but the doctors are too distracted to notice.

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

Subscribe to Euro Pacific's Weekly Digest: Receive all commentaries by Peter Schiff, John Browne, and other Euro Pacific commentators delivered to your inbox every Monday! 

And be sure to order a copy of Peter Schiff's recently released NY Times Best Seller, The Real Crash: America's Coming Bankruptcy - How to Save Yourself and Your Country



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