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interest rates
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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The Fix Is In
Posted by Peter Schiff on 08/12/2011 at 12:47 PM

This week's wild actions on Wall Street should serve as a stark reminder that few investors have any clue as to what is really going on beneath the surface of America's troubled economy. But this week did bring startling clarity on at least one front. In its August policy statement the Federal Reserve took the highly unusual step of putting a specific time frame for the continuation of its near zero interest rate policy.

 

Moving past the previously uncertain pronouncements that they would "keep interest rates low for an extended period," the Fed now tells us that rates will not budge from rock bottom for at least two years. Although the markets rallied on the news (at least for a few minutes) in reality the policy will inflict untold harm on the U.S. economy. The move was so dangerous and misguided that three members of the Fed's Open Market Committee actually voted against it. This level of dissent within the Fed hasn't been seen for years. 

 

Many economists have short-sightedly concluded that ultra low interest rates are a sure fire way to spur economic growth. The easier and cheaper it is to borrow, they argue, the more likely business and consumers are to spend. And because spending spurs growth, in their calculation, low rates are always good. But, as is typical, they have it backwards.

 

I believe that ultra-low interest rates are among the biggest impediments currently preventing genuine economic growth in the US economy. By committing to keep them near zero for the next two years, the Fed has actually lengthened the time Americans will now have to wait before a real recovery begins. Low rates are the root cause of the misallocation of resources that define the modern American economy. As a direct result, Americans borrow, consume, and speculate too much, while we save, produce, and invest too little. 

 

It may come as a shock to some, but just like everything else in a free market, interest rate levels are best determined by the freely interacting forces of supply and demand. In the case of interest rates, the determinative factors should be the supply of savings available to lend and the demand for money by people and business who want to borrow. Many of the beneficial elements of market determined rates are explained in my book How an Economy Grows and Why it Crashes. But allowing the government to determine interest rates as a matter of policy creates a number of distortions.

 

It was bad enough that the Fed held rates far too low, but at least a fig leaf of uncertainty kept the most brazen speculators in partial paralysis. But by specifically telegraphing policy, the Fed has now given cover to the most parasitic elements of the financial sector to undertake transactions that offer no economic benefit to the nation. Specifically, it will simply encourage banks to borrow money at zero percent from the Fed, and then use significant leverage to buy low yielding treasuries at 2 to 4 percent. The result is a banker's dream: guaranteed low risk profit. In other words it will encourage banks to lend to the government, which already borrows too much, and not lend to private borrowers, whose activity could actually benefit the economy.

 

This reckless policy, designed to facilitate government spending and appease Wall Street financiers, will continue to starve Main Street of the capital it needs to make real productivity-enhancing investments. American investment capital will continue to flow abroad, denying local business the means to expand and hire. It also destroys interest rates paid to holders of bank savings deposits which traditionally had been a financial pillar of retirees. In addition, such an inflationary policy drives real wages lower, robbing Americans of their purchasing power. The consequence is a dollar in free-fall, dragging down with it the standard of living of average Americans.

 

Until interest rates are allowed to rise to appropriate levels, more resources will be misallocated, additional jobs will be lost, government spending and deficits will continue to grow, the dollar will keep falling, consumer prices will keep rising, and the government will keep blaming our problems on external factors beyond its control. As the old adage goes, "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."



Tags:  federal reserveinterest rateswall street
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Pentonomics - Interest Rates Are on the Launch Pad
Posted by Michael Pento on 03/14/2011 at 2:26 PM
A few months ago, the chorus sung by the recovery cheerleaders reached a crescendo when expanding consumer credit statistics and surging US trade deficits provided them with "evidence" of an economic rebound. In declaring victory, they overlooked the very nucleus of this past crisis: namely, the enormous debt levels and bubbling inflation that created fragile asset bubbles. If they had recognized the original problem, they would have remained silent. In reality, only a reduction in US debt levels or increase in the value of the dollar would have signaled a budding recovery; but, thanks to the Federal Reserve and Obama Administration, there is virtually no way those results will ever be seen.

Last week's Flow of Funds report issued by the Federal Reserve clearly underlines the fact that we, as a country, haven't just avoided deleveraging, but rather continue to accumulate debt. At the end of the last fiscal year, total non-financial debt (household, business, state, local, and federal) reached an all-time record high of $36.2 trillion. Not only is the nominal level of debt at a record, but also debt-to-GDP - a far more worrying statistic. In Q4:07, total non-financial debt registered 222% of GDP. In 2008 and 2009, it was 238% and 243% respectively. As of Q4:10, that figure had risen to 244% of GDP, For some perspective, look back to the turn of the millennium, when total debt-to-GDP was 'just' 182%. Even that level points to a sick economy, but today's make you wonder how the patient is still breathing.

It is clear to me that the overleveraged condition which brought the economy down in 2008 still exists today - only worse. For all the suffering and displacement that has gone on, all we have accomplished is an unprecedented transfer private debt onto the Treasury's balance sheet. Now that the Fed is (hopefully) just months away from taking the printing presses off overtime, the paramount question is how fast interest rates will climb. The Fed has been able to keep yields this low through relentless devaluation and a propaganda campaign that convinced the majority of investors that deflation was a credible threat (kinda like those phantom Iraqi WMDs).

But Washington's ability to continue that ruse is coming to an end. The unrelenting growth of the Fed's balance sheet, increasing monetary aggregates, surging gold and commodity prices, $100/barrel oil, soaring food prices, and trillions of dollars of new debt projected for the near future have served to vanquish the deflationists. Any echoes of those once prominent voices can barely be heard amid the thunderous roar of oncoming inflation.

So therein lies the problem for the Fed. Any further debt monetization by the central bank now becomes counterproductive. That's because as inflation rates climb, bond investors demand higher interest rates. The lower real interest rates become, the less participation there will be in the bond market from private sources. If you don't believe me, ask Bill Gross.

The Fed is now damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. Interest rates have been artificially suppressed for such a long time that no matter what Bernanke does come June, interest rates will rise. If it enacts another iteration of Quantitative Easing, the Fed may find itself the only player in the bond market. Of course, the Fed could potentially buy all of the auctioned Treasury debt in order to keep rates low-as uncomfortable a position as that may be-but still all other interest rates, from bank loans to municipal debt, would skyrocket. Unless... the Fed decided to buy all that debt too. Hello Zimbabwe!

That scenario is still farfetched, but Bernanke's logic eventually leads there. The truth is that only a central banker could afford to own bonds that are yielding rates well below inflation, and growing even more so. Even if Bernanke ceases firing dollars into the bond market, yields will still have to rise to the level at which they provide a real return. How much higher would rates go, you ask? Well, Mr. Gross has some thoughts on that: 

"Treasury yields are perhaps 150 basis points or 1½% too low when viewed on a historical context and when compared with expected nominal GDP growth of 5%. This conclusion can be validated with numerous examples: (1) 10-year Treasury yields, while volatile, typically mimic nominal GDP growth and, by that standard, are 150 basis points too low; (2) real 5-year Treasury interest rates over a century's time have averaged 1½%, and now rest at a negative 0.15%!; (3) Fed funds policy rates for the past 40 years have averaged 75 basis points less than nominal GDP, and now rest at 475 basis points under that historical waterline."

To the above I say: not a bad start, Mr. Gross, but these aren't exactly average times. We have never had a Fed balance sheet anywhere near the $2.6 trillion that it is today. The nation has never faced the prospect of $1 trillion deficits as far as the eye can see. Nor have we ever had our total debt as a percentage of GDP reach 244%.

The bottom line is that a massive increase in the supply of debt coupled with a rising rate of inflation will always place upward pressure on interest rates. Once the Fed steps aside from buying 70% of the Treasury's current auctioned output, it will leave a gaping hole. And for those Pollyannas who claim we are in an economic recovery, I would ask them the following questions: Who will supplant the Fed's purchases of Treasuries at current yields? Since the level of debt in the economy has grown since the recession began, why won't rising rates place us back into an economic funk? Can the Fed unwind its balance sheet before inflation ravages the country? And, if the Fed isn't able to raise rates significantly, what will stop the dollar from collapsing?  

Then again, I guess it all comes down to one simple question: do you believe the laws of supply and demand apply to US Treasuries? If you do, then watch out for soaring yields.



Tags:  Ben Bernankefedinterest rates
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Pentonomics - Bernanke's Golden Dismount
Posted by Michael Pento on 01/24/2011 at 11:47 AM

There can be little doubt that Fed Chairman Benjamin Bernanke has been a very, very good friend to gold investors. However, some of those who have benefited from his largesse now fear that the recent selloff in gold indicates an imminent end to Bernanke's monetary high-wire act. Most assume that a cessation of the Fed's stimulative efforts, if it were to occur, would spell the end of gold's bull run. But a closer reading of Bernanke's economic philosophy and the Fed's own recent history, shows that once central banker begins a strenuous routine starts, it is very hard, if not impossible, for them to dismount.

It is widely believed that the unemployment rate, core inflation and home prices are the three key pieces of economic data that Bernanke and his Fed cohorts rely upon when formulating monetary policy. Although other data points, such as regional manufacturing surveys and the producer price index (which have rebounded significantly in some cases) attract some attention, they do not carry near the weight of the big three. With the unemployment rate remaining north of 9.4%, YOY core CPI inflation still less than 1% and the Case/Shiller Home Price Index down .8% from the year ago period, the Fed is in no mood to downshift. If anything, my guess is that Bernanke will step on the gas.

More importantly, in light of Bernanke's often stated conclusion that premature Fed tightening in 1937 and 1938 led to a prolongation of the Great Depression, even if the big three metrics were to show marked improvement, any future increase in interest rates will be moderate and held in abeyance for as long as politically possible.

Despite the fact that some economic data is improving, the foundation of the economy is getting worse. Consumers are now increasing their borrowing again--as evidenced by last week's number on consumer credit--and our government is now massively overleveraged. But leaving alone the deteriorating nature of these forward looking metrics, the Fed's own history provides unexpected good news for those holding tight to their gold positions.

The Fed began its last round of rate hikes in June of 2004 when Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan began a sequence of consecutive 25 basis point increases. The Maestro bumped rates 14 times before passing the baton to Bernanke in February of 2006, who continued the program with three more ¼ point increases. The combined efforts took rates from 1% to 5.25% in the span of two years. However, the tightening program did nothing to tarnish the luster of gold. Here's why.

Since the Fed increased interest rates very slowly from an extremely low level, money supply continued to expand during the long, slow, deliberate campaign of 25 basis point increases. From June 2004 through June 2006 the M2 money supply increased 9.3%, rising from $6.27 trillion to $6.85 trillion. Total loans and leases from commercial banks jumped from $4.61 trillion to $5.71 trillion during that same time period, an increase of 24%.  As a result, over the time that the Fed's dynamic duo waged their phony war against the asset bubbles of the mid 2000's, the price of gold increased from $395 to $623 per ounce.

The truth is that increases in money supply and bank lending aren't curtailed very much by a Fed Funds target rate that is increased very slowly from a starting point that is decidedly below the rate of inflation. Currently, Fed Funds is decidedly below the rate of inflation, and is likely to stay there for some time. Therefore, investors need not necessarily fear a run on gold once Bernanke eventually lifts rates from zero percent...if he ever makes that decision.  

In addition, investors should keep their eyes on the damage created by these ultra low rates. An enormously destructive housing bubble grew out 1% and 1.5%  rates that were in place from November of 2002 through August of 2004. In our current round, the Fed has kept interest rates near zero since December 2008...more than two years! Why should we expect a different outcome this time around?

A key point to mention is that the credit crisis and collapse of the housing market were not caused by a the Fed bringing rates to 5.25%. Rather real estate prices simply went too high because rates were too low in the years prior. The low rates were the problem. And once home prices became unaffordable to most consumers, banks then became insolvent because millions defaulted on mortgages. After their capital became significantly eroded they were subsequently unable to lend.

The bottom line is that if Bernanke should ever attempt a "dismount" from massive monetary easing, investors should take solace not because he is likely to "stick" the landing, but because the exercise will likely be so futile that owners of gold should continue to shine.



Tags:  Ben Bernankefedgoldinterest rates
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Commodities, Dollar, Interest Rates, Chinese Inflation and U.S. deficits
Posted by Staff on 12/13/2010 at 3:01 PM
Peter comments on commodities, the dollar, interest rates, Chinese inflation, and U.S. deficits

Tags:  Chinacommoditiesdeficitsdollargoldinterest rates
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Gold's Allure Tied to Interest Rates
Posted by Michael Pento on 11/17/2010 at 12:51 PM

The continued bull market in the price of gold has been one of the staple discussions in the financial media for the better part of a decade. But, in that time, almost no consensus has emerged to explain the phenomenon. If you ask ten Wall Street pundits to explain the upward movement, you will most likely get nearly ten different answers. 

While most logically identify global currency debasement as a primary cause, others say that gold is driven by: fear of economic uncertainty, central bank gold hording, international political conflict, or the ebb and flow of the Indian wedding season. The truth is the main drivers for the price of gold are the level and direction of real interest rates and the intrinsic value of the dollar.

Most people (outside of Washington) understand that printing money dilutes the value of the currency being printed. When a currency drops, the nominal price of hard assets in that currency generally rises.  But the relationship between gold and monetary expansion is not that simple.

The act of central bank money printing temporarily drives down nominal interest rates, while at the same time creating inflation and lowering the intrinsic value of the currency that is printed. Therefore, subtracting rising rates of inflation from falling nominal interest rates results in a falling real rate of interest. Once real rates become negative, the liability of holding gold, which offers no interest income, disappears. The more real interest rates fall, the greater incentive for investors to own gold.

However, sometimes other factors come into play that prevent a debased currency from losing value against other currencies. It all depends on the actions taken by other central bankers. Hence, investors cannot divine the direction of gold simply by determining the state of nominal interests rates in the US or by the dollar’s value relative to other currencies.

This brings up two questions; should owners of gold fear rising yields on Treasuries, or a rise of the dollar against, say, the euro? The answers to those questions can be found by examining whether the rise in nominal rates is also accompanied by rising real interest rates and if the rise in the dollar is due to a decrease in its supply.

For example, back in January of 1977, the dollar price of gold began an epic bull market, which ended just prior to February of 1980. Gold soared from $135 dollars per ounce to just under $860 per ounce during those three years. This move occurred while nominal rates were rapidly rising. The yield on the Ten Year Treasury soared from 7.2% in January of 1977 to 12.4% in February of 1980. But the increase in yield was just in nominal terms because the YoY change in the CPI jumped from 5.2% in January of 1977 to 14.2% in February of 1980. During that bull market in gold, real interest rates fell from a positive 2% to a negative 1.8%, despite the fact that nominal rates increased by 520 bps.

Yesterday’s release from the BLS showed the October Producer Price Index increased by .4%, while the YoY increase in PPI jumped 4.3%. However, the Fed will most likely seize upon the month-over-month change in the core rate, which registered a negative .6%. Bernanke will overlook the largest YoY increase in PPI since May and instead worry about the deflation anticipated by core prices. That means he will find cover to print more money, thus - at least for now - keeping nominal rates from rapidly rising, while pushing inflation even higher. Real interest rates should fall and the price of gold should thus remain in its secular bull market. In my opinion, there is little danger that nominal rates will outpace the increase in the rate of inflation until the Fed unwinds its balance sheet like it did under Paul Volcker 30 years ago.

Likewise, an increase in the value of the dollar against another currency likely indicates that the central bank of the other country is lowering real interest rates and diluting the purchasing power of that currency at a greater pace than the Fed. It does not necessarily indicate that the supply of dollars is contracting or that our currency's intrinsic value has increased.

There will come a time when the Fed’s pursuit of inflation causes a massive crisis of confidence in our bond market and in our currency. A sudden and dramatic spike in nominal rates would send real interest rates rising and cause devastation in most markets, including gold. However, because the Fed’s likely answer to such a crisis would be to create more inflation, any pullback in gold should be muted as compared to stocks, bonds, and other commodities.

 

For in-depth analysis of this and other investment topics, subscribe to Euro Pacific's Global Investor Newsletter. Click here for your free subscription. 

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Be sure to pick up a copy of Peter Schiff's hit economic fable, How an Economy Grows and Why It Crashes.
 

Tags:  CPIdollargoldinflationinterest ratesPPI
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Should Gold Fear Higher Interest Rates
Posted by Michael Pento on 11/16/2010 at 3:47 PM

If you ask 10 Wall Street pundits what drives the price of gold you will most likely get a variety of different answers. Some will say its fear or uncertainty, while others may claim it is international strife or the Indian wedding season. However, the truth is the main driver for the price of gold is the level of real interest rates.

The act of central bank money printing serves to temporarily drive down nominal interest rates while at the same time creating inflation. Therefore, subtracting rising rates of inflation from falling nominal interest rates, results in falling real rates of interest. Once real rates become negative, the liability of holding gold then converts to becoming an asset. The more real interest rates fall the greater the need on the part of investors to own gold.

This begs the question; should gold fear rising yields on Treasuries? The answer to that is, of course, only if the rise in nominal rates is also accompanied by rising real interest rates. For example, back in January of 1977, the dollar price of gold began an epic bull market, which ended just prior to February of 1980. Gold soared from $135 dollars per ounce to just under $860 per ounce during those three years. However, this move occurred while nominal rates were rapidly rising. The yield on the Ten Year Treasury soared from 7.2% in January of 1977 to 12.4% in February of 1980. But the increase in yield was just in nominal terms because the YOY change in the CPI jumped from 5.2% in January of 1977 to 14.2% in February of 1980. During that bull market in the price of gold, real interest rates went from a positive 2% to a negative 1.8%, despite that fact that nominal rates increased by 520 bps.

Today’s release from the BLS showed the October Producer Price Index increased by .4%, while the YOY increase in PPI jumped 4.3%. However, the Fed will most likely seize upon the month over month change in the core rate, which registered a negative .6%. Bernanke will overlook the largest YOY increase in PPI since May 2010 and instead worry about the deflation anticipated by core prices. That means he will find cover to print more money, thus—at least for now—keeping nominal rates from rapidly rising, while pushing inflation even higher. Real interest rates should fall and the price of gold will increase. In my opinion, there is no danger of having nominal rates outpacing the increase in the rate of inflation until the Fed unwinds its balance sheet a la Paul Volcker.

There will be a time when the Fed’s pursuit of inflation causes a crisis of confidence in our bond market and in our currency. A sudden and dramatic spike in nominal rates would send real interest rates rising and cause devastation in most markets including gold. However, the pullback in gold should be muted as compared to stocks, bonds and other commodities. Precisely because the Fed’s answer to that crisis would be to create more inflation.



Tags:  goldinflationinterest rates
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