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Yellen: Where No Man Has Gone Before
Posted by Peter Schiff on 07/25/2014 at 10:38 AM

Although Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen said nothing new in her carefully manicured semi-annual testimony to Congress last week, her performance there, taken within the context of a lengthy profile in the New Yorker (that came to press at around the same time), should confirm that she is very different from any of her predecessors in the job. Put simply, she is likely the most dovish and politically leftist Fed Chair in the Central Bank's history.  

 

While her tenure thus far may feel like a seamless extension of the Greenspan/Bernanke era, investors should understand how much further Yellen is likely to push the stimulus envelope into unexplored territory. She does not seem to see the Fed's mission as primarily to maintain the value of the dollar, promote stable financial markets, or to fight inflation. Rather she sees it as a tool to promote progressive social policy and to essentially pick up where formal Federal social programs leave off.

 

Despite her good intentions, the Fed's blunt instrument policy tools of low interest rates and money supply expansion can do nothing to raise real incomes, lift people out of poverty, or create jobs. Instead these moves deter savings and capital investment, prevent the creation of high paying jobs, and increase the cost of living, especially for the poor (They are also giving rise to greater international financial tensions, which I explore more deeply in my just released quarterly newsletter). On the "plus" side, these policies have created huge speculative profits on Wall Street. Unfortunately, Yellen does not seem to understand any of this. But she likely has a greater understanding of how the Fed's monetization of government debt (through Quantitative Easing) has prevented the government from having to raise taxes sharply or cut the programs she believes are so vital to economic health. 

 

But as these policies have also been responsible for pushing up prices for basic necessities such as food, energy, and shelter, these "victories" come at a heavy cost. Recent data shows that consumers are paying more for the things they need and spending less on the things they want. But Yellen simply brushes off this evidence as temporary noise.

 

In her Congressional appearances, Yellen made clear that the end of the Fed's six-year experiment with zero percent interest rates is nowhere in sight. In fact, the event is less identifiable today than it was before she took office and before the economy supposedly improved to the point where such support would no longer be needed. The Bernanke Fed had given us some guidance in the form of a 6.5% unemployment rate that could be considered a milestone in the journey towards policy normalization. Later on these triggers became targets, which then became simply factors in a larger decision-making process. But Yellen has gone farther, disregarding all fixed thresholds and claiming that she will keep stimulating as long as she believes that there is "slack" in the economy (which she defines as any level of unemployment above the level of "full employment.") Where that mythical level may be is open for interpretation, which is likely why she prefers it.

 

The Fed's traditional "dual mandate" seeks to balance the need for job creation and price stability. But Yellen clearly sees jobs as her top priority. Any hope that she will put these priorities aside and move forcefully to fight inflation when it officially flares up should be abandoned.

 

These sentiments are brought into focus in the New Yorker piece, in which she unabashedly presents herself as a pure disciple of John Maynard Keynes and an opponent of Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and Alan Greenspan, figures who are widely credited with having led the rightward movement of U.S. economic policy in the last three decades of the 20th Century. (Yellen refers to that era as "a dark period of economics.")

 

Perhaps the most telling passage in the eleven-page piece is an incident in the mid-1990s (related by Alan Blinder who was then a Fed governor along with Janet Yellen). The two were apparently successful in nudging then Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan into a more dovish position on monetary policy. When the shift was made, the two agreed "...we might have just saved 500,000 jobs." The belief that central bankers are empowered with the ability to talk jobs in and out of existence is a dangerous delusion. As her commitment to social justice and progressivism is a matter of record, there is ample reason to believe that extremist monetary policy will be in play at the Yellen Fed for the duration of her tenure.

 

For the present, other central bankers have helped by taking the sting out of the Fed's bad policy. On July 16 the Wall Street Journal reported that the Chinese government had gone on a torrid buying spree of U.S. Treasury debt, adding $107 billion through the first five months of 2014. This works out to an annualized pace of approximately $256 billion per year, or more than three times the 2013 pace (when the Chinese government bought "just" $81 billion for the entire calendar year). The new buying pushed Chinese holdings up to $1.27 trillion.

 

At the same time, Bloomberg reports that other emerging market central banks (not counting China) bought $49 billion in Treasuries in the 2nd Quarter of 2014, more than any quarter since 3rd Quarter of 2012. These purchases come on the heels of the mysterious $50 billion in purchases made by a shadowy entity operating out of Belgium in the early months of this year (see story).

 

So it's clear that while the Fed is tapering its QE purchases of Treasury bonds, other central banks have more than picked up the slack. Not only has this spared the U.S economy from a rise in long-term interest rates, which would likely prick the Fed-fueled twin bubbles in stocks and real estate, but it has also enabled the U.S. to export much of its inflation.As long as this continues, the illusion that Yellen can keep the floodgates open without unleashing high inflation will gain traction. She may feel that there is no risk to continue indefinitely.

 

But as the global economic status quo is facing a major crisis (as is examined in this newsletter), there is reason to believe that we may be on the cusp of a major realignment of global priorities. Despite her good intentions, if Yellen and her dovish colleagues do not receive the kind of open-ended international support that we have enjoyed thus far in 2014, the full inflationary pain of her policies will fall heaviest on those residents of Main Street for whom she has expressed such deep concern. 

 

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






Tags:  central bankersJanet YellenNew YorkerprogressiveQuantitative Easingstimulus
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Posted by Peter Schiff on 01/31/2014 at 11:28 AM

The idea that Ben Bernanke deserves credit for saving the nation from an economic catastrophe omits two possibilities: that we haven't really recovered from anything, and that his policies have laid the foundation for even bigger problems ahead.

The actions taken by the Bernanke Fed have no precedent, and he has admitted to flying blind. But the bond buying (known as quantitative easing, or QE for short) that created feel-good asset bubbles in stocks, bonds and real estate was the easy part. To complete the process, the Fed must conjure an exit strategy to dispose of the nearly $4 trillion of assets that it now holds without puncturing any of the bubbles that its buying spree created.

Bernanke is like a novice airline pilot who has managed to take off and fly steady. The passengers celebrate the smooth ride, but he (or, more accurately, Janet Yellen) still has to land the plane. On that front the Fed remains clueless.

QE has provided the ultra-low interest rates that juice corporate profits, push up stock prices and lower the cost of debt finance for highly leveraged corporations, overstretched home owners and a hopelessly indebted federal government. These stimulants masquerade as real economic heath but have created a dangerous dependency.

The Fed is the biggest buyer of mortgages and Treasury debt, yet no one questions the likely outcome when the Fed stops buying. With no entity capable of matching the Fed's buying power, interest rates will surely rise. But our bubble-dependent economy can no longer tolerate such headwinds.

While many speak about how Bernanke engineered the apparent turnaround, in reality he only had one tool, the printing press. And when the going got rough, Ben started printing … and printing.

He was lucky that the inflation he unleashed pushed up asset prices far more noticeably than it did consumer prices. But eventually, the inflation the Fed so eagerly seeks will hit consumers hard.

When it does, Bernanke's successor will be powerless to fight it without sparking a financial crisis that is even more severe than the one he supposedly defeated.



Tags:  Ben Bernankequantitative easing
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Too Big To Pop
Posted by Peter Schiff on 01/06/2014 at 10:41 AM

Most economic observers are predicting that 2014 will be the year in which the United States finally shrugs off the persistent malaise of the Great Recession. As we embark on this sunny new chapter, we may ask what wisdom the five-year trauma has delivered. Some big thinkers have declared that the episode has forever tarnished freewheeling American capitalism and the myth of Wall Street invincibility. In contrast, I believe that the episode has, for the moment, established supreme confidence in the powers of monetary policy to keep the economy afloat and to keep a floor under asset prices, even in the worst of circumstances. This represents a dramatic change from where we were in the beginning of 2008, and unfortunately gives us the false confidence needed to sail blindly into the next crisis.

Although the media likes to forget, there was indeed a strong minority of bearish investors who did not drink the Goldilocks Kool-Aid of the pre-crisis era. As the Dow moved up in 2006 and 2007 so did gold, even though a rising gold price was supposed to be a sign of economic uncertainty. The counter intuitive gold surge in those years resulted from growing concern among a committed minority that an economic crisis was looming. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis in 2009 and 2010, gold shifted into an even higher gear when those investors became doubly convinced that the extraordinary monetary measures devised by the Fed to combat the recession would fail to stop the economic free fall and would instead kick off a new era of inflation and dollar weakness. This caused many who had been gold naysayers and economic cheerleaders to reluctantly jump on the gold band wagon as well.

But three years later, after a period of monetary activism that went far beyond what most bears had predicted, the economy has apparently turned the corner. The Dow has surged to record levels, inflation (at least the way it is currently being measured) and interest rates have stayed relatively low, and the dollar has largely maintained its value. Ironically, many of those former Nervous Nellies, who correctly identified the problems in advance, have thrown in the towel and concluded that their fears of out of control monetary policy were misplaced. While many of those who had always placed their faith in the Fed (but who had failed - as did Fed leadership - from seeing the crisis in advance) are more confident than ever that the Central Bank can save us from the worst.

A primary element of this new faith is that the Fed can sustain any number of asset bubbles if it simply supplies enough air in the form of freshly minted QE cash and zero percent interest. It's as if the concept of "too big to fail" has evolved into the belief that some bubbles are too big to pop. The warnings delivered by those of us who still understand the negative consequences of such policy have been silenced by the triumphant Dow.

The proof of this shift in sentiment can be seen in the current gold market. If the conditions of 2013 (in which the Federal Government serially failed to control a runaway debt problem, while the Federal Reserve persisted with an $85 billion per month bond buying program and signaled zero interest rates for the foreseeable future)could have been described to a 2007 investor, their conclusions would have most likely been obvious: back up the truck and buy gold. Instead, gold tumbled more than 27% over the course of the year. And despite the fact that 2013 was the first down year for gold in 13 years, one would be hard pressed now to find any mainstream analyst who describes the current three year lows as a buying opportunity. Instead, gold is the redheaded stepchild of the investment world.

This change can only be explained by the growing acceptance of monetary policy as the magic elixir that Keynesians have always claimed it to be. This blind faith has prevented investors from seeing the obvious economic crises that may lay ahead. Over the past five years the economy has become increasingly addicted to low interest rates, which underlies the recent surge in stock prices. Low borrowing costs have inflated corporate profits and have made possible the wave of record stock buybacks. The same is true of the real estate market, which has been buoyed by record low interest rates and a wave of institutional investors using historically easy financing to buy single-family houses in order to rent to average Americans who can no longer afford to buy.

But somehow investors have failed to grasp that the low interest rates are the direct result of the Fed's Quantitative Easing program, which most assume will be wound down in this year. In order to maintain the current optimism, one must assume that the Fed can exit the bond buying business (where it is currently the largest player) without pushing up rates to the point that these markets are severely impacted. This ascribes almost superhuman powers to the Fed. But that type of faith is now the norm.

Market observers have taken the December Fed statement, in which it announced its long-awaited intention to begin tapering (by $10 billion per month), as proof that the dangers are behind us, rather than ahead. They argue that the QE has now gone away without causing turmoil in the markets or a spike in rates. But this ignores the fact that the taper itself has not even begun, and that the Fed has only committed to a $10 billion reduction later this month. In fact, it is arguable that monetary policy is looser now than it was before the announcement.

Based on nothing but pure optimism, the market believes that the Fed can somehow contract its $4 trillion balance sheet without pushing up rates to the point where asset prices are threatened, or where debt service costs become too big a burden for debtors to bear. Such faith would have been impossible to achieve in the time before the crash, when most assumed that the laws of supply and demand functioned in the market for mortgage and government debt. Now we "know" that the demand is endless. This mistakes temporary geo-political paralysis and financial sleepwalking for a fundamental suspension of reality.

The more likely truth is that this widespread mistake will allow us to drift into the next crisis. Now that the European Union has survived its monetary challenge, (the surging euro was one of the surprise stories of 2013), and the developing Asian economies have no immediate plans to stop their currencies from rising against the dollar, there is little reason to expect that the dollar will rally in the coming years. In fact, there has been little notice taken of the 5% decline in the dollar index since a high in July. Similarly, few have sounded alarm bells about the surge in yields of Treasury debt, with 10-year rates flirting with 3% for the first time in two years.

If interest rates rise much further, to perhaps 4% or 5%, the stock and real estate markets will be placed under pressure, and the Fed and the other "Too Big to Fail" banks will see considerable losses on their portfolios of Treasury and mortgage-backed bonds. Such developments could trigger widespread economic turmoil, forcing the Fed to expand its QE purchases. Such an embarrassing reversal would add to selling pressure on the dollar, and might potentially trigger an exodus of foreign investment and an increase in import prices. I believe that nothing can prevent these trends from continuing to the point where a crisis will be reached. It's extremely difficult to construct a logical argument that avoids this outcome, but that hasn't stopped our best and brightest forecasters from doing just that. 

So while the hallelujah chorus is ringing in the New Year with a full-throated crescendo, don't be surprised by sour notes that will bubble to the top with increasing frequency. Ultimately the power of monetary policy to engineer a real economy will be proven to be just as ridiculous as the claims that housing prices must always go up.

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:  federal reservequantitative easing
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Ben's Rocket to Nowhere
Posted by Peter Schiff on 11/26/2013 at 7:44 PM

Herd mentality can be as frustrating as it is inexplicable. Once a crowd starts moving, momentum can be all that matters and clear signs and warnings are often totally ignored. Financial markets are currently following this pattern with respect to the unshakable belief that the Federal Reserve is ready, willing, and most importantly, able, to immediately execute a wind down of its quantitative easing program. How this notion became so deeply entrenched is a mystery, but the stampede it has sparked is getting more violent, and irrational, by the day.

The release last week of the minutes of the October Fed policy meeting was a case study in dangerous collective delusion. Although the report did not contain a shred of hard information about the certainty or timing of a "tapering" campaign, most observers read into it definitive proof that the Fed would jump into action by December or March at the latest.

But while the Fed was gaining much attention by saying nothing, the Chinese made a blockbuster statement that was summarily ignored. Last week, a deputy governor of the People's Bank of China said that buying foreign exchange reserves was now no longer in China's national interest. The implication that China may no longer be accumulating U.S. government debt would amount to the "mother of all tapers" and could create a clear and present danger to the American economy. But the story barely rated a mention in the American media. 

Instead, the current environment is all about the imminent Fed taper: the process of winding down the Fed's monthly purchases of $85 billion of treasury debt and mortgage-backed securities. However, the crowd fails to grasp that the Fed has embarked on an impossible mission. The herd is blissfully unaware that the Fed may not be able to reverse, or even slow, the course of QE without immediately sending the economy back into recession.

In an interview this week, outgoing Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke likened the QE program to the first stage in a multiple stage rocket that gets the spacecraft off the ground and accelerates it to the point where it is close to achieving permanent orbit. Like a first stage that has spent its fuel and has become dead weight, Bernanke seems to concede that QE is no longer capable of providing positive thrust, and as a result can now be jettisoned (like a first stage) so that the remainder of the spacecraft/economy can now move higher and faster. The Chairman's nifty metaphor provides some inspiring visuals, but is completely flawed in just about every way imaginable.

In real rocketry, when the first stage separates, it falls back to earth and is no longer a burden to the remainder of the ship. Subsequent booster rockets (which in economic terms Bernanke imagines would be continuation of zero interest rate policies) build on the gains made by the first stage. But the almost $4 trillion in assets that the Fed has accumulated as a result of the QE program will not simply vaporize into the stratosphere like a discarded rocket engine. In fact it will remain tethered to the rest of the economy with chains of solid lead.

In the process of accumulating the world's largest cache of Treasuries, the Fed has become the most important player in that market. I believe the Fed can't stop accumulating and dispose of its inventory without creating major market disruptions that will drag the economy down.

This would be true even if the economic rocket were actually approaching escape velocity. In reality, we are still sitting on the launch pad. By keeping interest rates far below market levels and by channeling newly created dollars directly into the financial markets, the QE program has resulted in major gains in the stock, real estate, and bond markets. Many have argued that all three are currently in bubble territory. Yet to the casual observer, these gains are proof of America's surging economic vitality.

But things look very different on Main Street, where the employment picture has not kept pace with the rising prices of financial assets. The work force participation rate continues to shrink (recently falling back to levels last seen in 1978),real wages have declined, and since the end of 2009 the temporary workforce has grown at a pace that is 14 times faster than those with permanent jobs. Americans are driving less, vacationing less, and switching to lower quality products and services in order to deal with falling purchasing power. 

But the herd is closely watching the Fed's rocket show and does not understand that stocks and housing will likely fall, and bond yields rise steeply, once the QE is removed. The crowd is similarly ignoring the significance of the Chinese announcement.

Over the past decade or so, the People's Bank of China has been one of the largest buyers of U.S. Treasuries (after various U.S. government entities that are essentially nationalizing U.S. debt). China currently sits on $1 trillion or more in U.S. bond obligations.

So, just as many expect that the #1 buyer of Treasuries (the Fed) will soon begin paring back its purchases, the top foreign holder may cease buying, thereby opening a second front in the taper campaign. This should cause any level-headed observer to conclude that the market for such bonds will fall dramatically, causing severe upward pressure on interest rates. But the possibility is not widely discussed.

Also left out of the discussion is the degree to which remaining private demand for Treasuries is a function of the Fed's backstop (the Greenspan put, renewed by Bernanke, and expected to be maintained by Yellen). The ultra-low yields currently offered by long-term Treasuries are only acceptable to investors so long as the Fed removes the risk of significant price declines. If the private buyers, the Fed, China (and other central banks that may likely follow China's lead) refuse to buy Treasuries, who will take on the slack?  Absent the Fed's backstop, prices will likely have to fall considerably to offer an acceptable risk/reward dynamic to investors. The problem is that any yield high enough to satisfy investors may be too high for the government or the economy to afford.

Little thought seems to be given to how the economy would react to 5% yields on 10 year Treasuries (a modest number in historical standards). The herd assumes that our stronger economy could handle such levels. In reality, 5% rates would likely deeply impact the financial sector, prick the bubbles in housing and stocks, blow a hole in the federal budget, and cause sizable losses in the value of the Fed's bond holdings. These developments would require the Fed to devise a rocket with even more power than the one it is now thinking of discarding.

That is why when it comes to tapering, the Fed is all bark and no bite. In fact, toward the end of last week, Dennis Lockhart, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, said that the Fed "won't taper its bond-buying until the economy is ready."He must know that the economy will never be ready. It's like a drug addict claiming that he'll stop using when he no longer needs them to stay high.

But the market understands none of this. Instead it is operating under dangerous delusions that are creating sky-high valuations for the latest social media craze, undermining the investment case for gold and other inflation hedges, and encouraging people to ignore growing risks that are hiding in plain sight.

This is not unusual in market history. When the spell is finally broken and markets wake up to reality, we will scratch our heads and wonder how we could ever have been so misguided.

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:  Ben Bernankequantitative easing
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Janet Yellen's Mission Impossible
Posted by Peter Schiff on 11/08/2013 at 1:53 PM

Most market watchers expect that Janet Yellen will grapple with two major tasks once she takes the helm at the Federal Reserve in 2014: deciding on the appropriate timing and intensity of the Fed's quantitative easing taper strategy, and unwinding the Fed's enormous $4 trillion balance sheet (without creating huge losses in the value of its portfolio). In reality both assignments are far more difficult than just about anyone understands or admits.

Unlike just about every other economist, I knew that the Fed would not taper in September because the economy is still fundamentally addicted to stimulus. The signs of recovery that have caused investors and politicians to bubble with enthusiasm are just QE in disguise. Take away the QE and the economy would likely tilt back into an even more severe recession than the one we experienced before QE1 was launched

Given the Fed's failure to initiate a tapering campaign in recent months (when it was highly expected) it is surprising that most people still believe that it will pull the trigger in the first quarter of 2014. But if the Fed could not take action in September, with Ben Bernanke at the helm and the nation as yet untraumatized by the debt ceiling drama and Obamacare, why should we expect tougher treatment from Janet Yellen? This is particularly true when you consider Yellen's reputation as an extreme dove and the uninspiring economic data that has come in recent months.  

Rather than explicitly describing the possibility of a reduction of asset purchases, recent Fed statements have merely said that policy would be "adjusted" according to incoming data. It has never said what direction that adjustment may take. Yet somehow the market has concluded that an imminent reduction is the only possibility. But the opposite conclusion is more likely. Recession avoidance is really the Fed's only concern and it will always come down on the side of accommodation. Therefore an expectation for a 2014 taper is just wishful thinking.

But that does not mean that QE will go on forever. It will come to an end, but not because the Fed wants it to, but because the currency markets give it no choice. A dollar crisis would ultimately force the Fed's hand, and the longer the Fed succeeds in postponing the inevitable, the more damage its policy mistakes will inflict on our economy.

Yellen's second task will be equally impossible. Since the QE campaign began in 2010 the Fed has more than quadrupled the amount of bonds that it holds on its balance sheet,to more than $4 trillion of Treasury and mortgage-backed bonds. To accumulate this massive cache, the Fed has become by far the largest buyer in both markets. Its purchases have pushed up the prices of those bonds and have kept long term interest rates low for both consumers and businesses.

When the QE was first launched, Ben Bernanke tamped down fears of the program by saying the Fed would one day sell the bonds that it was buying. But as the Fed's balance sheet ballooned, many in the market began fearing that the unwinding of these trades would crush the market for Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities. Bernanke soon allayed these fears by saying that the Fed would not actively sell, but would simply allow bonds to mature. But this is just a convenient fiction.

If stock or real estate prices were to enter into bubble territory (which I believe has already happened), or if inflation were ever to surge past the Fed's low target range (which I believe is certain to happen), then the Fed would have to sell bonds to get in front of these trends.

Through Operation Twist, the Fed has already swapped a very large portion of its short-term bonds for long-term bonds. The slow process of waiting for bonds to mature is unlikely to slow down asset bubbles or inflation. The argument also does not account for the fact that the Treasury will have to sell new bonds in order to retire the principle on the maturing bonds. Since the Fed is the primary buyer of Treasury bonds, the Fed would have to add to its balance sheet when it's trying to shrink it. Such a cycle is just a debt rollover that leaves the size of the Fed's balance sheet unchanged.

Unless other buyers of Treasuries or MBS can be found to replace the Fed's prodigious buying, the Fed will remain the only game in town. Given these realities, how can we possibly expect Janet Yellen to actually diminish the amount of assets the Fed holds? She won't be able to do it and any expectations to the contrary are pure fantasy.

So we should not be asking when Ms. Yellen will begin withdrawing stimulus and shrinking the Fed's balance sheet. Instead we should be asking how the markets will react when she runs out of excuses for delaying the taper, or ultimately decides to expand QE rather than contract it.

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:  Janet Yellenquantitative easing
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The Taper That Wasn't
Posted by Peter Schiff on 09/18/2013 at 9:22 PM

The Fed's failure today to announce some sort of tapering of its QE program, despite the consensus of an overwhelming percentage of economists who expected action, once again reveals the degree to which mainstream analysts have overestimated the strength of our current economy. The Fed understands, as the market seems not to, that the current "recovery" could not survive without continuation of massive monetary stimulus. Mainstream economists have mistaken the symptoms of the Fed's monetary expansion, most notably rising stock and real estate prices, as signs of real and sustainable growth. But the current asset price bubbles have nothing to do with the real economy. To the contrary, they are setting up for a painful correction that will likely be worse than the one we experienced five years ago.

Given the strong anticipation for a taper announcement, today's relief rally should come as no surprise. However, the Fed's inaction should be perceived by many as an admission that the economy is fundamentally weak. Once that possibility takes hold, today's euphoria is likely to dissipate. Perhaps the Fed's inaction may cause many to wonder if the economy is not as strong as they believed. This could ultimately lead to an even bigger sell off than what we would have seen today if the Fed had come through with a taper announcement. 

The Fed knows that the appearance of economic health would evaporate if stimulus were withdrawn. But like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, it also knows that the markets can't handle the truth. Over the past year Ben Bernanke and other top Fed officials have tried mightily to communicate to the markets that no decisions had been made on the future and timing of QE reductions and that its moves would depend on the data. On many occasions they even hedged the automatic nature of their data triggers and moved the goal posts that supposedly guided their policy. But as a result of this continuous obfuscation, the Fed lost control of its message.

Despite its efforts toward vagueness, the markets nevertheless made definite conclusions.  In addition to the overwhelming consensus of economists who had predicted a taper announcement for today, many even offered precise measures of how big the taper would be (median forecasts were that bond purchases would be trimmed by between $10 and $15 billion per month). As the Fed had not dashed these expectations strongly enough, today's non-event comes as a surprise to most. However, as I have mentioned many times in the past, the Fed has checked into a monetary Roach Motel. Getting out will be infinitely harder than getting in. In fact it will be likely impossible to get out without tipping the country back into recession.

If stock and home prices continue to rise, and if the unemployment picture appears to brighten as a result of a shrinking workforce, the Fed may have an increasingly difficult time explaining why they are failing to cut back on a policy that many mistakenly assume is no longer needed. Look for the rhetorical pretzels to get ever more complex and the goalposts that would trigger an action to become completely mobile.

But the reality is that the economy will never regain true health as long as the stimulus is being delivered. Despite trillions already administered, the workforce is shrinking, energy usage is down, the trade balance is widening, savings are depleting, inflation is showing up in inconvenient places, debt is up, and real wages are declining. So while QE has succeeded in hiding the truth, it hasn't accomplished anything of substance. Unfortunately, the Fed is only interested in the headlines.

We also must understand that even if the Fed were to deliver a small reduction in bond purchases, such a move would change nothing. The Fed would still be continuously adding to its enormous balance sheet while presenting no credible plans to actually withdraw the liquidity. As I have pointed out many times, it simply can't do so without pushing the economy back into recession. Although this would be the right thing to do, you can rest assured that it won't happen.

We should also recall where this all began. When QE1 was first launched Bernanke talked about an exit strategy. At the time I maintained the Fed had no exit strategy. But now questions about an exit strategy have been replaced by much more delicate taper talk. But easing up on the accelerator without ever hitting the brakes will not stop the car or turn it around.

Bernanke has maintained that his purchases of government bonds should not be considered "debt monetization" because the Fed only intends to hold the bonds temporarily. In recent years however talk of actively selling bonds in the portfolio have given way to more passive plans to simply hold the bonds to maturity. But this is a convenient fiction. When the bonds mature, the Fed will have little choice but to roll the principal back into Treasury debt, as private bond buyers could not easily absorb the added selling that would be required to repay the Fed in cash. Judged by his own criteria then, Bernanke is now an admitted debt monetizer.

Following this playbook, the Fed will likely maintain the pretense that tapering is a near term possibility and that it has a credible plan on the shelf to bring an end to QE. In reality the Fed is stalling for time and hoping that the economy will inexplicably roar back to life. Unfortunately, hope is not a strategy.

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:  federal reserveFedsquantitative easing
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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. 

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Tags:  economyGDPquantitative easing
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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.

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Tags:  Ben Bernankeeconomyfederal reservehousinginflationquantitative easing
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Flying High on Borrowed Wings
Posted by Peter Schiff on 04/01/2013 at 12:50 PM

After selling off an astounding 56% between October of 2007 and March 2009, the S&P 500 has staged a rally for the ages, surging 120% and recovering all of its lost ground too. This stunning turnaround certainly qualifies as one of the more memorable, and unusual, stock market rallies in history. The problem is that the rally has been underwritten by the Federal Reserve's unconventional monetary policies But for some reason, this belief has not weakened the celebration.

Although the Fed has been tinkering with interest rates and liquidity for a century, nothing in its history could prepare the markets for its activities over the last four years. (See 'The Stimulus Trap' article in my latest newsletter). And while most market analysts give credit to Ben Bernanke for saving the economy and sparking the rally, they have not fully grasped that market performance is now almost completely correlated to Fed activism. A detailed look at stock market movements over the past four years reveals a clear pattern: upward movements are directly tied to the delivery of fresh stimulants from the Fed. Downward movements occur when markets perceive that the deliveries will stop. In other words, the rally is really just a bender. The rest is commentary. 

Since 2008, the Fed has injected fresh cash into the economy with four distinct shots of quantitative easing and has added two kickers of Operation Twist. In recent months, the Fed has dispensed with the pretense of designing, announcing, and serving new rounds of stimulus and is now continuously monetizing over $85 billion per month of Treasury and mortgage-backed debt. The new cash needs a place to go, and stocks, which now often provide higher yields than long term Treasury bonds, and which offer much better protections against inflation, provide the best outlet.

But the four year rally has been punctuated by several sharp and brief drops. It is no coincidence that these episodes occurred during periods in which the delivery of fresh stimulus was in doubt. If the Fed were ever to follow through on its promise to exit the bond market, we believe the current rally would come to an immediate halt. This provides yet another reason to believe that stimulus is now permanent. 

A close look at the performance of the S&P 500 over the past four years tells the story. 

 

 

Source: Yahoo! Finance, Euro Pacific Capital. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. (Click here to enlarge)

In May 2007, with the "Goldilocks" economy of 2005 and 2006 still in control, the S&P finally eclipsed the March 2000 high of the dotcom era. It ultimately hit an all-time high of 1565 in October 2007. But later in the year, things began to unravel when bankruptcies of premier subprime lenders signaled real trouble. A blood bath, though, did not materialize. As late as August 2008, the S&P was trading at nearly 1300, down a less-than-tragic 16% from its high. But when Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and AIG imploded almost simultaneously in September 2008, the markets panicked. Hundreds of billions of dollars of potentially worthless debt now sat on the books of the nation's financial system. No one knew where the next bomb would explode. A stampede thus ensued. (A minor replay of this dynamic just occurred in Cyprus. See my recent commentary for more on this).  

Less than a month later the index fell below 900, a fall of more than 30%. By November 21, the S&P had lost another 100 points. Four days later, the Fed introduced the first round of what would come to be commonly known as "quantitative easing". This consisted of purchasing $600 billion of government-sponsored enterprises debt and mortgage-backed securities. By the day of the announcement (even though nothing had yet been done), the S&P rallied almost 50 points to 851. Still encouraged by the Fed, the S&P was at 931 on January 6, 2009, significantly higher than in late November. 

Despite the first round of asset purchases, the market was still in chaos and had not yet stabilized. By early March, the S&P had lost an additional 25%, bringing total "peak-to-trough" losses at more than 50%. On March 18, 2009, the Fed announced that it was going to expand the size of its stimulus program. This time it really got the stock market's attention. The new guidelines called for a total purchase of $1.25 trillion of MBS and $300 billion of Treasury debt. On the day of the announcement, the S&P opened at 776 and by the time the asset purchases were complete a year later, in March 2010, the S&P was trading at 1171, an increase of 50%.

When the spigots of quantitative easing shut down in the second quarter of 2010 the S&P turned south, declining to a low of 1022 in July (a 13% decline from March). In late August, just before Bernanke delivered his 2010 Jackson Hole speech, in which he would hint at the next round of stimulus (to be later dubbed "QE2"), the S&P was still hovering a full 10% below its post QE1 high. But the expectation of another shot was enough to ignite a rally. When the formal announcement of QE2 came in November, the index had already advanced to 1193. When the program expired at the end of the 2nd quarter of 2011, the S&P stood at 1307, a 25% increase from before Bernanke jawboned the markets at Jackson Hole.

The market response to QE2 was in many ways similar, if less spectacular, than its prior response to QE1. And like the first go-round, the rally ended with the withdrawal of stimulus. In addition, after the cessation of QE2, the markets had to contend with the farce of the U.S. debt ceiling drama. As a result, the S&P declined from a high of 1343 on July 22 to 1123 by August 19, a drop of 16%. This is also the same time period when the U.S. received its downgrade by Standard and Poor's. Ironically, the U.S. eventually got a temporary reprieve from the spotlight when its problems became overshadowed by funding tensions in Greece and Southern Europe, causing the market to once again flock to the so-called "safe haven" of U.S. assets.

The cover from Europe could only go so far. Pressure soon began to build on the Fed to deliver once again. It acted in September 2011 with its "Operation Twist", a program that consisted of buying longer-term treasuries while selling an equal amount of shorter dated paper. Although Twist was advertised as being balance sheet neutral, the short-term sales the Fed made were somewhat offset by the extension of credit lines to Europe and an extended commitment to the 0% interest rate policy that at the time called for an end date of mid-2013. The day the Fed announced Operation Twist, the S&P opened at 1203. By the following April it had reached 1400, a return of 16%.

But once again the stimulus began to fade. In the second quarter of 2012, a sell off took hold, and by June 5, the S&P traded as low as 1277, a decline of 9% since April. Cue the Fed! On June 20, the Fed announced the extension of Operation Twist, sparking a new rally which has continued into 2013. This buoyancy has been maintained, in part, by the announcement of QE3 on September 13, 2012, which also included another extension of the zero interest rate policy until at least mid-2015. By October, Fed governors were already mentioning inflation targets and when QE4 was launched on December 12, they clarified that zero interest rate policies would be in place until unemployment fell below 6.5%. The current leg of the rally has been somewhat non-linear as the election, the Fiscal Cliff, and the endless empty headlines out of Europe have continued to put pressure on the markets. Despite these obstacles, the S&P has rallied past 1500 and on March 5, 2013, it closed at 1538, within shouting distance of its all-time high of 1576 on October 11, 2007.

When the Fed made the first round of asset purchases in November of 2008, the market was still in a state of flux. However, since the system stabilized in mid 2009, there has been a reliable correlation between the timing of the programs and the performance of the markets. This intention was stated explicitly in Ben Bernanke's November 4,2010, Washington Times Op-ed in which he provided the rationale for QE2:

"This approach eased financial conditions in the past and, so far, looks to be effective again. Stock prices rose and long-term interest rates fell when investors began to anticipate the most recent action. Easier financial conditions will promote economic growth. For example, lower mortgage rates will make housing more affordable and allow more homeowners to refinance. Lower corporate bond rates will encourage investment. And higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending."

With the Fed on pace to expand its balance sheet by over $1 trillion in 2013, there can be little doubt that much of that money is headed straight into the stock market. Treasury bonds are still offering negative real yields and so there is less incentive than ever to own government paper.

Recently, the New York Post's Jonathan Trugman pointed out that Citigroup could be considered the poster child of the dubious rally. Since the crisis began, he reports that the Bank has received $45 billion in TARP funding, an additional $45 billion line of credit from the Treasury, and a government guarantee of $300 billion for its own troubled assets. At the same time, its cost of capital (the money it borrows from the Fed) is near zero, while it earns 3% to 5% on mortgages and 12% to 18% on credit cards. But from an operational standpoint, those gifts have failed to create a flourishing, self-sustaining, business. The company had shed almost 100,000 employees from its period of peak employment a few years ago (down to 260,000 employees) and it announced three months ago that an additional 11,000 cuts are to come. But Citi's share price has risen more than 85 percent since June of 2012, despite scant evidence that the company has turned itself around.

But look what all the Fed intervention has wrought. Each time they have intervened the resulting rally has diminished in intensity, and a sell-off has always ensued when the drug wore off. Through the years, the cycle of stimulus administration has quickened pace and has now arrived at a stage where it is continuous. Currently, the Fed is talking about a potential exit strategy, but as we have argued in the past, and as the chart above surely indicates, any withdrawal of stimulus could likely have dire implications for stocks which will not be tolerated by Washington.

Japan has been unsuccessfully trying to inflate its way out of these problems for the past 20 years(see 'Japan's Dangerous Game' in my latest newsletter). Now many of the indebted nations of the developed world seem intent to follow that example. But the monetary experiment of unending stimulus has, up to now, never been tried on a global scale. No one knows when or how it will end, but I believe it will end badly.

Investing in stocks is supposed to be a way to harness real economic growth, not a way to front run stimulus. Our advice for stock investors is to recognize that and to get as far away from artificially induced highs as possible. More fundamentally sound markets exist. We just have to find them.

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:  federal reserveFedsquantitative easing
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No Way Out
Posted by Peter Schiff on 12/14/2012 at 12:54 PM

By upping the ante once again in its gamble to revive the lethargic economy through monetary action, the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee is now compelling the rest of us to buy into a game that we may not be able to afford.  At his press conference this week, Fed Chairman Bernanke explained how the easiest policy stance in Fed history has just gotten that much easier.  First it gave us zero interest rates, then QEs I and II, Operation Twist, and finally "unlimited" QE3. 

Now that those moves have failed to deliver economic health, the Fed has doubled the size of its open-ended money printing and has announced a program of data flexibility that virtually insures that they will never bump into limitations, until it's too late.  Although their new policies will create numerous long-term challenges for the economy, the biggest near-term challenge for the Fed will be how to keep the momentum going by upping the ante even higher their next meeting.

The big news is that the Fed is now doubling the amount of money it is printing. In addition to its ongoing $40 billion per month of mortgage backed securities (to stimulate housing), it will now buy $45 billion per month of Treasury debt. The latter program replaces Operation Twist, which had used proceeds from the sales of short-term treasuries to finance the purchase of longer yielding paper. The problem is the Fed has already blown through its short-term inventory, so the new buying will be pure balance sheet expansion.

To cloak these shockingly accommodative moves in the garb of moderation, the Fed announced that future policy decisions will be put on automatic pilot by pegging liquidity withdrawal to two sets of economic data. By committing to tightening policy if either unemployment falls below 6.5% or if inflation goes higher than 2.5%, Bernanke is likely looking to silence fears that the Fed will stay too loose for too long. While these statistical benchmarks would be too accommodative even if they were rigidly enforced, the goalposts have been specifically designed to be completely movable, and hence essentially meaningless.

Bernanke said that in order to identify signs of true economic health, the Fed will discount unemployment declines that result from diminishing labor participation rates. It is widely known that a good portion of unemployment declines since 2009 have resulted from the many millions of formerly employed Americans who have dropped out of the workforce. But like many other economists, Bernanke failed to identify where he thinks "real" employment is now after factoring out these workers.  So how far down will the unemployment number have to drift before the Fed's triggering mechanism is tripped? No one knows, and that is exactly how the Fed wants it.

A similarly loose criterion exists for the Fed's other goalpost - inflation. Bernanke stated that he will look past current inflation statistics and look primarily at "core inflation expectations." In other words, he is not interested in data that can be demonstrably shown but on much more amorphous forecasts of other economists who have drunk the Fed's Kool-Aid. He also made clear that rising food or energy prices will never fall into the Fed's radar screen of inflation dangers.

For as long as I can remember (and I can remember for quite some time) the Fed has stripped out "volatile" increases in food and energy, preferring the "core" inflation readings. But in the overwhelming majority of cases, the headline numbers are significantly higher than the core. In other words, Bernanke simply prefers to look at lower numbers. In his press conference, he made it clear that the Fed will avoid looking at price changes in "globally traded commodities," that are all highly influenced by inflation.      

These subjective and attenuated criteria give Fed officials far too much leeway to ignore the guidelines that they are putting into place. If the Fed will not react to what inflation is, but rather to what it expects it to be, what will happen if their expectations turn out to be wrong? After all, their track record in forecasting the events of the last decade has been anything but stellar.

The Fed officials repeatedly assured us that there was no housing bubble, even after it burst. Then they assured us the problem was contained to subprime mortgages. Then they assured us that a slowdown in housing would not impact the broader economy. I could go on, but my point is if the Fed is as spectacularly wrong about inflation as it has been about almost everything else, will they be able to slam on the brakes in time to prevent inflation from running out of control? And if so, at what cost to the overall economy?

The Fed is committing to more than a $1 trillion annual expansion in its balance sheet, an amount greater than the total size of its balance sheet as late as 2008. Most forecasters believe that the Fed will have $4 trillion worth of assets on its books by the end of 2013, and perhaps more than $5 trillion by the end of 2014. If conditions arise that require the Fed to withdraw liquidity, the size of the sales that would be required will be massive. Who exactly does the Fed believe will have pockets deep enough to take the other side of the trade? 

As the biggest buyer of treasuries, it is impossible for the Fed to sell without chances of collapsing the market. Surely any other holders of treasuries would want to front-run the Fed, and what buyer would be foolish enough to get in front of the Fed freight train? The bottom line is that it is impossible for the Fed to fight inflation, which is precisely why it will never acknowledge the existence of any inflation to fight. 

But perhaps the most absurd statement in Bernanke's press conference was his contention that the Fed is not engaged in debt monetization because it intends to sell the debt once the economy improves. This is like a thief claiming that he is not stealing your car, because he intends to return it when he no longer needs it. To make the analogy more accurate, there could not be any other cars on the road for him to steal. 

Without the Fed's buying, it would be impossible for the Treasury to finances its debts at rates it can afford. That is precisely why the Fed has chosen to monetize the debt. Of course, officially acknowledging that fact would make the Fed's job that much harder. Without the monetization safety valve, the government would have to make massive immediate cuts in all entitlements and national defense, plus big tax increases on the middle class.

As I wrote when the Fed first embarked on this ill-fated journey, it has no exit strategy. The Fed adopted what amounts to "the roach motel" of monetary policy. If the Fed actually raised rates as a result of one of its movable goal posts being hit, the result could be a much greater financial crisis than the one we lived through in 2008. The bond bubble would burst, interest rates and unemployment would soar, housing prices would collapse, banks would fail, borrowers would default, budget deficits would swell, and there would be no way to finance another round of bailouts for anyone, including the Federal Government itself. 

In order to generate phony economic growth and to "pay" our country's debts in the most dishonest manner possible, the Federal Reserve is 100% committed to the destruction of the dollar. Anyone with wealth in the U.S. dollar should be concerned that economic leadership is firmly in the hands of irresponsible bureaucrats who are committed to an ivory tower version of reality that bears no resemblance to the world as it really is. 



Tags:  Ben Bernankefederal reserveFedsinflationquantitative easingstimulus
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