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Mass Delusion and the Myth of Deleveraging

Prudent Bear’s Doug Noland marks the fifth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers — and the near-collapse of the global financial system — by asking whether the system’s flaws have been fixed.

Blinder, Summers and Monetary Policy
Next Wednesday the Fed will reveal its much-anticipated “tapering” plans. Japan’s Nikkei news service Friday reported that the Administration “was set to name” Larry Summers to replace the retiring chairman Bernanke. And Sunday marks the five-year anniversary of the failure of Lehman Brothers. Well, it does seem “a good time to ponder how the U.S. economy was nearly brought to ruin” as well as an appropriate juncture to focus again on the role of monetary policy.

The following quote is from Alan Blinder, Princeton University professor and former vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve, writing in the Wall Street Journal, September 11, 2013:

“Next Sunday marks the fifth anniversary of the fateful day that investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, signaling the start of a frightening financial meltdown. It’s a good time to ponder how the U.S. economy was nearly brought to ruin. But will we? Or are we already forgetting? Consider the stark historical contrast between the 1930s and this decade: Years of financial shenanigans in the 1920s, some illegal but many just immoral, conspired with a variety of other villains to bring on the Great Depression. Congress and President Roosevelt reacted strongly, virtually remaking the dysfunctional U.S. financial system, including establishing the Securities and Exchange Commission to protect investors, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to protect bank depositors, and much else. The financial beast was comparatively tamed for almost 75 years. Years of disgraceful financial shenanigans in the 2000s, some illegal but many just immoral, brought on the Great Recession with virtually no help from any co-conspirators…Far from being tamed, the financial beast has gotten its mojo back—and is winning. The people have forgotten—and are losing.”

Blinder then laments the lack of reform in “mortgages and securitization,” derivatives, the rating agencies and proprietary trading. “In sum, the Dodd-Frank Act is taking on water fast. What can be done to help Americans remember the horrors that led to its passage?”

With stock prices near all-time highs and home price inflation back on track, who is keen to “remember the horrors”? Why would anyone today be willing to upset the applecart? With Washington fiscal and monetary stimulus having reflated the asset markets, what limited appetite that existed for so-called “financial reform” has virtually disappeared. It would be laughable if it weren’t so maddening. The GSEs still completely dominate mortgage finance, which implies ongoing market distortions. They are basically as big – and as thinly capitalized – as ever. The nation’s goliath banks have grown only more dominant.

With the Fed such a massive buyer of Treasuries, there has been no market discipline imposed upon a spendthrift Washington. A more than doubling of outstanding federal debt in five years (issued at record low market yields) implies broad market distortions and economic maladjustment. At a record (ballpark) $2.4 TN in assets, the historic inflation of hedge fund industry assets runs unabated. This has propelled the number of billionaires, along with skyrocketing prices for art, collectibles and trophy properties. And at $632 TN (from BIS data), the global derivatives marketplace is as unfathomably monstrous as ever. As for the rating agencies, truth be told, they have little impact on the global Credit Bubble.

Mr. Blinder and others would like to believe that we’ve been persevering through a post-Bubble “Great Recession” with parallels to the Great Depression – but with, thankfully, the benefit of wonderfully enlightened policymaking. Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, discussing the 2008 crisis during a Friday morning CNBC appearance, referred to a “massive Credit Bubble that went bust” – “a 100-year flood with excesses building for years and years.”

At risk of sounding “lunatic fringe,” the reality of the matter is we’re suffering these days from a period of mass delusion. U.S. and world GDP have never been greater. Fueled by record securities prices, U.S. household Net Worth stands today at a record level. U.S. total income in rather short order recovered from 2009’s modest decline. Real estate prices around much of the world are at or near record highs. Total outstanding Credit – in the U.S. and globally – is at a record high and inflating.

From a systemic standpoint, the notion of “de-leveraging” has been a myth. And for five years now unprecedented global imbalances have worsened. Chinese and EM Credit Bubbles and attendant Bubble economies have inflated to historic proportions. Indeed, there is a fine line between “frightening financial meltdown” and unleashing history’s greatest inflation of global securities prices. The only justification for the “100-year flood” thesis is wishful thinking.

To be sure, the backdrop has virtually nothing in common with the 1930s. As I’ve written previously, if one is searching for parallels, I would look to the 1920’s. Replaying errors at key junctures during the “Roaring Twenties,” current monetary policymaking would be more appropriately focused on restraining Bubble excess. Instead, it’s the polar opposite approach with ongoing massive experimental inflationary measures.

I’m not a fan of Alan Blinder’s framework, and I am averse to historical revisionism: “The financial beast was comparatively tamed for almost 75 years. Years of disgraceful financial shenanigans in the 2000s, some illegal but many just immoral, brought on the Great Recession with virtually no help from any co-conspirators.”

Seeds for the 2008/09 crisis were being planted many years prior to the “shenanigans in the 2000s.” Vulnerabilities associated with unbridled global Credit, “activist” monetary management and speculative excess go back to Greenspan’s aggressive post-1987 stock market crash reflationary measures. There were the resulting junk bond, M&A and real estate booms and busts that left a deeply impaired U.S. banking system in the early-nineties. There were the (post-reflation) bond market and derivative Bubbles that faltered in 1994. And we cannot forget the spectacular 1990s booms and busts in Mexico, SE Asia, Russia, Brazil and Argentina (to name only a few). The 1998 LTCM collapse exposed egregious leverage and derivative speculations. And then the decade concluded with a wild speculative Bubble in technology stocks and telecom debt. Somehow, in the face of increasingly apparent shortcomings, monetary policy became only more “activist” and experimental.

It’s not credible to look at “2000s” (mortgage finance Bubble) excesses in isolation. “No help from any co-conspirators”? Did not Bernanke’s “government printing press” and “helicopter money” monetary ideologies play prominently in the 2002-2007 doubling of mortgage debt? Clearly, loose “money” and monetary policy “activism” were fundamental to the previous 25-year period of serial booms and busts. And each bust provoked aggressive reflationary measures in the name of warding off the “scourge of deflation.” Every reflationary cycle further emboldened and inflated the “global leveraged speculating community,” a dynamic that ensured the scope of subsequent booms became bigger and more systemic. Has contemporary inflationist monetary policy not already proven itself immoral?

The most important unlearned lesson is that Federal Reserve (and global central bank) monetary inflation and market interventions carry great risks. For 25 years the Fed has repeatedly employed post-Bubble reflationary measures while inflating the greatest Credit Bubble in history. Back in the 1960s, it was said that Alan Greenspan associated the severity of the Great Depression with the Federal Reserve repeatedly placing “Coins in the Fusebox” throughout the Roaring Twenties Bubble period.

The latest talk is that the FOMC may be considering adding a lower bound inflation rate target to its list of factors for setting monetary policy. The experimental Fed last year employed the use of an unemployment rate target. So, the Fed could now perhaps state its intention of sticking with aggressive monetary accommodation so long as either unemployment is above a certain rate or inflation remained below a targeted level. The Fed continues its stroll down a very slippery slope.

Some thoughts
This is just an excerpt from a longer article that should be read in its entirety. I left out a lot of good stuff to make this post manageable.

Noland gets it right: nothing was fixed after 2008, just as nothing was fixed after the bursting of the tech stock (2000) and junk bond (1989) bubbles. The response has been the same each time, only progressively more aggressive and experimental. That the financial, economic and political mainstream think that the system has been reset to “normal” because asset prices are back where they were just before the 2008 crash is, well, crazy. With financial imbalances bigger than ever before – and continuing to expand – the only possible outcome is an even bigger crash.

Each of the previous bubbles in this cycle have been unique so there’s no reason to expect this one to look like the others, but there is reason to believe that this one, centering on government bonds, will be more far-reaching when it bursts. The tech stock crash mainly impacted speculators, while the housing bust primarily hit the financial sector. But the bursting of the government bond bubble will push up interest rates, which means everyone’s cost of money will rise, maybe dramatically. And with about $400 trillion of interest rate swaps outstanding, sudden interest rate volatility will do to that part of the casino what the mortgage bust did to credit default swaps: blow it up.

35 thoughts on "Mass Delusion and the Myth of Deleveraging"

  1. I’m not so sure that everyone is deluded. Instead, I think most people have chosen to just focus on their own lives. I’ve been in San Francisco and “wine country” lately and have spoken to a number of fairly wealthy people and every one of them believes that there will be another, even bigger, financial crash but no one has an idea as to when. They agree that the financial system is just as big and corrupt as ever and that there is no motivation to change/regulate the system because insiders can game it. But they feel helpless to change it, so they just concentrate on taking care of themselves and their own fulfillment. In the meantime, they tend to not “fight the Fed”. When Bernanke said he wanted to reflate housing they figured the bottom was in and bought real estate. When the Fed invoked ZIRP to encourage risk taking they bought stocks, and when it started buying Treasuries so did they. The only potential problem with that strategy is that “this time might be different”, that the stimulation efforts by the central banks won’t work this time, as they have for so many other cycles. Regardless of theoretical arguments, to not follow the Fed’s/CB’s leads is to “invest” in a low probability historical event – the failure of monetary policy to accomplish its goals (at least for a good 5 years or so).

    What’s so interesting to me is as quantifiable as financial matters are, subjectivity still reigns. Everyone is asking themselves, “When is this bubble going to pop? When will people realize how distorted and unsustainable everything is?” There seems to be no objective answer to that.

  2. Only the grass roots can fix this. All the elite can do is “carry the stick” of inflation as an impetus for the market to monetize bullion and circulate it. Now that bullion floats in real-time, its liquidity is completely scalable. When it’s added as an “economic supplement”, it allows debt-currency (dollars) to be purged back to its nothingness. In goes the good , out goes the bad. Gold (weight) had to float in trade value for this to be possible. The fixed peg had to go, in time, as it did in 1971, in order to set the stage for gold to be re-monetized in real-time when the market was ready. The process must ……… absolutely MUST be bottom-up and organic because of rate of change and the need to maintain the legacy system (USD) in this dual based hybrid of the measure and the weight. Gold is money …. in real-time.

  3. And if that happens – precious metals will tank. Gold and Silver’s catalyst to increase in value is based mainly on inflation. If interest rates skyrocket, it will cause a deflation in the economy and everyone will keep their cash. This will most certainly not go well for metals.

    1. There’s a different reason for owning metals, which is that they have no counterparty risk (if they’re owned in a safe way; I’m not talking GLD here). When parties default on derivatives agreements, loans, or bank deposits, this greatly increases the demand for assets that don’t rely on counterparties.

      Also, deflation doesn’t always mean that people keep their cash. Deflation and hyperinflation can be two sides of the same coin. During the Weimar currency collapse, the real economy, as measured in gold equivalents, was in a tremendous deflation. In gold terms, the money supply as well as prices and wages all dropped catastrophically. Things became extremely inexpensive to purchase, if you owned gold.

      1. You are right. But as life shows us, things aren’t always so black and white. Gold seems to be a safe haven to cover for the selfish “mistakes” of humans (i.e. greed, turmoil, etc.). I say that in a general sense because it doesn’t matter whether we are talking about our country or other countries. This universal metal plays a role in almost everything. Having said that, I don’t think it should be used as an investment tool because in my book, it would be considered just as high of a risk as putting money into paper/stocks. All assets seem to operate off of a particular human emotional. One response is that everything is about to go to shit and we are doomed. Another is that everything is all well and our leaders are handling the world fairly consistently with no drama. To me, riding the middle seems to be the reality – at least from what I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.

        1. Riding the middle, to me, would be owning a small amount of metals as insurance against disaster while continuing to attempt to invest in other markets (though I don’t know where you would consider safe, with stocks this high and bonds so shaky). Gold doesn’t ever go to zero, unlike fiat currencies, stocks, and bonds, which all have that potential in times of crisis. That’s why gold is insurance, and in fact its purchasing power increases during massive deflation and/or currency collapse. To me, the riskier path is not to own any metal at all.

          1. I can think of 1 scenario that would make gold go to zero. In the very crisis that some people hope for. A disaster of epic proportions where everyone is in survival mode. The dollar will have been long gone, but gold would be useless for trade since it wouldn’t help anyone live longer. In that case, a home, owning a swimming pool, stock piling can goods, growing a garden, etc.. are all sources that would help one survive. Moreover, I agree that gold is insurance.

            Another riskier path that a friend of mine takes is putting all his money into metals hoping that before he retires, this economy tanks where the dollar doesn’t exist anymore and gold gives him self-sustaining financial security. To me, that’s even riskier than pouring all your money into the stock market, because the chances of the government not being able to control hyperinflation is way lower than getting rich off of stock investments.

          2. Do not store your treasures in heaven , lest your thinking may collapse in on itself. Without an “anti-hoarding” mechanism , preferably one with very little utility value, trade and the economy , including production, would whither away.

    2. You write that “If interest rates skyrocket, it will cause a deflation in the economy and everyone will keep their cash.”

      You’re wrong. You will eventually see deflation but only in terms of real money(gold and silver)…and that’s actually what we’ve been seeing (overall in the past 10 or 11 years or so. Eventually you will see huge deflation in everything and that is why everyone should be stacking right now.

      Anywho, if the Fed “tapers”, interest rates will rise and metals
      might fall (in terms of paper) but the rise in interest rates will
      force the Fed to do QE 5 and 6 will probably precipitate the death of
      the dollar. In that instance it won’t matter what the “price” of metals
      will be.

      If the Fed doesn’t taper, it will be viewed as inflationary in which case the metals should rise in terms of paper. Unless of course they are smashed again…in which case you should stack even more on the dip because there will come a time when they will run out. We just don’t know when that will be.

      There you go my friend, now you understand that owning metals will be very profitable in the coming deflation (which will carry with it the death of the dollar) or the coming hyperinflation in which Ben Bernanke will be throwing cash out of helicopters.

      If you want to know what hyperinflation means, just google pictures from Weimar Germany and the wheelbarrows of cash. Cash is trash my friend.

      1. Cash isn’t trash. It’s what pays my mortgage and food, utility bills, and anything else I want to buy. I have yet to go to any store and give them a gold/silver coin to pay for my purchases. In the end, that’s what’s really important to me.

        And for now, metals are valued in paper. This very webpage proves that. If that wasn’t the case, you would be able to go to a pawn shop and trade in an american eagle for $1,900 instead of the “valued” $1,300 at the COMEX.

        1. When you have a fixed, dollar-denominated debt such as a mortgage, that will shrink in value relative to gold, though obviously it will remain exactly the same relative to dollars. I could sell my gold right now, pay the punitive taxes and still be way ahead of having put cash in the bank. It’s way too early to do that, so I won’t, but the point is that even without TEOTWAWKI I have found metals to be a good investment. I know James Turk says gold is not an investment and I understand the point that it’s just another form of money, but when you have dollar-denominated debts and you own gold, your real net worth is going to increase over time.

          1. Gold isn’t guaranteed to exceed home values. Not even close. If we talk in terms of dollars (as is the case now), gold has had a terrible year – while the value of my home has increased significantly. What if I was retired right now, with nothing but gold coins to sell? I would have lost a signifcant amount of earnings when gold was $1900/oz. To me, gold is like any other paper investment. It’s pretty voilatile and you could get stuck with losses depending on when you sell. At least with a home, you can live in it – which provides something that gold nor paper does – shelter.

          2. But I wasn’t comparing gold to home prices. I was talking about the real value of a fixed, dollar-denominated debt relative to gold. I don’t particularly care what my home is worth. I don’t plan on selling it and I don’t plan on taking out a home equity loan. However, I still have to pay the mortgage every month. The principal and interest is a fixed amount which will shrink in real terms, i.e. the debt will represent less and less metal over time. When I first bought gold it would have taken around 2 ounces of gold to make a mortgage payment, now it only takes about one. If you just stick dollars in the bank, their value in terms of “potential mortgage payments” does not increase, and your assets do not rise relative to your debts. Hopefully that makes what I was saying more clear.

            Also, in saying gold is “like any other paper investment” you seem to imply that gold *is* a paper investment. If you buy paper gold you have just as much counterparty risk as with anything else (maybe more risk). That’s just not the way to do it.

          3. Two things:

            1) “The debt will represent less and less gold over time”. A more accurate statement would be the debt CAN represent less and less gold over time. There is no guarantee that gold will continue to rise in value (again, assuming gold is still valued in dollars) in the short or long term. Gold hit an all-time peak back in 1980 I believe. It then dropped like a rock and took 20yrs to get back to those levels. If you are fairly young and have enough time on your hands, yes, gold would track fairly well as an investment. However, if you have a short amount of time before retirement, then gold becomes as volatile as stocks. Case in point, when gold hit $1,900/oz. You would have been able to pay a typical mortgage of $1,900 with 1 gold coin. Today, about a year later, you would need 2 gold coins.

            2) ” If you just stick dollars in the bank, their value in terms of
            “potential mortgage payments” does not increase, and your assets do not
            rise relative to your debts.”

            That depends on how much the bank gives you for holding your money. If it’s 6% and your interest on your mortgage is 3%, then you will be ahead. My philosophy is getting my money to earn me enough returns that I can borrow at a lower interest rate and put that money I just borrowed into an investment that will give me a much higher return. That investment could be gold, silver, cotton, APPLE stocks, or TSLA stocks, ETFs, etc.. they are all the same (i.e. risky and volatile).

          4. Yes, I am making an assessment that dollar-denominated debts will represent less gold/silver in the coming years. If you want to argue why you think it will not, that might be an interesting conversation. Your analogy to the 1980 peak fails to take into account accurate estimates of inflation, I suspect.

            And there is no solvent bank which gives you 6% on your money.

          5. “Yes, I am making an assessment that dollar-denominated debts will represent less gold/silver in the coming years.”

            That’s like saying that dollar-denominated debts will represent less and less stock from Apple in the coming years. I would hope that over time any investment would make money more than a debt would.

            “And there is no solvent bank which gives you 6% on your money.”

            Not currently, but there was before this recession. Playing devil’s advocate, gold hasn’t given anyone anywhere near 6% either this year at least. We don’t know what next year or the following years will yield either.


          6. Holding silver and gold is not recommended for the short term. You keep saying things like “gold hasn’t given anyone anywhere near 6% either this year at least.” Well don’t look at it for just one year; look at the chart for the last 10-13 years or the last 40 years. When you “buy” physical metal, you are not supposed to “make profit” in terms of paper because metal is protection FROM paper.

            Reading your comment I can only come to a conclusion about you. Either you have no clue WTF you are talking about, or you are a paid shill (which we all know the government has), or you have bought some silver when in was above $30( gold above $1500 or $1600) to make a quick paper profit and you got shaken out.

    3. realists … your perception is reliant on the market view of gold being a store of value or inflation hedge, in which you are correct but you’re not accounting for gold viewed as a form of real-time money that can filled the void for liquidity needs in the real economy. Gold is a market currency, all set up when the FIXED peg was severed in 71, which allows it to enjoy scalable liquidity.

      1. “your perception is reliant on the market view of gold being a store of value or inflation hedge..”

        Isn’t this the only way gold has any real meaning today? It’s equivalent to a paper stock in that you can sell it back for dollars – which you can then use the dollars to buy food, water, shelter, etc..The only difference is that gold isn’t attached to a company’s growth or worth. But then again, gold is attached to supply and demand. If it’s value goes low enough, you could see a chain reaction of mines closing down due to the expense of running one outweighing the profits (i.e. supply). Or you could see other countries simply not interested in it anymore (i.e. demand). Both scenarios are very possible.

        1. Your ‘deflation’ call is not supported by the facts. The headline deficit of the US federal govt. is about a trillion a year, but that doesn’t include off budget items, increases in unfunded liabilities, and interest owed on past under fundings. Using GAAP accounting, the annual fiscal deficit is much closer to $7 trillion, and increasing exponentially.

          When you predict ‘deflation’, you are predicting that the hundred million plus people that get social security, medicare, fed. employee pensions, military pensions, VA benefits, food stamps, etc. will ALL be able to acquire MORE stuff with their checks.

          In the tanking economy that will accompany any deflation, who exactly will be producing all this stuff?

          Time for a reality check. The pools of obligations that cannot possibly fail (named above) dwarf the pools of money that likely will fail by an order of magnitude. And most of the these pools of money that WILL be paid (ss, medicare, etc.) DON’T CURRENTLY EXIST. Got that? It is all currently in the form of ‘unfunded liabilities’, the PRESENT WORTH of which is over $100 trillion. This will all have to created, OUT OF THIN Air!!!

    4. I think you have it backwards: If interest rates “skyrocket” then the dollar will be losing value. (The fact that people will hoard their cash because it would be expensive to borrow more would be a transient effect – the cash won’t last because it will have to be spent.) In the meantime, precious metals would increase in US dollar terms.

      You’re right that there very well may be a situation soon in which there will be a glut of US dollars, and thus high interest rates, and yet money will be scarce because it will be too expensive to borrow and only that on hand will be available for economic transactions (which is deflationary). But gold and silver are money too, and not many people will have any.

      This article suggests how this may happen: http://www.examiner.com/article/dollar-no-longer-primary-oil-currency-as-china-begins-to-sell-oil-using-yuan

  4. On Friday September 13, 2013, five years out from the financial crisis, liberalism has produced peak prosperity with World Stocks, VT, Nation Investment, EFA, and Global Industrial Producers, FXR, rising to all time highs.

    Margin credit drove World Stocks, VT, Nation Investment, EFA, and Global Industrial Producers, FXR, to their all time highs. In the US, VTI, the Russell 2000, IWM, and the S&P 500, SPY, rose for all practical purposes to their all time highs. It has been margin credit coming from the leveraged speculative investment community, specifically Regional Banks, KRE, such as RF, the Too Big To Fail Banks, RWW, such as BAC, Asset Managers, such as BlackRock, BLK, Stock Brokers, IAI, such as ETFC, as well as a topping out of the Euro Yen currency carry trade, that is the EUR/JPY, that has given seigniorage, that is moneyness, to the Russell 2000, IWM, and the S&P 500, SPY, as is seen in the ongoing combined Yahoo Finance Chart of IWM, KRE, SPY, and RWW. Of note, Biotechnology, IBB, Casinos and Resorts, BJK, and Semiconductors, SMH, soared this week, as Volatility ETF, XVZ, and the Market Off ETN, OFF, traded near their all time lows.

    There is no sustainable economic boom as Jesus Christ operating at the helm of the Economy of God, Ephesians 1:10, enabled the bond vigilantes to rapidly call the Interest Rate on the US Ten Year Note, ^TNX, higher to 2.01% on May 21, 2013, which constituted a “termination event” in Emerging Market Investment, EEM, in Utility Stock Investment, XLU, and in Real Estate Investment, IYR, such as REM, REZ, ROOF, and FNIO. And the further fast rise of the interest rate on August 13 2013, to 2.71%, constituted an “apocalyptic event” which terminated fiat money, in particular Major World Currencies, DBV, and Emerging Market Currencies, CEW, both of which bounced higher in value, in response to the averting of war in Syria.

    The crack up boom part of the Business Cycle is now complete as World Stocks, VT, relative to World Treasury Debt, BWX, that is VT:BWX, and Eurozone Stocks, EZU, relative to EU Debt, EU, EZU:EU, have peaked at their all time highs, on margin credit.

    Jesus Christ acting in Dispensation, presented in Ephesians 1:10, that is in oversight of all things economic and political for the fulfillment of every age, era, epoch and time period, has completed the paradigm of liberalism and is the paradigm of authoritarianism, by the fast rise in the Interest Rate on the US Ten Year Note, ^TNX, to 2.9%, resulting in the destruction of Credit, AGG, Major World Currencies, DBV, and Emerging Market Currencies, CEW. Liberal policies of investment choice and schemes of credit that supported capitalism, European socialism, and Greek Socialism, are being replaced by authoritarian policies of diktat and schemes of debt servitude, where banks will be integrated with the government, and be known as the government banks, or gov banks for short, and nannycrats will rule in statist regional public partnerships over the factors of production for regional security, stability, and sustainability, establishing austerity over all of mankind.

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