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Archive for November 2013

Archive for November, 2013

Outside the Box: An Open Letter to the FOMC-Recognizing the Valuation Bubble in Equities

 

In today’s Outside the Box, my friend John Hussman of Hussman Strategic Advisors addresses the members of the Federal Open Market Committee, the Federal Reserve committee that makes decisions about interest rates and national monetary policy. The Fed has been notoriously clueless about bubbles, particularly in the run-up to the Great Recession, and so John would like to help them recognize the currently inflating bubble in equities.

He leads off with the key point that when the Financial Accounting Standards Board abandoned the FAS 157 “mark-to-market” accounting standard on March 16, 2009, in response to Congressional pressure from the House Committee on Financial Services, the FASB removed at a stroke the threat of widespread insolvency by making insolvency opaque. In other words, anyone with anything to hide could now hide it. John goes on:

My impression is that much of the market’s confidence and oversensitivity to quantitative easing stems from misattribution of the initial recovery to QE. This has created a nearly self-fulfilling superstition that links the level of stock prices directly to the size of the Fed’s balance sheet, despite the absence of any reliable or historically demonstrable transmission mechanism that relates the two with any precision at all.

Still, it may ease the burden of power to consider the likelihood that the actions of the Federal Reserve … were not responsible for the recovery.

So he is saying to the FOMC, “Yes, the market hangs on your every word, but don’t get to thinking that you’re the be all and end all.” Ironically, though, when the Fed even hints at tapering its purchases of Treasury bonds, the market falls into paroxysms of despair.

Then he asks, “How does one establish the value of a long-lived asset?” What he’s driving at is that if you just look at the current price of a stock, or at the price-earnings ratio based on just a single year of earnings, you aren’t likely to be able to figure out anything about long-term value. And that’s the fix – well, one of them – that we investors (and the Fed) are in today. It comes right back to that question I’ve been asking you a lot the past few years: Is this time really different?

If you want beef (your prime rib for Thanksgiving on the brain analyst says), this article has got it. So get out your carving knife (and hopefully a few of our Fed friends will have theirs at the ready, too).

These issues are part and parcel of the concerns that we covered in Code Red, which is again on the Wall Street Journal’s list of best-selling books this week. Let me offer a couple sound bites from some of the many reviews:

If you are concerned with protecting the value of your investments, you should read this book – 2 or 3 times…

Code Red is a solid analytical account of just exactly what that inscrutable fraternity of central bankers has done to the world economy and to our individual stores of wealth. It provides an illuminated tour of the mysterious world of public and private financial institutions, and also unveils many of their dubious and outrageous motives. It is well written and requires intelligence to read. It is not for the fainthearted. I found it to be an education. It is also full of wit, hilarious anecdotes, and humor. Mauldin is folksy and clear in his insights. Tepper is brilliant and makes the complicated and technical realm of high finance, banking, and public policy understandable. It is a five-star read.

You can watch a video of Jonathan Tepper and me discussing the book and get your copy here. It is also on Amazon and at your local bookstore. It might make a great holiday gift for your clients and friends.

I grew up learning to tinker with engines and do plumbing, TV repair, a little simple electrical work, framing, roofing, sheet rock, painting, landscaping, and all manner of things when I ran a print shop. Truly a jack of all trades and never a master of anything. Pretty much everything they are doing upstairs as they build my apartment but nowhere close to the true master’s level I see on display every day. My friend (and no stranger to many readers) Bill Bonner at Agora, who can afford to hire any master of anything he likes, prefers to build stone walls and personally renovate old homes himself, creating gardens and such; but I always did such things as a defense against leaky roofs or to pay the bills or because I couldn’t afford to pay someone to do them.

That being said, watching the true craftsmen work on my new apartment, taking pride in the smooth texture of paint or the finish on the granite or the way joints should be made to fit just so is a real pleasure. My perfectionist designer (and niece) decided that the leftover slabs of granite would make a beautiful backdrop over my bed in the new master bedroom, and the pieces of granite looked truly magnificent when bookended; but there were slight gaps at the joints, which I thought were just part of the piece. But today I look in to find a young man (they are all young to me lately) patiently mixing a half dozen colors of grout which he will work into those small gaps, matching the blues and browns and tans and greens and whites, turning the pieces into one seamless masterpiece. He went on mixing his colors, holding them up in the light to get just the right tones, dabbing a little more brown here, a little blue there.

Wiring is now an art form with the new electronic controllers, and anything electrical or that can be made electric has now been connected to my iPad mini, from which any of 8 TVs, multiple sound systems and speakers, lights (LEDs that can change colors and put on light shows – who knew?), curtains, security cameras that are almost spooky in their latest tech capabilities, locks – everything is connected to one device.

The multiple dozens of workers come from all over the country and world. Carol, my general contractor, has collected a team of subcontractor specialists that work together like a precision dance team, selected over the years for their quality and ability to get it done right and on time. This being Texas, there are of course a number of Latinos on the job. The painting crew comprises something like ten brothers and cousins who clearly come from the same tight gene pool. I turn a corner to find the guy who I thought was in the last room working in the next.

This being Texas, and me being me, I asked yesterday if one particularly gifted craftsman was legal, as his accent betrayed his roots. “I think so,” said Carol, “but the owners are and they all have insurance.” This being Texas, most of us really don’t care. Are you a good and honest person and do you get the job done right? If you make your own way, you are welcome in God’s country to help us build and grow and make it all work better.

Many of my fellow Republicans have this immigration thing all backwards. We should be striving to find more young people to come to this country. Yes, college-educated kids with tech skills are needed. But we need the young people who can build and plough and dig and tinker. The country is going to wake up one day and realize that the most important product it can import is young, hard-working people.

Control the borders, absolutely. Know who is coming in, yes. If you come you must contribute and not have access to welfare. But with those caveats, open the doors very wide. That is oddly a big part of the answer to the Code Red crisis that central banks are bringing our way. Someone has to work and pay the bills for a (large!) generation that will want to retire.

And now it is time to start thinking about cooking and enjoying 50-60 people who will invade my new, almost-finished home. You have a great week and enjoy your family and friends.

Your baking cakes and making stuffing analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com


An Open Letter to the FOMC: Recognizing the Valuation Bubble In Equities

November 25, 2013

John P. Hussman, Ph.D.

To the members of the FOMC,

You’ve emphasized the tremendous burden placed on the Fed in recent years, and your dedication to collectively doing right by the country. It’s important to start with that recognition, because as concerned as I’ve been about the impact and economic assumptions behind the Fed’s actions, I don’t question your motives or integrity. What follows is simply information that may be helpful in realistically assessing the outcomes and risks of the present policy course, and perhaps to help prevent a bad situation from becoming worse.

Some brief background

As the head of an investment company, it’s natural to conclude that what follows is simply “talking my book,” but for what it’s worth, the majority of my income is directed to the Hussman Foundation. Academically, I earned my doctorate in economics from Stanford, studying with Tom Sargent, John Taylor, Ron McKinnon, Robert Hall, and Joe Stiglitz, and spent several years as a professor at the University of Michigan and Michigan Business School before focusing on finance.

We’ve done well in prior complete market cycles (combining both bull and bear markets), and were among the few who warned of the market collapses and recessions of 2000-2002 and 2007-2009. In contrast, the half-cycle of the past 5 years has been challenging because of the awkward transition it provoked, following a credit crisis that we fully anticipated. Economic policy failures, departures from Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act (which Congress subsequently spelled out like a children’s book), avoidance of needed debt-restructuring (except in the auto industry), and extortionate cries of “global meltdown” from the financial industry all contributed to a collapse in economic confidence beyond anything witnessed in post-war data. That forced us to stress-test every aspect of our approach against Depression-era outcomes. We missed returns from the market’s low in the interim of that stress-testing, and have foregone the more recent speculative advance because identical features have resulted in spectacular market losses throughout history.

In hindsight, the crisis ended – precisely – on March 16, 2009, when the Financial Accounting Standards Board abandoned FAS 157 “mark-to-market” accounting, in response to Congressional pressure from the House Committee on Financial Services on March 12, 2009. That change immediately removed the threat of widespread insolvency by making insolvency opaque. My impression is that much of the market’s confidence and oversensitivity to quantitative easing stems from misattribution of the initial recovery to QE. This has created a nearly self-fulfilling superstition that links the level of stock prices directly to the size of the Fed’s balance sheet, despite the absence of any reliable or historically demonstrable transmission mechanism that relates the two with any precision at all.

The FOMC certainly had a part in creating a low-interest rate environment that provoked a reach-for-yield and a gush of demand for securities backed by mortgage lending of increasingly poor credit quality (I’ll note in passing that new issuance of “covenant lite” debt has now eclipsed the pre-crisis peak largely due to the same yield-seeking). Still, it may ease the burden of power to consider the likelihood that the actions of the Federal Reserve – though clearly supportive of the mortgage market – were not responsible for the recovery. One can thank the FASB for that, provided we’re all comfortable with the reduced transparency that results from mark-to-model and mark-to-unicorn accounting.

Recognizing the equity bubble

How does one establish the value of a long-lived asset? Hopefully, that question stirs the economist in all of you, and you immediately respond that every security is a claim on some long-term stream of cash payments (including any terminal value) that the holder can expect to receive over time. If price is known, the discount rate that equates price to the present value of expected future payments can be interpreted to be the expected long-term return of that security. This is how one calculates the yield-to-maturity on a long-term bond, for example. Conversely, we can make assumptions about the long-term return that investors will require over time and then calculate an implied price. Discounting the expected long-term stream of cash flows using some required long-term return results in a “fair value” that quietly incorporates those underlying assumptions.

Of course, nobody likes to discount an entire stream of expected payments, so investors create shortcuts. The most common shortcut is to compress all of the relevant cash flows and discount rates into a “sufficient statistic.” So for example, if we have a perpetuity with price $P that throws off cash flow $C every year forever, the ratio C/P is a sufficient statistic for the expected long-term rate of return, and everything knowable about valuation can be neatly summarized by that ratio. Nice economic assumptions about constant growth rates, returns on invested capital, payout ratios, and other factors encourage similar approaches in the equity market. So we look at price/earnings ratios based on a single year of earnings and immediately believe we know something about long-term value.

But valuation shortcuts are only useful if the “fundamental” being used is representative of the entire long-term stream of cash flows that will be delivered into the hands of investors. And it’s precisely here where the FOMC may find a careful review of the evidence to be useful.

The chart below is from one of the best tools that the Fed offers the public, the Federal Reserve Economic Database (FRED). The chart shows the ratio of corporate profits to GDP, which is presently at a record. The fact that profits as a share of GDP are more than 70% above their historical norm should immediately raise a question as to whether current year earnings or next year’s projected “forward earnings” should be used as a sufficient statistic for long-term cash flows and equity market valuation without any further reflection. Then again, more work is required to demonstrate that such an approach would be misleading. We’re just getting warmed up.

A simple way to see the implications of the present elevation of the profit share is to relate the level of profit margins to subsequent growth in profits over a reasonably “cyclical” horizon of several years. Remember, when one values equities, one is valuing a long-term stream, not just next year’s earnings. Investors taking current-year or forward-year profits as a sufficient statistic should be aware that high margins are reliably associated with weak profit growth over subsequent years.

The next relevant question is to ask why profit margins are presently so high. One might argue that the profitability of companies has achieved a permanently high plateau. Despite historical mean-reversion in profit margins (which tend to collapse over the full course of the business cycle), maybe this time is different. As it happens, we can relate the surfeit of corporate profits in recent years rather precisely to the extraordinary combined deficits of the household and government sectors during the same period.

The deficits of one sector emerge as the surplus of another

To see what’s going on, we can exploit the savings-investment identity

Investment = Savings

Investment = Household Savings + Government Savings + Corporate Savings + Foreign Savings (the inverse of the current account)

Corporate Profits = (Investment – Foreign Savings) – Household Savings – Government Savings + Dividends

This basic decomposition, at least to an approximation allowed by national income accounting and modest statistical discrepancies, is shown below (h/t Jesse Livermore, Michal Kalecki).

We can go further. The reason (Investment – Foreign Savings) are in parentheses above is because particularly in U.S. data, they have an inverse relationship, as “improvements” in the current account are generally associated with a deterioration in gross domestic investment. So the term in parentheses adds very little variability over the course of the business cycle. Likewise, dividends are fairly smooth, and add very little variability over the course of the business cycle.

As a result, the above identity reduces – from the standpoint of overall variability – to a statement that corporate profits as a share of GDP are nearly the mirror image of deficits in the household and government sectors. A simple way to think about this is that dissaving in both sectors helps to support corporate revenues and limit the need for competition, even when wages and salaries are depressed. It follows that most of the variability in corporate profits over time is driven by mirror image variations in the household and government sectors. As it happens, this relationship turns out to be strongest with a lag of roughly 4-6 quarters. Given the general improvement in combined government and household savings that began just over a year ago, it follows that current-year or even higher year-ahead earnings estimates may not be particularly useful “sufficient statistics” for the purpose of valuing equities.

A predictable response among investors is to immediately seek alternate explanations that might allow profit margins to remain permanently elevated. First among these is the argument that somehow the production of U.S. companies abroad is not being taken into account. But the difference between Gross National Product (which does exactly that) and Gross Domestic Product – even if it represented pure profit – is only about 1%. The adjustment might make a difference in Ireland, where the gap between GNP and GDP is far larger, but the effect is purely second-order in the United States. Moreover, any additional dynamic that prompts the claim “this time is different” had better be one that emerged in the past few years, because as the charts above demonstrate, the mirror-image relationship between variations in corporate profits and variations in combined government and household savings has hardly missed a beat in the past century.

Valuation measures and prospective equity returns

Even if we overlook the foregoing arguments, a historical comparison of competing valuation methods speaks loudly enough. The most important test of any valuation measure is how closely that measure is related to actual subsequent returns over a period of several years. While valuation measures often have little to do with near-term returns, valuation measures that are also unrelated to subsequent long-term returns are not only useless, but dangerous.

The fact is that valuation measures driven by single-period earnings (whether trailing earnings or forward operating earnings) are poorly correlated with subsequent market returns, mainly because they impose the counterfactual assumption that profit margins can be held constant over time. In contrast, measures that account for the cyclicality of profit margins typically have far greater explanatory power than their raw counterparts.

A few examples will demonstrate these regularities. The first chart presents estimated and actual subsequent 10-year S&P 500 total returns (in excess of the 10-year Treasury bond yield) based on the S&P 500 forward operating earnings, but adjusting for the predictable cyclicality of profit margins (see Valuing the S&P 500 Using Forward Operating Earnings). Presently, this estimate implies that the S&P 500 is likely to underperform even the depressed yield on 10-year Treasury bonds over the coming decade. The same was true at the 1972 peak (before stocks lost half their value), the 1987 peak, not to mention the more severe valuation peaks of 2000 and 2007. Present valuations notably contrast with the quite favorable estimated premium that briefly emerged in 2009.

The raw counterparts to the above graph are what Janet Yellen appeared to reference in her testimony to the Senate two weeks ago. Below are two alternate versions of the “equity risk premium.” The first shows the raw “forward operating earnings yield” of the S&P 500 less the 10-year Treasury yield. The second shows the dividend yield on the S&P 500 plus 6.2% (reflecting long-run nominal economic growth) less the 10-year Treasury yield. Neither measure has a very good empirical record of explaining subsequent S&P 500 total returns in excess of Treasury yields.

As a side-note, the presumed one-to-one relationship between forward equity yields and bond yields is actually an artifact of the 16-year period from 1982 to 1998 when bond yields enjoyed a disinflationary decline while stocks gradually moved from a secular valuation low to the dangerous elevations of the late-1990′s. Though Fed officials including Alan Greenspan and Janet Yellen seem attracted to the seemingly elegant simplicity of these “equity risk premium” models, they seem somehow oblivious to the fact that they don’t actually work.

Why is the historical record of these simple “equity risk premium” estimates such a cacophony of noise? The answer should be immediately apparent. It turns out that the error between these estimates and actual subsequent 10-year S&P 500 total returns (in excess of 10-year Treasury yields) has a correlation of 0.86 with – you guessed it – profit margins. With profit margins at the highest level in history, the record suggests that these models are grossly overestimating prospective equity returns at today’s all-time stock market highs.  Unfortunately, this evidence also suggests that the faith expressed in these “equity risk premium” estimates by Janet Yellen and others is likely to coincide with their most epic failure in history.

My strong disagreement should not be confused with disrespect, and none is intended, but wasn’t it Janet Yellen who in October 2005, at the height of the housing bubble, delivered a speech effectively proposing that monetary policy could mitigate any negative economic consequences of a housing collapse, and arguing that the Fed had no role in preventing further housing distortions? Given the lack of concern with the present elevation of the equity markets, these remarks from 2005 have a rather ominous ring in hindsight:

“First, if the bubble were to deflate on its own, would the effect on the economy be exceedingly large? Second, is it likely that the Fed could mitigate the consequences? Third, is monetary policy the best tool to use to deflate a house-price bubble? My answers to these questions in the shortest possible form are, ‘no,’ ‘no,’ and ‘no.’”

The reason that the Fed does not see an “obvious” stock market bubble (to use a word regularly used by Governor Bullard, as if to imply that misvaluations cannot exist unless they smack their observers with a two-by-four) is because while price/earnings multiples appear only moderately elevated, those multiples themselves reflect earnings that embed record profit margins that stand about 70% above their historical norms.

We can demonstrate in a century of evidence that a) profit margins are mean-reverting and inversely related to subsequent earnings growth, b) margin fluctuations are largely driven by cyclical variations in the combined savings of households and government, and importantly, c) valuation measures that normalize or otherwise dampen cyclical variation in profit margins are dramatically better correlated with actual subsequent outcomes in the equity markets.

A few additional charts will drive this point home. The chart below shows the S&P 500 price/revenue ratio (left scale) versus the actual subsequent 10-year nominal total return of the S&P 500 over the following decade (right scale, inverted). Market valuations on this measure are well above any point prior to the late-1990′s market bubble. Indeed, if one examines the stocks in the S&P 500 individually, the median price/revenue multiple is actually higher today than it was in 2000 (smaller stocks were more reasonably valued in 2000, compared with the present). This is a dangerous situation. In this context, the dismissive view of FOMC officials regarding equity overvaluation appears misplaced, and seems likely to be followed by disruptive financial adjustments.

One obtains a similar view, with equal historical reliability, from the ratio of nonfinancial equity capitalization to nominal GDP, using Federal Reserve Z.1 Flow of Funds data. On this measure, equities are already beyond their 2007 peak valuations, and are approaching the 2000 extreme. The associated 10-year expected nominal total return for the S&P 500 is negative.

The unfortunate situation is that while the required financial adjustment may or may not be as brutal for investors as in 2007-2009, or 2000-2002, or 1972-1974, when the stock market lost half of its value from similar or lesser extremes, the consequences of extremely rich valuation cannot be undone by wise monetary policy. The Fed has done enough, and perhaps dangerously more than enough. The prospect of dismal investment returns in equities is an outcome that is largely baked-in-the-cake. The only question is how much worse the outcomes will be as a result of Fed policy that has few economic mechanisms other than to encourage speculative behavior.

Textbook speculative features

A discussion of bubble risk would be incomplete without defining the term itself. From an economist’s point of view, a bubble is defined in terms of differential equations and a violation of “transversality.” In simpler language, a bubble is a speculative advance where prices rise on the expectation of future advances and become largely detached from properly discounted fundamentals. A bubble reflects a widening gap between the increasingly extrapolative expectations of market participants and the prospective returns that can be estimated through present-value relationships linking prices and likely cash flows.

As economist Didier Sornette observed in Why Markets Crash, numerous bubbles in securities and other asset markets can be shown to follow a “log periodic” pattern where the general advance becomes increasingly steep, while corrections become both increasingly frequent and gradually shallower. I’ve described this dynamic in terms of investor behavior that reflects increasingly immediate impulses to buy the dip.

Along with this pattern, which has emerged with striking fidelity since 2010, we observe a variety of other features typically associated with dangerous extremes: unusually rich valuations on a wide variety of metrics that actually have a reliable correlation with subsequent market returns; margin debt at the highest level in history and beyond 2.2% of GDP (a level that was matched only briefly at the 2000 and 2007 market extremes); a blistering pace of initial public offerings – back to volumes last seen at the 2000 peak and featuring “shooters” that double on the first day of issue; confidence in the narrative that “this time is different” (in this case, the presumption of a fail-safe speculative backstop or “put option” from the Federal Reserve); lopsided bullish sentiment as the number of bearish advisors has plunged to just 15% and bulls have crowded one side of the boat; record issuance of covenant-lite debt in the leveraged loan market (which is now spreading to Europe); and a well-defined syndrome of “overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yield” conditions that has appeared exclusively at speculative market peaks – including (exhaustively) 1929, 1972, 1987, 2000, 2007, 2011 (before a market loss of nearly 20% that was truncated by investor faith in a new round of monetary easing), and at three points in 2013: February, May, and today (see A Textbook Pre-Crash Bubble). Many of us in the financial world know these to be classic features of speculative peaks, but there is career risk in responding to them, so even those who view the situation with revulsion can’t seem to tear themselves away.

While I have no belief that markets follow any mathematical trajectory, the log-periodic pattern is interesting because it coincides with a kind of “signature” of increasing speculative urgency, seen in other market bubbles across history. The chart above spans the period from 2010 to the present. What’s equally unsettling is that this speculative behavior is beginning to appear “fractal” – that is, self-similar at diminishing time-scales. The chart below spans from April 2013 to the present. On this shorter time-scale, Sornette’s “finite time singularity” pulls a bit closer – to December 2013 rather than January 2014, but the fidelity to this pattern is almost creepy. The point of this exercise is emphatically not to lay out an explicit time path for prices, but rather to demonstrate the pattern of increasingly urgent speculation – the willingness to aggressively buy every dip in prices – that the Federal Reserve has provoked.

The way forward

In my view, good public policy acts to both impose and relieve constraints – focusing on relieving obstructive constraints when they actually become binding; imposing constraints where their absence creates excessive risk or the potential for undue harm to others; and avoiding policies where the risk of unintended consequences overwhelms the expected benefit from any demonstrated cause-effect relationship.

From this perspective, the policy of quantitative easing has run its course. It undermines planning, as every economic decision must be made in the context of what the Federal Reserve may or may not do next. It starves risk-averse savers, the elderly, and the disabled from interest income. It lowers the bar for speculative, unproductive, low-covenant lending (as it did during the housing bubble). It relaxes a constraint that is not binding – as there are already trillions of dollars in idle reserves at U.S. banks, on which the Federal Reserve pays interest both to keep them idle and to avoid disruptions in short-term money markets. It undermines price signals and misallocates scarce savings to speculative pursuits. It further skews the distribution of wealth, and while the extent of this skew has a scarce chance of persisting, the benefits of any spending from transiently elevated stock market wealth will accrue to primarily to higher-income individuals who are not as constrained as the millions of lower-income, low-asset families hoping for some “trickle-down” effect. We have seen numerous variants of this movie before, and we should have learned the ending by now.

Importantly, the magnitude of the “wealth effect” on employment is dismally small. Even if the entire relationship between stock market fluctuations and employment fluctuations was causal and one-directional, it would still take a roughly 40% advance in the stock market to draw the unemployment rate down by 1%. Unfortunately, price advances do not create the underlying cash flows to support them, so the strategy of manipulating stock prices higher also involves a piper that must be paid.

As for inflation-unemployment “tradeoffs,” we should all be clear about what the data look like in practice, particularly how weak and unreliable the relationships are between the two. There are numerous ways to plot the data. For example, lagging unemployment strengthens the positive relationship between inflation and unemployment, while lagging inflation flattens the nearly non-existent relationship from unemployment to inflation. One can augment this with expectations, or vary assumptions about NAIRU all one likes. The scatter is simply not amenable to a practical degree of “optimal control.”

This isn’t to say that A.W. Phillips was incorrect. Rather, his “Phillips Curve” was actually a relationship between the unemployment rate and wage inflation, in a century of British data when Britain was on the gold standard and general prices were stable. What Phillips said, in effect, is that unemployment is inversely related to real wage inflation. That proposition holds true in U.S. data as it does internationally. But it is hardly the basis for any strong belief that we can buy a few more jobs by targeting a higher inflation rate in the general price level.

It’s notable that the “dual mandate” of the Fed repeatedly includes the phrase “long run.” The Federal Reserve has not been asked to be “data-dependent” in response to every monthly fluctuation in output, employment and financial markets. Instead, the Fed is asked to consider the long-run effects of its actions. Minimizing the consideration of longer-term risks in the pursuit of outcomes that are largely beyond the reliable effects of the Federal Reserve’s tools cannot be justified by referencing the Federal Reserve’s mandate.

The intent of this letter is not to criticize, but hopefully to increase the mindfulness of the FOMC as to historical evidence, the strength of various financial and economic relationships, and the potentially grave consequences of further relaxing constraints that are not binding in the first place.

To some extent, certain consequences are baked-in-the-cake, as are various adjustments that the Federal Reserve will have to make in order to normalize its policy stance in the years ahead. Gradually rolling assets off the balance sheet as they mature is certainly an option, though the time profile of maturities is not smooth, the strategy may not be robust to material economic acceleration even several years from now, and such a strategy will continue to punish risk-averse savers for years. You already know my views on what a time-consistent path for normalizing the balance sheet would look like.

The immediate objective, I think, is to continue to emphasize that a gradual reduction in the pace of Fed purchases is distinct from a “tightening” – our own estimates are that a contraction of more than $1 trillion in the Fed’s balance sheet would be required simply to bring Treasury yields to 0.25% without raising the interest rate the Fed pays on excess reserves. Having missed the opportunity for a broadly anticipated “taper” in September, and having provoked even greater speculation as a result, the potential disruption of even a small move in this direction is a legitimate concern. At whatever time this occurs, my own view is that even $10 billion may be too large for a speculative market to swallow, while $5 billion is so small that it could make the Fed appear timid. One might suggest $8.5% billion, or 10%, which is so small a taper that the markets would hopefully view an overreaction as ridiculous – which is not to say that the markets would not overreact even then. From the standpoint of a financial market participant, I can’t emphasize enough how broadly the Fed is viewed as the only game in town.

There is certainly more progress that needs to be made on employment and economic activity. The legitimate question is whether continued relaxation of non-binding constraints is likely to produce this outcome without the increasing risk of severe and unintended consequences. This is a question that begs not for verbal arguments, but empirical evidence, realistic estimates of effect sizes, and clear transmission mechanisms. The Federal Reserve has a critical role in easing constraints – particularly shortages of liquidity in the banking system – when they become binding, and in applying constraints and oversight – or at least refraining from further harm – when risks become untethered. The second aspect of that role is far more imperative today than might be obvious.

I hope that some part of this is useful.

Sincerely,

John P. Hussman, Ph.D.

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Outside the Box and MauldinEconomics.com is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and those that he interviews. Any views expressed are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest and is not in any way a testimony of, or associated with, Mauldin’s other firms. John Mauldin is the Chairman of Mauldin Economics, LLC. He also is the President of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA) which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states, President and registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS) member FINRA, SIPC, through which securities may be offered . MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB) and NFA Member. Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. This message may contain information that is confidential or privileged and is intended only for the individual or entity named above and does not constitute an offer for or advice about any alternative investment product. Such advice can only be made when accompanied by a prospectus or similar offering document. Past performance is not indicative of future performance. Please make sure to review important disclosures at the end of each article. Mauldin companies may have a marketing relationship with products and services mentioned in this letter for a fee.

Note: Joining The Mauldin Circle is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and Millennium Wave Investments. It is intended solely for investors who have registered with Millennium Wave Investments and its partners at http://www.MauldinCircle.com (formerly AccreditedInvestor.ws) or directly related websites. The Mauldin Circle may send out material that is provided on a confidential basis, and subscribers to the Mauldin Circle are not to send this letter to anyone other than their professional investment counselors. Investors should discuss any investment with their personal investment counsel. You are advised to discuss with your financial advisers your investment options and whether any investment is suitable for your specific needs prior to making any investments. John Mauldin is the President of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA), which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states. John Mauldin is a registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS), an FINRA registered broker-dealer. MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB). Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. Millennium Wave Investments cooperates in the consulting on and marketing of private and non-private investment offerings with other independent firms such as Altegris Investments; Capital Management Group; Absolute Return Partners, LLP; Fynn Capital; Nicola Wealth Management; and Plexus Asset Management. Investment offerings recommended by Mauldin may pay a portion of their fees to these independent firms, who will share 1/3 of those fees with MWS and thus with Mauldin. Any views expressed herein are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest with any CTA, fund, or program mentioned here or elsewhere. Before seeking any advisor’s services or making an investment in a fund, investors must read and examine thoroughly the respective disclosure document or offering memorandum. Since these firms and Mauldin receive fees from the funds they recommend/market, they only recommend/market products with which they have been able to negotiate fee arrangements.

PAST RESULTS ARE NOT INDICATIVE OF FUTURE RESULTS. THERE IS RISK OF LOSS AS WELL AS THE OPPORTUNITY FOR GAIN WHEN INVESTING IN MANAGED FUNDS. WHEN CONSIDERING ALTERNATIVE INVESTMENTS, INCLUDING HEDGE FUNDS, YOU SHOULD CONSIDER VARIOUS RISKS INCLUDING THE FACT THAT SOME PRODUCTS: OFTEN ENGAGE IN LEVERAGING AND OTHER SPECULATIVE INVESTMENT PRACTICES THAT MAY INCREASE THE RISK OF INVESTMENT LOSS, CAN BE ILLIQUID, ARE NOT REQUIRED TO PROVIDE PERIODIC PRICING OR VALUATION INFORMATION TO INVESTORS, MAY INVOLVE COMPLEX TAX STRUCTURES AND DELAYS IN DISTRIBUTING IMPORTANT TAX INFORMATION, ARE NOT SUBJECT TO THE SAME REGULATORY REQUIREMENTS AS MUTUAL FUNDS, OFTEN CHARGE HIGH FEES, AND IN MANY CASES THE UNDERLYING INVESTMENTS ARE NOT TRANSPARENT AND ARE KNOWN ONLY TO THE INVESTMENT MANAGER. Alternative investment performance can be volatile. An investor could lose all or a substantial amount of his or her investment. Often, alternative investment fund and account managers have total trading authority over their funds or accounts; the use of a single advisor applying generally similar trading programs could mean lack of diversification and, consequently, higher risk. There is often no secondary market for an investor’s interest in alternative investments, and none is expected to develop.

Hussman Strategic Advisors

Thoughts from the Frontline: Game of Thrones-European Style

 

In 2009-10 it seemed like this letter was all Europe all the time. There was a never-ending crisis from one corner of the Continent to the other. That time seems to have slowly faded from our collective consciousness, but the Eurozone crisis is not over, and it will not end quickly or soon. Even if it seems to unfold in slow motion – like the slow build-up in a Game of Thrones storyline to violent internecine clashes followed by more slow plot developments but never any real resolution, the Eurozone debacle has never really gone away. The structural imbalances have still not been fixed; politicians and central bankers have still not agreed to solve major fiscal problems; the overall economy still disintegrates; unemployment is staggeringly high in some countries and still rising; and the people are growing restless.

Just as in the Game of Thrones, the Eurozone drama seems to drag on interminably. It seems to take forever to get to the next installment. I think GRR Martin (the wickedly brilliant creator of the series) should be confined to his Santa Fe villa until he finishes his epic – one of the few lapses in my personal belief that we should be allowed the freedom to control our own time. I read the first of the books in 1996 and the fifth when it came out in 2011, and he will need to finish at least two more. You can do the math, but it is clearly taking longer and longer between books – just as Europe seems to be taking longer and longer between successive peaks of its crisis. Perhaps we should confine the leaders of Europe to a far-northern Scandinavian hotel with hard beds and minimal amenities until they resolve their problems.

In the latest installment of the Eurozone crisis, deflation is back and winter is coming. This week we’ll look at what is shaping up to be a very interesting year in Europe. I am going to visit a number of themes and offer links to readers who want to delve more deeply, as to develop each one would take several months’ worth of letters. Next year it probably shall.

Winter Is Coming

One of the continuing themes in the Game of Thrones is that a winter of epic proportions looms in the immediate future, and the world is not prepared for it. “Winter is coming” is whispered by worried wise men who urge various leaders to prepare, yet they put off the necessary in the face of the urgent. Signs that a European winter, too, is coming have lately been cropping up.

Key measures of inflation are decelerating across the Eurozone, and the region is as close as it has ever been to a deflationary bust. It’s troubling enough that Eurozone headline CPI collapsed from 1.1% in August to 0.7% in September and that core CPI fell from 1.0% to 0.8% over the same period; but measures of Eurozone money supply (M1, M2, & M3) are also decelerating rapidly, suggesting that the deflationary trend will most likely continue without decisive action from the ECB, which has been strangely absent from the current rush by central bankers to print mountains of money. And the ECB could actually make a case for such action!

Even worse, this new round of borderline deflationary data is coming not just from a small number of lost causes like Greece or Cyprus. Ten out of the seventeen Eurozone countries experienced rapidly decelerating inflation rates over the past few months, including Italy and France. Spain officially fell into deflation for the first time since February 2010. In many ways, the situation is even worse than the CPI numbers suggest. Note that Italy, France, and Germany all hover barely above 1% inflation. And their numbers are falling.

There are two major problems associated with an extended period of ultra-low inflation or deflation in the Eurozone. First, peripheral countries will have a much harder time servicing and retiring their debts without the extra boost to nominal GDP that positive inflation provides. Even if you are working on lowering the absolute amount of your debt, it is impossible to improve your debt-to-GDP ratio when GDP is falling and your debts are growing. Moreover, outright deflation works to crush debtors (and debtor nations) by increasing the real weight of the debt and triggering the destructive debt-deflation cycle described in Irving Fisher’s Debt Deflation Theory of Great Depressions (1933).

The second major problem is that currency appreciation always accompanies deflation – all else being constant – so that affected economies also become less competitive in terms of exports at the very moment that a positive trade balance is most important.

These are problems that I have written about for years. The effects of a common currency and monetary policy are spread around very unevenly in Europe, creating a boom in certain countries (chiefly Germany) and a sad bust in others. This disparity is the very predictable result of a currency union sans fiscal union. And trying to fix the Eurozone fiscal structure after the fact is akin to fixing the engine of an airplane while flying at 30,000 feet.

The rapidly weakening inflation we are seeing in Europe is a very big deal, because deflation can become a chronic, crushing condition, making it even harder to deal with excessive debt, undercapitalized banks, and runaway fiscal deficits in major countries like Spain, Italy, and France. Over time the masses begin to expect falling rather than rising prices, and these expectations can be very difficult to reverse without credible, decisive, and powerful action from the central bank.

Up to this point, the ECB has been almost completely unwilling to squarely confront the issues at hand. The ECB balance sheet has been inexplicably shrinking for the past year (more on that in a moment). That is why ultra-low inflation readings should not come as a surprise. Not only has the ECB not been easing, it has actually tightened its balance sheet considerably over the past year. To many observers, this trend clearly demonstrates German dominance within the ECB.

“This is just like Japan,” says Lars Christensen of Danske Bank. “The central bank thought money was easy when in fact it was much too tight. But effects could be much worse in Europe because unemployment is so much higher.” In addition to a central bank seriously behind the curve, structural problems are holding back economies across the periphery, including Spain, Italy, and, yes, even France.

“Like Japan, necessary structural reforms prior to the crisis were delayed and now these will have to be implemented in an environment that is both economically and politically more fragile,” said Takeo Hoshi & Anil Kashyap in a recent report for the IMF. Germany looks like an exception precisely because it undertook structural reforms well before the crisis, which is part of the reason that Germany is doing so well and much of the rest of Europe is not.

You can see the disastrous difference between German industrial production and Italian industrial production in this chart from my friends at GaveKal. This chart would look much the same whether it was France, Italy, Greece, Ireland, or any of the peripheral countries contrasted with Germany. Structural reform of labor policies requires massive social disruption in the best of times. I think we can all agree that for southern Europe this is not the best of times.

True, the risk of government funding crises has receded since Mario Draghi’s July 2012 commitment to “do whatever it takes” to preserve the Euro; but debtor countries like Greece, Cypress, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, and France have been forced to bear most of the economic cost. Like Japan, the Eurozone has failed to adequately recapitalize its banking system, and troubled economies have failed to address structural problems through reforms.

 Ambrose Evans-Pritchard recently noted, “While the risk of a Eurozone bond crisis has greatly receded since the ECB agreed to act as a lender of last resort in July 2012, this has been replaced by slow economic attrition.”

Outright Monetary Transactions (or OMTs) by the ECB are limited by the size of its balance sheet, and the German Constitutional Court may further limit the ECB’s capabilities when it rules on OMT in early 2014. No one really seems to be talking about this fact, but the ECB is losing firepower each and every month as its balance sheet contracts. This trend is going to require Germany to change its stance in the face of the next crisis, but the question is, what will Germany demand in return? Germany always seems to have a price for action. While the market was willing to give Draghi the benefit of the doubt in the last crisis without his really having to fire a shot, it is entirely possible that it will question the limits of his ability to find the funds necessary to solve multiple crises at once. And if France is one of those countries that needs aid? Mon Dieu, c’est une catastrophe!

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.

© 2013 Mauldin Economics. All Rights Reserved.
Thoughts from the Frontline is a free weekly economic e-letter by best-selling author and renowned financial expert, John Mauldin. You can learn more and get your free subscription by visiting www.MauldinEconomics.com.

Please write to subscribers@mauldineconomics.com to inform us of any reproductions, including when and where copy will be reproduced. You must keep the letter intact, from introduction to disclaimers. If you would like to quote brief portions only, please reference www.MauldinEconomics.com.

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Thoughts From the Frontline and MauldinEconomics.com is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and those that he interviews. Any views expressed are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest and is not in any way a testimony of, or associated with, Mauldin’s other firms. John Mauldin is the Chairman of Mauldin Economics, LLC. He also is the President and registered representative of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA) which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states, President and registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS) member FINRA and SIPC, through which securities may be offered. MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB) and NFA Member. Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. This message may contain information that is confidential or privileged and is intended only for the individual or entity named above and does not constitute an offer for or advice about any alternative investment product. Such advice can only be made when accompanied by a prospectus or similar offering document. Past performance is not indicative of future performance. Please make sure to review important disclosures at the end of each article. Mauldin companies may have a marketing relationship with products and services mentioned in this letter for a fee.

Note: Joining The Mauldin Circle is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and Millennium Wave Investments. It is intended solely for investors who have registered with Millennium Wave Investments and its partners at http://www.MauldinCircle.com (formerly AccreditedInvestor.ws) or directly related websites. The Mauldin Circle may send out material that is provided on a confidential basis, and subscribers to the Mauldin Circle are not to send this letter to anyone other than their professional investment counselors. Investors should discuss any investment with their personal investment counsel. John Mauldin is the President of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA), which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states. John Mauldin is a registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS), an FINRA registered broker-dealer. MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB). Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. Millennium Wave Investments cooperates in the consulting on and marketing of private and non-private investment offerings with other independent firms such as Altegris Investments; Capital Management Group; Absolute Return Partners, LLP; Fynn Capital; Nicola Wealth Management; and Plexus Asset Management. Investment offerings recommended by Mauldin may pay a portion of their fees to these independent firms, who will share 1/3 of those fees with MWS and thus with Mauldin. Any views expressed herein are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest with any CTA, fund, or program mentioned here or elsewhere. Before seeking any advisor’s services or making an investment in a fund, investors must read and examine thoroughly the respective disclosure document or offering memorandum. Since these firms and Mauldin receive fees from the funds they recommend/market, they only recommend/market products with which they have been able to negotiate fee arrangements.

PAST RESULTS ARE NOT INDICATIVE OF FUTURE RESULTS. THERE IS RISK OF LOSS AS WELL AS THE OPPORTUNITY FOR GAIN WHEN INVESTING IN MANAGED FUNDS. WHEN CONSIDERING ALTERNATIVE INVESTMENTS, INCLUDING HEDGE FUNDS, YOU SHOULD CONSIDER VARIOUS RISKS INCLUDING THE FACT THAT SOME PRODUCTS: OFTEN ENGAGE IN LEVERAGING AND OTHER SPECULATIVE INVESTMENT PRACTICES THAT MAY INCREASE THE RISK OF INVESTMENT LOSS, CAN BE ILLIQUID, ARE NOT REQUIRED TO PROVIDE PERIODIC PRICING OR VALUATION INFORMATION TO INVESTORS, MAY INVOLVE COMPLEX TAX STRUCTURES AND DELAYS IN DISTRIBUTING IMPORTANT TAX INFORMATION, ARE NOT SUBJECT TO THE SAME REGULATORY REQUIREMENTS AS MUTUAL FUNDS, OFTEN CHARGE HIGH FEES, AND IN MANY CASES THE UNDERLYING INVESTMENTS ARE NOT TRANSPARENT AND ARE KNOWN ONLY TO THE INVESTMENT MANAGER. Alternative investment performance can be volatile. An investor could lose all or a substantial amount of his or her investment. Often, alternative investment fund and account managers have total trading authority over their funds or accounts; the use of a single advisor applying generally similar trading programs could mean lack of diversification and, consequently, higher risk. There is often no secondary market for an investor’s interest in alternative investments, and none is expected to develop. You are advised to discuss with your financial advisers your investment options and whether any investment is suitable for your specific needs prior to making any investments.

All material presented herein is believed to be reliable but we cannot attest to its accuracy. Opinions expressed in these reports may change without prior notice. John Mauldin and/or the staffs may or may not have investments in any funds cited above as well as economic interest. John Mauldin can be reached at 800-829-7273.

Things That Make You Go Hmmm – Avenomics

 

By Grant Williams   |   November 26, 2013

 

In 1853 the French romantic composer Charles Gounod wrote a melody that was especially designed to sit over the Prelude No. 1 in C Major written by Johann Sebastian Bach over a century earlier. He titled it (somewhat unimaginatively, perhaps) “Meditation sur le Premier Prelude de Piano de S. Bach.”

Interestingly enough, Gounod’s father-in-law, the magnificently named Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmerman, transcribed the improvised melody and arranged it for violin, piano, and harmonium; and thus a piece that Gonoud himself never actually wrote down went on to become one of the most-recorded and most-played pieces of music in the history of mankind.

It was the addition by Jacques Leopold Heugel in 1859 of the words from the Latin text of the prayer Ave Maria that put Gonoud’s noodlings on the road to ubiquity at church ceremonies throughout the Christian world.

Ave Maria is of course a traditional Christian prayer that asks for the intercession of the Virgin Mary in one’s life, to deal with any number of tricky situations that may arise and leave the supplicant feeling as though divine intervention is the only solution.

The Ave Maria is more commonly known to most people by its English translation: Hail Mary.

As the last refuge of the hopeless, the Hail Mary has also taken its place in the sporting lexicon over the years, particularly in American football, where it was popularized through the play of two members of the fabled Four Horsemen (Notre Dame’s legendary 1924 backfield, consisting of Don Miller, Harry Stuhldreher, Elmer Layden, and Jim Crowley) in an era when sports reporters such as Grantland Rice (who brought the Hail Mary to the gridiron) were capable of prose seldom seen on the sports pages today.

Exhibit A is the lead for the piece in which Rice introduced the Hail Mary in October 1924, after Notre Dame upset a heavily favoured Army team:

Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore their names are Death, Destruction, Pestilence and Famine. But those are aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller and Layden.

They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out on the green plain below.

Beautiful!

Exhibit B is the opening paragraph from a NY Post recounting of a NY Jets loss to the Buffalo Bills:

The Jets brought Ed Reed in on Thursday to help a leaky pass defense, one that has proven vulnerable to the deep ball.

But despite being shoehorned right into the lineup, the future Hall of Famer couldn’t keep that Achilles’ heel from being exposed over and over in a 37-14 loss to the Bills.

Call me old-fashioned, but where are the modern-day Grantland Rices? (Or is the plural “Grantlands Rice”? I don’t know.)

But I digress.

The definition of the term Hail Mary as it pertains to football, provided here by Wikipedia, does a sterling job of setting the stage for this week’s topic:

A Hail Mary pass or Hail Mary route is a very long forward pass in American football, made in desperation with only a small chance of success, especially at or near the end of a half.

Ah…

Yes, the Hail Mary is used in desperation, near the end of a contest when there is only a small chance of success…

When Abenomics was unveiled in Japan upon the re-election of Shinzo Abe as prime minister in late 2012, it is safe to say that, having been mired in a 20-year deflationary spiral and with debt totaling 240% of GDP, Japan was nearing an endgame of sorts.

For two decades the country had watched the yen strengthen and endemic deflation thwart any and all attempts to generate even moderate inflation, as repeated bouts of quantitative easing failed to administer the desired antidote to Japan’s ever-increasing debtload.

Realizing just how late in the game he found himself, Abe promised to change all this, but in order to do so he needed to pursue a high-risk strategy with a low probability of success.

The press (ever hungry for a new, catchy portmanteau word) dubbed it “Abenomics.”

Personally, I prefer to call it “Avenomics”: the economics of the hopeless.

To continue reading this article from Things That Make You Go Hmmm… – a free weekly newsletter by Grant Williams, a highly respected financial expert and current portfolio and strategy advisor at Vulpes Investment Management in Singapore – please click here.

Image_1_20131120_OTB

Outside the Box: A Limited Central Bank

 

This week’s Outside the Box is unusual, even for a letter that is noted for its unusual offerings. It is a speech from last week by Charles I. Plosser, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia at (surprisingly to me) the Cato Institute’s 31st Annual Monetary Conference, Washington, DC.

I suppose that if Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher had delivered this speech I would not be terribly surprised. I suspect there are some other Federal Reserve officials here and there whoare in sympathy with this view Plosser presents here, but for quite some time no serious Fed official has outlined the need for a limited Federal Reserve in the way Plosser does today. He essentially proposes four limits on the US Federal Reserve:

  • First, limit the Fed’s monetary policy goals to a narrow mandate in which price stability is the sole, or at least the primary, objective;
  • Second, limit the types of assets that the Fed can hold on its balance sheet to Treasury securities;
  • Third, limit the Fed’s discretion in monetary policymaking by requiring a systematic, rule-like approach;
  • And fourth, limit the boundaries of its lender-of-last-resort credit extension.

“These steps would yield a more limited central bank. In doing so, they would help preserve the central bank’s independence, thereby improving the effectiveness of monetary policy, and they would make it easier for the public to hold the Fed accountable for its policy decisions.”

Some of you will want to read this deeply, but everyone should read the beginning and ending. I find this one of the most hopeful documents I have read in a long time. Think about the position of the person who delivered the speech. You are not alone in your desire to rein in the Fed.

Two points before we turn to the speech. Both Fisher and Plosser will be voting members of the FOMC this coming year. Look at the lineup and the philosophical monetary view of each of the members of the FOMC. Next year we could actually see three dissenting votes if things are not moving in a positive direction, although another serious proponent of monetary easing is being added to the Committee, so it may be that nothing will really change.

I am not seriously suggesting that the reigning economic theory that directs the action of the Fed is going to change anytime soon, but you will see assorted academics espousing a different viewpoint here and there. I think there may come a time in the not-too-distant future when the current Keynesian viewpoint is going to be somewhat discredited and people will be open to a new way to run things. This will not happen due to some great shift in philosophical views but because the current system has the potential to create some rather serious problems in the future. This is part of the message in my latest book, Code Red.

A lot of education and change in the system is needed. I want to applaud Alan Howard and his team at Brevan Howard for making one of the largest donations in business education history to Imperial College to establish the new Brevan Howard Centre for Financial Analysis to study exactly these topics and counter what is a particularly bad direction in academia. The two leaders at the new center, Professors Franklin Allen and Douglas Gale, are renowned for their pioneering research into financial crises and market contagion – that is, when relatively small shocks in financial institutions spread and grow, severely damaging the wider economy. This new center will help offer a better perspective. What we teach our kids matters. I hope other major fund managers will join this effort!

And speaking of Code Red, let me pass on a few quick reviews from Amazon:

“Excellent review of our current economic circumstances and what we can do about it to protect our assets. Even better, it is written with the non-economist in mind.”

“I read this book from cover to cover in 24 hours and was glued to every page. Do I know how to protect my saving exactly? No. But I have the critical information necessary to make informed decisions about my investments. My husband recommended this book to me after reading a brief article, and I’m so glad I impulsively bought it. It will definitely change my investment decisions moving forward and perhaps even provide me with more restful nights of sleep.”

You can order your own copy at the Mauldin Economics website or at Amazon, and it is likely at your local book store.

It is getting down to crunch time here in Dallas as far as the move to the new apartment is concerned. Work is coming along and most of it is done, although some things will need to be finished after I move in. Furniture is being delivered and moved in as I write, and today an the new kitchen is being entirely stocked, courtesy of Williams-Sonoma – they’ll be showing up in a few minutes. I am fulfilling a long-held dream (maybe even a fantasy or fetish) of throwing everything out of the kitchen and starting over from scratch. Between my kids and a returning missionary couple, all the old stuff will find a new home, and I will renew my role as chief chef with new relish next week.

I have always maintained that I think I am a pretty good writer but I a brilliant cook. With a new kitchen from top to bottom, I intend to spend more time developing my true talent. Between the new media room and my cooking, I hope I can persuade the kids (and their kids!) to come around more often. Yes, there are a few bumps and issues here and there, but in general life is going well. I just need to get into the gym more. Which we should all probably do!

Your feeling like a kid in a candy store analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com


A Limited Central Bank

Presented by Charles I. Plosser, President and Chief Executive Officer, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia
Cato Institute’s 31st Annual Monetary Conference, Washington, D.C.

Highlights

  • President Charles Plosser discusses what he believes is the Federal Reserve’s essential role and proposes how this institution might be improved to better fulfill that role.
  • President Plosser proposes four limits on the central bank that would limit discretion and improve outcomes and accountability.
  • First, limit the Fed’s monetary policy goals to a narrow mandate in which price stability is the sole, or at least the primary, objective;
  • Second, limit the types of assets that the Fed can hold on its balance sheet to Treasury securities;
  • Third, limit the Fed’s discretion in monetary policymaking by requiring a systematic, rule-like approach;
  • And fourth, limit the boundaries of its lender-of-last-resort credit extension.
  • These steps would yield a more limited central bank. In doing so, they would help preserve the central bank’s independence, thereby improving the effectiveness of monetary policy, and they would make it easier for the public to hold the Fed accountable for its policy decisions.

Introduction: The Importance of Institutions

I want to thank Jim Dorn and the Cato Institute for inviting me to speak once again at this prestigious Annual Monetary Conference. When Jim told me that this year’s conference was titled “Was the Fed a Good Idea?” I must confess that I was little worried. I couldn’t help but notice that I was the only sitting central banker on the program. But as the Fed approaches its 100th anniversary, it is entirely appropriate to reflect on its history and its future. Today, I plan to discuss what I believe is the Federal Reserve’s essential role and consider how it might be improved as an institution to better fulfill that role.

Before I begin, I should note that my views are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve System or my colleagues on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC).

Douglass C. North was cowinner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on the role that institutions play in economic growth.1 North argued that institutions were deliberately devised to constrain interactions among parties both public and private. In the spirit of North’s work, one theme of my talk today will be that the institutional structure of the central bank matters. The central bank’s goals and objectives, its framework for implementing policy, and its governance structure all affect its performance.

Central banks have been around for a long time, but they have clearly evolved as economies and governments have changed. Most countries today operate under a fiat money regime, in which a nation’s currency has value because the government says it does. Central banks usually are given the responsibility to protect and preserve the value or purchasing power of the currency.2 In the U.S., the Fed does so by buying or selling assets in order to manage the growth of money and credit. The ability to buy and sell assets gives the Fed considerable power to intervene in financial markets not only through the quantity of its transactions but also through the types of assets it can buy and sell. Thus, it is entirely appropriate that governments establish their central banks with limits that constrain the actions of the central bank to one degree or another.

Yet, in recent years, we have seen many of the explicit and implicit limits stretched. The Fed and many other central banks have taken extraordinary steps to address a global financial crisis and the ensuing recession. These steps have challenged the accepted boundaries of central banking and have been both applauded and denounced. For example, the Fed has adopted unconventional large-scale asset purchases to increase accommodation after it reduced its conventional policy tool, the federal funds rate, to near zero. These asset purchases have led to the creation of trillions of dollars of reserves in the banking system and have greatly expanded the Fed’s balance sheet. But the Fed has done more than just purchase lots of assets; it has altered the composition of its balance sheet through the types of assets it has purchased. I have spoken on a number of occasions about my concerns that these actions to purchase specific (non-Treasury) assets amounted to a form of credit allocation, which targets specific industries, sectors, or firms. These credit policies cross the boundary from monetary policy and venture into the realm of fiscal policy.3 I include in this category the purchases of mortgage-backed securities (MBS) as well as emergency lending under Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act, in support of the bailouts, most notably of Bear Stearns and AIG. Regardless of the rationale for these actions, one needs to consider the long-term repercussions that such actions may have on the central bank as an institution.

As we contemplate what the Fed of the future should look like, I will discuss whether constraints on its goals might help limit the range of objectives it could use to justify its actions. I will also consider restrictions on the types of assets it can purchase to limit its interference with market allocations of scarce capital and generally to avoid engaging in actions that are best left to the fiscal authorities or the markets. I will also touch on governance and accountability of our institution and ways to implement policies that limit discretion and improve outcomes and accountability.

Goals and Objectives

Let me begin by addressing the goals and objectives for the Federal Reserve. These have evolved over time. When the Fed was first established in 1913, the U.S. and the world were operating under a classical gold standard. Therefore, price stability was not among the stated goals in the original Federal Reserve Act. Indeed, the primary objective in the preamble was to provide an “elastic currency.”

The gold standard had some desirable features. Domestic and international legal commitments regarding convertibility were important disciplining devices that were essential to the regime’s ability to deliver general price stability. The gold standard was a de facto rule that most people understood, and it allowed markets to function more efficiently because the price level was mostly stable.

But, the international gold standard began to unravel and was abandoned during World War I.4 After the war, efforts to reestablish parity proved disruptive and costly in both economic and political terms. Attempts to reestablish a gold standard ultimately fell apart in the 1930s. As a result, most of the world now operates under a fiat money regime, which has made price stability an important priority for those central banks charged with ensuring the purchasing power of the currency.

Congress established the current set of monetary policy goals in 1978. The amended Federal Reserve Act specifies the Fed “shall maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.” Since moderate long-term interest rates generally result when prices are stable and the economy is operating at full employment, many have interpreted these goals as a dual mandate with price stability and maximum employment as the focus.

Let me point out that the instructions from Congress call for the FOMC to stress the “long run growth” of money and credit commensurate with the economy’s “long run potential.” There are many other things that Congress could have specified, but it chose not to do so. The act doesn’t talk about managing short-term credit allocation across sectors; it doesn’t mention inflating housing prices or other asset prices. It also doesn’t mention reducing short-term fluctuations in employment.

Many discussions about the Fed’s mandate seem to forget the emphasis on the long run. The public, and perhaps even some within the Fed, have come to accept as an axiom that monetary policy can and should attempt to manage fluctuations in employment. Rather than simply set a monetary environment “commensurate” with the “long run potential to increase production,” these individuals seek policies that attempt to manage fluctuations in employment over the short run.

The active pursuit of employment objectives has been and continues to be problematic for the Fed. Most economists are dubious of the ability of monetary policy to predictably and precisely control employment in the short run, and there is a strong consensus that, in the long run, monetary policy cannot determine employment. As the FOMC noted in its statement on longer-run goals adopted in 2012, “the maximum level of employment is largely determined by nonmonetary factors that affect the structure and dynamics of the labor market.” In my view, focusing on short-run control of employment weakens the credibility and effectiveness of the Fed in achieving its price stability objective. We learned this lesson most dramatically during the 1970s when, despite the extensive efforts to reduce unemployment, the Fed essentially failed, and the nation experienced a prolonged period of high unemployment and high inflation. The economy paid the price in the form of a deep recession, as the Fed sought to restore the credibility of its commitment to price stability.

When establishing the longer-term goals and objectives for any organization, and particularly one that serves the public, it is important that the goals be achievable. Assigning unachievable goals to organizations is a recipe for failure. For the Fed, it could mean a loss of public confidence. I fear that the public has come to expect too much from its central bank and too much from monetary policy, in particular. We need to heed the words of another Nobel Prize winner, Milton Friedman. In his 1967 presidential address to the American Economic Association, he said, “…we are in danger of assigning to monetary policy a larger role than it can perform, in danger of asking it to accomplish tasks that it cannot achieve, and as a result, in danger of preventing it from making the contribution that it is capable of making.”5 In the 1970s we saw the truth in Friedman’s earlier admonitions. I think that over the past 40 years, with the exception of the Paul Volcker era, we failed to heed this warning. We have assigned an ever-expanding role for monetary policy, and we expect our central bank to solve all manner of economic woes for which it is ill-suited to address. We need to better align the expectations of monetary policy with what it is actually capable of achieving.

The so-called dual mandate has contributed to this expansionary view of the powers of monetary policy. Even though the 2012 statement of objectives acknowledged that it is inappropriate to set a fixed goal for employment and that maximum employment is influenced by many factors, the FOMC’s recent policy statements have increasingly given the impression that it wants to achieve an employment goal as quickly as possible.6

I believe that the aggressive pursuit of broad and expansive objectives is quite risky and could have very undesirable repercussions down the road, including undermining the public’s confidence in the institution, its legitimacy, and its independence. To put this in different terms, assigning multiple objectives for the central bank opens the door to highly discretionary policies, which can be justified by shifting the focus or rationale for action from goal to goal.

I have concluded that it would be appropriate to redefine the Fed’s monetary policy goals to focus solely, or at least primarily, on price stability. I base this on two facts: Monetary policy has very limited ability to influence real variables, such as employment. And, in a regime with fiat currency, only the central bank can ensure price stability. Indeed, it is the one goal that the central bank can achieve over the longer run.

Governance and Central Bank Independence

Even with a narrow mandate to focus on price stability, the institution must be well designed if it is to be successful. To meet even this narrow mandate, the central bank must have a fair amount of independence from the political process so that it can set policy for the long run without the pressure to print money as a substitute for tough fiscal choices. Good governance requires a healthy degree of separation between those responsible for taxes and expenditures and those responsible for printing money.

The original design of the Fed’s governance recognized the importance of this independence. Consider its decentralized, public-private structure, with Governors appointed by the U.S. President and confirmed by the Senate, and Fed presidents chosen by their boards of directors. This design helps ensure a diversity of views and a more decentralized governance structure that reduces the potential for abuses and capture by special interests or political agendas. It also reinforces the independence of monetary policymaking, which leads to better economic outcomes.

Implementing Policy and Limiting Discretion

Such independence in a democracy also necessitates that the central bank remain accountable. Its activities also need to be constrained in a manner that limits its discretionary authority. As I have already argued, a narrow mandate is an important limiting factor on an expansionist view of the role and scope for monetary policy.

What other sorts of constraints are appropriate on the activities of central banks? I believe that monetary policy and fiscal policy should have clear boundaries.7 Independence is what Congress can and should grant the Fed, but, in exchange for such independence, the central bank should be constrained from conducting fiscal policy. As I have already mentioned, the Fed has ventured into the realm of fiscal policy by its purchase programs of assets that target specific industries and individual firms. One way to circumscribe the range of activities a central bank can undertake is to limit the assets it can buy and hold.

In its System Open Market Account, the Fed is allowed to hold only U.S. government securities and securities that are direct obligations of or fully guaranteed by agencies of the United States. But these restrictions still allowed the Fed to purchase large amounts of agency mortgage-backed securities in its effort to boost the housing sector. My preference would be to limit Fed purchases to Treasury securities and return the Fed’s balance sheet to an all-Treasury portfolio. This would limit the ability of the Fed to engage in credit policies that target specific industries. As I’ve already noted, such programs to allocate credit rightfully belong in the realm of the fiscal authorities — not the central bank.

A third way to constrain central bank actions is to direct the monetary authority to conduct policy in a systematic, rule-like manner.8 It is often difficult for policymakers to choose a systematic rule-like approach that would tie their hands and thus limit their discretionary authority. Yet, research has discussed the benefits of rule-like behavior for some time. Rules are transparent and therefore allow for simpler and more effective communication of policy decisions. Moreover, a large body of research emphasizes the important role expectations play in determining economic outcomes. When policy is set systematically, the public and financial market participants can form better expectations about policy. Policy is no longer a source of instability or uncertainty. While choosing an appropriate rule is important, research shows that in a wide variety of models simple, robust monetary policy rules can produce outcomes close to those delivered by each model’s optimal policy rule.

Systematic policy can also help preserve a central bank’s independence. When the public has a better understanding of policymakers’ intentions, it is able to hold the central bank more accountable for its actions. And the rule-like behavior helps to keep policy focused on the central bank’s objectives, limiting discretionary actions that may wander toward other agendas and goals.

Congress is not the appropriate body to determine the form of such a rule. However, Congress could direct the monetary authority to communicate the broad guidelines the authority will use to conduct policy. One way this might work is to require the Fed to publicly describe how it will systematically conduct policy in normal times — this might be incorporated into the semiannual Monetary Policy Report submitted to Congress. This would hold the Fed accountable. If the FOMC chooses to deviate from the guidelines, it must then explain why and how it intends to return to its prescribed guidelines.

My sense is that the recent difficulty the Fed has faced in trying to offer clear and transparent guidance on its current and future policy path stems from the fact that policymakers still desire to maintain discretion in setting monetary policy. Effective forward guidance, however, requires commitment to behave in a particular way in the future. But discretion is the antithesis of commitment and undermines the effectiveness of forward guidance. Given this tension, few should be surprised that the Fed has struggled with its communications.

What is the answer? I see three: Simplify the goals. Constrain the tools. Make decisions more systematically. All three steps can lead to clearer communications and a better understanding on the part of the public. Creating a stronger policymaking framework will ultimately produce better economic outcomes.

Financial Stability and Monetary Policy

Before concluding, I would like to say a few words about the role that the central bank plays in promoting financial stability. Since the financial crisis, there has been an expansion of the Fed’s responsibilities for controlling macroprudential and systemic risk. Some have even called for an expansion of the monetary policy mandate to include an explicit goal for financial stability. I think this would be a mistake.

The Fed plays an important role as the lender of last resort, offering liquidity to solvent firms in times of extreme financial stress to forestall contagion and mitigate systemic risk. This liquidity is intended to help ensure that solvent institutions facing temporary liquidity problems remain solvent and that there is sufficient liquidity in the banking system to meet the demand for currency. In this sense, liquidity lending is simply providing an “elastic currency.”

Thus, the role of lender of last resort is not to prop up insolvent institutions. However, in some cases during the crisis, the Fed played a role in the resolution of particular insolvent firms that were deemed systemically important financial firms. Subsequently, the Dodd-Frank Act has limited some of the lending actions the Fed can take with individual firms under Section 13(3). Nonetheless, by taking these actions, the Fed has created expectations — perhaps unrealistic ones — about what the Fed can and should do to combat financial instability.

Just as it is true for monetary policy, it is important to be clear about the Fed’s responsibilities for promoting financial stability. It is unrealistic to expect the central bank to alleviate all systemic risk in financial markets. Expanding the Fed’s regulatory responsibilities too broadly increases the chances that there will be short-run conflicts between its monetary policy goals and its supervisory and regulatory goals. This should be avoided, as it could undermine the credibility of the Fed’s commitment to price stability.

Similarly, the central bank should set boundaries and guidelines for its lending policy that it can credibly commit to follow. If the set of institutions having regular access to the Fed’s credit facilities is expanded too far, it will create moral hazard and distort the market mechanism for allocating credit. This can end up undermining the very financial stability that it is supposed to promote.

Emergencies can and do arise. If the Fed is asked by the fiscal authorities to intervene by allocating credit to particular firms or sectors of the economy, then the Treasury should take these assets off of the Fed’s balance sheet in exchange for Treasury securities. In 2009, I advocated that we establish a new accord between the Treasury and the Federal Reserve that protects the Fed in just such a way.9 Such an arrangement would be similar to the Treasury-Fed Accord of 1951 that freed the Fed from keeping the interest rate on long-term Treasury debt below 2.5 percent. It would help ensure that when credit policies put taxpayer funds at risk, they are the responsibility of the fiscal authority — not the Fed. A new accord would also return control of the Fed’s balance sheet to the Fed so that it can conduct independent monetary policy.

Many observers think financial instability is endemic to the financial industry, and therefore, it must be controlled through regulation and oversight. However, financial instability can also be a consequence of governments and their policies, even those intended to reduce instability. I can think of three ways in which central bank policies can increase the risks of financial instability. First, by rescuing firms or creating the expectation that creditors will be rescued, policymakers either implicitly or explicitly create moral hazard and excessive risking-taking by financial firms. For this moral hazard to exist, it doesn’t matter if the taxpayer or the private sector provides the funds. What matters is that creditors are protected, in part, if not entirely.

Second, by running credit policies, such as buying huge volumes of mortgage-backed securities that distort market signals or the allocation of capital, policymakers can sow the seeds of financial instability because of the distortions that they create, which in time must be corrected.

And third, by taking a highly discretionary approach to monetary policy, policymakers increase the risks of financial instability by making monetary policy uncertain. Such uncertainty can lead markets to make unwise investment decisions — witness the complaints of those who took positions expecting the Fed to follow through with the taper decision in September of this year.

The Fed and other policymakers need to think more about the way their policies might contribute to financial instability. I believe that it is important that the Fed take steps to conduct its own policies and to help other regulators reduce the contributions of such policies to financial instability. The more limited role for the central bank I have described here can contribute to such efforts.

Conclusion

The financial crisis and its aftermath have been challenging times for global economies and their institutions. The extraordinary actions taken by the Fed to combat the crisis and the ensuing recession and to support recovery have expanded the roles assigned to monetary policy. The public has come to expect too much from its central bank. To remedy this situation, I believe it would be appropriate to set four limits on the central bank:

  • First, limit the Fed’s monetary policy goals to a narrow mandate in which price stability is the sole, or at least the primary, objective;
  • Second, limit the types of assets that the Fed can hold on its balance sheet to Treasury securities;
  • Third, limit the Fed’s discretion in monetary policymaking by requiring a systematic, rule-like approach;
  • And fourth, limit the boundaries of its lender-of-last-resort credit extension and ensure that it is conducted in a systematic fashion
  • These steps would yield a more limited central bank. In doing so, they would help preserve the central bank’s independence, thereby improving the effectiveness of monetary policy, and, at the same time, they would make it easier for the public to hold the Fed accountable for its policy decisions. These changes to the institution would strengthen the Fed for its next 100 years.

* The views expressed are my own and not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve System or the FOMC.

1 For more about Douglass C. North and his cowinner Robert W. Fogel and the 1993 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, see Nobel Media, “The Prize in Economics 1993 – Press Release,” (1993), www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/1993/press.html (Accessed November 11, 2013). See also Douglass C. North, “Institutions,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5:1 (1991), pp. 97-112.

2 Countries can and do pursue different means of setting the value of their currency, including pegging their monetary policy to that of another country, but I will not concern myself with such issues in these comments.

3 See Charles Plosser, “Ensuring Sound Monetary Policy in the Aftermath of Crisis,” speech given to the U.S. Monetary Policy Forum, The Initiative on Global Markets, University of Chicago Booth School of Business, New York, NY, February 27, 2009, and Charles Plosser, “Fiscal Policy and Monetary Policy: Restoring the Boundaries,” a speech to the same group, February 24, 2012.

4 See Ben S. Bernanke, “A Century of U.S. Central Banking: Goals, Frameworks, Accountability,” speech to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, July 10, 2013; and Jeffrey M. Lacker, “Global Interdependence and Central Banking,” speech to the Global Interdependence Center, Philadelphia, November 1, 2013.

5 See Milton Friedman, “The Role of Monetary Policy,” American Economic Review, 58:1 (March 1968), pp. 1-17.

6 See Daniel L. Thornton, “The Dual Mandate: Has the Fed Changed Its Objective?” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, 94 (March/April 2012), pp. 117-33.

7 See Plosser (2009) and Plosser (2012).

8 See Charles Plosser, “The Benefits of Systematic Monetary Policy,” speech given to the National Association for Business Economics, Washington Economic Policy Conference, Washington, D.C., March 3, 2008. Also see Finn E. Kydland and Edward C. Prescott, “Rules Rather Than Discretion: The Inconsistency of Optimal Plans,” Journal of Political Economy, 85 (January 1977), pp. 473-91.

9 See Plosser (2009).

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Outside the Box: A Limited Central Bank

 

This week’s Outside the Box is unusual, even for a letter that is noted for its unusual offerings. It is a speech from last week by Charles I. Plosser, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia at (surprisingly to me) the Cato Institute’s 31st Annual Monetary Conference, Washington, DC.

I suppose that if Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher had delivered this speech I would not be terribly surprised. I suspect there are some other Federal Reserve officials here and there whoare in sympathy with this view Plosser presents here, but for quite some time no serious Fed official has outlined the need for a limited Federal Reserve in the way Plosser does today. He essentially proposes four limits on the US Federal Reserve:

  • First, limit the Fed’s monetary policy goals to a narrow mandate in which price stability is the sole, or at least the primary, objective;
  • Second, limit the types of assets that the Fed can hold on its balance sheet to Treasury securities;
  • Third, limit the Fed’s discretion in monetary policymaking by requiring a systematic, rule-like approach;
  • And fourth, limit the boundaries of its lender-of-last-resort credit extension.

“These steps would yield a more limited central bank. In doing so, they would help preserve the central bank’s independence, thereby improving the effectiveness of monetary policy, and they would make it easier for the public to hold the Fed accountable for its policy decisions.”

Some of you will want to read this deeply, but everyone should read the beginning and ending. I find this one of the most hopeful documents I have read in a long time. Think about the position of the person who delivered the speech. You are not alone in your desire to rein in the Fed.

Two points before we turn to the speech. Both Fisher and Plosser will be voting members of the FOMC this coming year. Look at the lineup and the philosophical monetary view of each of the members of the FOMC. Next year we could actually see three dissenting votes if things are not moving in a positive direction, although another serious proponent of monetary easing is being added to the Committee, so it may be that nothing will really change.

I am not seriously suggesting that the reigning economic theory that directs the action of the Fed is going to change anytime soon, but you will see assorted academics espousing a different viewpoint here and there. I think there may come a time in the not-too-distant future when the current Keynesian viewpoint is going to be somewhat discredited and people will be open to a new way to run things. This will not happen due to some great shift in philosophical views but because the current system has the potential to create some rather serious problems in the future. This is part of the message in my latest book, Code Red.

A lot of education and change in the system is needed. I want to applaud Alan Howard and his team at Brevan Howard for making one of the largest donations in business education history to Imperial College to establish the new Brevan Howard Centre for Financial Analysis to study exactly these topics and counter what is a particularly bad direction in academia. The two leaders at the new center, Professors Franklin Allen and Douglas Gale, are renowned for their pioneering research into financial crises and market contagion – that is, when relatively small shocks in financial institutions spread and grow, severely damaging the wider economy. This new center will help offer a better perspective. What we teach our kids matters. I hope other major fund managers will join this effort!

And speaking of Code Red, let me pass on a few quick reviews from Amazon:

“Excellent review of our current economic circumstances and what we can do about it to protect our assets. Even better, it is written with the non-economist in mind.”

“I read this book from cover to cover in 24 hours and was glued to every page. Do I know how to protect my saving exactly? No. But I have the critical information necessary to make informed decisions about my investments. My husband recommended this book to me after reading a brief article, and I’m so glad I impulsively bought it. It will definitely change my investment decisions moving forward and perhaps even provide me with more restful nights of sleep.”

You can order your own copy at the Mauldin Economics website or at Amazon, and it is likely at your local book store.

It is getting down to crunch time here in Dallas as far as the move to the new apartment is concerned. Work is coming along and most of it is done, although some things will need to be finished after I move in. Furniture is being delivered and moved in as I write, and today an the new kitchen is being entirely stocked, courtesy of Williams-Sonoma – they’ll be showing up in a few minutes. I am fulfilling a long-held dream (maybe even a fantasy or fetish) of throwing everything out of the kitchen and starting over from scratch. Between my kids and a returning missionary couple, all the old stuff will find a new home, and I will renew my role as chief chef with new relish next week.

I have always maintained that I think I am a pretty good writer but I a brilliant cook. With a new kitchen from top to bottom, I intend to spend more time developing my true talent. Between the new media room and my cooking, I hope I can persuade the kids (and their kids!) to come around more often. Yes, there are a few bumps and issues here and there, but in general life is going well. I just need to get into the gym more. Which we should all probably do!

Your feeling like a kid in a candy store analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com


A Limited Central Bank

Presented by Charles I. Plosser, President and Chief Executive Officer, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia
Cato Institute’s 31st Annual Monetary Conference, Washington, D.C.

Highlights

  • President Charles Plosser discusses what he believes is the Federal Reserve’s essential role and proposes how this institution might be improved to better fulfill that role.
  • President Plosser proposes four limits on the central bank that would limit discretion and improve outcomes and accountability.
  • First, limit the Fed’s monetary policy goals to a narrow mandate in which price stability is the sole, or at least the primary, objective;
  • Second, limit the types of assets that the Fed can hold on its balance sheet to Treasury securities;
  • Third, limit the Fed’s discretion in monetary policymaking by requiring a systematic, rule-like approach;
  • And fourth, limit the boundaries of its lender-of-last-resort credit extension.
  • These steps would yield a more limited central bank. In doing so, they would help preserve the central bank’s independence, thereby improving the effectiveness of monetary policy, and they would make it easier for the public to hold the Fed accountable for its policy decisions.

Introduction: The Importance of Institutions

I want to thank Jim Dorn and the Cato Institute for inviting me to speak once again at this prestigious Annual Monetary Conference. When Jim told me that this year’s conference was titled “Was the Fed a Good Idea?” I must confess that I was little worried. I couldn’t help but notice that I was the only sitting central banker on the program. But as the Fed approaches its 100th anniversary, it is entirely appropriate to reflect on its history and its future. Today, I plan to discuss what I believe is the Federal Reserve’s essential role and consider how it might be improved as an institution to better fulfill that role.

Before I begin, I should note that my views are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve System or my colleagues on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC).

Douglass C. North was cowinner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on the role that institutions play in economic growth.1 North argued that institutions were deliberately devised to constrain interactions among parties both public and private. In the spirit of North’s work, one theme of my talk today will be that the institutional structure of the central bank matters. The central bank’s goals and objectives, its framework for implementing policy, and its governance structure all affect its performance.

Central banks have been around for a long time, but they have clearly evolved as economies and governments have changed. Most countries today operate under a fiat money regime, in which a nation’s currency has value because the government says it does. Central banks usually are given the responsibility to protect and preserve the value or purchasing power of the currency.2 In the U.S., the Fed does so by buying or selling assets in order to manage the growth of money and credit. The ability to buy and sell assets gives the Fed considerable power to intervene in financial markets not only through the quantity of its transactions but also through the types of assets it can buy and sell. Thus, it is entirely appropriate that governments establish their central banks with limits that constrain the actions of the central bank to one degree or another.

Yet, in recent years, we have seen many of the explicit and implicit limits stretched. The Fed and many other central banks have taken extraordinary steps to address a global financial crisis and the ensuing recession. These steps have challenged the accepted boundaries of central banking and have been both applauded and denounced. For example, the Fed has adopted unconventional large-scale asset purchases to increase accommodation after it reduced its conventional policy tool, the federal funds rate, to near zero. These asset purchases have led to the creation of trillions of dollars of reserves in the banking system and have greatly expanded the Fed’s balance sheet. But the Fed has done more than just purchase lots of assets; it has altered the composition of its balance sheet through the types of assets it has purchased. I have spoken on a number of occasions about my concerns that these actions to purchase specific (non-Treasury) assets amounted to a form of credit allocation, which targets specific industries, sectors, or firms. These credit policies cross the boundary from monetary policy and venture into the realm of fiscal policy.3 I include in this category the purchases of mortgage-backed securities (MBS) as well as emergency lending under Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act, in support of the bailouts, most notably of Bear Stearns and AIG. Regardless of the rationale for these actions, one needs to consider the long-term repercussions that such actions may have on the central bank as an institution.

As we contemplate what the Fed of the future should look like, I will discuss whether constraints on its goals might help limit the range of objectives it could use to justify its actions. I will also consider restrictions on the types of assets it can purchase to limit its interference with market allocations of scarce capital and generally to avoid engaging in actions that are best left to the fiscal authorities or the markets. I will also touch on governance and accountability of our institution and ways to implement policies that limit discretion and improve outcomes and accountability.

Goals and Objectives

Let me begin by addressing the goals and objectives for the Federal Reserve. These have evolved over time. When the Fed was first established in 1913, the U.S. and the world were operating under a classical gold standard. Therefore, price stability was not among the stated goals in the original Federal Reserve Act. Indeed, the primary objective in the preamble was to provide an “elastic currency.”

The gold standard had some desirable features. Domestic and international legal commitments regarding convertibility were important disciplining devices that were essential to the regime’s ability to deliver general price stability. The gold standard was a de facto rule that most people understood, and it allowed markets to function more efficiently because the price level was mostly stable.

But, the international gold standard began to unravel and was abandoned during World War I.4 After the war, efforts to reestablish parity proved disruptive and costly in both economic and political terms. Attempts to reestablish a gold standard ultimately fell apart in the 1930s. As a result, most of the world now operates under a fiat money regime, which has made price stability an important priority for those central banks charged with ensuring the purchasing power of the currency.

Congress established the current set of monetary policy goals in 1978. The amended Federal Reserve Act specifies the Fed “shall maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.” Since moderate long-term interest rates generally result when prices are stable and the economy is operating at full employment, many have interpreted these goals as a dual mandate with price stability and maximum employment as the focus.

Let me point out that the instructions from Congress call for the FOMC to stress the “long run growth” of money and credit commensurate with the economy’s “long run potential.” There are many other things that Congress could have specified, but it chose not to do so. The act doesn’t talk about managing short-term credit allocation across sectors; it doesn’t mention inflating housing prices or other asset prices. It also doesn’t mention reducing short-term fluctuations in employment.

Many discussions about the Fed’s mandate seem to forget the emphasis on the long run. The public, and perhaps even some within the Fed, have come to accept as an axiom that monetary policy can and should attempt to manage fluctuations in employment. Rather than simply set a monetary environment “commensurate” with the “long run potential to increase production,” these individuals seek policies that attempt to manage fluctuations in employment over the short run.

The active pursuit of employment objectives has been and continues to be problematic for the Fed. Most economists are dubious of the ability of monetary policy to predictably and precisely control employment in the short run, and there is a strong consensus that, in the long run, monetary policy cannot determine employment. As the FOMC noted in its statement on longer-run goals adopted in 2012, “the maximum level of employment is largely determined by nonmonetary factors that affect the structure and dynamics of the labor market.” In my view, focusing on short-run control of employment weakens the credibility and effectiveness of the Fed in achieving its price stability objective. We learned this lesson most dramatically during the 1970s when, despite the extensive efforts to reduce unemployment, the Fed essentially failed, and the nation experienced a prolonged period of high unemployment and high inflation. The economy paid the price in the form of a deep recession, as the Fed sought to restore the credibility of its commitment to price stability.

When establishing the longer-term goals and objectives for any organization, and particularly one that serves the public, it is important that the goals be achievable. Assigning unachievable goals to organizations is a recipe for failure. For the Fed, it could mean a loss of public confidence. I fear that the public has come to expect too much from its central bank and too much from monetary policy, in particular. We need to heed the words of another Nobel Prize winner, Milton Friedman. In his 1967 presidential address to the American Economic Association, he said, “…we are in danger of assigning to monetary policy a larger role than it can perform, in danger of asking it to accomplish tasks that it cannot achieve, and as a result, in danger of preventing it from making the contribution that it is capable of making.”5 In the 1970s we saw the truth in Friedman’s earlier admonitions. I think that over the past 40 years, with the exception of the Paul Volcker era, we failed to heed this warning. We have assigned an ever-expanding role for monetary policy, and we expect our central bank to solve all manner of economic woes for which it is ill-suited to address. We need to better align the expectations of monetary policy with what it is actually capable of achieving.

The so-called dual mandate has contributed to this expansionary view of the powers of monetary policy. Even though the 2012 statement of objectives acknowledged that it is inappropriate to set a fixed goal for employment and that maximum employment is influenced by many factors, the FOMC’s recent policy statements have increasingly given the impression that it wants to achieve an employment goal as quickly as possible.6

I believe that the aggressive pursuit of broad and expansive objectives is quite risky and could have very undesirable repercussions down the road, including undermining the public’s confidence in the institution, its legitimacy, and its independence. To put this in different terms, assigning multiple objectives for the central bank opens the door to highly discretionary policies, which can be justified by shifting the focus or rationale for action from goal to goal.

I have concluded that it would be appropriate to redefine the Fed’s monetary policy goals to focus solely, or at least primarily, on price stability. I base this on two facts: Monetary policy has very limited ability to influence real variables, such as employment. And, in a regime with fiat currency, only the central bank can ensure price stability. Indeed, it is the one goal that the central bank can achieve over the longer run.

Governance and Central Bank Independence

Even with a narrow mandate to focus on price stability, the institution must be well designed if it is to be successful. To meet even this narrow mandate, the central bank must have a fair amount of independence from the political process so that it can set policy for the long run without the pressure to print money as a substitute for tough fiscal choices. Good governance requires a healthy degree of separation between those responsible for taxes and expenditures and those responsible for printing money.

The original design of the Fed’s governance recognized the importance of this independence. Consider its decentralized, public-private structure, with Governors appointed by the U.S. President and confirmed by the Senate, and Fed presidents chosen by their boards of directors. This design helps ensure a diversity of views and a more decentralized governance structure that reduces the potential for abuses and capture by special interests or political agendas. It also reinforces the independence of monetary policymaking, which leads to better economic outcomes.

Implementing Policy and Limiting Discretion

Such independence in a democracy also necessitates that the central bank remain accountable. Its activities also need to be constrained in a manner that limits its discretionary authority. As I have already argued, a narrow mandate is an important limiting factor on an expansionist view of the role and scope for monetary policy.

What other sorts of constraints are appropriate on the activities of central banks? I believe that monetary policy and fiscal policy should have clear boundaries.7 Independence is what Congress can and should grant the Fed, but, in exchange for such independence, the central bank should be constrained from conducting fiscal policy. As I have already mentioned, the Fed has ventured into the realm of fiscal policy by its purchase programs of assets that target specific industries and individual firms. One way to circumscribe the range of activities a central bank can undertake is to limit the assets it can buy and hold.

In its System Open Market Account, the Fed is allowed to hold only U.S. government securities and securities that are direct obligations of or fully guaranteed by agencies of the United States. But these restrictions still allowed the Fed to purchase large amounts of agency mortgage-backed securities in its effort to boost the housing sector. My preference would be to limit Fed purchases to Treasury securities and return the Fed’s balance sheet to an all-Treasury portfolio. This would limit the ability of the Fed to engage in credit policies that target specific industries. As I’ve already noted, such programs to allocate credit rightfully belong in the realm of the fiscal authorities — not the central bank.

A third way to constrain central bank actions is to direct the monetary authority to conduct policy in a systematic, rule-like manner.8 It is often difficult for policymakers to choose a systematic rule-like approach that would tie their hands and thus limit their discretionary authority. Yet, research has discussed the benefits of rule-like behavior for some time. Rules are transparent and therefore allow for simpler and more effective communication of policy decisions. Moreover, a large body of research emphasizes the important role expectations play in determining economic outcomes. When policy is set systematically, the public and financial market participants can form better expectations about policy. Policy is no longer a source of instability or uncertainty. While choosing an appropriate rule is important, research shows that in a wide variety of models simple, robust monetary policy rules can produce outcomes close to those delivered by each model’s optimal policy rule.

Systematic policy can also help preserve a central bank’s independence. When the public has a better understanding of policymakers’ intentions, it is able to hold the central bank more accountable for its actions. And the rule-like behavior helps to keep policy focused on the central bank’s objectives, limiting discretionary actions that may wander toward other agendas and goals.

Congress is not the appropriate body to determine the form of such a rule. However, Congress could direct the monetary authority to communicate the broad guidelines the authority will use to conduct policy. One way this might work is to require the Fed to publicly describe how it will systematically conduct policy in normal times — this might be incorporated into the semiannual Monetary Policy Report submitted to Congress. This would hold the Fed accountable. If the FOMC chooses to deviate from the guidelines, it must then explain why and how it intends to return to its prescribed guidelines.

My sense is that the recent difficulty the Fed has faced in trying to offer clear and transparent guidance on its current and future policy path stems from the fact that policymakers still desire to maintain discretion in setting monetary policy. Effective forward guidance, however, requires commitment to behave in a particular way in the future. But discretion is the antithesis of commitment and undermines the effectiveness of forward guidance. Given this tension, few should be surprised that the Fed has struggled with its communications.

What is the answer? I see three: Simplify the goals. Constrain the tools. Make decisions more systematically. All three steps can lead to clearer communications and a better understanding on the part of the public. Creating a stronger policymaking framework will ultimately produce better economic outcomes.

Financial Stability and Monetary Policy

Before concluding, I would like to say a few words about the role that the central bank plays in promoting financial stability. Since the financial crisis, there has been an expansion of the Fed’s responsibilities for controlling macroprudential and systemic risk. Some have even called for an expansion of the monetary policy mandate to include an explicit goal for financial stability. I think this would be a mistake.

The Fed plays an important role as the lender of last resort, offering liquidity to solvent firms in times of extreme financial stress to forestall contagion and mitigate systemic risk. This liquidity is intended to help ensure that solvent institutions facing temporary liquidity problems remain solvent and that there is sufficient liquidity in the banking system to meet the demand for currency. In this sense, liquidity lending is simply providing an “elastic currency.”

Thus, the role of lender of last resort is not to prop up insolvent institutions. However, in some cases during the crisis, the Fed played a role in the resolution of particular insolvent firms that were deemed systemically important financial firms. Subsequently, the Dodd-Frank Act has limited some of the lending actions the Fed can take with individual firms under Section 13(3). Nonetheless, by taking these actions, the Fed has created expectations — perhaps unrealistic ones — about what the Fed can and should do to combat financial instability.

Just as it is true for monetary policy, it is important to be clear about the Fed’s responsibilities for promoting financial stability. It is unrealistic to expect the central bank to alleviate all systemic risk in financial markets. Expanding the Fed’s regulatory responsibilities too broadly increases the chances that there will be short-run conflicts between its monetary policy goals and its supervisory and regulatory goals. This should be avoided, as it could undermine the credibility of the Fed’s commitment to price stability.

Similarly, the central bank should set boundaries and guidelines for its lending policy that it can credibly commit to follow. If the set of institutions having regular access to the Fed’s credit facilities is expanded too far, it will create moral hazard and distort the market mechanism for allocating credit. This can end up undermining the very financial stability that it is supposed to promote.

Emergencies can and do arise. If the Fed is asked by the fiscal authorities to intervene by allocating credit to particular firms or sectors of the economy, then the Treasury should take these assets off of the Fed’s balance sheet in exchange for Treasury securities. In 2009, I advocated that we establish a new accord between the Treasury and the Federal Reserve that protects the Fed in just such a way.9 Such an arrangement would be similar to the Treasury-Fed Accord of 1951 that freed the Fed from keeping the interest rate on long-term Treasury debt below 2.5 percent. It would help ensure that when credit policies put taxpayer funds at risk, they are the responsibility of the fiscal authority — not the Fed. A new accord would also return control of the Fed’s balance sheet to the Fed so that it can conduct independent monetary policy.

Many observers think financial instability is endemic to the financial industry, and therefore, it must be controlled through regulation and oversight. However, financial instability can also be a consequence of governments and their policies, even those intended to reduce instability. I can think of three ways in which central bank policies can increase the risks of financial instability. First, by rescuing firms or creating the expectation that creditors will be rescued, policymakers either implicitly or explicitly create moral hazard and excessive risking-taking by financial firms. For this moral hazard to exist, it doesn’t matter if the taxpayer or the private sector provides the funds. What matters is that creditors are protected, in part, if not entirely.

Second, by running credit policies, such as buying huge volumes of mortgage-backed securities that distort market signals or the allocation of capital, policymakers can sow the seeds of financial instability because of the distortions that they create, which in time must be corrected.

And third, by taking a highly discretionary approach to monetary policy, policymakers increase the risks of financial instability by making monetary policy uncertain. Such uncertainty can lead markets to make unwise investment decisions — witness the complaints of those who took positions expecting the Fed to follow through with the taper decision in September of this year.

The Fed and other policymakers need to think more about the way their policies might contribute to financial instability. I believe that it is important that the Fed take steps to conduct its own policies and to help other regulators reduce the contributions of such policies to financial instability. The more limited role for the central bank I have described here can contribute to such efforts.

Conclusion

The financial crisis and its aftermath have been challenging times for global economies and their institutions. The extraordinary actions taken by the Fed to combat the crisis and the ensuing recession and to support recovery have expanded the roles assigned to monetary policy. The public has come to expect too much from its central bank. To remedy this situation, I believe it would be appropriate to set four limits on the central bank:

  • First, limit the Fed’s monetary policy goals to a narrow mandate in which price stability is the sole, or at least the primary, objective;
  • Second, limit the types of assets that the Fed can hold on its balance sheet to Treasury securities;
  • Third, limit the Fed’s discretion in monetary policymaking by requiring a systematic, rule-like approach;
  • And fourth, limit the boundaries of its lender-of-last-resort credit extension and ensure that it is conducted in a systematic fashion
  • These steps would yield a more limited central bank. In doing so, they would help preserve the central bank’s independence, thereby improving the effectiveness of monetary policy, and, at the same time, they would make it easier for the public to hold the Fed accountable for its policy decisions. These changes to the institution would strengthen the Fed for its next 100 years.

* The views expressed are my own and not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve System or the FOMC.

1 For more about Douglass C. North and his cowinner Robert W. Fogel and the 1993 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, see Nobel Media, “The Prize in Economics 1993 – Press Release,” (1993), www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/1993/press.html (Accessed November 11, 2013). See also Douglass C. North, “Institutions,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5:1 (1991), pp. 97-112.

2 Countries can and do pursue different means of setting the value of their currency, including pegging their monetary policy to that of another country, but I will not concern myself with such issues in these comments.

3 See Charles Plosser, “Ensuring Sound Monetary Policy in the Aftermath of Crisis,” speech given to the U.S. Monetary Policy Forum, The Initiative on Global Markets, University of Chicago Booth School of Business, New York, NY, February 27, 2009, and Charles Plosser, “Fiscal Policy and Monetary Policy: Restoring the Boundaries,” a speech to the same group, February 24, 2012.

4 See Ben S. Bernanke, “A Century of U.S. Central Banking: Goals, Frameworks, Accountability,” speech to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, July 10, 2013; and Jeffrey M. Lacker, “Global Interdependence and Central Banking,” speech to the Global Interdependence Center, Philadelphia, November 1, 2013.

5 See Milton Friedman, “The Role of Monetary Policy,” American Economic Review, 58:1 (March 1968), pp. 1-17.

6 See Daniel L. Thornton, “The Dual Mandate: Has the Fed Changed Its Objective?” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, 94 (March/April 2012), pp. 117-33.

7 See Plosser (2009) and Plosser (2012).

8 See Charles Plosser, “The Benefits of Systematic Monetary Policy,” speech given to the National Association for Business Economics, Washington Economic Policy Conference, Washington, D.C., March 3, 2008. Also see Finn E. Kydland and Edward C. Prescott, “Rules Rather Than Discretion: The Inconsistency of Optimal Plans,” Journal of Political Economy, 85 (January 1977), pp. 473-91.

9 See Plosser (2009).

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Thoughts from the Frontline: The Unintended Consequences of ZIRP

 

Yellen’s coronation was this week. Art Cashin mused that it was a wonder some senator did not bring her a corsage: it was that type of confirmation hearing. There were a few interesting questions and answers, but by and large we heard what we already knew. And what we know is that monetary policy is going to be aggressively biased to the easy side for years, or at least that is the current plan. Far more revealing than the testimony we heard on Thursday were the two very important papers that were released last week by the two most senior and respected Federal Reserve staff economists. As Jan Hatzius at Goldman Sachs reasoned, it is not credible to believe that these papers and the thinking that went into them were not broadly approved by both Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen.

Essentially the papers make an intellectual and theoretical case for an extended period of very low interest rates and, in combination with other papers from both inside and outside the Fed from heavyweight economists, make a strong case for beginning to taper sooner rather than later, but for accompanying that tapering with a commitment to an even more protracted period of ZIRP (zero interest rate policy). In this week’s letter we are going analyze these papers, as they are critical to understanding the future direction of Federal Reserve policy. Secondly, we’ll look at what I think may be some of the unintended consequences of long-term ZIRP.

We are going to start with an analysis by Gavyn Davies of the Financial Times. He writes on macroeconomics and is one of the more of the astute observers I read. I commend his work to you. Today, rather than summarize his analysis, I feel it is more appropriate to simply quote parts of it. (I will intersperse comments, unindented.) The entire piece can be found here.

While the markets have become obsessively focused on the date at which the Fed will start to taper its asset purchases, the Fed itself, in the shape of its senior economics staff, has been thinking deeply about what the stance of monetary policy should be after tapering has ended. This is reflected in two papers to be presented to the annual IMF research conference this week by William English and David Wilcox, who have been described as two of the most important macro-economists working for the FOMC at present. At the very least, these papers warn us what the FOMC will be hearing from their staff economists in forthcoming meetings.

The English paper extends the conclusions of Janet Yellen’s “optimal control speeches” in 2012, which argued for pre-committing to keep short rates “lower-for-longer” than standard monetary rules would imply. The Wilcox paper dives into the murky waters of “endogenous supply”, whereby the Fed needs to act aggressively to prevent temporary damage to US supply potential from becoming permanent. The overall message implicitly seems to accept that tapering will happen broadly on schedule, but this is offset by super-dovishness on the forward path for short rates.

The papers are long and complex, and deserve to be read in full by anyone seriously interested in the Fed’s thought processes. They are, of course, full of caveats and they acknowledge that huge uncertainties are involved. But they seem to point to three main conclusions that are very important for investors.

1. They have moved on from the tapering decision.

Both papers give a few nods in the direction of the tapering debate, but they are written with the unspoken assumption that the expansion of the balance sheet is no longer the main issue. I think we can conclude from this that they believe with a fairly high degree of certainty that the start and end dates for tapering will not be altered by more than a few months either way, and that the end point for the total size of the balance sheet is therefore also known fairly accurately. From now on, the key decision from their point of view is how long to delay the initial hike in short rates, and exactly how the central bank should pre-commit on this question. By omission, the details of tapering are revealed to be secondary.

Yellen said as much in her testimony. In response to a question about QE, she said, “I would agree that this program [QE] cannot continue forever, that there are costs and risks associated with the program.”

The Fed have painted themselves into a corner of their own creation. They are clearly very concerned about the stock market reaction even to the mere announcement of the onset of tapering. But they also know they cannot continue buying $85 billion of assets every month. Their balance sheet is already at $4 trillion and at the current pace will expand by $1 trillion a year. Although I can find no research that establishes a theoretical limit, I do believe the Fed does not want to find that limit by running into a wall. Further, it now appears that they recognize that QE is of limited effectiveness with market valuations where they are, and so for practical purposes they need to begin to withdraw QE.

But rather than let the market deal with the prospect of an end to an easy monetary policy (which everyone recognizes has to draw to an end at some point), they are now looking at ways to maintain the illusion of the power of the Federal Reserve. And they are right to be concerned about the market reaction, as was pointed out in a recent note from Ray Dalio and Bridgewater, as analyzed by Zero Hedge:

“The Fed’s real dilemma is that its policy is creating a financial market bubble  that is large relative to the pickup in the economy that it is producing,” Bridgewater notes, as the relationship between US equity markets and the Fed’s balance sheet (here and here for example) and “disconcerting disconnects” (here and here) indicate how the Fed is “trapped.” However, as the incoming Yellen faces up to her “tough” decisions to taper or not, Ray Dalio’s team is concerned about something else – “We’re not worried about whether the Fed is going to hit or release the gas pedal, we’re worried about whether there’s much gas left in the tank and what will happen if there isn’t.

Dalio then outlines their dilemma neatly. “…The dilemma the Fed faces now is that the tools currently at its disposal are pretty much used up, in that interest rates are at zero and US asset prices have been driven up to levels that imply very low levels of returns relative to the risk, so there is very little ability to stimulate from here if needed. So the Fed will either need to accept that outcome, or come up with new ideas to stimulate conditions.”

The new ideas that Bridgewater and everyone else are looking for are in the papers we are examining. Returning to Davies work (emphasis below is mine!):

2. They think that optimal monetary policy is very dovish indeed on the path for rates.

Both papers conduct optimal control exercises of the Yellen-type. These involve using macro-economic models to derive the path for forward short rates that optimise the behaviour of inflation and unemployment in coming years. The message is familiar: the Fed should pre-commit today to keep short rates at zero for a much longer period than would be implied by normal Taylor Rules, even though inflation would temporarily exceed 2 per cent, and unemployment would drop below the structural rate. This induces the economy to recover more quickly now, since real expected short rates are reduced.

Compared to previously published simulations, the new ones in the English paper are even more dovish. They imply that the first hike in short rates should be in 2017, a year later than before. More interestingly, they experiment with various thresholds that could be used to persuade the markets that the Fed really, really will keep short rates at zero, even if the economy recovers and inflation exceeds target. They conclude that the best way of doing this may be to set an unemployment threshold at 5.5 per cent, which is 1 per cent lower than the threshold currently in place, since this would produce the best mix of inflation and unemployment in the next few years. Such a low unemployment threshold has not been contemplated in the market up to now.

3. They think aggressively easy monetary policy is needed to prevent permanent supply side deterioration.

This theme has been mentioned briefly in previous Bernanke speeches, but the Wilcox paper elevates it to center stage. The paper concludes that the level of potential output has been reduced by about 7 per cent in recent years, largely because the rate of productivity growth has fallen sharply. In normal circumstances, this would carry a hawkish message for monetary policy, because it significantly reduces the amount of spare capacity available in the economy in the near term.

However, the key is that Wilcox thinks that much of the loss in productive potential has been caused by (or is “endogenous to”) the weakness in demand. For example, the paper says that the low levels of capital investment would be reversed if demand were to recover more rapidly, as would part of the decline in the labour participation rate. In a reversal of Say’s Law, and also a reversal of most US macro-economic thinking since Friedman, demand creates its own supply.

This concept is key to understanding current economic thinking. The belief is that it is demand that is the issue and that lower rates will stimulate increased demand (consumption), presumably by making loans cheaper for businesses and consumers. More leverage is needed! But current policy apparently fails to grasp that the problem is not the lack of consumption: it is the lack of income. Income is produced by productivity. When leverage increases productivity, that is good; but when it is used simply to purchase goods for current consumption, it merely brings future consumption forward. Debt incurred and spent today is future consumption denied. Back to Davies:

This new belief in endogenous supply clearly reinforces the “lower for longer” case on short rates, since aggressively easy monetary policy would be more likely to lead to permanent gains in real output, with only temporary costs in higher inflation. Whether or not any of this analysis turns out to be justified in the long run, it is surely important that it is now being argued so strongly in an important piece of Fed research.

            Read that last sentence again. It makes no difference whether you and I might disagree with their analysis. They are at the helm, and unless something truly unexpected happens, we are going to get Fed assurances of low interest rates for a very long time. Davies concludes:

The implication of these papers is that these Fed economists have largely accepted in their own minds that tapering will take place sometime fairly soon, but that they simultaneously believe that rates should be held at zero until (say) 2017. They will clearly have a problem in convincing markets of this. After the events of the summer, bond traders have drawn the conclusion that tapering is a robust signal that higher interest rates are on the way. The FOMC will need to work very hard indeed to convince the markets, through its new thresholds and public pronouncements, that tapering and forward short rates really do need to be divorced this time. It could be a long struggle.

On a side note, we are beginning to see calls from certain circles to think about also reducing the rate the Fed pays on the reserves held at the Fed from the current 25 basis points as a way to encourage banks to put that money to work, although where exactly they put it to work is not part of the concern. Just do something with it. That is a development we will need to watch.

The Unintended Consequences of ZIRP

Off the top of my head I can come up with four ways that the proposed extension of ZIRP can have consequences other than those outlined in the papers. We will look briefly at each of them, although they each deserve their own letter.

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.

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Outside the Box: The Language of Inflation

 

My good friend Dylan Grice takes a very interesting tack in the latest issue of his Edelweiss Journal, today’s Outside the Box. Rather than attacking our macroeconomic problems directly with economic tools, he approaches them from the point of view of what he calls a “subtle but significant devaluation of language.” Now, you might think that the words we use to describe and understand the economy are not in themselves very powerful economic determinants, but Dylan lays out a convincing case to the contrary.

Dylan has fun with a Google app called Ngram Viewer, which allows users to search for the occurrence of words or phrases (or n-grams, which are combinations of letters) in 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008, containing 500 billion words, in American English, British English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese.

Using Ngram, Dylan and colleagues have detected an exponential increase in the past few decades of such phrases as economic crisis, macroeconomic stability, policy intervention, financial engineering, and wealth management, and in such words as leveraged, arbitrage, risk, and growth. Use of the word financial overtook industrial shortly after 1980, he notes, and now far exceeds it. Likewise, spending now outstrips saving.

OK, so there’s a lot of funny money floating around these days, and we like to yak about it. But does that mean our language is influencing our economic outcomes? It’s a subtle but powerful process, Dylan says. Most of us appreciate that language shapes our ability to formulate, recall, and modulate the concepts that we then implement as world-changing actions; so language really is fundamental. And, Dylan asserts, when we vastly inflate key terms that we use in describing – and in attempting to manage – the economy, we create the dangerous illusion that we are all-powerful.

Dylan sets us straight in his opening paragraph:

Regular readers of our irregular publication will be aware of our thoughts on inflation, but for those who are not we would summarize them thus: inflation is not measurable. We can summarize our views on money with similar succinctness: it is poorly understood. And as for the economy, we know only this: it is a complex system. From these observations can be derived a straightforward corollary on economic policy makers: trying to control a variable you can’t measure (inflation) with a tool you don’t fully understand (money) in a complex system with hidden, unobservable and non-linear interrelationships (the economy) is a guaranteed way to ensure that most things which happen weren’t supposed to happen.

And in his closing paragraph he sums things up more succinctly and pithily than I ever could:

Today’s language of inflation embeds so many of these false ideas that the full rottenness of what passes for financial thinking today is obscured.

I wrote the following note to Dylan upon reading this piece over lunch the other day.

Dylan,

This reads so pure and profound as to make me weep, on one hand for the pleasure of reading your prose and on the other hand for not having written it myself – or maybe more precisely, for not having the skill to write with such beautiful style and clarity. Those sitting around me here at lunch must wonder at my composure and beatitude as I ignore my sushi and pour over your latest. This may be your finest composition; it’s at least the best thing of yours I have read. And with such a body of impressive work, that is saying something.

This is a briefer and far more eloquent statement of the driver behind Code Red, that central banks are indeed steering us ever closer to a “monetary trap,” an alley, if you will, in which we are very likely to be mugged. This way be dragons.

I believe you will enjoy this piece. Incidentally, I notice that some of Dylan’s Ngram curves that were trying to go asymptotic (straight up) have started to roll over since the Great Recession hit.  I do wonder what that means.

Code Red made the Wall Street Journal best-seller list this weekend. Thanks to those of you who have bought the book and made that happen. The reviews are quite positive so far. Fixed-income maven Richard Lehman over at Forbes wrote a very nice piece about Code Red this weekend. I am very pleased that he spoke so well of it:

If you read only one book on finance this year, read Code Red: How To Protect Your Savings From the Coming Crisis by John Maudlin and Jonathan Tepper. It is a recounting of current Federal Reserve Bank’s “Code Red” policies for dealing with its mandate of promoting full employment while maintaining financial stability. The Code Red moniker is intended to draw attention to the unprecedented nature of those policies and the dangers we face when they are finally undone.

He goes on to say,

The book finishes with the most important chapters, what you can do to protect yourself from the almost certain negative fallout these policies will produce. This section alone makes the book a must read…. The authors see the end of a long secular bear market, but on the brink of a new secular bull market. Despite their dour outlook for the short term, they are basically bullish on America.

“But,” he concludes, “No book review is considered complete without saying something negative; so, I think they should have titled it Code Blue.” I’ll accept that, Richard.

I am off to NYC early tomorrow morning to be at the NASDAQ for the closing-bell ceremony, to celebrate the launch of a new ETF called ROBO, focused on robotics, automation, and 3-D printing. Then I’ll be on Bloomberg radio from 8-9 with Tom Keene and on other media throughout the day. I’ll hang around for the evening to be with my old friend Steve Forbes for an interview Thursday morning before heading back to Dallas to see what progress, or lack thereof, has been made on the new apartment.

Finally, my good friend Reid Walker launched an organization called Capital for Kids that raises money from the Dallas investment community (and their clients!) in order to help kids in all manner of activities. They have their big annual soiree Thursday, November 21 at the F.I.G. here in Dallas. Join me and several hundred fun people to help kids who need it. And bring your checkbook. The silent auction is loaded with cool items. Click on the link and look for me when you get there!

Your thinking about how we use words analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com


 

The Language of Inflation

By Dylan Grice

Edelweiss Journal, No. 14, November 2013

Regular readers of our irregular publication will be aware of our thoughts on inflation, but for those who are not we would summarize them thus: inflation is not measurable. We can summarize our views on money with similar succinctness: it is poorly understood. And as for the economy, we know only this: it is a complex system. From these observations can be derived a straightforward corollary on economic policy makers: trying to control a variable you can’t measure (inflation) with a tool you don’t fully understand (money) in a complex system with hidden, unobservable and non-linear interrelationships (the economy) is a guaranteed way to ensure that most things which happen weren’t supposed to happen.

One such unintended consequence of the past three decades’ economic experiments with “inflation” targeting has been the unprecedented inflation of credit which today leaves the world burdened with debt as it has never been burdened before. In Issue 12 we wrote about another unintended consequence of this monetary experiment, a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich and, relatedly, a growing distrust both within countries and between them. Since money is based on trust, we concluded, devaluing money devalues trust.

Now, with the help of Google’s fabulous Ngram Viewer (which allows users to search word usage in five million digitized books published since 1600) we’ve recently stumbled upon another possibility, which is that the past three decades’ hidden devaluation of money has caused a subtle but significant devaluation of language too.

This might sound abstract. But language is the machinery with which we conceptualize the world around us. Devaluing language is tantamount to devaluing our ability to think and to understand. Inflation, whether credit inflation or otherwise, messes things up because it sends false signals. For the ordinary steward of capital in such an environment the near impossible task of judging what is real from what is not is difficult enough. But what chance does he have if in addition, his linguistic software has coding errors to which he is oblivious? This is a question which is perplexing us here at Edelweiss and what follows is an exploration of some of the issues as best we can untangle them.

We start our journey into the financial imagination at the beginning, by tracing an important idea which has had a profound effect, namely that society and the economy are things to be manipulated by expert policy makers. As Taleb opines in his wonderful book Antifragile:

Modernity is not just the postmedieval, postagrarian, and postfeudal historical period as defined in sociology textbooks. It is rather the spirit of an age marked by rationalization (naive rationalization), the idea that society is understandable, hence must be designed, by humans. With it was born statistical theory, hence the beastly bell curve. So was linear science. So was the notion of “efficiency”—or optimization.

Supporting Taleb’s idea, the following chart shows how the word “optimal” has steadily gained prominence in the 20th century.

As the Taleb quote alludes to, much of today’s pseudo-science was facilitated by a hijacking of the statistical bell curve distribution, the growing psychic predominance of which can be seen here too.

Meanwhile, the growth in what is quite a modern idea of a controllable society can be seen in the following chart.

This new interventionist idea was brought into the realm of economics through the Trojan horse of macroeconomic theory and, in particular, its defining metaphor that the economy is basically an engine. Originally, this metaphor gave economists an excuse to use the same mathematics physicists had used with such great success in the 19th century. The hope was that such tools would afford them similar acclaim. But by the time of the Great Depression Keynes was explaining the slump as being somewhat akin to failure in a car’s electrical system. More recently, Nobel Prize winning clever-clogs Paul Krugman updated the metaphor by describing the current malaise as “magneto trouble.”

Today, the metaphor gives another kind of comfort. One that allows economists to pretend that like an engine, the economy is something that a well-trained expert, perhaps with a PhD from Princeton, should be in control of, and “do things to.” They can optimize it, fine-tune it, or manipulate it in some other way so as to achieve the outcomes most beneficial to “society.” Such experts think they know how to “drive” the economy the way a well-talented astronaut might fly a space shuttle. You’ve probably heard them talk about the economy reaching “escape velocity” or being stuck at “stall speed.” Now you know where they get it from.

They see their job as to constantly monitor the economic engine, check its gauges and dials, ensure its satisfactory performance while all the time standing ready to intervene should anything untoward happen. Thus, writing in January 2012 Larry Summers claimed that “government has no higher responsibility than ensuring economies have an adequate level of demand,” as though doing so were no more complicated than pouring out the correct measure of fuel into a tank. Should the economy ever become too hot and aggregate demand too high, the engineers are supposed to be able to spot this and put the brakes on before anything bad happens. In doing so, the idea is for economic fluctuations to be smoothed, macroeconomic stability achieved and an otherwise unruly world safely delivered into a “ruly” land of milk and honey. But this too is also a new obsession, only really gaining prominence since the 1980s.

The problem is that the metaphor is wrong, the conclusions derived from its use are misleading, and any attempt to achieve “macroeconomic stability” using its prescriptions is doomed to failure. Or at least, now that the results have come in over the past few decades, there isn’t much supporting evidence. If anything, the more obsessed that economists and policy makers became with stabilizing the economy, the less stable the economy became. Certainly the usage of the terms “economic crisis” and “financial crisis” displays a clear trend. (Note the time series ends in 2008; one would expect subsequent updates to show a renewed interest given what happened then and since).

Also, as a matter of empirical fact, the period during which the frequency of financial calamities has clustered is the very same period during which the idea of controlling through policy intervention became so fashionable. The chart below shows the incidence of financial crises as documented by Charles Kindleberger in his classic Manias, Crashes and Panics and updated for the various fiascos of the past decade. As can be seen, financial crises have noticeably clustered around the very period economists started playing God.

Volcker did a wonderful thing in taming CPI inflation in the early 1980s. But this was a watershed moment. His successors used the platform to launch their great experiment. In the name of macroeconomic stabilization they developed the habit of lowering interest rates at the first sighting of any clouds and keeping them low until the sky was blue again. While this all gave the illusion of relatively stable growth, artificially cheap money fueled a background credit inflation the likes of which has never been seen before. The chart below shows total US credit to GDP exploding from 1980 onwards, the great unintended consequence of attempts to stabilize and, of course, the source of the increased instability we have since borne witness to.

But there were other unintended consequences too. The artificial growth in debt saw an artificial growth in the size of the financial sector. And the financial sector did what the financial sector does. It financialized everything. Look at the explosion of these hitherto sparsely used words.

Ideas like these became glamorous because the people using them were becoming rich. In 1981 there was one financial professional in the top fifty names on the Forbes rich list. Thirty years later there were twelve. Cheap credit fueling higher assets benefitted those with access to credit, those who owned assets and the intermediaries who arranged the deals. Typically, such people were already rich. This in turn widened the great disparity between rich and poor we’ve discussed on these pages before, redistributing wealth from the asset poor to the asset rich. Or more simply just from the poor to the rich. Finance became king. Industry became an afterthought, something people “used to do.” Or at least, in the 1980s usage of the term “financial” overtook that of “industrial.”

But what does this all mean? Economists use the notion of “time preference” to describe an individual’s patience, or “discount rate.” The higher his time preference, the higher his discount rate, and someone with a high time preference would have a high preference to spend today compared to tomorrow. Something else which can be detected in these linguistic changes is an underlying change in time preferences. Remember the fundamentals of wealth accumulation: spend less than you earn. It’s no great secret. By working hard and saving you’re more likely to grow wealthy than if you don’t. Those with a lower time preference and a longer time horizon save more and are consequently rewarded more. Patience, thrift and hard work are all a part of the same package, and all serve in the natural process of capital formation and wealth accumulation.

But inflation inverts this calculus. With high price inflation of the traditional variety (i.e., an inflation of high street prices, or CPI), tomorrow’s money is worth less. Thrift makes no sense. Only idiots save. Patience is punished too, the more rational action being to pursue instant gratification by spending money while you can. (It has been well documented by Bernd Widdig, Gerald Feldman and others that during the Weimar hyperinflation, Berlin was simultaneously gripped by a wave of hedonism in which night bars, cabarets and strip clubs expanded as rapidly as the money supply.)

An inflation of credit is different in form but not substance. Why save up for something when you can cheaply borrow the money and have it today? Both types of inflation distort time preferences. Both types of inflation reduce the rewards of patience and thrift. Both types of inflation consequently distort the process through which wealth is created. The following chart reveals this inflated time preference through increased usage of the phrases “right now” and “fast money.”

To say, as almost everyone seems to, that there has been no inflation over the last thirty years and that there is no inflation today is a huge and misleading simplification in our view. What people mean, we think, is that there has been no inflation of the CPIs. Of course, this is true. But there has been a grotesque inflation of credit during this same period, and central banks are pulling out the stops to ensure that it continues. To do this they are engineering a staggering inflation of government bond prices which is inflating nearly all other asset prices. And all the while, there has been a commensurate inflation of economists’ confidence in themselves, of ordinary time preference and, as we shall now see, of expectations for the future. In other words, inflation is everywhere but the CPI.

But to understand the practical consequences it must be understood that language isn’t only a reflection of thought and action. It is a driver too. Language is our cognitive machinery; it shapes our ability to interpret, recall and process concepts. Lera Boroditsky, writing in Edge a few years ago, describes an Australian Aboriginal community whose language references direction in absolute terms, rather than the relative ones Indo-European languages use. Instead of telling someone to “watch out for the ditch ahead,” for example, someone from the tribe might warn a fellow member to “watch out for the ditch southeast.” Boroditsky writes that “the result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge” between the tribesmen and their spatially-relativist Indo-European speaking brethren.

One of the first studies to look into the effect of language on competence makes it even easier to understand why. Studies performed in 1953 on the ability of the indigenous Zuni tribes of New Mexico and Arizona found them to have difficulty retaining and recalling the colors yellow, orange and combinations thereof compared to AngloSaxons performing the same tests. As it happens, the Zuni have no separate words for the colors yellow and orange and therefore insufficient linguistic precision to process the difference. It is often said that sloppy language leads to sloppy thought. These studies and others like them conclude the same from the other direction: linguistic precision leads to cognitive precision. If distinct concepts are poorly defined they will be poorly understood.

It turns out that many of the terms we have long suspected of being hollow and gimmicky are in fact products of this era of financialization, and have only recently gained prominence in usage. As a first example, the following chart shows the Ngram for “wealth management.” It begs several questions. Like, was no one wealthy before 1980? Was there no “wealth” to be managed before then? Have serial asset price inflations and easy credit availability distorted what people understand as “wealth”? Or is it merely that the inflation of all things financial has fostered the creation an entirely new class of professional parasites called “wealth managers”?!

We don’t know. But we attended a lunch recently in which one such “wealth manager” was promoting his services to those around the table. An Italian gentleman claimed to be relieved to have finally found someone who could help him. “At last!” He gasped after the banker’s pitch, “I could really use some help managing my family’s wealth. We own vineyards and a processing plant in Italy, some land and a broiler farm in Spain, some real estate scattered around Europe and the Americas… We are fortunate indeed to have such wealth, but managing it all is increasingly challenging. Can you help?”

The poor banker looked forlorn. Of course, he didn’t mean that kind of wealth, the old-fashioned, productive kind of stuff. He meant the modern, papery, electronic kind. The stuff that blinks at you all day from a screen. Green on an “up” day, red on a “down”… He meant the kind of stuff you can buy and sell. He meant liquidity, we think. His pitch was for the management of the attendees’ “liquid” wealth, presumably because he wanted other people’s money to play with. (We have little doubt our Italian friend would have felt poorer had he sold up his estate and transferred the proceeds to the banker.)

Of course liquidity is an important component of wealth. But liquidity is not wealth. It’s needed to pay the bills that keep the lights on, the house running, the kids at school, provide for unforeseen events and so on. But why does the whole thing need to be liquid? A completely liquid portfolio of investments is important only for those who are intent on trading, and who might need to quickly exit their trades. Such activity may be the niche of a few financial market traders and talented speculators, but of the many who try to build or protect wealth using such methods few succeed. Why should it be so crucial to your average “wealth manager”? What has such activity got to do with the management of real wealth? And anyway, how is someone as confused by the difference between liquidity and wealth as they are between trading and investing supposed to manage anyone’s wealth, exactly? The explosion of wealth managers has seen a commensurate increase in the fetish for things which are liquid, a contrasting and relatively new fear of things which are illiquid.

Another linguistic distortion which has arisen during this age of financialization can be seen in the notion of “risk.” Indeed, the ngram for “risk management” looks similar to that of “wealth management” and again we ask ourselves similar questions. Was there no “risk” to be managed prior to 1980? Has the nature of “risk” changed since then? Or has the conceptualization and therefore understanding of risk changed during this time?

We suspect the latter. Within the space of a generation, bankers have become obsessed with “value-at-risk,” “risk-budgets” and more recently “risk-parity.” All such concepts use the volatility of market prices as the sole input into the calculation of “risk.” But price volatility is not risk and it is frankly dangerous to think that it is. There are so many different types of risks to consider in the practice of capital stewardship that we could write a book about them. Some are to be avoided without exception, others are to be embraced. But all require judgment because none are measurable. In the broadest sense possible, the greatest and most fundamental risk is the risk of not knowing what you’re doing. To the extent these “risk models” trick “risk managers” into thinking they do, they are dangerous because they blind users to the true nature of risk. The paradoxical outcome is that such risk managers are making the financial world far riskier than it would otherwise be.

Perhaps the most concerning distortion though is the obsession with “growth.” So deeply ingrained is it in our thinking today that one could be forgiven for thinking it has always been thus. But it is actually quite new. Increasingly, we see it as a part of the widespread though subtle inflation of expectations.

As can be seen, this growth fetish also seems to have developed during the credit inflation. Note also the relation to inflated time preferences. The fixation on growth can encourage behavior which may seem beneficial in the short term but is detrimental to the long term. The debt-overhung world we live in today is a very good macro-level example of the long-run damage this growth obsession can cause. But the corporate world is strewn with them. Most companies even tie executive compensation to implied or explicit EPS growth targets. These, not to mention the primacy of expected growth in the broader financial community, create a pressure on management to behave in a manner they otherwise might not. It also encourages executives to focus more on their stock price than on their business, which can be quite devastating.

For example, a survey of 169 CFOs polled for a recent study into earnings quality found that 20% “manage their earnings to misrepresent economic performance” in any given period. In their book Financial Shenanigans, Howard M. Schilit and Jeremy Perler write that “investors are beginning to harbor a troubling suspicion about corporate financial reporting: that management now plays tricks… Sadly, these suspicions are well founded.” Indeed, the bulk of the frauds analyzed in their book turn out to be perpetrated by executives fearful of disappointing the growth expectations they had previously fostered among their shareholders.

Don’t misunderstand us, there is nothing wrong with growth. We like growth and we like the companies we have ownership stakes in to grow. But we like growth as the outcome of an outstanding business process. An enterprise which is better at solving its customers’ problems than its competitors will soon find itself with more customers. Such a business will inevitably grow and this is a natural and good thing. But a company pursuing growth for the sake of it, or because Wall Street demands it, or because remuneration has been structured around it, is less likely to be concerned with the long-term health of the business. The pressure on them to engage in the financial shenanigans that Schilit and Perler document in their book will be greater, all else equal. So it is no longer necessary to merely keep a weather eye on the manner in which companies report their numbers. Today, stewards of capital must also make sure executives haven’t succumbed to the growth disease.

Recently, for example, we examined a company which is regionally dominant in an industry we are interested in and have some knowledge of. But its forty-six page investor roadshow presentation used the word “growth” forty-eight times. The company in the sector we already own a stake in mentioned growth in its forty-four page presentation only four times. Unsurprisingly, the company we investigated had twice as much debt as the one we already owned and had doubled its share count in the last fifteen years (ours had steadily and consistently shrunk its own). Unsurprisingly again, Mr. Market gave the growth-obsessed company a higher multiple than our one because Mr. Market loves growth. But to us, this tendency suggests a company’s clear willingness to either take or ignore risks with its health in the name of its cherished growth. We didn’t pursue our interest.

On a related note, we’ve recently come to the conclusion that there seems to be a widespread misunderstanding of what “capital” is. We happened to stumble across a fabulous book called Talent is Overrated (no sarcastic emails on why we were so attracted to such a title, please) written by the well-regarded Forbes journalist Geoff Colvin. To be clear upfront, is an excellent book which we learned a lot from. But consider the following extract (our emphasis):

For roughly five hundred years—from the explosion of commerce and wealth that accompanied the Renaissance until the late twentieth century—the scarce resource in business was financial capital. If you had it, you had the means to create more wealth, and if you didn’t, you didn’t. That world is now gone. Today, in a change that is historically quite sudden, financial capital is abundant. The scarce resource is no longer money…

“Financial capital” indeed. We found it striking that Mr. Colvin, a distinguished journalist of a distinguished business magazine should use the concepts of capital and credit completely interchangeably. Yet this is a fundamental error of thought. Capital is not money. One is scarce, the other is infinite. And we might not have thought anything of this sloppy language had we not been talking to an economist a few days earlier who feared for the future of euro. The situation remained grave, he said, and there was surely no alternative than for the ECB eventually to “print more capital”…

What he meant, we think, was printing more money. But it’s not what he said. He had confused money with capital as Mr. Colvin did in his book.

Like the Zuni tribes struggling to deal with the difference between yellow and orange without sufficient linguistic precision, we face the same problem in our financial system. As stock markets blink green on more QE supposedly making us all more wealthy, the developed world is saving less than it has at any time since WWII. And as central banks are conjuring up ever more liquidity, more thoughtful observers scratch their heads over the lack of collateral in the system. Of course, the problem is solvency, not liquidity. Capital comes from savings, and the policy of cheap credit with its inflation of time preference has encouraged spending, not saving. Scarce capital is growing ever scarcer.

One day, the price of capital will reflect its underlying scarcity, because one day it must. But in the meantime we think very carefully about the capital requirements of the businesses we own, growing increasingly wary of those which depend on artificially cheap “financial capital” for their survival. We note in passing that physical gold bullion is the oldest and purest capital there is…

What is the moral of this story for the steward of capital? Success in the long run requires that thought and action be fully independent from the false ideas of the herd. Yet today’s language of inflation embeds so many of these false ideas that the full rottenness of what passes for financial thinking today is obscured. One increasingly reads of capital stewards complaining that things seem more difficult today. We think it’s because they are. We are also increasingly mindful of conversations with friends, family and colleagues that reveal a widespread perception that something is very wrong, though people can’t quite put their finger on what it is. As we have just argued, we think the answer is that the inflation of credit has driven an inflation of asset prices, which has driven an inflation of future expectations, which has driven an inflation of time preference… and that while the consequences of these various inflations are profound, the new language of inflation which it has spawned is shallow. Therefore, not only is there insufficient capital to ensure future prosperity and insufficient realism to deal with the future this implies, there is insufficient linguistic precision for most people to articulate the problem let alone understand it. And when language itself becomes so grotesquely distorted, how does one go about substituting the customers’ unattainable hopes and expectations of never-ending growth with the need for principled and honest action?

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Outside the Box and MauldinEconomics.com is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and those that he interviews. Any views expressed are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest and is not in any way a testimony of, or associated with, Mauldin’s other firms. John Mauldin is the Chairman of Mauldin Economics, LLC. He also is the President of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA) which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states, President and registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS) member FINRA, SIPC, through which securities may be offered . MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB) and NFA Member. Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. This message may contain information that is confidential or privileged and is intended only for the individual or entity named above and does not constitute an offer for or advice about any alternative investment product. Such advice can only be made when accompanied by a prospectus or similar offering document. Past performance is not indicative of future performance. Please make sure to review important disclosures at the end of each article. Mauldin companies may have a marketing relationship with products and services mentioned in this letter for a fee.

Note: Joining The Mauldin Circle is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and Millennium Wave Investments. It is intended solely for investors who have registered with Millennium Wave Investments and its partners at http://www.MauldinCircle.com (formerly AccreditedInvestor.ws) or directly related websites. The Mauldin Circle may send out material that is provided on a confidential basis, and subscribers to the Mauldin Circle are not to send this letter to anyone other than their professional investment counselors. Investors should discuss any investment with their personal investment counsel. You are advised to discuss with your financial advisers your investment options and whether any investment is suitable for your specific needs prior to making any investments. John Mauldin is the President of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA), which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states. John Mauldin is a registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS), an FINRA registered broker-dealer. MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB). Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. Millennium Wave Investments cooperates in the consulting on and marketing of private and non-private investment offerings with other independent firms such as Altegris Investments; Capital Management Group; Absolute Return Partners, LLP; Fynn Capital; Nicola Wealth Management; and Plexus Asset Management. Investment offerings recommended by Mauldin may pay a portion of their fees to these independent firms, who will share 1/3 of those fees with MWS and thus with Mauldin. Any views expressed herein are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest with any CTA, fund, or program mentioned here or elsewhere. Before seeking any advisor’s services or making an investment in a fund, investors must read and examine thoroughly the respective disclosure document or offering memorandum. Since these firms and Mauldin receive fees from the funds they recommend/market, they only recommend/market products with which they have been able to negotiate fee arrangements.

PAST RESULTS ARE NOT INDICATIVE OF FUTURE RESULTS. THERE IS RISK OF LOSS AS WELL AS THE OPPORTUNITY FOR GAIN WHEN INVESTING IN MANAGED FUNDS. WHEN CONSIDERING ALTERNATIVE INVESTMENTS, INCLUDING HEDGE FUNDS, YOU SHOULD CONSIDER VARIOUS RISKS INCLUDING THE FACT THAT SOME PRODUCTS: OFTEN ENGAGE IN LEVERAGING AND OTHER SPECULATIVE INVESTMENT PRACTICES THAT MAY INCREASE THE RISK OF INVESTMENT LOSS, CAN BE ILLIQUID, ARE NOT REQUIRED TO PROVIDE PERIODIC PRICING OR VALUATION INFORMATION TO INVESTORS, MAY INVOLVE COMPLEX TAX STRUCTURES AND DELAYS IN DISTRIBUTING IMPORTANT TAX INFORMATION, ARE NOT SUBJECT TO THE SAME REGULATORY REQUIREMENTS AS MUTUAL FUNDS, OFTEN CHARGE HIGH FEES, AND IN MANY CASES THE UNDERLYING INVESTMENTS ARE NOT TRANSPARENT AND ARE KNOWN ONLY TO THE INVESTMENT MANAGER. Alternative investment performance can be volatile. An investor could lose all or a substantial amount of his or her investment. Often, alternative investment fund and account managers have total trading authority over their funds or accounts; the use of a single advisor applying generally similar trading programs could mean lack of diversification and, consequently, higher risk. There is often no secondary market for an investor’s interest in alternative investments, and none is expected to develop.

131110-01

Thoughts from the Frontline: What Would Yellen Do?

 

The US Senate Banking Committee will hold hearings on Thursday, November 14, on the nomination of Janet Yellen for Federal Reserve chair. There will be the usual softball questions, for example, “Do you think high unemployment is a problem in the United States and if so what do you intend to do about it?” (which allows a senator to express his concern over unemployment and for the nominee to agree that it’s a problem). Or the always popular question, “What is the basis under which you would continue to hold interest rates at their current low level?” – as if she would answer anything other than, “Any future policy decision is of course data-dependent” or some variation on that response. Boring.

There have been a flurry of new research papers this week by Federal Reserve economists, IMF economists, and even Paul Krugman, all suggesting various policy responses going forward, but none suggesting a return to normal any time soon. I would be far more interested in getting a response from Yellen to some of that research, but even the questions raised in those papers don’t get to the real heart of the matter. So today, let’s pretend we are prepping our favorite Banking Committee senator (members here) for his or her few questions. What would you like to know? In this week’s letter I offer a few questions of my own.

First a brief caveat. Each of the questions below deserves multiple pages of background. I get that. There is only so much I can write in one letter. Further, some of the questions are intended to provide an insight into Yellen’s thinking and what research she considers to be relevant. Those are more the “inquiring minds wants to know” type of question. And since Senator Rand Paul is not on the committee, I have omitted some of the questions he might ask. Not that they aren’t interesting and shouldn’t be asked, but there is only so much space.

What Questions Would You Ask Janet Yellen?

Secondly, I know for a fact that a few Senators on this committee and even more of their staff members read my letter from time to time. I would expect that to be the case this week. I also know that I have some of the smartest and most thoughtful readers of any writer I know. If you want to address a committee staffer about questions you think your senator should be asking Janet Yellen, the comments section at the end of this letter would be an appropriate place to do so. Your comments will get read. Be polite, offer links to supporting documents, and have fun. I’m sure I’ve missed several important questions, including ones you’ll think I should have listed, so this is your opportunity to get them in front of the right people. Whether they will get asked is a different matter entirely, of course.

Finally, I am assuming that Yellen will be confirmed. While I would favor a Fed chair with a different economic philosophy, that is not going to happen. So rather than fantasizing about what is not going to happen, let’s think about what we would like to actually learn.

The Fed’s Dilemma

Conveniently, Ray Dalio and his team at Bridgewater penned an essay this week highlighting the Fed’s dilemma. I offer a few key paragraphs and a chart or two as a setup to my list of questions. Turning right to their very prescient comments:

In the old days central banks moved interest rates to run monetary policy. By watching the flows, we could see how lowering interest rates stimulated the economy by 1) reducing debt service burdens which improved cash flows and spending, 2) making it easier to buy items marked on credit because the monthly payments declined, which raised demand (initially for interest rate sensitive items like durable goods and housing) and 3) producing a positive wealth effect because the lower interest rate would raise the present value of most investment assets (and we saw how raising interest rates has had the opposite effect).

All that changed when interest rates hit 0%; “printing money” (QE) replaced interest-rate changes. Because central banks can only buy financial assets, quantitative easing drove up the prices of financial assets and did not have as broad of an effect on the economy. The Fed’s ability to stimulate the economy became increasingly reliant on those who experience the increased wealth trickling it down to spending and incomes, which happened in decreasing degrees (for logical reasons, given who owned the assets and their decreasing marginal propensities to consume). As shown in the charts below, the marginal effects of wealth increases on economic activity have been declining significantly. The Fed’s dilemma is that its policy is creating a financial market bubble that is large relative to the pickup in the economy that it is producing. If it were targeting asset prices, it would tighten monetary policy to curtail the emerging bubble, whereas if it were targeting economic conditions, it would have a slight easing bias. In other words, 1) the Fed is faced with a difficult choice, and 2) it is losing its effectiveness.”

(In the following charts HH stands for “Household.”)

We expect this limit to worsen. As the Fed pushes asset prices higher and prospective asset returns lower, and cash yields can’t decline, the spread between the prospective returns of risky assets and those of safe assets (i.e. risk premia) will shrink at the same time as the riskiness of risky assets will not decline, changing the reward-to-risk ratio in a way that will make it more difficult to push asset prices higher and create a wealth effect. Said differently, at higher prices and lower expected returns the compensation for taking risk will be too small to get investors to bid prices up and drive prospective returns down further. If that were to happen, it would become difficult for the Fed to produce much more of a wealth effect. If that were the case at the same time as the trickling down of the wealth effect to spending continues to diminish, which seems likely, the Fed’s power to affect the economy would be greatly reduced.

What Would Yellen Do?

With that as a setup, let’s turn to our hypothetical hearing.

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.

© 2013 Mauldin Economics. All Rights Reserved.
Thoughts from the Frontline is a free weekly economic e-letter by best-selling author and renowned financial expert, John Mauldin. You can learn more and get your free subscription by visiting www.MauldinEconomics.com.

Please write to subscribers@mauldineconomics.com to inform us of any reproductions, including when and where copy will be reproduced. You must keep the letter intact, from introduction to disclaimers. If you would like to quote brief portions only, please reference www.MauldinEconomics.com.

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Thoughts From the Frontline and MauldinEconomics.com is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and those that he interviews. Any views expressed are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest and is not in any way a testimony of, or associated with, Mauldin’s other firms. John Mauldin is the Chairman of Mauldin Economics, LLC. He also is the President and registered representative of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA) which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states, President and registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS) member FINRA and SIPC, through which securities may be offered. MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB) and NFA Member. Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. This message may contain information that is confidential or privileged and is intended only for the individual or entity named above and does not constitute an offer for or advice about any alternative investment product. Such advice can only be made when accompanied by a prospectus or similar offering document. Past performance is not indicative of future performance. Please make sure to review important disclosures at the end of each article. Mauldin companies may have a marketing relationship with products and services mentioned in this letter for a fee.

Note: Joining The Mauldin Circle is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and Millennium Wave Investments. It is intended solely for investors who have registered with Millennium Wave Investments and its partners at http://www.MauldinCircle.com (formerly AccreditedInvestor.ws) or directly related websites. The Mauldin Circle may send out material that is provided on a confidential basis, and subscribers to the Mauldin Circle are not to send this letter to anyone other than their professional investment counselors. Investors should discuss any investment with their personal investment counsel. John Mauldin is the President of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA), which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states. John Mauldin is a registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS), an FINRA registered broker-dealer. MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB). Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. Millennium Wave Investments cooperates in the consulting on and marketing of private and non-private investment offerings with other independent firms such as Altegris Investments; Capital Management Group; Absolute Return Partners, LLP; Fynn Capital; Nicola Wealth Management; and Plexus Asset Management. Investment offerings recommended by Mauldin may pay a portion of their fees to these independent firms, who will share 1/3 of those fees with MWS and thus with Mauldin. Any views expressed herein are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest with any CTA, fund, or program mentioned here or elsewhere. Before seeking any advisor’s services or making an investment in a fund, investors must read and examine thoroughly the respective disclosure document or offering memorandum. Since these firms and Mauldin receive fees from the funds they recommend/market, they only recommend/market products with which they have been able to negotiate fee arrangements.

PAST RESULTS ARE NOT INDICATIVE OF FUTURE RESULTS. THERE IS RISK OF LOSS AS WELL AS THE OPPORTUNITY FOR GAIN WHEN INVESTING IN MANAGED FUNDS. WHEN CONSIDERING ALTERNATIVE INVESTMENTS, INCLUDING HEDGE FUNDS, YOU SHOULD CONSIDER VARIOUS RISKS INCLUDING THE FACT THAT SOME PRODUCTS: OFTEN ENGAGE IN LEVERAGING AND OTHER SPECULATIVE INVESTMENT PRACTICES THAT MAY INCREASE THE RISK OF INVESTMENT LOSS, CAN BE ILLIQUID, ARE NOT REQUIRED TO PROVIDE PERIODIC PRICING OR VALUATION INFORMATION TO INVESTORS, MAY INVOLVE COMPLEX TAX STRUCTURES AND DELAYS IN DISTRIBUTING IMPORTANT TAX INFORMATION, ARE NOT SUBJECT TO THE SAME REGULATORY REQUIREMENTS AS MUTUAL FUNDS, OFTEN CHARGE HIGH FEES, AND IN MANY CASES THE UNDERLYING INVESTMENTS ARE NOT TRANSPARENT AND ARE KNOWN ONLY TO THE INVESTMENT MANAGER. Alternative investment performance can be volatile. An investor could lose all or a substantial amount of his or her investment. Often, alternative investment fund and account managers have total trading authority over their funds or accounts; the use of a single advisor applying generally similar trading programs could mean lack of diversification and, consequently, higher risk. There is often no secondary market for an investor’s interest in alternative investments, and none is expected to develop. You are advised to discuss with your financial advisers your investment options and whether any investment is suitable for your specific needs prior to making any investments.

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Outside the Box: Jonathan Tepper on Obamacare

 

The Affordable Care Act is the single most contentious political action of my lifetime since the Vietnam War. It touches everyone in one way or another, and often in profoundly personal ways. Some see it is a godsend and others as an arrow aimed directly at the heart of the American experiment. Some will experience healthcare that is now available for themselves and their families for the first time, while others will experience the loss of a system that had served them well. The story in the Wall Street Journal this week of the cancer survivor Edie Littlefield Sundby, who lost her doctors and affordable care in the middle of a true life-and-death battle, is poignant. It turns out that not only can she not buy insurance that will cross state lines, she cannot buy insurance in California that will cross county lines!

As I highlighted a few weeks ago, the US system is dysfunctional, yet the potential for positive change is rather spectacularly illustrated by work done by Dr. Jeff Brenner in Camden, New Jersey. Basically, he found that 1% of the patients in Camden were responsible for 30% of hospitalization costs. Sometimes called super utilizers, high utilizers, or frequent fliers, these patients have complex medical conditions and often lack social services such as transportation or knowledge about how to use the health system most effectively. By some estimates, 5% of these patients account for more than 60% of all healthcare costs. This is a system that is so dysfunctional that it does not even work for those who are getting the care! There are scores of such opportunities throughout the healthcare system to reduce costs and improve services, so I write not of a bleak healthcare future, just a profoundly changing one.

Peggy Noonan writes compellingly today about the problematical rollout of Obamacare.

They said if you liked your insurance you could keep your insurance – but that’s not true. It was never true! They said if you liked your doctor you could keep your doctor – but that’s not true. It was never true! They said they would cover everyone who needed it, and instead people who had coverage are losing it – millions of them! They said they would make insurance less expensive – but it’s more expensive! Premium shock, deductible shock. They said don’t worry, your health information will be secure, but instead the whole setup looks like a hacker’s holiday. Bad guys are apparently already going for your private information.

And now there are reports the insurance companies are taking advantage of the chaos of the program, and its many dislocations, to hike premiums. Meaning the law was written in such a way that insurance companies profit on it.

Today the Manhattan Institute released a report that shows that insurance premiums are going up an average of 41% in 49 states, although there are seven “blue” states where the costs go down. Go figure. New York sees a drop of 40%. The analysis of the HHS numbers shows Obamacare will increase underlying insurance rates for younger men by an average of 97 to 99 percent, and for younger women by an average of 55 to 62 percent. Worst off is North Carolina, which will see individual-market rates triple for women and quadruple for men. Older people acquire a large advantage over younger people in the insurance cost game.

And the rest of the world looks on and wonders what we are thinking. And how can we manage to do this so badly? Not just the roll-out – I mean, they don’t understand our whole healthcare system. This weekend my Code Red coauthor, Jonathan Tepper, sent out a note that not only illustrates the confusion and dismay in much of the world about US healthcare policies but also gives us a true Outside the Box lesson in how not to design a healthcare system.

Jonathan is quite special. He speaks about five languages fluently with no accents and is a former Rhodes scholar, a wicked smart economist, and a good writer; and he seemingly works around the clock. While Jonathan is a US citizen, he is quintessentially European, having grown up in Europe, with much of his early life spent in Madrid, at a drug rehab center that his parents founded and directed. He mentions with a smile that his playmates as a young boy were drug addicts. His view of the US has a definite European flavor to it, and as you read this, think about it coming from the pen of a conservative European economist (there are a few!).

I left in the 19 links Jonathan provides as the sources for his thoughts, for those interested in a further deep-dive exploration. It will be interesting to see the comments, all of which I make a point of reading, by the way. If you can take the time to write to me, the least I can do is read.

I started this note in Cleveland, where I finished up a daylong health check-up with Dr. Mike Roizen, which went better than I had hoped. I asked frontline employees all day what they thought of the new healthcare law. I was not hearing happy thoughts, as many are concerned about their jobs. And then I dropped by to see my 96-year-old mother on the way home, and we talked about her healthcare. “I have not seen a doctor for a long time, but it’s OK. I think all they do today is just make guesses anyway,” she remarked – the state of healthcare from the point of view of the elderly.

The focus tonight is the future of healthcare. Dr. Mike West, CEO of Biotime, is in Dallas for a layover between flights, and we will catch up on the state of stem cell research and on my personal genome, which he arranged to get done – but more on that in a few weeks.

It is odd. We have made such progress on so many technological fronts, and the price of new tech keeps going down – except in healthcare. But then, politicians and lobbyists are involved, which I guess is part of Jonathan Tepper’s point.

Have a great week and get some exercise, eat healthy, and invest wisely, because you are going to live a lot longer than you thought.

Your watching my apartment construction completion date keep slipping analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com


 

Jonathan Tepper on Obamacare

Dear friends, 

Please pardon this long email, but after reading endless drivel on Obamacare, I needed to write this.

I’m afraid almost all discussions on the left and right regarding the Affordable Care Act (ACA) miss some very basic things. So I hope this email will explain a few economic ideas and put them into perspective for you, whether you’re on the left or right and whether you like Obamacare or not. 

Before I do that, though, let me say that I’m a raging capitalist and I’m in favor of universal healthcare coverage. I’m indifferent as to having either (1) a 100% government-guaranteed single-payer system or (2) a 100% private solution where the government guarantees that the poor are fully covered. Each has its pros and cons. For countries like Spain and the UK, a single-payer national system works. (I’ve lived in both countries almost all my life, and their healthcare systems work. The only time I’ve ever paid $250 for an aspirin was in a US hospital.) On the other hand, private solutions work very well for Singapore and Switzerland. So one model is purely public, and it works; and the other is purely private, and it works. There is a lot of demand for healthcare, so you have to ration medical care via price or quantity. That’s basic economics. It is for voters and politicians to decide what they prefer. I’m indifferent to the solution, as long as it is well thought out and implemented and in fact provides universal coverage. The problem is that the ACA takes the worst elements of public and private and fails to provide universal coverage for millions of people. 

Now, let’s look beyond good intentions and see how the ACA works in practice.

The main egregious problem with the ACA is that it increases concentration in the insurance and medical markets. It forces consumers to buy into oligopolistic and monopolistic marketplaces. Insurance and medical companies stocks have all gone up since Obamacare passed. (They’ve gone up twice as much as the S&P this year.) What these companies are all telling us is that the act is good for their business and good for their margins.

Before the ACA, the US health insurance market was extremely uncompetitive, as this article in the NY Times notes:

As a general rule, the larger, more densely populated states have the most choice — and even the biggest insurer controls only a minority share of the market. According to statistics from the American Medical Association, the leading insurance provider in California covers 24 percent of the population, while in New York the figure is 26 percent and in Florida, 30 percent.

But there are nine states where a single insurer covers 70 percent or more of the people. In Hawaii, one insurer covers 78 percent. In Alabama, it’s 83 percent. And in at least 17 other states one insurer covers at least half the population.

Some members of the Senate Finance Committee, which is taking a lead on health care legislation, come from states where the insurance market is highly concentrated. The Democratic chairman, Senator Max Baucus, is from Montana, where 75 percent of people are covered by one major insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana. For Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, the figure is 71 percent, by Wellmark. For Senator Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, it’s 78 percent, by WellPoint.

“For many Americans, the idea that they have a choice of health plans is about as mythical as unicorns,” said Jacob Hacker, professor of political science at Yale University.

In theory, the ACA could have improved things, and many supporters think it does through exchanges. Unfortunately, it didn’t. Under the Affordable Care Act there will be far fewer choices and less competition. Don’t take my word for it; read this NY Times article

Of the roughly 2,500 counties served by the federal exchanges, more than half, or 58 percent, have plans offered by just one or two insurance carriers, according to an analysis by The Times of county-level data provided by the Department of Health and Human Services. In about 530 counties, only a single insurer is participating. 

This is truly staggering, when you consider it. Citizens will now be forced to buy insurance from oligopolies and in many cases monopolies. They’re not getting healthcare from the government; they’re being forced to buy from private companies that have pricing power and market dominance. Insurance companies are still exempt from anti-trust supervision. This would never happen in other industries. You don’t need to know anything besides basic economics to understand that oligopolies and monopolies are bad for consumers. Consider having to pay for phone services from one or two phone providers. (Wait, we already had that, and Ma Bell was broken up…)

Medical companies are also exempt from fair pricing laws. If you go to a hospital, you’ll get a different price depending on whether you’re uninsured or Medicaid pays for you or your insurance pays for you. You can’t drive into a gas station and be charged an arbitrary cost after you’ve filled your car, but you can be charged an arbitrary number by a hospital. (Imagine: a black, a WASP, and a Jew go to a gas station, and they all get different prices. Wait, we got rid of that injustice too…) In theory, the ACA fixes fair pricing laws, but it doesn’t apply to most hospitals. See “Federal health law falls short of a goal” in the Boston Globe.

In the 21st century, states still control and regulate insurance, which means fragmentation, very high barriers to entry, and local oligopolies. It is insane that the Federal government regulates banks at a national level via the Federal Reserve and the FDIC but allows insurers to have local market dominance. (The law that allows this is the 1945 McCarran-Ferguson Act.) If you’re curious about how insurance companies are oligopolies, read here. And read this‪ … and this.‪

You can ship and sell Coca Cola across state lines, but you can’t sell insurance across state lines. Some argue that you could get one lax insurance regulator in North Dakota, and then insurance companies would all set up shop there and start selling across state lines. That has an easy solution: have one national regulator and let insurance companies compete across state lines. 

Not only is there a lack of competition among insurers, there is a lack of competition among hospitals. This has happened because antitrust policy has been so inadequate for so long in the health sector. See “Health Care Needs Stronger Market Forces” in Forbes. (Here is a more in-depth paper, if you’re curious.)

The problems that arise from a lack of competition are rife on the pharmaceutical and medical side as well. Obamacare will do almost nothing to change that. See “How a Cabal Keeps Generics Scarce” in the NY Times. It should come as no surprise that medical and pharma companies helped draft the ACA. Who said Congress won’t turn a few tricks for the right price? See “ObamaCare’s Secret History” in the WSJ.

In theory, the ACA will control costs and won’t let insurance companies and hospitals gouge us, but these types of regulations haven’t worked in the past. Howard Dean is a doctor and a Democrat. His very thoughtful views on how pricing regulations haven’t worked are presented here. If you think costs will fall and insurers won’t profit, I’ve got a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. The law is complex, badly written, and will be gamed. See “The Coming Clash over Insurers’ Compliance with Obamacare” from the Independent Institute and “HHS Releases Final Medical Loss Ratio Regulations” in the WSJ.

I highly recommend you read Matt Taibbi’s chapter on Obamacare in his book Griftopia. The book is highly worth buying and reading. It is informative, entertaining, and extremely infuriating. Your blood will boil after you read it. Taibbi establishes the point that the Affordable Care Act will screw Americans. This case is also made by the Institute of Economic Affairs, in “The scourge of Obamacare.”

In the United States, one of the most protuberant and harmful political myths — one shared by subscribers to almost all political persuasions — is the odd, naive idea that big business and big government are permanent antagonists. As a historical and empirical matter, of course, nothing could be further from the truth, a reality thrown into sharp relief by the political machinations underlying Obamacare. The new law is fundamentally anti-competitive and anti-small business, riddled with onerous regulations and handouts to favoured corporations. As usual, the relationship between big business and big government is not one of rivalry, but of symbiosis, routing genuine free markets in favour of collusion.

The ACA won’t cover everyone, and it will force people seeking coverage to buy from monopolists. Many people will get subsidies for their new insurance policies, and many people who didn’t have coverage will now have coverage. This is great news. However, it would be hard to design a worse system if you tried. There are simpler ways by which we could have covered everyone without forcing people to participate in private oligopolies and monopolies.

One of the biggest problems in the US are medical costs. We spend far more than any other country, almost twice the OECD average. This problem will not be fixed by Obamacare and indeed will only get worse due to the spiralling of price increases between insurance companies and hospitals, given the lack of competition.


Source

Furthermore, as you can see from this interactive table, we spend trillions of dollars more than other countries do, yet we don’t achieve better outcomes.

Chile, Hong Kong, and Singapore, for example, spend one fourth what we do and achieve better outcomes and longer lifespans. So spending more money isn’t a solution. In fact, imagine what we could do if we cut our healthcare spending in half. We’d free up over a trillion dollars for other things. That’s what economists call consumer surplus. Even in crazy Washington, where congressmen think money grows on trees, a trillion is a large number.

In America one subject that is taboo is healthcare before death. Almost all healthcare costs are incurred in the last twelve months of people’s lives. Modern medicine tends to delay natural death rather than extend healthy life. That is why doctors consume less healthcare than the average person. They understand what medicine can do and can’t do. I highly recommend reading this article in the WSJ. Ask any doctor, and they’ll confirm this.

In a 2003 article, Joseph J. Gallo and others looked at what physicians want when it comes to end-of-life decisions. In a survey of 765 doctors, they found that 64% had created an advanced directive — specifying what steps should and should not be taken to save their lives should they become incapacitated. That compares to only about 20% for the general public. (As one might expect, older doctors are more likely than younger doctors to have made “arrangements,” as shown in a study by Paula Lester and others.)

Why such a large gap between the decisions of doctors and patients? The case of CPR is instructive. A study by Susan Diem and others of how CPR is portrayed on TV found that it was successful in 75% of the cases and that 67% of the TV patients went home. In reality, a 2010 study of more than 95,000 cases of CPR found that only 8% of patients survived for more than one month. Of these, only about 3% could lead a mostly normal life.

Furthermore, 5% of patients create 50% of costs. These costs are all in the last days of life. See this article in Forbes.

Dr. Susan Dale Block, Chair and Director of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Health Care, recently shared some data with her colleagues. In the Archives of Internal Medicine, a study asked if a better quality of death takes place when per capital cost rise. In lay terms (because trying to explain the data and methodology requires about 100 IQ points that I don’t have) the study found that the less money spent in this time period, the better the death experience is for the patient.

It seems that no matter how much money you use during that last year/month, if the person is sick enough, the effort makes things worse. A lot of the money being spent is not only not helping, it is making that patient endure more bad experiences on a daily basis. The patient’s quality of life is being sacrificed by increasing the cost of death.

We will all die. There is no way around that. Until we have an adult conversation about how we die and recognize that we spend too much on medicine we don’t need, we won’t reduce our costs.

Sorry for such a long email. These are a few brief thoughts on the key issues that the press neglects to mention. I’d have to write a book to discuss all the relevant issues. I’ve provided more links in the postscript to my email if you’re curious about the problems of oligopoly, market concentration, and local regulation in the US insurance and healthcare sectors. 

While the US lines the pockets of insurance companies, I’ll be enjoying the socialized medical system in the UK. My guess is that Obamacare has been made purposefully grotesque in order to make people clamor for a single-payer system. I’m sure the US will eventually get one. Personally, I think congressmen and -women are too stupid and venal to do anything good. Until then, we’ll have to wait for the ACA to derail before we see any genuine reform.

Best,

Jonathan 

P.S. If you’re curious about the problems of insurance, medicine, and oligopolies, you can read further. 

Regional monopolies

The American Medical Association’s bi-annual survey of the nation’s health insurance marketplace, released Tuesday, found 60 percent of the nation’s metro areas where two insurers had a combined share of 70 percent or more of the market. That’s up from 53 percent two years ago.

Dominant insurer market share

Hospital oligopolies

Increase in premiums under Obamacare

Worst outcomes for mix of public and private

Local competition

Out of control oligopolies — how they’re blowing up our medical budget

Statistics on oligopolies

Health Care for America Now! (HCAN) released a report in May that uses data provided by the American Medical Association to demonstrate that 94% — more than 9 out of 10 — of the country’s insurance markets meet the Justice Department definition of “highly concentrated,” in relation to the potential for anti-trust action. So extreme is the level of consolidation, that HCAN has sent a letter [Note: PDF file] to the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, asking it to investigate the state of the health insurance marketplace.

The rest of the report’s findings are every bit as striking:

• In the past 13 years, more than 400 corporate mergers have involved health insurers, and the small number of companies that now dominate local markets haven’t delivered on promises of increased efficiency.

• Shrinking competition has allowed the remaining firms to charge higher fees, and premiums have gone up more than 87 percent, on average, over the past six years.

• Meanwhile, profits at ten of the country’s largest publicly traded health insurance companies rose 428% from 2000 to 2007, from $2.4 billion to $12.9 billion.

• Consolidation of market share among a smaller number of insurers disproportionately disadvantages rural and lower population states. In Hawaii, Rhode Island, Alaska, Vermont, Alabama, Maine, Montana, Wyoming, Arkansas, and Iowa, the two largest health insurers control at least 80 percent of the statewide market.

Fragmented regulation insurance. Also here. And here.

Commerce clause and restraints of trade

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Outside the Box and MauldinEconomics.com is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and those that he interviews. Any views expressed are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest and is not in any way a testimony of, or associated with, Mauldin’s other firms. John Mauldin is the Chairman of Mauldin Economics, LLC. He also is the President of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA) which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states, President and registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS) member FINRA, SIPC, through which securities may be offered . MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB) and NFA Member. Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. This message may contain information that is confidential or privileged and is intended only for the individual or entity named above and does not constitute an offer for or advice about any alternative investment product. Such advice can only be made when accompanied by a prospectus or similar offering document. Past performance is not indicative of future performance. Please make sure to review important disclosures at the end of each article. Mauldin companies may have a marketing relationship with products and services mentioned in this letter for a fee.

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PAST RESULTS ARE NOT INDICATIVE OF FUTURE RESULTS. THERE IS RISK OF LOSS AS WELL AS THE OPPORTUNITY FOR GAIN WHEN INVESTING IN MANAGED FUNDS. WHEN CONSIDERING ALTERNATIVE INVESTMENTS, INCLUDING HEDGE FUNDS, YOU SHOULD CONSIDER VARIOUS RISKS INCLUDING THE FACT THAT SOME PRODUCTS: OFTEN ENGAGE IN LEVERAGING AND OTHER SPECULATIVE INVESTMENT PRACTICES THAT MAY INCREASE THE RISK OF INVESTMENT LOSS, CAN BE ILLIQUID, ARE NOT REQUIRED TO PROVIDE PERIODIC PRICING OR VALUATION INFORMATION TO INVESTORS, MAY INVOLVE COMPLEX TAX STRUCTURES AND DELAYS IN DISTRIBUTING IMPORTANT TAX INFORMATION, ARE NOT SUBJECT TO THE SAME REGULATORY REQUIREMENTS AS MUTUAL FUNDS, OFTEN CHARGE HIGH FEES, AND IN MANY CASES THE UNDERLYING INVESTMENTS ARE NOT TRANSPARENT AND ARE KNOWN ONLY TO THE INVESTMENT MANAGER. Alternative investment performance can be volatile. An investor could lose all or a substantial amount of his or her investment. Often, alternative investment fund and account managers have total trading authority over their funds or accounts; the use of a single advisor applying generally similar trading programs could mean lack of diversification and, consequently, higher risk. There is often no secondary market for an investor’s interest in alternative investments, and none is expected to develop.

Thoughts from the Frontline: Bubbles, Bubbles Everywhere

 

The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.
– Albert Einstein

Genius is a rising stock market.
– John Kenneth Galbraith

Any plan conceived in moderation must fail when circumstances are set in extremes.
– Prince Metternich

You can almost feel it in the fall air (unless you are in the Southern Hemisphere). The froth and foam on markets of all shapes and sizes all over the world. It is an exhilarating feeling, and the pundits who populate the media outlets are bubbling over with it. There is nothing like a rising market to help lift our mood. Unless of course, as Prof. Kindleberger famously cautioned (see below), we are not participating in that rising market. Then we feel like losers. But what if the rising market is … a bubble? Are we smart enough to ride and then step aside before it bursts? Research says we all think that we are, yet we rarely demonstrate the actual ability.

This week we’ll think about bubbles. Specifically, we’ll have a look at part of the chapter on bubbles from my latest book, Code Red, which we launched last week. At the end of the letter, for your amusement, is a link to a short video of what you might hear if Jack Nicholson were playing the part of Ben Bernanke (or Janet Yellen?) on the witness stand, defending the extreme measures of central banks. A bit of a spoof, in good fun, but there is just enough there to make you wonder what if … and then smile. Economics can be so much fun if we let it.

I decided to use this part of the book when numerous references to bubbles popped into my inbox this week. When these bubbles finally burst, let no one exclaim that they were black swans, unforeseen events. Maybe because we have borne witness to so many crashes and bear markets in the past few decades, we have gotten better at discerning familiar patterns in the froth, reminiscent of past painful episodes.

Let me offer you three such bubble alerts that came my way today. The first is from my friend Doug Kass, who wrote:

I will address the issue of a stock market bubble next week, but here is a tease and fascinating piece of data: Since 1990, the P/E multiple of the S&P 500 has appreciated by about 2% a year; in 2013, the S&P’s P/E has increased by 18%!

Then, from Jolly Olde London, comes one Toby Nangle, of Threadneedle Investments (you gotta love that name), who found the following chart, created a few years ago at the Bank of England. At least when Mervyn King was there they knew what they were doing. In looking at the chart, pay attention to the red line, which depicts real asset prices. As in they know they are creating a bubble in asset prices and are very aware of how it ends and proceed full speed ahead anyway. Damn those pesky torpedoes.

Toby remarks:

This is the only chart that I’ve found that outlines how an instigator of QE believes QE’s end will impact asset prices. The Bank of England published it in Q3 2011, and it tells the story of their expectation that while QE was in operation there would be a massive rise in real asset prices, but that this would dissipate and unwind over time, starting at the point at which the asset purchases were complete.

Oh, dear gods. Really? I can see my friends Nouriel Roubini or Marc Faber doing that chart, but the Bank of England? Really?!?

Then, continuing with our puckish thoughts, we look at stock market total margin debt (courtesy of those always puckish blokes at the Motley Fool). They wonder if, possibly, maybe, conceivably, perchance this is a warning sign?

And we won’t even go into the long list of stocks that are selling for large multiples, not of earnings but of SALES. As in dotcom-era valuations.

We make the case in Code Red that central banks are inflating bubbles everywhere, and that even though bubbles are unpredictable almost by definition, there are ways to benefit from them. So, without further ado, let’s look at what co-author Jonathan Tepper and I have to say about bubbles in Chapter 9.

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.

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Thoughts From the Frontline and MauldinEconomics.com is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and those that he interviews. Any views expressed are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest and is not in any way a testimony of, or associated with, Mauldin’s other firms. John Mauldin is the Chairman of Mauldin Economics, LLC. He also is the President and registered representative of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA) which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states, President and registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS) member FINRA and SIPC, through which securities may be offered. MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB) and NFA Member. Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. This message may contain information that is confidential or privileged and is intended only for the individual or entity named above and does not constitute an offer for or advice about any alternative investment product. Such advice can only be made when accompanied by a prospectus or similar offering document. Past performance is not indicative of future performance. Please make sure to review important disclosures at the end of each article. Mauldin companies may have a marketing relationship with products and services mentioned in this letter for a fee.

Note: Joining The Mauldin Circle is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and Millennium Wave Investments. It is intended solely for investors who have registered with Millennium Wave Investments and its partners at http://www.MauldinCircle.com (formerly AccreditedInvestor.ws) or directly related websites. The Mauldin Circle may send out material that is provided on a confidential basis, and subscribers to the Mauldin Circle are not to send this letter to anyone other than their professional investment counselors. Investors should discuss any investment with their personal investment counsel. John Mauldin is the President of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA), which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states. John Mauldin is a registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS), an FINRA registered broker-dealer. MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB). Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. Millennium Wave Investments cooperates in the consulting on and marketing of private and non-private investment offerings with other independent firms such as Altegris Investments; Capital Management Group; Absolute Return Partners, LLP; Fynn Capital; Nicola Wealth Management; and Plexus Asset Management. Investment offerings recommended by Mauldin may pay a portion of their fees to these independent firms, who will share 1/3 of those fees with MWS and thus with Mauldin. Any views expressed herein are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest with any CTA, fund, or program mentioned here or elsewhere. Before seeking any advisor’s services or making an investment in a fund, investors must read and examine thoroughly the respective disclosure document or offering memorandum. Since these firms and Mauldin receive fees from the funds they recommend/market, they only recommend/market products with which they have been able to negotiate fee arrangements.

PAST RESULTS ARE NOT INDICATIVE OF FUTURE RESULTS. THERE IS RISK OF LOSS AS WELL AS THE OPPORTUNITY FOR GAIN WHEN INVESTING IN MANAGED FUNDS. WHEN CONSIDERING ALTERNATIVE INVESTMENTS, INCLUDING HEDGE FUNDS, YOU SHOULD CONSIDER VARIOUS RISKS INCLUDING THE FACT THAT SOME PRODUCTS: OFTEN ENGAGE IN LEVERAGING AND OTHER SPECULATIVE INVESTMENT PRACTICES THAT MAY INCREASE THE RISK OF INVESTMENT LOSS, CAN BE ILLIQUID, ARE NOT REQUIRED TO PROVIDE PERIODIC PRICING OR VALUATION INFORMATION TO INVESTORS, MAY INVOLVE COMPLEX TAX STRUCTURES AND DELAYS IN DISTRIBUTING IMPORTANT TAX INFORMATION, ARE NOT SUBJECT TO THE SAME REGULATORY REQUIREMENTS AS MUTUAL FUNDS, OFTEN CHARGE HIGH FEES, AND IN MANY CASES THE UNDERLYING INVESTMENTS ARE NOT TRANSPARENT AND ARE KNOWN ONLY TO THE INVESTMENT MANAGER. Alternative investment performance can be volatile. An investor could lose all or a substantial amount of his or her investment. Often, alternative investment fund and account managers have total trading authority over their funds or accounts; the use of a single advisor applying generally similar trading programs could mean lack of diversification and, consequently, higher risk. There is often no secondary market for an investor’s interest in alternative investments, and none is expected to develop. You are advised to discuss with your financial advisers your investment options and whether any investment is suitable for your specific needs prior to making any investments.

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