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Tuesday
Jan032017

My Political-Financial Road Map for 2017

Happy New Year! May yours be peaceful, safe and impactful!

As tumultuous as last year was from a global political perspective on the back of a rocky start market-wise, 2017 will be much more so. The central bank subsidization of the financial system (especially in the US and Europe) that began with the Fed invoking zero interest rate policy in 2008, gave way to international distrust of the enabling status quo that unfolded in different ways across the planet. My prognosis is for more destabilization, financially and politically.  In other words, the world's a mess.

Over 2016, I circled the earth to gain insight and share my thoughts on this path from financial crisis to central bank market manipulation to geo-political fall out, while researching my new book, Artisans of Money. (I’m pressing to hand in my manuscript by February 28th – the book should emerge in the Fall.)

I traveled through countries including Mexico, Brazil, China, Japan, England and Germany, nations epitomizing various elements of the artisanal money effect. I spoke with farmers, teachers and truck-drivers as well as politicians, private and central bankers. I explored that chasm between news and reality to investigate the ways in which elite power endlessly permeates the existence of regular people.

In last year’s roadmap, I wrote we were in a “transitional phase of geo-political-monetary power struggles, capital flow decisions, and fundamental economic choices. This remains a period of artisanal (central bank fabricated) money, high volatility, low growth, excessive wealth inequality, extreme speculation, and policies that preserve the appearance of big bank liquidity and concentration at the expense of long-term stability.”    

That happened. Going forward, as always, there’s an endless amount of information to process. The state of economies, citizens and governments remains more precarious than ever. Major areas on the upcoming docket include – central bank desperation, corporate defaults and related job losses, economic impact of political isolationism, conservatism and deregulation, South America’s woes, Europe’s EU voter rejections, and the ongoing power shift from the West to the East.

For now, I’d like to share with you some specific items - which are by no means exhaustive, that I’ll be analyzing in 2017.

1) Watching the Artisans of Money (Central Banks)

On December 16th, 2015, after equivocating for seven years, the Fed raised rates by 25 basis points. To hedge itself against its own decision, the Fed claimed that despite this move (that the financial press considered indicative of an actual policy shift) its "stance of monetary policy remains accommodative after this increase.” Sure enough, the Dow opened January, 2016 with a 10% drop. The US stock market exuded its worst 10-day start to a year since 1897. Other global markets fared worse.

Four hikes were initially predicted for 2016. We got just one. Another 25 basis points followed – nearly to the day, on December 14, 2016. The Fed has now forecast another three hikes, for 2017. If you do the math, consider the reasons behind the Fed’s wishy-washy language, and ignore economic rhetoric, that translates to one hike this year.

Last year, I noted that the Fed’s December 2015 rate move was “tepid, and it’s possible the Fed moves rates up another 25 or 50 basis points over 2016, but less likely more than that.” This happened. Given the tempestuous state of the world and over-optimism surrounding Trump’s ability or desire to follow through on certain campaign vows, I see no reason for a different rate pattern in 2017.  

2) Volatility for Stock Markets

Following a volatile start to 2016, markets rebounded. Not because fundamental economic conditions of the world’s major countries improved instantly or geo-political tension declined. But as other major central banks took over the cheap money mantle.

 

The cavalry appeared. The Bank of Japan hit negative rate territory in January, 2016. The European Central Bank adopted negative rates in March, 2016.  As a result of these major central banks equalizing the cost of global money back to zero, the stock market bubble marched on.  And if that wasn’t enough to show that liquidity and crisis concerns still exist, both central banks introduced additional manifestations of quantitative easing during the year with the ECB extension in time and BOJ extension up their yield curve.

In November, Donald Trump’s victory further elevated stock markets, especially sectors most likely to be deregulated by the incoming billionaire club administration, like banks.   

Yet, the idea that any President can control the economy with a tweet and a set of disparaging or aggrandizing comments is foolish.  Once the hype of a reality TV show president subsides into prevailing political and economic uncertainty, stock and bond markets will end the year crumbling in the dust of broken promises.

3) Rising Corporate Defaults and Oil Prices

Extending a disturbing trend, the number of large global corporations that defaulted in 2016 outpaced those in 2015 by 40 percent. The figure for 2016 hit 150, making 2016 the worst year for corporate defaults since the financial crisis.

If Trump wants to make America great again, he should start by examining the leverage in corporate America, where 2/3s of global corporate defaults occurred. Of those, 50 out of 63 globally, were in the oil and gas sector.  (Emerging markets accounted for 28 defaults and Europe for 12).  S&P expects the default rate to rise in 2017. And if Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has anything to do with it, oil prices won’t move up much for 2017. This will mean more defaults in that sector. Based on his recent statements, his policies are cushioned in the ideology of pumping more oil, not less. 

4) Turmoil in South America

Last year, given how scandal-plagued Brazil was, I thought no matter what happened regarding now-former Dilma Rousseff’s government, its markets would slip along with its economy. Yet, against all logic, interim President Michel Temer, even more plagued by scandal than his ejected predecessor, got a Hail Mary from the international investor community. Much of that had to do with Wall Street’s old friend Henrique Mereilles nabbing the minister of finance spot (having run Brazil’s Central Bank under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (a.k.a. “Lula”) from 2003 to 2010.)

I also said that Argentina wouldn’t be having a “walk in the park.” The new centrist government removed currency capital controls in order to attract foreign money, which had the side effect of crushing the Argentinean peso.  Unemployment and general angst increased. A group of protestors recently stoned the car of President Macri amidst growing resentment of his austerity measures.

Venezuela, a nation dependent on oil for 96% of its exports has erupted into total chaos. As perhaps the desperation move “currency controls” or restrictions were introduced in early December President Maduro announced  plans to withdraw the 100 bolivar note which makes up 77 percent of all currency in circulation and closed the borders to stop people holding Venezuelan currency outside of the country.  That caused mass panic and Depression like bank lines, looting and violence. The government chose to keep the 100-note in circulation until January 20. That’s a temporary measure.  So is a large year-end bond issue from the government forced on the state banks. Things will get uglier. Restricting currency circulation is a harbinger of the war on cash everywhere.  Contagion in South America is more likely to be acute this year.  

5) First Half: Rising Dollar/ Sideways Gold, Second Half: Reverse and Cash

Last year, I said that despite other countries (and the IMF) seeking to battle the almighty Greenback, global malaise would “keep the dollar higher than it deserves to be.”

Then, I expected gold “to rise during the summer as a safe haven choice” which it did and to “end the year lower in US dollar terms” which it also did.   This year, it’s likely that the dollar will remain strong in the beginning given the recent Fed hike, expectations of more, and initial enthusiasm for Trump’s promises. This will keep a lid on gold.  

Yet once it becomes clear that US economic conditions remain lackluster and inequality rampant, the dollar will weaken and gold will appreciate.  In the backdrop, though the US remains the world’s biggest gold holder, nations like China, India and Russia will continue to stockpile gold in a bid to diversify against the dollar.

In addition to watching the yellow metal, as I’ve urged over the past few years, routinely extracting cash from bank accounts remains a smart defensive play for 2017.  People have asked me where to keep it. The answers depend on individual financial situations, but paying down debt, buying necessary hard assets and staying liquid with the rest in physical reach (there’s a reason for the term, keeping it ‘under the mattress’ is practical.

6) Power Shift from West to East through China and Japan

As it has done since cheap money became US economic and financial policy in the wake of the financial crisis, China continues to forge a US-independent path. It did so through inclusion of the Renminbi in the IMF’s SDR basket in October 2016. It also established a stronger relationship and side agreements with Russia, the BRICS community and increasingly with Europe and the United Kingdom post the Brexit vote. That was no accident, but part of a strategy to be distanced from the risk the US and its central and private banking system poses.  The New Development Bank (formerly referred to as the BRICS bank) headquartered in Shanghai, China, offers alternatives to old institutions like the IMF, and allows for a rise of eastern and emerging nations to succeed in a collective format.

The trajectory of this power shift from the US dollar and US policies will escalate. If Trump and his team go the isolationist, or bilateral trade agreement routes, it will only push China to increases its economic, military and diplomatic presence globally. While Trump (and the outgoing Obama administration) accuse China of currency devaluation, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has actually been selling US treasuries to bolster its currency - hit by capital outflows, not manipulation.  China sold $22 billion of US treasuries in July. Its US government debt holdings are at their lowest level in more than three years, and these sales, especially in the face of Trump’s scorn, will continue.

These accusations and geo-bullying will also push former adversaries, China and Japan closer together. The two nations are already negotiating some historic agreements.  We could be approaching a new era in which Sino-Japanese relations allow for diplomatic normalization and more economic partnerships, which would be mutually beneficial.

Over 2016, Japan entered greater cooperation with India and Russia.  The agreements it arranged will bolster Japan’s potential for 2017. The Yen should appreciate as a result. Even in the case of further economic turmoil in the US and around the world, the Yen will benefit, as it did during the financial crisis, from being a safe haven currency.

7) More Anti-EU sentiment and economic hardship in Europe

In 2015, Mario Draghi, European Central Bank (ECB) head decided to extend Euro-QE into March 2017. At the start of last year, I said that, “The euro will continue to drop in value against the dollar” and “negative interest rates will prevail.” That happened. And despite no evidence of any economic benefit (and purely to help ailing banks) Draghi extended Euro-QE to December 2017, with a promise to do more if necessary.

Meanwhile, mega banks in Europe continue to buckle, economies continue to stagger and the uprising of populations increasingly apprehensive of the entire EU apparatus will be felt in votes this year. Already, much of Eastern Europe (with notable exceptions of Austria and Romania) has elected anti-EU politicians. With major elections approaching - in the Netherlands in March,  France in May and Germany likely in October, the only way for the sitting elite to retain power is to make the markets seem frothy. That means more QE manifestations from Draghi, a weaker euro, more bubbles in major European stock markets and greater presence from conservative, protectionist politicians.

In Europe, weaker countries are struggling more than ever. In Greece, more than one out of every three people now lives in poverty and 25% of Greeks are unemployed and receive no benefits. Even stronger countries like Norway and Switzerland will be at economic risk as they begin to negotiate trade agreements with the central EU.

8) Upside for Russia

Any way you look at it, Russia will be a key economic beneficiary for 2017. The ruble appreciated about 21% vs. the dollar in 2016, outperforming all other emerging market currencies for the year. This trend will continue. Russia’s MICEX stock market index rallied 24% for 2016. Russian bonds will maintain that path amid high interest rates (around 10%) and a positive geo-political outlook relative to the US.

Russia will enjoy warmer relationships with the US under the Trump administration and find and ally in Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. It has strategically engaged in trade agreements with China to diversity against US ones.  Simultaneously it has furthered relations with many Eastern European countries that have been disillusioned with the EU.  As more pro-Russia officials are being voted into power, the positive impact on Russia’s economy will carry on.

These alignments could provide Russia more impetus militarily. Having stepped in to assuage the situation in Syria while the US remained relatively silent, it can also capitalize on its Middle East relationships.  Russia supplies nearly one-third of the EU’s natural gas, but it has also begun clean energy initiatives through the BRICS development bank and other platforms, a strategic diversification. That’s why the ruble will outperform the euro and the pound sterling.

9) Angst in the United Kingdom

Before being picked as Trump’s Commerce Secretary, billionaire, Wilbur Ross called Brexit a “God-given opportunity" for UK rivals.  As commerce secretary, he can act upon that characterization - through negotiations of new US-UK trade agreements that favor the US. That would increase UK reliance on more optimal EU negotiations, by no means a given. The UK can also hope that China and the BRICS will offer better opportunities, which increases the West to East power shift.

The sterling fell 14% in 2016, due to Brexit and anxiety over what form it will eventually take.  Despite a year-end dead-cat bounce, uncertainty can only mount once negotiations truly begin.  As the Financial Times noted, the number of times the words “uncertain” and “uncertainty” appeared in the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee meeting minutes in 2016 rose 78 per cent vs. 2015.  That doesn’t bode well for the sterling. But in the event of a Bank of England rate cut (to compensate for the Fed hike), there would be another temporary boost to the UK stock and bond market.

10) The Trump Effect Will Accentuate Unrest

Trump is assembling the richest cabinet in the world to conduct the business of the United States, from a political position.  The problem with that is several fold.

First, there is a woeful lack of public office experience amongst his administration. His supporters may think that means the Washington swamp has been drained to make room for less bureaucratic decisions.  But, the swamp has only been clogged. Instead of political elite, it continues business elite, equally ill-suited to put the needs of the everyday American before the needs of their private colleagues and portfolios. 

Second, running the US is not like running a business. Other countries are free to do their business apart from the US.  If Trump’s doctrine slaps tariffs on imports for instance, it burdens US companies that would need to pay more for required products or materials, putting a strain on the US economy. Playing hard ball with other nations spurs them to engage more closely with each other. That would make the dollar less attractive. This will likely happen during the second half of the year, once it becomes clear the Fed isn’t on a rate hike rampage and Trump isn’t as adept at the economy as he is prevalent on Twitter.

Third, an overly aggressive Trump administration, combined with its ample conflicts of interest could render Trump’s and his cohorts’ businesses the target of more terrorism, and could unleash more violence and chaos globally.

Fourth, his doctrine is deregulatory, particularly for the banking sector. Consider that the biggest US banks remain bigger than before the financial crisis. Deregulating them by striking elements of the already tepid Dodd-Frank Act could fall hard on everyone.

When the system crashes, it doesn’t care about Republican or Democrat politics. The last time deregulation and protectionist businessmen filled the US presidential cabinet was in the 1920s. That led to the Crash of 1929 and Great Depression. 

Today, the only thing keeping a lid on financial calamity is epic amounts of artisanal money. Deregulating an inherently corrupt and coddled banking industry, already floating on said capital assistance, would inevitably cause another crisis during Trump’s first term.

 

In closing, I share with you my yoga instructor’s New Year’s motto:

Don’t half-ass anything.

That means whatever you do - imbue it with passion, courage, attention and conviction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday
Sep282016

The Central Bank Power Shift from West to East, Game of Thrones Style

(This piece is a version of my article appearing in Jim Rickard's Strategic Intelligence newsletter this month. It gives you an idea of what's to come in Artisans of Money (abent the Game of Thrones comp.)) Enjoy.

“When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.” – Cersei Lannister

I was late to Season 6 of Game of Thrones (while buried in writing my next book Artisans of Money.)  If you have never watched Game of Thrones, a) do so immediately and b) here’s the nutshell. The show, based on the book series, depicts a land in which several kingdoms are duking it out for the Iron Throne, the symbol of absolute power.  Think the board game “Risk” except with dragons, magic, an army of the dead, and lots of blood.

While I was watching, I couldn’t help noticing that its backdrop is a dead ringer for central banks’ strategy.  The Fed clings to status quo. Other central banks are vying to knock it down, or at least loosen its grip on them. But the Fed behaves as if it has no idea there are other powerful central banks that want to grab and harness its power. It carries on refusing to acknowledge that there may come a time, sooner rather than later, where its power is attacked.

The ramifications of such an attack will impact the standing of the U.S. in the world.  The Fed can carry on being oblivious, but Game of Thrones illustrates the struggles playing out right now.

In the Game of Thrones world, emerging queen, Daenerys Targaryen is biding her time and building her army. She is creating alliances in Meereen, an ancient country in the East (her awesome fire-breathing dragons in tow).  She’s playing the long game, strategically planning when to elevate the fight against the ruling queen in the West, Cersei Lannister.

The most important part of Daenerys’ story is not that she is determined to rule the seven kingdoms and take possession of the Iron Throne. It’s that she knows she can’t do it alone. So she aligns reinforcements, smaller power bases.

These smaller partners may or may not have allegiance to her based on the legitimacy of her claim to power — but they have all been wronged by the Lannister’s. This family, currently led by Cersei Lannister, is extremely wealthy and powerful, but hasn’t managed to lead the western kingdom, Westeros, to wealth and power. In fact, the people in Westeros are becoming increasingly frustrated and scared of their rulers.  (You see the similarities?)

Not only has Cersei managed to create enemies out of the smaller families that surround her, she recently massacred a large portion of the city she rules to protect her own interests. She is losing her power domestically and globally, but continues to think and act as if she will rule forever. We’ll see what happens next season.

The Fed’s State

In this situation, the Lannisters are representing the U.S. and the Fed specifically. The Fed remains in denial about the true state of the domestic and global economies. In its realm of hubris, it has no idea of the steps other central banks are taking, or want to take, to reduce their exposure and reliance on not just the U.S. dollar, but on U.S. political, monetary, financial and regulatory policy in general.

Case in point. After the Dow dropped 250 points on September 9th, on September 12th, Asian markets nose-dived on the possibility that the Fed might raise rates (though it said nothing of the sort — the “rate tease” is a manifestation of deliberate Fed obfuscation and media boredom).  This is a pattern that plays out every month, with varying degrees of intensity, or volatility.

Enter three of the Fed’s giants, led by Lael Brainnard. During her speech at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, she backtracked on any tightening talk saying, “the case to tighten policy preemptively is less compelling.”

That calmed markets. That day. It reminded them nothing is changing any time soon. U.S. stock markets rejoiced. Bubble-baiters bought. The Dow soared 1.3%. Elsewhere in the world though, no one wants their market whipsawed by Fed speak.  Certainly not the People’s Bank of China.

The PBoC’s approach has been to send out anti-Fed policy sound-bites through elite officials. These clips are picked up by national and international media and then spread to the general public.  
On September 13th, for instance, Yi Gang, a deputy governor from the PBoC, told a central banking conference in Vienna, “We’re still very cautious on this (zero-interest rate) monetary policy." He warned, "We have to be very careful and look at the limitations and uncertainty of a zero-interest rate policy, because in China we still have a decent growth rate.” What he basically said was “the Fed’s policy is a joke and we’re not laughing.” (I’ll have more quotes like this in Artisans of Money.)

In the Game of Monetary Policy, the Fed whacked the idea of “free markets” in the face. (For the record, I don’t believe they ever existed, because the theoretical implication is full information transparency and equal access, and that’s just not been the reality – ever.) The ECB chucked an arrow in its heart. The BOJ sliced off its head. Markets are sustained artificially. The Fed has become, as you’ll read more about in my book, the chief Artisan of Money. Central banks are bankrupt of new ideas to keep the system afloat.

Or are they? While the Fed cut rates to zero, bloated its book to $4.5 trillion, and pressed the rest of the developed world to follow, global skepticism bubbled over. First the Chinese, then Latin America. Then the IMF. Then the Chinese again. Central bank elite took turns bashing Fed policy, mostly under media radar,  and calling for an alternative to the U.S. dollar associated with it. This is the equivalent of financial warfare. The U.S. and Fed struck first.  It will take time, but the blowback is in motion.

The U.S. dollar was attached to a financial crisis fueled by big bank recklessness and Fed apathy, followed by a Fed policy that devalued money itself.  Many other countries had no choice but to follow the Fed’s lead and directives, but that doesn’t mean they were happy about it. As in Game of Thrones, the smart choice is to forge strategic alliances with other houses or be slaughtered.

The IMF is one of the houses that will be a crucial player in the new power constructs.

The IMF Power Play

The IMF, created by the U.S. and Europe, has been seeking a broader role in the monetary politics wars. For all the media dissection of every word Janet Yellen utters about rates, the IMF knows the Fed is lost. Its policy hasn’t worked. The Fed ignored this and raised rates last December, despite warnings from managing director, Christine Lagarde. Market punishment was swift and the damage was global. The move caused renewed fear and anger from nations that had already suffered at the hands of the Fed and the big U.S. banks it sustains.

The U.S. has the largest voting block within the IMF, which is located blocks away from the White House, but IMF leadership understands how the winds of change are blowing. If the BRICS and a few more developed states were to act as a voting block (or increase their voting power, as they’re attempting), they could potentially dislodge the strong influence that the U.S. has within the IMF.  

It was the U.S. voting block that gave Lagarde her job in 2011, and allowed Europe to maintain its 70-year stronghold on the IMF. As a result, Lagarde’s opposition, Augustin Carstens, head of the Central Bank of Mexico, lost that country’s first bid for the role.

In Game of Thrones, this is the story of Tyrion Lannister. He’s Cersei’s brother, but has been loudly critical of her leadership. Originally, he tried to guide his sister towards better practices. She didn’t listen to him. Now, he has joined forces with Daenerys and is helping her rise to power. His loyal alliance with Daenerys has led him to ascend the ranks again, from another angle. He is well-connected throughout the seven kingdoms. He is strategic. He knows the strengths and weaknesses of all the players. He is formidable despite his size (or in central bank terms, the volume of reserves). 

This is the Fed and the IMF.  That entity was spawned to augment U.S. central bank and government power in the wake of WWII. Powerful, but not as powerful. Since the financial crisis, the IMF has been strategically chipping away at the Fed’s power base. Like the PBoC, the IMF has been both criticizing and warning about the impact of Fed policy on other nations. By disparaging the Fed, it is amassing its own power. Its international influence has never been higher.

Under Lagarde, the IMF is doing more than funding development projects and supplying overall currency directives to the world, as was its original mandate.  It is reconstructing new alliances amongst countries not involved in its creation. In doing so, it is building its own power by elevating their allies.

On October 1, for the first time in 43 years, the IMF will add China’s currency, the Renminbi (denominated in yuan), into its Special Drawing Rights basket (SDR).  In doing so, the IMF, at the zenith of its own power, has tipped the scales away from the U.S. and the Bretton Woods crew that created the SDR in 1969.  The expanding SDR basket is as much a political power play as it is about increasing the number of reserve currencies for central banks for financial purposes.

The SDR Factor

China’s power ambitions go well beyond the SDR. They include international diplomacy, sustainable energy dominance, and becoming a focal point for alliances through Europe,  Russia and the ASEAN states.  The ASEAN–China Free Trade Area (ACFTA) is a prime example of why the SDR for China and the region is important as China expands its influence. So are new trade and financial pacts with Russia where the yuan and ruble exchange in deals without involving U.S. dollars. In addition, Russia and China are both starting to amass gold which could return as the 6th component of the SDR someday.

When the SDR was created as a global reserve asset, it was to supplement the international supply of gold and the U.S. dollar. Once the gold standard was demolished and countries began accumulating international reserves, there was less of a need for this global reserve asset.  It lay dormant, along with the power of the IMF. But in the wake of the financial crisis, it sprang back to life as another liquidity source for member countries.  The IMF sprang back to power as well.

The SDR was initially defined relative to gold (0.888671 grams of fine gold — the equivalent of one U.S. dollar.) After the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1973, the SDR was redefined as a weighted basket of four currencies — the U.S. dollar, euro, Japanese yen, and pound sterling.

In 2015, when the yuan was approved, a new weighting formula was adopted. It assigns equal shares to the currency issuer’s exports plus a composite financial indicator. That means the more prevalent the currency in the world, the bigger its weight. If more Yuan are used in the world, its position in the SDR grows. In another crisis, it could take on the U.S. dollar and Euro, and by extension the Fed.

The SDR weight of the yuan is just 10.92 percent compared to 41.73 percent for the U.S. dollar and 10.92 percent for the Euro.1  That’s not a bad opening gambit. The next official weights review is in September 30, 2021. But in a crisis, there is latitude for this to happen much sooner.

As China continues to play host to global events (Olympics, G20, etc.) it also is in pursuit of greater regional influence. With the largest economy, and now showing its capability as having a globally recognized reserve currency, China is adding another layer of strength to its position.  While the associated confidence measure will not be the death of the dollar, it indicates that the dollar is not the only option to turn to in times of panic, or increased trade or financial growth.  The intrinsic power of that position attacks not only the dollar but the overall power of the U.S.

Competing Central Bank Kingdoms and their Power Bases

Currencies reflect both political and economic clout. Even if SDR’s themselves aren’t that voluminous yet, the shift in the make-up is meaningful. The Fed has already lost ground in the process. The IMF and PBoC have gained it. In the middle, there is an increasingly shaky, EU.

The ECB was established after the creation of the Euro in 1998 to oversee other member European central banks. It has more power than any of them because it sets rates for the EU, which dictates the cost of their money and how it flows.

Former Goldman Sachs executive and former Bank of Italy Governor, Mario Draghi is the current President of the ECB. He has followed the Fed’s policy to a letter — despite grumblings from other EU power brokers (and reality) that negative interest rates have solved nothing and instead aided to the fractiousness of the EU experiment itself.  In 2012, facing an acute European debt crisis, he promised, “the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the Euro.” The Euro has fallen precipitously since.

If Draghi’s words are weak, his actions are weaker. The ECB is offering to pay banks that borrow money from it, plus, giving them 85 billion Euro each month through its ongoing QE program to purchase their debt. From a battleground standpoint, that smacks of desperation.

The ECB just announced it would give banks three years to write off bad loans — meaning they have lots of bad loans. Deutsche Bank is just one mega example. The ECB has failed to mitigate any risk. Its alliance with the Fed hasn't helped Draghi build his power, just retain it, and it certainly hasn’t helped the EU as a whole.   

Within the wider European Area, the Bank of England, under governor Mark Carney, retains legacy power. That power has waned though, and increasingly so since the Brexit vote. If Britain leaves the EU for real, then the Bank of England’s actions are less relevant to the EU.  This elevates the power of the ECB and the Euro. But as noted, those are already weak to begin with.

If the Bank of England follows the course that Brexit has laid out, the SDR could see a further reduction of the pound weighting, and Euro weighting, which would push up the weighting of the yuan by sheer math. This shift is symbolic now, but power can start in that realm.

The Bank of Japan, before governor Haruhiko Kuroda took the helm, had run-ins with the Japanese minister of finance over its negative rate policy and bond-buying programs. The Japanese stock market lies in a constant state of tension. Because the BOJ is on the same monetary policy plane as the Fed, Japan’s markets have similarly become used to monetary adrenalin shots. Globally, this has led capital, seeking a fix in times of instability, to Japan and to the yen.

But lately Japan’s markets have also been reacting more viciously whenever the possibility of a Fed tightening hits, or lack of fresh BOJ easing measures, emerge.  The alliance of the BOJ and PBoC has not been fleshed out yet, but I believe that’s only a matter of time. Old fights might be discarded if economic or financial survival is imperiled, which is what these sharper market moves foreshadow. (There have already been new trade and lending deals emerging between the two.)

People’s Bank of China: Dragon Rising

This dragon’s about to take flight. The People’s Bank of China governor is Zhou Xiaochuan, who has held that post longer than any other G20 central bank leader. The PBoC holds more U.S. treasuries than any other central bank and is ready for battle. Zhou understands global paradigm shifts. He’s the only Chinese person on the G30 and on the board of the BIS.  He’s been the leading figure pushing the yuan into the SDR basket by slowly allowing it to float with the market, despite allegations of ongoing currency manipulation. He has a good personal relationship with Lagarde.

As China’s position has grown, so has Zhou’s voice, albeit without giving too much away, (something for which the U.S. has been critical.) Keeping some card close to his chest is a strategy. “The central bank has a clear and strong desire to improve its communication with the public and market," he told Caixin, a major publication in China. "At the same time, it's not easy to do a good job in communication.”

China wants to keep internal inflation down. This is why it would prefer a strong, not a weak currency. This negates the charge that China is trying to devalue or manipulate the yuan for better trade profits perpetuated by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. This is true to a minor extent due to economic pressures, but barely.  (It was, after all, the Ming Dynasty back in 1455 that ended the printing of paper money in order to control inflation.)  

The stronger the yuan, and the more prevalent it is globally, the more the PBoC challenges the Fed and the more control the China bloc gains over the U.S. In Chinese culture and the Game of Thrones, the Dragon symbolizes life and expansion. (Side note: I confess to having a Dragon obsession.) It’s a fitting symbol for the rising power of China and the yuan.

The Current Central Bank Hierarchy

The Fed is the world’s most powerful central bank. The ECB is a close second. Third, is the Bank of Japan. Fourth, for now, is the People’s Bank of China.  That will change.

The PBoC has crafted its own techniques to support China’s economy through monetary policy. Although, at the recent G20 meeting, Xi Jianping told reporters that the age of monetary and fiscal stimulation is over and new strategies must arise, he did so by claiming the global growth mantel. As he said, “In light of the pronounced issue of lackluster global economic growth, we need to innovate our macroeconomic policies and effectively combine fiscal and monetary policies with structural reform policies.”

The Fed’s power is resting on the dollar’s dominance. That dominance, in turn, was established by political design based on military prowess following two world wars — which were financed by elite U.S. banks. 

The U.S. Treasury market is the world’s largest and most liquid. Central banks holding U.S. dollars are really holding U.S. Treasuries.  They are lending the U.S. money, and we pay them for it with interest. But when rates are zero, we are paying them nothing to lend us more money. This is why growing debt is so easy under current Fed policy.

Just like Cersei Lannister, the Fed thinks it will retain its power simply because it currently has power, even though everyone is wary of her and the house she represents. In contrast, Daenerys is not so disliked. Like China, she is clever and building alliances. They are playing the long game patiently and strategically.

Bad Bad Contagion

The Fed re-assembled in Washington on September 20-21, after a mini-break. Prior to that, they were in “black out” mode. During that time, I discovered a new report while sleuthing around the Fed’s website.  It’s about 45 pages of mathematical equations, beyond which lies some scary thoughts.

In this September 2016 report, to which main stream reporters paid none to minimal attention, Fed economist, Juan M. Londono addresses the notion of “contagion.” The Fed’s own research team is ahead of its management. Bad contagion, Londono notes, is the “confluence of unexpectedly low stock returns across several international stock markets simultaneously.” His findings revealed that, “episodes of bad contagion are followed by significant and meaningful deteriorations to financial stability indicators.”  

If stock markets crumble, so do economies. The elites running central banks in those economies don’t want that happening on their watch. The only way to avoid the collapse is to distance themselves from the Fed and the dollar. Even David Reifschneider, deputy director of research for the Fed, noted, “there could be circumstances in the future in which the ability of the FOMC to provide the desired degree of accommodation using these tools would be strained.” (Translation: The Fed is running out of bullets,. Or losing its power over other central banks.)

This doesn’t mean the dollar will tank like a stone immediately as some people predict — the power base that supports it won’t go down without a fight. (Nor will the Lannister’s—Season 7 will be bloody.)  But once the fight starts in earnest, it will accelerate off its own momentum.

Stock markets have reached historic highs on a steady diet of fabricated money. Contagion is real, because the associated polices are interdependent. Having gone down with the U.S. economic ship in 2008, why would any country want to endure that again?

During the past eight years, the Fed has led a global race to the bottom of responsible monetary policy while exuding bi-polar verbiage as to its effectiveness. This blind continuity of Fed policy is the clearest indication of its lack of success. The inability to articulate an exit strategy is another.

The third, is the denial that other central banks and countries want to distance themselves from the Fed. For the moment, the leader in that regard is the PBoC. The Dragon is re-entering the fight now that the stakes are highest. The swords are drawn. The battles of the East and West are on.

Tuesday
Jan052016

My Financial Road Map For 2016

Happy New Year to All! May 2016 bring peace to you and your loved ones.

Over the holidays, I had the opportunity to stay away from airports and hike Runyon Canyon with my dogs. For those of you that have never traversed Runyon’s peaks and dips, they are nature’s respite from the urban streets of Los Angeles, yet located in the heart of the City of Angels. It’s a place in which to observe, reflect, and think about what’s coming ahead.

As a writer and journalist covering the ebbs and flows of government, elite individual, central bank and private industry power, actions, co-dependencies, and impacts on populations and markets worldwide, I often find myself reacting too quickly to information. As I embark upon extensive research for my new book, Artisans of Money, my resolution for the book - and the year - is to more carefully consider small details in the context of the broader perspective. My travels will take me to Brazil, Mexico, China, Japan, Germany, Spain, Greece and more. My intent is to converse with people in their respective locales; those formulating (or trying to formulate) monetary, economic and financial policy, and those affected by it.

We are currently in a transitional phase of geo-political-monetary power struggles, capital flow decisions, and fundamental economic choices. This remains a period of artisanal (central bank fabricated) money, high volatility, low growth, excessive wealth inequality, extreme speculation, and policies that preserve the appearance of big bank liquidity and concentration at the expense of long-term stability. The potential for chaotic fluctuations in any element of the capital markets is greater than ever. 

The butterfly effect - the flutter of a wing in one part of the planet altering the course of seemingly unrelated events in another part - is on center stage. There is much information to process. So, I’d like to share with you – not my financial predictions for 2016 exactly - – but some of the items that I will be examining from a geographical, political and financial perspective as the year unfolds.

1) Central Banks: Artisans of Money

Since the Fed raised (hiked is too strong a word) rates by 25 basis points on December 16th, the Dow has dropped by about 3.5%. Indicating a mix of fear of decisive movements and a market awareness deficit regarding the impact of its actions, the Federal Reserve hedged its own rate rise announcement, noting that its "stance of monetary policy remains accommodative after this increase.”

These words seem fairly clear: there won’t be many, if any, hikes to come in 2016 unless economies markedly improve (which they won’t, or the words would be much more definitive.) Still, Janet Yellen did manage to alleviate some stress over the Fed's inaction on rate rises during the past 7 years, by invoking the slighted action possible with respect to rates. 

Projections are past reactions here. The Fed, to save face more than anything or to “appear” conclusive, raised the Fed Funds rate (the rate US banks charge each other to borrow excess reserves, of which about $2.5 billion are with the Fed anyway), to .25-.50% from 0-.25%. And yet, the effective rate stood within the old Fed target range, or at an average of .20% on December 31 for various reasons, the timing of which was not lost on the Fed. It was at .35% or so on the first day of 2016. The Fed’s rate move was tepid, and it’s possible the Fed moves rates up another 25 or 50 basis points over 2016, but less likely more than that and more likely it engages in heightened currency swap activities with other central banks as a way to “manage” rates and exchange rates regardless.

Meanwhile, most other central banks (Brazil being an extreme counter example) remain in easing mode or mirror mode to the Fed. It’s likely that more creative QE measures amongst the elite central banks will pop up if liquidity, markets or commodities head southward. Less powerful central banks will attempt to respond to the needs of their local economies while balancing the strains imposed upon them by the elite central banks.

2) Global Stock Markets

They say that behavior on the first day of the year is indicative of behavior in the year to come. If so, the first trading day doesn’t bode well for the rest. Turmoil began anew with Asian stock markets crumbling at the start of 2016. In China, the Shanghai Composite hit two circuit breakers and China further weakened the yuan.

Yes, there’s the prevailing growth-decline story, a relic of 2015 “popular opinion”, being served as a reason for the drop. But also, restrictions on short selling by local Chinese companies are expiring. Just as in last August, China will have to balance imposing fresh sell restrictions with market forces pushing the yuan down.

The People’s Bank of China will likely inject more liquidity through further reserve requirement reductions and rate cuts to counter balance losses. The demise in stock values is not simply due to slower growth, but to high debt burdens and speculative foreign capital outflows; the story of China as a quick bet is no longer as hot as it was when China opened its markets to more foreign investors in mid-2014, since which volumes and volatility increased. It will be interesting to see if China responds with more capital controls or less, and how its  “long-game” of global investments plays out.

Blood shed followed Asian into European markets. Subsequently, the Dow dropped by about 1.6% unleashing its worst start to a year since the financial crisis began. Last year's theme to me was volatility rising; this year is about markets falling, even core ones. This is both a reaction to global and local economic weakness, and speculative capital pondering definitive new stomping grounds, hence thinner and more dispersed volumes will be moving markets.

3) Global Debt and Defaults

As of November 2015, Standard & Poor’s tallied the number of global companies that defaulted at 99, a figure only exceeded by that of 222 in 2009. Debt loads now present greater dangers. Not only did companies (and governments, of course) pile on debt during this zero interest rate bonanza period; but currency values also declined relative to the dollar, making interest payments more expensive on a local basis.

If the dollar remains comparatively strong or local economies weaken by an amount equivalent to any dollar weakening, more defaults are likely in 2016. In addition, the proportion of junk bonds relative to investment grade bonds grew from 40% to 50% since the financial crisis, making the likelihood of defaults that much greater. Plus, the increase in foreign, especially dollar, denominated debt in emerging markets will continue to hurt those countries from a sovereign downgrade and a corporate downgrade to default basis.

I expect sovereign downgrades to increase this year in tandem with corporate downgrades and defaults. Also, as corporate defaults or default probabilities increase, so does corporate fraud discovery. This will be a year of global corporate scandals.

In the US about 60% of 2015 defaults were in the oil and gas industry, but if oil prices stay low or drop further, more will come. Related industries will also be impacted. In mid-December, Fitch released its leveraged loan default forecast of the TTM (Trailing Twelve Month index) predicting a 2.5% rise in default rates for 2016, or $24 billion in global defaults. That’s an almost 50% increase in default volume over 2015, and more than the total over the 2011-2013 period. Besides higher energy sector defaults, the retail sector could see more defaults, as consumers lose out and curtail spending.

4) Brazil and Argentina

Brazil is a basket case on multiple levels with nothing to indicate 2016 will be anything but messier than 2015. Even the upcoming Olympics there have reeked of scandal in the lead up to the summer games.

Brazilian corporations have already sold $10 billion in assets to scrape together cash in 2015, a drop in the bucket to what’s needed. Brazil’s main company, Petrobras, is mired in scandal, its bond and share prices took massive hits last year as it got downgraded to junk, and a feeding frenzy between US, Europe and China for any of its assets on the cheap won’t be enough to alter the downward trajectory of Brazilian’s economy. In fact, it will just make recovery harder as core resources will be effectively outsourced.

Fitch downgraded seven Brazilian sub nationals to junk, with more downgrades to come. Brazil itself was downgraded to junk by S&P with no positive outlook from anywhere for 2016. Falling revenues plus higher financial costs due to higher debt burdens will accentuate trouble. In addition, pension funds are going to be increasingly underfunded, which will enhance local population and political unrest, as unemployment increases, too.

Though Brazil will have the toughest time relative to neighboring countries, Argentina, will not be having a walk in the park under its new government either. The new centrist government removed currency capital controls in a desperate bid to attract capital. This resulted in crushing the Argentinean Peso (a.k.a. “Marci’s devaluation”) and will only invite further speculative and political volatility into the country. It could get ugly.

5) The Dollar and Gold

Despite what will be a year of continued pathways to trade and currency arrangements amongst countries trying to distance themselves from the US dollar, the fact that much of the world is careening toward global Depression will keep the dollar higher than it deserves to be. It will remain the comparative currency of choice, as long as central banks continue to fabricate liquidity in place of government revenues from productive growth.

Outside the US, most central banks (except Brazil which has a massive inflation problem) have maintained policies of rate reduction, lower reserve requirements, and other forms of QE or currency swap activities. As in 2015, the dollar will be a benefactor, despite problems facing the US economy and its general mismanagement of monetary policy. But the US dollar index and the dollar itself might exhibit more volatility to the downside this year, straying from its high levels more frequently than during 2015.

Last year, given the enhanced volatility in various markets, I expected gold to rise during the summer as a safe haven choice, which it did, but it also ended the year lower in US dollar terms. Because the US dollar preserved its strength, the dollar price of gold fell during the year - yet not by as much as other commodities, like oil.

I take that as a sign of gold finding some sort of a floor relative to the US dollar, with the possibility of more upside than downside for 2016, though in similar volatility bands to the US dollar. Gold relative to the Euro was just slightly down for 2015, relative to the approximate 10% decline in value relative to the US dollar. Considering the home currency is important when examining gold price behavior.

Also, it’s important to note that investing in gold requires a longer time horizon - months and years, rather than weeks and months - and should be done through physical gold, coins or allocated bars depending on disposable investment thresholds, not paper gold. 

In addition, as I mentioned last year, routinely extracting cash from bank accounts and keeping it in safe non-bank locations, remains a smart defensive play for 2016.

6) The People’s Economies

As companies default and economies suffer, industries will inevitably shed jobs this year around the world. The Fed’s publicly expressed optimism about employment figures and the headline figure decrease in US unemployment will be met with the realities of companies cutting jobs to pay the debts they took on during the ZIRP years and due to decreased demand.

Unemployment is already rising in many emerging countries, and it will be important to note what happens in Europe and Japan, as well as the US in that regard.  This Recession 3.0 (or ongoing Depression) could fuel further artisanal money practices that might again be good for the markets and banks, but not for real economies or jobs lost through reactive corporate actions.  

7) Oil

With Saudi Arabia and Iran pissed off at each other in a round of tit-for-tat power positioning, it’s unlikely either OPEC heavy weight will reduce oil production, this while tankers worldwide remain laden with their loads and rigs are quiet. Tankers off the coast of Long Beach in California for instance, that used to come in and unload, remain in stalling patterns away from the shoreline, waiting for better prices. This means tankers are making money on storage, but also that extra oil supplies are hovering off shore, and even if prices rise, release of that supply would have a dampening consequence on prices.

Oil futures have been a generally highly speculated product, so I’ve never believed that simple supply and demand ratios drive the price of spot oil as it relates to the futures price of oil. Only in this case, not only is there oversupply and weakening demand, but speculators are playing to the short side as well. That combination seems destined to keep oil prices low, or push them lower in the near future, but should be closely watched.

Meanwhile, signs of knock on problems are growing. In China, for instance, shipyards are struggling because global rig customers don’t need their rig model orders fulfilled.  

8) Europe

While Greece faces more blood-from-a-stone extortion tactics and none of the Troika get why austerity measures don't actually produce local revenues at high enough levels to pay expensive debts to foreign investors and multinational entities, other parts of Europe aren’t looking much better for 2016. Spain is facing political unrest, Italy, despite exhibiting a tenuous recovery of sorts, still has a major unemployment problem, and the Bank of Portugal lowered its growth estimates - for the next two years.

Mario Draghi, European Central Bank (ECB) head decided to extend Euro-QE to March 2017 from September 2016, having had the markets punish his less enthusiastic verbiages about QE late last year, because he has no other game. The Euro will thus likely continue to drop in value against the dollar, negative interest rates will prevail, and potential bail ins will appear if this extra dose of QE doesn’t keep the wheels, big banks and core markets of Europe properly greased.

9) Mexico

The Mexican Peso closed near record lows vs. the dollar for 2015. Much of the Peso’s weakness was attributed to low oil prices and Mexico’s dependence on its oil sector, but the Peso was already depreciating before oil prices dropped. If the US dollar remains comparatively high OR if oil prices continue to remain low or drop, the Peso is likely to do the same.

When I was in Mexico a few years ago, addressing the Senate on the dangers of foreign bank concentration, there were protests throughout Mexico City on everything from teachers’ pay to the opening of Pemex, Mexico’s main oil company to foreign players. The government’s promise then was that foreign firms would provide capital to Mexico as well as industry expertise that would translate to revenues. Oil prices were hedged then at 74 dollars per barrel. With oil prices at half of that, many of those hedges are coming off this year and that will cause additional pain to the industry and Pemex.

That said, though Mexico will feel the global Depression pain this year as a major player, it is still set to have a much better year than Brazil on every level; from a higher stock market to a higher currency valuation relative to the US dollar to lower inflation to lower unemployment to a better balance of trade with the US than Brazil will have with China. Plus, it has far less obvious inbred corporate-government corruption.

10) Elections and Media Coverage

It’s been a minute since the last debate or late night show fly-by from any Presidential hopeful, but this is the year of the US election. I look forward to continuing to post my monthly wrap on TomDispatch as the Democratic and Republican nominees emerge. I will be taking stock of the most expensive election in not just US history, but in the history of the World. Look for more on the numbers behind the politics later this month.

From a financial standpoint, this election has low impact on flows of capital. Given the platforms of everyone in reasonable contention (with the exception of Bernie Sanders’ platform), no one will actually touch excessive speculation, concentration risk in the banking or other critical sectors like healthcare, or meaningfully examine the global role of artisanal central bank policy, particularly as emanating from the Fed. 

Elsewhere, economic stress throughout the globe and a general sense of exasperation and distrust with politicians is putting new leaders in place that are pushing for more austerity or open capital flow programs rather than foundational growth and restrictions on the kind of flows that cause undue harm to local economies. That is a recipe for further economic disaster that will fall most heavily on populations worldwide.