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Entries in Fed (19)

Tuesday
Aug152017

Transcript of my Speech in Tokyo on global monetary policy, big banks & geo-politics in the Trump era

The following is the transcript from my speech: Shifting US-Japan Geo-Politics, Banking Landscape and Financial Regulations in the Trump Era. It was given on July 11, 2017 at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo, Japan:

 

President Trump has talked a lot about America First. Over the last 6 months, we have seen that America First means that the United States could also be excluded from the rest of the world’s trade policy. For instance, Japan and the European Commission (EC) have recently agreed to an economic partnership agreement (EPA), which could be the largest trade agreement ever. This is an example of the United States being excluded from trade alliances. The new climate in the United States has created opportunities for other countries like Japan.

The shift toward America First and isolationism is not wholly because of President Trump. It is the result of a trend that started approximately 10 years ago. It has much to do with the lack of regulation in the US banking system.

Prior to 1999, the United States regulated banks under the Glass-Steagall Act. This Act required that banks separate their commercial banking operations from their trading, speculation, and securities businesses. That act was repealed in 1999, and the repeal has had a number of consequences.

For one thing, the repeal led to a series of corporate scandals in the United States just a few years later. It also led to the creation of the “Too Big to Fail” concept. It allowed Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Bank of America to become conglomerate banks. It led each bank to increase the risks they hold, and it increased the interdependency of banks throughout the world.

That increased risk and interdependency eventually resulted in the global financial crisis. And yet banks still hold many of the same risky investments they had prior to the crisis, and are still interdependent.

Many in the United States have been talking about reintroducing the Glass-Steagall Act in order to mitigate that risk and interdependency. When President Trump ran for office, he discussed this. It was in the Republican platform as well. 

However, since the election, two interesting things have happened. President Trump gave an interview in which he said he still needed to think about Glass-Steagall. Since then, he has not talked much about it. Meanwhile, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin has said that President Trump does not intend to bring back the old Glass-Steagall Act, but is rather considering a “21st century Glass-Steagall” that would merely require banks to set aside money for emergencies related to risky investments rather than actually restructure. 

I would like to talk more in detail about some of the risks that banks now face in order to highlight why the discussion about regulations like Glass-Steagall is so important.

One emerging risk today is corporate defaults. Thanks to quantitative easing, there is a lot of cheap money available in the market right now. According to S&P Global Ratings, as a result of all the cheap money, corporate debt is expected to climb from $51 trillion today to $75 trillion by 2020. At the same time, the global speculative-grade default rate is now 4.2 percent. This is the highest level since 2009, which was the worst year of the financial crisis. A total of 162 companies defaulted in 2016. This is the second time we have seen annual defaults above 100 since 2009. This has a large impact. When companies default, jobs suffer, research and development suffers, and the market suffers. It reduces confidence, which can catalyze a crisis.

Even with the level of risk we are seeing around corporate defaults today, central banks continue to buy assets, to the tune of $200 billion per month. Will this pace slow in the future? Many are now talking about whether the central banks will change their policies on quantitative easing. The Federal Reserve has been slowly raising interest rates. On the other hand, the Bank of Japan has announced that it will begin an ‘unlimited’ Japanese Government bond buying program.  

One issue surrounding quantitative easing is that it is honestly very difficult to tell what the true effect of this policy is. There is no guarantee that when a central bank purchases bonds that it will result in more long-term hires or higher wages, for example. We cannot look at inflation or deflation to see how quantitative easing has impacted the market, because the money from quantitative easing doesn’t go to consumers. It goes to banks and financial speculators. We cannot be certain that any of the money has gone toward jobs or infrastructure. No regulatory requirement even attempted to guarantee that. 

That said, there are some who feel that quantitative easing has been successful in revitalizing our economies. In June, Fed Chair Janet Yellen said in a speech, “Would I say there will never, ever be another financial crisis? You know probably that would be going too far, but I do think we are much safer, and I hope that it will not be in our lifetimes and I don’t believe it will be.”

This remark echoes a similar comment made by former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke in 2007 just before the financial crisis. Partly because of that, it is really difficult to accept what she is saying. For instance, the Federal Reserve subjected a number of banks to stress tests this year, and 34 banks passed. However, those tests don’t look at massive corporate defaults. They don’t look at interdependency. There are risks they don’t consider.

The risks faced by banks in the United States today are greater than even before the financial crisis. The amount of assets that the big six banks hold is about 70% to 80% larger than it was prior to 2008. The amount of deposits they hold is about 40% higher. For these reasons, I think we need to be really careful about the rate at which defaults are increasing, how stocks are supported by share buybacks, and other risks fed by artificial, or conjured money.

Central banks around the world are now pursuing a coordinated zero percent money policy and increasing their assets. The big three central banks in the United States, Europe and Japan now hold assets equivalent to about 17% of global GDP. If this money was liquidated into the real economy instead, it would have a huge positive impact. 

In recent years, central banks have used quantitative easing to inject more liquidity ostensibly into the economy. However, as I mentioned, that liquidity hasn’t necessarily reached the real economy. Quantitative easing has failed to produce real sustainable growth. There have been very low increases in wages throughout the world. For many people, even though their country’s economy may be considered stable by generic measures mostly touted by central banks and governments, their personal economies are instable.

One outcome of that is that people are starting to question the ability of their governments to understand the economy. When that happens, people tend to vote out whoever is in power. This is one of the things that I think contributed to Trump’s victory in the United States. In turn, the economic situation globally has affected political decisions domestically, and those decisions are affecting our international alliances.

The shift in our policies toward international alliances might again have an impact on the global economy. It’s a circle. President Trump seems to be shying away from multilateral agreements and toward more isolationist ideas. The last time the United States did that was in the 1920s. In fact, isolationist policies were one of the reasons there was such a speculative mood in the United States in the 1920s, and that speculation led to the financial crash of 1929.

It looks like, for the time being, the United States will continue to act in a more isolationist manner. That is good and bad. It is bad from the standpoint of general global connectedness. It is good for other countries, including Japan. It gives other countries the opportunity to take on a stronger role in the international community. Japan is already moving to do that, as we can see with the Japan-EU EPA.

Ever since President Trump came into office, alliances excluding the United States have been completed much more rapidly. These alliances were already being planned and executed before he came into office, mostly since the financial crisis to be sure and apprehension about the current dollar-based monetary system, but he seems to have accelerated them. This is happening all over the world. China is getting involved in more alliances. Japan is as well.

I was in Mexico a couple of weeks ago and I spoke with people there about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and trade alliances. Since President Trump has come into power, he has been talking about how to get Mexico to pay for the wall he wants to build between the United States and Mexico. He has also made a number of negative comments about Mexico and about NAFTA. Furthermore, President Trump has also pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Prime Minister Abe seems to be trying to save the TPP. He will not be able to move forward with the United States, but with all that has happened, we now have countries like Mexico that are looking at the situation with the United States and actively wanting the TPP to continue without the United States. Japan could thus, take a larger leadership role regarding the TPP.. 

With President Trump continuing to push his wall idea, US-Mexico relations are deteriorating. This presents a very good opportunity for China to develop its alliance with Mexico. When I spoke in Mexico, a trade delegation from China was there at the same time. These sorts of things are already happening more frequently. There has been movement on the part of other countries to create alliances outside of the partnerships with the United States ever since the financial crisis. With the election of President Trump, these movements are only accelerating. 

The Japan-EU EPA is a major agreement that has impacted that movement. Japan is a part of the shift that we are seeing as power in the international community moves slightly away from the United States. To a large extent, Japan can greatly influence how this shift plays out. Japan is already also involved in a number of other large trade deals, such as the TPP or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). These deals could create a large amount of trade, and Japan is playing a leadership role in their negotiations. These deals are being worked out in opposition to US policies. Unless US policies change soon, they will move forward.

And as the rest of the world moves forward with its own deals, the situation in the United States today is one in which the financial crisis and the concept of “Too Big to Fail” has led many to question whether we don’t need more regulation in the banking sector to avoid another crisis.  However, many of the senior people in the Trump administration seem to be not very interested in bringing back something like the Glass-Steagall Act, so not enough is happening. There is action taking place around military spending. Although the new budget hasn’t passed yet, the draft does include a large boost for the military. We have a lot of people now working in Congress to figure out how the new budget will work, whether they can cut corporate taxes, or cut social spending, and so on.

The latest draft budget will increase defense spending by approximately $53 billion. It earmarks an extra $2.8 billion for spending on homeland security. To make that budget balanced, President Trump is cutting from social insurance programs and institutions related to international alliances. President Trump’s isolationist tendencies are not supported just by the things he says; if the budget is passed, that isolationism will be carried out through budget cuts.   

Meanwhile, he is doing no meaningful work on his campaign promise to bring back the Glass-Steagall Act. In fact, there is movement in his ranks toward further deregulation. A recent bill passed in the House of Representatives, dubbed “The Financial Choice Act”  called for the loosening of banking regulations. If this new legislation is passed, it will likely just require that banks hold onto more money for emergencies, in reserves, rather than actually separate deposits and lending activities from speculative ones. 

I think the lesson here is that there is a lot of inconsistency in what President Trump has said and what his administration is doing, and I think that people around the world understand this and that it is catalyzing the shifts in power and new economic alliances that we are seeing globally. The Trump presidency is accelerating the movement of world currencies away from the United States dollar.

Alongside all of that is the problem of whether or not the markets are sustainable at their current levels. They are not. There is a lot of risk in markets and in the economy right now. There exists a large disconnect between how the financial sector feels about the economy and how normal people outside of the financial sector feel about it. There remains a disconnect between how politicians view the economy and markets and the banking and monetary system and how it's viewed by populations on the ground. This dichotomy fueled by ongoing money conjuring policies can't end well, it can only result in another crisis. The question isn't if, but when. 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.