This week, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Greg Hunter at USA Watchdog regarding my thoughts on the state of the global markets, economies and commodities into 2015. Here are some key points we covered. For more detail, please check out the video of our interview here.
1) On the Market Meltdown: When I spoke with Greg about 9 months ago, I said that based on logic and the political-economic history I had explored for All the Presidents’ Bankers, there should have already been another major implosion following the 2008 financial crisis. However, there is an element of history that is unprecedented and which has acted as a barrier, albeit tenuous and fabricated, to another full-blown, transparent crisis. The scope of the zero-interest-rate policy and QE programs that emanated from the US Federal Reserve and have unfolded throughout the world are artificially bolstering market and financial interests as populations falter. In the US, this has been greeted by proclamations of economic victory from the Obama administration. In Europe, it’s harder to tweak the employment stats enough to declare the same thing, and hence, official QE programs there are ongoing. At any rate, this prolonged policy of injecting cheap money into the banks and markets, funded by the public due to the very nature of debt-creation and the purchasing of government and asset-backed debt securities, now surpasses any past measures of such activities in terms of scope and length.
The fact that these policies lasted for six years has inflated and distorted bond and stock markets, as well as the books of the world’s largest financial institutions to such an extent, that inherent ‘value’ in any of these areas is impossible to determine. We are living with the instability of a system that is supported by central bank maneuvers and the leveraging of them, not by anything organic or independently sustainable. Because rates are so low, any establishment with access to this cheap capital, or that has other people's money to burn, is creating bubbles by reaching for returns anywhere - in government bonds, stock markets, leveraged loans in debt-intensive firms like oil and gas, and in complex derivative products consisting of currency, commodity and credit elements.
The idea of funding the entire financial system with no exit plan for any non-crisis producing dissolution or resolution for such support boggles the mind. This global QE period is larger and more insane that ever in history. Because SO much cheap money is sloshing around the system at its top echelons, not through the real economy, the false appearance of stability has been perpetuated longer than logic would dictate. But since global QE is not yet over, its benefits will continue to accrue to the same institutions that are already benefitting from it (the ones that leverage capital or sell bonds) until all the QE plans are over - not tapered, but unwound and done. While this transpires, a meltdown will unfold, but slowly. Meanwhile, this next phase of ECB QE will provide markets and banks more temporary solvency. So will the Bank of Japan’s money supply expansion and the People’s Bank of China version.
2) On Volatility: Market and economic volatility will increase this year – punctuated with media headlines like ‘unexpected’. Last year, we had volatility spikes in August, October and December. This year, we’ve already had spikes in January. So, the shocks are coming in more closely and the downsides are deeper. That’s why we are in a transitioning down period. At the end of this year, we will have a lower bond and stock market. The financial system will start to unravel more visibly and in a more sustained manner. The Federal Reserve won’t raise rates (or if they do, it will be at the end of the year, and only once, as it will have a brutal impact) because there is no reason to. Real inflation of people’s costs of living might be higher, but with global QE keeping a lid on rates and a boost on bonds, and with the dollar still strong, Janet Yellen will just continue using terms like ‘patiently.’ Every time major market participants get remotely nervous, the market will dump, and the next FOMC meeting’s language will be conciliatory to assuage the nerves of this flawed system.
3) On the US Dollar: The reason the dollar has remained strong, and the reason it will continue to stay strong for now is not because the ZIRP and QE policies are good, not because so much debt on the books of the country is prudent, and not because our debt to GDP ratio is cost-effective. Printing cheap money to sustain a system for six years is a negligent policy. Using money to plaster over a banking system that doesn’t work and has only become more concentrated is not a stability-increasing policy. Nor has any of this cheap money trickled down to the average person. All those things are horrific. But, what the dollar has going for it is the unique collaboration and power-position of the US government, private banks and the Fed. The US had a first mover advantage compared to the rest of the world. Its QE policies were biggest. The dollar is propped up artificially by these alliances and ongoing maneuvers. Every other country is doing so badly and will continue to, that the dollar has, and will have, a relatively better value for now. Eventually, this madness has to play out and the dollar will weaken, but we won’t see a “plunge” in the near term because every other country is struggling. Any downside to the dollar will thus be part of a slower meltdown punctuated by extra volatility.
4) On Gold: The same reason the dollar has stayed strong is why gold hasn’t had a major outbreak to the upside. With so much artificial stimulus and systemic manipulation, the paper-dollar and hard-asset gold are behaving in a zero-sum game relationship where real value or economic measures are meaningless. That said, gold prices will increase this year– but also only gradually, just as the dollar will not dump but will decrease gradually, as all of these QE maneuvers continue to play out. Again, the stock and bond markets will decline as this artificial aid eventually does, and the movements will be marked by volatility to the downside. But since the artificial aid isn’t actually over, the price direction of everything will remained tempered. We have been underestimating the effect of all the support that has been lavished on the markets and into the banks. That’s why considering the timing of this next phase is critical. There’s going to be a downward impact on markets. There’s going to be an upward impact on gold. It’s just not going to be as huge this year. It’s going to be a more gradual kind of a year.
5) On the Swiss Central Bank Float Move: The Swiss deciding to detach from pegging to the Euro must be looked at from two perspectives that together characterize the kind of volatility and stab in the dark policies in operation this year. On the one hand, the Swiss rejected the idea of increasing gold reserves last year (indicating, among other things, hesitancy and uncertainty in general,) and the SCB has imposed negative interest rates (as has the ECB.) Both of these move are related to global QE. On the other hand, the Swiss don't want to be pegged to a declining Euro that will result from the next round of more ECB bond buying to be announced by Mario Draghi on January 22nd. In general, these central banks don’t really know what will happen in the short or long term as these QE and bank-supportive policies play out. The Swiss can opt out of part of these measures, but have no choice on the rest. To a large extent, their move was a way to balance both sides.
6) On Ongoing Bank Risk and Concentration: The largest 30 global banks (dubbed “GSIB’s” or globally systemically important banks) control 40 percent of lending and 52 percent of assets worldwide. In the US, since the financial crisis, the Big Six banks’ share of assets has increased by 41.4 percent and their share of deposits has increased by 82.4 percent. Because of the largesse of government and Fed policy, that gets spun as economically beneficial to the American population. The Big Six stockpile of cash meanwhile, which is doing nothing for the public, has nearly quadrupled in size.
In addition, just 10 US banks hold 97 percent of all bank-trading assets. Of those, JPM Chase holds 43.8 percent and Citigroup holds 24.5 percent. Then, there’s leveraged loans, the 2010s equivalent of subprime loans. The 2014 issuance of collateralized loan obligations, or CLOs, eclipsed that of pre-crisis 2006, run by the same cadre of big banks. In November 2014, regulators found that 1/3 of the $767 billion loans they examined in their annual bank loan review showed “lax reviews of potential borrowers and poor risk management.” Nothing was done about it. Oil and gas loans ($250 billion of them) remain primed for defaults and catalyzing more volatility. Adding to the risk, the top four US derivatives trading banks (JPM Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America) hold $219 trillion of $237 trillion, or 93 percent, of US derivatives.
That kind of consolidation, nationally and globally is why we’ve had six years of artificially stimulated markets. Those figures are why the benefits of these policies go to the most powerful players but not to anyone else. They are why instability is here to stay and grow.