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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
Sep092015

Mexico, Federal Reserve Policy and Danger Ahead for Emerging Markets

On August 27th, I had the opportunity to address the Aspen Institute, UNIFIMEX and PWC in Mexico City during a Q&A with Patricia Armendariz. Subsequenty, on August 28th, I gave the opening talk at the annual IMEF conference. The main issues of concern to local Mexican banks, as well as to Mexico's central bank, are:

1) How the Federal Reserve's (and to a lesser extent ECB's and People's Bank of China) policies and actions have, and wlil continue to impact their currency and interest rate levels, and

2) The risks posed by the structural, and ongoing problems of too-big-to-fail banks, which remain as much a US as a Mexican problem as manifested by heightened economic, market and financial stress.

I posted the slides from my talk here, including the ten main risks that Mexico (and really all countries) are facing today, as well as the four factors of volatility that I have spoke about many times before. Much uncertainly emanates from central bank policy and the associated artificial stimulation of mega banking institutions and capital markets throughout the world. There is no foreseeable remedy to the long-term damage already caused, and that will continue to grow in the future.

What follows is a related piece that I co-authored with researcher, Craig Wilson that first appeared in Peak Prosperity:

Too big to fail is a seven-year phenomenon created by the most powerful central banks to bolster the largest, most politically connected US and European banks. More than that, it’s a global concern predicated on that handful of private banks controlling too much market share and elite central banks infusing them with boatloads of cheap capital and other aid. Synthetic bank and market subsidization disguised as ‘monetary policy’ has spawned artificial asset and debt bubbles - everywhere. The most rapacious speculative capital and associated risk flows from these power-players to the least protected, or least regulated, locales.  

The World Bank and IMF award brownie points to the nations offering the most ‘financial liberalization’ or open market, privatization and foreign acquisition opportunities. Yet, protections against the inevitable capital outflows that follow are woefully inadequate, particularly for emerging markets.

The financial world has been focused largely on the volatility of countries like China and Greece recently. But Mexico, the third largest US trading partner (after Canada and China), has tremendous exposure to big foreign banks, and the largest concentration of foreign bank ownership of any country in the world (mostly thanks to NAFTA stipulations.)

In addition, the latitude Mexico has provided to the operations of these foreign financial firms means the nation is more exposed to the fallout of another acute financial crisis (not that we’ve escaped the last one).

There is no such thing as isolated “Big Bank” problems. Rather, complex products, risky practices, leverage and co-dependent transactions have contagion ramifications, particularly in emerging markets whose histories are already lined with disproportionate shares of debt, interest rate and currency related travails.

Mexico has benefited to an extent from its proximity to the temporary facade of US financial health buoyed by Fed policy, but as such, it faces grave dangers should any artificial bubble pop, or should the value of the US dollar or US interest rates rise.

There are other clouds forming on Mexico’s horizon. In the past month, the Mexican stock market has fallen 6 percent. Its highs were last seen in September, 2014. Shares in the nation’s largest builder, Empresas ICA SAB, just fell to a 12-year low as lower growth expectations.

(Source)

Because of currency misalignments based on central bank machinations, the Mexican Peso sits near all time lows vs. the US dollar. The Central Bank of Mexico just announced a currency boosting round of $8.6 billion of Pesos over the next two months, with likely more to come. This impinges upon its reserves. (Source)

Mid-level Mexican financial firms will struggle with access to credit should the air in the tires of this global liquidity boosting exercise continue to leak out. Other problems loom on Mexico’s horizon based on a host of interrelated factors.

These include the potential of capital flight, liquidity loss, over-reliance on external debt and investors, oil price declines (oil revenues account for about one-third of Mexico’s federal government budget), economic downturn in the US or Mexico, and rising volatility due to central bank policy shifts impacting interest rates and currency relationships, geo-politics, credit defaults, or additional big bank crimes.

The high concentration of large banks in Mexico and in the US presents extra systemic risk. Local Mexican firms and individuals, as well as foreign investors should consider these co-mingled factors and hedge against them for protection.

Capital Flight due to US Rate Hikes, Real or Anticipated

The possibility of US rate hikes, or even the threat of them, could freeze demand for non-US stocks and bonds - everywhere. If we learned anything from the US financial crisis, economic hardship in Greece and other Southern European countries, and the rout in the Chinese stock market, it’s that capital flight, particularly leveraged capital flight, can crucify an economy, especially high debt burdens accentuate the process.

Mexico, though somewhat protected from financial upheaval during the first leg of the 2008 financial crisis, may be the next victim of capital’s mercurial tendencies for that very reason. Mexico’s relative stability and liberalized financial markets have invited more foreign capital through these channels, which means more can leave to return to headquarter countries, or seek opportunities elsewhere, in emergencies.

In addition, heightened “de-risking” (or the reducing of counter-party agreements and cross-border remittances between the US and Mexico) will impact future remittance flows. Though de-risking practices are officially designated to thwart money launderers and drug-dealers – the true effect of the closing of bank branches or reduction of services that enable remittance flows burdens the population and the local banks that rely on them.

Big Bank Concentration and Counterparty Risk

Mexico’s domestic bank concentration problems have marginally improved since the financial crisis, but not by much. As of 2014, just five of Mexico’s private sector banks hold 72 percent of all financial assets. The top two, Banamex, a unit of Citigroup Inc., and BBVA Bancomer, a unit of Spain's Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA, hold 38 percent of all assets. (Source) (Source)

Concentration has accelerated in the US. Since the financial crisis, the Big Six US banks (JPM Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo and Morgan Stanley) have grown in terms of assets, deposits, cash, trading assets and derivatives volume.

In terms of counter-party risk, from a credit and derivative perspective, the fewer banks operating in any sphere, the greater the risk that a collapse in any one of them triggers a domino effect in the others. The main foreign banks in Mexico, and those engaging in business with Mexican banks, can quickly close services and shift capital and credit from the country, or place barriers to retrieve it, in a pinch.

Ongoing US Bank Bailouts and Mexican Fallout

The US Federal Reserve buying program, though officially over, has rendered the Fed the largest hedge fund in the world, with a $4.5 trillion book of securities, more than a dozen times the figure of seven years earlier. The mortgage backed securities component remains at about $1.5 trillion, up from zero seven years ago.

Mexico was fortunate not to have been on the US bank radar screen to receive, or be induced to borrow against, the $14 trillions of dollars of toxic US-bank made assets. US bankers mostly focused on selling these subprime assets into Europe. Thus, Mexico escaped the fallout that countries like Greece and Spain felt.  

Still, Mexico’s financial conditions are showing increasing signs of weakness, despite comparatively low inflation and, as a result, the ability to keep interest rates around 3 percent (the same as in Chile) below those in Columbia and Peru.

Aside from business problems, the amount of people living in poverty in Mexico increased from 49 million in 2008 to 53 million in 2012. In addition, Mexico came in last of the 34 countries examined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development OECD for inequality. The combination of poverty and inequality on the ground, plus incoming instability on a business and banking basis could prove a disastrous mix in Mexico (and in the US) in the face of possible rising interest rates, a strengthening dollar in the near-term, or enhanced volatility.

EM Debt Defaults and Bond-Stock Divergence

Credit default risk looms as well. The amount of corporate and bank debt issued since the Fed embarked on its zero-interest rate and QE policy and pushed it on the world, has escalated. Thus, rising interest rates or corporate defaults in the US would impact Mexican (and other EM) corporate bond prices and default rates.

The divergence between credit-risk as reflected by rising high-yield bond spreads (up from seven year lows in mid-2014) and equities is predominantly predicated on the 60 percent drop in oil prices this year, which as of August 20th, hit a six and a half year low. The energy sector represents 15 percent of the high yield market.

Energy stocks have dropped nearly thirty percent. If commodity prices continue falling, other sectors and the stock markets would be more effected. Countries reliant on oil revenues, such as Mexico where 30 percent of the federal budget is based upon them, are impacted directly from profit loss and secondarily by defaults. (Source)

According to a recent report issued by the Institute of International Finance,  “Corporate Debt in Emerging Markets: What should we be worried about?”, emerging market (EM) non-financial corporate debt rose to a record high of 83 percent of GDP, up from 67 percent in 2009.  The total size of the EM non-financial corporate bond market has more than doubled to $2.4 trillion in 2014 vs. 2009.

Between 2015 and 2017, about $645 billion of that debt is set to mature with US dollar denominated bonds comprising $108 billion of that figure. Meanwhile, the volume of non-performing loans and general debt payment burdens have risen on US dollar strength, meaning EM banks, particularly those exposed to high degrees of foreign-currency lending, are increasingly in trouble.

Figure 1 - Source: BIS, IMF, OECD, McKinsey, IIF; Brazil, China, Czech Rep., Hungary, India,
Indonesia, Mexico, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey.

The low or zero interest rate policies from the FED, ECB and even EM central banks have propelled this issuance, particularly in the EM non-financial corporate segment, even in countries where public debt issuance hasn’t also skyrocketed.

Of the $1.7 trillion EM in non-financial corporate debt raised since 2009 in  the international markets, about 30 percent ($510 billion) was in foreign currency, 80 percent of that ($430 billion) was in US dollars. The more reliant on external borrowing, the less stable a borrowing country’s financial situation becomes, and the more prone its firms are to downgrades or defaults as a result of external or internal weakening.

The report notes that higher foreign-currency risk exists in countries like Brazil, Mexico and Korea. In addition, a number of EM countries are holding cash reserves in domestic bank accounts from large percentages of proceeds raised offshore. They would be forced to withdraw from these funds to support currency weaknesses to service debt, which could increase the funding risk of EM banks.

What This All Means

This level of global inter-connected financial risk is hazardous in Mexico, where it’s peppered by high bank concentration risk. No one wants another major financial crisis. Yet, that’s where we are headed absent major reconstructions of the banking framework and the central bank policies that exude extreme power over global economies and markets, in the US, Mexico, and throughout the world.

Mexico’s problems could again ripple through Latin America where eroding confidence, volatility, and US dollar strength are already hurting economies and markets.

The difference is that now, in contrast to the 1980s and 1990s debt crises, loan and bond amounts have not just been extended by private banks, but subsidized by the Fed and the ECB.  The risk platform is elevated. The fall, for both Mexico and its trading partners like the US, likely much harder.

Tuesday
Jan202015

The 2015 Financial Meltdown & More

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.