I feel we are facing significant headwinds moving forward because of the loose monetary policy of the Federal Reserve, the refusal to address the core problems in our financial system and the incredibly opaque derivatives market that has yet to be regulated or even cleared on open exchanges.
The root of the problem
To expand on the first point of loose monetary policy, from my own research I have gathered that the government has put at least $12T, possibly up to $30T worth of guarantees, backstops and other forms of insurance against the prospect of another meltdown. In addition the Federal Reserve has, in my opinion, illegally bailed out AIG through programs they are not authorized to participate in. These actions and other measures have transferred the risk of collapse from the private sector to the US government and to the Federal Reserve.
Interest rates remain below 1% in a range of 0.00% to 0.25%. Combine that with the infusion of US dollars the Federal Reserve has given to other central banks around the world and we have literally created a carry trade scenario. Not only are we repeating the mistakes of Japan, but we are going down a path where should a geopolitical event or other significant negative catalyst occur the repatriation of dollars could create a collapse across nearly every asset class.
Risk grows as stability wanes
This environment that has been created to engender a recovery is not only unsustainable, but it has created more risks than had existed beforehand:
#1 Should another market panic occur where AIG’s credit default swaps are due, the US Treasury and Federal Reserve must cough up the difference. This would lead to another series of bailouts and funneling cash to foreign and domestic banks at the tax payer’s expense on bets that never should have been made and were downright idiotic.
#2 Big banks are BIGGER now than before: JPM, BAC, WFC, USB and others are now larger and present a much more significant risk to the system should, say for example, one of their mark to make believe off balance sheet assets implode — potentially bringing down the entire world financial system, again.
#3 The stress tests were fraudulent and did not expose the off balance sheet asset liquidity vacuum these banks are suffering from. Papering over fraud never leads to a sustainable rebound.
#4 Tax receipts are down across the board – how can counties, cities, states and the Federal government hope to control deficit spending if they are not collecting as much in taxes? They can’t sell bonds forever, bringing me to my next point.
#5 Commercial real estate and corporate bonds are headed towards a potential implosion in the next few years, with major mall holders filing bankruptcy and many occupants of office and retail space vacating as they downsize. Corporations also must refinance their debtload which is ever growing while the global appetite for these bonds is diminishing.
#6 We in the United States are very seriously facing the risk of a sovereign debt default in the future. This prospect is made even more serious by continued bail outs, war spending, entitlements and other programs that are completely unsustainable with our country’s $14T debt burden.
#7 Such a sovereign debt default would lead to a currency collapse and that could engender either an environment of hyperinflation or heavy deflation — all depending on where the chips fall at the end of the day.
Inflation or deflation?
While speculators are now hedging for inflation and shorting the dollar in any way possible, there is another market we must pay close attention to. A market that significantly dwarfs the size of the commodities markets as a whole. That is the US Treasury Bond Market. Last I checked it was $33.5 trillion dollars. I find it interesting that gold is touching $1111.00 an ounce while 10 year bonds are at only 3.625% — who is wrong in this gigantic game of chicken?
Either the folks buying gold are insane to believe inflation is the bogeyman to fear or the much larger, much more influential and liquid bond market is crazy because they obviously fear deflation. Why else would a rational human being buy a bond at 3.625% that they must hold for 10 years? Such an instrument would be less than worthless in an inflationary environment.
First the principle value of the bond erodes as interest rates rise, and secondly the yield would not make up for the rate of inflation. So we are experiencing a financial conundrum right now. Either we are on the verge of a deflationary collapse or a hyperinflationary currency crisis. Which way we’re going to go has not yet been made clear to me because I feel the markets are being propped up, even manipulated.
The most dangerous bubble
Why would I pose such an idea? Let’s start with the P/E of the S&P 500 which is now well over 25 (and was at one point over 100). How can anyone feel that these stocks are reasonably valued with such an absurd P/E? Most of the decrease in P/E from over 100 to over 25 has been from companies downsizing, firing employees, hiding bad assets and not organic growth. In the current global macroeconomic environment there’s no feasible way earnings can catch up, so in my opinion we’re already in a bubble.
Bubbles of the past were not as dangerous because the US government never had such a large stake in the market. Now we’re talking about a situation where if the credit, bond, currency and/or stock markets implode, so does our sovereign debt and currency potentially.
Investing is now speculation
Investing in this environment is difficult at best. During the March panic I was a buyer in the high S&P 600s of just about any material, technology, financial and energy stock I could find, but once we got to the 900s and I saw P/Es jump beyond levels I felt were fair valuations I became a seller of my holdings. I also invested some in to silver, foreign currencies and other commodities during the March lows, but also have since taken a lot of those profits off the table.
We are in a very risky area for people to be entering the market. I don’t feel these lofty levels are sustainable nor do I think the valuations are rational. I don’t know when the rally will end, but I do know that any parabolic move usually ends very badly and any time there has been a carry trade in the history of money it has ended painfully for all the speculators who did not exit in time.
Another collapse coming?
In closing I will say that before Rome’s collapse the government was shaving gold and silver coins down to create more currency. They also had a severe debt crisis. The shaving and continued spending led to awful inflation that eventually catalyzed the empire’s downfall.
History is being made every day and the decisions are going to shape the face of America’s future. It is imperative that we start to take our medicine (meaning we must face the financial problems instead of ignoring them) and deal with the overwhelming burden of debt before it swallows up everything left.