Why this time is different

We are living within an incredible monetary policy experiment. One the likes of which has never been embarked upon in human history. Therefore the results are difficult to forecast. However, I do believe we are in the initial stages of a bear market and that the next central bank monetary policies and their impacts will be different than those of the last several crises.

We have seen the last three bull markets catalyzed largely by loosening liquidity conditions during the bear markets that preceded them by central banks — in more and more of a globally coordinated fashion. This has led me to believe that the expansion of liquidity is the primary driver for consistent risk asset upward price revisions (aka bull markets). More than economic developments, earnings or political discourse.

As a result it is crucial to realize that the ‘punch bowl’ of quantitative easing, the veritable liquidity spigot that juiced markets higher over the last 9.5 years, is not only running dry, but going in reverse (taking liquidity from markets).

The impact of this reversal cannot overstated. It will be the primary catalyst that drives this bear market in equities lower. Only a reversal of tightening liquidity conditions will drive risk assets higher again in my view.

Below I will discuss, in summary, my view of how future crises may be remedied by central bank monetary policy, and how the law of diminishing returns may not deliver a buoyant bull market as we saw from early 2009 to mid 2018.

Markets:

  • The evolving variable for each crises’ remedy is lower and lower interest rates; then QE and finally direct future/stock buying. See Bank of Japan playbook for the ‘end game’.
  • As a result it is reasonable to expect the next crisis will result in not just QE, but likely direct future/stock buying in US markets.
  • Further, there are fewer listed shares now and the listed shares have been shrinking their floats as a result of share buybacks, exacerbating both upward and downward moves.
  • Adding to that, HFT algorithms do not tend to bid during downward moves, causing the smaller floats to experience outsize downward volatility on any liquidation. Next major crash could be significantly exaggerated as a result.

Macro:

  • $1 of US GDP growth now costs $4 of debt, and is only growing as we push on the string of debt to borrow forward demand to today.
  • US now has $200 trillion of unfunded liabilities over the next 10 year period.
  • Debt monetization isn’t just important, it will become a necessity. Otherwise rates normalize and the party ends in a very bad way (insolvency and/or extreme austerity measures).

Broader takeaway:

  • Muted returns for US equities over next 5-10 years (unless next crash corrects more than 80% of gains during this cycle).
  • Growing risk of protracted rolling global equity bear market as compression in economic activity, earnings — and the all important liquidity spigot (QE becomes QT) slows and reverses.
  • Future monetary policy easing will have a diminished impact on equity prices due to enormous expansion of multiples during this business cycle. If one discounts QE and share buybacks stocks are about 70-80% overvalued.
  • Next bubble will likely have to be in sovereign debt, aka US treasury yields approaching zero. Out of necessity to keep the gov’t open. Other assets may benefit as well. Especially if US dollar is debased to support forward liabilities.
  • Social factors will prevent future large scale bail-outs of Wall Street such as those that we saw in 2008. Unrest has grown as wealth disparity between working and wealthy grows to record levels.
  • I don’t expect US equities to perform as well in that environment, but do suspect strong headwinds against US dollar; emerging market / commodity outperformance. Largely due to the prospect that the US dollar is significantly overvalued based on economic fundamentals when netting out gov’t debt expansion (doing so shows we’ve largely been in a recession since 2008).
  • Emerging markets also have much more realistic valuations, better yields, lower nominal debt levels and the share buyback activity has been muted so EPS distortions are minimal.

As we can see, over the last several decades the primary trend in US interest rates has been lower. Countertrend rallies revert to the larger primary trend of lower lows in interest rates. Should this trend break down and rates normalize, we would see significant delinquencies emerge across corporate, financial and household variable rate debt markets. The US government would struggle to pay the interest on its longer dated treasuries.

While past is not prologue, it is reasonable to assume that the path of least resistance for interest rates is lower. Perhaps as low as 0% or even negative as we’ve seen in massively mispriced debt markets in the EU and Japan.

The larger underlying theme being that monetary policy authorities see massive distortions in asset pricing and capital misallocation as a lower risk than a sovereign debt insolvency. Therefore it is also reasonable to assume that they will do whatever is necessary to accommodate that trajectory over the longer term. That is to say, each subsequent business cycle will see lower nominal interest rates until we reach the mathematical limits of ZIRP/NIRP policies.

Eventually, with zero to subzero interest rates, sovereign debt becomes less attractive to hold (outside of regulatory mandates for financial companies). But before such an occasion arises, there is plenty of room for interest rates to keep going down — following a well established trend.

Wall Street “reform” blocks SEC FoIA requests

Not only is this beyond ridiculous pandering to Wall Street, but it illustrates to whom our government serves. No Freedom of Information Act disclosures from the SEC after the new “reform” law. No press coverage of future scandals with what should be public information. We fund these entities continued existence through the public’s money and yet we have no right to see what they have done wrong?

24 trillion ways to break the bank

The crisis in the United States is reaching a silent boiling point in the struggle between the citizenry and the largest banks.  Revealed today in a story breaking across various news agencies, the United States has potentially indebted itself by nearly $24 trillion dollars through various bail out programs since 2007.  This is effectively bankrupting our entire country and if allowed to continue will ruin any chance of a sustainable recovery.  We are already on the heels of a major change in how we live, work and save money.

Debtor nation

If this amount of debt is incurred on a federal level it is twice our GDP.  That is completely out of bounds with any kind of spending plan that is sensible.  It puts the creditors of our nation in to a very difficult position, because they understand we’re debasing the world’s reserve currency to buy our way out of a financial catastrophe instead of facing the pain and making constructive changes.  These $24T in financial commitments could literally strangle our nation’s economy for decades.

Some things never change

Wall Street is back to its old tricks.  Goldman is making “record profits” amid a crisis where its competition conveniently perished under the watch of former CEO Hank Paulson as Treasury Secretary.  Now Morgan Stanley is repackaging subprime mortgage debt as AAA while JP Morgan, Barclays and others are leasing supertankers full of crude oil.  All of these actions are benefiting the banks at the expense of tax payer dollars that provided the cushion so that these companies could continue to sustain their existence.

Time to wake up

Most of the time people turn off the TV, put down the newspaper or close their browser when they encounter the intentionally dull financial news.  They want to focus on the here and now, not projections of profit or bailout recapitalization.  It’s understandable that in a functional society people would have the luxury of ignoring the banking system because they have some implicit trust, a notion of safety, about where their money sleeps.  This relationship should no longer be taken for granted and the institutions holding the dollars we cherish as our future savings may be participating in the largest, most sophisticated power and money grab the world has ever seen.