John Mauldin and Yra Harris both touched on the absurdities we see today in the financial markets. As Mauldin puts it “I have gone from the occasional smile to scratching my head now and then to “WTF” moments several times a week.” I couldn’t agree more. With their permission to reprint here on my blog, I’ve posted parts which you shouldn’t miss. Click on the titles if you wish to read the full article on their websites.
Stop The Printing Presses! by Yra Harris
The continued use of large-scale asset purchases to enhance global liquidity in a period of increased economic growth is preventing the markets from stabilizing. The proof is in the continued mispricing of corporate debt. Last week, the BBB-rated French firm Veolia sold 500 million euros of three-year notes for -0.026%. Yes, a mediocre credit was able to borrow at less than zero. This is the insanity of the financial world to which the central banks continue to provide liquidity.
Corporations are able to borrow for stock buybacks and increased dividends but creditors are accumulating assets based on risk premiums established by central banks’ QE programs and are causing massive distortions in the credit markets. Central bank policies initially prevented a liquidation of global assets and a world depression, but its robotic response to keep the presses rolling is causing a dangerous crushing of risk premiums. Also, the financial repression has resulted in even-greater wealth inequality as the world’s wealthy are much better situated to ride the tsunami of wave of central bank QE programs. The distortions caused by financial repression are being felt in the rise of fringe political parties appealing to the very visible outcomes of asset inflation caused by the endless infusions of liquidity.
Bonfire of the Absurdities by John Mauldin
This week’s letter will take a look at the growing number of ridiculous, inane, and otherwise nonsensical absurdities that fill the daily economic headlines. I have gone from the occasional smile to scratching my head now and then to “WTF” moments several times a week…
To kick off our tour of absurdities, Michael Lebowitz of 720 Global sends this chart of Federal Reserve assets as a percentage of GDP. You might notice a slight trend change along about 2008:
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is bonkers. I understand that we were caught up in an unprecedented crisis back then, and I actually think QE1 was a reasonable and rational response; but QEs 2 and 3 were simply the Fed trying to manipulate the market. The Keynesian Fed economists who were dismissive of Reagan’s trickle-down theory still don’t appear to see the irony in the fact that they applied trickle-down monetary policy in the hope that by giving a boost to asset prices they would create wealth that would trickle down to the bottom 50% of the US population or to Main Street. It didn’t.
The Fed has left that bloated balance sheet alone for almost 10 years. And now for some reason they feel it is urgent to reduce the balance sheet even as they also raise rates. This is not model-based monetary policy; it is simply an emotional monetary policy experiment. I can understand raising rates – I wish they had done that four years ago. I can even understand reducing the balance sheet. But at the same time? When you don’t know what you don’t know? I mean really, there is no way to know how the market is going to react to either of these events, let alone to both at the same time. This seems to me the height of monetary policy lunacy.
The Fed’s stimulus efforts manifested themselves, among other places, in years of near-zero interest rates, helpfully illustrated here by Peter Boockvar:
We all lived through this remarkable set of experiments, but it’s still amazing to think that in 2007–2008 the Fed chopped short-term rates by five full percentage points in just five quarters. Today we agonize over whether they’ll hike rates by half as much, spread over five years or more. Note also that this gargantuan rate cut still couldn’t avert a near meltdown of the banking system. You can argue that it would have been even worse to do nothing, but it’s hard to argue they didn’t do all they could have.
But it wasn’t just the Federal Reserve. The European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan have both grown their balance sheets more than the US has. The Bank of Japan’s balance sheet is almost five times larger in proportion to GDP. And it is still growing. The Land of the Rising Sun has become the land of the rising central bank balance sheet. This graph is courtesy of my friend Dr. Ed Yardeni:
Those Crazy Swiss
Meanwhile, the more sober-minded (hah!) gnomes of the Swiss National Bank expanded their own balance sheet at a much steadier pace, though in percentage terms they blew it up far more than the Fed or the BOJ did theirs. The Swiss National Bank is now the world’s largest hedge fund.
As I wrote earlier this year:
The SNB owns about $80 billion in US stocks today (June, 2017) and a guesstimated $20 billion or so in European stocks (this guess comes from my friend Grant Williams, so I will go with it).
They have bought roughly $17 billion worth of US stocks so far this year. And they have no formula; they are just trying to manage their currency.
Think about this for a moment: They have about $10,000 in US stocks on their books for every man, woman, and child in Switzerland, not to mention who knows how much in other assorted assets, all in the effort to keep a lid on what is still one of the most expensive currencies in the world.
Switzerland is now the eighth-largest public holder of US stocks. And apparently they are concentrating on the largest of the large-cap stocks. The own 19 million shares of Apple (as of March 31). That is roughly 3% of the current market.
I’m in Switzerland as you read this, so I am personally experiencing the reality of currency strength. Have you ever paid $12 for a Diet Coke? (Seriously!) No wonder the SNB is worried about the valuation of their currency.
Not coincidentally, European yields are at rock bottom, or actually below that, in negative territory. And what is even more absurd, European high-yield bonds, which in theory should carry much higher rates than US Treasury bonds, actually yield below them. Here’s a chart from old friend Tony Sagami:
Interest rates are supposed to reflect risk. The greater the risk of default, the higher the rate, right? Yet here we see that European small-cap businesses are borrowing more cheaply than the world’s foremost nuclear-armed government can. That, my friends, is absurd.
Understand, the ECB is buying almost every major bond it can justify under its rules, which leaves “smaller” investors fewer choices, so they move to high-yield (junk), driving yields down. Ugh.
And can anything be more absurd than negative interest rates in long-term bonds?
This 2016 article on the Quartz site, under the subhead “World Gone Mad,” makes clear the level of ridiculousness we’re looking at here:
If you were to buy, at random, any government bond, there is a one in three chance you’d lose money if you held onto it until it matured. That is, around a third of all developed-country government debt – or more than $7 trillion [That was last summer. It’s now $9 trillion, so it’s even worse –JM], in terms of market value – is now trading at negative yields, according to Citi. That means that investors are effectively paying borrowers to lend to them – giving away $100 and a few years later getting back $99. In the euro zone, more than half of all outstanding bonds are priced in this upside-down way, according to Tradeweb. (source)
Incidentally, why pay 7x book to buy defense stocks when it seems pretty obvious that the wars of the future will either be:
• low-grade terrorist events or
• cyber warfare
Who will need the big destroyers, tanks, and missiles anymore? Increasingly, our wealth is not about building and factories but about zeros and ones in a computer. Yet defense stocks have never been so richly valued:
And this at a time when 95 cents out of every dollar collected by the US government goes to either pay a) interest, b) entitlement spending and c) defense. Which do you think goes first?
I don’t think it is interest (hard to make them that much lower). And I doubt it will be entitlements. Which leaves you with defense. And so just like European nations before it, the US will slash defense spending to keep the welfare state alive
So why pay 7x book for defense stock?
There are many other ideas. A lot of them linked to the craziness in the bond market (negative swiss yields, Italian junk below UST, etc…). But how about this one:
Okay, John back. Please note the serious level of sarcasm in the right-hand column above: “Good thing there is no common thread in the above names…” It’s all tech and all digital in the top seven. Note, however, that Exxon Mobil keeps hanging in there.