Posts Tagged ‘mario draghi’

Happy $10 Trillion Day!

July 26, 2012 5 comments

It seems that few people look at M2 money supply these days, so the fact that the odometer on the key money supply gauge rolled to $10 trillion today seems likely to remain unlamented. The trip from $9 trillion to $10 trillion took a mere 66 weeks, half the time that the trip from $8 trillion to $9 trillion took. The robust growth of money supply, even though money velocity continued to decline over most of the period (we will find out whether it declined in Q2 when tomorrow’s GDP figures are released), is clearly implicated in the rise of core inflation over the same period (see Chart, source Bloomberg).

The pace of M2 growth recently has softened to only 8.4% over the last year, and is likely to fall further over the next few weeks as the end-of-July spike from last year falls out of the data. Yet even a decline to 7% implies a faster rate of core inflation, unless velocity continues to decline as well. As commercial bank lending growth is now growing comfortably faster than 5% per year (most recently at 6% over the prior 52 weeks), this seems a bad bet, and I continue to expect core inflation in the U.S. and in other developed countries to move higher rather than lower.

The Fed, as it readies QE3, will not be acting alone. This is made evident by ECB President Mario Draghi’s statement this morning that “Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the Euro. And believe me, it will be enough.”

And yet, as of yesterday, Greek bonds are no longer good collateral at the ECB.  The reports from the Troika out of Greece seem to make plain that no more rescue money will be headed to that country. I will note that a “planned” exit of Greece from the Euro, or at least a planned default, would surely include the refusal of Greek bonds as ECB collateral, because otherwise upon the event the ECB would be suddenly vastly undercollateralized or uncollateralized on its loans to Greek banks – not a good idea. I won’t go so far as to predict that Greece is about to be squeezed out of the Euro, but it is consistent with the following:

  1. Increased discussion of QE3 and the mooting of the question by presumed Fed mouthpiece Jon Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal.
  2. The ECB’s decision at its last meeting to cut the deposit rate to zero, and recent discussion of the possibility of a negative rate,  even as Euro M2 last month rose to its highest year-on-year growth rate in several years (albeit still a feeble 3.4%), shows a renewed determination to get the pendulum of monetary policy swinging in a positive direction.
  3. The rejection of Greek bonds as good collateral at the ECB, as mentioned above.
  4. The story in Der Spiegel that declared the IMF wants to cut off Greek aid, which is after all a reasonable thing to do the moment it is clear that it has no chance of staving off Greece’s collapse and exit from the Euro.
  5. Increasingly us-against-them comments by Greek Prime Minister Samaras, who sill be responsible for rallying his country’s spirits and economy after the exit.

The timing of a Greek exit from the Euro is perhaps not ideal – that would have been last year, before so much money was wasted, when the European economy wasn’t yet in recession, and when the U.S. economy at least had some positive momentum – but it is not likely to get much better. From the Fed’s perspective, the timing of additional easing will get more difficult, especially if the domestic economy awkwardly begins to zig-zag back up. It is much more politically astute to do QE3 after a horrible Durable Goods number (like today’s, which pushed the 6-month average change in core Durables negative for the first time since 2009) than it would be to do it when it was obviously done to help Europe.

Moreover, headline inflation has recently dropped below core, but it will not stay below core for long as gasoline and food prices have recently begun to rise. So there is a limited window during which the doves can point to domestic economic weakness (this window may not be so small, but you never know) and the hawks can claim they see no inflation evil even with core inflation sitting at the Fed’s target. The Fed’s contribution would very likely be to drop the interest on excess reserves (IOER) charge to zero, which would also harmonize deposit rates with the ECB. This would be a significant policy move, spurring even more lending, while not looking as significant as a QE3 that involved further bond-buying.

In short, I think you should say your goodbyes to IOER and to Greece, because I expect neither of them is going to be around for very long.

There was another interesting development last week – a very significant story whose implications seem to have been largely overlooked. I will discuss this story, which has near-term bullish implications for both stocks and bonds, tomorrow.

Mister Market Is Cheery For Now

February 16, 2012 Leave a comment

There was no news from Greece today, although optimistic journalists penned excited articles indicating “progress” such as the idea that the ECB (headed by Mario Draghi, not Mario Monti as I incorrectly wrote yesterday) might exchange its Greek bonds for new Greek bonds. It is unclear to me if this is progress, but it certainly isn’t big progress. The latest rumor is that “the deal will be completed on Monday,” with a little asterisk that “the deal” is the offer to Greece that has 24 preconditions that need to be completed by the end of the month. And “the deal” doesn’t include the private sector initiative. And “the deal” hasn’t been signed off on by any of the legislatures that would have to actually approve it. To me, it doesn’t sound like a lot of progress, but investors are clearly predisposed to be excited by anything that anyone calls “the deal,” even if it’s not.

Mister Market was cheerful today, though, and looked kindly on the positive economic data. Initial Claims recorded a new post-Lehman low at 348k, and Housing Starts approached a new high by printing 699k. The Philadelphia Fed was good, except for the “Number of Employees” subindex, which actually looks a little weak at the moment (see Chart).

That small blemish is no reason to toss out the entire carton of apples, though, and investors were justifiably upbeat about the data. I have more trouble explaining why Mister Market was so willing to ignore the awful news that Moody’s is preparing to slash bank credit ratings soon. I don’t think investors understand the implications, perhaps figuring that since a downgrade of the US didn’t cause any alarm then why should a downgrade of Morgan Stanley? I explained yesterday why it should, but today bank and financial shares outperformed the rest of the market.

No doubt, U.S. commercial banks are further away from insolvency than they have been in a while, and loan growth is showing it. The chart below (Source: Federal Reserve Board, H.8 report) is updated as of the latest available data: commercial loan growth is now growing at a 4.2% pace year/year, the fastest pace since November 2008.

Incidentally, that also means that the enormous cache of sterile reserves the Fed has added is no longer just sitting there. It is starting to circulate, which is one reason that M2 growth is still at +10% y/y, where it has been essentially since August.

But, getting back to the market: while current loan volumes are better than they have been in a while, that’s partly because banks don’t have many other ways to make a buck these days. And this data is backward-looking, while a downgrade is negative in the future. It isn’t as if these banks are good values even before a downgrade: Goldman is at 16x earnings, with revenues down 20% over the last year and ROE is 5.5%. Bank of America is at 8x earnings, with revenues -14.6% and ROE of 0%. I should add that Goldman is up 27% year-to-date and Bank of America is up 45%. (This is not an investment recommendation, and I’m not long or short either stock.)

The rally in stocks helped push bonds lower, and the 10-year yield again reached for the 2% level. Since November, the 10-year note hasn’t been outside of a 1.80%-2.10% range, which is amazing quiescence. There are two obvious pressures on bonds. On the bullish side, you have the fact that Europe is and will continue to be a basket case for some time. But on the bearish side, you have 2.2% current (core) inflation and the Fed targeting approximately that level; 2% nominal yields is clearly a losing proposition and clearly too low absent a significant deflation. At some point, this tension will be resolved and yields will move sharply. I will observe that the inflation and Fed targeting arguments aren’t going to go away for a long time, while the Europe story will eventually fade. I remain short fixed-income.

The crowning economic data point of the week (well, at least from my perspective) will be the CPI, released tomorrow. The consensus call for headline inflation month/month is +0.3%, and +0.2% on core inflation, leading the headline figure to drop to +2.8% year/year and leaving the core year/year number unchanged at +2.2%.

That actually implies that the market forecast for core is for a “soft” +0.2%, meaning something that rounds up to that figure. A true 0.2% should cause the year/year core rate to rise to 2.3%. Since we haven’t had a true 0.2% since August, this seems like a reasonable guess. I think it is a reasonable guess, but not because of the recent below-trend prints. The housing subindex of CPI has been rising at a faster pace than it probably should be, given the inventory overhang, and last month it decelerated on a year/year basis. I think this will probably continue for at least a few months, keeping core apparently tame. That also, though, means that we need to be careful to look at core ex-housing. The expected softness in housing is a wonderful gift to the Federal Reserve here, who could point to the core number and pretend they don’t know it’s because the unwinding bubble is still dampening the cost of housing. It means there may not be much pressure to reduce their accommodation even if inflation in the non-bubble economy continues. Core inflation ex-housing rose at a 2.5% pace for 2011, up from 1.1% for 2010. I expect a continued rise there although probably at a lower rate of acceleration.

Tomorrow’s report also involves revised seasonal adjustment factors, which happen to suggest that either the m/m headline figure will be a little softer than 0.3% or else the actual CPI index itself will be a little higher than 226.573, which is the consensus estimate (this latter figure matters only if you own inflation-indexed bonds; the rest of you may ignore it).

The U.S. markets will be closed on Monday, which also means that this author is unlikely to write then (I will probably write something after the CPI report, but then use the weekend and Monday to work on our firm’s Quarterly Inflation Outlook). Thanks to all of the readers who made last night’s article one of the most-viewed I have written in a long time. Do pass along these articles, or better yet links to them, to your friends. Tweet them! (And follow @inflation_guy. On Bloomberg, you can type NH TWT_INFLATION_GUY<GO> for my Twitter feed, something I just discovered). And let me know what you think about them.

Not Again

February 9, 2012 3 comments

Once again, dawn broke on Thursday with great excitement. A Greek deal was at hand! Stocks were higher, although not very much higher, and commodities were bid as well as disaster was at last averted.

Now, this next part probably won’t surprise you as much this time as it did the first two dozen times: the deal was something less-than-advertised.

Yes, there was a Greek deal. But the deal in question was a deal among the leaders of the various parties in Greece about how to promise austerity. That deal must then be discussed with and approved by the Troika (ECB, EU, IMF). Oh, and this has nothing to do with the private sector initiative (PSI) discussions, which are still not done. So this great deal that we waited breathlessly for was pretty much the first stages of an agreement that would be meaningful even if doomed to failure.

You probably also won’t be so surprised when I tell you that the deal the Greeks agreed to among themselves did not pass muster with the rest of Europe, who are the ones who are supposed to put up the money for Greece. “In short: no disbursement without implementation,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, in summary of the EU policymakers’ meetings. According to the Bloomberg story, “he set another extraordinary meeting for Feb 15.” I wonder how many extraordinary meetings you can have, before they become ordinary? Apparently the Greeks left a little wiggle room, in that their parliament needs to vote on this new deal in a vote that the finance minister says is tantamount to a vote on membership in the EZ. This is all supposed to be done by February 15th. Don’t these guys have any respect for Valentine’s Day?

Love is definitely not what is in the air at the ECB. The central bank held policy steady today, but ECB President Mario Draghi said as his press conference that he no longer sees substantial downside economic risks. (And yet, like the Fed, inflation should stay above 2% for “several months” and then decline, I guess because that would be convenient to him.) Whatever is in the air at the ECB, they should pass it around.

Let’s try and work through the logic here:

  1. There is no substantial downside economic risk.
  2. For Greece to default or to leave the Euro would mean the end of life as we know it.

therefore There is no substantial risk that Greece is going to either default or leave the Euro.

I think I have the syllogism (oh, that word comes from Greek) right, although it’s probably not important that I do so since neither 1 nor 2 is correct.

From logic to mathematics we travel: Draghi did say generously that the ECB is willing to give up its “profits” on Greek bonds in order to help the solution, as long as they don’t sell at a loss since that would involve monetary financing of governments. In what la-la land are these guys living that buying bonds at $50 and selling them at $25 produces a profit? It would make my job a lot easier if I could use Draghian math. Unless the ECB bought bonds at $50 and then marked them at par, or carried them at cost rather than marketing them at all and is counting as “profit” the coupon income, this is nonsensical. So I conclude that the ECB is in fact doing one of those two things, either of which would get them jailed as a private investor.

Maybe I am too cynical (also a word that comes from Greek and means literally “doglike, currish”), but if this is how they steer ships in Italy then…oh, too soon?

Meanwhile in other central bank follies, the Bank of England tossed another £50bln log on the fire, bringing the QE total to £325bln. You know, core inflation in England is only at 3%ish, so it’s important to guard against incipient deflation!

In the U.S., Initial Claims was again a little lower-than-expected at 358k. We can probably at this point reject the null hypothesis that the underlying rate of claims is still around 400k, where it was until the second week of December; until now, the error bars around the estimate prevented such a conclusion at least in a statistical sense. Is the level now 375k or are Claims still improving? It’s too early to say. I expect that it is still improving, but I also expect it’s not going to continue that way.

Bigger news was that the Justice Department reached a settlement with Wells Fargo, Citigroup, Bank of America, Ally, and JP Morgan over the ‘robo signing’ flap. Those firms are on the hook for $26bln between them. JPM fell -1.2%, Citigroup dropped -1.7%, Wells was -0.2%, and Bank of America, which took the biggest hit, of course rose 0.6%. I do not understand the fascination of buying financial dinosaurs now that there are big dinosaur hunters around, but investors are delighted to jump into BofA at an 0.5% dividend yield. I’ve been saying it since 2008, and it hasn’t changed yet: the business of large trading banks has fundamentally changed, I think forever. Return on Equity is going to be much lower in the future in the past because (a) volumes of all products are lower, (b) balance sheet leverage is lower, and (c) margins have not widened, and if anything are under further pressure as most products move to exchanges. Banks sell the product with the most elastic demand curve in the world: money. If your bid for the five year note is 100-04+ and the market is 100-05/5+, you will print essentially zero business. (This is why banks love highly-structured product for which a price is not readily available many times.) You cannot count on margins going up, ever. And those three parts, (a), (b), and (c), are the three parts of RoE. Bank stocks may be great trading vehicles, and some banks may gain at the expense of other banks, but as a whole the industry is dead money, in my opinion.

The Treasury today announced that they will auction 30-year TIPS next week. The auction size was only $9bln, compared to expectations generally of $10bln, but the roll still opened quite wide (implying that you get more yield to roll forward to the new issue than you ‘should.’ The Street is either quite concerned about trying to auction 30-year inflation-linked bonds at a real yield of 0.75%, and they probably should be, or dealer risk budgets have been so desiccated that the limited number of bona fide TIPS dealers aren’t sure they can underwrite the issue at something close to the current price. In any event, after the announcement the long end of the TIPS curve was crushed, before bouncing and ending only 4bps higher in yield on the day. The nominal 10-year note sold off 5bps to 2.04%, and 10-year breakevens were down 2bps.

Commodity indices gained 0.5% despite a very soft performance from grains and softs. The energy group rose 1.2%, industrial metals put on 1.5% (now up 10% over the last month), and precious metals rose 0.6% (+8.2% over month ago).

The only data of note on Friday is the University of Michigan confidence number for February (Consensus: 74.8 vs 75.0). I predict that we will head into the weekend expecting a deal to come out of Europe over the weekend, as we will be told it is “imminent.” Why not try that old chestnut again?

Scrooge Businesses

December 22, 2011 8 comments

Stocks rallied today, as did commodities, in thin year-end trading (I am very tired of this latter phrase, which it seems we could have accurately used since October). The putative reason for the rally was that Initial Claims remained low (364k) rather than bouncing to 380k as the consensus estimate had predicted. The quality of the Initial Claims data will deteriorate rather sharply over the next couple of weeks and for the first few weeks of January, but it does seem likely that we have moved out of the old range of 400k-425k and into a new lower range. This is consonant with a general improvement in the overall data (and in the mood in the country!).

M2 money supply leapt $32bln last week. So much for the possibility I mentioned a few weeks ago that the pace of money growth might be slowing. The 52-week rise in M2 is back up to 9.8%. One of the restraints on inflation, despite this money growth, has been the slower rise in transactional money in Europe, where the year-on-year rate of rise in M2 as of the end of October was only 2.1%. This is soon to change, however, thanks to the ECB’s new operation. As a blog post from The Economist pointed out yesterday, ECB President Mario Draghi has stopped the stern denials about the ECB engaging in quantitative easing.

“Each jurisdiction has not only its own rules, but also its own vocabulary. We call them non-standard measures. They are certainly unprecedented. But the reliance on the banking channel falls squarely in our mandate.” (The source of the quote is an interview with the Financial Times here, but the Economist article makes for better reading.)

The ‘news’ of the day being thus dispensed with, I can proceed directly into a belated observation or two about the Fed’s Z.1 “Flow of Funds” release that was posted in early December. The Z.1 is a rich source of bauxite with just a little alumina within it, but one does occasionally find something valuable and/or interesting. I like to plot the debt numbers in various ways, because the Fed helpfully slices up the debtors into convenient categories (although they seem to still include Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac debt in “private” domestic financial institutions, which is a ridiculous fiction. More on the impact of that fiction in a moment).

I have published charts with roughly quarterly regularity simply to provide a concrete reminder that the popular story about household deleveraging is largely a myth. The chart below shows it very clearly: most of the deleveraging has come from domestic financial institutions. This will continue, as the Fed moves to implement substantially all of the Basel III recommendations and demands an extra layer of “protection” in the form of capital from systemically important institutions. Households have de-levered somewhat as well, but not really very much in the grand scheme of things. It just feelslike deleveraging compared to the wild leveraging behavior seen prior to 2008. Relative to income, consumers are carrying less debt, and it is the first decline in a generation, true. But it isn’t very much.

Businesses are adding debt!

But here’s the interesting thing in the chart above. Businesses are re-levering. Okay, technically they are not re-levering, but they are adding debt. This also spears a popular story, that of the cash-hoarding trolls that run businesses in America today. We are told that if businesspeople would only have confidence (those lousy one percenters!) the economy would be healed. Well, it’s a wonderful story, except for the fact that ‘taint so. Business owners are behaving like Scrooge, all right, but it’s Scrooge after the visitation by Marley’s ghost.

It is true that there is more cash on corporate balance sheets than there was five years ago. In some cases, it looks as if companies are issuing debt to hold cash! But that may not be far from the truth. After credit lines evaporated in 2008 and 2009, a prudent business will need to keep lots more cash on hand as an insurance measure. It is a good sign that business debt is growing, and it means this measure confirms the recent expansion in commercial bank credit that I mentioned and illustrated in a comment last week.

The second interesting chart is shown below. It computes the total federal, state, and local government debt as a proportion of GDP. The ratio currently stands at 86.6%.

U.S. public debt is approaching 100% of GDP.

That would not be a big story in itself, but the red line is. The red line is the ratio if you simply recognize that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac debt are de facto obligations of the Federal government. And that ratio is at 96.1%, and will almost certainly exceed the magical 100% level by the middle of next year.

[Of course, you could plausibly argue that if you include Social Security and Medicare obligations, the obligation ratio is wayyyyy over 100%. But there are two differences with those obligations. One is that the government can decide to stop paying those benefits and it would not constitute a default. An abrogation of the social contract, yes; a default, no. The other difference is that Social Security and Medicare are inflation-linked, so the government can’t inflate out of them. Therefore, the existence of those obligations shouldn’t influence whether or not a calculated decision is made to spur inflation to reduce the real burden of the debt.]

Have a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, or be otherwise jolly no matter what your religious or secular persuasion. There will be one more article before the new year – but not this week!

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