Raiders of the Last Armory
The US government rolled out the Big Rescue Gun once again over the weekend, and shot one giant life-preserver into the stormy waters in which Citigroup had all but disappeared. Last week's management posturing and refusal to break up the carcass vanished fairly fast, as $306 billion in loan guarantees and another $20 billion in direct, open-heart massage was seen as preferable.
Markets greeted the effort with a cheers, but are fully cognizant that this is one bailout that better work - given its size. Overseas, German business confidence dropped to a 16-year low as the gloom deepens across Europe. China opted for a second stimulus package complete with wage hikes and tax cuts, in an effort to keep that giant ship afloat. Iran and Venezuela each called for significant OPEC cuts and boosted oil values for the start of the week.
Bloomberg reports that: "The U.S. government is prepared to lend more than $7.4 trillion on behalf of American taxpayers, or half the value of everything produced in the nation last year, to rescue the financial system since the credit markets seized up 15 months ago." Similar news came from a weekend APEC meeting, where Asian leaders pledged everything possible in order to overcome the crisis. They concluded that they could have this one licked inside of 18 months. Any bets on that one?
Following a wobbly start overnight, gold resumed the ascent that started on Friday, with another strong push. The initial dip to $785 came as profit-takers cashed in a few chips, but it quickly gave way to a near- $20 gain in the metal out of the opening gate (quoted at $820) as the dollar fell to under 87 on the index and oil rose nearly $2 in early going. Silver finally got back into double-digit territory with a 44 cent climb to $10.08 per ounce. Platinum and palladium got off to a better start as well, the former gaining $31 to $849 and the latter adding $10 to $191 per ounce.
Today's calendar features existing home sales, but the data will be overshadowed by the continuing guessing-game as to the fate of other large banks (BofA comes to mind) and that of GM (now seen as 'open' to the idea of Chapter 11). The crisis rolls on, and gold should now have another chance to prove its mettle. The $845 area looms large ahead, and-if reached- it could prove quite the battle ground between the bulls and the bears. For now, it remains a question of deflationary pressures managing (or not) to overpower emerging Japanese-style rhetoric from certain quarters about "desirable levels of inflation" and about "quantitative easing" (read: zero interest rate conditions).
Gold got an op-ed endorsement from that bastion of (fast-crumbling) capitalism that is the Wall Street Journal this weekend. If you ever needed more motivation to either acquire or to ensure that you maintain your 10-15% gold allocation, this might be the call to arms that does the trick. It was written by equity-strategist Christopher Wood, and its title is: "The Fed is Out of Ammunition"
"With an estimated $4 trillion in housing wealth and $9 trillion in stock-market wealth destroyed so far in the United States, there is little doubt that we are witnessing a classic debt-deflation bust at work, characterized by falling prices, frozen credit markets and plummeting asset values.
Those who want to understand the mechanism might ponder Irving Fisher's comment in 1933: When it comes to booms gone bust, "over-investment and over-speculation are often important; but they would have far less serious results were they not conducted with borrowed money."
The growing risk of falling prices raises a challenge for one of the conventional wisdoms of the modern economics profession, and indeed modern central banking: the belief that it is impossible to have deflation in a fiat paper-money system. Yet U.S. core CPI fell by 0.1% month-on-month in October, the first such decline since December 1982.
The origins of the modern conventional wisdom lies in the simplistic monetarist interpretation of the Great Depression popularized by Milton Friedman and taught to generations of economics students ever since. This argued that the Great Depression could have been avoided if the Federal Reserve had been more proactive about printing money. Yet the Japanese experience of the 1990s -- persistent deflationary malaise unresponsive to near zero-percent interest rates -- shows that it is not so easy to inflate one's way out of a debt bust.
In the U.S., the Fed can only control the supply of money; it cannot control the velocity of money or the rate at which it turns over. The dramatic collapse in securitization over the past 18 months reflects the continuing collapse in velocity as financial engineering goes into reverse.
True, this will change one day. But for now, the issuance of non-gency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) in America has plunged by 98% year-on-year to a monthly average of $0.82 billion in the past four months, down from a peak of $136 billion in June 2006. There has been no new issuance in commercial MBS since July. This collapse in securitization is intensely deflationary.
It is also true that under Chairman Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve balance sheet continues to expand at a frantic rate, as do commercial-bank total reserves in an effort to counter credit contraction. Thus, the Federal Reserve banks' total assets have increased by $1.28 trillion since early September to $2.19 trillion on Nov. 19. Likewise, the aggregate reserves of U.S. depository institutions have surged nearly 14-fold in the past two months to $653 billion in the week ended Nov. 19 from $47 billion at the beginning of September.
But the growth of excess reserves also reflects bank disinterest in lending the money. This suggests the banks only want to finance existing positions, such as where they have already made credit-line commitments.
Monetarist Bernanke and others blame Japan's post-bubble deflationary downturn on policy errors by the Bank of Japan. But he and others are about to find out that monetary gymnastics are not as effective as they would like to think. So too will the Keynesians who view an aggressive fiscal policy as the best way to counter a deflationary slump. While public-works spending can blunt the downside and provide jobs, it remains the case that FDR's New Deal did not end the Great Depression.
There are no easy policy answers to the current credit convulsion and intensifying financial panic -- not as long as politicians and central bankers are determined not to let financial institutions fail, and so prevent the market from correcting the excesses. This is why this writer has a certain sympathy for Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, even if nobody else seems to. The securitized nature of this credit cycle, combined with the nightmare levels of leverage embedded in the products dreamt up by the quantitative geeks, means this is a horribly difficult issue to solve.
Virtually everybody blames Mr. Paulson for the decision to let Lehman Brothers go. But this decision should be applauded for precipitating the deflationary unwind that was going to come sooner or later anyway.
The Japanese precedent also remains important because the efforts in the West to prevent the market from disciplining excesses will have, as in Japan, unintended, adverse, long-term consequences. In Japan, one legacy is the continuing existence of a large number of uncompetitive companies which have caused profit margins to fall for their more productive competitors. Another consequence has been a long-term deflationary malaise, which has kept yen interest rates ridiculously low to the detriment of savers.
Meanwhile, the most recent Fed survey of loan officers provides hard evidence of the intensifying credit crunch in America. A net 83.6% of domestic banks reported having tightened lending standards on commercial and industrial loans to large and midsize firms over the past three months, the highest since the data series began in 1990. A net 47% of banks also indicated that they had become less willing to make consumer installment loans over the past three months.
Consumers are also more reluctant to borrow. A net 48% of respondents indicated that they had experienced weaker demand for consumer loans of all types over the past quarter, up from 30% in the July survey. This hints at the Japanese outcome of "pushing on a string" -- i.e., the banks can make credit available but cannot force people to borrow.
What happens next? With a fed-funds rate at 0.5% or lower in coming months, it is fast becoming time for investors to read again Mr. Bernanke's speeches in 2002 and 2003 on the subject of combating falling inflation. In these speeches, the Fed chairman outlined how policy could evolve once short-term interest rates get to near zero. A key focus in such an environment will be to bring down long-term interest rates, which help determine the rates of mortgages and other debt instruments. This would likely involve in practice the Fed buying longer-term Treasury bonds.
It would seem fair to conclude that a Bernanke-led Fed will follow through on such policies in coming months if, as is likely, the U.S. economy continues to suffer and if inflationary pressures continue to collapse. Such actions will not solve the problem but will merely compound it, by adding debt to debt.
In this respect the present crisis in the West will ultimately end up discrediting mechanical monetarism -- and with it the fiat paper-money system in general -- as the U.S. paper-dollar standard, in place since Richard Nixon broke the link with gold in 1971, finally disintegrates.
The catalyst will be foreign creditors fleeing the dollar for gold. That will in turn lead to global recognition of the need for a vastly more disciplined global financial system and one where gold, the "barbarous relic" scorned by most modern central bankers, may well play a part."
The mantra to chant here? "Forget the price of gold. Obsess more about the percentage of it that you have in your asset basket."
Mr. Obama introduces his new economic team today. Based on Friday's market reaction to the appointment of Mr. Geithner to the Treasury job, the photo-op might turn out to be a bigger confidence-booster than event the use of "Big Bertha" over the weekend...
Kitco Bullion Dealers Montreal
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