As Japan's problems continue, investors worldwide are still largely convinced central bankers are in control. They're not. The market is.
As I noted last week, I am focusing much more than usual on Japanese markets, since I believe there may be important information to be gleaned from the action there in stocks and, particularly, in Japanese government bonds (JGBs).
The Nikkei 225-stock index was hit hard on Monday and Wednesday, making the cumulative pullback in Japanese stocks about 20% from their recent high. Yet the bond market has rallied only about six basis points from its worst level. Obviously, the Bank of Japan has its work cut out for it as it tries to create negative interest rates and a bond market that doesn't collapse.
As my friend the Lord of the Dark Matter summed up in a recent email: "We all get that (Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko) Kuroda wants Japanese real interest rates to be negative, but achieving that without implied yen-rate volatility trending higher and Tokyo banks realizing losses on JGBs is going to be tricky."
Bond market to introduce 'start loss' orders
I would go one step further and say it's going to be impossible.
Basically, bondholders have to be willing to accept a negative real rate of return, and although that has been the case worldwide for quite a while, the bond market at some point is going to believe central bankers when they say they want more inflation, because they will get it (in fact, they have already).
Once the perception changes to inflation being the only outcome, life for central bankers is going to become incredibly complicated.
One reason markets have become so ebullient, particularly here in the United States: They have concluded that money-printing has created a Goldilocks environment instead of the stagflation or inflation I have long expected. Obviously, Goldilocks is a state of mind and can only last so long, but when you are in the money-printing "sweet spot," anything is possible.
I never would have dreamed it could last this long, nor gone to the extremes that it has, but, then again, we have never had the world's central banks printing this much money.
When you consider that the BOJ and the Fed together are printing $170 billion a month, and that only about $50 billion of liquidity provided by the Fed in the winter of 1999 blew the top off the stock market then, it is easy to see why insanity rules.
However, minds may be changing. David Rosenberg, of Gluskin Sheff, to cite one example, is now expecting stagflation. When the bond markets of the world collectively have the same opinion, the funding crisis will be upon us. (That is not yet today's problem, even though -- as I noted recently -- the very early stages may be occurring in Japan.)
Heading into negative knowledge territory
As a bit of an aside, I would like to make a point about the media and the 20% decline in the Nikkei. Most media talking heads know nothing about investing, yet love to talk about a 20% decline as the definition of a bear market, and other assorted nonsense.
The fact of the matter is that 20% doesn't mean anything. It is just a decent-size decline. It could be a correction or the early stages of a bear market (although that is quite unlikely at this early juncture for Japan). Nonetheless, a bear market is a bear market, but it doesn't become one when you cross 20%. You've quite likely been in one, and it might be over, or it might have been just a correction. In any case, thinking about things from that perspective is totally useless.
We have room only for the big picture
Speaking of wrong-headed, large numbers of investors still believe it is possible that the Federal Reserve will stop its quantitative easing efforts, let alone "taper" them. I continue to believe it is very unlikely that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke will ever willingly taper.
After all, we've had five years of 0% interest rates, and the Fed can't even talk about an exit strategy that allows it to sell bonds, only buy fewer of them. The same sort of discussion has been held every year, but the masses fail to comprehend that, and get more excited with each QE-inspired rally -- with the latest goosed by the BOJ actions.
Once it is clear that tapering is not likely to occur, it will be interesting to see where the stock market is. It is quite likely to have a failing rally and, in the interim, stock market weakness might give us some insight into where the bond market might fail.
As I have noted, there are plenty of crosscurrents, and in this era, they can be incredibly violent. Unfortunately, when there is so much money printing going on around the planet, virtually all trades are macro.
On the air
In my latest interview with Eric King on King World News I talk about one of the most exciting investment opportunities I have ever seen in my career. Eric called it my "most powerful interview ever." Interested readers can listen to it here.
Cracks have appeared in the Japanese bond market, and potentially ours as well, as the world's finances may be reaching critical stress-points.
Buckle up because we have a lot to cover. The past 10 days have seen some very important action in several markets that is worth delving into in detail.
First, I want to talk about the crack in the Japanese bond market that occurred on May 23. I believe that was a very important moment in recent and longer-term financial history. In the near-term, I believe it marked the end of the "sweet spot," a term I have used to describe the environment we've been in where people believe that central banks could create an easy-money nirvana at the push of a button.
You can check out anytime you like
In a recent column, I mused about which bond market -- Japan's, Britain's or ours – would crack first. Now we know: Japan's. The reason I say the sweet spot has ended is because on May 23, the very early stages of a funding crisis hit Japan.
This is demonstrated by the fact that Japanese government bonds traded through 1.00%, which is two-and-a-half times their rate when the Bank of Japan's huge quantitative easing efforts began. One can imagine the carnage that would occur here if our 10-year rates leaped higher in a similar fashion.
It was also a mini-demonstration of a point I made last week: Once you have entered ZIRP (a zero-interest-rate policy) you can never leave, unless you have a funding crisis and the market drives rates higher, despite central bank commands/demands.
In terms of a timeline, I believe the action in Japan is analogous to first-payment defaults during the mortgage meltdown, which began in early 2007 and were a sign that the subprime market had cracked. However, it wasn't declared "contained" until six to nine months later. During that period, fallout from the bursting of the housing bubble was not only not contained, it was spreading.
The storm after the calm
The Federal Reserve is trapped and -- as May 23 demonstrated -- so is Japan. The choice central bankers are facing is the same one that has confronted them since the money printing inspired by former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan began. Once trouble starts, they have to decide if they are going to allow their economies to fall into a depression or go down a path that seems painless but leads to inflation.
My belief has been that central bankers -- as they have already demonstrated -- will always choose the path that leads to inflation because they think they can easily stop it. And for a long time (most especially recently), people have believed that the money-printing path was essentially painless. I believe that view peaked on May 23 (even though no real inflection point can ever pinned down to one day, or even one week).
In other words, the macroeconomic and financial environment cannot get any better than people already thought it was. It was not as good as people thought, but "the best has been seen/imagined." From here, warts will begin to appear, and we will start to go from all news being good to all news being bad. But that is a continuum and will take some time.
Turning to this week, worldwide volatility continued, this time centered -- for once -- in the U.S. bond market. That may or may not be meaningful, but in this case, and in light of Japan's bond market, I think it is.
The $64 trillion question, however, is: "Why are bond markets sinking?" Is it (1) just noise; (2) too much liquidity; (3) not enough liquidity; (4) too much leverage/too many people short volatility; or, most importantly, (5) the beginning of a funding crisis?
The recent declines in U.S. and Japanese bonds (I will restrict my comments to those two, since what happens elsewhere will be an extension of what happened with those) are most likely due to a combination of factors, primarily some noise, but also too much leverage/too many who are short volatility.
When rates are held artificially low, with the promise that they will be kept there for an even longer period of time, it is easy for careless, greedy and/or naïve investors to get in over their heads trying to turn what is available from the bond market -- i.e., nothing -- into something that might actually be called "yield." As the saying goes, more money has been lost reaching for yield than at the point of a gun.
As for the underlying root cause, is there insufficient money printing (which could easily be solved by central banks), or is there too much (which would be the early days of a funding crisis)? I believe that for Japan the answer is a combination of points 1, 2 and 4 above, which lead to point No. 5.
Though it isn't articulated as such, the combination of leverage and monetization promises have precipitated a selloff and a gigantic increase in volatility, which will be very hard to get under control. Even if this is ultimately going to create a funding crisis (which is quite likely), nobody would be able to articulate exactly how and why right now. Just as it would have been almost impossible in late 2006 to extrapolate the final collapse of the economy, stock market and financial system at the end of 2008 from the initial first-payment defaults, even though they were all part of the same process.
Such is the case today in Japan, though I believe there are going to be many vicious crosscurrents along the way.
As for the U.S. bond market, which was really roughed up on May 28, the blame has been laid at the feet of Fed chief Ben Bernanke (i.e., point 3 above) and the other Fed heads trying to talk out of both sides of their mouths. It is understandable that Bernanke & Co. would want to prepare the markets for the eventual end to quantitative easing. They have never understood that they are the problem, and they continually think that money printing will solve everything, so every now and then, when the stock market gets frisky and the economic data get better, they contemplate that they will be able to stop someday. I don't believe that, as when the end comes for QE, it will be because the bond market has forced it to stop.
It can happen here
But whereas Ben's threat to someday print less money has been blamed for the backup in U.S. yields (and I'm sure that had some role in it), part of what is at work, in my opinion, is the same process that is occurring in Japan. And since the fact that the Fed may someday buy fewer bonds doesn't impact Japan, it is clear its problem is a case of "too much." (That said, teasing out the precise reasons for why markets move on any given day is usually close to impossible, and when you are trying figure out what might be causing a massive inflection point, it can be even more difficult.)
The bottom line, I believe, is that Japanese authorities have "lost the bond market" (i.e., rates are much higher than authorities want, despite their best efforts) and the Fed has as well, but, perversely, Japan may be further along in the process, even though its powers that be started much later to really get serious about QE-powered monetary debasement.
As far as markets go, the crosscurrents emanating from the macro consequences of money printing (and associated socialistic government policies) are going to be treacherous, and that is unavoidable. One needs to understand that essentially the macroeconomic environment has been all that has mattered for the last decade.
Money printing precipitated the stock bubble, which led to a bust, and nothing mattered but the macro, in both directions. Ditto during the housing bubble: Nothing mattered on the upside or downside except money printing or its consequences. (Reckless policies caused the bubble, but as it unwound, nothing mattered until enough money was printed to turn it around again.)
One-lane road ahead
In the last four years, nothing has mattered except how much money was printed. When the consequences of that are felt, that is all that will matter. That doesn't mean individual security research is meaningless, because you have to know what you are involved with, but if I were to pick one motto, it would be: "All macro, all the time; it's all one trade."
As for our stock market, folks are still concluding that Goldilocks was not a fairy tale and is, in fact, exactly what the Fed has engineered -- i.e., economic activity that is not too hot, nor too cold, with interest rates rising ever so gently. The same delusions that allow one to think that also indicate that rising interest rates are actually bullish because they theoretically mean the economy is getting better. Historically, pre-Greenspan, that was the case most of the time. But now, since we live in a world with make-believe interest rates picked by the Fed, assets are much more likely to be mispriced -- something stock bulls fail to comprehend.
Thus, our stock market feels bulletproof, as we are the leaders in the Goldilocks propaganda. The recent carnage in fixed incomes in Japan, the violent equity selloff there and the bond market decline here have done almost nothing to dent the enthusiasm of that camp in America.
Save the last dance for QE
However, following the crack in Japanese bonds, my friend the Lord of the Dark Matter said, "I would expect in the coming days (and given the violence of this selloff, it is days, not weeks) that central bankers will reaffirm their commitment to liquidity and that they are 'all in.' They will make their intentions both clear and unambiguous. If the markets don't stabilize after that, then it is '1987 time' for equities."
I totally agree. Eventually, even the really slow learners should be able to understand that the central banks are trapped and that their only choice is between depression and easy money.
When it comes to monetary policy, our Federal Reserve is hoping words speak just as loud as actions.
It's time once again to check in on our fearless leaders at the Federal Reserve, as Wednesday was the scene of Chairman Ben Bernanke's most recent congressional testimony (as well as the release of the latest FOMC minutes).
But we already knew -- regardless of what Bernanke or the minutes said -- what the Fed is going to do, namely what it has always done since former Chairman Alan Greenspan manned the helm. This is not debatable: The central bank is going to print money -- too much money, it as it will turn out, and the central bankers won't understand that -- leading to a collapse in the economy and financial markets, and so the Fed will come back and do the same thing on an even bigger scale.
For five years now, there has been steady talk of exit strategies, yet none has occurred. Nor is exiting described as a binary on-off switch any longer, but rather as a dial whereby the flow of money can be scaled up or down, depending on the data.
Thus, the very concept of an exit strategy, where the Fed might suddenly stop buying or actually sell bonds and reduce its balance sheet, has been abandoned and is never going to happen.
This makes it rather annoying and maddening to deal with financial markets that move on every speech given by every Fed head as they work their jawbone standard. But that is where we are.
Fed won't hit the brakes until it's sure we've hit something
No one should be shocked to learn that Bernanke opened Wednesday's testimony by saying that a premature tightening risks slowing or ending the recovery.
That is all you need to know: There will be no premature tightening. Bernanke is not going to pre-empt anything, certainly not inflation.
In fact, he said, ". . . inflation, if anything, is a little too low."
All of the tough talk, I believe, is because the powers that be at the Fed have some inkling somewhere in the back of their minds that maybe if they "overdo it," financial markets might get a little (in Fed terminology) overheated.
Other than that, they have no interest in ending their massively stimulative policies in any time frame that could remotely be called early.
In any case, when the Bernanke headline hit the tape, everything vaulted to the upside. Then, during the question-and-answer period with lawmakers, Bernanke said he could raise or lower the purchase pace of Fed bond buying (gee, what a shock), depending on the data (ditto).
But then he dropped a supposed bombshell, noting that the Fed could cut the pace of bond purchases at one of its next few meetings (yes, slowly, or maybe not at all). That comment caused a great deal of selling in the bond, currency and metals markets, but it initially had only a modest impact on the stock market, which eventually sank with everything else.
Hanging ourselves on every word
The bottom line is that this is a whole lot of hot air, but we are forced to deal with it on a daily basis because we live in a world where central bankers think they know the future and the only standard that exists anymore is the jawbone standard.
(And, most importantly, the damage from money printing has already been done, the consequences just haven't yet fully manifested themselves.)
Are bonds u-ZIRP-ing control?
Bonds were deservedly smoked on Wednesday, and yields are approaching their highs of the year. If they keep sliding, stocks will get hit (though they could tank for any reason now, given how frothy the market is) and then the economic data will be seen for what it is: weak.
Of course, "taper talk" would then cease and folks would realize that the Fed is (and has been) trapped. You can't abandon zero-interest-rate-policy (aka ZIRP) until the market forces you to via a funding crisis. Period!
At the time of publication, Bill Fleckenstein owned gold.
Our own funding crisis could very well be precipitated by trouble elsewhere. And there are signs that Japan's bond market may be rejecting the nation's monetary policy.
I was fortunate to spend a recent Saturday with my anonymous friend, to whom I refer in my columns as the Lord of the Dark Matter, and I wanted to share the key points of our conversation.
He believes that we need to stay focused on Japan because its stock and currency markets are acting as if they (preemptively) are rejecting the concept of money printing.
The yen has tanked 15% and Japan's bond yields have climbed from 0.50% to 0.82% (more than 60%) since Japanese quantitative easing commenced in November. That increase in volatility alone might begin to cause problems for Japanese derivative books.
When you are in a country such as Japan, where interest rates have been zero for a long time, you can be sure all manner of volatility has been sold (at the wrong price) in an attempt to enhance yields. So if volatility and interest rates increase, we could see quite a lot of chaos precipitated from Japan, just as when the housing bubble burst and it wasn't just declining housing prices that caused problems. (It was also the levered-up exposure to mortgage-backed assets and other crazy products.)
Thanks to the policies of central banks, we live in a world where there has been a mad scramble for yield, which means too much leverage has been employed and no one is paying attention to credit risk (or the absolute level of interest rates, for that matter). As said more cleverly by LODM, "the world is short gamma." That means that if the situation starts to get out of control in Japan, there will be big ramifications, there and here.
My, gamma, what big teeth you have
I don't want to get ahead of myself, because if the Japanese bond market revolts soon, it won’t be just a funding crisis, but a preemptive one as well. My thesis has always been that inflation will eventually cause bond buyers to take the printing presses away from central banks. That is, the funding crisis would be a reaction to inflation.
If Japan’s bond market trouble is imminent, it would be a proactive strike on the part of bond investors. Therefore, I am not quite sure a funding crisis can occur in the short run. But, given the insanity of the Japanese debt market and the monstrous size of the monetization program, we have to be alert to new developments.
We all know that the policies being pursued by governments and central banks are insane and ultimately disastrous, but they won't stop without being forced to. This is also why I would expect the Bank of Japan to do more rather than less at the first sign of real "front page news" trouble.
And what might the BOJ have up its sleeve to fight this unwanted development? The LODM suggested that if the Bank of Japan were really clever and wanted to stabilize the longer end of the bond market, it would do something like cap 10-year Japanese government bonds at 100 basis points, which isn't very far from where they are today. In that way, given the BOJ's inflation target of 2%, it would guarantee negative real returns and dampen volatility. Obviously, that wouldn't change the eventual outcome, but it would likely buy the BOJ some time.
Say a few 'Abe Marias' while they're at it?
Of course, nothing like that has been announced. But the point of this exercise is to acknowledge the fact that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his cohort at the BOJ are not going to give up easily. Capping the 10-year for a while is something they can do, and for all I know there are other clever maneuvers they could also try. At any rate, this is potentially a very serious problem, as JGBs comprise about 900% of Japanese banks' Tier 1 capital. Thus, authorities there are going to move heaven and earth as they fight the bond market.
So far, however, world markets have concluded that the BOJ's actions have been a thing of beauty (i.e., the Federal Reserve on steroids), as the Nikkei has levitated 45% this year with no negative ramifications. Thus, I don't want to become too alarmed, and I have taken no action regarding the potential for a Japan-centric financial nuclear event. But I wanted to call it to everyone's attention.
This process has just begun, and there is no point in getting excited too soon, but it is a very important development that bears watching.
With the market hitting record highs even as the US runs up huge deficits, officials around the world are embracing the very Fed policies hurtling us toward financial ruin.
Paul Singer, the founder and CEO of the extraordinarily successful Elliott Management, recently wrote an essay ("The Fed, Lost in the Wilderness") that was the most succinct and accurate discussion I have seen of where we are, how we got here and where we are headed.
Regular readers will not be surprised (given that I wrote the book "Greenspan's Bubbles: the Age of Ignorance at the Federal Reserve") that the first point I appreciate about the essay is that Singer lays the blame where it belongs -- something a surprisingly small number of people are able (or willing) to do.
"The Fed is primarily responsible for (the current) state of affairs, and it is out of its depth," Singer writes. "Former Chairman (Alan) Greenspan created -- and reveled in -- a cult of personality centered on himself, and in the process created a tremendous and growing moral hazard."
By embracing, rather than discouraging, his "maestro" mystique, Greenspan helped foster the sense that not only was he able to keep the economy "just right," but also that he could quickly correct any problems that might arise.
Jerk of all trades, maestro of none
As Singer puts it, Greenspan "cultivated an ever-increasing (but unjustified) faith in the Fed's apparent ability to fine-tune the American (and, by extension, the world's) economy. Ironically, this development was occurring at the very time financial innovations and leverage were making the system more brittle and less safe."
In short, the Greenspan era represents the greatest failure of Fed policy this country has ever experienced. Not only did Greenspan fail to grasp the consequences of his leadership, but his "solutions" also laid the groundwork for the bigger problems of the housing/credit crisis. If not for his incompetence, none of the problems he created would have befallen us.
If Greenspan's tenure is marked by hubris, current Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's tenure is (in Singer's view), "one of lower and lower discipline (and) less and less conservative stewardship of the precious confidence that is all that stands between fiat currency and monetary ruin. . . . Speculators win, savers are destroyed and the ties that bind either fray or rip."
The other invisible hand: Risk
Singer correctly points out that while the Federal Reserve's money printing seems to be all gain and no pain, it comes at a price (greater risk) that present-day investors have been conditioned to ignore.
Inflation, dislocations in stock and bond prices, and instability of financial institutions are all problems more likely to mount as a result of Fed policy. Yet, since stock markets continue to rise (on weak fundamentals) and there is no widespread concern about inflation (yet), many investors seem content to believe that our problems are being resolved.
Reality, according to Singer, is quite different: "We believe that the global central bankers, led by the Fed as 'thought leader,' have no idea how much pain the world's economy may endure when they begin the still-undetermined and never-before-attempted process of ending this gigantic experimental policy."
And keep in mind, central bank recklessness is a global phenomenon, not a local one. In addition to rampant money printing by the Fed, the Bank of Japan, the Swiss National Bank, the Bank of England, the European Central Bank (in word, if not deed) and, just last week, the central banks of Australia and South Korea have all joined the party.
Also this past week, ECB President Mario Draghi made some bold claims when he stated during a speech in Rome that: "For the southern European countries, a euro above $1.30 would be too high for their economy. Among major central banks, the ECB has been the only bank that is not expanding its balance sheet. But it will likely consider such a step."
Assuming that Draghi follows through with the action he is implying, we will have unanimous and massive fiscal and monetary stimulus from every single G-7 country and, by extension, others as well.
Green with envy
The amount of stimulus being applied is unfathomable. Thus far, the United States is perceived as being in the best position (i.e., the sweetest of the sweet spots), with Japan quickly catching up. It would seem that world governments are in the process of concluding that their stimulative policies are solving all problems and have no negative consequences (thus we are going to see more of them).
How long the deflationists can hold out with their bond bets remains to be seen, but only the bond market can stop these policies -- a point I have made many times. (I should also be clear that it does not look like the policies will be halted anytime soon.)
With the Dow Jones Industrial Average ($INDU) and Standard & Poor's 500 Index ($INX) hitting all-time highs even as we run trillion-dollar deficits, we are the financial and economic envy of the G-7 world, even with our massive problems. So you can be sure the Europeans are going to emulate us.
Summing up the current environment, Singer writes:
"Printing money by the trillions of dollars has had the predictable effect of raising the prices of stocks and bonds and thus reducing the cost of servicing government debt. It also has produced second-order effects, such as inflating the prices of commodities, art and other high-end assets purchased by financiers and investors. But it is like an addictive drug, and we have a hard time imagining the slowing or stopping of QE (quantitative easing) without large adverse impacts on the prices of stocks and bonds and the performance of the economy. If the economy does not shift into sustainable high-growth mode as a result of QE, then the exit from QE is somewhere on the continuum between problematic and impossible."
It is impossible to say when all this will unravel, but one thing I am certain of is that those who think it won't be painful are in for yet another rude surprise.
Wall Street's apparent strength is still just as illusory as it was this time last year. And we know how that movie ended. Think 'Jekyll and Hyde' rather than 'Hoosiers.'
For years, Amazon.com (AMZN) always rallied after release of the company's quarterly results, regardless of what those results were. After starting out with its usual upside performance following release of results for last year's fourth quarter, however, the stock quickly gave up those gains, and more, before moving sideways. Thus, I was curious to see what it would do when the company announced its first-quarter earnings on April 25.
I had a feeling that the stock might be a canary in the coal mine for the stock market at large. It was just a guess on my part, and a pretty tenuous one; but to my way of thinking, Amazon essentially has no fundamentals, since there has been no way to handicap what might make the stock go up or down.
Like Apple stock a year ago, the market’s sunny optimism sits in sharp contrast to the situation on the ground. Going against the mainstream at times like these is the best way to put the odds of success in your favor.
Being a contrarian is not easy. If you are right about a new idea, it always takes time to prove out. In the short run, you usually appear to be wrong, and you look -- and often feel -- silly.
While I don't consider myself contrarian for its own sake (I am a contrarian because it is the best way to improve your risk/reward odds), longtime readers know that I have no problem voicing unpopular opinions. I try to be disciplined about coming to my own conclusions, regardless of what anyone else might think.
About a year ago, I had a great opportunity to illustrate this point. On MSN Money on April 5, 2012, I published a controversial column titled, "Is it time to bet against Apple?" It certainly generated a lot of negative replies.
The store of value that Wall Street loves to hate shows off its volatile side. But those who understand the economy and the world understand this is not the time to panic.
I was out of the country last week and thus did not post a column, but readers are no doubt aware that the gold market tanked about 14% between Friday, April 12, and Monday, April 15. So I will be devoting this week's column to that subject.
The first big question to consider is, Does this slide have predictive value? Does it tell us anything about the future?
I don't believe it does.
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ABOUT BILL FLECKENSTEIN
This column is a synopsis of Bill Fleckenstein's daily column on his website, FleckensteinCapital.com, which he's been writing on the Internet since 1996. Click here to find Fleckenstein's most recent articles.
[BRIEFING.COM] The major averages ended higher across the board as the S&P 500 advanced 0.8%.
Equities climbed steadily since the opening bell as investors prepared for tomorrow's policy decision from the Federal Reserve. Although chatter in recent weeks has included speculation the Fed would look to taper its asset purchases, today's broad gains suggest investors expect mostly reassuring words from Chairman Bernanke at tomorrow's press conference.
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