Thursday, July 2, 2009

Is Treasury's TARP Debt Already Monetized? Part III

The discussion continues for one more post. I ended the last post with these words:

“The hope is that as the banking system works through its problems, TARP funds will be returned and the mortgage-backed securities will mature or be sold back into the market allowing the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve to contract back to where it was in the summer of 2008. The banking system is apparently holding onto reserves to protect itself and that is why they are really not lending. The idea is that if they don’t need these excess reserves they will return them. This is what the Federal Reserve is planning to happen. Let’s hope that they are correct!”

On this issue, let me point out the post by Jonathan Weil on Bloomberg this morning, “Crisis Won’t End Until Balance Sheets Get Real” ( After presenting interesting data on the state of commercial bank balance sheets he argues the following:

“Banks and insurers got Congress to browbeat the Financial Accounting Standards Board into making rule changes that will let them plump earnings and regulatory capital. There also was Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s line in March about “green shoots,” which sparked a media epidemic of alleged sightings.

For all this, we still have hundreds of financial companies trading as though the worst of their losses are still to come. Just imagine what their prognosis might be if the government hadn’t pulled out all the stops.”

And, then Weil closes:

“Truth is, there’s no way to know if the economy has turned the corner, or if last quarter’s market rally will prove sustainable. Yet when this many banks still have balance sheets that defy belief, it means the industry probably hasn’t re- established trust with the investing public.

Trust, you may recall, is the financial system’s most precious asset. On that score, we still have a long way to go before we can say this banking crisis is over.”

This is the short run problem and it is the one that is going to determine whether or not the Federal Reserve is going to be able to shrink its balance sheet. This has been the point of my last two posts. And why are we facing such uncertainty at this point? Because the Mark-to-Market rule was pulled and because there is not enough openness and transparency in the public financial reporting of financial institutions. If there are going to be regulatory changes in the future, a lot is going to have to be changed as far as the reporting requirements for financial institutions is concerned.

But, this is just the short run problem.

The longer run problem is the projected budget deficits of the Federal government. Even if things work out as the Federal Reserve has planned as far as bank reserves are concerned and Federal Reserve credit retreats back to where it was in August 2008, there is the massive problem facing the country about how prospective government deficits are going to be financed. The bet is that the Fed will finance a substantial portion of the deficits to come. Let the printing presses roll!

The fear? Inflation.

But many say, we are in a severe economic contraction now. The fear should be deflation and not inflation.

The only response to this counter argument is that in the latter half of the 20th century, any nation that has run substantial deficits has, sooner or later, run into problems related to inflation. Monetary authorities are never so independent of their central governments that imprudent fiscal policies are not in one way or another underwritten through some form of monetization. And, since this happens time after time, how can the international investing community sit on the sidelines and do nothing? Yes, the United States is in a severe recession right now, but what are your odds for the monetization of a lot of the Federal debt over the next three years? Over the next five years? Over the next ten years?

Where do you look for such for an indication of market sentiment on this? Look at the value of the United States dollar. The dollar fell by about 15% against major currencies in the latter part of the 1970s as the Carter budget deficits seemed to get out-of-hand. As we know, Paul Volker played the savior there by conducting a very restrictive monetary policy to bring the value of the dollar back in line. However, the Reagan budgets became so severe by 1985 that the value of the dollar began to plummet. In the face of continuing deficits and the realization that this would continue to result in a weak dollar, Volker gave up the reins of the Federal Reserve in August 1987. The dollar did not pick up strength again until fiscal restraint was returned to Washington with the Clinton administration as the value of the dollar rose over 25% from April 1995 until the end of 2000. The massive budget deficits of Bush 43 were translated into another precipitous decline in the value of the dollar which fell by almost 40% between the middle of 2002 to March 2008.

The fiscal policy of a nation does matter to the international investment community!

But, you say, look at all the other major countries having economic problems and their budgets are out of balance as well. Look at England, Germany, Italy, France, and others.

The response to this? This is not the case for many of the major emerging countries of the world, specifically the BRIC countries. Perhaps one leaves Russia out of this, but China, India, and Brazil are going to emerge from this period much stronger relative to the United States than could have been thought even a year ago or so. So is Canada and several other important countries. This world crisis is going to shift world economic power in a way that has not been seen since the shifts in world power that took place in the 1920s and 1930s. And, international investors are realizing this!

Yes, the dollar will still be used as the reserve currency of the world…for a while longer. The Chinese, and the Russians, and the Brazilians, and the Indians all realize this. And, even though they keep talking about establishing a new reserve currency, they seem to back off and say that the dollar cannot be replaced right now. Yet, the Chinese have called for the Group of 8 to talk about a new reserve currency at its upcoming meeting. The issue IS on the table and my guess is that it is not going to go away.

Which brings me back to the deficits. In my mind, the budget deficits of the United States government are out-of-control right now and there is great concern that this administration will not be able to regain control of them in the near future. There is no “reversal” mechanism that is built into these budgets as the Fed has attempted to build in a “reversal” mechanism in its efforts. As a consequence, great pressure will be put on the monetary authorities over the next several years to monetize a substantial portion of the debt that will be created. The history of the past fifty years or so is that the Fed will not be able to avoid the pressure. This is perception that the international investing community will be bringing to the market when it place its bets. This can be translated into higher long term interest rates in the United States and a continuation in the decline in the value of the United States dollar.

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