Thursday, July 30, 2009

No "Green Shoots" in the Banking Sector Yet

Although analysts have detected “Green Shoots” in the economy signaling the possibility that there may be a recovery occurring sometime soon, it is my belief that we will need to see some signs of life in the banking system before we can get too excited about any sustainable upswing. Right now, I don’t see any “Green Shoots” in the area of commercial banking.

The only indication that something might be starting to happen in the banking sector is the apparent “credit thaw” in the money markets. An article in the Wall Street Journal touts the “voracious demand for short-term debt issued by U. S. and European banks.” We are told by one New York trader that “bank commercial paper ‘flies off the screen.” (See “Credit Thaw Is Spurring Appetite for Bank IOUs” at The London interbank offer rate has dropped and relative interest rate spreads have fallen indicating that confidence is returning to this sector of the money market.

Yet commercial banks are not lending. They are not lending to each other and they are not lending to businesses. Commercial banks are still reducing their own debt or just holding onto the cash! The only lending that seems to be happening is on pre-approved home equity loans and on pre-approved credit card balances and other revolving consumer credit. Year-over-year, the change in total commercial bank lending and leases is roughly zero.

In terms of banks lending to other banks, from June last year to June this year, the decline in Fed Funds lending and reverse repurchase agreements with other banks has dropped 15%. These loans have dropped another $60 billion in the four week period ending July 15 from a total of $319 billion!

Credit risk is not the reason that the commercial banks are not lending to each other. In normal times, commercial banks lend to each other through the Federal Funds market or through using repurchase agreements in order to manage their reserve positions at the Federal Reserve. However, these are not normal times.

Commercial banks really don’t need to lend to each other in order to manage their reserve positions at the Federal Reserve because they are over-whelming liquid!

Note that in the two weeks ending July 15, the Federal Reserve reported that excess reserves in the banking system totaled $743.9 billion dollars! This is up from $1.9 billion in July 2008. Commercial banks have no concerns with meeting their reserve requirements because they are holding reserves at Federal Reserve banks that are far in excess of what is required. And, why should there be any trading of Federal Funds when there are such excesses within the system.

The commercial banking system is recording cash assets, as of July 15, 2009, of $958.7 billion which is up from $320.0 billion in the month of June 2008.

Right now, the lending market seems to be compressed on both sides of the market, supply as well as demand. Not only do banks seem to be reluctant to make loans, there seem to be a dearth of borrowers at this time.

The argument on the supply side is that commercial banks still have two major concerns on their minds. The first is the value of assets on their balance sheets. In terms of asset values, there still is the problem of mortgage foreclosures. We are starting a period of re-pricing of Alt-A and Option mortgages at a time when unemployment impacts are growing. Next year there is apparently another round of re-pricings of subprime mortgages. Credit card losses continue to rise. And, there are still big problems expected in commercial real estate loans. This says nothing about the securitized loans that are still on the books of the banks. The second concern of the banks is who to lend to if they were to make loans. Given the uncertainties with respect to the strength of the recovery and the state of the labor market commercial bank lending practice has reverted to the principles of the “good old days” which begin with “don’t lend to anybody that needs to borrow.”

The demand for loans is tepid at best. De-leveraging and saving are the primary focus of a large portion of the business and family population. Small businesses and individuals are scared enough that they are shrinking their needs for outside funding and are looking more and more to greater self-reliance. Experts in the field don’t see this new behavior pattern changing soon. More larger firms that possess some degree of financial strength seem to be moving to take advantage of the economic distress of others and so they are borrowing more, but not from the commercial banks.

The consequence of this? Commercial and industrial loans at commercial banks have declined by more than $120 billion this year. Consumer loans have declined by $30 billion since February 2009. Real estate loans have remained roughly constant this year.

There is still one more factor that is weighing on the minds of commercial bankers. The Federal Reserve has created a situation in which commercial banks have ended up with well over $700 billion in excess reserves. The question on the minds of commercial bankers is when and how will the Federal Reserve remove these excess funds?

It is obvious from his testimony in front of Congress last week that Chairman Bernanke does not have an “exit strategy” for the Federal Reserve to remove these reserves from the banking system.

My question to you is, “Would you lend out these reserves if you had no idea when the central bank was going to take them away from you?” I certainly would not! I think any banker that wanted to put these excess reserves to work under the current leadership of the Federal Reserve would be foolish!

There may be indications that money markets are warming to the commercial banking sector and this is good. However, this is not putting money out into the economy. We need to keep looking at the commercial banking sector to see when lending starts to pick up. Until it does, consumers and businesses will just have to rely on their own resources to finance a recovery. This does not bode well for a rapid turnaround.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Does Economics Work?

Does economics work?

A lot of people seem to be questioning the validity of economics these days.

My answer to this question is an emphatic yes! Economics does work!

It is only when we forget the basic principles of economics that we get into trouble. In recent years we have forgotten some of those principles and this has resulted in the economic chaos that we find ourselves in today. I would like to concentrate on just three of these principles for I believe that in forgetting these we have created a lot of our own unhappiness.

The first principle relates to what can be called the “value proposition”. Basically in economics it is argued that value or wealth is created when economic units produce goods or services that provide people with utility. That is, unless the economic unit that is producing something adds value to the resources used in the production of those goods and services, people will not purchase them and wealth will not be created.

Innovation is very important to this process because innovation creates new value in developing something new that people come to want. Where there is not a lot of competition in a particular market because the good or service being produced is new or where firms can achieve what is called competitive advantage, the rate of return on invested capital can exceed the opportunity cost of the capital used to produce those goods and services. In other words, under circumstances like these, firms can find projects or investments that have a positive net present value. Wealth is created in such situations.

But, economic units respond to incentives and when other economic units discover an area where the rates of return on invested capital exceed the opportunity cost of raising capital, they will be attracted to enter that market. And, unless there are barriers to entry in entering that market or some other economic factor or government license, patent, or regulation preventing that entry, competition will increase and this will drive down the excess of return on capital over the cost of capital. In the process, more and more goods are produced at lower prices.

Thus, the creation of wealth in society has to do with the fact that economic units must produce goods and services that are of value to others within the society. This is the value proposition.

The second principle is the “no arbitrage” principle. This principle has to do with trading goods or trading financial instruments. Trading occurs when the prices of an asset or of similar assets differ in different markets. The different markets might relate to different geographic areas, to different time zones, to different countries, to any situation in which there might occur a difference in the price of a good. These differences occur because of transaction costs, incomplete information, lack of computing power, and so on.

The “no arbitrage” principle essentially argues that trading opportunities such as these will attract investors seeking to take advantage of the price differentials and through trading to profit from these differentials the differences will go to zero or will be reduced to a spread related to transaction costs. That is, the incentive to profit through arbitrage trading will be eliminated or reduced over time. In other words, the expected value of arbitrage trading is zero. It is a zero-sum game.

There are two things that must be remembered with respect to trading. First, as more and more people discover the price discrepancies in different markets the potential gains from such trading are reduced. As these potential gains decline, traders may attempt to maintain rates of return on such trades by working with riskier assets, by mismatching the maturities of the arbitrage transactions with the funds used to achieve the position, or by increasing the amount of leverage they use. History is clear that as the potential returns to trading decline, traders take on more and more risk in an effort to enhance their performance. Research indicates that the big winners in trading are those that discover the discrepancies before anyone else does.

Second, the whole basis for this kind of arbitrage transaction is that the prices of the assets in different markets move in the opposite direction. This is obvious in a common assumption of arbitrage trading called “reversion to the mean.” In this case, the price of the asset in one market is above the mean price and the price of the asset in another market is below the mean price. The arbitrager is betting that over time the price of the asset above the mean will fall and the price of the asset below the mean will rise and money will be made.

The problem comes when these two prices move in the same direction! Unless the arbitrager is able to continue to finance his/her position over a long period of time he/she will have to take a loss, possibly a substantial loss. Keynes argued that arbitragers will find that they cannot maintain their financing over a sufficiently long period to keep up such an arbitrage position. This is, of course, what happened to Long Term Capital Management.

The third principle is related to the creation of money and credit. The basic idea here is that the creation of money and credit cannot exceed the creation of the real goods and services being produced by a society. In other words, when the growth of money and credit in a society or, in a particular sector of the economy, exceeds the growth rate of the economy or the growth at which goods and services can be produced in a particular sector, prices can become inflated. In terms of the general economy, inflation can occur. In terms of particular sectors of the economy, like housing or companies, asset bubbles can occur. In either case, economic dislocations result that, if the inflation or asset bubble continues, a correction will eventually have to take place. This correction results in a slowdown in economic growth, either in the economy as a whole or in a particular sector, as economic units get their balances sheets back in order with the use of much less debt. That is, credit inflations are followed by debt deflations.

One further complicating factor is that during credit inflations, like those described in the previous paragraph, the economy usually shifts from the emphasis on the value proposition to emphasis on trading. This only exacerbates the dislocations that occur in the economy and makes any correction just that much broader and deeper. Trading, in these situations, is not the basis of a robust economy; creating value is. A correction restores the balance between value creation and trading.

Yes economics works! These three principles are still in place. And, my guess is that they will remain in place for many more years. We only forget them to our own harm!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Future of Monetary Policy: The Exit Strategy

The recession seems to be ending. However, many people do not feel that the recovery will be very robust. (See my post “Is the Recession Over?”
The crucial claim in the near term though is that the recession seems to be ending.

Because of this the issue that seems on the minds of many people is: how is the Fed going to remove all the bank reserves it has pumped into the banking system over the past ten months? The obvious concern is that the recessionary downdraft would turn into an inflationary nightmare. In other words, these people are asking for an explanation of the “exit strategy” the Federal Reserve plans from its policy of preventing a major economic collapse?

Chairman Bernanke spoke to Congress last week to give some assurance that the Federal Reserve knew what it was doing and would, therefore, do what it needed to do as the economy recovered to keep country from experiencing a wicked bout of inflation. I did not sense a lot of confidence that the hypothesized “exit strategy” would unfold as Bernanke stated that it would.

Bernanke also claimed that the United States economy, although it would begin recovering from the recession soon, would not emerge rapidly. Consequently, the Federal Reserve would have to keep its target Federal Funds rate at the present levels for an extended period of time.

There are two immediate concerns with Bernanke’s presentation. First, the Federal Reserve always tends to react to the economic situation. It does not lead economic events. Simply put, the Federal Reserve will not move in advance of any evidence that inflation is picking up. It will follow such evidence. Furthermore, can you see this Federal Reserve taking on Congress by saying that it is tightening up on monetary policy when economic growth is still moderate or just tepid and unemployment rates are above 8% and inflation has not began to accelerate? This Fed does not have that independence from the political side of the government.

Second, even if inflation does begin to pick up speed increasing rapidly enough to cause some concern in financial markets, can you see Congress accepting an inflation target versus a target for faster economic growth. At no time in post-World War II history has the Federal Reserve crossed a presidential administration or a Congress in the early stages of an economic recovery to follow an anti-inflationary period. This starts right with the “Accord” of 1951 to the present. (The Volcker reign at the Fed does not qualify for this as its timing in the economic cycle was not the same.) The Employment Act of 1948, and as modified, still rules as far as Presidents and Congresses are concerned.

Plus there is the concern over the federal deficit. There will be some form of health care coming along, and an energy policy, and other policy initiatives that will continue to put pressure on the budget of the government. The prospect for further large deficits and a rapidly growing national debt is still a reality that must be faced in the next few years. How is the Federal Reserve going to stay independent of all the Government bonds that are going to be coming to market?

This kind of environment will also encourage private borrowing again, both from businesses as well as the consumer. This kind of environment is inflationary like the early 2000s even if price indices like the Consumer Price Index do not rise dramatically. With private debt soaring along with the debt of the government we will have another period of “credit inflation.”

When the growth of credit exceeds the possible real growth of the economy or if the growth of credit in a particular sector of the economy exceeds the possible real growth of that sector, there is a “credit inflation.” This “credit inflation” can result in an asset bubble as occurred in the housing market earlier this decade where asset prices rose even if “flow” prices, like rents, or, implied rents as estimated for the Consumer Price Index, do not reflect this inflation. In addition, it can result in a substantial deficit in the trade balance and lead to a massive flow of dollars into world financial markets and whether these imbalances in the United States trade deficit will find happy recipients of the dollars, as China gladly seemed to receive dollars earlier on, is a question no one can answer at this time.

There is too much debt already in the financial system and it needs to be reduced. The Fed is trying to do the best it can and I don’t question the “good intentions” of the people that are attempting to get us through this mess. However, the problems are huge and I am not convinced that having good intentions is sufficient to lead us through these times. There is plenty of evidence that there is plenty of pain ahead of us. I am not convinced that Ben Bernanke is the person to create this pain and then lead us through the restructuring of the economy.

The Reappointment of Ben Bernanke to the Chair

There are two reasons I am not in favor of re-appointing Ben Bernanke as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. First, I don’t believe that Bernanke has a plan on how to move the country into the future and I don’t believe that he ever did have a plan to move the country into the future. He was an advocate of “inflation targeting” and a student of the Great Depression. It is not the right time in history to pursue “inflation targeting” and the only thing Bernanke learned from the Great Depression is that if you are going to do something to try and combat a major economic downturn, do it in sufficient magnitude so that no one can say that you erred on the side of doing too little effort.

Second, I believe that the economy is going to have to go through some pain in the near future, a pain that results from the problems related to having too much debt in the economy. To restructure the balance sheets of American finance and industry there are still tough times to go through. I don’t see Ben Bernanke as the inflictor of pain. Paul Volcker was capable of acting in that way and had the personal strength of character to carry it through. Bernanke, in my mind, has neither the ability to inflict discipline on the economy nor does he have the weight of personality to carry it through.

Let’s look at Bernanke’s history. He was complicit with the Greenspan easy money policy that kept interest rates at historically low rates for too long a period of time and created the “credit inflation” that resulted in the housing bubble, the dramatic decline in the value of the United States dollar by about 40%, and the massive flooding of dollars into the world economy. He had no feeling at all for the lending practices in the mortgage sector or for the mess that was evolving in the area of credit derivatives and banking governance. Later on, he continued to follow a policy of fighting inflation when the financial markets were beginning to fall apart. He seemed to react hastily in September 2008 and was not a consistent guide through the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and the strange subsidization of AIG. (See my post of November 16, 2008:

I do not know who should replace Bernanke at this time. All I do know is that we have a new administration and a new economic team. Bernanke, I believe, does not have what it takes to get the financial and monetary situation straightened out. I believe that President Obama needs to appoint his own choice as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Is the Recession Over?

For the third month in a row the index of leading economic indicators rose. This is the first time this has occurred since 2004. And, it gives us some sign that maybe the economic recession that we have been in since December 2007 is reaching its climax. James W. Paulson, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management, is quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying “We’ve got tons of information telling us we’ve turned the corner.” Ataman Ozyildirim, an economist at the Conference Board which produces the report, states that “The process of coming out of the recession, although still fragile, may be starting.”

I hope that these people are right and that we are coming out of the recession. There are fears of a “W” (not Bush) or a “double-dip” recession and these should not be discounted. But, we don’t really want the recession to carry on in any form; we really don’t want the risks associated with the down-side.Even though we may be at or near the bottom of the recession there are still plenty of concerns to deal with.

My continued concern is that the collapse in the economy was primarily due to a supply side shift and was not initiated by a fall in aggregate demand. This I have tried to capture in posts like my June 22 effort: If the recession was, in fact, initiated by supply shifts then there are structural dislocations in the economy that need taking care of that cannot be satisfied by just increasing aggregate demand to put people back in the jobs in which they were formerly occupied. We cannot just return to factories that are only being partially used or have been cvacated. Trying to push things back to where they were just postpones the restructuring of the economy that needs to take place.

In the past twenty years or so, we, in the United States, have experienced two credit bubbles or credit inflations. These bubbles have created excess growth first in information technology in the 1990s and then in the housing sector of the economy in the 2000s. But, these credit bubbles were not just restricted to the United States.There was a credit inflation throughout the whole world. Evidence of this has just been released in a report by Close Brothers Corporate Finance in the UK. (See “UK is Europe’s capital of distress” in the Financial Times: The report claims that “The UK has western Europe’s highest percentage of financially distressed companies after being the leveraged buy-out capital over the past decade.” But, the report goes on to show that the credit bubble resulted in the serious collapse of the European manufacturing sector, as well as in the retail and leisure sectors. And, of course, there is the case of Japan in the 1990s and 2000s.

The problem created by credit bubbles or credit inflations (in addition to the excessive amounts of debt created) is that too much capacity is created in areas of the economy that cease to be needed any more once the bubble has burst. The normal response of the economy is to restructure so as to eliminate the excess capacity that exists and re-deploy resources into areas that are experiencing growth and development. A Keynesian effort to “pump up” aggregate demand is just an effort to re-employ resources in the same areas that formerly prospered but that now need to be “down-sized.”

This does nothing to get rid of the excess capacity and postpones the restructuring of the economy. Furthermore it retains the misallocation of financial capital that evolved during the period of the credit inflation or credit inflations.

The drop in capacity utilization in the United States since the start of the recession has been extremely dramatic. Firms have gone from using about 81% of their capacity to using only 68%, a drop of 16%. This is the steepest drop for the longest period of time in the data series.But, even more important in my mind is that capacity utilization has been dropping steadily since 1967.

Obviously, capacity utilization drops in periods of economic recession. Yet, as the economy has recovered in every economic cycle in the United States since the 1960s capacity utilization, after a recession, has never returned to the peak level it reached in the previous period of economic expansion. Thus, capacity utilization has trended lower throughout this time, evidence that there has been a shift in the structure of manufacturing in the United States.

Although the United States has grown around 3% compounded annually over the last forty years and employment, through most of the period, has been at relatively high rates, there are still two pieces of information that are rather unsettling. The first is the continuing decline in capacity utilization just mentioned. The second is the decline in the civilian participation rate. For the United States, this rate peaked in the 1990s a little above 67.0% and has declined through the late 2000s remaining below 66.2% since 2004. This may not seem like much of a fall but it indicates that a lot of people have left the labor force!The latter problem can be confirmed by figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There are major sectors of employment in the United States that have experienced significant reductions in jobs and employment. These are in industries that one could seriously argue were in substantial need of restructuring. (I will return to this topic soon in another post.) The question is, should people to be pushed right back into these jobs again by a government stimulus program of increasing aggregate demand? Instead, it seems as if there needs to be a significant education of a large portion of the civilian population that would like to participate in the labor force again.

If there are structural problems in the United States and in the world that result from the existence of excess capacity in industries that are declining or less technologically relevant, shouldn’t we let these industries decline or try to become technologically relevant rather than stagnant? Should we try and keep people producing buggy whips when there are means of transportation evolving other than buggies?So, to reclaim full economic health there is a need to reduce the excess capacity that has been built up in industries that are not so relevant any more and a need to deleverage financial structures. Unfortunately, a large portion of the needed financial deleverging is connected with firms that have excess capacity.
Furthermore, there is a need to restructure U. S. manufacturing and business, and train more of the workforce to fit into twenty-first century jobs so as to get the labor participation rate up.

In my study of the Great Depression, this is one of the reasons why it took so long for the United States economy, and the world economy, to recover through the 1930s. The structural change in the United States taking the country from an agricultural society to an industrial society did not really take place until the beginning of the Second World War My concern is that the needed current economic restructuring will be delayed if Washington continues to focus on companies with redundant capacity by stimulating the re-employment of the same workers that used to work in them. The economic statistics (the leading economic indicators) may continue to improve in such cases, but the economic recovery will continue to languish.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

What Do The Money Stock Figures Tell Us?

The two basic measures of the money stock continue to grow at rapid rates. The broader measure of the money stock has continued to grow at a relatively steady pace. In the fourth quarter of 2008, the M2 measure of the money stock grew at an 8.2% year-over-year rate of increase. (I use non-seasonally adjusted data in all cases relying on year-over-year calculations to take account of seasonal movements in each series. Thus, I don’t rely on the artificial statistical adjustments that produce the seasonally adjusted series.) In the first quarter of 2009 the M2 year-over-year rate of growth was 9.5% but the rate of increase dropped back down to 8.7% in the second quarter.

These growth measures are high historically, but only modestly higher than the rates of growth that were being achieved before the Federal Reserve began pumping up its balance sheet in September and October of 2008. The important thing is the changes that have taken place within this broad measure of the money stock. The movement has been from time and savings accounts to transaction accounts as people have moved their funds from accounts that are interest-earning to those that are basically used to make payments.

The first look at a smaller component of the M2 money stock is to examine the performance of the M1 money stock. For the first half of 2008, the M1 money stock hardly grew at all on a year-over-year basis. But, in the third quarter this measure began to increase as the financial meltdown occurred. For the third quarter the M1 money stock grew at a 3.1% year-over-year pace, but this jumped up to 11.4% in the fourth quarter, followed by a 13.4% growth rate in the first quarter of 2009 and a 16.3% rate of increase in the second quarter.

The monthly year-over-year growth rates for April, May, and June of 2009 were 15.1%, 15.3% and 18.4%, respectively. Something is happening within the M1 measure of the money stock that is not happening to the non-M1 component of the M2 money stock which remained relatively flat during these three months.

What is growing?

Well, demand deposits at commercial banks grew by 44.3% year-over-year, in June 2009, up from 33.1% and 34.5% in April and May, respectively. This is also up from slightly under 30.0% for the first quarter of the year. People and businesses are moving their money into transactions accounts in order to have funds available to meet their day-to-day spending needs.

We see a similar jump in “Other Checkable Deposits” at commercial banks and thrift institutions as these accounts were growing by more that 12.0% in June 2009, up from 6.5% and 7.2% in April and May, respectively. In the first quarter of the year these accounts were only increasing at around a 2.5% to 3.0% rate of growth.

Another component of the M1 money stock is also increasing quite rapidly. Coin and currency held outside of commercial banks has been steadily rising by more than 11.0% year-over-year every month in 2009. A year ago the pace of growth in coin and currency was about one-half of what it is now. Again, one can only draw the conclusion that people are buying more and more things with cash now than they were a year ago. This is another indication of the fact that so many people are unemployed or are going bankrupt.

Where are the funds going into transaction accounts coming from?

The sources of these shifts seem to have been from primarily two areas, Small-denomination time deposits and retail money funds. There has been a drop of about $90 billion in deposits in retail money funds over the past twelve months. The decline in these accounts, year-over-year, is now about 8.5%. The rate of increase in small-denomination time deposits has dropped by 50% in the last six months and there has been an outflow of about $110 billion from these accounts since December 2008.

The conclusions one can draw from these data, I believe, are very clear. People and businesses have become much more conscious of their need to have cash and deposits available for meeting their daily living needs. People and families are moving funds from their small, low interest-earning accounts where they have not been earning much at all. These same people and families seem to be leaving funds in bigger accounts that earn higher rates of interest. It will be interesting to see what happens to these accounts in upcoming months if unemployment continues to rise and bankruptcies remain at high levels. In addition, businesses have found that other short term sources of funds are not available and so have had to become more liquid in order to satisfy their cash demands.

One could argue that the actions of the Federal Reserve have had little stimulative impact through the banking system since the rate of growth of the M2 measure of the money stock has only increased slightly so that the rapidly increasing rate of increase in the M1 measure of the money stock has resulted from individuals and businesses redeploying their short term assets.

This conclusion is reinforced by the information repeated in my July 16, 2009 post on “The State of the Banking System.” (See Commercial banks are not lending except in to consumers and just to consumers that have pre-arranged lines of credit like equity lines on homes and credit cards. This just supports the argument that people are doing what they can to make day-to-day ends meet. And, commercial and industrial loans have actually declined on a year-over-year basis. The argument can be made that no one is going to do anything that would lead one to conclude that economic units are going to increase their spending in a way that will stimulate the economy.

We need to continually watch what is going on in the banking sector. We are going to watch for further changes in behavior that might indicate the changing decisions of families and businesses. Of course, things could get worse and we need to watch for that. But, if things are going to get better, one place to look for changes in behavior is to watch where people are allocating their short term funds and whether or not banks are beginning to lend again. However, it doesn’t seem as if this change for the better will appear soon.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The State of the Banking System

There are three preliminary indicators that the banking system is coming along on its way to recovery. First, there is the “letting go” of CIT Group, Inc. The government must feel that it does not need to extend itself to help out this institution given its present troubles. (See my recent post on the CIT situation: We’ll see if they continue this approach with other troubled institutions as additional situations arise.

Second, there is evidence that the regulators are taking a harder line at Bank of America and Citigroup. Each has its own problems, but the Feds seem to believe that they can step up their demands on these two financial institutions concerning boards, managements, business affairs, and so forth. They would not do this if they believed the system to be too fragile.

Third, I sense the Federal Reserve backing off from the more aggressive stance it took with respect to the bond markets one to two months ago. This is just a feeling that I will be following up on in the near future.

These actions provide some preliminary evidence that we are in the “working out” stage of the credit cycle where time is the biggest factor to contend with. Bailouts are needed to prevent “liquidity” problems when markets might crumble under cumulative selling pressures. But, this is a short run problem.

The “work out” phase of a financial crisis is the period when institutions still have severe credit problems but are not under short term pressures to relieve their balance sheets of “toxic” or “underwater” assets.

This does not mean that there will not be more failures of financial institutions and some of them may be relatively large ones. What it does mean is that the problems that still exist within the financial sector can be handled in a relatively orderly fashion. So, the banks and the regulators can operate within an environment that does not seem “desperate.” Severely troubled still, but not in a state of panic.

Within this scenario, the questions that remain about the banking system relate to earnings. We have seen Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase & Co. post strong gains for the second quarter. However, most of the gains were attributed to trading activities, with secondary help from their underwriting business. These are not good, solid “banking” results. And, these organizations are highly diversified and can post returns from these areas, something that most other banks in the United States cannot do.

Still, the banking system seems to be in the stage of recovery where current cash flows can allow the individual banks to write off more and more of their loans and other assets over time and thereby restore the integrity of their balance sheets. With the results it achieved in trading and underwriting, JPMorgan Chase was able to take large write downs of home equity loans, mortgage defaults, and credit card charge offs while also increasing the amount of funds it set aside to increase its loan loss reserve. This is what other banks will be doing to reduce the burden of bad assets they are now carrying.

Overall, Total Assets in the commercial banking system grew by 8.9% from June 2008 to June 2009. The capital residual (Assets less Liabilities) in the system grew by 7.6% so that the capital asset ratio of the banking system dropped from 10.2% to 10.1%.

In terms of how the banks are attempting to protect themselves, the Cash assets of Commercial Banks in the United States were up 186%, year-over-year, in June 2009, although this rate of increase is down from a year-over-year rate of increase of 236% increase in May 2009.

Total Loans and Leases in the banking system rose just about 1.4%, year-over-year, in June while Commercial and Industrial Loans actually decreased by 3.1%. Commercial banks are just not lending to businesses which continues the trend which began last year. Banks are lending to consumers, up 5.5% year-over-year (primarily on credit cards and other revolving credit plans), and on real estate, up 6.4% year-over-year (the largest jump coming in revolving home equity loans).

The cash assets held in the commercial banking system declined regularly throughout June as the peak in cash assets held was reached in May. Thus, it appears that banks are backing off from taking everything the Federal Reserve has put into the banking system and stashing it away in “cash accounts”. This is confirmed by the aggregate banking data put out by the Federal Reserve which indicates that total reserves in the banking system dropped throughout June 2009 and the excess reserves also fell from peak levels reached in late May.

Thus, it appears that things are working out pretty much as the Fed hoped they would. (See my explanation of what the Fed has been trying to do, Of course, the game is not over yet!

Bottom line: the banking system is working through its problems. The Federal Reserve and the regulators seem to be backing off a little, allowing the system to adjust over time to its dislocations. There is still room for a surprise, but, the more time passes, the less likely a surprise is likely to occur. In other words, the unknown unknowns have been substantially reduced and the known unknowns are what we are working on.

The banks are not lending except on established credit lines (credit cards and home equity loans) and there appears to be plenty of liquidity in the system as a whole. Whereas the lack of lending slows up the possibility for an economic recovery, it is an essential component of getting the banking system healthy again which is needed if there is to be any chance of a robust economic recovery in our future.

Monday, July 13, 2009

CIT and Getting Out Of This Mess

CIT is an example of the kind of problems still facing the economy. CIT has taken on legal counsel in order to determine whether or not it should go into bankruptcy. The problem, the company has $2.7 billion in debt coming due through year end and its credit-rating has been cut “deep into ‘junk’ territory.” (See It has been seeking liquidity help from the Federal Government but has not received approval yet.

Debt is the problem and it currently continues to haunt most businesses, governments, and individuals in the economy. It is a problem because this debt load has to work itself out. But, in working out the debt problem, the economy suffers and will continue to suffer.

The current debt crisis is so severe because of the credit inflation created by the U. S. Government over the last eight years of so. During expansions, credit inflations take place. This is what happens as the economy is stimulated and confidence in the private sector builds and things appear to be good and getting better. Credit inflations don’t have to directly result in general price inflation, although they can end up with this result.

In the 1990s as well as the 2000s we have had credit inflations where price increases have been relatively mild. In the 1990s we saw the stock market bubble and the credit inflation with respect to new ventures. However, during that decade we saw the federal government turn a deficit budget into a surplus budget by the end of the century. In the 2000s, we saw the housing bubble and the general credit inflation, but we also experienced a huge increase in government debt on top of everything else. Debt was good and most partook of it!

If the credit inflation during a period of economic expansion is not too excessive then the following correction that must take place can be relatively mild and reasonable and the government can come in and re-flate the economy so that the financial dislocation can be righted in a reasonable amount of time without too much “hurt” in the economy in general. Moral hazard is created, but what’s the problem with a little moral hazard? Right?

This is what happens in most minor recessions.

An exception occurred in the credit inflation of the 1970s. President Nixon was so paranoid about getting re-elected that he set about inflating the economy and connected this with taking the United States off the gold standard, floating the dollar, and freezing wages and prices. This philosophy was not abandoned by President Ford. Jimmy Carter just inflated, period. And, by the end of the decade, serious work had to be done to bring general inflation under control.

What happened in the decade of the 2000s was of a totally different nature. The debt structure that was created through this decade’s credit inflation could not be sustained. Debt was growing way more rapidly than the economy could support and the resulting imbalance was greater than at any time since the Second World War. Almost everyone was excessively over leveraged. The headlines focused first upon the subprime market and then upon Structured Investment Vehicles (SIVs) and the Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs). And, then it became apparent that this excessive leveraging had been going on everywhere in the economy. And, the federal government was right up there with everyone else.

There is too much debt out there! Yes, there is deficient aggregate demand, but that is not going to be corrected until the debt situation is matter how much Paul Krugman and the Keynesian wing of the world cry out! People and businesses are going to have to get their balance sheets in order before private spending will really pick up. Unless, of course, the government is able to get a hyper inflation going again which is the classic solution for an economy with too much debt.

There are three ways for economic units to reduce debt. The first is to sell assets and pay off the debt. However, if people are uncertain about asset values this solution to the debt problem is not going to work. Second, economic units can save out of income and revenues and pay down their debt. This, of course, is the soundest way to de-leverage, but it is also the slowest way to reduce the debt on a balance sheet. The third way to reduce debt is to renounce the debt: that is, declare bankruptcy. This solution does have repercussions, however, on the value of the assets of other people and other businesses.

A firm with too much debt can face another problem. Debt matures and sometimes has to be refinanced. The problem here is that a company may not be able to refinance the debt that is coming due. In such cases, these firms will either be forced into the first way of reducing debt, selling assets and perhaps taking a loss on the sale of the assets, or it will have to renounce the debt by declaring bankruptcy.

One sees CIT examining its resources to decide what is its best option. The second option does not seem to be a viable option because CIT doesn’t have sufficient time to generate enough revenues so that it can pay down its debt. So, it is looking at a situation where it has a substantial amount of debt maturing in the next six months or so. Refinancing is an option, but with its bond ratings reduced to the ‘junk’ category, this could be quite expensive and could produce negative cash flows so that earnings could not provide revenues to pay down debt. Thus, CIT could reduce sell off assets to generate cash to pay off the maturing debt. But, how much does CIT stand to lose if it sells off assets?

If these are the scenarios, then it is good that CIT is getting advice on declaring bankruptcy. This still presents a problem. As people see this possibility facing the company, why should short term lenders continue to help finance the company and why should borrowers continue to borrow from CIT, a company that may not be there tomorrow. Also, on Monday morning investors dumped the company’s stock.

The fact of the matter is that there are many companies, governments, and individuals (and their families) that face this situation right now. And it is very, very scary.

The question is, given these problems, why should these economic units spend? They have a debt problem. And, with rising unemployment and more and more debt coming due in various sectors of the economy, like commercial real estate, why should we expect people to pick up their spending in the near term. There are other, more pressing issues to deal with. This is why the economy is not going to start to pick up much speed soon.

Almost every week there is a new “CIT” that we read about. These companies are too big to ignore. And, that is what is so worrisome. How many more of them are there?

Something else that is worrisome as well. When banks are closed by the FDIC, the general operating procedure is to place the deposits and good assets of the closed bank with a healthy bank. Word is that there are not that many healthy banks around. Thus, the deposits and good assets of banks that are closed are not being placed with healthy banks (See “FDIC’s Challenge with Busted Banks,” So, we now have more banks that have been focused on their own problems taking on the problem of integrating the deposits and good assets of closed banks which can’t help but divert their attention from their own problems. As of last Friday, 53 banks have been closed this year and the expected total of bank closings for the year is over 100. If we don’t have a lot of healthy banks around now to take care of the current crop of banks that are closing, what are we going to do for the rest of the year?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Explaining the Drop in the Weekly Money Stock Measures

Thursday afternoon the Wall Street Journal came out with a startling headline: “US M1 Fell $16.2 B In June 29 Week; M2 Fell $36.2 B.” (See

Looking at the H.6 release that comes out at 4:30 PM on Thursday afternoon the Journal reported correctly. The H.6 release is titled Money Stock Measures. The seasonally adjusted M1 money stock measure averaged $1,669.1 billion in the week ending June 22, 2009 and averaged $1,652.9 billion in the week ending June 29, 2009, a drop of $16.2 billion. Please note that in the two weeks previous to June 22, the M1 Money Stock measured $1,630.9 billion and $1,656.5 billion, respectively.

Thus, M1 rose by $7.0 billion in the week ending June 15 and by $26.5 billion in the week ending June 22.

In terms of the seasonally adjusted M2 series, the weekly average for the week ending June 22 was $8,385.4 billion and for the week ending June 29 the M2 Money Stock averaged $8,349.2 billion, indicating a $36.2 billion drop. We can note that for the two previous weeks M2 averaged $8370.0 billion and $8,385.2 billion, respectively.

M2 rose by $15.2 billion in the week ending June 15 and by $0.2 billion in the week ending June 22.

Now let’s see what happened to the non-seasonally adjusted data. The M1 money stock rose $29.5 billion in the week ending June 15, by $52.0 billion in the week ending June 22 and rose another $47.9 billion in the week ending June 29. These figures are significantly different than the seasonally adjusted series.

In terms of M2, this series rose by $16.4 billion in the week ending June 15 but it dropped by $74.4 billion in the week ended June 22 and dropped again by $49.0 billion in the week ending June 29. Again there are serious differences.

There are two points to make here. Formerly the Fed did not put out weekly data on the Money Stock Measures because they jumped around so much. Such volatility can be unnerving to people watching the money stock. Obviously, people at the Wall Street Journal reacted very strongly to the weekly release.

Second, trying to seasonally adjust weekly data is only for the foolhardy or for the very brave. The only conclusion I can draw from the behavior of both the seasonally adjusted series and the non-seasonally adjusted series is that a lot of “stuff” is going on and the seasonal adjustment process is doing very little to capture what is going on. That is, what we are seeing here is white noise!

Is there any clue to what might be happening to banking accounts?

The answer to this is yes, there have been things happening that might help to account for some of the swings and because of the uncertainty of exactly when these things happen from year-to-year their movements can “screw up” the seasonal adjustment of the raw series.

To see what might be happening in the banking system, I go to the Federal Reserve release H.4.1, “Factors Affecting Reserve Balances.” This release also comes out at 4:40 PM on Thursdays. The account I am particularly interested in on the Fed statement is the line item called U. S. Treasury General Account. This is the account that the Treasury Department pulls in tax money from the private sector and then pays it out to the private sector. It is the “transaction” account of the Treasury Department, the one in which the Treasury deposits tax money and the one which the Treasury Department writes checks against.

This account is a “Factor that is absorbing reserves.” That is, when the Treasury draws funds in from the private sector it removes reserves from the banking system. When the Treasury writes checks to the private sector and these balances at the Fed decline, reserves are put back into the banking system.

The Fed and the Treasury work hard to coordinate their actions because they don’t want to incur large swings in the bank reserves. So, what happens is that tax payments and such are kept in the banking system until the Treasury is about to write some checks. When it draws funds from the banks, private deposits go down and the Treasury balances at the Fed go up. When the Treasury turns around and sends out checks to the private sector, bank deposits go up and the Treasury balances at the Fed go down. The Fed then manages bank reserves so that there are few if any dislocations caused in the banking system due to these transaction.

What we have here in June is a buildup in balances at the U. S. Treasury General Account and then a draw down as the Treasury writes out checks. What the Wall Street Journal caught was the building up deposits in the Treasury account. This comes out in the releases up to June 29.

However, we have not yet see the affect of the Treasury checks going out because we don’t have more current data on the Money Stock measures. We do have data for the Treasury’s General Account for the banking weeks ending July 1 and July 8.

And what do we see?

In the banking week ending June 10, the Treasury account averaged $31.4 billion. The next week the account averaged on $42.3 billion, but the account AT THE CLOSE OF BUSINESS on June 17 was a whopping $132.8 billion. Most of the money was drawn from the banking system at the end of the banking week so that the average did not move much.

But, for the banking week ending June 24, the Treasury General Account balance averaged $118.7 billion reflecting the growth in deposits, but the account AT THE CLOSE OF BUSINESS on June 24 stood at $78.8 billion. A lot of money passed though this account in a very few days.

The U. S. Treasury General Account then continued its decline. The average balance for the banking week ending July 1 was $72.0 billion and the average balance for the banking week ended July 8 was $34.2. This latter figure was right at the level of the average balances in the account in the first two weeks of June.

So, as the Wall Street Journal reported, we saw a massive decline in both measures of the Money Stock in the week ending June 29. However, the swings were caused by operational transactions within the government and should be reversed out in the data that are released for the weeks ending July 6 and July 13. But we won’t see those data for another two weeks.

Bottom line: the money stock is not collapsing! Whew!

Uncertainty: The King of the Market and what to do about it

This is a time that is particularly conducive to impulsive or instinctive behavior. It is a time that behavioral economists love because it proves their case about irrational human behavior. People react and they react on the basis of a gut feeling or a snap judgment.

These researchers tell us that this type of behavior is what has helped the human species survive. However, it is not necessarily the kind of behavior that leads to decisions or actions that are in our best interest when investing. “Relying only on intuition in finance can lead to very bad outcomes, not only for individuals but also for markets.” (This quote comes from David Adler’s new book “Snap Judgment”: see my post that reviews this book, Yet we humans, individually and collectively continue to perform in this way.

Right now, the concern is whether or not the economy is bottoming out and starting to recover. We get “green shoots” here, but then some other indicator of economic activity comes in worse than expected. Alcoa puts up better than expected loss numbers but retail sales come in lower than expected. Sales of existing homes improve yet we get wind of another wave of subprime mortgage problems. (See “Subprime Returns as Housing Woe,” And, what about the problems in commercial real estate, credit cards, and Alt A mortgages?

Then there is the question about whether or not there should be a second round stimulus bill. Paul Krugman has argued for a long time that the first stimulus bill was not enough. Yesterday Laura Tyson indicated that she thought that there needed to be a second round. Now the debate is all over the place. But, wouldn’t another stimulus bill add more to the government budget deficit going forward? And, there are questions about the possibility that the government has already committed to too much debt.

So the Dow Jones average goes up from 6500 and looks very strong approaching 9000 and then goes into a swoon. The price of crude oil was approaching $40 a barrel in February and then shot up to above $70 but now has returned to the $60 range. The yield on the 10-year treasury issue was nearing 2.00% in December 2008, jumped up to around 3.90% in the middle of June and traded at 3.30% yesterday. An index relating the value of the dollar against major currencies was around 70 in July 2008, popped up to the mid-80s in March 2009 and has since declined to about 77.

When the economic indicators seem strong the price of oil goes up as does the stock market and the price of bonds and the value of the dollar decline. When the economy seems weaker we get just the opposite movements. And, my bet is that it is going to continue this way for a while. So, uncertainty, and hence volatility, rule the marketplace.

This is the short run. Recently, however, I have been writing more upon the long run, what deficits do to long term interest rates and to the value of the dollar. Over the longer run, historically, some patterns repeat themselves over and over again. This, of course, brings to mind the statement made by John Maynard Keynes, “In the long run we are all dead!” Still, we need to take the long run into account.

This is where we need to take heed of what the behavioral economists advise. We, as investors, must not rely on intuition or gut reactions. We must not over react to the environment we now find ourselves in. Research has shown that acting in this way is not necessarily in our best interest.

The research also indicates that investing based on fundamental economic reasoning does work. Therefore, it seems as if now is a time for discipline and hard work. And, it is a time for patience.

But, this does not mean that one needs to totally ignore the short run. It is perhaps impossible to expect that most people will just sit out this stage of the economic cycle and invest their funds in safe, low-yielding assets. So, what kind of strategy might work here? My suggestion is that one needs to segment one’s portfolio, allocating some money to playing in the current market volatility, but allocating a larger share of the funds to potential future fundamental investment choices.

The smaller part of the portfolio can be allocated to playing both sides of various markets. Obviously, getting into the market near a “bottom” would be very profitable, but selling short near a “top” would also work. But, by all means consider any investments here as short term in nature because it is highly likely that the “bottom” may not turn out to be a “bottom” at all. Likewise for a “top.” So, one must be very agile in investing this way. Don’t hang onto losses, but let gains ride. Behavioral finance tells us that people tend to operate in the opposite way hanging onto losses hoping for the best and quickly selling gains to have something to show for their efforts. This is where discipline and focus are crucial.

Furthermore, remember that, on average, the expected returns on trading are zero: and there are still fees that need to be paid. But, using part of your funds in this way keeps you “playing the game” while still keeping the major part of your portfolio available for “value” investing to take advantage of longer run opportunities.

As research has shown, the fundamentals do apply over longer periods of time. Perhaps, however, it is not quite time to commit to some of these “value” propositions. People are worried about the potential inflation that may come about due to the large government budget deficits and the possibility that the Federal Reserve will have to monetize a substantial amount of the debt created. But, there are many people who think that deflation is going to be more of an issue in the near term. Hence, it is perhaps a little premature to put funds into investments that will prosper from a future period of high inflation. This part of the portfolio should be kept safe, but also should be able to be accessed when the time is right to commit to the longer run fundamentals. Research, however, has shown that it is alright to be a little early on these types of investments because the possible returns on such a commitment to fundamentals are substantial enough that being a little early is not harmful.

It is also important that an investor should stay in the areas of the market that they know best. If your skills lend themselves to the technology sector of the stock market then stay there. If your skills are in the government bond market then stay there. If your skills are in the foreign exchange market then stay there. Again, discipline and focus are all important.

Uncertainty is going to remain with us for quite some time in financial markets and commodity markets. The behavioral economists have warned us that this is a dangerous time to act in just an impulsive or instinctive manner. So, if being methodical is not your “cup of tea” then beware for the statistics are not with you. Chasing every “green shoot” or market reaction is not going to produce happy results. Acting in a focused and disciplined way may be very difficult for us to achieve but we need to try. That is what humans have learned they must do in activities like investing in financial or commodity markets.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Deficits and the Declining Value of the Dollar

One of the questions that has arisen from the posts I have put up over the last several months has to do with my statement that the international financial community doesn’t like government deficits and tends to believe that a lack of fiscal discipline will result in an increased monetization of the debt. The feeling that the central bank of such a country cannot, in the longer run, overcome the fiscal imprudence of its national government and act independently of that government has resulted, time and again, in a decline in the value of the currency of the country being examined. The dollar is no exception.

Let’s look at the following information.

Average Yearly Increase in Gross Federal Debt (in billions of dollars)

Nixon/Ford $49.5

Carter $90.2

Reagan $258.6

Bush 41 $359.3

Clinton $232.1

Bush 43 $541.1

Now let’s look at the decline in the value of the dollar from the start of an administration to the end of that administration. I will use the trade weighted index of the United States dollar versus major currencies. The series begins in January 1973. Up until August 1971 the United States had a fixed exchange rate. At that time President Nixon announced that he was allowing the dollar to float in foreign exchange markets and was taking the United States off of the gold standard.

He also announced that “We are all Keynesians now!” meaning that he was going to stimulate the economy with budget deficits (so that he could get re-elected) and to protect against inflation he was freezing wages and prices. He created the Cost of Living Council and the Committee on Interest and Dividends to administer these controls as well as controls on interest rates. As can be seen from the above figures, the Gross Federal Debt increased by an average of almost $50 billion every year during the Nixon/Ford years. This compares with those spendthrifts John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson who introduced Keynesian economic policies to the United States and who only increased the Gross Federal Debt by an average of less than $10 billion per year.

Change in the value of the dollar (as measured against major foreign currencies).

Nixon/Ford - 1.0 %

Carter - 10.4 %

Reagan - 5.7%

Bush 41 - 1.9 %

Clinton + 16.6%

Bush 41 - 21.6%

Note that the only administration to see a rise in the value of the dollar over the past forty years was the Clinton administration. Note, too, that the only break in the continued increase in the Gross Federal Debt outstanding was during the Clinton administration. As you may recall, the last four years it was in office, the Clinton administration ran budget surpluses.

Also, one can remember the accolades received by Paul Volcker, when he was the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, for bringing inflation under control. Volcker was Chairman from August 1979 until August 1987. Volcker did bring inflation under control and early on this effort was reflected in a rise in the value of the United States dollar. The value of the dollar reached a short term bottom in July 1980 and then, accompanying the decline of inflation in the United States, the dollar rose in value by 55 percent to peak out on March 1985. However, even Volcker could not hold out against the massive deficits that the Reagan administration was piling up and the value of the dollar fell from that peak by 31 percent through the month at Volcker left his position at the Fed. Even someone as strong as Paul Volcker could not fight against the increasing deficits that were being posted by the Reagan administration. The value of the dollar closed lower at the end of the Reagan years than it was at the start.

The only conclusion one can draw from these data is that participants in international financial markets do not like the currency of countries that lack discipline over their fiscal affairs. This, of course, has very strong implications for the Obama administration. With the possibility that the Gross Federal Debt is on a trajectory in which the debt will increase in the $1.0 trillion range per year, at least for the near term, the implications seem clear. There will be continued pressure on the value of the United States dollar in the upcoming years.

The specific argument for this relationship is that increased federal deficits will result in increased monetization of the debt. Increased monetization of the debt will result in an increased rate of inflation. An increased rate of inflation will cause the value of the currency to decline. So, the question being posed by skeptics right now is “where is the inflation?” The time seems more right for deflation rather than inflation.

In the short run it is hard to argue against this logic. The only thing one can fall back on to answer this question is the fact that when budget deficits increase and there is no relief from substantial increases in the debt of the country, participants in international markets tend to sell the currency. What we have seen in the past is that any inflation that results from the massive increase in the debt outstanding can come in many forms that are not all registered in the computed price indices like the Consumer Price Index. Something like the CPI is an estimate, a guess at what is happening to prices. The important thing to remember about massive increases in debt is that they have to go somewhere and where ever they go they will have large consequences. We hope that we can measure these consequences and measure them in a timely manner. However, that does not always happen.
And, where else are we seeing action? India has now joined China and Russia and Brazil in calling for a discussion at the upcoming G-8 conference of the place of the United States dollar in the world’s monetary system. China is tired of continuing to support its currency against the United States dollar. Given the likelihood of a further decline in the value of the dollar, China faces the need to buy more and more dollars and invest in more and more securities from the United States. This, in the longer run, is not in China’s best interest. Nations, other than England and those from the Eurozone, are getting tired of the United States abusing its privilege of having the only reserve currency in the world. Although nothing is going to be done to change the monetary system at this time, this talk is going to get stronger and stronger. And, if the value of the dollar continues to decline in the future, the arguments are going to resonate more and more with others in the world. The basic approach to fiscal policy in the United States over the past 50 years has not been the most productive one in terms of maintaining a sound dollar currency.

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.