Thursday, May 8, 2014

Thursday, May 08, 2014 - Monetary Policy Is Not A Panacea

Monetary Policy Is Not A Panacea
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 32 = 16550
SPX – 2 = 1875
NAS– 16 = 4051
10 YR YLD + .01 = 2.60
OIL – 01 = 100.24
GOLD - .10 = 1290.80
SILV - .15 = 19.25

Stocks were mostly lower today. The closing numbers looked quiet but it was a roller coaster ride with the Dow Industrials up about 150 points. The Nasdaq also squandered early gains to finish in negative territory. The Nasdaq ended lower for a third straight session, its longest losing streak since early April. A late selloff in utilities and energy, among the best performing sectors recently, dragged the S&P 500 lower. Of 445 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported earnings, 68.2% beat expectations, above the 66% beat rate for the past four quarters. Profits are expected to rise 5.3% this quarter.

The number of people who applied for new unemployment benefits last week fell to the lowest level in a month. Initial jobless claims dropped by 26,000 to a seasonally adjusted 319,000.

The federal government had a budget surplus of $114 billion in April. That is $1 billion more than a year ago and would be the biggest April surplus since 2008. For the fiscal year to date, CBO estimates the deficit to be $301 billion, down $187 billion compared to the same period in 2013.

Retailers posted modestly higher sales in April. Results from March and April are generally viewed together because of the shifting nature of Easter, which fell about three weeks later this year and moved into April from March last year. For the two-month period, retailers reported 3.4% growth, down from 3.5% a year earlier.

Consumer credit balances increased by $17.5 billion in March to a total of $3.141 trillion. The gain was a bigger increase than the $15.5 billion expected by economists. This was the biggest month-over-month growth rate since February 2013. Nonrevolving debt like college and auto loans grew by $16.4 billion. Revolving debt like credit cards increased by $1.1 billion.

At 4.21%, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is at its lowest since the week of November 7, 2013, so says Freddie Mac in their new weekly report on national mortgage rates. Last week, it averaged 4.29%. A year ago, it was 3.42%. Since the housing market crashed, the Federal Reserve has used extraordinarily easy monetary policy to keep interest rates like mortgage rates low in its effort to bolster the housing market and stimulate the economy.  Lately, various housing-market metrics such as existing-home sales, new-home sales, and mortgage applications have all been flagging. Last week, we learned that the US homeownership rate was at a 19-year low, and some experts think it'll never come back.

Yesterday, Fed Chair Janet Yellen said, "One cautionary note, though, is that readings on housing activity—a sector that has been recovering since 2011—have remained disappointing so far this year and will bear watching. The recent flattening out in housing activity could prove more protracted than currently expected rather than resuming its earlier pace of recovery." That was the big takeaway from Yellen’s Congressional testimony yesterday.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen was back on Capitol Hill today for a second day of testimony. She appeared before the Senate Budget Committee.  Yellen’s favorite new line is, “Monetary policy is not a panacea.” That pretty much says it all.

There are a couple of trends that concern Yellen; long term unemployment; there are about 3.5 million workers who haven’t found a job for at least 6 months. Also, income inequality is pulling down spending and slowing the economy. Yellen would like to do something about these disturbing trends, but you know, “Monetary policy is not a panacea.”

Meanwhile, the European Central Bank was meeting to determine monetary policy for the Euroland; they decided to leave interest rates unchanged at 0.25%. ECB President Mario Draghi’s favorite line is “whatever it takes” and he’s been saying it for a couple of years. Euroland is slogging along with persistently low inflation and high unemployment. Draghi says something should be done, but he did not say what; and the ECB might address stimulus of some sort or another next month or so.

Perhaps Draghi is waiting to see how the situation in Ukraine plays out; right now the picture is smoky and very gray. Rebels in eastern Ukraine say they will proceed with a referendum this weekend seeking autonomy even though Russian President Putin appeared to withdraw his support for the vote. Putin yesterday presided over nationwide army drills, a day after he softened his tone by promising to withdraw troops from the border. The government in Kiev says a referendum would be illegal. Putin also indicated he would pull Russian troops from the Ukrainian border, but satellite images show that probably isn’t happening. The situation involving the tug of war between the West and Russia regarding Ukraine has steadily worsened over time and now involves outright economic warfare; sanctions on one side and the threat of energy shortages on the other.

Even former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is coming out of exile to hawk a new book. Geithner says there had been talk about nationalizing banks back in the crisis days. On the legacy of the bailouts, Geithner rejects criticism that the Troubled Asset Relief Program benefited the rich rather than ordinary Americans. And yet he acknowledges that the too big to fail banks are bigger and more dangerous than ever.

Have you ever seen a boxer knocked out? The devastating blow is the one you don’t see coming. Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England and head of the Financial Stability Board, an international watchdog set up to guard against future financial crises, was recently asked to identify the greatest danger to the world economy. He answered shadow banking. It is huge and growing fast, and little understood, and even less transparent. We don’t even know exactly what counts as shadow banking; basically, it refers to lending by non-bank institutions and it involves more than $70 trillion in assets, up from about $25 trillion ten years ago.

A broader definition, however, would include any bank-like activity undertaken by a firm not regulated as a bank: it could be bond trading platforms set up by technology firms, or payment systems offered by Paypal or financing offered by a retailer such as Sears, or peer-to-peer lending, or money market funds, or who knows what. At the core is the concept of credit and lending. Shadow banking fills a void left by traditional banks, which have become miserly with lending.

Yet shadow banking is poorly or non-regulated. Think of the structured investment vehicles, a legal entity created by banks to sell loans repackaged as bonds. These were notionally independent, but when they got into trouble they pulled in the banks that had set them up. Or money market funds, which seemed like a nice safe place to park cash as a stop-gap measure; they seemed conservative, nearly risk free, until they suffered a run.

Banks must now incorporate structured investment vehicles on their balance-sheets. Money-market funds must hold more liquid assets, to guard against runs. Limits on leverage have been imposed or are being considered for many forms of shadow banks. American regulators are still allowing some money-market funds to create the impression that an investor can never lose money in them. The problem for banks is that they are involved in shadow banking, either in the form of loans to shadow banks, or because the banks buy the products created by shadow banks.

One of the biggest paces for concern is China. Banks there are banned from expanding lending to certain industries, and from luring deposits by offering high returns. So they do both of these things indirectly, through shadow banks of various sorts. Some firms are setting themselves up as pseudo-banks. It is hard to imagine that all the shadowy loans to unprofitable steel mills and overextended property developers will pay off. At which point the Chinese government will likely step in a take control, but there will be a cost.

Nouriel Roubini, the New York University professor and chairman of Roubini Global Economics is known as something of an economic pessimist, and now he thinks we’re on the verge of a bubble, but not a collapse. Roubini says the Federal Reserve will keep its key lending rate low even after it lifts off from near zero, where it has rested for the few years. That slow process of normalization will keep the spigot of borrowing flowing, helping support the economy. But it will also lead to risky lending practices. Hence, a bubble is inflating that could eventually pop.

Roubini cited the return of some of the key characters associated with the period before the last financial collapse: Lots of low quality bond sales, debt without strong protections for bondholders. Roubini says: “All the risky things that were happening back in ’06 and ‘07 are back again to the same level, if not more. So we are in the beginning of a credit bubble, but just the beginning.”

Nonetheless, Roubini doesn’t see the reversal happening immediately, citing money that continues to rush into the market. For now, credit investors appear to be stuck in an uneasy equilibrium.

He’s by no means the first person to make this claim: the question of financial stability is one of the key criticisms of the Fed’s accommodative policies. Roubini didn’t criticize the central bank, so much as say that the Fed is damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you don’t.

Yeah, well, we’ve all learned that monetary policy is not a panacea.

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