The Federal Reserve has been very clear about the fact that they intend to stop the quantitative easing program at the end of March. What that means in practice is that they are going to stop buying mortgage securities. That does two things. As Bill Gross so aptly points out, those mortgage purchases helped keep mortgage rates low. But they also financed the US government fiscal deficit, albeit indirectly. It seems that funds and banks that sold the mortgage securities turned around and bought US government debt or put the cash right back at the Fed.
Foreigners bought about $300 billion of the $1.5 trillion in new government debt. The rest came from the US, courtesy of the Fed buying mortgages. But that program stops (theoretically) at the end of March. The government still plans to run yet another $1.4-trillion-dollar deficit (give or take a few hundred billion). The question is, who will buy the debt? Foreigners will kick in another $300 billion, unless they decide to stop selling us stuff, or buy other less liquid or physical assets. So far there is no sign of that.
But as I asked last year, who is going to buy the multiple trillions in government debt that the G-7 countries want to issue? Who is going to buy another $1 trillion here, just in the US? That is 7% of GDP. That means that consumers and businesses will have to save an additional 7% of GDP just to finance government debt at the federal level, not counting state and local debt. As Bill Gross concludes in his recent column (www.pimco.com):
"The fact is that investors, much like national citizens, need to be vigilant, and there has been a decided lack of vigilance in recent years from both camps in the U.S. While we may not have much of a vote between political parties, in the investment world we do have a choice of airlines and some of those national planes may have elevated their bond and other asset markets on the wings of central bank check writing over the past 12 months. Downdrafts and discipline lie ahead for governments and investor portfolios alike. While my own Pollyannish advocacy of 'check-free' elections may be quixotic, the shifting of private investment dollars to more fiscally responsible government bond markets may make for a very real outcome in 2010 and beyond. Additionally, if exit strategies proceed as planned, all U.S. and U.K. asset markets may suffer from the absence of the near $2 trillion of government checks written in 2009. It seems no coincidence that stocks, high yield bonds, and other risk assets have thrived since early March, just as this 'juice' was being squeezed into financial markets. If so, then most 'carry' trades in credit, duration, and currency space may be at risk in the first half of 2010 as the markets readjust to the absence of their 'sugar daddy.'"
This is yet another uncertainty. We simply have no idea, no relevant marker, for what happens when a country goes so cold turkey, coming off a central bank bond-buying binge. And this in the midst of a massive deleveraging and with stock market valuations basically where they were in 1987 - except there was at least large earnings growth then.
Who Wants the Old Maid?
Why, therefore, would anyone want to be long the dollar or treasuries? The dollar may be the worst currency in the world, except for all the others. What's an emerging-market central banker to do? Where do you put your reserves?
The dollar? With large fiscal deficits and low interest rates? "What are my other choices?" they must be asking themselves. The euro? Really? The euro is not a currency, it is an experiment.
Everyone knows the problems of Greece. There is no political will in the country (so far) to do what Ireland has done, and really cut their budget. I think Spain is an even bigger nightmare for the EU when compared to relatively small Greece. Italy? Belgium? Portugal? All those countries (and their voters) will be watching to see how the EU deals with Greece. The potential for volatility in the euro is just huge. I hope the euro survives. The world is better off with the euro. But there are very large pressures facing the Eurozone.
And what about the British pound? Already down 20%, and their problems are every bit as large as those in the US. What about the yen? The government has let it be known they are not happy with the rise in the yen, and seem ready to actually do something about it.
What about the Renminbi? Oh, wait, you can't get enough of them, and the Chinese manipulate their currency. Same for most other Asian currencies.
The dollar may rise against the major currencies during the first part of the year. As I wrote weeks ago, world trade is slowly picking up. While that growth has not been very visible in the US, it is becoming evident among the emerging-market countries that were not overly leveraged when the crisis began. And trade is still in dollars.
Businesses sold their dollars during the crisis, as they did not need them for trade. But now, with trade picking up, they once again have to buy dollars. That is one reason for the recent bull market in dollars. The other is that the markets are massively short the dollar. When everyone is on the same side of a trade, that trade may have run its course, at least for a while. And that seems to be the case recently for the dollar.
So, where are the strong currencies going forward? The Canadian dollar is on its way to parity. I would want to own the Aussie, if I was a trader. Maybe the Swiss franc, although it is so high on a parity-value basis right now.
But the currency I want the most if I am a central banker is that barbaric yellow relic, gold. Just as India has recently bought 200 tons of gold, I think central banks in other emerging nations will want to buy more, too. They all have relatively little gold as a percentage of their reserves. Look for that to change.
I also like gold in terms of the euro, the pound, and the yen - more than I like it in terms of the US dollar, but even there I like gold long-term, at least until we get some fiscal sanity.
It's the Deleveraging, Stupid!
The reason this recession is different is that it is a deleveraging recession. We borrowed too much (all over the developed world) and now are having to repair our balance sheets as the assets we bought have fallen in value (housing, bonds, securities, etc.). A new and very interesting (if somewhat long) study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that periods of overleveraging are often followed by 6-7 years of slow growth as the deleveraging process plays out. No quick fixes.
Let's look at some of their main conclusions (and they have a solid ten-page executive summary, worth reading.) This analysis adds new details to the picture of how leverage grew around the world before the crisis and how the process of reducing it could unfold. MGI finds that:
- Leverage levels are still very high in some sectors of several countries - and this is a global problem, not just a US one.
- To assess the sustainability of leverage, one must take a granular view using multiple sector-specific metrics. The analysis has identified ten sectors within five economies that have a high likelihood of deleveraging.
- Empirically, a long period of deleveraging nearly always follows a major financial crisis.
- Deleveraging episodes are painful, lasting six to seven years on average and reducing the ratio of debt to GDP by 25 percent. GDP typically contracts during the first several years and then recovers.
- If history is a guide, many years of debt reduction are expected in specific sectors of some of the world's largest economies, and this process will exert a significant drag on GDP growth.
- Coping with pockets of deleveraging is also a challenge for business executives. The process portends a prolonged period in which credit is less available and more costly, altering the viability of some business models and changing the attractiveness of different types of investments. In historic episodes, private investment was often quite low for the duration of deleveraging. Today, the household sectors of several countries have a high likelihood of deleveraging. If this happens, consumption growth will likely be slower than the pre-crisis trend, and spending patterns will shift. Consumer-facing businesses have already seen a shift in spending toward value-oriented goods and away from luxury goods, and this new pattern may persist while households repair their balance sheets. Business leaders will need flexibility to respond to such shifts.
You can read the whole report at their web site. The ten-page summary is also there.
The Lex column in the Financial Times this week observes, concerning the report:
"It may be economically and politically sensible for governments to spend money on making life more palatable at the height of the crisis. But the longer countries go on before paying down their debt, the more painful and drawn-out the process is likely to be. Unless, of course, government bond investors revolt and expedite the whole shebang."
And that is the crux of the matter. We have to raise $1 trillion-plus in the US from domestic sources. Great Britain has the GDP-equivalent task. So does much of Europe. Japan is simply off the radar. Japan, as I have noted, is a bug in search of a windshield.
Some time in the coming few years the bond markets of the world will be tested. Normally a deleveraging cycle would be deflationary and lower interest rates would be the outcome. But in the face of such large deficits, with no home-grown source to meet them? That worked for Japan for 20 years, as their domestic markets bought their debt. But that process is coming to an end.
James Carville once famously remarked that when he died he wanted to come back as the bond market, because that is where the real power is. And I think we will find out all too soon what the bond vigilantes have to say.
And so we have uncertainty all around us. What will our taxes look like in the US in just 12 months? Health care? Who will finance the bonds, without a credible plan to reduce the deficit? And any plan that has Nancy Pelosi as its guarantor is by definition not credible.
There is just so much that is uncertain, and all we can do is wait to see how it unfolds. My best guess is that we see a solid GDP number posted for the 4th quarter (which will get revised down over time), due mostly to stimulus and inventory rebuilding. By the middle of the year the stimulus will be far less. And while inventories are rebuilding and that is good for the GDP numbers, the sales-to-inventories number has not risen, and final demand is what drives inventory rebuilding.
The latter half of the year looks to be weaker, and then we hit what right now looks like the largest tax increase in history, much of it on the small businesses that are the drivers of job creation. The National Federation of Independent Businesses just released their latest survey. It was brutal. There is little optimism in it.
The Fed is going to stop the music in March. There will be a scramble for the chairs. This is a huge experiment with no precedent. The entire developed world is the test subject. Risk assets will be subject to uncertainty. And markets hate uncertainty.
Hopefully, we can Muddle Through this year before a relapse into recession in 2011 (because of the tax increase). I wish I could see it like Larry Kudlow, but I don't. I would be very cautious about being long the stock market. It is now a trader's market. I would not be buying long-duration bonds. It is still an absolute-return world.