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Financial Jenga

Examining the causes and consequences of the global debt pyramid

Updated: 2014-10-07T03:22:47.856+01:00


The Buffett Bailout


For those who haven't seen it already, Berkshire Hathaway agreed to invest $5 billion in Bank of America this morning. The pop in stocks lasted all of 30 minutes.

But I wanted to discuss the last Buffett Bailout - of Goldman and what it may portend. My operating thesis is that WB has morphed into a completely political creature and will only make big, publicized investments for propaganda purposes. That certainly was the case with GS in 2008.

But like any actor, he has to receive something in return for the use of his name and image. That something is a political guarantee for his "investment" and the history of 2008 supports this. Buffett's deal with Goldman was announced before the US market opened on September 23, 2008. But behind the scenes a lot of political moves were being made that he obviously knew about but few others did at the time.

The Fed of course was involved. Over the next few days (through 9/29) they established or increased swaplines with a large number of foreign central banks. In effect they lent out $360 billion to foreign banks. The FDIC closed Wachovia and WaMu - pushing them to merge into the already bloated and insolvent Citibank and JP Morgan respectively. Wells ultimately outbid Citi for Wachovia. The Treasury moved to guarantee all money market funds and the TARP bailout was cooked up as a bill and submitted to the House over the weekend prior to initial rejection on the 29th.

The Bottom Line
My point is this. Last time Buffett was part of a full-court press designed to fool people into investing their earned money right along side his borrowed bank credit. Every lever was pulled by Wall Street and the Government in order to "restore confidence" and as the price of his participation, Buffett was given the privilege of front running virtually every central bank and government policy change.

I expect this time will be no different. The Fed is likely to announce something desperate and stupid tomorrow morning. It will likely be accompanied by something out of the Treasury and/or FDIC shortly thereafter if the Fed move proves insufficient to pump asset prices higher and bail out Warren after he stuck his neck out financially for favorable propaganda effect.

Of course the bad news if you're a bull is that it didn't work in 2008 despite truly extreme measures. Stocks, after a short sharp bounce continued to fall for another 6 months and housing prices merely rebounded slightly before resuming their decline. In 2008, stocks had already been falling for a year and had nearly been cut in half before they got that desperate. This time, we are 3.5 months past the rebound high and six weeks from the secondary peak. We are also only 15% off those highs - not 45% like in 2008.

There is probably a trading opportunity on the long side for the next week or two but I'm not going to get greedy or stupid. History indicates that Buffett is likely front-running SOMETHING here. But it sure as hell isn't fundamentals.

That Seventies Show


There is a serious situation brewing that few people are talking about. This absolutely required a blog update. One of the most dramatic features of the economic landscape during the 1970s was the disruption of the Oil Shock. Today, people are misled to believe that this was THE cause of inflation in that disastrous decade but that is a long way from the truth. In reality, it was more of a reaction to inflation. LBJ's creation of the modern welfare state combined with his escalation in Vietnam put the US on the path of permanent debt. Accelerating inflation rapidly ensued for nearly a decade had already resulted in cumulative dollar inflation of over 50% before the Arab Oil Embargo and overnight tripling of prices. OPEC was using their market power and leverage to compensate for the falling value of the dollar and to get ahead of the galloping inflation our government and central bank had created. They noticed that they were being robbed via currency debasement and were in a position to do something about it because they controlled a large chunk of the oil export trade. Unfortunately, we may be about to see history rhyme if not repeat in the near future. The effects could be extremely serious, with social consequences much greater than in 1974. And it could all be triggered by one medium-sized Southeast Asian nation that few people focus on when looking at economics. That nation is Thailand and the critical commodity that will be impacted is rice. The likely result arises from the politics of inflation. Thailand's exports are priced in dollars and the severe erosion in value of the dollars earned has created pressure to increase income to revive living standards damaged by inflation. Because Thailand is the largest rice exporter by far in a tight market, they are in a position to demand higher prices - just as OPEC was in 1973-74. The current ruling party in Thailand is committed to increasing the income of farmers and is pursuing policies to control the rice supply and push up prices. From Bloomberg: Yingluck has said the government will buy unmilled grain from farmers at 15,000 baht ($502) a ton at harvest in November, above current market rates of 9,900 baht. With Thailand the world’s biggest exporter, that may raise rice prices across a region that accounts for 87 percent of global consumption. The leader presented her economic policies to Cabinet yesterday and is scheduled to announce them publicly by Aug. 24. ... Food makes up more than 30 percent of inflation indexes on average in Asia, according to Rabobank Groep NV. The weighting of rice in consumer-price indexes varies from 9.4 percent in the Philippines, 4.7 percent in Indonesia and 2.9 percent in Thailand, according to Bank of America. Collateral Damage The sad irony is that the people most affected by this will be innocent bystanders. The western central banks most responsible for currency debasement will hardly even notice. Few people in the West will be impacted at all. The people who will feel the pain will be Asian city dwellers. Middle and lower class urbanites will be especially hard hit. There will be a partial offsetting benefit in rising incomes for rice farmers but the disruption from shifting so much money from urban consumers is sure to trigger political unrest and likely a great deal of violence as well. The numbers suggest a 50% increase in rice prices if the official Thai government pricing dictates to the world export market. This seems likely to us since they account for over a third of all rice exports nearly every year. With rice in short supply already, it is doubtful that importers will be able to refuse to buy at the higher price for very long. Because of rice consumption patterns, the effect will be overwhelmingly confined to Asia (85% of world consumption) and North Africa. As if those areas needed more economic pressure place upon them. Once the Asian nations understand the full consequences of this move, the drive to move their economies away from the dollar should accelerate. With the dol[...]

Catalyst for Jawboning


Over the last several days, the Fed has trotted out multiple spokesmen to suggest there might not be another round of trash credit creation (quantitative easing). The Dallas Fed's Fisher came out on Tuesday and suggested the program should not be extended when it ends in June and that things may already have gone too far. Lockhart of Atlanta stated "it's a high bar" in response to questions about QE3. Minneapolis' Korcherlakota stated the economy would have to "worsen materially" to extend the bond market manipulation. Finally, Plosser of the Philadelphia Fed recommended not merely stopping or even reversing the bond buying but also raising interest rates.The central bank should set a pace for selling its mortgage and Treasury holdings in conjunction with raising interest rates, Plosser said today in a speech in New York. He suggested selling $125 billion for every 0.25 percentage-point rise in the benchmark rate to almost eliminate $1.5 trillion in bank reserves. So why is the Fed so concerned suddenly after abusing their authority in blatant fashion for more than two years? Clearly they don't care about inflation - having inflicted a tripling of oil prices, a doubling of most grains and even worse in some commodities upon the world. It would seem that they are concerned that people are catching on to what they are doing and starting to point the finger in the right direction. So now they need to very publicly posture as "inflation fighters" until people's attention wavers. And the spotlight is definitely turning their way. As the Financial Times reports:The finger of blame is increasingly pointing toward central banks and the US Federal Reserve in particular. By printing money through quantitative easing, there are supposedly more dollars, yen and pounds chasing the same number of Beefy Crunch Burritos. Fed chairman Ben Bernanke actually was asked during a speaking engagement last month whether the central bank was culpable for the revolution in Egypt.“I think it’s entirely unfair to attribute excess demand pressures in emerging markets to US monetary policy because emerging markets have all the tools they need to address excess demand in those countries,” said the clearly annoyed banker.But an increasingly common view is that, with the very best intentions, he is at fault. Critics regularly cite the words of Milton Friedman, who said that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”.Essentially, the Bernak is standing over the body with a bloody knife in his hands and the lights have just turned on. He seems determined to brazen it out and has sent out his minions to talk about all of the wonderful things he's done and will do if we just leave him alone with his power. This is all an attempt to distract attention for the Fed's culpability in the destruction of purchasing power worldwide.It is all about perception. That is why the Fed cares about inflation expectations, even while deliberately inflicting inflation on the economy. They can more effectively steal the value of your savings and income if you don't know what is going on. That job becomes much harder when the population starts to adjust their thinking and behavior to account for the destructive acts of the Fed. It is so important to prevent that change in thought and deed that Paul Volcker once raised short-term interest rates above 15% to prevent it. With the spotlight now focused firmly on the Fed, this weeks' jawboning is just the first act of their attempt to change the subject. If that doesn't work, they might actually be forced to DO something. In particular they will need to act to stymie commodity speculation - which is the portion of the iceberg that everyone can see, as it affects the daily life of nearly everyone. While they are also likely to attempt to prop up the stock market, it will be tough to do both at the same time since commodity producers and related firms have been a key driver of the new equity bubble.With private lending in the US essentially dead,[...]

Federal Debt and the Bank of Timmy


There has been much breathless discussion lately surrounding the national debt ceiling as total government debt approaches the legal limit. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said there was "no alternative" and threatened Congress with unspecified "catastrophic" consequences if the limit was not increased. Of course, he is merely following in the tradition of terroristic threats by corrupt Treasury officials.

But just as the implied threats of martial law were used by Henry Paulson as cover for one of the biggest thefts in history, we must now ask what lurks behind the current spate of threats out of Treasury? Paulson lied about what the TARP was to be used for - which is why he demanded immunity in advance. Geithner is lying about the need for an immediate increase in the debt limit. What is being hidden is many activities that aid speculators and bureaucrats that will have to end if the limit stays in place.

In the real world there is a problem that a lot of money is being spent that has nothing to do with the operations of the federal government. This can be seen clearly in the recent announcement that the Treasury will be selling off some of its $142 billion of MBS (mortgage backed securities). There really is no legitimate function of government that relates to manipulating the price of bonds. It's good that they are looking to get rid of them but there is no reason to have them in the first place other than to overpay to help sellers and also to make continuing holders look more solvent by deliberately distorting the "market" price.

Then there are the loans which Treasury has extended to the states to cover their own spending. The state unemployment funds are in hock to Washington for $46.3 billion as of March 23. This is problematic in that it undermines the constitutional requirements that many states must balance their budget every year. It also undermines the ability of the states to function as sovereign entities when they are financially so beholden to the central government. Thus it is a direct attack on the our Federal system of government.

Secretary Tim Geithner is not running a Treasury Department. He is in fact running a bank under the aegis of the federal government and Congress needs to keep that in mind as he goes begging them for more money. Treasury should not be in the business of lending money to the states or of buying private market debt. Those are functions for commercial banks and bond markets. Worse still, those banking functions have been performed using the credit of the American People. If Geithner was not playing these games, the Treasury would have another $190 billion in borrowing authority remaining.

Any increase in the debt limit should be conditional on the Treasury ceasing all interference in state finances and public financial markets.

Panic Room


We will be breaking from our normal practice of commenting on economic issues to address something that is bigger and more important today. That is growing panic over radiation from Japan. Trace levels of radioisotopes have been detected in water and food near the Fukushima plant site. In one case, it exeeded the legal limits so if you are in Japan, you should take some precautions - and especially so in Northern Japan. The governments involved have no one to blame but themselves since they have destroyed their own credibility and many people won't believe them even when they tell the truth. As of today, the truth is this:There is no threat of radiation in North America and with a couple tiny of exceptions, there is no measurable increase above background levels.One of the sources I see quoted often by the panic-mongers is Radnet - a data gathering program of the EPA. But most people have no idea what the data means and there are many problems with the data itself. The most serious problems with the Radnet data are as follows:1) Collection is by volunteers and by agencies that often specialize in other things. For instance, most of the California data is gathered by regiona agencies like the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. BAAQMD certainly knows what it is doing with regard to routine air pollution issues but they are hardly specialists in radiation exposure.2) Inconsistency of the data due to the varied and non-specialist nature of the data gatherers. The data should be comparable over time at any given location but may not be comparable between different locations gathered with varying practices.3) Timeliness is weak. The typical collection method is to use air filters to gather particulate matter and then apply a radiation detector after a 5-hour field deployment period.4) The data is difficult to interpret. Because of we do not know with certainty the exact equipment used to measure beta and gamma exposure at a given location, we cannot be certain what conversion factor should be used for CPM to millirems or milliseiverts.Also, the gamma exposure is divided into energy ranges. Due to the normal slope, we can feel confident that the lower ranges are lower-energy (longer wavelength) gamma rays. This is a typical pattern for background radiation. In fact, many of the less energetic "gamma rays" detected by a typical geiger counter are not technically gamma rays at all. Quite often the detection threshold for a geiger is 20 kEv or less - at a wavelength more associated with X-rays so the lower bands of gamma reported by Radnet are actually mostly X-rays. Even so, I cannot locate a chart showing the frequency or wavelength with which each gamma energy range is associated.Nevertheless, Radnet can be a valuable tool to measure changes over time in a single location. If better data were not available, I would be forced to use it for other purposes as well. Fortunately, we have something run by people who are focused on radiation and the only real weakness is that the network is only regional.The Department of Energy and the Desert Research Institute maintain a network of radiation monitoring stations across Nevada and western Utah known as the Community Environmental Monitoring program. The explicit purpose of CEMP is to monitor sites downwind of the underground nuclear test site in Nevada. Thus, CEMP is "focused like a laser" on radiation. Most stations update every 10 minutes and the rest do so hourly.The data is comparable between stations and presented in an easily analyzed format. Exposure dosages are measured in microrems per hour (uR/hr) and measured constantly. The only downside is that only gamma radiation is measured, not beta but this is not a severe drawback in my opinion. There is even a tab on the display for each monitoring station that allows you to display the data from the past week in graphical format.I checked a sampling of the monitoring stations and all of them showed gamma radi[...]



Obviously there is a pretty bad discrepancy between those numbers in this morning's edition of blowing sunshine up your skirt from the Ministry of Truth.

current employment report

Given the size of the country, it SHOULD take 600k jobs to move the rate that much so obviously there's a problem here. How did this happen? Dig a bit deeper and you'll see that they simply defined 504k out of the labor force from December to January and rounding did the rest. Wave a wand and define those people out of existence. If they don't exist, they can't be unemployed now can they?

If you look at the chart, you'll see that they did the same thing in December from November. In that case only 260k unemployed people disappeared from the statistics. There is a clear and systemic effort to deceive the public about the state of the economy and it's getting worse.

latest household data

But there's is an even bigger deception in the numbers that helps to reveal the systemic fraud of the numbers. Last month the B(L)S claimed that their establishment survey measured 130,712k employed:

December 2010 employment report

But THIS month they show 130,265k employed and claim that it is an increase of 36k, rather than the massive drop of 447k that it actually is. They did this by altering history. Now, the record shows that 130,229k were working in December and the rest of those people have disappeared down the memory hole. It wouldn't be a concern if the revisions were random but the pattern is very consistent - almost perfectly so. Report good news now and back away later. This is the same game played with corporate earnings to deceive investors. Loudly trumpet "good" current results. Then quietly go back later and revise them down. Then use the revised numbers to show "growth" with the next fraudulent set of numbers.

The B(L)S calls this rebasing. Corporations call it a "one time charge" but it's the same scam. The objective in both cases is to mislead the public. It's nothing more than fraud with the goal of getting the public to buy the hopium of the confidence game. That's why I think that freebasing is a more appropriate name.

The Permanent Bailout


Milton Friedman once said that "Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program." The central banks, as rogue private bodies exercising governmental powers a proving that axiom true yet again. The Federal Reserve claimed yesterday that we are in a recovery but none of their emergency programs can be rolled back.

... the Committee decided today to continue expanding its holdings of securities as announced in November. In particular, the Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its securities holdings and intends to purchase $600 billion of longer-term Treasury securities by the end of the second quarter of 2011.

Meanwhile, over in Europe, there is growing recognition that the bailouts have failed and that the money isn't going to be paid back. Instead of actually admitting anything of the sort, the ECB is now talking about effectively making the loans permanent. Sure, they SAY it's going to be a 30 year loan instead of 3 years but if Ireland and Greece can't pay the money back now and continue to run deficits, what makes anyone think they'll be in a better position to pay it back later?

The question sort of answers itself. The bailouts are throwing good money after bad as every one of these banks is so far underwater they can't even see the surface from here. Without honest accounting, we have no idea just how deep that hole is but it certainly looks like a bottomless pit from here. It's been stunningly clear for a while now that so much bad debt needed to be purged from the system but the central and TBTF banks have made every effort to PREVENT such a purge.

(Wall) Street Corner Hustle
The latest brainstorm from the ECB is exactly the same sort of shell game. Greece and Ireland can't pay the money back and they know it. Instead of acknowledging reality, we'll just convert it into a long-term "loan" so they don't have to pay it back within the term and maybe even the lifetime of the people making the decisions. It can't be paid back and it won't be paid back but maybe they can keep up the lies for a little while longer.

This is simply more Extend and Pretend so that they can keep trying to fool people into impoverishing themselves by overspending and taking on too much debt to keep up the illusion. That is the meaning of "prosperity" in a keynesian ponzi economy. You use inflation to convince people to eat their seed corn, making them feel better - for a little while. This is why central bankers place so much emphasis on "confidence" - in practical terms that measures the willingness of the population to deplete their capital and eat their seed corn due to the inflationary deception of the central banks.

The UDB gave us the biggest illusion of false prosperity the world has ever seen. The bankers are now trying to cover their tracks and delay the inevitable hoping you'll forget their complicity. But the best simple summation can be found from the creators of South Park:

class="youtube-player" title="YouTube video player" height="390" src="" frameborder="0" width="640" type="text/html">

The Law


Here at Financial Jenga we have hoped, even prayed for the law to be enforced for the last couple of years. Yet the fraud has raged unchecked and if anything grown worse. Banks have mass filed false affidavits to fraudulently seize houses through the foreclosure process and then said "oopps, we made a technical paperwork error" when caught. At first they got away with it. They HAVE seized houses through this procedure when there was no mortgage and no lien at all.The Fed has gone and done things far beyond the scope of authority given to it by Congress - like using our money to prop up the investment banks and the stock fraud they are running. They are given the power to buy exactly two thing - bonds carrying the full guarantee of the US government and short-term loans for planting of crops. Buying junk bonds containing mortgages violates both the letter and the spirit of their charter. Buying stocks is so far beyond their legal powers that someone should be in prison and probably a lot of someones.No one has shown much sign of really stopping the Fed yet but the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court landed a major blow for the law today by confirming a lower court ruling that nullified two foreclosures because they plaintiffs couldn't show they owned the property. In both cases, "robosigned" affidavits were introduced as proof of ownership and later shown to be without merit.The state Supreme Judicial Court today upheld a judge’s decision saying two foreclosures were invalid because the banks didn’t prove they owned the mortgages, which he said were improperly transferred into two mortgage-backed trusts. As reported by Bloomberg:“We agree with the judge that the plaintiffs, who were not the original mortgagees, failed to make the required showing that they were the holders of the mortgages at the time of foreclosure,” Justice Ralph D. Gants wrote. While there have been many similar rulings across the country, this is the first such decision by a state supreme court. And since property law is still properly the jurisdiction of the states, this decision is final as far as Massachusetts is concerned. Hopefully they will follow up with prosecutions for the mass of fraud represented by those false affidavits.And this entire financial crisis is bound up with a struggle to centralize political power in Washington. One of the key enablers of the late-bubble madness was the effective nullification of state lending regulations. This was done in 2004 when the Office of Comptroller of the Currency used federal preemption to overrule state laws against predatory lending. It was one of the worst moments of the Bush Administration:The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency Feb. 21 published for comment a ruling that Georgia's predatory lending law, the Georgia Fair Lending Act (GFLA), is preempted for national banks.At the same time, it issued two advisory letters to national banks to clarify its expectations for banks to avoid involvement with "predatory" lending practices.So basically, the OCC's action wiped out state legal protections against predatory lending. And they substituted a finger wagging "don't do it" with a nudge and a wink to just go ahead. And of course the very worst mortgage paper was written over the next three years after the change. We have documented the results of those no-doc, alt-A and option ARM loans here from the very beginning. But those abusive mortgages would not have been possible without Washington stepping in to remove the legal shield that states provided their citizens.[...]

Pension Seizure Precedents


One of the problems with out of control government spending is the way it affects the behavior of government itself. Like any other junkie, the government convinces itself it needs "just one more" fix and will do anything to get it. Again like a junkie, the government will prostitute itself and steal from friends and family to keep the drug supply coming.

We see a glaring example of the later when governments simply grab private property in order to pay off their own debts. We have already seen the precedent for pensions being seized by government. Just last week in Hungary the government grabbed $14 billion in private assets. Over the weekend, the Irish government decided to take 15 billion Euros from the future pensions of its citizens to give to the banks. Now France is taking 36 billion Euros from the pension fund to keep its bloated and unsustainable welfare state afloat for just a little while longer.

People need to understand that the United States is not immune to the same financial pressures that caused Hungary, Ireland and France to take these desperate measures. If you are counting on a future pension from the state, you might wish to start making alternate plans. In most states, there is effectively zero chance that you will get everything promised - the state government pension funds are already over $1 trillion in the hole. The gap will only grow as additional obligations are incurred but little new money is available to meet them from the state budget side. It would be completely unsurprising if the more desperate and foolish states attempted to raid these pension funds to "invest" in more unemployment payouts or other attempts to fund general budget spending.

Of course we won't have that problem with Social Security since it is funded entirely by current taxes. Since no such pension fund exists, we don't have to worry about the government grabbing it. Of course that raises the question of which assets the will try to take since the same financial imperatives and the same junkie behavior are at work in Washington as in Budapest, Dublin and Paris. That said, we need to be vigilant for any sign that similar asset seizures are imminent here in the United States since the precedent has already been set. We have been warned by events across the pond.

The Shadow Knows


Today's topic is Shadow Inventory - the foreclosed or soon to be foreclosed properties that banks are stuck with and which are not listed for sale. As a result, they are not found in any formal listing of housing inventory when existing home sales are reported. This has been a problem for a long time, as we mentioned many months ago in Household De-formation.

The media's silence on this issue has been almost total. Probably because any reasonable discussion of the topic would severely undermine the illusion of stability they are trying to project. This weekend, the Wall Street Journal took a stab at estimating the damage. Their conclusion is that it would take 107 MONTHS to clear the shadow inventory at current sales rates. Obviously not a number that the bankers and their apologists in government and media are anxious to publicize.

Over the summer, banks appeared to be making some headway. The government’s mortgage-modification program helped some people get current on their payments, taking their homes out of the foreclosure pipeline. At the same time, homebuyer tax credits helped boost sales. Combined real and shadow inventory fell to 91 months of sales in May.

Lately, though, a new wave of defaults appears to be coming in, in part related to the high rate of failures on government modifications. As of September, some 1.9 million homeowners had missed one payment on their mortgages, up 14% from March. Meanwhile, home sales have slowed sharply with the end of government stimulus.

The government "assistance" was never going to help many people, much less actually succeed on a large scale. However, it was helpful for the banks - aiding them in concealing the collapse of their collateral for another year or so (i.e. another Bonus Cycle).

But the good news is that we can expect the housing market to start to recover - in another eight or nine years.

Bank Debt Spiral


The zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) will kill the banks. Falling interest rates help banks by increasing the value of their bond and loan portfolios. This is the well understood inverse relationship between discount rate and present value of a future sum. But you see keeping interest rates at zero does virtually nothing for the banks as rates cannot fall further. There is a short window where ZIRP is a positive but an "extended period" (in Fedspeak) is just slow death for the banks.

During that short period, the banks are still collecting on portfolios constructed when rates were higher but as those higher-yielding assets mature, there is nothing comparable to replace them. We hear constantly how banks can just borrow at zero and invest in Treasuries - pocketing the difference. That would be fine if yields on Treasury debt were not low and falling along with everything else. The other problem is that this simplistic formula assumes that banks' operating expenses are negligible. Both unstated assumptions fail any sort of reality check.

Back in the real world, T-bills yield virtually nothing. The 2-year note is now at 50 basis points as of today. The 5-year is at 1.43% and the 10-year at 2.68%. Assuming zero borrowing cost (which is overly generous), net interest is equal to gross interest. Large banks generally require a net interest spread of more than 2% to cover their expenses, so they will lose money even buying 5-year Treasuries. If they invest their entire portfolio in 10-year notes, they'll make about a 50 basis point spread on assets pre-tax. But the 10 years is a lot of risk in terms of time for rates to change and also a long time to tie up the money. And banks care BARELY eke out a profit by taking this extreme level of maturity risk. There is a reason why you never see loan portfolios with 10 year average maturities.

For those advocates who think banks can rebuild their balance sheets by buying Treasuries, you might ultimately be correct but there are so many things that can go wrong with that scenario. First consider the size of the hole in bank balance sheets. Recent activity at the FDIC suggests that many troubled banks are overstating the value of their assets by 30% or more - that is the average size of the hit when the FDIC takes them over. At a rebuild rate of 50 basis points annually (with a lot of risk) it would take a literal lifetime to repair the balance sheets via this strategy. It was much easier in the early 1990s when rates for the 10-year started at 9% and never went below 5.5%. There was plenty of room to generate capital gains on bank bond portfolios wit falling rates and still leave a reasonable current yield at the end. Anybody using that era as a template for bank recovery is going to be sorely disappointed. Does anybody still wonder why Japan is trapped despite 20 years of ZIRP?

All of this assumes that ZIRP is sustainable over decades and that the financial system is sufficiently stable to endure the pressure over the long term. Neither one is proven and the ability to fund the debt implied by ZIRP is particularly shaky. If it works, it will take 60 years As one one of our favorite bloggers Karl Denninger says "the math is never wrong."

Fraud and Failure


Recent news on the housing front confirms what we have been saying about that market since the inception of Financial Jenga. In sum, there is no real stabilization much less recovery, the costs of attempting to maintain the illusion continue to rise rapidly and any cessation of government interference and manipulation results in rapid breakdown of the fake "market" which was created by those policies.

In the first instance, we now see the failure of HAMP as redefault rates among those "helped" by the program soar. An absolute majority of the government-sponsored loan modifications have now re-defaulted but they did give utterly baseless hope to debtors, thus trapping them into making continuing payments on a hopeless mortgage.

The ongoing cost to prop up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac continues to rise. Last week the
NY Times reported that the cost of those bailouts has now reached $148 billion and will likely total $389 billion. Bloomberg cites a "reasonable worst case scenario" for the ultimate tab which could be $1 trillion or more.

The creation of the tax credit for housing purchases induced a temporary uptick in the number of sales. But like many other government actions, this merely succeeded in pulling forward future demand into the present - which is now the past. We have now entered the void created by that pulling forward. The existing home sales number yesterday and the new home sales number today both demonstrate that in clear terms. Today's existing sales number was nothing short of a disaster. The headline on
Marketwatch says:
New-home sales plunge 33% to record low in May
But that fails to reflect the full scale of the drop. In addition to May being down, April was also revised lower. This is a game we should all be familiar with by now. Actual may sales were 300k annualized. But the April report had 504k units sold but it has now been revised to 446k. That allowed the comparison to be reported as merely 33% down rather than over 40%. Either way it's not good and May set a new record low. Apparently, new houses just don't sell unless a big tax credit is piled on top of the subsidized mortgage loans.

Yesterday's existing home sales number was less dramatic but still indicated a housing market in trouble. The decline of 2.2% contrasted with an expected gain of 4%. The tax credit doesn't seem to have accomplished anything of value but at least it
fraudulently paid out $9 million to 1,300 prison inmates.

THe Keynesian Comeuppance


During the current economic crisis, most of the major countries have tried to spend their way out - either with government programs funded with new debt or by forcing debt directly into the private economy through guarantees, regulations and action by quasi-government bodies. We discussed the implications for China in Command and Control and for the US in The Federal Funhouse. These initiatives were based on Keynesian economic theory - that government should make up for any shortfall in private demand by spending (likelyincurring deficits) sufficient to stabilize aggregate demand.This is a temporary band aid at best and the governments and central banks were hoping to buy time and convince everyone that things were OK so they should go out and spend. This was doomed to fail as prior private demand was based on nearly universal lending at suicidal risk levels. One of the key objectives of Financial Jenga was to document the extent of the madness in credit. Enough people have seen through the wishful thinking so that there will be greater caution on the part of both borrowers and lenders for the foreseeable future.The massive deficits that various governments have run can only be sustained as long as there are lenders out there willing to finance them. Several bond auctions have failed or nearly failed in the last several weeks. Now we see the appetite for debt drying up and some key nations beginning to talk about austerity. A good example is this statement from the G-20 Meeting Communique:The recent events highlight the importance of sustainable public finances and the need for our countries to put in place credible, growth-friendly measures, to deliver fiscal sustainability, differentiated for and tailored to national circumstances... We welcome the recent announcements by some countries to reduce their deficits in 2010 and strengthen their fiscal frameworks and institutions.Clearly, the finance ministers are signaling a new mood of fiscal responsibility here - in sharp contrast to the "stimulus" measures that have previously reigned. This change in emphasis is further reinforced by the recent statements from two key European governments. From the UK we have (Prime Minister) "Cameron warns of painful cuts to tackle debt" as a headline. In Germany, Chancellor Merkel is cutting the budget by nearly $100 billion according to Bloomberg. This is not only a sharp contrast with the Keynesian program here in the US, it is a direct slap in the face of Tim Geithner at Treasury and the entire Obama Administration:German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet approved levies on banks, air travel and nuclear-power plants as part of what she called an “unprecedented” round of budget cuts, rejecting U.S. calls to spur growth. Bux PopuliAusterity is the new watchword and it is showing up first in places where governments either have their backs to the wall or are less under the influence of the banks. Yet even here in the US, where we have the best government the bankers' money can buy, things are starting to change. Actual voters concerned about the rapidly growing deficit seem to be a stumbling block to Congressional spending with less than 6 months until the elections. Web-based My Way News reports:Obama's proposed $250 bonus payment to Social Security recipients was killed by the Senate. Also gone is an $80 billion-plus Senate plan that promised money to build roads and schools, help local governments keep teachers on the payroll and stimulate hiring in the home improvement industry with rebates for homeowners who make energy-saving investments.Just last month, deficit concerns killed $24 billion in fiscal relief to prevent state workers from being furloughed. It was a measure that[...]

The Visible Fist


The Visible Fist of government that is. The Visible Fist is about to crush the property market in China, exploding one of the most egregious bubbles on the face of the planet. The specific blow will take the form of imposing a property tax nationwide - in guidelines recently approved by the State Council. It was reported earlier this week in China Daily.Although the measures have been considered for some time, the recent push has been given urgency by the dangerous levels that China's property bubble has reached. One of the key contributing factors has been the number of speculators buying property and then holding it off the market to profit from the price run up. Morgan Stanley's Andy Xie estimates that such properties number in the 10-20 million unit range.Some of his other comments portray a China going through the same stages of economic madness that the US has over the last 20 years. But China is passing through each stage much faster as the (well-deserved) lack of trust in their financial system causes people to only chase really big potential profits. Look at this paragraph and tell me you don't see the parallels:China's policies have travelled the path of least immediate resistance - monetary expansion and asset inflation. The main purpose behind asset inflation is that the government can tax it. It provides a place for people to chase their get-rich-quick dreams and is popular as long as the market goes up. It also offers insiders who have disproportionate influence to play the game at the expense of little people. It is no coincidence that China's policies have been so pro-asset-inflation in the past few years.His comments seem to suggest that the lack of a property tax was a deliberate strategy to encourage land speculation and bid up prices in a frenzy. This would make sense as the state was by far the biggest landowner and wanted to extract the maximum price for it. With a large amount of land now in private hands, it can be taxed as the taxable base can now replace diminished land sales as a source of government revenue.Increasing the carrying cost of speculative assets is one of the surest ways to burst a bubble. That is why rising interest rates nearly always do the trick. Rising ownership taxes have the same impact. China is doing both. The government is both instituting a property tax and requiring higher interest rates on properties other than a primary residence. The impact has been dramatic and nearly immediate and so far, it's just the new financial rules and property restrictions. The tax will aggravate the impact. Here is a report from two weeks ago in China Daily:The Shanghai market has already felt the chill of the tightening housing policies with new apartment sales falling in April. Over 13,185 units of newly built apartments were traded in April, down 43.7 percent from the same period in 2009, according to data from China Real Estate Index System Shanghai. Trading in the secondary market in Shanghai also saw a dramatic slump since April 16. A total of 13,865 housing units changed hands between April 1 to 16, but only 7,974 units were traded from April 17 to 30, said Ma Ji, consulting manager at property consultancy Shanghai Centaline China. Local media also reported that a property tax might be imposed in the next few months. Houses that fall into the definition for charging property tax will be levied an annual fee of as much as 8 percent of the apartment's total value, the Shanghai Securities News reported on Wednesday. While I applaud the Chinese government's belated return to sanity, they are now being forced to take action to rein in the monster they created. Recall that we criticized the mass[...]

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics


This morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics release triggered news report to put up a huge headline:
431,000 Jobs Added in May

That sound impressive on the surface but the reality is much less than it seems. When you dig down into the numbers you can see just just how little really is there. First, the Census Bureau hired 411,000 temporary workers who were counted as part of the 431,000. The BLS claims 41,000 private-sector jobs were created, with the discrepancy likely coming from net layoffs at state and local levels of government.

Let's drill down a bit farther and take a look at the Birth-Death model that we have written about before. When we look there, note that the "model" has added 215,000 private-sector jobs for May. By backing out this estimate, we can conclude that the actual survey measured a net loss of 174,000 jobs in the real economy.

We can also dissect the Unemployment Rate in the same fashion. This statistic is based on the Household Survey, where the jobs created number is based on the Establishment Survey of employers. The Household Survey again shows that the number of people with jobs shrank in May - in this case the measured loss was 35,000 jobs. That is not as bad as the Establishment survey but still pointing in the wrong direction. The only way the BLS was able to report a lower unemployment rate was because they reduced the Labor Force by 322,000 workers, even while the pool of employable citizens rose by 170,000 people. Basically. BLS arbitrarily said 600,000 people ceased to exist for purposes of their calculations this month - so they could report a lower unemployment rate.

This is clearly a piece of propaganda designed to keep the ignorant public "confident" and spending despite reality. Like much else that comes from government, BLS reports have become riddled with accounting tricks that amount to fraud in order to paint a rosy picture. Don't be taken in.

Household De-formation


One of the themes we have alluded to repeatedly at Financial Jenga is trends and sustainability. When a trend is not sustainable, reliance upon it can cause massive errors in analysis. The old adage "there's nothing more dangerous than an analyst with a ruler" illustrates the danger of extrapolating such trends. In our very first blog entry we mentioned one unsustainable trend:We are at the front end of the suffering now. It was easy to see it coming when new houses were adding 2% or more to the existing supply for years and the population was growing at half that rate or less. The Census Bureau confirms that the number of empty houses has never been higher.The only way that such a wide disparity between housing demand and population could be supported was for the average household size to shrink constantly. This is obviously unsustainable since you eventually reach an average household size below 1.0. Calling that eventuality 'unlikely' is a tremendous understatement. We have contended that consumption has been bloated by credit for years as part of our central UDB (Universal Debt Bubble) thesis. Housing is no exception.Over-consumption of housing has taken many forms. Square footage per person grew steadily for decades. Increased amenities is another aspect of the same phenomenon. But an absolutely key trend was privacy as a luxury item. For generations, single people have lived with roommates as a means of saving money. The UDB allowed many singles the luxury of privacy by having their own place - whether rented or purchased, thus increasing housing consumption further. In many cases, this could not be justified on a sustainable basis. Credit was the key to the lifestyle of the $40,000 millionaire class.This has all changed drastically since we started the blog two and a half years ago. Household formation has stalled out and is now considerably LOWER than population growth. Singles are moving back in with family, parents with their adult children or vice versa. Others are going out and getting roommates. And even population growth itself is slowing due to immigration falling. This is even more true if one includes the illegal alien population. All of this is described in analytical piece by consultants IHS - U.S. Household Formation Is Down Sharply. Some particularly salient quotes:...the number of households increased by 398,000 between March 2008 and March 2009. This was the smallest increase since 1983, and the second-smallest increase in the history of this statistic, which dates back to 1947.The decline was particularly sharp for those who live alone. The number of women living alone declined by 398,000, while the number of men living alone fell by 112,000.The recession is behind the slowdown in household formation. Hard times have forced many of those who have lost their jobs, their homes, or both to move in with family or friends. In addition to this, immigration is down. As a result, the number of persons per household, which had been dropping in recent decades, increased in both 2007 and 2008.The data pretty much speak for themselves. The trend of over-consumption reversing is certainly manifesting itself in housing. These secular trend reversals are occurring in addition to the cyclical factors of inventory and shadow inventory overhangs. The elephant in the room is the future overhang of selling by the Baby Boomers. The big cash-out and trade-down secular trend as the Boomers retire is still mostly ahead of us. That trend ought to be good for retirement homes and other senior communities but will be putting pressure on the housing market at large for at least 15 years and more likely 20 years.The tr[...]

The Non-Comparison


It seems quite popular in these days of crisis for certain commentators to compare struggling individual states within the USA to the troubled Eurozone PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain). ECB President and Apologist in Chief for the Euro Jean-Claude Trichet (and boy isn't that a bunch of Capitalized Words strung together) is a prime example. A couple of weeks ago in a speech about the Greek Financial Crisis his remarks were summarized by Business Week:He [Trichet] also played down the importance of Greece's economy on the euro region, which he said represents less than 3 percent of the bloc's GDP, especially when compared with the size of a U.S. state such as California. A number of news outlets and blogger have echoed these sentiments so it behooves us to examine the validity of the comparison. On the pure surface level, Trichet is correct: California had a GSP of $1,850 billion in 2008, whereas Greece's GDP was less than one fifth as large at $343 billion. So we can conclude that he in not lying outright but what of the implied statement that California's financial problems are more important to the US than Greece's are to the Eurozone and EU? For this analysis we will leave aside the issue of the rest of the PIIGS.For perspective, let's start with raw numbers. The debt of the Greek government hit 300 billion Euros two months ago making headlines around the financial world. At current exchange rates, this is over $400 billion and is surely higher today. The total general fund debt of California is LESS THAN $85 billion as of January 1, 2010. So in absolute terms, the Greek Problem is nearly FIVE TIMES LARGER than California's. In terms proportional to the size of the respective economies, the disparity becomes even more striking.Implications of FederalismWith a little thought, the reason for this disparity should be obvious. California's state government brings in tax revenue of just under 5.0% of GSP and plans to spend 5.5% of GSP in the FY 2010 budget. Greece taxed 32.2% of GDP and spent 43.0% of GDP in 2009 as estimated by the CIA World Factbook. The state government of California is not the top-level sovereign even within its own borders. Federal taxation and spending within California far exceeds the comparable activities driven by Sacramento. In terms of government impact on the economy, the key is at the Federal level, not the state. So in addition to California's government problems being a much smaller deal overall, the consequences of failure would also be less for the population than would be the case in Greece. We can safely conclude that Trichet's statement, while true at first blush was highly misleading in its implications. There is simply no comparison between the gravity of the current crisis in Greece and the looming one in California.Having dealt with that nonsense, let's talk about the rest of the PIIGS. These are all similar, top-level sovereign situations. It would appear that Portual is next, with Spain not far behind from the trading activity in CDS and the rising risk premiums being demanded. Italy is not nearly as badly off and it may be unfair to lump them in with the rest of this group; the market appears to be taking note of that as well. And then, there is Ireland.Celtic Hedge FundIreland is in for a tough time. Their total external debt was 1,637 billion Euros (roughly $2.23 trillion) as of September 30, 2009 with an economy of $177 billion per the CIA. Irish banks alone account for 41% of the debt. Another way to express this is that their banks owe foreigners over 500% of the nation's annual GDP. Many financial institutions[...]

An Elegant Solution


The heads of the global banking cartel are currently gathered for their annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. They have received enormous subsidies and bailouts at the expense of taxpayers in many nations all around the world. Those nations that possess representative governments are now beginning to respond to the outrage of their citizens at this gross injustice. In Britain, this has taken the form of a proposal to tax financial transactions. In the US, President Obama recently proposed regulations to limit the risk-taking activities of banks and to force the "too big to fail" institutions to shrink. The bankers' response is a proposal to take regulatory power away from national governments according to a British Press outlet.This of course would be precisely the WRONG action. National governments in representative systems are forced to respond to the concerns of their citizens. The bankers' proposal would push the power even further away from the people and vest it in unaccountable supra-national bureaucracies. Our response should be precisely the opposite - devolve regulatory power over the banks back from the Federal government back to the state level. This should be particularly true for commercial banking. First, power should be as close to the citizens as reasonably practical so that the exercise of government power will be as responsive as possible to the average citizen. Second, power should be decentralized so as to reduce the incentive to abuse it and to minimize the damage when such abuse does occur.One very positive effect would be to create a framework that automatically penalizes large organizations. Giant banks constantly lobbied to reduce the role of the states in banking regulation in the name of "efficiency" starting in the 1970s. One of the chief claims advanced during that period was that US banks would be unable to compete with foreign (especially Japanese) banks without consolidation. That turned out to be correct as the US banks produced a bubble very comparable to the one that has led to a 20 year depression in Japan.The collapse of the states' role led directly to the creation of corrupt TBTF mega-banks by reducing the cost of geographic consolidation, just as the weakening and then repeal of Glass-Steagall enabled the growth of financial conglomerates via acquisition across business lines. President Obama has called for limiting the ability of banks to take risk and also breaking up the TBTF banks. We agree and call upon the president to immediately re-implement Glass-Steagall in order to confirm the seriousness of his words via corresponding action. In addition, we call upon him to remove all federal roadblocks to state banking regulation. The mega-banks object to state regulations because it would increase their cost of compliance. We agree that it would increase such costs and further state that such an outcome would be a GOOD thing. It would create an automatic systemic incentive not to expand. It would be far better for the banks to decide to break themselves up rather than to mandate such an outcome. The legal and regulatory environment can provide the proper incentives and then leave the implementation to the individual players when they find such actions to be in their self-interest. The explicit repudiation of the "too big to fail" doctrine should be sufficient as the only reason to create such behemoths was to become large enough to hold the US economy and financial system hostage. But it never hurts to create the right incentives - all that Washington DC needs to do is stop interfering with the states' a[...]

Trembling Pillars of Fraud


Over the last two weeks we have seen a series of indications that some of the key elements supporting manipulation of market pricing mechanisms are beginning to tremble. We have seen equity prices rise despite the lack of any significant increase in profits. We have seen commodity prices spike without much increase in real demand. In our opinion the key institutions behind this mess are the major Wall Street (TARP) banks, government agencies and the Fed. They have all played a major role in creating credit inflation, with subsequent asset bubbles and debasement of our currency. But understand this: if you 'look through' each of those institutions you will find the US government backstopping each and every one of them. Each of those has come under increasing attack and as the supports have begun to shake, the fraudulent pricing they have promoted has also begun to unwind. As politics has supported bubble dynamics, so it can destroy them - live by the sword, die by the sword.Fear and LoathingFirst, Yahoo Finance reports that Wall Street's bonuses being paid out now will total $145 billion. That is greater than 1% of US annual GDP. In a normal year that number would be insane. After the disaster those same players inflicted on the US and global economy, that number is downright obscene. Bailouts were indefensible to start with and now you can add infuriating arrogance to the list of offenses. Public anger may be getting through to Congress and without siphoning off taxpayer money via the legislature, the rest of the Wall Street con game doesn't work. It has now gotten so bad that according to Dow Jones Newswire the TARP still exists only courtesy of a Senate filibuster by its supporters.Fear of angry constituents has taken on a new urgency for our elected officials in the wake of a shocking Republican victory in the Massachusetts election for Senate. With citizens realizing that the Fed's actions have been a pure handout to Wall Street, the reconfirmation of Ben Bernanke as chairman is now very much in danger. Today, the NY Times reports that two additional senators abandoned him. With Geithner at Treasury already under serious scrutiny by Congress for his role in the bailout of Goldman via AIG and the subsequent attempt to hide the details, the two most prominent faces of bailout nation are both in danger of being forced out.Friendly FireThe biggest blow psychologically may be the rhetorical broadside from President Obama against the big banks that are a key leg of the credit inflation machine. His speech yesterday called for them to be cut down to size and shackled. This was a frontal attack on the concept of Too Big To Fail, with its implicit taxpayer guarantee for the stupid risks taken by big banks. The Obama Administration has given Wall Street nearly everything it wanted so the Street must now feel shocked that their tame politician has turned on them viciously. We have long felt that once the anger of the populace rose to sufficient levels, the political class would throw the financial elites under the bus in the interest of self-preservation.Our government has betrayed our nation's citizens in many ways - from the TARP to the uncapping of taxpayer losses on Fannie and Freddie on Christmas Eve. The failure of those policies to make things better or even to stop them from getting worse is now obvious. The failure has become political kryptonite - so much so that Rep. Barney Frank is calling for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mack to be abolished. Frank has been one of their main defenders and cheerleaders for years if n[...]

Fractional Naked Shorting


Every dollar-denominated loan can be viewed functionally as a partial naked short position in FRNs (Federal Reserve Notes, 1.e. cash). The extent of the naked short is the inverse of the reserve ratio, so at 10% reserve, the position is written as 90% naked short. The entry is created where the bank shorts notional dollars into existence where none existed before. The Fed is a mechanism for supporting those naked shorts against margin calls that would otherwise happen in the real world - that's what a bank run really is, a margin call by lenders (depositors).The continued existence of this naked shorting depends utterly on the willingness of the lenders to accept repayment in virtual instead of real dollars. Wire transfers, checks and book entries are all dollar substitutes, not actual dollars. An entire massive infrastructure has been erected to push people towards the conclusion that these are actually identical to FRNs. Banks will freely exchange your book entry with them for cash - until they can't anymore. The FDIC exists to guarantee that you will get cash for that book entry or other cash substitute. The Fed holds stocks of FRNs which it can exchange on a limited basis to commercial banks in danger of running out.The scale of the pyramid scheme can be measured by the ratio of actual cash to virtual cash. Total cash in circulation (real cash) is $923 billion per the H.4.1 release dated December 10. The amount of virtual cash is the total credit outstanding, which is $52.6 TRILLION as of September 30 per the Z.1 release also dated December 10. In other words, each one dollar of cash is supporting nearly 57 dollars of credit. Through the mechanism of this gigantic naked short position, the value of the underlying security - the US dollar has been driven down to a huge extent. In fact, the short ratio can also be expressed as 98%. Not coincidentally, that is also the extent to which the US dollar's purchasing power has been reduced since the advent of the Federal Reserve.This gives you some idea of the extent to which the value of the supply of dollars has been diluted by all of the substitutes that have been introduced into the system. If the dollar were a drug, it would be so heavily cut as to have no discernible effect. It also explains the desperation with which the financial world is attempting to save "the system" - by which they mean the machine that issues dollar substitutes and convinces you to accept them. There are sufficient dollars to cover less than 2% of domestic debt outstanding. That takes no account of the naked short positions of foreign banks. The bankers are short 57 dollars for each dollar that actually exists. You can well imagine what would happen if such a short position were to be squeezed to any significant extent.One can justify banking to the extent than it increases productive capacity and therefore ultimately wealth. The increase in the pool of dollar substitutes will have minimal inflationary impact as that growth will be counter-balanced by an increase in the pool of goods those dollars can buy. This is a social good and one of the few philosophical reasons to support banking. Of course we are long past the point at which such banking was the norm, or even a large minority of credit activity.[...]

The Great Reversal


It's been a while since I've had the time to add to the blog. Thanks to everyone for their patience and hopefully it was worth the wait.

Sometimes changes occur occur quickly and other times they seem to happen in geologic time. The later are usually referred to as secular changes and the former as cyclical, at varying degrees of trend. The distinction is somewhat arbitrary and depends on the perspective of the observer. Being admittedly human ourselves, we will generally refer to a trend playing out over a generation or longer as secular but many brilliant minds will refer to even longer-term trends as cyclical - such as the Kondratieff Wave Cycle. With that definition in mind let's move on to the subject of today's blog entry.

The Big Shift

Over the last two generations we have seen an enormous shift in social attitudes and structure, with women and especially married women entering the job market. This shows up in many ways in the labor statistics but the most stable measurement and the one least subject to manipulation is the employment to population ratio, which measures those working to the total non-institutional adult population. Forty years ago in late 1969 58.1% of all adults in the US were employed. For over a generation, more working women swelled that number - which reached a peak of 65.7% in April 2000, the very peak month of the tech bubble. Last month, September 2009 saw the employment to population ratio fall back to 58.8%. This essentially means that the busts which followed the serial bubbles have wiped out the effects a multi-decade secular social trend.

This does not at all imply that women have withdrawn from the workforce en masse. It simply demonstrates the power of the economic decline which we are currently experiencing and suggests that the decline is simply a continuation of the one which began in 2000 and was interrupted by the final desperate act of housing bubble. Facts give the lie to our government's attempt to put a happy face on the situation. To illustrate the size of the reversal, let's look at a 60-year chart of the employment-population ratio:


Does that clear things up a bit?



This weekend we would like to take a look back at the economic contraction that the talking heads would have you believe is already over. Of course there is no way that it true. The extreme deficit spending we referred to in Federal Funhouse could result in a short euphoria before the creditors pull the plug - just like maxing out your credit cards before declaring bankruptcy. But the real economy is in horrible shape and nowhere is this more apparent than in the labor market.

Today's critical data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Their
unemployment data released Friday was loudly trumpeted as good news when all it really said is we're bleeding to death a little slower. Others have commented on and analyzed this data so we'd like to take a longer view of things - examining the size of the pool of blood on the ground as it were.

We're going to use the BLS
monthly data for the last two years. Note that at the end of 2007, the potential labor pool (civilian non-institutional population) was 231.9 million and last month it was 235.9 million - an increase of 4 million potential workers. But the numbers for the labor force have lagged badly behind. At the end of 2007 it stood at 153.1 million and by July 2009, that had only increased to 154.5. Population growth would suggest that number should have been 155.5 million, with two thirds of the added adult population contributing to the labor force. Since the Labor Force is the basis for calculating the unemployment rate, clearly the current numbers are understated. As a mental exercise, let's see what happens if a million workers aren't shuffled off into statistical never-never land. That would be another million unemployed with an unemployment rate of 10.1%. I suspect that a lot of statistical games will go into keeping that number in the single digits as long as possible.

Further, the labor force participation rate (percentage of adult population in the labor force) has been falling since the late 1990s. This indicates that the recovery from the post-tech bubble crash never made it back to the highs of that period and the current further decline indicates that people think the economy is so bad they've quit looking for work. This allows the BLS to conveniently eliminate them from the unemployed category though they are still just as jobless. The bottom line is that the economy has to generate nearly 10 million jobs just to get us back to that lower high of the mid 2000s but it is still destroying jobs even as the population continues to grow.

Command and Control?


Much is made of the rebound in China's 2nd quarter GDP and the drivers certainly merit a closer look. We are going to focus on just one key metric today - credit. In an effort to reach escape velocity from the global collapse, China has ordered its banks to make lots of loans and the banks have complied. So just how much lending has occurred and what is the scale of the likely impact. Let's look at the numbers, shall we? Various sources have reported the lending numbers and this article from the Globe and Mail is typical:Chinese banks lent 1.5 trillion yuan ($220-billion U.S.) in June, the central bank reported on its Web site Wednesday. That exceeded forecasts and was up from May's 665 billion yuan ($97-billion) in lending and April's 590 billion yuan ($86-billion).Keep in mind that the entire Chinese economy was approximately 30 trillion yuan in 2008. Another way to look at things is that China's economic output is roughly 2.5 trillion yuan per month and in June bank lending was equal to 60% of that output. One might safely say that credit expansion on that scale might have some impact on the economy. Keep in mind, this does NOT include bond issuance by corporations, the government in Beijing or the provincial and local governments; but the amount is enormous even without them. For perspective, the Flow of Funds shows total non-financial debt added in the US economy during 2006, the last full year of the UDB was $2.41 trillion in a $13.4 trillion economy - so borrowing was 18% of GDP in an extreme environment. Maybe this was just an aberration of one month? After all April and May were much lower. Well, let's look further down in the article:The latest figure would push total bank lending for the first half of the year to 7.3 trillion yuan (just under $1.1-trillion). So monthly loans averaged over 1.2 trillion yuan and June was more typical than the prior months. Interestingly, CNBC reports that Beijing's minimum bank lending target for all of 2009 is 5 trillion yuan and the banks have already exceed that number by 46% in just six months. Having established that the lending spree is enormous, the other key question is how much of a change it represents. For that, we will take words straight from the horse's mouth - a PBOC press release:At end-June, outstanding RMB loans reached RMB 37.74 trillion, up 34.44% year on year, accelerating by 15.71 percentage points year on year and by 3.83 percentage points month on month. In the first half of the year, RMB loans increased by RMB 7.37 trillion, up RMB 4.92 trillion year on year.Total debt grew 34.4%, while lending TRIPLED from 2.45 trillion to 7.37 trillion yuan year over year. Are the mental alarms going off yet? Again we will refer to the Flow of Funds for perspective. During the peak of the US housing bubble, mortgage lending took 6 years to triple from the trough in 1995. Yet China has compressed the impact of a historic multi-year bubble into 12 months. There also has to be dramatic deterioration in credit quality. There is no realistic way to triple lending without severely compromising lending standards - as we saw so dramatically with liar loans, nothing down, NINJA lending and option ARMs. Does anyone doubt that something comparable or worse is happening in China now?The game plan for China should be obvious by now. They are following the path of every other participant in the UDB with a vengeance. Tripling lending until it reaches nearly half of GDP for the first half is the[...]

The Federal Funhouse


Washington DC has now become the linchpin of lies regarding the US economy. When one looks at the numbers, it is easy to see why this must be so. The Federal budget deficit is now running at somewhere between 14% and 15% of GDP. Because the administration has postponed the budget update past the mandatory deadline, we do not have any official figures so we must estimate based on other data but Americans should be quite used to that by now.

The latest
Monthly Treasury Statement through June 30 gives us a lot of very useful data. Tax receipts are falling rapidly; for the fiscal year to date, taxes are down from $1,934 billion to $1,589 billion - a drop of 17.8%. The trend has been for the monthly numbers to get worse as the FY has gone on but if that applies to the full year then revenues will be $2,073 billion. The current budget estimate is just under $4,000 billion but will likely be higher as unemployment and related expense rise with a tanking economy. This leaves the US government with a $2 trillion deficit in a $14 trillion economy. In other words deficit spending is on pace to equal 14.3% of the economy.

Looked at another way, approximately one-seventh of the economy should not exist, currently exists only due to Washington spending money it doesn't have and will cease to exist as soon as that spending stops. The spending can continue only so long as creditors are foolish enough to supply more capital for the Federal government to destroy. Once the funhouse mirror of massive deficit spending is removed, we will likely see at least a 10% further decline in the economy within 6 months - taking huge chunks of other nations' economies with it.

Wall Street Wacko
We have also now seen the "confidence" return to Wall Street. What this really means it that speculators have put aside their fully justified fears and returned to blind, stupid buying. The "reasoning" behind this is that they managed to rob the taxpayers to cover their last set of enormous losses so their is no longer any such thing as risk. Heads they win, tails the taxpayer loses. As we have pointed out before, the Fed has aligned themselves with the speculators and is feeding such delusions. But these folks obviously haven't been paying any attention to the political climate at all. Congressmen that voted to bail out Wall Street at our expense are facing hostile crowds in their home districts. Many of them are now cancelling public appearances. Politicians now fear for their safety as their victims are beginning to realize what has happened. Even if the bond market allows this foolishness to continue, there is unlikely to be any support for another bailout when the next bubble bursts - which is likely to be either commercial real estate or commodities (again).

The Price of Ponzi


Faking BankFirst let's be clear that prices for the majority of asset classes around the world are unsustainably high. This is an obvious corollary to the very inflated state of the global financial system and economy due to the excessive leverage that we have commented upon many times. It bears repeating that central banks (CBs) have little actual power, they merely serve as rallying points and fetish-totems for optimistic, true-believing speculators. The evidence is quite clear that CBs often fail to accomplish their goals, in recent cases despite extraordinary actions to "inspire confidence" - i.e. reignite speculation.If the CBs were as powerful as most think, they could not possibly fail to accomplish their goals. Like voodoo, it is the BELIEF of the victim that causes the damage - a negative application of the well-documented placebo effect. While they have succeeded in restarting speculation to some extent in equities and commodities, they have utterly failed to do so in most of the securitization and especially the re-securitization markets. Other than the Fed itself, there is very little demand for MBS and ABS. CDOs have fallen flat on their face and can't get up. The investment bankers' efforts to re-securitize garbage and get it rated as AAA again have largely met with derision. Assets in the real economy are seeing no increase in demand at all to this point. Housing, commercial RE, private businesses, capital equipment and others are all in the doldrums with hardly any positives even in the second derivative.Flee(t)ing ConfidenceTake note of which asset classes are seeing speculation and which are not. It is only those that can be sold instantly with a mouse click that are getting any action - equities and commodities which trade as futures on an exchange. The exceptions are revealing. Iron ore, which requires long-term contracts instead of futures isn't going up and in fact is going down, with users essentially buying at spot by refusing to commit to L-T deals. Assets that are theoretically liquid but actually trade by appointment only are seeing little help. This would include the aforementioned MBS and ABS. Those that require a real commitment and have payback periods measured in years continue to crater. Basically, the only confidence at this time is the confidence of the daytrader.Yet we now see speculation among economists that there could be a return to growth in the next four quarters and actually, it's hard to disagree that such a thing is technically possible. The key here is the massive amount of deficit spending by governments around the world. Official US Treasury estimates place the FY 2009 deficit at $1.8 trillion but $2 trillion is more likely. The DEFICIT will likely represent 14% of GDP this year. China is in a similar situation, with a "stimulus" package of nearly $600 billion in a $4.4 trillion dollar economy - which works out to just under 14% of GDP. Hmm, that number sounds familiar.Large segments of both economies are ponzi schemes, though China's most vulnerable sectors are both larger and more leveraged relatively speaking. In the US, the most affected sector is finance; in China, construction and fixed investment. Consider for a moment that both governments are spending enormous sums of money they don't have - effectively borrowing it from the future to spend now. Once again hoping to ignite a chain reaction of speculation and a ne[...]