Sunday, June 29, 2008

Global Financial Markets: US Sneezes, World Catches Cold!

``So there is a connection between the ultra-expansionary monetary policies of Mr. Bernanke – I might add, an economist that is an academic and that has studied the Depression but doesn’t understand anything about international macroeconomic conditions. And the conditions that led to the Depression in 1929-32 are very different from what we are facing today because commodity prices at that time had been in an upward trend from 1890 to 1921, but throughout the 1920s, essentially in a downtrend. We are now in an uptrend, so the more money he prints, the higher commodity prices will go, and the lower the dollar will go and the more inflationary pressures the U.S. will face.”-Dr. Marc Faber on Global Inflation

The Dam finally broke.

The three major equity market bellwethers of the US are now knocking at the bear’s lair in the wake of the market’s carnage last week. Following the breakdown of Dow Jones Industrials, the 30 company price weighted average benchmark is now at the brink from the official technical description of a bear market or a loss of 20% from the peak.

The Industrials is down 19.89% from its zenith in October (based on closing prices), while the contemporary benchmarks of the S & P 500 and the Nasdaq are likewise nearing the technical breakdown and are down 18.32% and 19.01% from October, respectively.

And when the US sneezes, the world catches cold, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: courtesy of The US Sneezes, The World Catches Cold

Like its US counterpart, the Euro Stoxx 50, a free float market cap weighted index of the 50 European blue chips is seen likewise attempting a technical breakdown (pane below main window) now perched at the critical support levels, while Asia and Emerging markets (center and lowest pane) have also been feeling the heat.

$140 Oil: The Last Nail In The Coffin

Again, mainstream media and their coterie of experts has fingered $140 oil as the culprit, but as we have been saying all along, $140 oil represents as only a contributory factor or the proverbial last “nail” in the coffin.

The recessionary pressures-from the ongoing credit turmoil, the housing meltdown, the market tightening of access to financing, the grand “deleveraging” in the financial sector, growing statistics of bankruptcies and foreclosures, mounting job losses, falling corporate profits, worsening balance sheets, consumer spending retrenchment, slowing capital investments and others, aside from higher “inflation” (high energy and food costs, rising prices of imports, rising costs of raw materials et. al.)-have combined to impact the real economy, which is now being reflected in the revaluation of the US equity markets.

Figure 2: courtesy of Bloomberg: Rising TED Spread: Credit Woes Not over!

Figure 2 from Bloomberg is just an example of the prevailing abnormalities and disruptions in the credit markets affecting both the financial sector and the real economy.

The TED spread-or “the difference between the interest rate for the three month US Treasuries contract and the three month Eurodollars contract as represented by the London Inter Bank Offered Rate (LIBOR). However, since the Chicago Mercantile Exchange dropped the T-bill futures, the TED spread is now calculated as the difference between the three month T-bill interest rate and three month LIBOR. The TED spread is a measure of liquidity and shows the degree to which banks are willing to lend money to one another” ( to remain under severe strain and appears reaccelerating.

So as financial institutions remain reluctant to lend to each other, this suggests of the dearth of access to finance by many economic agents in the real economy, which essentially leads to an economic growth slowdown.

Figure 3: courtesy of Northern Trust: Falling Corporate Profits From the US

Such impact is becoming more evident in the performance of corporate profitability. This from Chief economist Paul Kasriel of Northern Trust (underscore mine),

``Along with its “final” estimate of first-quarter GDP, the BEA also reported its revised estimate of first-quarter corporate profits. Compared with the fourth quarter of 2007, corporate profits from current operations were estimated to have declined 0.3% in the first quarter of 2008 rather than the 0.3% increase originally reported. Looking at total profits on a year-over-year basis, they were up 1.0% in the first quarter. But, as shown in Chart 1, profits generated from domestic operations contracted 4.8% -- the third consecutive quarter in which year-over-year domestically-generated corporate profits contracted. If total profits are increasing year-over-year, but domestically-generated profits are contracting, then it must be that profits generated from overseas operations are increasing.

So as shown above, this is not all about oil.

In Eyes Of Ben Bernanke: Systemic Deflation, Interest Rates and Petrol Deficits

There is an idea being floated that “frustrated expectations” over the policy actions of Fed controlled interest rates had been answerable for this week’s rout.

Since the prevailing belief is that oil prices have been “causing” the stress in the US economy and the financial markets, the expectations was for the Fed Chairman Bernanke to “raise rates” in order to combat rising oil prices. Since the Fed stayed on with the present rates, market’s expectations was unfulfilled, thus the attendant mayhem. How I wish it were so simple.

We don’t want to moralize about the principles of money “tightening” although it is a premise which we basically agree with. Yet it is one of the many things the world can do to ease the present strains but comes with a political cost.

The role of market participants is to anticipate on the prospective developments in the marketplace in order to profit from it. So we should instead attempt to understand the mindset of the leadership or those at the helm of the US Federal Reserve, particularly of Fed Chair Bernanke.

Second, it should be understood that the cyclical counterpart of a boom derived from credit inflation is an ensuing bust from debt deflation, which is what we are seeing in the US and parts of Europe today.

Indeed, the US government has reacted with a cocktail of countermeasures to cushion the aftermath of the housing, mortgage and structured finance bubble (deflation) bust with tax rebates, expanding the role of (Government Sponsored Enterprises) GSEs of Federal Home Loan Banks, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as mortgage “buyer of last resort”, sharp interest rates cuts, bridge financing via direct access by financial intermediaries to the Fed, currency swap with foreign central banks, the Fed engineered acquisition of investment bank Bear Stearns and the partial overhaul of the asset side of the Federal Reserve balance sheet replaced with collateral from various financial institutions that had been frozen or illiquid in the marketplace. But apparently, these actions have not resolved the liquidity or the solvency issues plaguing the financial sector-the epicenter of today’s debacle.

Thus, as stated in our latest blog post, Chairman Bernanke The Ideologue Probably Won’t Raise Anytime Soon, Mr. Bernanke’s premier concern is one of a systemic debt deflation (or a repeat of the Great Depression or Japan’s lost decade) and perhaps views the current inflation menace as a temporary phenomenon despite the recent verbal signaling to the opposite effect-“the upside risks to inflation and inflation expectations have increased” (Federal Reserves).

When action is measured against words, the point is, with nominal interest rates far below the official rate of “inflation”, which signifies a policy decision, this opines that Mr. Bernanke is indubitably concerned with the impact from the overleverage in the system- yes, as an example trading of enigmatic derivative instruments have now ballooned to $692 trillion (Bloomberg) or more than 10x the GDP of the global economy!

On the other hand, the issue of rising oil prices equals a US recession has been a causality embraced by mainstream thinking.

This quote from Stephen Leeb (Hat Tip Barry Ritholtz), ``Nothing has been a more reliable indicator for an upcoming recession as the price of Oil. Every major bear market, every major economic decline has been preceded by a large spike in oil prices. The 73-74 recession, recession of beginning 80's and the recession of 2000. Oil prices jumped 80% between 1999 and 2000. Oil prices have been the most important indicator of major economic disasters. Whenever Oil prices rise about 80% from year ago levels, a fair chance does exist that a recession/bear market will follow."

Figure 4: Courtesy of St. Louis Fed: Oil Is Not The Only Driver of Recession; Interest Rates too!

Figure 4 from the Federal Bank of St. Louis shows that rising oil prices and a US recession has not solely been the coincidental variables but interest rates too!

Rising interest rates (red line) preceded ALL recession periods (gray area) in the US since 1954. Nonetheless, when oil prices came into the picture in about 1965 (blue line), all instances where oil price rose significantly and was met with an attendant recession, the interest rate cycles were seen either peaking out or rolling over.

What this could suggest is that policy measures (mostly in response to the bond market via rising treasury yields) to wring out “inflation” in the system as signified by high oil prices could have led to the “recession or bear market” indicated by Mr. Leeb.

Put bluntly, it is not oil prices but a tightening environment to squeeze out “inflation” that resulted to these periods of recession. Oil prices again, served as the most convenient scapegoat.

And Mr. Bernanke, whom have exhaustively been trying to avert a recession, could have probably seen this picture and has purposely moved against such tightening in the belief that economic growth guided by the Fed’s monetary and fiscal policies, could help patch up these deflationary bottlenecks overtime while “inflation” symptoms of high oil prices could perhaps bow or vanish amidst these deflationary headwinds.

Another factor perhaps, is that the realization by Mr. Bernanke & co. of the nature of today’s monetary inflation as being transmitted through mainly the US current account deficit and secondarily monetary pegs or dollar linked currency framework adopted by about 45 countries.

Figure 5: courtesy of Brad Sester: US Petroleum Deficit Already Exceeds the Non-Petroleum Deficits

The idea is that since US monetary aggregates and bank credit (loans or investments of commercial banks) have NOT been expanding, petroleum imports- to quote our favorite keen eyed fund flow analyst Council on Foreign Relation’s Brad Setser, ``The petroleum deficit – over the last three months – already exceeds the non-petroleum deficit” -has now become the dominant variable of the US current account deficit which effectively becomes the primary source of monetary lubricant for the economic growth engines of emerging markets economies.

In figure 5 courtesy of Brad Setser, Petroleum imports have been expanding to the degree more than enough to offset the decline in non petrol imports. Said differently, US consumers have been materially buying less of foreign goods and have been paying more for oil products!

Remember, US export growth has been relatively strong in the face of today’s tribulations and has cushioned its economy from massive deterioration. And the continuity of such conditions requires a robust pace of export growth which emanates from a vigorous clip of external demand expansion.

Perhaps Mr. Bernanke thinks that if a decline in the Petrol deficits without the accompanying improvement in non-petroleum deficits translates to a slowdown of global demand for US products then the US economy faces the risks of a deflationary collapse! Put differently the US is in a life support system presently sustained by its monetary policy induced externally generated inflation process!

And this could be the reason why US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson recently made rounds to the Gulf states telling them that abandoning the (currency) pegs “will not solve their inflation problems” (CBSMarketwatch).

Of course, the mirror view is that a US deflationary bust will extrapolate to a global depression (as repeatedly advocated by some)!

In effect, the implicit impact from the policies assumed (or of keeping rates on hold) by Mr. Bernanke & co. is to maintain a weak dollar, high oil price, and continued monetary inflation from the world feeding into the US economy by shoring up its exports in the hope that the latter will offset it from a deflationary collapse.

Maybe if all the above measures cease to work then the last ace for Mr. Bernanke would be to expand the Fed’s balance sheets by printing money or otherwise the US economy could succumb to deflationary recession!

Bernanke In Hot Seat, Imbalances As An Offshoot To Consenting Nations

Yes, Mr. Bernanke is in hot seat as the Federal Reserve for the first time in US history is due to undergo scrutiny from the IMF. According to Der Spiegel’s Gabor Steingart (highlight ours),

``Officials with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have informed Bernanke about a plan that would have been unheard-of in the past: a general examination of the US financial system. The IMF's board of directors has ruled that a so-called Financial Sector Assessment Program (FSAP) is to be carried out in the United States. It is nothing less than an X-ray of the entire US financial system.

``As part of the assessment, the Fed, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the major investment banks, mortgage banks and hedge funds will be asked to hand over confidential documents to the IMF team. They will be required to answer the questions they are asked during interviews. Their databases will be subjected to so-called stress tests -- worst-case scenarios designed to simulate the broader effects of failures of other major financial institutions or a continuing decline of the dollar.

``Under its bylaws, the IMF is charged with the supervision of the international monetary system. Roughly two-thirds of IMF members -- but never the United States -- have already endured this painful procedure.”

It is likely that many countries have seen how US policies have unduly been impacting the world (through higher consumer goods and services inflation), thus the IMF could be applying pressures to the US to adopt a more global centric policies (speculation for me here). Of course, adopting currency pegs is a national determined policy, which means today’s imbalances is a product of “consenting states” or playing within the unwritten guidelines of the US dollar standard.

In finality, Mr. Bernanke’s recent policies have resulted to a general market tumult: a big decline in global equity markets, a rally in US Treasuries, a fall in global sovereign bonds, a retreat in US dollar index, and a massive rally in major commodities. Mixed signal in all.

No, this week’s decline isn’t all deflationary...

Table 1: Commodity Indices Outperforms!

Not for the moment in the US anyway…

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