Bernanke’s speech and the Fed’s big problem

Alasdair Macleod – 1 September 2010

Bernanke’s speech at the Jackson Hole meeting of central bankers last weekend was met with the full range of responses between the severest criticisms and complete apathy. The apathetic are in the majority, but the critics are becoming more focused and vocal, because they can now with certainty point to the failure of monetary policies to achieve anything, in spite of a doubling of the monetary base. This failure is becoming more obvious because the prospects for economic recovery are diminishing. The Fed must be loosing confidence in its own policies, and this is reflected in the mood at the Fed.

That the results of Fed policy are disappointing is no surprise to those of us who see the shortcomings of modern economic theories, but what might surprise some of our small unhappy band is the extent of the failure. The Fed and the government between them planned firstly to rescue the financial system from collapse, and secondly to rescue the economy from further recession by a policy of deficit spending and money printing. The damage to the financial system is barely concealed in its balance sheets for the moment, but anyone who knows half the truth about the insolvency of the banks fears that a second financial crisis is still likely. The rescue of the economy has failed, and is making a second financial crisis almost certain and more immediate.

The failure of Keynesian policies has trapped the Fed in a cul-de-sac, from which there is no obvious escape. So far, it has fortunately managed to keep the economy financed on the back of a bond market bubble.

We must now consider the consequences for the bond market of the failure of these Keynesian policies. The primary result will be a dramatic widening of the Federal deficit and a matching increase in the issuance of treasury debt. The Fed will almost certainly accelerate its QE programme, buying Treasuries; but the tsunami of new government debt seems certain to pop the treasury bubble. Quite simply, Treasuries will no longer be regarded as risk-free, but instead poisoned with risk. Fed buying of treasury debt will be understood for what it is: an extremely dangerous gamble with the value of paper dollars. The Fed will have lost control of the markets, and the markets will have emasculated the Fed.

The gamble is made even more dangerous by the presence of the banks, which have a total exposure of $4.5 trillion dollars to the government and the Fed[1]. This is made up of $2.4 trillion in Treasuries, $1.1 trillion of GSE securities (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae), and $1 trillion in reserves at the Fed. And banks are fickle investors at the best of times.

There is no sign yet that the Fed is worried about these market dynamics. So far, it has been able to print money with impunity, because the markets have given it the benefit of the doubt. But if QE did not work first time round, the markets are unlikely to accept it a second time after the treasury bubble has popped, without considering the inflationary consequences. And there is now a significant danger that the bubble will burst sooner rather than later, because of the deteriorating economy.

The lesson of bursting bubbles is that they are violent, hurtful events that catch the unwary, suggesting the yields on Treasuries have the potential to rise rapidly to unimagined levels. This would be entirely consistent with a swing in banking and investor sentiment, from regarding Treasuries as a safe haven to being laced with risk.

The dangers for the Fed are acute, and it even risks loosing control over short-term rates. The penalty of borrowing at far higher interest rates is an uncosted burden on government finances, and any attempt by the Fed to shore up bond prices by buying Treasuries would be viewed with the deepest cynicism.

For the rest of us investment strategy will have to be rethought. With sharply rising yields in a slumping economy, bond and equity markets will crash, along with commercial and residential property values. All developed economies face similar problems, so are also vulnerable. Emerging markets have attractions, but portfolio exposure to them is already at record levels, and a knock-on effect can be expected from sharply rising dollar/sterling/euro yields. Furthermore, US investors have another problem to contend with: the effect of the end of the bond market bubble on the currency.

Faced with rising yields, foreign investors can be expected to sell both dollars and dollar investments as quickly as possible to limit their losses, adding a potential dollar slide to a bond market crash. So the question for investors becomes, with stocks, bonds and property all turning sour, where do they invest their money? The answer by a process of elimination is likely to be key commodities.

Meanwhile, as I wrote last week, there is likely to be accelerating demand for the same commodities from China and other Asian nations, partly to secure resources for their own future needs and partly to reduce their dollar exposure. So we face the prospect of both portfolio and strategic buyers bidding for commodities at the same time. The effect, given fixed supply, could be dramatic, with the cost of food and energy in particular spiralling out of control. How high will the price of wheat rise? Five or ten times? How high does the price of oil go as winter approaches? $300? Or higher?

It would be no exaggeration to describe such an eventuality as a hyperinflationary slump.

As proxy for this mess and perhaps in anticipation of it, both gold and silver are showing worrying signs of strength, defying all attempts by both central and bullion banks to suppress their prices. If these proxies for money are leading the way, the omens are not good. We have arrived at the moment when central banks have lost control of bullion prices to growing private sector hoarding, which so far has hardly started. When the dust settles, we will look back at the systemic shortages of these two metals in disbelief, and wonder how it could have happened.

There is therefore forward-looking evidence that the US economy is entering a second recession, the reflationary moves to date having failed. The catastrophic deterioration in government finances this implies will change investment perceptions of Treasuries, collapsing the bond market. By a process of elimination, these flows can only go to key commodities with dramatic consequences. The argument is to strong to ignore, and deserves full consideration, rather than dismissed.


[1] Excluding money in current accounts and bank tills.

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Alasdair started his career as a stockbroker in 1970 on the London Stock Exchange. In those days, trainees learned everything: from making the tea, to corporate finance, to evaluating and dealing in equities and bonds. They learned rapidly through experience about things as diverse as mining shares and general economics. It was excellent training, and within nine years Alasdair had risen to become senior partner of his firm. Subsequently, Alasdair held positions at director level in investment management, and worked as a mutual fund manager. He also worked at a bank in Guernsey as an executive director. For most of his 40 years in the finance industry, Alasdair has been de-mystifying macro-economic events for his investing clients. The accumulation of this experience has convinced him that unsound monetary policies are the most destructive weapon governments use against the common man. Accordingly, his mission is to educate and inform the public in layman’s terms what governments do with money and how to protect themselves from the consequences.

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