Higher Labor Costs Drive… Productivity Gains! Which Create Wealth. Inflation Can Do Good. IF You Let the Free Market Do Its Work.

We live better now because Agriculture went from ~95% of the workforce in the 1800’s to about 2% today.  How did that happen (mostly)?  Labor got expensive.  The industrial revolution gave people higher-paid, more attractive options to back-breaking stoop labor. So they left the farm.  Landowners either adjusted to that or they went bust.  Society was vastly better off for the disruption.

Last week I went camping (Spring Break with 2 toddlers – eeeek!).  We ate out twice in Santa Barbara, CA.  Both restaurants – family friendly mid-range – had converted over to counter service.  Place your order, take a number to your table, and a busboy would deliver it.  No more wait staff – even in a town with a major University. 

Counter-service restaurants are a micro example of how macro-level “productivity gains” manifest themselves.  Productivity gains = more output per unit of labor/capital/land.  You don’t get gains without a shift in how labor/capital/land are employed.  Making something more expensive (e.g. labor) is usually what drives that shift.

Higher Wages and Scarce Labor Force
=> Short Term Inflation
=> Long-Term Productivity Gains.
= Durable Wealth Creation

Labor costs do drive “inflation” shorter-term, but the long-term result is productivity gains if you let the free market work its magic.  If farm labor gets expensive, you buy a combine harvester.  If wait staff get too expensive, you switch to counter service.  The marginal returns from Do you want fries with that? no longer justify the marginal costs of hiring, retention, and wages.  The people who used to wait tables move on to higher-paying alternatives…

Society is long-term wealthier for that exercise of free-market choice.  Admittedly We don’t get “fries with that” anymore.  We also don’t toil in the fields or have butlers and ladies maids anymore.  The economy found more productive (and personally rewarding) uses for labor as its cost went up.

For some politics masquerading as economics unknown reason, a lot of “free market” commentators don’t want to let the actual free market do that work.

To them, rising labor costs must always be met with an immediate, panicked rush into a Fed-driven recession.  Throwing the long-term baby – productivity – out the window with the bathwater – short-term wage cost inflation.

But we also know productivity gains are the ONLY source of real wealth creation in an economic system.  Any other economic shifts just redistribute existing wealth.   Productivity grows the pie.  Everything else slices it differently.  The “free market” political agenda favors wealth re-distribution over real wealth creation…

It isn’t all politics.  I’ll close with a good tweet thread  by Micheal Pettis (economist who specializes in China) on how international factors have influenced the wage dynamic.

This is ideally how things should work. High wages drive automation, and automation drives wages up further as workers become more productive and businesses compete for workers. Meanwhile more spending by workers create more services jobs.

This is what used to happen in the US, but now, economies in a hyperglobalized world compete mainly by subsidizing manufacturing, directly or indirectly suppressing wages to do so. High wages now are more likely to drive offshoring than to drive productivity growth.
https://twitter.com/michaelxpettis/status/1644917558842388481?s=20

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The Market Myth of an All-Powerful Fed is Looking Pretty… Mythical.

18 months into one of the fastest, steepest Fed hiking cycles in history, the market myth of an all-powerful Fed is looking pretty… mythical.

A year ago, “Team Interest Rate” was predicting economic Armageddon in January 2022 whilst expecting a MUCH SMALLER hiking cycle.  The high estimate for rate increases was about 1.75 points.  Those 1.75 points were expected to put the economy on the ropes.  A crushing recession was sure to follow.  The debate was whether it would be like 2001 (do.com) or 2008 (GFC).

18 months later, the Fed has raised rates by 4.5 percentage points.  One of the biggest rate hikes in history.  We have seen some impact.  How much?  We’ll never know.  But it is pretty obvious reality has not met prior expectations.

In bumper sticker terms, karma just ran over that dogma…

But most market commentators keep on seeing reality world through the lens of their preferred myths.  What and why do they see?

I recently struggled through “The Price of Time: The Real Story of Interest”  by a man who believes, deeply, in interest rates.  In his economic worldview, interest rates explain everything.  Rates drive everything. Rates are… everything?!?  It was a little weird (and a turgid read).  Yet I’ve seen it cited a few times (like in the FT).  So it clearly clicked with some folks out there.  People who see the Fed and rates as a one-factor economic driver…

He is sort’ve correct that interest rates REFLECT everything.  But do they drive?  Or are they driven?  Do we understand the world better by looking at the component things that make up “everything?” Or do we understand it better boiled down to a single, desiccated measure of that whole?

The right answer is we should look both ways.  Look at the forest and the trees.  The market consensus, centered around an unhealthy cult of “hallowed be the Fed.” is only looking at the forest…  Breezy talk of “a recession” avoids the specifics of a recession led by what sectors and caused by whom?

The whole over-focus on interest rates (and the Fed) as the “only thing that matters” keeps reminding me of Plato’s allegory of the cave (below).  Decades of experience has trained multiple  generations to just watch the shadows on the wall…

They see big, messy, vibrant economic and political chaos it reflects.  But (perhaps through disgust at that chaos?) they deeply believe the flickering shadows hold some greater truth than the chaos reflected.  Reality just goes on its untidy way.

In sum:  A lot of investors and reporters have grown up with a deep belief that “everything” can be explained by fine-grained movements of the Fed’s short-term interest rate target.  This faith was never well supported by academic economics or the Fed’s own research output.  Reality itself is also not cooperating.

Wikipedia – Allegory of the Cave https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory_of_the_cave

In the allegory “The Cave”, Plato describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality, but are not accurate representations of the real world. The shadows represent the fragment of reality that we can normally perceive through our senses, while the objects under the sun represent the true forms of objects that we can only perceive through reason. Three higher levels exist: the natural sciences; mathematics, geometry, and deductive logic; and the theory of forms.

Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are actually not the direct source of the images seen. A philosopher aims to understand and perceive the higher levels of reality. However, the other inmates of the cave do not even desire to leave their prison, for they know no better life.[1]

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Maybe the Market’s Forecast is More “Banking Crisis Avoided” Than “Deep Recession Ahead?”

The market is betting the Fed will have to cur rates by September-December 2023.

  • We don’t (yet) know if the market is pricing in a fast drop in other economic sectors.  Many commentators (and the Fed’s own projections) expect a big drop-off, but the market’s mind is inscrutable.
  • We know the probability of such a rapid downturn shrinks with every “not-so-bad” month of data we get.  If things don’t start to drop fast soon…

So what if we keep getting ho-hum data and the market keeps pricing in Fed cuts?

  • The good news is the market is likely pricing in “no major downturn ahead.”  The Fed cuts to head off a banking crisis, not a recession.
  • The bad news is we’ll need to adopt a more nuanced perspective on the economy.

One way or the other, the objective facts of the last 12-18 months have not supported a widespread belief that the Fed’s rate policies are “the” one-shot driver of the economy.

It is possible we see the scenario reflected in the Fed’s forecasts.  A dramatic, immediate decline in not-so-rate-sensitive sectors.  The whole economy slows to near-zero growth .  Unemployment goes up.   Rapidly over the next 6-9 months.

In that case, the Fed can declare victory and cut rates.  Everyone will forget how little impact the rate increases had for how long.  The Fed’s economic forecast lines up neatly with the market’s rate-cut forecast.  Faith in the Fed will stay as fervent as ever.

But that broader slowdown must come quickly if it is to come at all…

Maybe we don’t see a tire-screeching economic halt?  A lot of indicators don’t point that way.  The Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow forecast is at 3.2% for 1Q23.  Other indicators (the HYG index, for example), aren’t showing elevated risk.

Maybe we just see more of the same gradual fade of activity and inflation?  Caused mostly by wages not keeping up with higher prices and other supply/demand factors.  Along with the (so far surprisingly contained) damage the Fed has done to rate-sensitive sectors like Banks and Real Estate.

  • Tidy Story:  The steely eyed, technocratic Fed will raise rates and cause “a recession.”  They will press until unemployment goes up…
  • Messy Reality:  If Fed keeps rates high enough for long enough, it will mechanically force a banking crisis in concert with a Real Estate Crisis.  A Banking and Commercial Real Estate crisis would definitely cause a major recession.

The Fed doesn’t want to be directly responsible for sparking that crisis.  That hoped-for unemployment would bloom over the corpses of the Regional Banks and a lot of (mostly private) private Real Estate fortunes.  Piled up at the Fed’s door

In that case, the Fed probably declares victory and cuts rates anyway to head off a banking/CRE crisis.   The “gradual fade” scenario above could be the actual forecast embedded in market expectations for rate cuts by the end of the year (80%-90% chance in November-December 2023).  The rate cuts coming mostly heading off a banking/CRE bust, not a plain-vanilla recession.

The good news is its rate cuts would immediately affect rate-sensitive sectors.  So the Fed has the power to stop a Banks and Real Estate death spiral (because “rate-sensitive”).  The market knows that.  It expects the Fed to act.

The Fed’s calculus is tough. Their biggest achievement so far is a wholly avoidable Bank run. Yet credibility is a key asset.  There is nothing more damaging than following through on a long-repeated “terrible threat” only to discover the consequences/costs aren’t nearly as big as imagined.

  • How long can the banks hold out?  How many Real Estate investors can avoid ruinous re-financing?
  • How to balance that against how little impact to date the Fed’s rate increases have had elsewhere…?  Other, less rate sensitive, sectors keep delivering month after month of “not obviously succumbing to interest rate pressure...”
  • How to save face?  Powell & Co. also set out 12-18 months with great faith.  The economy was certain to fold after they put a few rate cuts on the table.  They were forced to double down.  Then double down again.

Never forget that Powell isn’t an economist.  He’s a Wall Street capital markets guy.  He had great faith in his institutional powers.  Along with most of his peers.  Because “everyone” knew the Fed was the one-shot factor in the equation.  Today, Powell is looking perplexed, uncomfortable, and a wee bit nervous.  Faith hasn’t been enough to carry the day.

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Why “Higher For Longer” = “The Fed Calling In an Airstrike on Its Own Positions”

For devotees of the (missing and suspected dead) Phillips Curve cargo cult, the Fed can’t stop raising rates until we see major unemployment.  I do not share their faith in the defunct Phillips Curve or an all-powerful Fed.  I agree the Fed can deliver that unemployment.  In this cycle, the Fed would do that by sacrificing a bunch of Regional Banks and the (huge) family/dynastic wealth tied up in Commercial Real Estate (CRE).

Is the Fed likely to make that sacrifice? 

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”  – George Orwell, Animal Farm.

Here is where messy politics complicates the tidy narrative…    If you only see the forest, you overlook that some trees are more important (and more vocal) than others.  Banking and Commercial Real Estate are VERY important trees – loved and protected by many in power.

Where will a wealthy mob carrying pitchforks and torches go when they look for retribution for their personal losses?  The path from higher rates to the Fed’s doorstep would be obvious.  Especially if that doorstep is littered with dead/dying regional banks clutching defaulted CRE loans.

  • The Fed cares a LOT about the banks.  That is where Fed staffers go to get jobs.  The 48 Senators and 409 Congressmen who are NOT from New York also care a lot about “their” local banks run by their friends and donors.
  • The top 10% cares a LOT about CRE as an asset class.  The Fed wouldn’t be blowing little people out of their homes in Vegas (like 2008).  The Fed would be blowing up dynastic wealth that underpins most “millionaire next door” fortunes outside of the major mega cities.  Commercial Real Estate underpins the fortunes of a lot of Congresspeople themselves, much less their donors and neighbors.  Real Estate underpins the fortune of a deeply selfish Orange-Haired demagogue who doesn’t play fair.  Look at how immediately effective (and comically pained) the SVB’s depositors howls were.  Now multiply those howls from that same class nationwide.
  • The Fed cares MOST about its independence, prestige, and mystique.  Those will all come under attack if they end up blamed for “Blowing up my community’s regional bank and destroying MY family’s hard earned fortune.”  Congress is not full of people inclined to sacrifice for the greater good.  Payback would be brutal.  It might even be pre-emptive.  Facing this well-heeled mob, the Fed likely comes out a shadow of its former self.  The Fed knows that.  It will avoid that conflict.

So the tidy market narrative of “The Fed stays the course and we get a recession” decomposes into messy political reality of “If the Fed stays the course, it would be calling in an airstrike on its own position.” 

Maybe you genuinely believe that steely eyed Powell has the stones to do that.  From what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think he will.  They will cut rates before too many banks go under.

They are playing for time.  Hoping to get some economic softening, lower CPI numbers, and a bit of unemployment.  That gives them a fig leaf to justify the move.  The economic numbers will likely give them that.

But if they don’t get that fig-leaf, they do the rate cuts naked.  Because the path to a deep, unemployment-driving, Phillips Curve Cargo-Cult recession leads through too much pain in sectors that have too much political pull.  That is the messy reality.

The cult of the all-powerful Fed will paper over the (obvious) cracks in their narrative and declare this another great victory.  But the world will know this a little more in its heart;  Interest rates are a blunt-force instrument with wildly differential impacts across different economic sectors.  There are other, better tools for managing the economic cycle.  At some point, the fever dream will break and we’ll go back to a more balanced toolkit.

The lady doth protest too much, methinks. (“used in everyday speech to indicate doubt of someone’s sincerity, especially regarding the truth of a strong denial)”.  Fed quotes from Friday March 24…

  • WASHINGTON, March 24 (Reuters) – St. Louis Federal Reserve president James Bullard said Friday the U.S. likely will need higher than expected interest rates to contain inflation as the economy remains strong and stress in the banking sector likely eases.  (how is stress in the banking system – caused by higher short term rates – going to ease if short term rates go higher than expected?)
  • Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Raphael Bostic acknowledged banking sector woes made the central bank’s interest rate hike call this week challenging, but he said the Fed’s main job must remain focused on getting inflation lower. Speaking in an interview Friday with National Public Radio, Bostic said “there was a lot of debate but this wasn’t a straightforward decision” to raise rates this week even as the banking sector is under stress. But, “we have to get inflation under control and back to our target,” Bostic said.
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Will The Fed Destroy Banking And CRE To Get The Unemployment Everyone Is Looking For?

A lot of people expect the Fed to keep raising rates to drive “the economy” into a recession.  They don’t give much thought to the route we’d take to get there;  What sub-sectors of the economy are (or are not) taking the most damage right now?  Banking and Commercial Real Estate (CRE).  They are already bending. Pressed harder for longer, those sectors will break.  That break would likely cause the recession so many seek. 

So that belief boils down to the Fed will raise rates and force a Banking and Commercial Real Estate crisis (to get that hoped-for recession).

That belief boils down to the Fed has the courage and/or stupidity to call in an airstrike on its own position.

I don’t believe Powell has that courage.  He’s a politician.  He also isn’t stupid.  It would be a horrendous mistake for his reputation, the Fed’s independence, and the economy as a whole.  Better to suffer the ghastly fate of… 2.75% inflation.

Is that a forecast from some left-loony MMT opinion?  No.  The Cleveland Fed’s Center for Inflation Research put this paper out 3 months ago.  I’m reading “would not be optimal” as Fed-speak for “fantastically stupid…”

“Our model projects that… core PCE inflation moderates to only 2.75 percent by the end of 2025: inflation will be higher for longer. A deep recession would be necessary to achieve [2% inflation].  A simple… welfare analysis… suggests that such a recession would not be optimal.

This is Powell’s way out…

More on why blowing up the Banks and Real Estate would be an airstrike on the Fed’s own  position tomorrow.

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Is the Market Expecting a Recession? Or The Fed Heading off a Bank (and Real Estate) Crisis?

Markets now see a a 97.6% chance of a Fed rate cut by September 2023.   Market consensus is “the Fed will have to cut rates because we will have a recession.But what if we get a rate cut without a (major) recession?   What if the Fed starts cutting rates while many sectors of the economy are doing OK?

The Fed itself is predicting only 0.4% GDP growth in 2023.  The consensus view is below (per DataTrek)

Takeaway: Markets walked away from today’s FOMC announcement and Chair press conference even more convinced that the Fed will have to cut rates before the end of the year. The yield on 1- and 2-year Treasuries, which fell today to 4.51 and 3.96 percent, confirms that sentiment. That goes counter to the FOMC’s latest Summary of Economic Projections, as we will shortly discuss.

The important question is “what does the market think it sees”? The short answer is the growing risk of a US recession. During his post-meeting press conference, Chair Powell was very clear in his message that the Fed will not try to predict what effect a slowdown in bank lending may have on the American economy. Rather, it will wait and see what the incoming economic data has to say about both economic growth in inflation. The market seems rightly concerned about that idea. After all, by the time growth is clearly slowing and inflation is waning, it may well be too late to adjust monetary policy enough to avoid a significant economic slowdown.  (DataTrek Research 23March23)

Either we are going to have a mega-fast deceleration over the next 3 Q’s or….  we won’t.  The problem?  The real economy doesn’t look to be cooperating.

  • A 3.6% YoY growth forecast from the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow estimate for the March quarter.  This is usually directionally correct by this far into the quarter.   https://www.atlantafed.org/cqer/research/gdpnow
  • Unemployment is at 3.6% (the Fed’s expectations are 4.5% by year end but “everyone” knows that is a low-ball vs their real expected number).
  • The labor market is showing no signs of cracking.  Jobless claims went down this week.  Vacancies remain high.  Wage growth is solid.

Again, we do likely get a slowdown.  Economic data points to deceleration.  But there aren’t a lot of obvious signs of a screeching, shuddering, smoking-tires, next-3-6-months hard stop.  Which is kind’ve what you’d need to see for the the Fed to start cutting rates big-time (97% chance) by September 2023.

Maybe the market is wrong about the rate cuts?  Those expectations have bounced around a lot.

Or maybe the market is right about the rate cuts, but NOT because of a general recession?  Maybe (ahem) incipient signs of crisis in sectors near and dear to the Fed’s institutional heart?**

Certain sectors – Banking and Commercial Real Estate – are definitely sliding into crisis.  How fast and how deep and how bad?  It depends partly on how you weight various scenarios.  It depends mostly on the future trajectory of Fed rate decisions.

The Fed and the Treasury are ALREADY (quietly, but obviously) panicking.  How else would you describe the last 2 weeks?  What are they worried about?  Bank failures.  Driven by high rates (directly hurting bank profits) and by Commercial Real Estate (indirectly threatening bank loan books – especially smaller regional banks).

How does the Fed prevent those nightmare scenarios?  They cut rates.

Even if the economy is NOT in a tailspin recession.  Even if most of the economy is chugging along.  Because the banking sector and Commercial Real estate are systemically important.  They are also institutionally important to the Fed.  And those sectors are pretty clearly already in a recession.

Seen in this light, the Fed is praying the headlines go its way on inflation and the economy.  Declining headline CPI and some economic softening to provide a fig leaf of cover for a move the Fed is going to have to make anyway.

** Yes, a major Banking and Real Estate crisis would almost certainly cause a general recession.  What I am saying is the Fed will act to save its children before we get to that major crisis and subsequent recession.  We likely don’t get a real crisis if rates only stay high until September-December (per the market’s prediction).  The crisis risk goes up as/if rates stay high into 2024.  The problem with the Fed’s Higher for Longer promises was always the “for Longer” part.

More Context on the Slow-Rolling Crisis:  From the Financial Times (subscription required). 

But even if SVB-style dramas can be avoided, the pattern is creating “a long tail of zombie banks”, as the hedge fund Bridgewater says. “Policymakers can stop a bank run but unless the Fed cuts rates they can’t stop the repricing in banks funding costs.” That feeds into a third issue: a credit crunch. As funding costs rise, banks will cut loans.

In some senses this is what Fed officials want, since slower credit creation will curb inflation. But the rub is that it is extremely hard to predict the impact of a credit squeeze since it can create a self-reinforcing downward spiral of recession and defaults. So while the crisis in American banks was initially sparked by interest rate (and liquidity) risks, it could now slowly morph into a problem of credit risk too.

The $5.6tn commercial real estate lending market illustrates the problem. At present 70 per cent of these loans comes from small and medium-sized groups. “Small banks’ absolute dollar exposure to CRE lending has grown at an accelerating rate over the past ten years,” notes Morgan Stanley;

Even before the interest rate cycle turned, CRE values were starting to come under pressure because the rise of internet shopping and homeworking hurt retail and office space. But with rates rising, “all of a sudden those assets become very hard to roll over” as Rick Rieder of BlackRock says. Since $2.5tn of loans are due to be refinanced in the next five years, this will eventually create pain for borrowers — and banks.

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A Fed/Treasury Compact? If So, Rate Rises are Mostly Done. The Logic Of Mutual Assured Destruction.

This was supposed to go out Tuesday night, but the power went out here.  It still holds pretty well. 

Addendum:  The Fed did raise rates 25 bps, but made noises about slowing down etc…. In “potential bar fight” terms, the guy is still shouting threats and looking tough, but his feet are ever so slightly edging backwards.  Market sees that – now pricing in rising probabilities of rate cuts between September 2023 (77%) to December ’23 (95%).

By that time headline CPI is probably fading and the Fed will have an excuse to rush to rescue of the banks and commercial Real Estate.  Maybe labor markets and wages have tanked, but that would have to be a pretty dramatic deceleration over a a very short time period.  More likely the economy is humming along and maybe we just have to get used to (gasp) 3% inflation….

Tuesday Night Post

The fix might be in. The Treasury and Fed have now both placed mutually self-destructive bets on the table.  They don’t want to lose those bets.  That suggests the Fed’s rate-raising campaign peters out from here.

If US regional banks go bust, both the Fed and the Treasury face embarrassing, publicly obvious losses.  Cue howls of protest and (maybe literal) pitchforks, and torches.  That  might happen if we tumble into a banking crisis, but regulators do set the odds of their own success.

What were those bets?

  • The Treasury just stated they will guarantee the deposits of all US regional banks.  Writing a blank check (OK, the FDIC is writing the blank check but the Treasury’s neck is now stuck out).  Betting it never gets cashed (in a bank failure).
  • The Fed (in its role as bank regulator) is buying (OK, “guaranteeing”) bank’s debt holdings at 100 cents on the dollar.  Knowing full well the fair market price today is (say) 85 cents.  They are deliberately over-paying to pad the banks balance sheets.  Betting that over-payment (and/or losses) never gets marked to market (in a bank failure).

Neither the Fed or the Treasury wants to lose these bets.  How do they avoid losing?  By ending rate rises sooner vs later.  Reducing the pressure on the banks.

After the Treasury announcement today, chances of a Fed rate cut in December 2023 went from 98% (2 days ago) to 58%.  We now go out to May 2024 before the betting is near-certain (96%) for rate cuts.

Is there an explicit deal here?  Probably not.  Is there an implicit deal between the two entities responsible for protecting the banks and financial system?  Probably.

The Fed (who controls rates) moved first.  The Treasury (who has a very big bully pulpit and a lot to do with banks and the Treasury market) moved second.  Now they are both publicly committed.  Tidy bit of game theory.

Mapping it out, the bank regulatory dyad (Fed/Treasury) have two paths forward.

  1. Make damn sure the banks don’t go bust on, for example, soured real estate loans, rising deposit rates, and a major economic downturn.
  2. Press on with rate rises – increasing the risk on those bets.  The blank check guarantees get cashed and the over-payment valuations get busted.   Cue howls of “bailout” from people who like to howl about things that rile up their base – Elizabeth Warren and Marjorie Taylor Greene for example.

My bet is they go with #1. In which case the fix is in.  The Fed steps off the gas from here and the Treasury does its bit along the way.

This might all sound a little too “political.”  But that is because it all is political.  Watch Yellen squirm here.  Powell never wants to find himself squirming alongside her.  This Oklahoma Senator does a great job of getting that point (and threat) across.  Senator Warren (originally from Oklahoma) will be happy to do the same to Powell and his precious place in history.  A few days later, Yellen says all the banks get their deposits guaranteed.  Pure politics well played,

 

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Crash or Growth Ahead? Assets Probably Can’t Squirm Out of Taking Damage Either Way…

Looking ahead, we probably face either (mild) inflation or debt deflation.*  Both leading to the same place.  Losses on assets.

* [Debt Deflation] = deflation, causing people to default on their consumer loans and mortgages. Bank assets fall because of the defaults and because the value of their collateral falls, leading to a surge in bank insolvencies, a reduction in lending and by extension, a reduction in spending.

What we are watching right now is “the assets” twisting and squirming to try and find a way for someone else to take the pain.  In more simple terms.  Rich people (assets) trying to somehow shift the pain to poor people (labor market).  Like we chose to do in 2008.  Homeowners suffered most of the pain (paving the way for Trump’s takeover and the effective destruction of the “traditional Republican” party, but I digress).

Don’t think it is going to work this time around.  Our current state is…

Near-term future.  The Fed either…

  • …raises rates too high for too long.  CRACK!.  Another crisis and debt deflation.  2008 scenario.
  • …raises a bit to save face, then starts cutting.  HSSSSSSS….
    • Inflation stays positive for a while (2% to 4% range?).  Assets lose more value.
    • Labor stays solid and wages keep creeping up for the bottom 1/4 (they have gotten HUGE gains in the last 2 years).  Prices don’t keep up.  Profits go down.

Is there a middle scenario?  No mega-crisis, but assets don’t take a hit?  Maybe?  “The  assets” are definitely searching for that easy exit.

  • Maybe if we keep raising rates, maybe the labor market will finally break?!?  The PR is “to slay inflation and protect the little man.”  The un-spoken aim is as much to arrest continued wage gains and bargaining power.  The problem?  A labor market break would have to happen in the next few months.  That doesn’t look likely.  Especially as 4.5 points of rate increases haven’t done much so far (except wreck the banking system).
  • If not, is there some other clever way we can socialize the losses and privatize the remaining profits?  Like today’s plea by regional banks to insure 100% of deposits for 2 years.  Note they are not also volunteering to submit to the more strict regulatory regime they wiggled out of a few years ago…  A government guarantee to gamble for 2 years => “privatize the gains.”  Why some Bank CEO’s are OK with a crisis.

Maybe “the assets” find a partial way out?  I don’t see a way to socialize the losses (pushing the pain into the real economy) absent a major crisis like 2008.  Maybe that is why some people seem OK risking another 2008?  2010-2020 was a pretty good decade for some…

But I’m not sure the Fed will play along this time around.  The trail of blame here leads a little too obviously to the Fed’s doorstep.  That (highly political) institution is already squirming to avoid taking the rap.  So some near-term losses probably get socialized.  The right thing to do to keep the banking system running.  But the Fed isn’t likely to sacrifice itself to cut losses outside of its immediate reach.  The best they can do is offer palliative care (ie. rate cuts).

Long-term future?  Either…

  • …a virtuous circle in the real economy.  Higher wages flow through to more demand.  Tight labor markets = higher productivity (robot waiters here we come).**  Investment.  Things really start humming.  This is great for everyone EXCEPT the people suffering losses from 2%-4% inflation chewing up the 2008-2022 assets priced for a low-rate regime.
  • …the air goes out of it.  Like in post-2008, the virtuous circle never gets going because too much money leaks out in each turn of the cycle.  Bled out of the real economy supply/demand cycle (really the wages/spending cycle).  Leaking into “assets” piled on top of an increasingly stagnant real economy.

What is deeply annoying (to me) is that I was pretty much here in my thinking about 2 years ago.  But I have managed the last 2 years pretty badly.  I couldn’t/didn’t see through the logic of my own damn argument.  Sigh….

**  Productivity gains are the sole driver of economy-wide prosperity.  The standard MBA myth is “far-sighted, profit seeking executives drive productivity gains.”  Economic history suggests rising wages are a more powerful driver economy-wide productivity gains.  Why?  People are lazy.  Managers are people.  Without the goad of higher wages, they don’t look for productivity gains.  But, when their backs are to a wall, they (like most people) get creative about finding a way out.  The inverse of  “Necessity is the mother of invention…” is “your average Joe doesn’t do much unless circumstances force them to…

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Why are We Risking Catastrophe To Avert a Non-Crisis?

We risk another 2008-style crisis.   Is that really preferable to 3%-4% inflation for a year or two longer than we’d like?  Even that is a false choice – ignoring all the other tools we have to fight inflation (that don’t involve crippling the world’s financial system).

So why do so many people want the Fed to keep on yanking that lever – risk be damned?!?  I keep seeing public figures calling for the Fed to stay the course.  It is plain as day that we risk tipping the financial system over into a 2008 style financial crisis if we press too hard for too long. Is that a risk worth taking?

Am I confidently predicting a crisis?  No.  Why?  Financial crises aren’t predictable!  Who expected really expected to spend last weekend brushing up on the mechanics of a classic George Bailey “Its a Wonderful Life” bank run?

I am confidently predicting that the Fed pointlessly and exponentially increases the risk of a financial crisis the longer they keep the yield curve inverted (short-term rates higher than long-term rates).  It doesn’t matter how much they hike next week.  What matters is how long they keep rates at the current (or higher) level.  The longer we stay where we are, the higher the risk of a crisis.

The Silicon Valley Bank fiasco was one warning.  Credit Suisse’s blow-up a few days later was  another warning.  Blackstone closing the exits to its BREIT Real Estate fund a few months ago was another.

What I have not seen is a convincing argument for “We should risk a 2008-style mega crisis – keeping the yield curve inverted – in order to prevent a greater threat.”  “Inflation!!!” is the cited threat?  But is that really such a big deal?

Inflation is also NOT AN OBVIOUS CRISIS!  Look at these links to various Federal Reserve measures of inflation expectations.  Nothing here says “we should risk a bank crisis to avoid the horrible fate foretold here” IMHO

From a newsletter I subscribe to.

New Deal democrat argued that “Properly measured, consumer prices have been in deflation since last June “. He highlighted the lagging nature of Owners’ Equivalent Rent (OER), the major component of shelter CPI, as house prices tend to lead OER by 12 months or more. After making all the adjustments, NDD concluded:  If we substitute the FHFA house price index for OER, headline CPI would have been down -1.4% as of December (since that is when the reported FHFA data ends).” https://blogger.googleusercontent.com/img/b/R29vZ2xl/AVvXsEhEOE0Hw8MoB-p8Qa9F1yCk3e8iOf98Vvoq6CAPe_puAaEciMtov5Yhb1lhUjenDh0oIVCmGwHTcLi0pCdj5G3R87kWmScnVzCT-ZYKDDF4lGuFBEhrLuqDPaWjWBtyvFe7sc-HXUWmCSwYtB00Os43AODXlty1js1xaQHQhkptHzURBsxseLhNjVVmww/s1907/OER.jpeg

Current inflation is also driven mostly by real economy supply demand dynamics.  The inflation solution must also come from supply/demand.  With the price mechanism (“inflation”) doing that balancing with time and patience.  The level of short-term interest rates is, in that equation, not a particularly decisive factor.  The non-impact of 4.5 points of rate increases would seem to be evidence enough by now?

 

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“Higher For Longer” Is Now “Not Much Higher, Then We Cut.” The Fed Won’t Kill Its Children.

What a weekend to be locked out of your own blog account! A bit of a grab bag of thoughts here – sorry for some repetition….

Silicon Valley Bank has taken us from from “higher [rates] for longer” to “not much higher for not much longer.”  Why?

  1. The Fed’s original and first priority (since 1907) is to safeguard the banking system.  Inflation (since 1977) comes second.  Employment is a distant third.  The 2% inflation target just barely turned 20 (2012).
  2. The first canary just died in the banking system…  Note that Commercial Real Estate is 24% of on-book bank loans and also showing serious stress from high rates.  The labor market is showing NO signs of stress. 
  3. The banking system (and commercial Real Estate) will blow up before the labor market does.  The labor market probably wouldn’t soften quickly even if the Fed hiked to 7%.  Even 6% might spell disaster for the banks and a building re-finance.

If they keep on hiking and hold for longer, Powell goes down in history as “the guy who blew up the finance and real estate industry in a quixotic, ill-judged attempt to bring down inflation driven by supply/demand factors out of the Fed’s control”  Arthur Burns #2…  Not Paul Volker. Powell does not want that to be on his gravestone.  

Even if Powell wanted to grit his teeth, he will be fighting a rising tide of anger and fear from a lot of very influential people.  Look at the howl of protests and entreaties from “libertarian” Silicon Valley after SVB went under.  Libertarians do tend to assume the little people will pay the Price of Liberty (NB – there are very few low-income libertarians).

  1. Fed tightening cycles are breath-holding contests.
  2. The labor market is “supposed” to gasp for breath first.  But it is doing great.  See Feb jobs report.
  3. SVB is the first gasp for breath.  There are a lot more “mark to fantasy” assets sitting out there that can’t stay that way for much longer.  Rate bets (like at SVB) and precarious Real Estate assets facing re-financing risk.  Higher rates endanger both.
  4. If the Fed is going to damage the economy until it slows, that damage is going to hit people who are used to getting taken care of (see “Silicon Valley Bank Depositors”).  The Fed would permanently impair a lot of wealth before that ever trickles down to the labor market.
  5. Paul Volker did not get his Wall Street sainthood by “impairing a lot of wealth.”

In sum – the labor market looks too healthy and the financial system too shaky to do “higher for longer.”  So we hike a bit to save face.  Then find a way to justify ~3% inflation.  3% being, BTW, totally fine. 

So the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank puts an end to this tightening cycle.

Moreover, the fed will have to cut rates sooner vs later to get short-term 1-2-year rates (where the Fed has more influence) down below 10+ year long-term rates (where the free market sets prices more then the Fed does).

Will the Fed have slain inflation?  No.  We have no counter-factual, but it is pretty obvious the whole tightening exercise didn’t do much to change the course of the real economy.  The cause of the inflation was in the real economy – supply demand shocks – and the cure will be in the real economy too.  As the line goes “the cure for high prices is… high prices.”

Anyone with real faith in free markets would have told you that 18-24 months ago.  There is a stack of academic research that has long explored the limitations of the Fed’s powers.  But Wall Street types believe more in rules of thumb than in fancy academics – especially if those academics are even a teeny weeny bit to the left.  No matter that MMT has laid out a very robust framework for understanding the current inflation.  The rule of thumb was… “The Fed is all powerful.  They will crush the economy.  Unemployment will soar.  The great Oracle Larry Summers has told me so….!”  We’ve seen that on front pages for 18+ months now.  Even as the contrary evidence has steadily piled up.  Until SVB went BOOM!

So the Fed fired its big bazooka.  4.5 percentage points of rate hikes later, the real economy has gone lumbering indifferently along.  But the banking system just had a near-systemic crisis.

Never forget that the Fed was created/empowered to protect the banking system after the panic of 1907.  That mandate was strengthened after the Great Depression. 90% of what the Fed does ever day is herd, manage, and protect the banking system.  The banking system is also most Fed staffers’ revolving door employer when the retire.

That “control inflation” mandate?  It didn’t get formalized until 1977.  The “set in stone” 2% inflation target?  A creature of Ben Bernanke in 2012.  The Fed cares about the banks first, inflation second, and full employment by lip service only…

The Silicon Valley Bank crisis was unique.  But dismissing the risk signal on those grounds is like arguing this particular dead canary was a little odd, so we don’t need to get the hell out of this coal mine before the toxic gases build up and blow.  he canary is still dead and others will soon follow.  The Fed knows this.  The Fed will act accordingly.

The Fed still probably raises rates in the next meeting to save face.  But this tightening cycle is done.  They can’t keep raising for long.  Nor can they keep rates at the current level.

Why? An inverted yield curve is kryptonite for banks and all sort of other financial markets players.  A week ago, the 2 year Treasury rate was at ~5% and the 10 year rate was at 4%.   Simplifying drastically, that meant were paying deposit rates tied to that 5%, but earning loan/asset tied to that 4%.  Losing 1% a year is a path to insolvency.  The reality isn’t that simple, but an inverted curve still leads to bankruptcy or… bank runs.

This week, the 2 year had tanked almost a full point to 4.3% and the 10 year has only gone down to 3.7% from 4%.  Why?  Because the market sees the Fed can’t tighten much more for much longer.  Banks can hold their breath for a while, but they can’t hold their breath indefinitely.  They can’t outlast the labor market.

The labor market just keeps chugging along.  It isn’t going to crack soon enough for the Fed to save face.  Not before another of its bank canaries die.

Have we slain inflation? Nope. Fed was never that powerful to start with. But do we naturally fall to something like 3%? Yeah probably. And 3% is (gasp) not really that different from the (arbitrary) 2% fed target.

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