Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Axel Merk: The US of E has Arrived!

Axel Merk published his latest Merk Insights entitled "United States of Europe has Arrived!". With lots of talk about a fiscal union, a banking union and a potilical, Merk wonder if we are assiting to the birth of the United States of Europe.

Here's the full letter:

A vision "Towards a Genuine Economic and Monetary Union" has just been published by the European Union. Key components include integrated financial and budgetary frameworks. The goal is to achieve a “strong and stable architecture in the financial, fiscal, economic and political domains.” For a vision to work, it has to be realistic. The budgetary framework calls for “joint decision-making … and … steps towards common debt issuance.” Given that German Chancellor Merkel was quoted as saying Europe will not have shared liability for debt as long as she lives, such goals seem a tad ambitious. Understanding that Merkel is like a mother to the United States of Europe, she should consider nurturing it with vitamins, love and care.

Love has a lot to do with communication. And while it should be so easy, we all know that we sometimes neglect to communicate with our loved ones. Translating that to the Eurozone, take charge, be a leader and communicate! Merkel may not be a Reagan, nor a Thatcher, but it ultimately falls upon her shoulders to frame the discussion. If she does not agree, there is little others can do to move forward. Tough love is okay, too…
Intensive care is what peripheral Eurozone countries are in. Let’s focus on the good news in terms of European integration: those countries that require assistance have yielded sovereign control to the European Commission. Presto! That’s the key element of the union. Those that have proven prudent in managing their budgets don’t need to yield control to Brussels bureaucrats. But those that are not capable do. It may sound like an unbalanced union, where not everyone is ceding control, but given the political realities, policy makers ought to leverage the cards they are dealt.
Regarding the so-called banking union, the same principle applies: countries that have been incapable of cleaning up their own banking system, ought to cede control. Seizing control from national bank regulators, including a European resolution scheme are key; but unlike the proposed vision published by the European Union, such a scheme must start with the more modest goal of first intervening where calls for help have been issued.
The way you leverage on the framework is by providing hope and support to those that succumb to it. Some vitamins, when administered in too high a dose, may be toxic. The European Stability Mechanism, the ESM, has shown such toxic characteristics. Because the ESM subordinates all other debt, it has made such subordinate debt toxic. The ESM is a last resort bailout scheme, not a tool to promote a “strong and stable architecture.” The discussion about the solution must include Eurobonds.
Having said that, vitamins do little good if not accompanied by underlying lifestyle changes. Put another way, as long as policy makers look for evermore creative ways to finance rather than to reduce debt, the underlying disease won’t be cured. Ultimately, debt will need to be reduced. The way it looks, it may be more likely be through default than sustainable fiscal policies.

Squaring the circle
The price for living beyond one’s means and failing to regulate one’s banking system should be the loss of sovereign control over budgeting and regulation. This part is already reality, as evidenced by the various bailout schemes in place.
What is not in place is a mechanism to allow those chronically sick children to get back on the right path, for national governments to conduct policy with enough dignity, so that political backlash won’t tear those countries apart.

The solution must include a tough love support mechanism, one where sovereign debt of the country in need is not de facto labeled as toxic. At the same time it is fully understandable that a country such as Finland wants to receive collateral for loans provided to those that have a proven track record of living beyond their means. Once a check is written, it’s rather difficult to decide on where the money is going to be spent. As such, a basis of discussion for the Eurozone should be:
  • Countries that want final control over where bailout money is spent, need to accept the seniority status of IMF and ESM money.
  • Eurobonds (without seniority over outstanding bonds) should be issued to finance projects that are directly supervised by the European Commission.
If Spain wants a bank bailout that doesn’t jeopardize its sovereign bonds, it must yield control over its banking system. It must accept that fact that its banking system may be too big, that institutions may be liquidated and management teams fired.
It’s too early to write off Europe. In the short-term, expectations are so low that policy makers will have a hard time disappointing. In the meantime, central banks around the world appear to be hoping for the best, but planning for the worst. That may mean easy money, a weak U.S. dollar, with money flowing into currencies of countries whose central banks can afford to not join the fray. To us, it is no coincidence our analysis of recent market data suggests biases of major central banks towards easing, whereas central banks of smaller countries shift towards tightening monetary policy

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Axel Merk: Growth vs Austerity Analysis

Axel Merk, of Merk Funds, analyses both current economic models: Austerity and Growth; he tries to find out which one is more sustainable? Since Merk Funds focus on currency investments, he has a look at the implications on the U.S. dollar.

Here's the full newsletter:

To have budgets sustainable is as simple as matching revenue and expenses. Almost. Politicians have figured out that running a deficit may still yield a stable debt-to-GDP ratio, assuming there is economic growth. When U.S. politicians brag their budget forecasts bring down the absolute level of the deficit, it’s the debt-to-GDP ratio at best that may improve, assuming their rosy projections of economic growth prove correct. In the Eurozone, governments have – theoretically – committed themselves to running no more than 3% deficits, suggesting that such deficits lead to sustainable debt-to-GDP ratios. Not quite. Our research shows that, in order to achieve a long-term debt-to-GDP ratio in the low 50% range, deficits of no more than half of GDP growth may be run. If GDP growth is 3% a year, the deficit ought to be no higher than 1.5%. If 3% deficits are allowed, but GDP growth is only half of that – a more realistic assumption for many countries in today’s environment, the debt-to-GDP ratio will stabilize at above 200%. For a visualization of where the debt-to-GDP ratio will peter out given different growth and deficit scenarios, consider this table:
Average annual deficit Average GDP growth Long-term debt-to-GDP
1.5% 3.0% 51.5%
3.0% 3.0% 103.0%
3.0% 1.5% 202.9%
Why do we care about debt-to-GDP ratio? Allowing a high debt-to-GDP ratio is akin to playing with fire. Just look at the housing bust for an illustration as to what’s so dangerous about piling up too much debt: when interest rates are low, life feels great, the standard of living has gone up. But when interest rates move up, those with a higher debt load have to make disproportionate cuts to their standard of living to service their debt. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the U.S. paid an average of 2.2% of GDP in interest from 1972 until 2011. In its “Extended Alternative Fiscal Scenario” that assumes current policies, as opposed to current laws, remain in place, net interest payments will soar to 9.5% of GDP in 2037. In 2011, $454.4 billion in interest was paid in a $15 trillion economy; that is, 3% of GDP was spent in servicing interest payments. If the U.S. were to spend 9.5% of GDP to service its debt rather than 3%, it requires a cut of 6.5% of GDP in other services. It dwarfs the fiscal cliff (the reference to Bush era tax cuts running out coupled with spending cuts, absent of Congressional action) that might put a 3% to 5% dent on GDP. 

The pessimistic CBO outlook assumes what we judge to be an unrealistically low 2.7% average interest rate on debt payments. Should the market demand more compensation – generally referred to as bond vigilantes holding policy makers accountable – financing the deficits may no longer be feasible. Just ask Greece; or Spain.
With 10 year Treasuries yielding 1.6% in the United States, some argue that higher deficits are warranted. As the discussion above shows, the logic behind the view is fundamentally flawed, if not reckless. In the U.S., we differentiate between discretionary and mandatory spending. Mandatory refers to contractual obligations, the entitlements, most notably regarding Social Security and Medicare. Put simply, it may not be realistic in the long run to finance thirty years of retirement with forty years of work. As interest payments take a bigger chunk of GDP, discretionary spending is squeezed out. Be that an infrastructure project at the federal level; teachers at the state level; or firefighters or animal shelters at the local level.
In real life, there are some added complexities: we all fight for our benefits, take them for granted once granted and will fight vigorously to retain them. Also keep in mind that emergencies, such as natural disasters or wars, are typically not reflected in budget forecasts, as they might be considered “one off” items; even if that were correct, emergency spending adds to the deficit.
As debate rages whether austerity or growth is the solution to the plight of the developed world, keep in mind that there is a history spanning centuries, if not millennia, of governments spending too much money. In the old days, neighboring countries were “taxed” to fill domestic coffers: taxation, as in conquering other countries and taking treasures and slaves. Debt is a modern form of slavery, except that it is voluntary servitude. If history is any guide, don’t get your hopes up too high that these issues will be resolved. But investors may be able to navigate the waters, mitigate some of the risks or even profit from opportunities that arise in this environment.
The growth camp suggests that, with enough growth, a high debt load can be carried. That may be the case if such growth is not financed through debt. In recent years, trillions have been spent to achieve billions in growth – not exactly a recipe for sustainable budgeting.
The austerity camp suggests that, with enough austerity, books can be balanced. Except that, as services are cut, the economy is at risk of entering a downward spiral, increasing, rather than decreasing deficits. 

And while these two ideologies are being discussed, central banks struggle to either keep the banking system afloat (as in the Eurozone) or are helping to finance the government deficit (as in the U.S.). Indeed, the key difference between the U.S. and European model is that U.S. Treasuries appear to be backed by a) the taxing power of Congress and b) a lender of last resort, the Federal Reserve (Fed) with its printing press; whereas European sovereign debt is backed only by the taxing power of the national governments. The European Central Bank (ECB) has made it clear that its role is to support the banking system, not the sovereigns. In contrast, the Federal Reserve (Fed), while not admitting to outright financing of government deficits, has shown a willingness to do so in practice. As such, European sovereign debt is trading more like municipal bonds trade in the U.S., with weak “municipalities” (think Spain) paying a huge premium.
To be fair, the growth camp wants more than deficit spending; and the austerity camp wants more than cost cutting. Indeed, in a recent analysis Saving the Euro, we argued policy makers should instead focus on competitiveness, common sense and communication. Ultimately, both camps believe their philosophies should attract more investment as confidence is increased. In practice, the proverbial can is kicked down the road. By the time the can reaches the end of the road, it may be very beaten up. Indeed, an increasing number of investors are spreading their investments across multiple “cans” – we refer to these “cans” as diversified baskets of currencies, including gold.
What’s different between the U.S. and Europe is that the U.S. has a significant current account deficit. In our experience, countries with current account deficits tend to favor growth oriented strategies as they need to attract money from abroad to finance their deficit and, as such, to support the currency. While a bond market in shambles is a major drag on growth in the Eurozone, the Euro has been able to hold up reasonably well given the fact that the Eurozone’s current account is roughly in balance. A misbehaving bond market might have dire consequences for the U.S. dollar, even if one disregards the odds that the Federal Reserve may make U.S. Treasuries even less attractive by financing government spending (when a central bank buys a country’s own debt by printing money, such securities are intentionally over priced, potentially weakening the currency).

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Axel Merk: What’s next for the U.S. Dollar? QE3?

Axel Merk, Merk Funds, has published a new "Merk Insights" newsletter entitled "What’s next for the U.S. Dollar? QE3?" where he discusses the outlook for the US currency.

The dismal U.S. jobs report for May, released last Friday, caused the price of gold to soar as the market appears to be pricing in an ever-greater chance of “QE3” – another round of quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve (Fed). But given that 10-year government debt is already down at 1.5%, the Fed may dive deeper into its toolbox in an effort to jumpstart the economy. Investors may want to consider taking advantage of the recent U.S. dollar rally to diversify out of the greenback ahead of QE3.

To a modern central banker, it may be very simple: if the economy does not steam ahead, sprinkle some money on the problem. The Fed has done its sprinkling; indeed, the Fed has employed what one may consider a fire hose. But after QE1 and QE2, we continue to have lackluster economic growth, unable to substantially boost employment. Never mind that the real problem the global monetary system is facing is that the free market has been taken out of the pricing of risk:
  • When the Fed buys government securities, such securities are – by definition - intentionally overpriced. Historically, when a central bank buys government bonds, the currency tends to weaken, as investors look abroad for less manipulated returns.
  • Policy makers increasingly manage asset prices, be that by pushing up equity prices through quantitative easing; artificially lowering the cost of borrowing of peripheral Eurozone countries; or by keeping ailing banks afloat.
Investors increasingly chase the next perceived move of policy makers, thus fostering capital misallocation. Policy makers in Spain may not like paying above 6% for their longer-term debt, but lowering such rates ought to be the result of prudent policies, not because of a game of chicken between the Spanish prime minister and other European policy makers (if we only knew who the other chickens were – they are all hiding!). Similarly, U.S. growth is lagging because – let’s just name a few of the root causes - of ongoing global de-leveraging; the de-leveraging of U.S. households; uncertainty over U.S. regulatory policy; uncertainty over U.S. fiscal policy.
But let’s keep it simple, as it doesn’t matter what we think. What matters is what our policy makers do. Bernanke has indicated that the Fed is willing to provide more support to the economy. The latest unemployment report might provide that impetus, especially given Bernanke’s view that “The central bank should act more preemptively and more aggressively than usual.” This quote comes straight from what may be considered Bernanke’s playbook: his 2002 “helicopter speech” on how deflation can be beaten. Last fall, we browsed through the playbook to pose the question: Operation Twist a Primer for QE3? To recall, Bernanke argues:
  • Deflation is in almost all cases a side effect of a collapse of aggregate demand….The best way to get out of trouble is not to get into it in the first place…The Fed should try to preserve a buffer zone: …central banks … set … inflation targets … between 1 and 3 percent, … reducing the risk that a large … drop in aggregate demand will drive the economy far … into deflationary territory
When faced with deflation:
  • The central bank should act more preemptively and more aggressively than usual…
  • Deflation is always reversible under a fiat money system…the U.S. government has a technology, called a printing press (or, today, its electronic equivalent) that allows it to produce as many U.S. dollars as it wishes at essentially no cost… a determined government can always generate higher spending and hence positive inflation.
QE1 has come:
  • The Fed must expand the scale of its asset purchases or, possibly, expand the menu of assets that it buys.
Operation Twist and a commitment to keeping interest rates low for an extended period is also taken from the playbook:
  • One relatively straightforward extension of current procedures would be to try to stimulate spending by lowering rates further out the Treasury term structure – that is, rates on government bonds of longer maturities.
    • One approach…would be for the Fed to commit to holding the overnight rate at zero for some specified period.
    • A more direct method, which I [Bernanke] personally prefer, would be for the Fed to begin announcing explicit ceilings for yields on longer-maturity Treasury debt. The Fed could enforce these interest-rate ceilings by committing to make unlimited purchases of securities… at prices consistent with the targeted yields... if operating in relatively short-dated Treasury debt [next two years] proved inefficient, the Fed could also attempt to cap yields of Treasury securities at still longer maturities, say three to six years.
    • Yet another option would be for the Fed to use its existing authority to operate in the markets for agency debt (for example, mortgage-backed securities [MBS] issued by Ginnie Mae, the Government National Mortgage Association).
We had the MBS purchase program as QE1. We don’t think a targeting of longer-term interest rates is in the cards, as rates are already quite low. To see what may be announced by the Fed in the near future, keep reading (emphasis added):
  • Alternatively, the Fed could find other ways of injecting money into the system – for example, by making low-interest rate loans to banks or cooperating with the fiscal authorities
  • If lowering yields on longer-dated Treasury securities proved insufficient to restart spending, however, the Fed might next consider attempting to influence directly the yields on privately issued securities… the Fed does have broad powers to lend to the private sector indirectly via banks, through the discount window.
  • The Fed could offer fixed-term loans to banks at low or zero interest, with a wide range of private assets (including, amongst others, corporate bonds, commercial paper, bank loans, and mortgages) deemed eligible as collateral.
What does that mean? Look at Europe’s Long Term Refinancing Operations (LTROs). In Europe, the European Central Bank (ECB) has been providing unlimited liquidity to the banking system, allowing banks to get liquidity in return for a broad range of collateral. While U.S. banks are not in as dire a situation as European banks, Bernanke may be motivated to provide LTROs Fed style because it would allow banks, such as Bank of America, to turn their illiquid mortgage backed securities onto the Fed in return for liquidity. Key differences to QE1 and QE2 are:
  • An LTRO is demand driven. Rather than the Fed buying a colossal amount of securities, unsure of what to do with a bloated balance sheet, the LTRO gets the money where it is in demand. A bank that wants increased liquidity – presumably to invest the money in riskier assets – will be willing to participate in the LTRO.
  • LTROs are extremely profitable to banks rather than the Fed. Currently, the Fed earns over $80 billion a year: the more money a central bank prints, the more interest paying securities are purchased, thus the more “profitable” the central bank is (never mind the potentially eroded purchasing power as a result of having printed the money). The ECB, in contrast, only charges 1% in return for cash provided on collateral. Given the near zero interest rates in the U.S., expect the Fed to charge only a nominal amount to turn securities held by banks into cash.
What may hold Bernanke back is that he can’t be sure of the impact a U.S. style LTRO might have:
  • One important concern in practice is that calibrating the economic effects of nonstandard means of injecting money may be difficult, given our relative lack of experience with such policies.
Indeed, we have been critics of the ECB’s LTRO because over one trillion euros in liquidity will need to be drained within a matter of weeks should the LTRO be closed out. We don’t think this is feasible. However, the reason why these “nonstandard measures” have not caused major inflation is because policies in the U.S. and the Eurozone have not worked – the money doesn’t “stick.” With the U.S. recovery further along than the Eurozone recovery, the risk for Bernanke – and with that to the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar – is that banks will actually use the LTRO to get the economy going. If so, Bernanke claims to be able to raise rates in 15 minutes. We will see about that, especially in the context of his conviction that one of the biggest mistakes during the Great Depression was to raise rates too early. In our assessment, Bernanke must err on the side of inflation if he wants to stay true to his convictions. It’s in that context that he has been willing to commit to keeping interest rates low until the end of 2014; incidentally, by that time, odds are high that much of the foreclosure pipeline will have been worked through thus allowing the Fed to return to more traditional monetary policy. That’s the theory. In practice, little has worked out since the onset of the financial crisis as has been envisioned by policy makers; then again, the Fed is rarely accused of being too far sighted…
In summary, we believe the next major initiative by the Fed will be the announcement of a U.S. style LTRO. Just in case that doesn’t jumpstart the U.S. economy either, we will have to revert back to Bernanke’s playbook to glimpse what else may be in store:
  • The Fed can inject money into the economy in still other ways. For example, the Fed has the authority to buy foreign government debt, as well as domestic government debt. Potentially, this class of assets offers huge scope for Fed operations, as the quantity of foreign assets eligible for purchases by the Fed is several times the stock of U.S. government debt.
This policy suggestion demonstrates Bernanke’s lack of appreciation for the political consequences of his actions. In his speech, he tries to address that:
  • I want to be absolutely clear that I am today neither forecasting nor recommending any attempt by U.S. policymakers to target the international value of the dollar. Although… it’s worth noting that there have been times when exchange rate policy has been an effective weapon against deflation.
Our read is that Bernanke won’t consider the outright purchases of peripheral Eurozone debt until after the U.S. elections. Even then, such a step may go beyond the bizarre. Then again, what hasn’t been bizarre in U.S. monetary policy in recent years?
Back to the LTRO, such a policy would boost the Fed’s balance sheet yet again. New money would be “printed” to provide the liquidity offered to the banking system. We live in an environment where central banks hope for the best, but plan for the worst. A U.S. LTRO would squarely fit that scheme. In that environment, the U.S. dollar may weaken and currencies sensitive to monetary stimulus may shine yet again. Having said that, we have long argued that there may not be any safe asset anymore and investors may want to take a diversified approach to something as mundane as cash.