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“Guidance” is the new organizing credo of US financial life with Janet Yellen officially installed as the new Wizard of Oz at the Federal Reserve. Guidance refers to periodic cryptic utterances made by the Wizard in staged appearances before congress or in the “minutes” (i.e. transcribed notes) from meetings of the Fed’s Open Market Committee. The cryptic utterances don’t necessarily have any bearing on reality, but are issued with the hope that they will be mistaken for it, especially by managers in the financial markets where assets are priced and traded.
One such infamous moment of guidance was Ben Bernanke’s May 2007 statement saying that percolating sub-prime mortgage problems were “contained.” If that was a signal for anything it was a green light for banks not yet deemed too big to fail to continue constructing swindles called collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), which were bundles of already bundled mortgage backed securities based on janky mortgages for million-dollar houses owned by Las Vegas busboys, and the like, that had no prospect of ever being paid. The banks kept at it sedulously for another year, and then in September of 2008 this stream of combustible financial garbage blew up the banking system. Nobody at the Fed saw it coming, least of all Janet Yellen.
And then the banking system was “rescued” by the “program” (free money bailouts) enacted by congress called TARP, while the Fed set up a carry trade system that would enable the floundering (now) too big to fail banks to convert massive volumes of zero-interest no-risk loans into a dependable revenue flow to “build reserves,” that is, allow them to appear solvent while engaging in new dodges, swindles, and manipulations of markets, currencies and interest rates.
Which brings us very near the present. Fed chairperson Yellen gave a marathon six-hour audience to the House Committee on Financial Services last week. It was so devoid of substance and meaning that the TV network covering it switched the feed a few times to the exciting Olympic event of curling, in which “athletes” wield brooms to induce giant polished stones to glide across a length of ice at a scoring target — that is, an entirely artificial and purposeless activity aimed at producing a trance of contentment among viewers who have nothing better to do in the middle of the day.
Last May’s remarks by then Fed Chairperson Ben Bernanke that the Fed might consider “tapering” its gigantic monthly purchases of US Treasury bonds plus an equal amount of stranded mortgage paper made the markets so nervous that stock indexes had a seizure and the interest rate on the lodestar ten-year treasury bill shot up 150 basis points — into a zone that would cripple the government’s ability to keep its credit revolving. These dire portents prompted Bernanke to take back what he’d said, but then three months later, in the fall, he restated the taper guidance. By then, market watchers and playas were sure that he was just juking them, and anyway they were too busy stuffing their Christmas bonus stockings to take him seriously.
Lo, the taper is still on under Wizard Yellen, for the simple reason that if she backed out of it now, before she officially chaired her first meeting of the Fed governors, her outfit would lose whatever shreds of credibility it still hangs onto. Even with the taper on, it is for now still pumping over half a trillion dollars a year into the banking system. There is some reason to think that it made the markets puke two weeks ago. But then a really bad employment number came out, and in the inverse climate of bad-news-being-good-news for bubble markets, that was construed as a sure sign that the Fed might have to un-taper sometime around late spring with Yellen’s chairpersonship fully established. I suspect they’ll do something else: they’ll continue to taper down purchases of treasuries and mortgage detritus via the direct TBTF bank channel and they’ll establish a new “back door” for shoveling money into the system. Nobody knows what this is yet, and it may be some time even after it starts that the mechanism is discovered. In the meantime, the seeming placidity of the renewed “risk on” mood should be a warning to market cheerleaders. Something’s got to give and I think it will be the US dollar index, which has been in Zombieland since November. The world has never been so ready for a change in direction. Expect no real guidance from your leaders.
If being wealthy was the same as pretending to be wealthy then people who care about reality would have a little less to complain about. But pretending is a poor way for a society to negotiate its way through history. It makes for accumulating distortions which eventually undermine the society’s ability to function, especially when the pretending is about money, which is society’s operating system.
The distortion that even simple people care about is that the gap between the rich and the poor is as plain, vast, and grotesque as at any time in our history — except perhaps during slavery times in Dixieland, when many of the poor did not even own their existence. We’ve had plenty of reminders of that in pop culture the last couple of years, including Quentin Tarantino’s fiercely stupid movie Django Unchained and the more recent melodrama 12 Years a Slave. But you have to wonder what young adults weighed down by unpayable college debt think when they go to see them, because without a rebellion that millennial generation will not own their own lives either. They must know it, but they must not know what to do about it.
The pretense and distortions start at the top of American life with a President who broadcasts the message that some kind of “recovery” has occurred in the economic affairs of the country. Either he just wants the public feel better, or he is misled by the people and agencies in his own government, or perhaps he just lies to keep the lid on. To truly recover from the dislocations of 2008, we would have to make a consensual decision to start behaving differently in the process of adapting to the new circumstances that the arc of history is presenting to us. We’d have to decide to leave behind the economy of financialization, suburban sprawl, car dependency, Wal-Mart consumerism, and prepare for a different way of inhabiting North America.
The dislocations of 2008 when the banking system nearly imploded were Nature’s way of telling us that dishonesty has consequences. The immediate dishonesty of that day was the racket in securitizing worthless mortgages — promises to pay large sums of money over long periods of time. The promises were false and the collateral was janky. It got so bad and ran so far and deep that it essentially destroyed the mechanism of credit creation as it had been known until then, and it has not been repaired.
Since then, we have pretended to repair the operations of credit by falsely substituting bank bailouts and Federal Reserve “quantitative easing” (QE) or digital money-printing for plain dealing in borrowed money between honest brokers at the local level. The unfortunate consequence is that in the process we have distorted — and possibly destroyed — the value of our money and the various things denominated in it, especially securities, bonds, stocks and other money-like paper.
The crash of the mortgage racket occurred not just because of swindling and fraud among bankers; in fact, that was only a nasty symptom of something larger: peak oil. I know that many people have come to disbelieve in the idea of peak oil, but that is only another mode of playing pretend. Peak oil, which essentially arrived in 2006, undermined the basic conditions of credit creation in an advanced techno-industrial society dependent on increasing supplies of fossil fuels. Most people, including practically all credentialed economists, fail to understand this. There is a fundamental relationship between ever-increasing energy supplies > economic growth > and credit-based money (or “money,” if you will). When the energy inputs flatten out or decrease, growth stops, wealth is no longer generated, old loans can’t be repaid, and new loans can’t be generated honestly, i.e. with the expectation of repayment. That has been our predicament since 2008 and nothing has changed. We are pretending to compensate by issuing new unpayable debt to pay the interest on our old accumulated debt. This pretense can only go on so long before our economic relations reflect the basic dishonesty of it. Reality is a harsh mistress.
In the meantime, we amuse ourselves with fairy tales about “the shale oil revolution” and “the manufacturing renaissance.” 2014 could be the year that the forces of Nature compel our attention and give us a reason to stop all this pretending. I’ll address this question in next week’s annual yearly forecast.
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