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oftwominds-Charles Hugh Smith: The Federal Reserve’s Nuclear Option: A One-Way Street to Oblivion

oftwominds-Charles Hugh Smith: The Federal Reserve’s Nuclear Option: A One-Way Street to Oblivion.

The Fed cannot create a bid in bidless markets that lasts beyond its own buying.

We all know the Federal Reserve (and every other central bank) has one last Doomsday weapon to stop a meltdown in the global financial markets: creating trillions of dollars out of thin air and using the cash to buy assets that are in free-fall. This is known as “the nuclear option”–the direct monetizing of stocks, Treasury bonds, commercial real estate mortgages, student loans, corporate bonds, non-U.S. sovereign bonds, subprime auto loans, defaulted bat guano securities, offshore loans denominated in quatloos–you name it: The Fed could print money and buy, buy, buy to create and maintain a bid in bidless markets.

The idea is to stop a cascade of panic by buying assets in quantities large enough to staunch the avalanche of selling. The strategy is based on one key assumption: that no more than a small percentage of the asset class will change hands in any day or week.

Thus a low-volume sell-off in the $20 trillion U.S. equity markets can be stopped with large index buy orders in the neighborhood of $10 – $100 million–a tiny sliver of the total market value.

But in a real meltdown, popguns will no longer conjure a bid in suddenly bidless markets, and the Fed will have to become the bidder of last resort on a massive scale in multiple markets. We need to differentiate between loans, backstops and guarantees issued by the Fed and actual purchase of impaired assets.

After poring over all the data, the Levy Institute came up with a total of $29 trillion in Fed and Federal bailout-the-financial-sector loans and programs. The GAO found the Fed alone issued $16 trillion in loans and backstops:


The heart of quantitative easing and ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) is the Fed’s direct purchase and ownership of assets: residential mortgage-backed securities and Treasury bonds. The Fed has been operating not as the buyer of last resort but as the bidder who buys interest-sensitive securities to keep interest rates near-zero (known as financial repression).

The Fed’s purchases of impaired mortgages has also made its balance sheet “the place where mortgages go to die:” the Fed can hold impaired mortgages until maturity, effectively masking their illiquidity and impaired market value. We can see these two major purchase programs in this chart from Market Daily Briefing:

Despite all the talk of “tapering,” the Fed’s asset purchases on a grand scale continues:

Such a handy word, “taper:”



The Nuclear Option rests on another questionable assumption: markets only go bidless in brief panics, not because the assets have lost all value. The basic model of Fed emergency loan programs and asset-buying is 1907–a financial panic that erupts out of a liquidity crisis.

In a liquidity crisis, the underlying assets supporting loans retain their market value; the problem is a shortage of credit needed to roll over short-term loans on those still-valuable assets.

But what the world is finally starting to experience is not a liquidity crisis: it is a valuation crisis in which assets and collateral are finally recognized as phantom. I explained the difference between liquidity and valuation crises in In a Typhoon, Even Pigs Can Fly (for a while) (January 30, 2014).

Let me illustrate why the Fed’s Nuclear Option is a one-way street to oblivion.

What is the market value of a defaulted student loan that has no hope of ever being repaid by an unemployed ex-student debtor? The answer is zero: the “asset” has a value of zero and will always have a value of zero. It is not “coming back.”

What is the market value of a commercial mortgage on a dead mall that has no hope of ever being repaid by an insolvent mall owner? The answer is zero: the “asset” has a value of zero and will always have a value of zero. It is not “coming back.”

The New York Times recently published an article that nails the core issue in the entire U.S. economy: the top 10% is the only segment able to support additional consumption:The Middle Class Is Steadily Eroding. Just Ask the Business World     (Yahoo news version)

“The Biggest Redistribution Of Wealth From The Middle Class And Poor To The Rich Ever” Explained

This raises an obvious question: can the excess consumption of the top 10% support every mall, strip mall, premium outlet and retail center in the U.S.? Equally obvious answer: no. Most dead malls cannot be repurposed; the buildings are cheap shells, and while the land might retain some value for future residential housing, the coming implosion of the latest housing bubble nixes that hope: WARPED, DISTORTED, MANIPULATED, FLIPPED HOUSING MARKET (The Burning Platform).

What is the value of a company’s shares if that company has lost any means of earning a profit? Answer: the book value of the company’s assets minus debt.Given the staggering debt load of the corporate sector, the real value of many companies once their ability to reap a real (as opposed to accounting trickery) net profit vanishes is near-zero.

How about the value of Greek sovereign debt? Zero. The value of mortgages on empty decaying flats in Spain? Zero. And so on, all around the world.

This leads to a sobering conclusion: Should the Fed attempt to create and maintain a bid in bidless markets, it will end up owning trillions of dollars in worthless assets–and the market for those assets will still be bidless when the Fed stops being the bidder of last resort.

Let’s assume the Fed’s leadership will feel a desperate need to stop the next global financial meltdown in valuations. Offering trillions of dollars in liquidity will not stop sellers from selling nor magically create value in worthless assets. The Fed can only stop the selling by becoming the entire market for those assets.

The list of phantom assets the Fed will have to buy outright with freshly conjured cash is long. Let’s start with hundreds of billions of dollars in defaulting/impaired student loans. Once the debtors realize the system is swamped with defaults and can no longer hound them, the flood of defaults will swell.

The Fed can buy as many defaulted student loans as it wants, but it will never raise the value of those loans above zero. The market for worthless student loans will remain bidless the second the Fed stops buying.

The same is true of all the defaulted, worthless commercial real estate (CRE) mortgages on dead malls, decaying strip malls and abandoned retail centers: no amount of Fed buying will create a market for these worthless assets.

Dead Mall Syndrome: The Self-Reinforcing Death Spiral of Retail (January 22, 2014)

The First Domino to Fall: Retail-CRE (Commercial Real Estate) (January 21, 2014)

There is no technical reason the Fed cannot create $10 trillion and buy up $10 trillion of worthless or severely impaired assets; the Fed can become the owner of every dead mall and every defaulted auto loan in America should it wish to.

That would of course render the Fed massively insolvent, as its assets would be worth a fraction of its liabilities. But so what? The Fed can simply assign a phantom value to all its worthless assets and let them rot until maturity, at which point they vanish down the wormhole.

The point isn’t that “the Fed can’t do that;” the point is that the Fed cannot create a bid in bidless markets that lasts beyond its own buying. The Fed can buy half the U.S. stock market, all the student loans, all the subprime auto loans, all the defaulted CRE and residential mortgages, and every other worthless asset in America. But that won’t create a real bid for any of those assets, once they are revealed as worthless.

The nuclear option won’t fix anything, because it is fundamentally the wrong tool for the wrong job. Holders of disintegrating assets will be delighted to sell the assets to the Fed, of course, but that won’t fix what’s fundamentally broken in the American and global economies; it will simply allow the transfer of impaired assets from the financial sector and speculators to the Fed.

Anyone who thinks that is the “solution” should read QE For the People: What Else Could We Buy With $29 Trillion? (September 24, 2012).

The Retail Commercial Real Estate Domino with Gordon T. Long and CHS:

Marc Faber Fears “A Vicious Circle To The Downside” Is Just Beginning | Zero Hedge

Marc Faber Fears “A Vicious Circle To The Downside” Is Just Beginning | Zero Hedge.

It’s not just tapering that is putting pressure on markets,” Marc Faber warns in thie brief clip. “Emerging economies have practically no growth and we have a slowdown in China that is more meaningful than strategists are willing to believe,” he adds and this is “causing a vicious circle to the downside” in inflated asset markets as most of the growth in the world over the last five years has come from emerging markets. Faber suggests Treasuries as a safe haven in the short-term; but is nervous of their value in the long-term as “debt is becoming burdensome on the system.”

“A lot of economic growth was driven by soaring asset prices”

 

On Treasuries:

For the next three to six months probably they are a better place to be than equities,”

 

I don’t like [10-year Treasurys] for the long-term because the maximum you can earn is something like 2.65 percent per annum for the next 10 years, but Treasurys are expected to rally because of economic weakness and a stock market decline. In the last few years at least there was a flight into quality – that is, a flight into Treasurys.”

On China and shadow banking defaults:

China can handle it by printing money but it will again have unintended negative consequences… but the

problem is real… but it’s not just in China…”

Faber warned of the risks of the present global credit bubble and said another slowdown could follow on the back of rising consumer debt levels – which had previously helped to create growth.

Total credit as a percent of the global economy is now 30 percent higher than it was at the start of the economic crisis in 2007, we have had rapidly escalating household debt especially in emerging economies and resource economies like Canada and Australia and we have come to a point where household debt has become burdensome on the system—that is, where an economic slowdown follows.”

What Blows Up First? Part 3: Subprime Countries

What Blows Up First? Part 3: Subprime Countries.

by John Rubino on January 27, 2014 

One of the reasons the rich countries’ excessive money creation hasn’t ignited a generalized inflation is that today’s global economy is, well, global. When the Fed dumps trillions of dollars into the US banking system, that liquidity is free to flow wherever it wants. And in the past few years it has chosen to visit Brazil, China, Thailand, and the rest of the developing world.

This tidal wave of hot money bid up asset prices and led emerging market governments and businesses to borrow a lot more than they would have otherwise. Like the recipients of subprime mortgages in 2006, they were seduced by easy money and fooled into placing bets that could only work out if the credit kept flowing forever.

Then the Fed, spooked by nascent bubbles in equities and real estate, began to talk about scaling back its money printing*. The hot money started flowing back into the US and out of the developing world. And again just like subprime mortgages, the most leveraged and/or badly managed emerging markets have begun to implode, threatening to pull down everyone else. A sampling of recent headlines:

Contagion Spreads in Emerging Markets as Crises Grow

Investors Flee Developing World

Erosion of Argentine Peso Sends a Shudder Through Latin America

The Entire World is Unraveling Before Our Eyes

Chinese Debt Debacle Supports Soros’ ‘Eerie’ Portrayal

Venezuela Enacts “Law of Fair Prices”

Argentina Returns to Villa Miseria

Indian Rupee Falls to 2-Month Low; Joins Emerging Market Sell-Off

Turkey’s ‘Embarrassing’ Intervention Fails to Curb Lira Sell-Off

Prudent Bear’s Doug Noland as usual gets it exactly right in his most recent Credit Bubble Bulletin. Here are a few excerpts from a much longer article that should be read by everyone who wants to understand the causes and implications of the emerging-market implosion:

Virtually the entire emerging market “complex” has been enveloped in protracted destabilizing financial and economic Bubbles. In particular, for five years now unprecedented “developed” world central bank-induced liquidity has spurred unsound economic and financial booms. The massive investment and “hot money” flows are illustrated by the multi-trillion growth of EM central bank international reserve holdings. There have of course been disparate resulting impacts on EM financial and economic systems. But I believe in all cases this tsunami of liquidity and speculation has had deleterious consequences, certainly including fomenting systemic dependencies to foreign-sourced flows. In seemingly all cases, protracted Bubbles have inflated societal expectations.

For a while, central bank willingness to use reserves to support individual currencies bolsters market confidence in a country’s currency, bonds and financial system more generally. But at some point a central bank begins losing the battle to accelerating outflows. A tough decision is made to back away from market intervention to safeguard increasingly precious reserve holdings. Immediately, the marketplace must then contend with a faltering currency, surging yields, unstable financial markets and rapidly waning liquidity generally. Things unravel quickly.

The issue of EM sovereign and corporate borrowings in dollar (and euro and yen) denominated debt has speedily become a critical “macro” issue. More than five years of unprecedented global dollar liquidity excess spurred a historic boom in dollar-denominated borrowings. The marketplace assumed ongoing dollar devaluation/EM currency appreciation. There became essentially insatiable market demand for higher-yielding EM debt, replete with all the distortions in risk perceptions, market mispricing and associated maladjustment one should expect from years of unlimited cheap finance. As was the case with U.S. subprime, it’s always the riskiest borrowers that most intensively feast at the trough of easy “money.”

So, too many high-risk borrowers – from vulnerable economies and Credit systems – accumulated debt denominated in U.S. and other foreign currencies – for too long. Now, currencies are faltering, “hot money” is exiting, Credit conditions are tightening and economic conditions are rapidly deteriorating. It’s a problematic confluence that will find scores of borrowers challenged to service untenable debt loads, especially for borrowings denominated in appreciating non-domestic currencies. This tightening of finance then becomes a pressing economic issue, further pressuring EM currencies and financial systems – the brutal downside of a protracted globalized Credit and speculative cycle.

In many cases, this was all part of a colossal “global reflation trade.” Today, many EM economies confront the exact opposite: mounting disinflationary forces for things sold into global markets. Falling prices, especially throughout the commodities complex, have pressured domestic currencies. This became a major systemic risk after huge speculative flows arrived in anticipation of buoyant currencies, attractive securities markets, and enticing business opportunities. The commodities boom was to fuel general and sustained economic booms. EM was to finally play catchup to “developed.”

Now, Bubbles are faltering right and left – and fearful “money” is heading for the (closing?) exits. And, as the global pool of speculative finance reverses course, the scale of economic maladjustment and financial system impairment begins to come into clearer focus. It’s time for the marketplace to remove the beer goggles.

No less important is the historic – and ongoing – boom in manufacturing capacity in China and throughout Asia. This has created excess capacity and increasing pricing pressure for too many manufactured things, a situation only worsened by Japan’s aggressive currency devaluation. This dilemma, with parallels to the commodity economies, becomes especially problematic because of the enormous debt buildup over recent years. While this is a serious issue for the entire region, it has become a major pressing problem in China.

At the same time, data this week provided added confirmation (see “China Bubble Watch”) that China’s spectacular apartment Bubble continues to run out of control. When Chinese officials quickly backed away from Credit tightening measures this past summer, already overheated housing markets turned even hotter. Now officials confront a dangerous situation: Acute fragility in segments of its “shadow” financing of corporate and local government debt festers concurrently with ongoing “terminal phase” excess throughout housing finance. China’s financial and economic systems have grown dependent upon massive ongoing Credit expansion, while the quality of new Credit is suspect at best. It’s that fateful “terminal phase” exponential growth in systemic risk playing out in historic proportions. Global markets have begun to take notice.

There are critical market issues with no clear answers. For one, how much speculative “hot money” has and continues to flood into China to play their elevated yields in a currency that is (at the least) expected to remain pegged to the U.S. dollar? If there is a significant “hot money” issue, any reversal of speculative flows would surely speed up this unfolding Credit crisis. And, of course, any significant tightening of Chinese Credit would reverberate around the globe, especially for already vulnerable EM economies and financial systems.

No less important is the historic – and ongoing – boom in manufacturing capacity in China and throughout Asia. This has created excess capacity and increasing pricing pressure for too many manufactured things, a situation only worsened by Japan’s aggressive currency devaluation. This dilemma, with parallels to the commodity economies, becomes especially problematic because of the enormous debt buildup over recent years. While this is a serious issue for the entire region, it has become a major pressing problem in China.

The crucial point here is that this crisis is not a case of one or two little countries screwing up. It’s everywhere, from Latin America to Asia to Eastern Europe. Each country’s problems are unique, but virtually all can be traced back to the destabilizing effects of hot money created by rich countries attempting to export their debt problems to the rest of the world. ZIRP, QE and all the rest succeeded for a while in creating the illusion of recovery in the US, Europe and Japan, but now it’s blow-back time. The mess we’ve made in the subprime countries will, like rising defaults on liar loans and interest-only mortgages in 2007, start moving from periphery to core. As Noland notes:

Yet another crisis market issue became more pressing this week. The Japanese yen gained 2.0% versus the dollar. Yen gains were even more noteworthy against other currencies. The yen rose 4.2% against the Brazilian real, 3.9% versus the Chilean peso, 3.5% against the Mexican peso, 3.9% versus the South African rand, 3.8% against the South Korean won, 3.0% versus the Canadian dollar and 3.0% versus the Australian dollar.

I have surmised that the so-called “yen carry trade” (borrow/short in yen and use proceeds to lever in higher-yielding instruments) could be the largest speculative trade in history. Market trading dynamics this week certainly did not dissuade. When the yen rises, negative market dynamics rather quickly gather momentum. From my perspective, all the major speculative trades come under pressure when the yen strengthens; from EM, to the European “periphery,” to U.S. equities and corporate debt.

It’s worth noting that the beloved European “periphery” trade reversed course this week. The spread between German and both Spain and Italy 10-year sovereign yields widened 19 bps this week. Even the France to Germany spread widened 6 bps this week to an almost 9-month high (72bps). Stocks were slammed for 5.7% and 3.1% in Spain and Italy, wiping out most what had been strong January gains.

Even U.S. equities succumbed to global pressures. Notably, the cyclicals and financials were hit hard. Both have been Wall Street darlings on the bullish premise of a strengthening U.S. (and global) recovery and waning Credit and financial risk. Yet both groups this week seemed to recognize the reality that what is unfolding in China and EM actually matter – and they’re not pro-global growth. With recent extreme bullish sentiment, U.S. equities would appear particularly vulnerable to a global “risk off” market dynamic.

To summarize: 
Developed world banks have lent hundreds of billions of dollars to emerging market businesses and governments. If these debts go bad, those already-impaired banks will be looking at massive, perhaps fatal losses. Meanwhile, trillions of dollars of derivatives have been written by banks and hedge funds on emerging market debt and currencies, with money center banks serving as counterparties on both sides of these contracts. They net out their long and short exposures to hide the true risk, but let just one major counterparty fail and the scam will be exposed, as it was in 2008 when AIG’s implosion nearly bankrupted Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase.

Last but not least, individuals and pension funds in the developed world have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in emerging market stock and bond funds, which are now looking like huge year-ahead losers. The global balance sheet, in short, is about to get a lot more fragile.

So, just as pretty much everyone in the sound money community predicted, tapering will end sooner rather than later when a panicked Fed announces some kind of bigger and better shock-and-awe debt monetization plan. The European Central Bank, which actually shrank its balance sheet in 2013, will reverse course and start monetizing debt on a vast scale. As for Japan, who knows what they can get away with, since their government debt is, as a percentage of GDP, already twice that of the US.

The real question is not whether more debt monetization is coming, but whether it will come soon enough to preserve the asset price bubbles that are right this minute being punctured by the emerging market implosion. If not, it really is 2008 all over again.

The previous articles in this series:

What Blows Up First, Part 1: Europe

What Blows Up First, Part 2: Japan

“Money printing” in this case refers to currency creation in all its forms, electronic and physical.

 

Fear the Stock Bubble, but Don’t Sweat the Emerging Market Crisis | CYNICONOMICS

Fear the Stock Bubble, but Don’t Sweat the Emerging Market Crisis | CYNICONOMICS.

We review a few of our recent opinions for context before getting to the main point of this post:

Is the U.S. stock market overvalued?

Absolutely. In “Bubble or Not, U.S. Stocks Are Priced to Deliver Dismal Long-Term Returns,” we argued that stocks are priced to barely outpace inflation, at best, and more likely to deliver negative real returns over the next 10 years.

Is the market due for an extended correction or consolidation?

Probably. Some of the annual outlooks published recently brought back memories of January 2007. The trendy theme at that time was the idea that stocks would float along on a sea of unlimited global liquidity. Bulls seemed to feed off each other and make ever more extreme predictions, not recognizing that “global liquidity” was another way of describing history’s largest-ever credit bubble. Fast forward to late 2013/early 2014, and bulls were again upgrading their outlooks just as financial excesses were becoming impossible to ignore. It stands to reason that recent volatility may have gotten their attention, especially while the Fed’s QE boost is gradually removed with two tapers done and seven to go (assuming no change in amounts).

It’s also worth noting that returns in the month of January tends to persist. As we discussed here, negative January performance suggests better than 50% odds of further consolidation.

Is the current emerging market crisis a game changer for U.S. stocks?

Unless this is the year that China’s credit markets collapse, our answer is “not so much.” There are a handful of developments that could trigger a full bear in the U.S., but these don’t include events in developing countries outside China. That would be highly unusual, as we’ll show below by looking at six emerging market crises that occurred during bull markets.

 

Here are the crises, identified by the dates of the events that launched each one into broad public view:

  1. August 13, 1982. Mexico’s finance minister announces he can no longer meet the country’s loan obligations. Most Latin American countries follow Mexico’s lead and restructure their commitments to U.S. banks in 1982/83.
  2. February 20, 1987. Brazil announces an interest payment suspension, leading to another series of Latin American loan restructurings in 1987/88.
  3. December 20, 1994. Mexico devalues the Peso by adjusting its targeted band, and then abandons the band altogether two days later. Market turmoil forces Mexico into a U.S.-led debt bailout in early 1995.
  4. July 2, 1997. Only two days after ruling out a currency devaluation, Thailand gives up its defense of the baht, triggering sharp devaluations throughout East Asia and a painful regional recession (the “Asian Financial Crisis”).
  5. August 17, 1998. In reaction to a worsening recession and deteriorating public finances, Russia defaults on its sovereign debt and devalues the ruble.
  6. January 14, 2011. Tunisia’s president succumbs to public protests and flees to Saudi Arabia as demonstrations and bloodshed sweep the Middle East (the “Arab Spring”). Governments in Egypt and Yemen fall in February.

For each of these events, we looked at S&P 500 (SPY) performance in the prior two months and subsequent six months:

emerging market crisis 1

Here are the key results:

  • Stocks traded partly higher and partly sideways through Brazil’s 1987 bond default, the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and the Arab Spring of 2011. None of these episodes included a correction of more than 10%.
  • Stocks rallied strongly after each of the crises triggered by Mexico (in 1982 and 1994). Curiously, the long 1980-82 bear market reached its trough exactly one day before Mexico’s August 1982 plea for help.
  • The S&P 500 peaked one month before the August 1998 Russian bond default and then fell 19% to a trough two weeks after the default. Following another six weeks of consolidation that was surely extended by September 1998’s LTCM crisis, stocks rebounded strongly.

The chart suggests that emerging market stability is far from the most important factor for U.S. stocks. The present crisis is likely to create more market volatility, but stocks were due for a period of consolidation with or without Turkey’s corruption scandal, Argentina’s reserve drain, Thailand’s violent protests and so on. As shown above, these types of events don’t make the difference between bull and bear markets on Wall Street.

What could make us wrong?

The flip side to our conclusion is that the present crisis is more diverse than earlier crises and includes relatively large countries in all parts of the world. Consider that the so-called “fragile five” developing countries – Brazil, India, Indonesia, Turkey and South Africa – account for over 14% of global GDP. By comparison, the five countries most affected by the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis – Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea and Malaysia – totaled only 7% of global GDP. The five largest countries in the 1980s Latin American crises also amounted to 7% of global GDP. The other three crises barely registered at all from a GDP perspective: Russia and Mexico were each 2% of global GDP before their respective 1990s crises, while the Arab countries whose governments fell in 2011 were an even smaller portion of the global economy.

In other words, our chart could be misleading if the present crisis develops into a larger emerging market collapse than we’ve seen in the past. It’s worth watching for that reason, but we’re not yet convinced. If the U.S. bull is ended by global developments, these are more likely to originate in the larger economies of China, Japan or Western Europe.

“Fed Has Fingers & Thumbs On The Scales Of Finance,” Grant Tells Santelli And It “Will End Badly” | Zero Hedge

“Fed Has Fingers & Thumbs On The Scales Of Finance,” Grant Tells Santelli And It “Will End Badly” | Zero Hedge.

In a mere 140 seconds, Jim Grant explains to an almost stunned into silence Rich Santelli how we all “live in a valuation hall of mirrors” as the Fed manipulates everything. Thanks to it’s “fingers and thumbs on the scales of finance,” Grant continues, the Fed “insists on saving us from ‘everyday low prices'” – what they call deflation – and by doing so it manufactures “redundant credit” which “does mischief” in and out of markets. Grant, ominously concludes, “there is no suspense as to how [this will] end… [it will] end badly.”

Must watch… (especially for EM asset managers)…

Ponzi World (Over 3 Billion NOT Served): Self-Imploding Capitalism

Ponzi World (Over 3 Billion NOT Served): Self-Imploding Capitalism.

“The problem with bubbles is that they force one to decide whether to look like an idiot before the peak, or an idiot after the peak” (ZH/Hussman/Faber)

Too late. I already opted for the first option years ago. It was a choice between a low return on capital or no return of capital, so I chose the former. Everyone thinks that they will be that one guy who gets out at the very top – you know, like Alan Greenspan. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a retiring Central Bankster to realize that a set of widely ignored factors have coalesced to make meltdown inevitable.

Capitalism taken to the logical extent possible will inevitably self-implode with extreme dislocation.

Unbeknownst to the Corporatized Borg at large, the self-destruct sequence has already been inadvertently activated as follows:


Carry Trades Unwinding 
First off, carry trade unwind risk was always the greatest risk created by Quantitative Easing and despite the rolling dislocations in Emerging Markets, it’s still being ignored. These various high risk Emerging Market countries were primary beneficiaries of Fed largesse as it temporarily propped up their currencies and their debt markets. Now during the unwind phase, the currencies are collapsing and interest rates are rising. Meanwhile, investors are just starting to realize that these trade deficits (current account balances) are totally unsustainable. In a desperate attempt to stabilize its currency, Turkey raised interest rates by 4% overnight which of course will kill the economy. This is all just deja vu of the 1997 currency crisis which started in Thailand and spread throughout Asia.

Don’t Worry. Be Happy
“China is being engulfed in a financial crisis that might end up in its own version of the credit crunch. There are running battles on the streets on Bangkok and Kiev as authoritarian regimes totter. Turkey is sinking, and may soon not be able to fund its current account deficit. Argentina is going through another currency crisis. There is no shortage of drama coming out of the emerging markets. And there is no shortage of reasons for the markets to work them themselves up into a panic.” (“Why An Emerging Markets Crash Wouldn’t Matter”)

Key Stock Market Risks

BTFD/BTFATH

It starts with the buy-the-dip (BTFD) and buy-the-all-time-high (BTFATH) rote mentality that got us here. Investors have been programmed by Central banks, to buy every dip automatically. They are now doing so on auto-pilot.
Loss of Leadership
As we saw with Apple last year, eventually even the most beloved of stocks gets played out and rolls over. Notwithstanding cogent arguments around cash on hand and relative valuation, that stock is still wallowing well below its all time high. Currently, the momentum stocks which have been leading the advance since 2008 have been getting hammered recently on heavy volume. Meanwhile, as we see below, the ratio of small caps (R2K) to blue chips (Dow) is rolling over, indicating a rotation to safer names.
Massively Overbought
The problem with sector rotation is the fact that as I have shown too many times (see: “Aw Fuck, Not this again!”), all sectors are highly correlated, therefore blue chips are as played out as growth stocks. This is all manifesting itself in a market that is using up buying power to go nowhere. As we saw today, the TRIN which usually trades in a range between .5 and 5, was at a rock bottom .5. However, the market was only up nominally. Low readings indicate heavy buying.
Zero Hedge
Without sector rotation as a viable alternative, investors can hedge using options, which makes sense since as I’ve also shown too many times to mention (see: “Slowly at First, Then All At Once”), hedging using index options has gone out the window. Central banks killed market volatility and without volatility, options expire worthless, ergo no option hedging.
Volatility Will Explode: Making Hedging Impossible
If all investors reach for options protection at the same time, a couple of things happen. First, buying at-the-money put options forces market makers to short the market lower to hedge their put selling. If I buy an at-the-money QQQ March put option at a current price of $2/option, I have achieved 43:1 leverage given that the price of QQQ is $86. With $5,000 of options, I can control ~$200,000 of underlying capital. Place that in the context of institutions buying millions of dollars worth of put options and you see that buying puts is a massively leveraged form of short selling. Anyone who says that buying puts is not shorting the market, doesn’t understand how the options market works. Market makers who sell the puts HAVE to short to keep their book neutral. Therefore, given that all investors are currently under-hedged, once prices are pushed lower, and demand for options increases, then option implied volatility will sky-rocket as the cost of at-risk capital goes up commensurately. At some point hedging with options will not be cost feasible. Buying options in the middle of a sell-off is like trying to buy fire insurance when the house is already on fire. Too late.
Legalized Gambling
Let’s not forget about margin risk. NYSE margin is at an all time high, meaning speculators are massively leveraged. Therefore as their positions move against them, margin clerks will sell down their holdings which is what we saw during Y2K wherein the selling was relentless as selling begat selling as prices moved lower. It was non-stop liquidation for weeks on end.
Self-imploding Capitalism
Everything Gets Privatized Including the Market Itself
Once you take rotation and hedging off of the table, the only alternative left to protect capital is selling. That’s where it gets really interesting, because the underlying structure of the market has changed radically since 2007. All of the major stock exchanges became publicly traded companies between 2002-2010 which is why they adopted the High Frequency Trading model – i.e. to boost commissions. Ever since then, real human investor volumes have been drying up, while HFT algos duke it out with each to front-run the remaining trades. Taken together and stock market volumes are at a 15 year low. Therefore, when large scale investors get serious about selling down their positions, it’s highly unlikely there will be anyone or anything on the other side of the trade. HFT bots are not programmed to lose money or take outsized risks. They are programmed to jump in and out of the markets on a millisecond basis and otherwise maintain a neutral book.
And that’s the anatomy of a meltdown. 
Russell/Dow Ratio 
aka. Risk Appetite

Calm Broken in Markets Amid Concern of Emerging Contagion – Bloomberg

Calm Broken in Markets Amid Concern of Emerging Contagion – Bloomberg.

Declines that erased $1.7 trillion from global stocks as currencies from Turkey to Argentina slid are proving a Wall Street maxim, according to Brian Barish of Cambiar Investors LLC: selling can start anywhere.

“You’re never fully prepared for something like this,” Barish, president of Denver-based Cambiar, which manages $9 billion, said in a phone interview. “You say to yourself, ‘I know the froth is picking up, I know this is starting to get a little out of hand, this is going to get ugly when the hammer comes down.’ You know all of that, but you just don’t know what is going to get sold and why and by who.”

From Thailand and Russia in the late 1990s to Portugal and Greece three years ago and Turkey and Argentina today, crises inemerging markets are as hard to predict as they are to contain. Now they’re threatening a run of gains that has gone virtually uninterrupted in the developed countries for more than a year as investors adjust to a world where neither China nor the U.S. are likely to ride to the rescue.

The MSCI All-Country World Index, which came within 5 percent of an all-time high on New Year’s Eve, has dropped 4 percent since Jan. 22, the worst losses for worldwide equity markets in six months. Turkey’s attempt to stem declines in the lira backfired as a doubling of official interest rates led to even more selling. Stocks tumbled anew yesterday as the Federal Reserve said it would curtail its bond-buying program in the second month of reduced stimulus.

Obscure Causes

“The reasons are always a little bit unexpected,” said Khiem Do, head of Asian multi-asset strategy with Baring Asset Management in Hong Kong. Though the causes are obscure, the outcome was predictable, he said. “The correction is long overdue.”

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (SPX) tracking the biggest American companies fell 1 percent yesterday, bringing its decline since the Jan. 15 record to 4 percent. The Turkish currency depreciated as much as 2.4 percent after strengthening about 4 percent during the day. South Africa’s rand sank more than 2 percent even as the central bank unexpectedly raised rates. Gold increased 0.8 percent and copper fell.

Stocks Retreat

S&P 500 futures rose 0.2 percent at 6:03 a.m. in New York today, after the gauge dropped to the lowest level since Nov. 12. The MSCI Asia Pacific Index lost 1.5 percent and the Stoxx Europe 600 Index dropped 0.5 percent. India’s rupee weakened 0.5 percent versus the dollar and Indonesia’s rupiah slid 0.4 percent.

Emerging-market stocks have had the worst start to a year since 2008 as currencies from Turkey to South Korea tumbled. Sentiment toward the markets had started to sour last year after the Fed signaled it would scale back stimulus and as China’s economic growth showed signs of slowing. The MSCI Emerging Markets Index has slipped 11 percent from an October peak. A Bloomberg gauge tracking 20 emerging-market currencies has fallen to the lowest level since April 2009.

“It definitely caught people off guard,” Kevin Chessen, head of international trading and managing director at BTIG-Baypoint Trading LLC, said by telephone. “People came into January quite bullish. Then all of a sudden you started to see a few chinks in the armor, and it caused people to scramble. People also don’t have enough protection on like they’ve had in the past. It may be why the selloff got exacerbated.”

Constant Watch

Turkish central bank Governor Erdem Basci is fighting to arrest a currency run after a corruption scandal that broke last month ensnared several cabinet members. The political fallout coincided with an outflow of money from emerging economies including Brazil.

Argentina allowed the peso to plunge 15 percent after the central bank began scaling back interventions in the foreign-exchange market last week. Global stocks declined 3.3 percent since Jan. 23, when a factory index in China fell short of economist projections.

“The environment is changing so quickly and just to make sense of so many moving parts is extremely challenging,” Benoit Anne, London-based head of emerging-markets strategy at Societe Generale SA, said in a phone interview from New York. Anne said he woke up at 2 a.m. on Jan. 29 for Turkey’s central bank decision and was awake again at 4 a.m. to monitor the market before arriving for work at 7 a.m. for a morning meeting.

“It’s almost around the clock,” he said. “It’s extremely stressful.”

Currencies Fall

All but seven of 24 developing-nation currencies fell yesterday, with Russia’s ruble and Mexico’s peso losing more than 1 percent against the dollar. The South Africa Reserve Bank unexpectedly raised the repurchase rate to 5.5 percent from 5 percent, following Turkey’s decision to boost borrowing costs after a late-night emergency meeting.

“If you look at the things that have kicked off over the last two weeks in terms of currency, they are kind of long overdue,” said Gary Dugan, who helps oversee about $53 billion as the Singapore-based chief investment officer for Asia and the Middle East at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc’s wealth management unit. “All of these things are well known, but it reached a crescendo that broke the back of the market.”

Speculation that developed market stocks were due for a retreat has built for months, including forecasts this month from Blackstone Group LP’s Byron Wien and Nuveen Investment Inc.’s Bob Doll Jr., who both called for a 10 percent drop. The S&P 500 hasn’t lost 5 percent since June 2013. For the MSCI All-Country index, the broadest gauge of global equities, the last retreat of 10 percent was in June 2012.

Finding Opportunities

Global stocks had surged since mid-2012, with U.S. equities capping a fifth year in a bull market, as the Fed implemented three rounds of quantitative easing and earnings nearly doubled. Ignoring turmoil in emerging markets, the Fed said yesterday it will trim its monthly bond buying by an additional $10 billion, sticking to its plan for a gradual withdrawal from departing Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s unprecedented easing policy.

The emerging-markets selloff has done little to dent the $10 trillion of stock value that was created worldwide in 2013, when the S&P 500 advanced 30 percent and Japan’s Topix Index (TPX)climbed 51 percent.

“I like days like this,” Carsten Hilck, who oversees about 5 billion euros ($6.8 billion) as senior fund manager at Union Investment Privatfonds GmbH in Frankfurt, said in an interview. “Risk and reward goes together in markets like this. Turbulence makes prices move so I can react.”

1998 Similarities

This year’s drop in global equities is half as large as the worst retreat of 2013, when the MSCI gauge fell 8.8 percent from May 21 through June 24 after Bernanke raised the possibility in Congress of reducing stimulus. It slid 14 percent between March and June 2012 as Europe struggled to extinguish its sovereign debt crisis in Greece and Portugal.

Declines will prove temporary, much as they did in 1998, according to Mark Matthews, the Singapore-based head of Asia research for Bank Julius Baer & Co. Like then, the latest selloff comes after a five-year advance lifted valuations above historical averages. The S&P 500 traded as high as 17.4 times annual profit in December, the most expensive level in almost four years, data compiled by Bloomberg show. In 1998, stocks rebounded from a 19 percent drop that came as currency turmoil in Asia and Russia spread to developed markets.

The most vulnerable emerging markets “have already reached a bottom in terms of their ‘badness,’” Matthews said. “Even if they do continue to see economic slowdown, I cannot believe it would be enough to derail the strong U.S. recovery.”

Market Breadth

The global economy will grow 3.7 percent this year, up from an October estimate of 3.6 percent, the International Monetary Fund said in revisions to its World Economic Outlook released Jan. 21, citing accelerating expansions in the U.S. and U.K. Economies of Japan, Europe and the U.S. are forecast to expand together for the first time since 2010, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

A total of 460 stocks in the S&P 500 ended higher in 2013, the most since at least 1990, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. While breadth of that nature has been a bullish stock-market indicator in the past, the turmoil in emerging markets this year is leading investors away from equities, according to Jawaid Afsar, a trader at Securequity Ltd. in Sheffield, England.

“Last year, you could’ve picked any stock at any time and you didn’t need protection because the markets kept going higher and higher,” Afsar said by telephone. “Suddenly, emerging markets have tumbled across the board, currencies are getting hit hard, so people are running for cover. It’s come out of the blue.”

Treasury Haven

Stress in emerging markets has made a winner out of two of last year’s least-loved assets. Treasuries rose yesterday, pushing 10-year note yields down to the lowest level in two months. Gold, which posted its worst annual return since 1981 last year, has climbed more than 5 percent in January.

Shifts among asset classes and the global declines in 2014 have led to a surge in volatility. TheChicago Board Options Exchange’s Volatility Index, known as the VIX, reached 18.14 this month, the highest level since October, and average daily moves in the S&P 500 rose to 0.55 percent, compared with 0.44 percent in December, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

“My phone hasn’t stopped ringing in the past few days, and I met with about half of my clients, as some of them have direct exposure to emerging-market currencies,” Lorne Baring, who manages about $500 million as managing director of B Capital in Geneva, said in a telephone interview, adding the firm reduced emerging-market exposure prior to the selloff. “They want to know my views on whether the situation is going to get worse, and I tell them yes, it will.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Whitney Kisling in New York at wkisling@bloomberg.net; Eleni Himaras in Hong Kong at ehimaras@bloomberg.net; Weiyi Lim in Singapore atwlim26@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Lynn Thomasson at lthomasson@bloomberg.net

Welcome To Phase Three Of The Global Financial Crisis | Zero Hedge

Welcome To Phase Three Of The Global Financial Crisis | Zero Hedge.

It’s deliciously ironic that emerging market (EM) problems have flared so soon after the meeting of the rich and powerful in Davos. According to the central bankers at Davos, the financial crisis is behind us and brighter days lay ahead. According to these bankers, the EM issues which have since arisen are confined to a handful of developing countries and they won’t impact the West.

If only were that so. What the eruptions of the past week really show is that the system based on easy money created by these bankers remains deeply flawed and these flaws have been exposed by moves to tighten liquidity in the U.S. and China. The system broke down in 2008, and again in Europe in 2011 and now in EM in 2013-2014.

The market reaction to the latest events has been abrupt and violent, particularly in the currency world. In my experience, markets generally cope well when there is one crisis. If the current issue was isolated to Turkey, markets outside of this country would probably shrug their shoulders and move on. But when there are multiple spot fires like the last week, markets don’t cope as well.

What are investors supposed to do now? Well, going into this year, Asia Confidential suggested (herehere and here) being cautious on stocks given increasing deflationary risks from U.S. tapering and a China slowdown. And to go long government bonds in developed markets (the U.S) given these risks and junior gold miners due to the extraordinarily cheap valuations on offer. These recommendations have performed well year-to-date and should continue to out-perform for the remainder of 2014.

Simple explanations for the crisis

Much ink has been spilled (or keyboards worn, in this day and age) trying to make sense of the past week’s event. China’s economic slowdown has copped much of the blame. As has QE tapering. And idiosyncratic issues in Turkey and Argentina have received their fair share of attention.

There have also been more sophisticated explanations such as this one from Kit Juckes at Societe Generale:

“There has been a shift in the balance of growth as Chinese demand for raw material wanes, and as higher wages and strong currencies make many EM economies less competitive. Meanwhile, the Fed policy cycle IS turning, and 4 years of capital being pushed out in a quest for less derisory yields, are ending. This isn’t a repeat of the 1990s Asian crises, because domestic conditions are completely different but it is a turn in the global market cycle. We need to transition from a world where investment is pushed out of the US/Europe/Japan to one where it is pulled in by attractive prospects. When that happens, flows will be differentiated much more from one country (EM or otherwise) to another. But for now, we’re just waiting for global capital flows to calm down.”

Now I have a large issue with the purported attractive prospects of the US, Europe and Japan, but let’s put that aside. The bigger issue is that the explanation here appears to be addressing the symptoms of the crisis (global capital flows) rather than the disease (excess credit and an unstable global economic system).

A more nuanced view

Let me elaborate on this. In a previous post, I echoed the thoughts of India’s new central bank chief in suggesting that there were four main causes for the 2008 financial crisis:

  • Rising inequality and the push for housing credit in the U.S.. Growing income inequality in America, exacerbated by technology replacing low-wage jobs and an inadequate education system which failed to re-skill people, led to politicians allowing easier credit conditions to boost asset prices and make people feel wealthier. That resulted in the subprime and housing crisis.
  • Export-led growth and dependency of several countries including China, Japan and Germany. The debt-fueled consumption in the U.S. would have been inflationary were it not for these countries not meeting the consumption needs of Americans. In other words, they aided and abetted the consumption binge in the U.S.
  • A clash of cultures between developed and developing countries. This relates back to 1997 when the Asian crisis force countries in the region to go from being net importers to substantial net exporters, thereby creating the conditions for a global glut in goods.
  • U.S central bank policy pandering to political considerations by focusing on jobs and inflation at any cost. The bank acted in accordance with the wishes of politicians by keeping interest rates too low for too long. They did this to maintain high employment, one of the bank’s two central mandates.

It’s important to note that none of these issues has been resolved. In fact, many of them have worsened. And any hint of adjustments to one or more of these problems results in further crises (like Europe in 2011 and in EM mid-last year and today).

This isn’t to excuse the governance issues in the likes of Argentina and Turkey. But it is to suggest that they are merely symptoms of a deeper malaise.

Deflation is winning battle over inflation

If these adjustments were to happen in full, it would result in plunging global asset prices as excessive debt loads are unwound. De-leveraging, in economic terms. This deflationary action is anathema to the world’s central bankers as deflation is enemy number one. Hence, they’ll do “whatever it takes” to produce inflation. And if that means flushing currencies down the urinal, so be it. The battle between inflation and deflation is ongoing, though the latter has the upper hand right now.

The weapons of choice for central bankers to fight off deflation are QE and zero interest rates. Central bankers tell us that these policies are necessary for economies to heal. I’d suggest this is baloney and they’re exacerbating the aforementioned problems.

To see why, it’s important to understand that interest rates are the central price signal off which all assets are priced. If central banks keep rates artificially low, it distorts these asset prices. And if you keep rates low for long enough, it distorts prices to such an extent that it’s impossible to know what the real value of certain assets are.

Another issue is that by keeping rates low, businesses which should go bankrupt stay alive. That’s why government bail-outs of almost any private company are a bad idea. Keeping zombies businesses alive means economies become less competitive over time. Witness Japan since 1990.

These are but a few of the unintended consequences of the current policies.

The endgame

There are three possible endgames to the current situation:

  1. There’s a global deflationary shock where all asset prices fall and fall hard. A la 2008. In this instance, central banks would go in all guns blazing with more money printing on an even grander scale. This would risk inflation if not hyperinflation as faith in currencies is diminished, if not lost.
  2. You have a gradual global recovery and inflation stays tame enough for a smooth exit from current policies.
  3. There’s a recovery but central banks are slow to raise rates and inflation gallops, which forces tightening and a subsequent economic slowdown.

My bet remains on the first scenario given intensifying deflationary forces from a China economic slowdown and Japan currency debasement (which aids exporters in being more price competitive).

If I’m right, there may be deflation followed by extreme inflation (or one quickly followed by the other). That makes investing a tough game. Under both of those scenarios, stocks and bonds would under-perform in a big way (my current call to own developed market government bonds is a 6-12 month one, not long-term). That’s why cash (which would out-perform in deflation), gold (which would prosper under extreme inflation) and select property and other tangible assets such as agriculture (which may out-perform under extreme inflation on a relative rather than absolute basis) should be part of any diverse investment portfolio.

This post was originally published at Asia Confidential
http://asiaconf.com/2014/01/29/phase-three-financial-crisis/

Shock And Ouch: Turkish Central Bank Intervention Now Fully Faded As Lira Collapse Returns | Zero Hedge

Shock And Ouch: Turkish Central Bank Intervention Now Fully Faded As Lira Collapse Returns | Zero Hedge.

Update: full meltdown mode now:

Yesterday, the moment when the Turkish Central Bank intervention was jinxed was clearly marked by SocGen’s fawning Benoit Anne, who said “In any case, I definitely feel much better about the TRY, at least on a tactical basis. Hence we just entered a long TRY/ZAR targeting a tactical move to 5.10. The TRY crisis is over.” To which we responded: “As for the “TRY crisis being over” let’s wait to see what the “popular” response is to this epic rate hike first thing tomorrow when Turkey awakes, shall we, and let’s revisit the TRY crisis in 2-3 weeks when the country’s housing market crumbles, when the economy grinds to a halt and the political crisis goes from worse to worse-est.” We didn’t have to wait more than 12 hours. As of this moment, the entire Central Bank move has been faded.

And now, the TRY crisis is back. Thanks SocGen.

Emerging Market Meltdown Resumes | Zero Hedge

Emerging Market Meltdown Resumes | Zero Hedge.

As South Africa hiked rates this morning (whose effect on the Rand was promptly overwhelmed by the Lira collapsing back to weaker than pre-rate-hike) stock markets around the world are rapidly deteriorating and the safety of bonds and bullion is being sought aggressively. S&P futures are -10 from pre-Turkey; Dow -100; Nikkei -30; and EEM swung from up over 2% to down almost 1% in the pre-open. Treasuries are 6bps tighter than post-Turkey and gold (and silver) are rallying smartly back up to $1268 (+$20 from post-Turkey lows). It would seem EM turmoil is un-fixed. Turkish stocks are collapsing and the Hungarian Forint is collapsing.

Dow and Nikkei have given it all back…

as have Emerging Market stocks…

As Turkish stocks collapse…

and the contagion spreads to other currencies…

S&P futures are getting slammed…

Bonds are surging…

and so is gold…

We can’t help but see the irony of this tumult and the possibility of a global financial meltdown occurring on the day of Bernanke’s last FOMC meeting…

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