Home » Posts tagged 'Monetization'
Tag Archives: Monetization
Since at least the 1980s, US policy has been to convince us to borrow as much as possible on pretty much anything we could think of. This worked brilliantly until 2008, when homeowners, consumers and businesses hit a wall and private sector defaults began to exceed new loans. Another Great Depression was imminent.
But instead of allowing this natural cleansing process to run its course, governments around the world stepped into the breach themselves, borrowing tens of trillions of dollars to replace evaporating private sector debt. The idea, to the extent that there was one, was to buy time for traumatized consumers and businesses to relax a bit and start borrowing again.
This appears to be happening. The latest Fed Z.1 report shows overall US debt growing again, with the private sector leading the way.
It’s not surprising that near-zero interest rates and trillions of dollars of newly-created currency would get people borrowing again. What is surprising is that anyone thinks this is a good thing. In 2013 total US debt, equity prices, household net worth, large-bank assets and derivatives books, and a long list of other debt-related measures pierced the records they set in 2007. In other words we’ve recreated the conditions that prevailed just before the world nearly fell apart.
Will the result be different this time? It’s hard to see how, especially since developed-world governments now have roughly twice as much debt as they did back then, so their ability to ride to the rescue will be limited.
As this is written the Fed is announcing that it will scale back its debt monetization to only $75 billion a month, or $900 billion a year. Its balance sheet, which just hit $4 trillion, will grow by nearly 25% in 2014, to nearly $5 trillion, which is a measure of how much new currency it is creating and pumping into the banking system.
The next stage of the plan is to get the banks to start lending this money, which would, through the magic of fractional reserves, produce loans in some large multiple of the original amount. So we might be on the verge of trading a nasty-but-comprehensible Kondratieff Winter for something a lot wilder.
US lawmakers reached a budget deal this week that will avert the sequester cuts and shutdowns. These fiscal “roadblocks” supposedly damaged investor confidence in 2013, although clearly no one told equity investors who’ve chased the S&P 500 up 26 percent this year. But even so the budget deal is seen by inflationists as only half the battle won, because it doesn’t deal with the pesky debt ceiling. Unsurprisingly, the old calls for a scrapping of the debt ceiling are being heard afresh.
Last week, The Week ran an opinion piece by John Aziz which argues that America (and all other nations for that matter) should keep borrowing until investors no longer want to lend to it. To this end, it is argued, the US should scrap its debt ceiling because the only debt ceiling it needs is the one imposed by the market. When the market doesn’t want to lend to you anymore, bond yields will rise to such an extent that you can no longer afford to borrow any more money. You will reach yournatural, market-determined debt ceiling. According to this line of reasoning, American bond yields are incredibly low, meaning there is no shortage of people willing to lend to Uncle Sam. So Washington should take advantage of these fantastically easy loans and leverage up.
Here’s part of the key paragraph from Aziz:
Right now interest rates are very low by historical standards, even after adjusting for inflation. This means that the government is not producing sufficient debt to satisfy the market demand. The main reason for that is the debt ceiling.
What this fails to appreciate is that interest rates are a heavily controlled price in all of today’s major economies. This is particularly true in the case of America, where the Federal Reserve controls short-term interest rates using open market operations (i.e., loaning newly printed money to banks) and manipulates long-term interest rates using quantitative easing. By injecting vast amounts of liquidity into the economy, the Fed makes it appear as though there is more savings than there really is. But US bond yields are currently no more a reflection of the market’s demand for US debt than a price ceiling on gasoline is a reflection of its booming supply. Contra the view expressed in The Week, low rates brought about by contrived zero-bound policy rates and trillions of dollars in QE can mislead the federal government into borrowing more while at the same time pushing savers and investors out of US bond markets and into riskier assets like corporate bonds, equities, exotic derivatives, emerging markets, and so on.
Greece once thought that the market was giving it the green light to “produce” more debt. Low borrowing rates for Greece were not a sign of fiscal health, however, but really just layer upon layer of false and contrived signals arising from easy ECB money, allowing Greece to hide behind Germany’s credit status. As it turned out, a legislative debt ceiling in Greece (one that was actually adhered to) would have been a far better idea than pretending this manipulated market was a fair reflection of reality. Investors were happy to absorb Greece’s debt until suddenly they weren’t.
This is the nature of sovereign debt accumulation driven by easy money and credit bubbles. It’s all going swimmingly until it’s not. And there is little reason to think this time the US is different. Except that America might be worse. The very fact of the Fed buying Treasuries with newly printed money proves Washington is producing too much debt. China even stated recently that it saw no more utility accumulating any more dollar debt assets. If the whole point of QE is to monetize impaired assets, then the Fed likely sees Treasury bonds as facing considerable impairment risk. Theory and history are clear about the reasons for and consequences of large-scale and persistent debt monetization.
Finally, it is wrong to assert that the debt ceiling is the main reason for America’s fiscal deficit reduction. The ceiling has never provided a meaningful barrier to America’s borrowing ambitions, hence the dozens of upward adjustments to the ceiling whenever it threatens to crimp the whims of Washington’s profligate classes. America’s rate of new borrowing is falling because all the money it has printed washed into the economic system and found its way back into tax revenues. Corporate profits are soaring to all-time highs on dirt cheap trade financing. Corporate high-grade debt issuance has set a new record in 2013. Companies are rolling their short-term debts, now super-cheap thanks to Bernanke’s money machine, and issuing long, into a bubbly IPO and corporate bond market. The last time corporate profits surged like they’re doing now was during the credit and housing bubble that preceded the unraveling and inevitable bust in 2008/09.
These are money and credit cycle effects. The debt ceiling has had precious little to do with it. Moreover, US debt is neither crimped nor the US Treasury Department austere. Instead, the national debt is soaring, $60,000 higher for every US family since Obama took office and rising. Add to this the fact that the US Treasury’s bond issuance schedule is actually set to rise in 2014 due to huge amounts of maturing debt needing to be rolled over next year, and the fiscal significance of the debt ceiling fades even further.
The singular brilliance of the debt ceiling however, is that it keeps reminding everyone that there is a growing national debt that never seems to shrink. That is a tremendous service to American citizens who live in the dark regarding the borrowing machinations of their political overlords. Yes, politicians keep raising the debt ceiling, but nowadays they have to bend themselves into ever twisty pretzels trying to explain why to their justifiably skeptical and cynical constituents. Most people don’t understand bond yields, quantitative easing, and Keynesian pump-a-thons too well, but they sure understand a debt ceiling.
Those who adhere to the don’t-stop-til-you-get-enough theory of sovereign borrowing, and by extension argue for a scrapping of the debt ceiling, couldn’t be more misguided. In free markets with no Fed money market distortion, interest rates can be a useful guide of the amount of real savings being made available to borrowers. When borrowers want to borrow more, real interest rates will rise, and at some point this crimps the marginal demand for borrowing, acting as a natural “debt ceiling.” But when markets are heavily distorted by central bank money printing and contrived zero-bound rates, interest rates utterly cease to serve this purpose for prolonged periods of time. What takes over is the false signals of the unsustainable business cycle which fools people into thinking there is more savings than there really is. Greece provides a recent real-world case study of this very phenomenon in action. In these cases we are likely to see low rates sustained during the increase in government borrowing, only for them to quickly reset higher and plunge a country into a debt trap which may force default or extreme money printing.
Debt monetization has a proven track record of ending badly. It is after all the implicit admission that no one but your monopoly money printer is willing to lend to you at the margin. The realization that this is unsustainable can take a while to sink in, but when it does, all it takes is an inevitable fat-tail event or crescendo of panic to topple the house of cards. If the market realizes it’s been duped into having too much before the government decides it’s had enough, a debt crisis won’t be far away.
Note: The views expressed in Daily Articles on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
Comment on this article. When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment.
Russell Lamberti is head strategist at ETM Analytics, in charge of global and South African macroeconomic, financial market, and policy strategy within the ETM group. Follow him on Twitter. See Russell Lamberti’s article archives.
You can subscribe to future articles by Russell Lamberti via this RSS feed.
The Federal Reserve is creating hundreds of billions of dollars out of thin air and using that money to buy U.S. government debt and mortgage-backed securities and take them out of circulation. Since the middle of 2008, these purchases have caused the Fed’s balance sheet to balloon from under a trillion dollars to nearly four trillion dollars. This represents the greatest central bank intervention in the history of the planet, and Janet Yellen says that she does not anticipate that it will end any time soon because “the recovery is still fragile”. Of course, as I showed the other day, the truth is that quantitative easing has done essentially nothing for the average person on the street. But what QE has done is that it has sent stocks soaring to record highs. Unfortunately, this stock market bubble is completely and totally divorced from economic reality, and when the easy money is taken away the bubble will collapse. Just look at what happened a few months ago when Ben Bernanke suggested that the Fed may begin to “taper” the amount of quantitative easing that it was doing. The mere suggestion that the flow of easy money would start to slow down a little bit was enough to send the market into deep convulsions. This is why the Federal Reserve cannot stop monetizing debt. The moment the Fed stops, it could throw our financial markets into a crisis even worse than what we saw back in 2008.
The problems that plagued our financial system back in 2008 have never been fixed. They have just been papered over temporarily by trillions of easy dollars from the Federal Reserve. All of this easy money is keeping stocks artificially high and interest rates artificially low.
Right now, the Federal Reserve is buying approximately 85 billion dollars worth of U.S. government debt and mortgage-backed securities each month. We are told that the portion going to buy U.S. government debt each month is approximately 45 billion dollars, but who knows what the Fed is actually doing behind the scenes. In any event, by creating money out of thin air and using it to remove U.S. Treasury securities out of circulation, the Federal Reserve is essentially monetizing U.S. government debt at a staggering rate.
But Federal Reserve officials continue to repeatedly deny that what they are doing is monetizing debt. For instance, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Dennis Lockhart strongly denied this back in April: “I object to the view that the Fed is monetizing the debt”.
How in the world can Fed officials possibly deny that they are monetizing the debt?
Well, because the Fed is promising that it is going to eventually sell back all of the securities that it is currently buying.
Since the Fed does not plan to keep all of this government debt on its balance sheet indefinitely, that means that they are not actually monetizing it according to their twisted logic.
Try not to laugh.
And of course that will never, ever happen. There is no possible way that the Fed will ever be able to stop recklessly creating money and then turn around and sell off 3 trillion dollars worth of government debt and mortgage-backed securities that it has accumulated since 2008. Just look at the chart posted below. Does this look like something that the Federal Reserve will ever be able to “unwind”?…
Remember, just the suggestion that the Fed would begin to slow down the pace of this buying spree a little bit was enough to send the financial markets into panic mode a few months ago.
If the Fed does decide to permanently stop quantitative easing at some point, stocks will drop dramatically and interest rates will skyrocket because there will be a lot less demand for U.S. Treasuries. In fact, interest rates have already risen substantially over the past few months even though quantitative easing is still running.
Right now, the Fed is supplying a tremendous amount of the demand for U.S. debt securities in the marketplace. According to Zero Hedge, Drew Brick of RBS recently made the following statement about the staggering amount of government debt that is currently being monetized by the Fed…
“On a rolling six-month average, in fact, the Fed is now responsible for monetizing a record 70% of all net supply measured in 10y equivalents. This represents a reliance on the Fed that is greater than ever before in history!“
Overall, the Federal Reserve now holds 32.47 percent of all 10 year equivalents, and that percentage is rising by about 0.3 percent each week.
If the Federal Reserve does not keep doing this, the financial markets are going to crash because they are being propped up artificially by all of this funny money.
But if the Federal Reserve keeps doing this, it is going to become increasingly obvious to the rest of the world that the Fed is simply monetizing debt and is starting to behave like the Weimar Republic.
The remainder of the planet is watching what the Federal Reserve is doing very carefully, and they are starting to ask themselves some very hard questions.
Why should they continue to use our dollars to trade with one another when the Fed is wildly creating money out of thin air and rapidly devaluing the existing dollars that they are holding?
And why should they continue to lend us trillions of dollars at ultra-low interest rates that are way below the real rate of inflation when the U.S. government is already drowning in debt and the money that will be used to pay those debts back will be steadily losing value with each passing day?
The Federal Reserve is in very dangerous territory. If the Fed wants the current system to continue, it is going to have to stop this reckless money printing at some point or else the rest of the world will eventually decide to stop participating in it.
If the Fed wants to go ahead and make quantitative easing a permanent part of our system, then eventually it will need to go all the way and start monetizing all of our debt.
Right now, the Fed is stuck in the middle of a “no man’s land” where it is monetizing a significant amount of U.S. government debt but it is trying to sell everyone else on the idea that it is not really monetizing debt. This is a state of affairs that cannot go on indefinitely.
At some point, the Fed is going to have to make a decision. And for now the Fed seems to be married to the idea that eventually things will get back to “normal” and they will stop monetizing debt.
Even Janet Yellen is admitting that quantitative easing “cannot continue forever”.
However, she also said on Thursday that it is important not to end quantitative easing too rapidly, “especially when the recovery is still fragile“.
Well, at this point quantitative easing has been going on in one form or another for about five years now.
Will it ever end?
And when it does, how bad will the financial crash be?
Meanwhile, with each passing day the faith that the rest of the world has in our dollar and in our financial system continues to erode.
If the Fed continues to behave this recklessly, it is inevitable that the rest of the globe will begin to move even more rapidly away from the U.S. dollar and will become much more hesitant to lend us money.
Ultimately, the Federal Reserve is faced with only bad choices. The status quo is not sustainable, ending quantitative easing will cause the financial markets to crash, and going “all the way” with quantitative easing will just turn us into the Weimar Republic.
But anyone with half a brain should have been able to see that this debt-based financial system that the Federal Reserve is at the heart of was going to end tragically anyway. The 100 year anniversary of the Federal Reserve is coming up, and the truth is that it should have been abolished long ago.
The consequences of decades of very foolish decisions are catching up with us, and this is all going to end very, very badly.
I hope that you are getting ready.