Discussions on the Fed Put
CNBC’s Joe Kernen (March 20, 2017): “For a guy that was there trying to deal with the housing Bubble - that would be the other thing that people would bring up to you. That you don’t know what low rates are really doing. You don’t know where the next dislocation is going to be. You’re not seeing a lot of benefits from zero, and who knows if you might be inflating something somewhere that comes home to roost in the future. That’s probably what they’d say: ‘You must know there’s nothing on the horizon then.’”
Neel Kashkari, Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank president: “It’s a very fair question and people point to the stock market’s been booming. And my response to those folks is, we care about asset price movements if we think a correction could lead to financial instability or financial crisis. If you think about the tech Bubble - the tech Bubble burst. It was not good for the economy – obviously it hurt. But there was no risk of a financial collapse, not like the housing Bubble. So, the difference is the housing market has so much debt underneath it. It’s much more dangerous if there’s a correction. If equity markets drop, it’s going to be painful for investors. But there’s so little debt relative to housing, it doesn’t look like it has a risk of leading to any kind of financial crisis. So, our job is to let the markets adjust.”
Less than an hour later Kashkari appeared on Bloomberg Television: “Some people have said we should be raising rates because markets are getting hot – and the stock market keeps climbing. I think we should only pay attention to markets if we believe it could lead to financial instability. So, go back to the tech Bubble, when tech burst it was painful for the economy; it was painful for investors. But it did not lead to any kind of economic collapse or financial instability. So, if stock markets fall it’ll hurt investors. But that’s not the Fed’s job. The Fed’s job is not to protect stock market investors. We have to pay attention to potential financial instability risks, and the fact is there’s a lot more debt underlying the housing market than underlying the stock market. That’s why the housing bust was painful for the economy. A stock market correction will probably be a lot less painful.”
Neel Kashkari these days provides interesting subject matter. It’s no coincidence that he’s been discussing shrinking the Fed’s balance sheet while also addressing the “Fed put” in the stock market. I’m sure Kashkari and the FOMC would prefer that market participants were less cocksure that the Fed stands ready to backstop the markets. Too late for that.
The Fed is not blind. They monitor stock prices and corporate debt issuance; they see residential and commercial real estate market values. Years of ultra-low rates have inflated Bubbles throughout commercial real estate – anything providing a yield – in excess of those going into 2008. Upper-end residential prices are significantly stretched across the country, also surpassing 2007. They see Silicon Valley and a Tech Bubble 2.0, with myriad excesses that in many respects put 1999 to shame. I’ll assume that the Fed is concerned with the amount of leverage and excess that has accumulated in bond and Credit markets over the past eight years of extreme monetary stimulus.
The Fed is locked into a gradualist approach when it comes to normalizing rate policy. At the same time, they must of late recognize that speculative markets might readily brush aside Fed “tightening” measures. This might help to explain why the Fed’s balance sheet is suddenly in play. And it’s not just Kashkari. From Bloomberg: “Fed’s Kaplan Says MBS and Treasuries Should Both Be Rolled Off” and “Bullard Says Fed in Good Position to Allow Balance Sheet to Fall.” From Reuters: “Cleveland Fed President Says She Supports Reducing the Balance Sheet.” And from Barron’s: “Fed's Williams: Balance Sheet Shrinkage Could Begin Late this Year.” And my favorite: “Fed’s Kashkari: Everyone on FOMC ‘Very Interested’ in Balance Sheet Policy.”
I struggle taking comments from Fed officials at face value. Kashkari shares a similar revisionist view of the Tech Bubble experience to that of Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan and others: Basically, it was no big deal – implying that Bubbles generally don’t have to be big deals. They somehow banished 2002 from their memories.
The Fed collapsed fed funds from 6.50% in December 2000 to an extraordinarily low 1.75% by the end of 2001. In the face of an escalating corporate debt crisis, the Fed took the unusual step of cutting rates another 50 bps in November 2002. Alarmingly, corporate Credit was failing to respond to traditional monetary policy measures (despite being aggressively applied). Ford in particular faced severe funding issues, though the entire corporate debt market was confronting liquidity issues. Recall that the S&P500 dropped 23.4% in 2002. The small caps lost 21.6%. The Nasdaq 100 (NDX) sank 37.6%, falling to 795 (having collapsed from a March 2000 high of 4,816). No financial instability?
Years later it’s easy to downplay consequences of the bursting “tech” Bubble. Yet there were fears of a deflationary spiral and the Fed running out of ammo. It was this backdrop in which Dr. Bernanke introduced unconventional measures in two historic speeches, the November 21, 2002, “Deflation: Making Sure ‘It’ Doesn’t Happen Here” and the November 8, 2002, “On Milton Friedman’s Ninetieth Birthday.”
I revisit history in an attempt at distinguishing reality from misperceptions. Of course the Fed will generally dismiss the consequences of Bubbles. They’re not going to aggressively embark on reflationary policies while espousing the dangers of asset price and speculative Bubbles. Instead, they have painted the “housing Bubble” as some egregious debt mountain aberration. And paraphrasing Kashkari, since today’s stock market has nowhere as much debt as housing had in 2007, there’s little to worry about from a crisis and financial instability perspective.
Well, if only that were the case. Debt is a critical issue, and there’s a whole lot more of it than back in 2008. Yet when it comes to fragility and financial crises, market misperceptions and distortions play fundamental roles. And there’s a reason why each bursting Bubble and resulting policy-induced reflation ensures a more precarious Bubble: Not only does the amount of debt continue to inflate, each increasingly intrusive policy response elicits a greater distorting impact on market perceptions.
I doubt Fed governor Bernanke actually anticipated that the Fed would have to resort to “helicopter money” and the “government printing press” when he introduced such extreme measures in his 2002 speeches. Yet seeing that the Fed was willing to push its monetary experiment in such a radical direction played a momentous role in reversing the 2002 corporate debt crisis, in the process stoking the fledgling mortgage finance Bubble. And the Bernanke Fed surely thought at the time that doubling its balance sheet during the 2008/09 crisis was a one-time response to a once-in-a-lifetime financial dislocation. I’ll assume they were sincere with their 2011 “exit strategy,” yet only a few short years later they’d again double the size of their holdings.
So easy to forget how we got here. We’re a few months from the nine-year anniversary of the 2008 crisis, yet there’s still huge ongoing global QE and rates not far from zero. It’s a monetary inflation beyond anyone’s imaginings, even Dr. Ben’s. To say “the jury’s still out” is a gross understatement.
There’s a counter argument that stimulus measures and monetary inflation got completely away from Dr. Bernanke - and global central banks more generally. Peak global monetary stimulus today equates with peak securities market values and peak optimism – all having been powerfully self-reinforcing (“reflexivity”). Global debt continues to expand rapidly, led by exceedingly risky late-cycle Credit growth out of China. I suspect that unprecedented amounts of speculative leverage have accumulated globally, led by excesses in currency “carry trades” and derivatives. “Money” continues to flood into global risk markets, inflating prices and expectations. Worse yet, excesses over (going on) nine years have seen an unprecedented expansion of perceived money-like government and central bank Credit (the heart of contemporary “money” and Credit). Meanwhile, global rates have barely budged from zero.
Despite assertions to the contrary, the bursting of the “tech” Bubble unleashed significant financial instability. To orchestrate reflation, the Fed marshaled a major rate collapse, which worked to stoke already robust mortgage Credit growth. The collapse in telecom debt, an unwind of market-based speculative leverage and the rapid slowdown in corporate borrowings was over time more than offset by a rapid expansion in housing debt and the enormous growth in mortgage-related speculative leverage (MBS, ABS, derivatives).
Understandably, Kashkari and the Fed would prefer today to ween markets off the notion of a “Fed put.” It’s just not going to resonate. Markets will not buy into the comparison of the current backdrop to the “tech” Bubble period. The notion that today’s securities markets operate without major instability risk is at odds with reality.
Markets are keenly aware that the Fed’s balance sheet will be the Federal Reserve’s only viable tool come the next period of serious de-risking/de-leveraging. At the same time, Fed officials clearly want to counter the now deeply-embedded perception of a “Fed put” – that the Federal Reserve remains eager to counter fledgling “Risk Off” dynamics. And while its’s not surprising that markets hear Kashkari’s comments and yawn, things will turn interesting during the next bout of market turbulence. Expect the Fed to move hesitantly when coming to the markets’ defense, a dynamic that significantly raises the potential for the next “Risk Off” to attain problematic momentum. It’s been awhile.
March 20 – Financial Times (Robin Wigglesworth): “On Wall Street, bad ideas rarely die. They often go into hibernation until resurrected in a new form. And portfolio insurance — a leading contributor to the 1987 ‘Black Monday’ crash — is, for some, making a return to markets. Institutional investors are allocating billions of dollars to ‘risk mitigation’ or ‘crisis risk offset’ programmes that are designed to act as a counterweight when markets are in turmoil. They mostly comprise long-maturity government bonds and trend-following hedge funds, which tend to do well when equities plummet. But some analysts and fund managers worry that if taken to extremes, allocations to trend-following ‘commodity trading advisors’ hedge funds, in particular, could play the same role as an investment concept called portfolio insurance did in 1987, when it was blamed for aggravating the worst US stock market collapse in history. ‘There’s a big portfolio insurance industry that no one is talking about . . . CTAs are dangerously close to portfolio insurance,’ argues Robert Hillman, the head of Neuron Advisors…”
Writing flood insurance during a drought is an alluringly profitable endeavor. The “Fed put” has encouraged Trillions to flow into the risk markets. Trillions of “money” have gravitated to “passive” trend-following securities market products and structures. Yet the most dangerous Fed-induced market distortions may lurk within market hedging strategies. The above Financial Times article ran under the headline “Rise in New Form of ‘Portfolio Insurance’ Sparks Fears.” Fear is appropriate. To what degree has it become commonplace to seek profits “writing” various types of market “insurance” in a yield-hungry world confident in the central bank “put.” How much “dynamic hedging” and derivative-related selling waits to overwhelm the markets in the event of a precipitous market sell-off (concurrent with fear that the Fed has stepped back from its market backstopping operations)?
The speculative bull market confronted some Washington reality this week. The S&P500 declined 1.4%, the worst showing in months. The banks (BKX) were slammed 4.7%, with the broker/dealers (XBD) down 4.3%. The broader market was under pressure, with the mid-caps down 2.1% and the small caps 2.7%. It’s worth noting the banks, transports and small caps are all now down y-t-d. Curiously, bank stocks underperformed globally. Japan’s Topic Bank index was hit 3.5%. The Hong Kong Financial index fell 1.3%, and Europe’s STOXX 600 Bank index lost 0.9%.
Ten-year Treasury yields dropped nine bps to a one-month low (2.41%), as sovereign yields declined across the globe. Just when the speculators were comfortably short European periphery bonds, Spanish 10-year yields sank 19 bps, Italy fell 13 bps and Portugal dropped 15 bps. Crude prices traded this week to the low since November. The GSCI Commodities Index declined to almost four-month lows. Time again to pay attention to China? This week saw a “super selloff” in Chinese iron ore markets. Copper fell 2.2%, and the commodities currencies (Australia, Canada, Brazil) underperformed. Meanwhile, precious metals outperformed, with gold up 1.2% and silver rising 2.1%.
March 23 – Financial Times (Gabriel Wildau): “China’s financial system suffered a cash crunch this week as new regulations designed to curb shadow banking caused big lenders to hoard funds, highlighting the danger of unintended consequences from official moves to lower their debt. Analysts have warned of rising risks from banks’ increased reliance on volatile short-term funding rather than customer deposits to fund loans and other investments. If money market interest rates spike in times of stress, institutions can be forced to dump assets in order to meet payments due to creditors. Tightening liquidity prompted the seven-day bond repurchase rate to hit a three-year high of 9.5% on Tuesday, versus an average of below 3% since the beginning of 2014.”
March 21 – Bloomberg: “This week’s squeeze in Chinese money markets is proving especially painful for the country’s shadow banks. While interbank borrowing rates have climbed across the board, the surge has been unusually steep for non-bank institutions, including securities companies and investment firms. They’re now paying what amounts to a record premium for short-term funds relative to large Chinese banks… ‘It’s more expensive and difficult for non-bank financial institutions to get funding in the market,’ said Becky Liu, …head of China macro strategy at Standard Chartered Plc. ‘Bigger lenders who have access to regulatory funding are not lending much of the money out.’”
March 23 – Wall Street Journal (Shen Hong): “A new specter is haunting China’s financial system: the negotiable certificate of deposit. An explosion in banks’ use of the bondlike loans, whose durations range from a month to a year, is testing Beijing’s resolve to cure the economy of its addiction to debt-fueled growth and investment booms. As authorities push up key short-term interest rates in their campaign to deflate asset bubbles swelled by borrowed money, the interest rates charged on these NCDs is rising so fast that it is starting to expose banks to the risk of investment losses and abrupt funding squeezes. This is causing worries about a potential repeat of the crippling cash crunch of 2013. ‘NCDs carry a lot of risk, and if not handled properly they could lead to a systemwide liquidity crisis,’ said Liu Dongliang, senior analyst at China Merchants Bank. Banks, mostly small or midsize ones, have been raising record sums via NCDs, selling 4.4 trillion yuan ($639bn) worth this year, 65% more than in the same period of 2016.”
The risk of financial accident in China has anything but dissipated. The People’s Bank of China this week injected large amounts of liquidity to stem a brewing funding crisis in the inter-bank lending market, only then to reverse course back to tightened policy later in the week. Over recent years, each effort to restrain excess in one area has been matched by heightened excess popping out in another. In general, financial conditions have remained too loose for too long – leading to recent Credit growth in the neighborhood of $3.5 TN annualized. Efforts to rely on targeted tightening measures have proved ineffective.
It appears there is now heightened pressure on Chinese monetary authorities to tighten system-wide financial conditions. The stress that befell the vulnerable corporate bond market over recent months is now pressuring small and medium sized banks with problematic exposure to short-term “money-market” borrowings. There were also further indications this week of “shadow banking” vulnerability.