The Federal Reserve's Perfect Unwind

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The Federal Reserve is now hacking its own zombie recovery to death and eating it by reversing the actions it employed to create this artificially supported recovery. Each time the Fed unwinds its balance sheet, 10-year bond rates recoil, and the stock market dances along in countermoves and wild swings. 

Blinded by economic denial because they are evangelists to the Fed’s religion, market pundits are finding any rationale they can to avoid connecting the Fed’s Great Unwind with these huge swings in long-term interest rates and the obviously corresponding counter-swings of the stock market. For those who have eyes to see, however, it should be clear that the world’s largest bond and stock markets are shuddering as the supports are removed.

Proving he’s the king of hacked and bloody baloney, Larry Kudlow contrived the following alternative rationale for the stock market’s recent sell-off earlier this month:

The stock market’s big sell-off last week, coming after a weak dollar and rising gold and commodity prices, may well have stirred inflation fears and higher bond yields. (Newsmax)

What an ambitious attempt to cover the obvious cracks that are already opening up in the economy due, in part, to Larry’s lame tax plan. That plan is now acting as an accelerant to the burn created by the Fed’s moves to raise long-term interest rates. (You no doubt recall that the Fed bought long-term government bonds in order to drive down long-term interest rates; so, of course selling off those bonds will drive interest rates back up.)

Larry believes he can rewrite history on the fly by pretending the stock market sell-off preceded and, therefore, caused the rise in bond yields. He flaunts that argument in the face of the fact that bond interest shot up first and then the stock market took its nosedive in a panicked response. Larry had to scribble out a alternate narrative in order to throw a little dirt over the sudden cracks that started to form after congress’s approval of the tax plan, which he huuugely helped create. Larry would prefer for you to believe the stock market fell due to rising gold and commodity prices and a weak dollar, which he claims also caused the bond market sell-off.

“Nothing to look at here in the debt-dependent tax plan, Folks; move along.” Yeah, just ignore the conspicuous elephant in the room, which is that the largest dumping of government bonds in the history of the world coupled with the most debt-dependent tax plan ever concocted has to drive up interest rates on government bonds. There are no economic forces strong enough to counter that combination.

Deny also that a rise in long-term bond interest is going to be detrimental to stocks as Mohamed El-Erian did in response to the stock market’s nosedive. You would think the bond king, of all people, could see something as obvious as that; yet, El-Erian seized the day of the market’s collapse to rhapsodize the beginning of Fed’s Great Unwind from its years of quantitative easing:

The favorable recent experience of the Fed — specifically, the orderly halt of its asset purchases, raising rates several times, getting the market ready for three more hikes in 2017, and putting forward a plan for balance-sheet reduction — shows that a “beautiful normalization” is possible for the most powerful and influential central bank in the world. (NewsMax)

The second the Fed notched its balance-reduction efforts up to $20 billion a month, bond yields flew into a tantrum equal to the taper tantrum that happened back when the Fed merely announced its plan for the “orderly halt of its asset purchases” back in 2013. (That earlier event all by itself was enough for any intelligent person to know in advance what would happen when the Fed started to actually reverse those asset purchases.)

So, mentioning the end of the plan caused a tantrum, and actually reversing the plan by unwinding the balance sheet caused a tantrum. Yet, most market gurus still miss the obvious connection between the unwind and the rise in interest. I don’t know how you can miss the obvious tremors that happen every time there is serious talk or action regarding the backing off of QE. or how you can call an immediate plunge in the stock market greater than any single-day point drop in its history (twice in about a one-weak period) a “favorable recent experience.”

El-Erian must have spent the previous night smoking opium. His comment is unfathomably blind. It has to involve some form of psychological denial. Perhaps the fact that the Fed’s Great Unwind will, in fact, unwind the entire economy would raise an apocalyptic level of fear in some people if they faced the present evidence that it is already happening. (I call it “economic denial,” which has reigned supreme all over the world for as long as people have been willing to pretend that mountains of national debt are completely irrelevant and that they will not harm the next generation.)

If one doesn’t believe that is even possible for the Great Unwind to raise interest rates (even though the whole purpose of QE was ostensibly to lower interest rates), then they look at the stock market’s obvious response to those interest rates, deny the rates are the cause of the market’s tumble and then call the Fed’s unwind “beautiful normalization.” (Have you all seen how beautiful the emperor’s new clothes are?) As an alternative explanation to El-Erian’s brain-bending analysis, maybe the emperor of bonds just has a lot of bonds of his own to dump before he starts speaking truth.

The inflation ruse

You need alternate explanations in order to ward off unwanted truth. One script being written by some analysts right now is that the stock market’s sudden fibrillation was solely due to inflation shock and is not about the Fed’s Great Unwind at all. (Never mind that even a former Fed governor attributed the market turmoil to the coinciding event of the Fed’s first serious roll-off of government bonds from its balance sheet.)

The explanation is pinned to the belief that the only factor that influences bond interest is inflation predictions. Naturally, inflation forces bond interest to rise in order to attract investors because bonds are held long-term. Therefore, they have to compensate for inflation for the duration of time the investor’s money is tied up in the bond. While that is one dynamic of price discovery in a functioning bond market, it is far from the only dynamic. After all, the Fed stated quite clearly that it was buying hoards of US bonds in order to drive down long-term interest by sucking up the supply of bonds (which also assured the US government’s interest on its monstrous debt would remain uncommonly low.)

Even if it were true that concern over inflation was the only thing that drove up bond interest, the fact would remain that the stock market fell because of concerns about interest rates. Inflation would only have been a concern because it was driving up interest. So, the argument that the market’s fall was all about inflation, short in truth as it is, doesn’t get you very far.

However, the notion that bond interest only moves in response to inflation concerns is easily proven wrong: after the last economic crisis, hordes of investors around the world purchased bonds that, after inflation, offered real negative interest rates just because fear drove the purchase of bonds as a refuge.

The attitude of investors was “Inflation be damned; all I care about is security.” People were willing to take a guaranteed loss of money to inflation just because that was seen as a smaller risk at the time than the risks of the stock market.

The Wage Scare

The notion expressed by El-Erian that the Fed is halting its asset purchases in an orderly way is as nutty as Almond Roca. There was nothing orderly about the movement of stocks in late January and throughout February. Yet, there are many analysts who so fully believe the Fed can unwind its mass wholesale purchases of bonds that many commentators blamed the market’s mayhem on a minor blip in hourly earnings (again, because higher wages would presumably cause inflation):

The inflation bogeyman has reared its ugly head and sent U.S. stock investors racing for the hills in recent days. Next week, coming off one of the most volatile stretches in years, two important readings on U.S. inflation could help determine whether the stock market begins to settle or if another bout of volatility is in store….

The equity market has become highly sensitive to inflation this month. A selloff in U.S. stocks earlier this week was in large part sparked by the Feb. 2 monthly U.S. employment report which showed the largest year-on-year increase in average hourly earnings since June 2009. (Newsmax)

Here you have to believe that the hint of a problem (raises in wages) about the hint of a problem (inflation) caused the market to completely lose its head. The argument written above is circular thinking anyway. The idea is that the market went down because concerns about inflation would cause the Fed to do more interest hikes. Well, in that case, what the markets are really concerned about still comes back to interest rates! So, stop pretending interest doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that investors are scared to death of the tiniest lift in interest because we are buried in mountains of personal, corporate, and federal debt that are completely unsustainable as soon as interest rises from the artificially low levels that were maintained by Fed purchases of government bonds.

Debt is of Great Interest Now

Bond yields are not at a level that should alarm anyone if the economy is truly healthy and if $20 trillion of federal debt is not that important or if the level of personal debt in the nation is not lethally high. Yet, the market has just shown itself to be highly reactive to a minute move in long-term interest. So why is the market so overwrought about a uptick in long-term yields?

Even the rate at which interest is rising reveals something:

“The pace really does matter,” said Ron Temple, Head of US Equities … at Lazard Asset Management in New York. “If we see 3.0 percent next week that is going to spook people more – the equity market psyche is fragile at this point….” The fragile investor psyche is likely to lead to continued volatility.

Why so fragile since “the economy is great” is the mantra everywhere? Why spooked by a 3 percent yield when the average level for the ten-year treasury bond over the past three decades is 4.83 percent — two points higher than where it is now?

“Psyches” are often concerned by deep troubles that people don’t understand or see. “The fragile investor psyche” right now is responding in knee-jerk fashion to small moves to historically low levels of interest. Might that not have something to do with the fact that trillion-dollar deficits appear to be the permanent norm at a time when we face the biggest bond dumps in history? (And, yet, people argue with me and claim there is no foreseeable trouble ahead. Ahead? It’s already showing up!)

The national debt has already increased by $416 billion in fiscal year 2018, and we’re not even five full months into the year. At the current rate of growth, that equates to an FY [fiscal year] 2018 increase of just over $1 trillion. The deficit for FY 2019 is expected by many budget analysts to be around $1.2 trillion…. In June, CBO estimated that the national debt would be $21.221 trillion at the end of FY 2018, a sum that looks like it will be easily exceeded.

By the end of FY 2021 the debt was expected to be $23.878 trillion, a figure that now looks like it will actually be closer to $25 trillion or more…. Making things worse is the interest expense on all that debt. In FY 2017 the federal government spent $458 billion on interest on the national debt. As the debt increases, that sum will increase. And as interest rates continue to increase, that sum will increase even more. The current average interest rate on federal debt is just over 2 percent. In 2005 it was closer to 4 percent, and in 2001 it was over 6.5 percent. (Newsmax)

These facts are so enormous and so obvious that it boggles the mind that so many investment gurus and their clients can so easily ignore them.

Tagging the recent tantrum to government policies, Charlie Mcelligott of Nomura Capital Investment Co. writes,

In hindsight, the ‘tie-breaker’ which drove UST 10Y yields out of their multi-month 2.35-2.50 range into this new stratosphere looks to have been the US fiscal stimulus / tax reform plan passing the initial Senate vote on December 2nd, 2017. By December 6th, the UST 10Y Term Premium had inflected from 1+ year lows … and “hasn’t looked back…. Point here being that the uber-ambiguous “something has changed in the market” meme … is based-upon the underlying change in perception with regard to a bond market that is waking from its slumber due to a new-found Central Bank willingness to normalize policy…. (Zero Hedge)

There it is; two things: the government’s tax plan and the central banks plan to unwind quantitative easing. Nomura’s head of Cross-Asset Strategy, however, goes on to state that the Fed’s normalization will happen due to concerns about inflation and too much growth due to congress’s tax cuts and fiscal stimulus, but that ignores the fact that the Fed’s normalization trajectory (of its interest targets and its balance sheet) was clearly laid out long before congress hatched a tax plan and way back when inflation refused to move (at least, as far as the way the Fed reads inflation).

The fact is interest rates spiked up the most just as the Fed’s normalization began its prescheduled ramp-up at the end of January. The market is sensing subconsciously (apparently not consciously since few are talking about it) that we have just entered a time unlike any in human history: 1) The Fed is starting to suck money off its balance sheet and out of the economy at an order of magnitude far above anything ever seen; so, 2) it is backing away from funding the federal government just as the federal government is creating massive expansion of its financing. If the Fed succeeds in unwinding quantitative easing, it will be a global first.

Here is a graph by Lance Roberts that shows where the national debt was in relation to our ability to pay it before all of congress’s latest increases to the deficit:


(Click to enlarge)


The debt is now $2 trillion higher than in that graph, and its rate of growth has gone more sharply upward (after the cut-off date of the graph) under Republicans. You can see we crossed the debt Rubicon at the start of the Great Recession with no end in site.

Don’t think we are going to beautifully grow our way out of it. As you can see from the graph, GDP would have rise to a level never seen in order to match back up to our government’s debt (even if the debt stopped going up, but the debt is now rising astronomically). Moreover, the last time corporate tax rates were cut from 50 percent to 35 percent, the five-year average for the GDP growth rate fell across all of the following years, and the last time capital gains taxes were cut, the five-year average for GDP growth rate fell across all of the following years, too.

Lest you think this time will be different, do you remember that huge burst of GDP growth in the Atlanta Fed’s forecast at the start of February, which put the US on track for first-quarter GDP growth of a whopping 5.4 percent? (Trump be trumpeted!) That was just revised down by fifty percent to the same routine 2.6 percent that has plagued us throughout the aftermath of the Great Recession. Well, that hope was short-lived.

So, GDP is not going to see any meaningful rise and may even fall as it has in the past. That is because the rise in debt consumes the potential for growth that could come from tax reductions when spending is not cut correspondingly. That problem is hugely exacerbated when government spending is increased as taxes are cut. Congress is acting in a fool’s paradise.

With each of those major past tax reductions, GDP continued to grow, but at a slower rate than in the years before the cut. While the cut in capital gains taxes gave a slight bump up in the rate of growth for a few years, the overall trend at the lower tax rate went down in all the years after that initial bump. And don’t let any jump in revenue in 2018 confuse you. A jump could happen this year as massive amounts of overseas profits get repatriated this year, but that is a one-off.

By the end of this decade the US national debt will be greater than the combined national debts of all the other nations on earth! And that is why markets are so reactive to any change in government bond interest.

What Goes Down Must Come Up

It is absurd to think you can reverse an action that caused the stock market to rise (by intention) and not cause it to fall!

The very fact that so many analysts are saying the market had a tantrum over mere HINTS of inflation, shows that the coming bond-interest problem is not priced into the market yet. (Given that any concern in stocks about inflation is really about how inflation drives interest rates.)

How can rising interest be priced in when the problem is being denied by, at least, half of the analysts/commentators that I’ve read in the past week, particularly those from large banks and other large firms? You cannot price in any factor when you deny its very existence as a problem.

Heck, the former head of all banking denied even the possibility of a problem:

U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said that she does not believe that there will be another financial crisis for at least as long as she lives, thanks largely to reforms of the banking system since the 2007-09 crash. (Newsmax)

From what I’ve seen, financial crises have happened about every decade. Maybe, Yellen’s planning on a short life because she’s getting up there. Let me note that overconfidence has never created security, but it has certainly caused insecurity and collapse.

Proving the Lie that is all about Inflation

In mid February, following the market’s big plunge, inflation rose more than it has in years, and the stock market barely flinched. In fact, after a little dip, it gave a Valentine’s Day treat to investors with a tidy rise. Just maybe that was because bond rates did not respond as quickly to this astronomical (on a monthly basis) rise in inflation as they did to the Fed’s end-of-January upshift in balance-sheet reduction.

That belies the whole argument that the markets are concerned most with inflation. On an annualized basis, the inflation rate that the Fed bases its interest targets on (CPI) rose to 6.7 percent in January! If that rate held as a new trend in the months to come, it would be the worst inflation we’ve seen in three decades. It’s ludicrous to argue that the market fell because a hint of an uptick in wages, which in turn hinted at future inflation when the market subsequently rose upon news of massive actual inflation data. You can’t play it both ways.

In fact, year-on-year, wages also rose in tandem with CPI that day (2.4 percent for wages and 2.1 percent for CPI), both of which had been the predominant explanations for the stock market’s previous drastic plunge. Yet, the stock market rose. When reports on inflation and wages showed both to have risen in tandem the most in years, the market rose! So, the narrative that the market fell due to rising wages and inflation concerns is … well, baloney.

Even the harmonious occasion of inflation, wages and stocks all rising merrily together didn’t stop the relentless denial. Danielle DiMartino Booth of Bloomberg View wrote,

With all the attention focused on the stock market drama last week, it’s understandable that new inflation data got lost in the shuffle. But let’s not forget that rising prices are what woke the bond market from its long slumber in the first place. (Newsmax)

Yeah, that’s what happened: it got lost! So big was the initial concern about inflation that a mere hint ended the long Trump Rally, and yet when much bigger REAL numbers came out, the market whistled blithely past the graveyard. Sure. It only seems as though concern about inflation “got lost” when you wrongly presume that was a concern in the first place.

The denial continued as late as February 22nd when Marketwatch published an article titled “Too many stock-market pundits are wrongly freaking out about inflation” in which they wrote,

Wall Street went nuts when signs of inflation appeared in two government reports. In January, average hourly earnings rose at a 2.9 percent annual rate and the consumer-price index increased by a higher than expected 0.5 percent. That was enough to send the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +0.57 percent and the S&P 500 index SPX, +0.65 percent to their first official 10 percent corrections in two years, while the CBOE Volatility index (the VIX VIX, -12.43 percent ), Wall Street’s fear gauge, shot up into the high 30s. Investors worried that the specter of inflation would prompt the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates more aggressively, which would be anathema to stocks. I believe these fears are way premature.

They might be premature if that was their fear, but it wasn’t.

Even when they see that long-term bond interest is clearly involved in the dynamics, they still revert to thinking it is all about inflation:

U.S. stocks ended a volatile session on a downbeat note on Wednesday, as an afternoon rally quickly fizzled in the wake of the Federal Reserve releasing the minutes to its most recent meeting. The Dow Jones Industrial Average … fell 168 points … as investors struggled to digest the minutes, which pointed to a strong economy, but also the “increased likelihood” of more rate hikes ahead. The news pushed the U.S. dollar higher and sent the yields for the 10-year Treasury note to a four-year high of 2.95 percent. Recent trading on Wall Street has been driven by the prospect of inflation returning to the economy, and the Fed having to become more aggressive in raising rates to combat such a scenario. (Marketwatch)

It’s really all about interest rates making the national debt and a vast number of other debts impossible to maintain. Another article by Marketwatch on Wednesday came a little closer to the point:

A deflation of the brisker buying sentiment in stocks … was attributed partly to a climb in yields for the 10-year Treasury note to a session high, and a four-year peak, at 2.95 percent.

(My emphasis, as they really don’t want to go there because of the conclusions it leads to.)
Economist David Rosenberg also noted,

“This isn’t about inflation. If it were, TIPS break-evens would be sitting far higher than 205 basis points,” Rosenberg said in a Feb. 12 report, referring to Treasury inflation-protection securities. “Oil wouldn’t have collapsed 10 percent last week…. This fixation on the 2.9 percent wage growth figure that came out with the January payroll report is ridiculous considering that the average hourly earnings number for production and non-supervisory workers (over 80 percent of the workforce) barely rose last month and the year-over-year showed no acceleration at all – it stayed at 2.4 percent,” (Newsmax)

Rosenberg also rightly notes that the major accelerant for the market’s burn was the lack of liquidity in exchange-traded funds (ETFs), many of which have large holdings of bonds.

Rosenberg chided The Wall Street Journal editorial page for its economic cheerleading, including the statement that “the good news is that U.S. economic fundamentals are as strong as they have been since 2005, and maybe 1999.” “Good grief … in 2005, we were heading towards the most pernicious housing bubble in history and in 1999 we were moving rapidly towards a massive tech bubble. Nice comparisons…. This isn’t about ‘fundamentals.’ This isn’t about inflation – in fact, this is the weakest argument of them all in terms of explaining what is going on in markets,” Rosenberg said.

“The 1987 crash was not about inflation. The 1998 correction was not about inflation. The start of the bear market in 2007 was not about inflation.”

While Rosenberg focuses on liquidity as the problem, I would say liquidity was just the accelerant.

The market did not fall because of concern about liquidity; it fell because of concern about bond interest, and lack of liquidity exacerbated that fall.

As for the idea that concern over the Fed’s notes about interest-rate increases stemmed from concerns over inflation, the Fed’s notes that the market was ostensibly responding to said nothing about stepping up the pace for interest-rate increases but only indicated the Fed would maintain its course of “further gradual increases.” It’s highly unlikely that “maintaining the course” caused the market to fall.

Yet another chance to understand the dynamics at work came when long-term interest shot up again last week in response to the Fed’s minutes stating the Fed would maintain its path of rate increases.

The 10-year yield rose nearly to that 3.0 percent critical mark I’ve talked about. The reappearance of such sensitivity in long-term interest caused the stock market to shiver again last week, too, breaking its recent rally.

After interest relaxed a little, stocks and bonds repeated their inverse dance this week when interest on the 10-year treasury bond shot back up immediately to nearly 3 percent and the stock market fell 300 points because the new Fed chair, Jerome Powell, spoke to the House of Representative’s Financial Services Committee in his public debut about the strengthening of the economy.

Stocks and bonds have finally reverted to their historic norm of stocks falling when bond yields rise.

Yields rose because the Fed Head’s words emphasized that the Fed fully intends to press forward with its plans to raise interest rates and unwind its balance sheet, given the apparent strength of the economy.

I can only see denial (maybe due to subconscious fear of something so dangerous) as an explanation for how people can miss the obvious fact that interest is extraordinarily sensitive right now and tied to each and every drop in the stock market. That sensitivity never showed up until the end of January when the Fed finally doubled down on its balance-sheet reduction after three months of not living up to its promises. Let me refer to something written by Keven Muir of the Macro Tourist Blog just before the Fed made that move:

Instead of what you would expect, [the Fed’s] security holdings since the end of September are down merely $18 billion instead of the expected $50B (the balance sheet as a whole is down by just $14 billion). Bond holdings are still higher than they were at the end of QE and within the range where they had been ever since…. That’s because most of the $12B reduction planned for January will occur on Jan. 31st. (Which may become the day when QT might actually start in honest.)

And so it did, and that’s when the market tumbled. The Fed finally got serious, and the consequences finally got serious.

Then, there is this interesting little graph of the intricate dance between the Fed’s balance-sheet drawdown and the stock market’s recent turbulence:


(Click to enlarge)
Graph by Alex Deluce of GoldTelegraph.com.


During the week that started January 22 and ended January 31, the Fed made a huge reduction in its balance sheet of more than $20 billion. That is the week the market topped out. Right after that drawdown, the market fell off its little cliff. (The dates at the bottom of the graph reflect when the balance sheet action was reported, but the changes could have happened any time during the preceding week that is being reported.) In the week during which the market made its big recovery (from February 7 to February 14), the Fed did a pivot and added a whopping $14 billion back (kind of odd for a Fed that is supposedly in reduction mode.) Having safely ended the market’s fall, the Fed returned to drawdown mode, and the market returned to falling.

It appears to me that the market is closely tracking with every major move on the Fed’s balance sheet.

So, what will happen when the Fed’s unwind increases by another 50 percent in April (going from $20 billion a month to $30 billion) and then when they double in the coming summer what they are now doing?

The zombie Fed is now hacking up its own brainchild by removing $20-billion fingers, one at a time, and the liquidity that is draining out happens to also be the government’s financial red ink, which is its life blood. Ahh, beautiful normalization! Beautiful normalization. With that as the first scene in the movie’s final act, how can anyone still think this story ends well?

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