Rejoicing Central Banker Capitulation

Doug Nolan

June 21 - Neel Kashkari, Minneapolis Fed president: “In the Federal Open Market Committee meeting that concluded on Wednesday of this week, I advocated for a 50-basis-point rate cut to 1.75% to 2.00% and a commitment not to raise rates again until core inflation reaches our 2% target on a sustained basis. I believe an aggressive policy action such as this is required to re-anchor inflation expectations at our target.”

May 31 – Bloomberg (Matthew Boesler): “It’s too early for the Federal Reserve to begin cutting interest rates despite increasing concerns about low inflation and an escalating trade war, said Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari. ‘Either of those could be cause for changing the path of monetary policy, Kashkari told Bloomberg… ‘I’m not quite there yet. I take a lot of comfort from the fact that the job market continues to be strong.’”

In three short weeks, Kashkari’s view evolved from “It’s too early” to begin cutting rates to advocating a dramatic 50 bps cut that in the past would have been in response to a market or economic shock. Yet nothing that extraordinary has occurred over recent weeks, outside of a major bond market rally that has the amount of global debt trading at negative yields jumping $2 TN to a record $13 TN (from Bloomberg). Unprecedented as well, talk is heating up for a 50 bps cut with the S&P500 at all-time highs (and corporate Credit spreads narrowing sharply and overall financial conditions loosening notably).

Markets, Rejoicing Central Banker Capitulation, have no intention of letting off the pressure.

There will be unrelenting pressure as well on Chairman Powell to fall in line - or face demotion. Crazy.

Question from Bloomberg’s Chris Condon at Chairman Powell’s Wednesday post-meeting press conference: “Mr. Chairman, if and when the committee decides to cut rates, I suspect there will be a debate over whether to move by 25 or 50 bps. Indeed, there is a pretty substantial body of academic literature arguing that a central bank close to the zero lower bound ought to act sooner and more aggressively than it otherwise would. I’m wondering what you think of that prescription, and if you could spend a couple of minutes discussing the pros and cons of a 50 bps cut and how you approach that question.”

Powell: “On the specific question of that - that’s just something we haven’t really engaged with yet. And it will depend very heavily on incoming data and the evolving risk picture as we move forward. So, nothing I can say about that is specific to the near-term question that we face. More generally, though, the research you refer to essentially notes that in a world where you are closer to the effective lower bound – it’s why research kind of shows this – it’s wise to react, for example, to prevent a weakening from turning into a prolonged weakening. In other words, sort of an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So, I think that is a valid way to think about policy in this era. I don’t know – and it’s always in the minds of policymakers during this era - because it’s well-understood to be correct. Again, I don’t know what that means in terms of the size of a particular rate cut going forward. That’s going to depend heavily upon the actual data and the evolving risk picture.”

There’s a theory that, with interest rates not much above zero (“effective lower bound”), central banks must be ready to cut aggressively – employing their limited firepower early and forcefully – to “prevent a weakening from turning into a prolonged weakening.” I say theory - as opposed to “research” - because the experimental nature of the current monetary policy framework ensures minimal empirical data to analyze and draw conclusions.

In my view, this “act sooner and more aggressively” is the latest iteration of policy activism that further distances the Fed from its primary mandate of safeguarding system stability. December’s rapid emergence of systemic fragility (i.e. faltering Bubbles) emboldened the view that central banks must provide assurances they are prepared to quickly adopt “whatever it takes” measures to bolster the markets. From the perspective of highly speculative markets, the January “U-turn” unleashed a speculative fire and this month’s rush to dovishness (Fed, Draghi, PBOC, BOE, BOJ, etc.) pours gas on a flame. Countering Powell’s “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” I would warn of the enormous cost of stoking blow-off “Terminal Phase Excess.” An ounce of late-cycle stimulus creates a pound of destabilizing excess.

Two long-held CBB themes should especially resonate these days. First, the fundamental problem with discretionary central banking (versus rules-based) is the propensity for a policy mistake to lead to a series of ever bigger blunders. Second, aggressive expansion of central bank Credit/balance sheets (aka “QE”, “money printing”) is a slippery slope eventually leading to a multitude of unintended consequences (including speculative market Bubbles, maladjusted economic structure, and trapped central bankers). Who back in 2008 anticipated the prospect of ongoing central bank purchases would be deeply embedded into global bond and securities prices – and market expectations more generally – a full decade later?

The QE naysayers at that time focused on the risk of inflation – and even hyperinflation – in consumer prices. However, the paramount issue was instead market distortions and hyperinflation in securities (and asset) prices, where perpetual QE essentially removes any ceiling on sovereign debt prices (floor on yields). Why shouldn’t exuberant traders imagine Treasury yields at some point trading at the current Swiss bond yield of negative 52 bps?

Why not leverage 10-year Treasuries at 2.06% if the Fed will eventually become a price insensitive buyer of Trillions of these securities? Why not take levered positions in German bunds at negative 29 bps – better yet, Italian and Greek debt at 2.15% and 2.52% - appreciating it’s only a matter of (probably not much) time before the ECB fires back up the “electronic printing press.” Perhaps most consequential of all, why wouldn’t everyone speculating globally in the risk markets simultaneously leverage in sovereign debt, confident that aggressive global QE deployment devises the perfect market hedge? Why not hedge market risk with sovereign debt-related derivatives? In total, we have unearthed a recipe for history’s greatest episode of speculative leveraging (mortgage finance Bubble excess measly in comparison).

A crisis-period experiment in QE came with profound repercussions. The Fed’s 2011 “exit strategy” was supplanted the following year by Draghi’s “whatever it takes” – and there’s been no turning back. The prospect of Whatever and Whenever It Takes QE as essential to the global central banker toolkit has Changed Everything.

June 18 – Financial Times (Scott Mather): “Central banks around the world are pivoting toward easier monetary policy. In pursuit of a 2% target for inflation, major central banks seem willing to exhaust their monetary policy ammunition at a time when economic output is at — or above — potential. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to suggest that lower policy rates are successfully generating either better real growth outcomes or higher inflation. In some countries, this policy stance has the potential to reduce monetary policy effectiveness, create imbalances that may sow the seeds for the next crisis, and leave central banks powerless to respond to that crisis. It is time to ask whether the 2% inflation target has outlived its usefulness. Despite largely maintaining policy rates below their own estimated ‘neutral’ levels for more than a decade, the central banks of the US, euro zone and Australia, among others, have been guiding markets to expect lower rates for longer. This is happening even as employment rates are already above estimates of full capacity, and economic growth rates have been higher than what is deemed to be achievable in the ‘steady state’.”

There is indeed “little evidence to suggest that lower policy rates are successfully generating either better real growth outcomes or higher inflation.” Instead, there’s a strong case for the opposite: a decade of ultra-loose monetary policy has contributed to downward pressure on many consumer prices (along with deep economic maladjustment). China, India, greater Asia and the emerging economies in general have enjoyed an unprecedented period of protracted loose financial conditions, associated investment booms and resulting overcapacity across industries.

No sector has benefited from loose global finance as much as technology. How can the global proliferation of myriad high-tech products and services not enter into today’s inflation discussion? There is today essentially unlimited supply of technology devices and services capable of absorbing much of whatever purchasing power thrown into economic systems. How great is the global capacity to manufacture smart phones, computers and servers, telecommunications equipment, and the “Internet of things” - not to mention a veritable deluge of technology-related services and downloadable content? What is the capacity for global online media to absorb swelling corporate marketing budgets?

The nature of output and overall economic structure has changed profoundly over the past 25 years. Historians and analysts will look back at this period and struggle to comprehend the blind focus on an arbitrary target for aggregate consumer price inflation, when securities markets and asset prices were going completely haywire.

“Globalization” remains complex subject matter. To simplify, highly integrated global finance has fundamentally loosened financial conditions for much (if not all) of the world. China, in particular, has “enjoyed” unlimited capacity to expand cheap Credit on a protracted basis to an extent never before possible. If not for global post-crisis zero rates and QE, China’s international reserve holdings would never have inflated from about $1.5 TN (end of ’07) to a 2014 high of $4.0 TN ($3.1 TN today). And without this massive reserve horde, renminbi stability would not have survived history’s greatest Credit inflation (i.e. total bank assets $7.2 TN to $41 TN since the end of ’07).

Globalization is tightly intertwined with experimental monetary policy. The world followed the U.S.’s lead in “activist” policy intervention, along with a related move to securitizations and market-based finance. Resulting market booms fundamentally loosened finance, stimulated investment and propelled economic growth. It also worked to exacerbate wealth disparities, within and between nations. Booms and Bubbles also ensured U.S.-style policy activism enveloped the world, with each new round of instability and attendant monetary stimulus further undermining the stability of markets, finance, economies, societies and geopolitics.

Today’s prescription for unstable markets and finance: more monetary stimulus. For unstable economies: more monetary stimulus. For inequality, trade wars and geopolitical uncertainties: much more monetary stimulus.

Couple momentous advancement in various technologies with globalized finance and policy activism and one has a remarkable backdrop with momentous ramifications for global price dynamics. I would argue strongly against conventional wisdom that holds the so-called “technology revolution” (with associated productivity gains and disinflationary pressures) granted central bankers greater latitude to boost growth with accommodative monetary policies. The primary focus, instead, should have been the powerful inflationary dynamics fueling asset prices and dangerous Bubbles. If there was an overarching lesson to be learned from the 2008 fiasco, it was that distorted financial markets and resulting Bubbles pose systemic risks that completely overshadow those that might emanate from rising consumer prices.

I am not against market-based finance per-se, although market-based Credit is notable for being inherently self-reinforcing on both the upside and downside. The problem arises when “activist” policymaking incentivizes the upside – fostering Bubbles. On the downside, faltering policy-induced Bubbles then ensure even more destabilizing policy activism. And in this Age of Market-Based Finance, the longer the recurring cycle of activism incentivizing excess and greater Bubbles the greater the risk of a crisis of confidence in policymaking and financial assets more generally. This miraculous game of massive issuance of new financial claims at increasing prices is unsustainable.

We’ve reached the point in this most extraordinary cycle where it’s become pretty clear that loose monetary policies have minimal impact on aggregate consumer prices and maximum influence on highly speculative securities and derivatives markets. The Fed is poised to cut rates – perhaps even 50 bps – essentially to sustain market Bubbles. With 10-year Treasury yields nearing 2% - and in excess of $13 TN of bonds trading globally with negative yields – sovereign bond markets have become completely divorced from traditional fundamentals. This equates to governments from Rome to Washington essentially being handed blank checkbooks. And with the (“risk free” sovereign debt) foundation of global finance in market dislocation, how sound are markets for equities and corporate Credit?

Capitalism is in clear and present danger. This sounds extreme – unless you’ve followed the trajectory of developments over the years. How are capitalistic systems to operate with central banks abrogating adjustments and corrections both for market and economic systems? It takes a tremendous amount of wishful thinking to believe that today’s markets will effectively allocate real and financial resources. Sound analysis also points to only more precarious imbalances and maladjustment on a global basis. And with global fragilities increasingly conspicuous, it’s reached the perilous point where markets believe central banks will preemptively flood the global system with liquidity to forestall “risk off” in the markets and recession globally.

June 20 – Financial Times (Don Weinland): “Banks in China are facing a pinch on liquidity following the government takeover of a commercial bank that is resetting the rules for trading in the country’s interbank market. Many of China’s more than 4,000 banks face difficulty raising deposits in smaller cities and rural areas, making them more reliant on wholesale borrowing from the interbank market, where banks lend to one another. But the government takeover of Baoshang Bank in May has disrupted the willingness of larger banks to lend to smaller ones, leaving some strained for liquidity… For interbank lenders, including some of China’s largest financial institutions, the treatment of Baoshang represents a sharp shift in the rules of the market. ‘It’s not just concern on credit risk, it’s also about the resolution mechanism [for defaults on interbank borrowings],’ said Katherine Lei, co-head of Asia ex-Japan banks research at JPMorgan. ‘What is the mechanism and how long does it take?’”

June 17 – Wall Street Journal (Stella Yifan Xie and Zhou Wei): “Chinese regulators made fresh attempts to calm frayed nerves in the country’s financial sector, as bank liquidity remained tight by some measures three weeks after authorities took over a struggling city lender. On Sunday, securities regulators summoned a group of large Chinese brokerages and asset-management firms to a closed-door meeting in Beijing and asked them not to cut off trading and other dealings with smaller banks and financial institutions, according to a meeting summary… The memo said there had been some defaults in the repo—or repurchase agreement—market, where banks, brokers and other financial firms borrow cash for short periods by pledging securities against short-term loans. It said some institutions in the debt markets had placed certain trading counterparties on a ‘blacklist’ and demanded they post higher-quality collateral against their borrowings. In other instances, some firms were cut off from trading because of worries that they would not repay their obligations, it said. ‘If such mistrust is allowed to continue to spread, it will eventually become systemic financial risk,’ the memo said, adding that mutual funds and brokers need to provide liquidity support to each other.”

June 18 – Wall Street Journal (Nathaniel Taplin): “While the world has been focused on the U.S.-China trade conflict, another threat—potentially just as large—has been brewing beneath the surface of China’s financial system. On Sunday, the country’s securities regulator convened a meeting asking big brokerages and funds to support their smaller peers… The briefing cited rising risk aversion in money markets after defaults in the bond repurchase market. Some interbank lending rates have moved sharply higher in recent weeks… Nonbank borrowing through bond repos and interbank loans has skyrocketed since China’s central bank began easing monetary policy in early 2018. It hit a net 74 trillion yuan ($10.7 trillion) in the first quarter of 2019, according to Enodo Economics, up nearly 50% from a year earlier… Worryingly, problems appear to be migrating from the relatively small market for negotiable certificates of deposit (NCDs)—used primarily by small banks—into the much larger bond repo market.”

With a flock of dovish central banks, collapsing yields and record stock prices, it’s easy to disregard China. Haven’t they, after all, repeatedly overcome bouts of heightened systemic stress. Beijing always gets things under control. The PBOC can effortlessly print “money” and bail out its troubled banking system. Not so fast… “Bond repos and interbank loans” up nearly 50% over the past year to $10.7 TN. Those are two data points that should alarm the world – and surely help explain panic buying of Trillions of negative-yielding global bonds.

President Trump has officially commenced his reelection campaign. He has ample incentive to avert a trade war showdown with China. Chinese finance is nearing the precipice. President Xi has ample incentive to avert a showdown. Yet if these two historic strongmen leaders have irreconcilable differences they have irreconcilable differences. Neither can tolerate any display of weakness or lack of resolve.

If Trump and Xi don’t get negotiations back on track at next week’s G20, there’s a scenario where things could turn sour rather quickly. An unfolding crisis of confidence in China’s money market portends serious trouble ahead for China’s financial and economic Bubbles. The PBOC has been injecting enormous quantities of liquidity into China’s financial system. Much, much more will be required. If there is as much leverage in that system as I suspect, Beijing will be on the hook for Trillions of liquidity injections, bank bailouts/recapitalizations and debt monetization.

It all implies currency vulnerability. The good news for China is that currency values are relative – and the renminbi competes against a throng of structurally weak currencies. Little wonder gold has caught such a nice bid. Quite an equities run into “quadruple witch” option expiration. A decent short squeeze in EM securities markets and currencies. And wild volatility in crude and energy prices. Central Bank Capitulation seems to have unleased wild price instability throughout global markets. Things do get crazy during the late phase of Bubbles.

We’re witnessing Bubbles and Craziness in historic proportions.

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