Extraordinary Monetary Disorder

Doug Nolan

M2 money supply has increased $796 billion y-t-d to $15.245 TN. With two months to go, 2019 M2 growth is on track to easily exceed 2016’s record $854 billion expansion. Recent M2 growth is nothing short of spectacular. M2 has jumped $329 billion in ten weeks, about an 11.5% annualized pace. Over 26 weeks, M2 surged $677 billion, or 9.3% annualized. One must go all the way back to the restart of QE in late 2012 to see a comparable surge in the money supply. Since the end of 2008, M2 has inflated $7.027 TN, or 86%.

Money Market Fund Assets (MMFA) have similarly exploded this year. Total MMFA have increased $517 billion year-to-date (to $3.555 TN), an almost 20% annualized rate. Like M2, six-month growth in MMFA has been extraordinary: expansion of $472 billion, or 35% annualized.

With MMFA at the highest level since 2009, bullish market pundits salivate at the thought of a wall of liquidity coming out of cash holdings to chase a surging equities marketplace. A Tuesday Wall Street Journal article (Ira Iosebashvili) is typical: “Ready to Boost Stocks: Investors’ Multitrillion Cash Hoard: Nervous investors have socked $3.4 trillion away in cash.
But stocks are rising and their nerves are calming, leading bulls to view the huge cash pile as a sign that markets have room to go higher.”

And while MMFA are back to the 2009 level, it is worth pondering that money fund growth hasn’t been this robust since 2007. After ending April 2006 at $2.031 TN, money fund assets began growing rapidly, ending 2006 at $2.382 TN. And after expanding $154 billion, or 13% annualized, during 2007’s first-half, things went a little haywire. MMFA proceeded to surge $1.000 TN, or 53% annualized, over the next nine months.

Recall that subprime erupted in the summer of 2007, with equities stumbling before regaining composure to trade to all-time highs in October.

August 17, 2007: The FOMC’s extraordinary inter-meeting policy adjustment: “To promote the restoration of orderly conditions in financial markets, the Federal Reserve Board approved temporary changes to its primary credit discount window facility. The Board approved a 50 bps reduction in the primary credit rate to 5-3/4%…” The FOMC then cut Fed funds 50 bps on September 18th, then another 25 bps both on October 31st and December 11th. The FOMC then slashed rates 75 bps in an unscheduled meeting on January 22, 2008, and another 50 bps on January 30th and another 75 bps on March 18th (to 2.00%).

Conventional thinking has it that market instability and risk aversion were behind the surge in MMFA. Yet there was also a notable acceleration of M2 money supply growth. After expanding at a 5.5% rate during 2007’s first-half, money supply growth surged to a 7.1% pace over the subsequent nine months.

2007 was a period of Extraordinary Monetary Disorder that manifested into acute market instability.

Despite the dislocation that engulfed high-risk mortgage finance, Wall Street finance was “still dancing” right through the summer of 2007. Not only did stock prices ignore subprime ramifications, crude oil prices went on a moonshot – surging from about $70 mid-year to a high of $96 in November. After trading as low as 161 in August, the Bloomberg Commodities Index surged as much as 15% to trade to 186 in November. By June 2008, Monetary Disorder saw crude spike above $140, with the Bloomberg Commodities index almost reaching 240.

My long-held view is the Fed’s aggressive monetary stimulus in 2007 was a major contributor to late-cycle “Terminal Phase Excess” – and resulting Extraordinary Monetary Disorder - that came home to roost during the 2008 crisis. After trading as high as 5.30% in early June 2007, ten-year Treasury yields were 100 bps lower just three months later. Ten-year yields ended 2007 just above 4.00% and were as low as 3.31% by mid-March – a full 200 bps below yields from nine months earlier.

I believe a surge in speculative leverage played an instrumental role in the expansion of marketplace liquidity – that flowed into a rapid expansion of MMFA as well as M2 money supply. It’s worth noting the Fed’s Z.1 “Fed Funds and Repo” category posted Extraordinary growth during this period. After ending 2006 at $3.858 TN, “repos” increased $799 billion over five quarters to $4.657 TN (end of Q1 ’08).

Wall Street was indeed “still dancing” hard through the end of 2007. The Fed moved to bolster the economy in the face of heightened financial instability. The impact of stimulus measures on the real economy is debatable. My own view is that late-cycle stimulus is problematic, as it tends to stoke already overheated sectors and exacerbate imbalances and maladjustment. The impact of stimulus on finance should be indisputable. The upshot of deploying stimulus in a backdrop of market speculation is dangerous speculative Bubbles.

With the enormous growth of M2 and MMFA during 2007 and into 2008, how was it possible for markets to turn disastrously illiquid in the fall of 2008? Because the monetary expansion was being fueled by a precarious expansion of the “repo” market and securities speculative finance more generally.

While markets – Treasuries, corporate Credit, equities, crude and commodities – were being driven by what appeared sustainable liquidity abundance, the source of this underlying monetary stimulus was acutely unstable speculative leveraging. And as the Fed cut rates, yields collapsed, stocks shot skyward and commodities went on a moonshot, the self-reinforcing nature of speculative excess (and leverage) fomenting acute Monetary Disorder.

Speculative blow-offs are a late-cycle phenomenon. Over the course of a boom cycle, financial innovation gathers momentum. The most aggressive risk-takers have proved the most successful, in the process attracting huge assets under management. The laggards come under intense pressure to chase performance with riskier portfolios. Out of necessity, caution is thrown to the wind.

Between new instruments, products and strategies, market structure adapts to an environment of heightened risk-taking and leverage.

In short, a speculative marketplace takes on a strong inflationary bias (upward price impulses).

In such a backdrop, central bank monetary stimulus is extraordinarily potent – perhaps not so much for a late-cycle economic cycle, yet remarkably so for a ripened speculative cycle susceptible to “melt-up” dynamics.

I have posited that late-cycle dynamics turn increasingly precarious due to the widening divergence between a faltering economic Bubble and runaway speculative market Bubbles.

This was certainly the case in the second-half of 2007 and into 2008. I believe this dynamic has been more powerful, more global and much more problematic over the past year.

The Shanghai Composite is up 18.9% y-t-d, the CSI 300 32.0% and the ChiNext index 36.8%, despite economic deterioration and heightened risk. Chinese apartment prices continue to inflate a double-digit rates, as ongoing rapid Credit growth increasingly feeds asset inflation as the real economy struggles. Germany’s DAX equities index enjoys a 2019 gain of 25.3%, France’s CAC40 24.5% and Italy’s MIB 28.4%, in the face of economic stagnation.

ECB stimulus measures have fueled a historic bond market Bubble and formidable equities Bubble, while the real economy barely treads water. Stocks in Russia are up 25.5%, Brazil 22.5%, Taiwan 19.0% and Turkey 13.0%, as EM keys off booming global liquidity excess while disregarding mounting risks. Here at home, the S&P500 has gained 23.4%, the Nasdaq Composite 27.7% and the Semiconductors 50.4%, as the Fed’s “insurance” rate cuts stoke speculative excess.

By the time the collapsing mortgage finance Bubble finally (after several close calls) triggered a run on Lehman money market liabilities (inciting major deleveraging), the system was acutely fragile. “Blow-off” speculative excess had stoked inflation across the asset markets, price distortions increasingly vulnerable to any interruption in the flow of market liquidity. Yet it went much beyond interruption, as the abrupt reversal of speculative leverage caused a collapse in market liquidity.

I believe 2007’s excesses - spurred by Fed stimulus measures that fueled speculative “blow-offs” and gaping divergences between market Bubbles and the vulnerable real economy – sowed the seeds for an unavoidable crisis. Rate cuts only exacerbated late-cycle excess and worsened financial and economic dislocations.

I have that same uncomfortable feeling I had in 2007 – just a lot worse. The global financial system is self-destructing. Reckless monetary policies have inflamed late-cycle excess. I believe the scope of speculative leverage is much greater these days – on a global basis. The Fed in 2007 (and into ’08) extended a dangerous mortgage finance Bubble.

Central bankers these days are prolonging catastrophic global financial and economic Bubbles.

The global economy is much more fragile today, with a faltering Chinese Bubble posing an Extraordinary risk. Highly synchronized global financial Bubbles are a risk much beyond 2008.

Moreover, central bankers have used precious resources to sustain Bubbles, ensuring much greater fragilities will be countered by limited policy capabilities.

We will now await the catalyst for an inevitable bout of de-risking/deleveraging.

There could be a few Lehmans lurking out there – in Asia if I was placing odds. China remains an accident in the making, with another ominous week in Chinese Credit (see “China Watch”).

And near the top of my list of possible catalysts would be a surge in global yields. Sinking bond prices are problematic for highly leveraged holdings. Indeed, it is no coincidence that “repo” market issues erupted the week following a sharp reversal in market yields.

It was a notably rough week for global bond markets. Ten-year Treasury yields surged 23 bps to 1.91% (high since July 31). German bund yields rose 12 bps to negative 0.26% (high since July 12). Japanese yields jumped 13 bps to negative 0.05% (high since May 22). Italian yields surged 20 bps to 1.19%, and Greek yields rose 13 bps to 1.30%. Brazilian (real) 10-year yields surged 30 bps. Eastern European bonds, in particular, were under heavy selling pressure.

It’s worth noting bond prices are down sharply since last week’s Fed rate cut. Meanwhile, stock prices have continued to melt up. One could similarly argue that the expanding Fed balance sheet has been benefiting equities - bonds not so much. In general, monetary stimulus tends to inflate the asset class with the strongest inflationary bias.

Bond prices peaked two months ago. And bonds have good reason to fret aggressive global monetary stimulus. Booming stock markets and resulting loose financial conditions underpin growth and inflationary pressures.

November 9 – Bloomberg: “China’s consumer inflation rose to a seven-year high last month on the back of rising pork prices, complicating policy makers’ decision on whether to further ease funding for the country’s weakening industrial sector. The consumer price index rose 3.8% in October from a year earlier, up from 3% in the previous month.”

A negative print (down 0.3%) for Q3 Nonfarm Productivity and Unit Labor Costs up 3.6% are supportive of inflationary pressures here in the U.S. But it’s massive supply as far as the eye can see that must have the Treasury market on edge. The uncomfortable reality of a highly levered marketplace, with downward pressure on prices and fiscal deficits approaching 5% of GDP.

Yet negative fundamentals can be ignored so long as China’s Bubbles are about to implode. But with a trade deal somewhat postponing China’s day of reckoning – while holding additional global monetary stimulus at bay – the bond market risk versus reward calculus loses much of its appeal.

It’s possible that a de-risking/deleveraging cycle commenced in early-September. The Fed’s eight-week $270 billion balance sheet expansion accommodated some deleveraging. But at some point the Fed will apparently settle into $60 billion monthly T-bill purchases – that won’t be much help in a de-risking environment. Stocks are fired up at the prospect of a year-end melt-up.

The surprise would be a global bond market beat down – the downside of Extraordinary Monetary Disorder.

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