Pandemic Risk Rising

Doug Nolan

Coronavirus cases in China have surpassed 76,000. Deaths have reached 2,345. The number of new cases has slowed markedly, perhaps owing to repeated changes in the methodology of counting infections. Developments elsewhere are less encouraging. Plans have been drawn to add 19 temporary hospitals in Wuhan.

There are reported cases of Chinese being re-infected after hospital discharge. This week saw a surge in coronavirus cases in Beijing to 396. Two hospitals in Beijing were quarantined, as concerns of a rapid escalation mount. Infections are now spreading in multiple Chinese prisons. Twelve cases have been reported at a single Wuhan nursing home.

A Friday evening New York Times headline: “With 4 Deaths in Iran and More Cases on 3 Continents, Fears of Coronavirus Pandemic Rise.” Alarmingly, new South Korea coronavirus cases spiked to 142 on Friday. Cases quadrupled in two days and surged ten-fold in four (from Monday’s 30 infections). At 346, South Korea is now second only to China (excluding the Diamond Princess). A troubling Wednesday Bloomberg headline: “As Cases Mount, Japan Rapidly Becomes a Coronavirus Hotbed.” Cases tripled over the past week in Japan to 92.

Reported cases in Iran went from zero to 18 in three days. With four deaths, the number of infections could already number in the hundreds. Most are in Qom, but there has been an infection reported in Tehran. A member of the Iranian Health Ministry was quoted by the New York Times: “A coronavirus epidemic has started in the country.

It’s possible that it exists in all cities in Iran.” The United Arab Emirates now has 11 cases. Israel and Lebanon both recorded their first infections Friday. The World Health Organization is particularly worried about outbreaks unfolding in areas with inferior healthcare systems. Cases tripled to nine Friday in Italy, with the first death reported.

Friday from the New York Times (Vivian Wang, Donald G. McNeil Jr., Farnaz Fassihi and Steven Lee Myers): “Further bolstering the idea that the virus is spreading widely, an epidemiological modeling team from Imperial College in London estimated Friday that two-thirds of the people infected with coronavirus who left mainland China before restrictions were imposed had traveled throughout the world without being detected.”

The infection count from the Diamond Princess cruise ship now exceeds 600. It appears 28 infected American passengers have been brought back to the U.S. Forty seven infected Canadian passengers are being treated in Japan, while 129 Canadians having not yet tested positive flew back to Canada on Friday. Four Australians rescued from the Diamond Princess have tested positive, bringing the total to 46 Australians infected on the ship.

Friday evening from the Washington Post (Gerry Shih, Michael Brice-Saddler, Lateshia Beachum and Miriam Berger): “There are outbreaks. There are epidemics. And there are pandemics, where epidemics become rampant in multiple countries and continents simultaneously.

The novel coronavirus that causes the disease named covid-19 appears to be on the verge of that third, globe-shaking stage. Amid an alarming surge in cases with no clear link to China, infectious disease experts think the flu-like illness may soon be impossible to contain. The World Health Organization has not declared covid-19 a pandemic, and the most devastating effects… are still in China.

But the language coming from the organization's Geneva headquarters has turned more ominous in recent days as the challenge of containment grows more daunting. ‘The window of opportunity is still there, but the window of opportunity is narrowing,’ WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Friday. ‘We need to act quickly before it closes completely.’”

February 19 – Financial Times (Robin Harding and Alice Woodhouse): “The hundreds of passengers being released by Japan from the Diamond Princess posed an ‘ongoing risk’ of spreading the coronavirus, the US Centers for Disease Control warned as about 500 people began disembarking from the stricken cruise ship. The leading American public health institute said that attempts to quarantine the 3,700 passengers who were on board the vessel moored off Yokohama had been ineffective, after several hundred people on board contracted the infection. The warning from the CDC, which said it was imposing immediate travel restrictions on the ship’s passengers and crew, came as Japan… released some of the remaining passengers…”

As the trading week came to an end, cracks appeared to emerge in the irrepressible global market boom. Initial indications of de-risking/deleveraging were apparent at the emerging markets “Periphery.”

With coronavirus cases spiking, the South Korean Kospi equities index sank 3.6%. While Chinese stocks rallied this week, equities dropped 2.0% in Thailand, 1.5% in Vietnam, 1.1% in Taiwan and almost 1% in Malaysia. Stocks were down 2.8% in Turkey and 2.7% in Chile. Local currency bond yields jumped 83 bps in Turkey and 15 bps in Brazil and Chile.

The more intriguing moves were in the currencies.

Curiously, the yen sank a quick two percent in two sessions to trade to the low versus the U.S. dollar since April. The South Korean won dropped 2.15%, the Thai baht 1.55%, the Malaysian ringgit 1.28% and the Taiwanese dollar 1.21%. But it wasn’t just Asian currencies under pressure. The Brazilian real declined 2.21%, the Mexican peso 1.87%, the Chilean peso 1.41% and the Russian ruble 0.79%. Notable moves in “developed” currencies included losses of 1.38% in the New Zealand dollar and 1.30% in the Australian dollar.

I view heightened currency market instability as a harbinger of “risk off” de-risking/deleveraging. Increasingly volatile and unpredictable currency swings engender a risk-mitigating reduction in speculative leverage. This, on the margin, reduces marketplace liquidity while weighing on market prices. Such dynamics typically unfold at the “Periphery.” And it is the “Periphery” that happens to be increasingly exposed to Global Pandemic Risk.

The safe havens enjoyed a big week. Gold surged $59 to a seven-year high $1,643. Playing some catch-up, Silver jumped 5.0% to $18.613. Ten-year Treasury yields sank 12 bps to 1.47%, nearing the lowest yields since 2016. Swiss 10-year yields fell five bps to negative 0.76%, with bund yields down three bps to negative 0.43%.

While the moves were not dramatic, it is worth noting late-week reversals throughout the Credit default swaps (CDS) universe. After closing last week near lows going back to 2007, investment-grade CDS rose three bps to 46.6 bps. High-yield CDS jumped 10 bps to an almost three-week high 295 bps. EM CDS rose seven bps to 196 bps, the high since January 31st. Some of the bigger moves were in European high-yield. CDS for the big global banks also reversed higher. It’s also worth noting Japanese banks dropped 1.9% this week, with European banks down 2.3%.

Chinese January Credit data were out this week – and the numbers were gargantuan! Chinese lending surged in what is typically the strongest Credit expansion of the year. Aggregate Social Financing (a measure of total system Credit) surged a record $720 billion – for the month (history’s greatest monthly Credit expansion?). This was more than double December growth and 25% above estimates. Credit growth was 8% ahead of the previous monthly record from January 2019. This put one-year growth at almost $3.70 TN, or 10.7%.

New Bank Loans surged a record $475 billion, up from December’s $162 billion. Bank Loan growth exceeded the previous record – January 2019’s $459 billion - by about 3%. This put one-year growth at $2.408 TN, or 12.1%. Bank Loans expanded 27% in two years and 87% in five.

January’s Credit boom was driven largely by a surge in corporate lending – that, considering the backdrop, could be viewed ominously. Government lending was strong. Even “shadow banking” showed a pulse, reversing course for a marginal expansion during the month.

Curiously, Consumer (chiefly mortgage) Loans increased only $90 billion for January, the weakest growth since October. Monthly Consumer Loan growth was down 36% from January 2019. Still, two-year growth was at 35%, three-year at 64% and five-year growth of 137%.

February 16 – Reuters (Yawen Chen and Se Young Lee): “New home prices in China grew at their weakest pace in nearly two years in January as the economy slowed and a fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak brought the country’s property market to a standstill. Worryingly, analysts say the worst is yet to come for the property market, noting that with stepped-up measures to contain the spread of the epidemic, aggressive price-cutting by developers and widespread business disruption will be fully reflected only in coming months. Average new home prices in China’s 70 major cities rose 0.2% in January from the previous month…”

We’ll wait about a month for February Credit data, yet it would appear China’s housing markets had already begun a meaningful slowdown prior to the coronavirus outbreak. With apartment sales slowing dramatically, February Consumer lending volumes will be dismal.

How quickly apartment sales bounce back is a critical issue for Chinese finance as well as China’s economy. Increasingly, however, it appears that great uncertainty surrounds economic prospects for Japan, South Korea, greater Asia and the emerging markets, Europe and globally. The bullish hypothesis that the coronavirus would be largely limited to China and soon contained is increasingly suspect.

February 21 – Bloomberg: “China car sales plunged 92% during the first two weeks of February as the coronavirus outbreak kept buyers away from showrooms. It was even worse in the first week, when nationwide sales tumbled 96% to a daily average of only 811 units, the China Passenger Car Association said in a report released earlier this week. Deliveries this month may slide by about 70%, resulting in a roughly 40% drop in the first two months of 2020, the association said.”

And Wednesday from CNN (Yoko Wakatsuki and Junko Ogura), one of the more alarming reports from the week: “More people from the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship tested positive for the novel coronavirus Wednesday, according to the Japanese Health Ministry. The ministry said 79 new cases were confirmed, adding that 68 of the people were said to be asymptomatic.”

For the US and China, interdependence is a double-edged sword

Economic exchange can produce welfare gains, but it can also be used as a weapon

Joseph Nye

China's President Xi Jinping (R) and US President Donald Trump attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 9, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP via Getty Images)
Understanding power and interdependence in the US-China relationship depends on understanding America’s strategic objectives © AFP via Getty Images

With the coronavirus outbreak, nature has reminded us how much the US and China are economically entangled. But politics is also involved as some in Washington form strategies for a second cold war and economic decoupling.

Economic exchange can produce welfare gains for both sides, but it can also be used as a strategic weapon. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy identifies China as a strategic threat. But what kind of threat is it, and how much entanglement can the US afford?

Understanding power and interdependence in the US-China relationship depends on understanding America’s strategic objectives. If its relationship with China is zero sum, and China’s long-term objective is to destroy the US much like Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s, then the less interdependence the better, though in the military and environmental domains some will be unavoidable.

However, by focusing solely on the manipulation of economic vulnerability as a weapon, strategists can ignore that fact that interdependence can also have the positive effect of stabilising deterrence. Punishment and denial are central to the classical conception of deterrence, but they are not the only components of dissuasion. Entanglement is another important means of making an actor see that the costs of an action will sometimes exceed the benefits, hurting the attacker as well as the target.

For example, in 2009 the People’s Liberation Army urged the Chinese government to sell some of China’s massive holdings of dollars to punish the US for selling arms to Taiwan. The People’s Bank of China pointed out, however, that doing so would impose large costs on China. The government sided with the central bank. Dumping dollars might bring the US to its knees, but it would also have devastating consequences for China.

Similarly, in current scenarios that envisage a Chinese cyber attack on the US power grid, the two countries’ economic interdependence would mean costly damage to China as well. Precision attacks on minor economic targets might not produce much direct blowback, but the rising importance of the internet to economic growth increases general incentives for self-restraint. The legitimacy of the Chinese Communist party depends heavily upon economic growth, and economic growth in China increasingly depends upon the internet.

Critics of crude claims that economic interdependence guarantees peace, point to the first world war as evidence that such ties did not prevent a catastrophic conflict between major trading partners. That is true, but it goes too far in dismissing outright the possibility that interdependence can reduce the probability of conflict. The author Norman Angell and others were wrong to argue before 1914 that economic interdependence had made war impossible. But they were not wrong that it had greatly increased war’s cost.

Of course, conflict is always possible because of human miscalculation. Most European leaders in 1914 incorrectly envisaged a short war with limited costs. And trade between the US and Japan did not prevent the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; although that was partly caused by the American embargo on exports to Japan. The embargo manipulated economic interdependence in a way that led the Japanese to fear that failure to launch a risky attack would lead to their strangulation.

Entanglement is sometimes called “self-deterrence”, but that term should not lead analysts to dismiss its importance. The belief that costs will exceed benefits may be accurate, and self-restraint may result from rational calculations of interest. But we should remember that the perceptions of the target, though crucial, are not the only perceptions that matter in deterrence.

It should also be a reminder that an international deterrent relationship is a complex set of repeated interactions between complex organisations that are not always unitary actors. Moreover, these actors can adjust their perceptions in varying ways. The economic relationship between the US and China is a good example of this.

As the political scientist Robert Axelrod has shown, repeated relationships can nurture co-operative restraint and reciprocity. In addition, some interdependence, in which a state has a general interest in not upsetting the status quo, is systemic.

It does not follow from this that we should ignore the strategic costs of interdependence. And we should expect some decoupling of the US from China in sensitive high-tech areas that affect national security. Excluding companies such as Huawei from western 5G telecommunications networks is not very different from China’s exclusion of Google or Facebook for the past decade.

But we should not let misplaced fears lead to comprehensive decoupling. Interdependence is a double-edged sword, of course, but carefully wielded it can also contribute to deterrence and strategic stability.

The writer is a professor at Harvard and author of ‘Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump’

Fantasy Fiscal Policy

Many leading central bankers now argue that, instead of just playing its traditional role of deciding the allocation of government spending, investment, taxes, and transfers, fiscal policy must substitute for monetary policy in economic fine-tuning and fighting recession. That would be a big mistake.

Kenneth Rogoff

rogoff190_NikadaGetty Images_stockmarketdigitalpeople

LONDON – Will the next recession be worse than you think? With the major central banks having little space for further interest-rate cuts, might the next cyclical downturn become a crash?

In theory, fiscal policy can go far in filling the void.

The past decade has seen a rise in fiscal evangelism among many economists and policymakers, and it is indeed likely that fiscal fine-tuning will be widely tested in the next downturn.

Are they right?

I am skeptical. Fiscal policy is far too politicized to substitute consistently for modern independent technocratic central banks, which until now have largely taken the lead in short-term stabilization.

Fiscal policy takes the lead in fundamental but hugely contentious issues – concerning growth, long-term stability, and allocation – that need to be decided in a democratic fashion, at least in advanced economies.

And yet academic depictions of fiscal policy as an objective technocratic tool often make one feel like we are living in an episode of the American television series The West Wing.

In that critically acclaimed series, the fictional Democratic US president, Jed Bartlet, is an economist by training. A good and moral person, supported by similarly well-intentioned and brilliant staff, Bartlet exhibits a gift for weighing sophisticated advice from experts to reach nuanced economic-policy decisions that strike a balance between efficiency, fairness, and political realities.

Of course, he often faces opposition in getting his legislation passed, but Bartlet and his staff generally prevail. It does not hurt that the ideologues on the right who oppose Bartlet are not only bad people, but also intellectual lightweights.

It is not just academic economists who are arguing that the time has come for activist fiscal policy, given the limits to monetary policy in an environment of ultra-low interest rates. Many leading central bankers also maintain that, instead of just playing its traditional role of deciding the allocation of government spending, investment, taxes, and transfers, fiscal policy can substitute for monetary policy in economic fine-tuning and fighting recession.

Touring the economic journals and major meetings of academic economists, one sees model after model of West Wing fiscal policy – thoughtful, reliable, and credible – that seems to buttress such arguments. But the recent literature and debate almost completely ignores political-economy issues that were studied intensively in the 1980s and 1990s. The lessons learned then are now largely forgotten.

It is precisely because fiscal policy inevitably involves messy, hard-fought compromises – often overturned by future elections anyway – that most countries have turned to central banks for short-term stabilization policy. The modern, independent, technocratic central bank is arguably the greatest innovation in macroeconomics since John Maynard Keynes pioneered demand management.

Governments can and should make the big decisions about the long-term direction of policy, but anyone who thinks that legislatures can consistently make fine-tuned decisions is living in an alternative reality.

The fact is that in most countries today, economic policy is highly polarized, with decisions being made by razor-thin majorities. In the United States, for example, fiscal policy for Democrats largely means an opportunity to engage in more spending and transfers. For Republicans, it means cutting taxes in order to downsize government.

Such differences are a recipe for seesaw policy. As a short-run stabilization tool, fiscal policy will inevitably be difficult to time and calibrate in the same way that central banks have succeeded in doing with monetary policy.

Especially over the past 20 years, central bankers have increasingly recognized that consistent, stable, and predictable policies are just as important as any short-term decision-making. Indeed, at conference after conference, central bankers can be heard weighing the nuances of slight changes in messaging and their effects on expectations.

But in West Wing-style academic papers, fiscal-policy functions – government spending and tax policy – are assumed to be totally stable and predictable. All problems concerning credibility and consistency are assumed away.

It is possible that in the next recession, fiscal policy in some countries will land a lucky punch, getting the calibration and timing just right. And yes, central bankers sometimes get it wrong.

But the idea that we should cast aside the division of assignments between the two is naive. So is the idea that strengthening “automatic stabilizers” such as unemployment insurance and transfers can solve all problems of fiscal-policy credibility by enabling adjustment to occur without political action.

The fact is that stabilizers invariably have incentive effects, and political battles over how far any should be expanded are inevitable. But the deeper problem is that in any given circumstance, policymakers can – and often do – override automatic stabilizers.

The right solution is not to cast aside monetary policy, but to find ways to strengthen its effectiveness in a low-interest-rate environment, possibly by finding ways to use negative rates more fairly and effectively.

Until then, with monetary policy hampered and fiscal policy the main game in town, we should expect more volatile business cycles.

Kenneth Rogoff, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University and recipient of the 2011 Deutsche Bank Prize in Financial Economics, was the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund from 2001 to 2003. He is co-author of This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly and author of The Curse of Cash.

MacroView: Japan, The Fed, And The Limits Of QE

by: Lance Roberts


- The Fed recognizes their ongoing monetary interventions have created financial risks in terms of asset bubbles across multiple asset classes.

- Since the financial crisis, Japan has been running a massive "quantitative easing" program which, on a relative basis, is more than 3-times the size of that in the U.S.

- It has taken a massive amount of interventions by central banks to keep economies afloat globally over the last decade, and there is rising evidence that growth is beginning to decelerate.

- Furthermore, we have much more akin with Japan than many would like to believe.
This past week saw a couple of interesting developments.
On Wednesday, the Fed released the minutes from their January meeting with comments which largely bypassed overly bullish investors.
"… several participants observed that equity, corporate debt, and CRE valuations were elevated and drew attention to high levels of corporate indebtedness and weak underwriting standards in leveraged loan markets. Some participants expressed the concern that financial imbalances-including overvaluation and excessive indebtedness-could amplify an adverse shock to the economy …" 
"… many participants remarked that the Committee should not rule out the possibility of adjusting the stance of monetary policy to mitigate financial stability risks, particularly when those risks have important implications for the economic outlook and when macroprudential tools had been or were likely to be ineffective at mitigating those risks…"
The Fed recognizes their ongoing monetary interventions have created financial risks in terms of asset bubbles across multiple asset classes. They are also aware that the majority of the policy tools are likely ineffective at mitigating financial risks in the future. This leaves them being dependent on expanding their balance sheet as their primary weapon.
Interestingly, the weapon they are dependent on may not be as effective as they hope.
This past week, Japan reported a very sharp drop in economic growth in their latest reported quarter as a further increase in the sales-tax hit consumption. While the decline was quickly dismissed by the markets, this was a pre-coronovirus impact, which suggests that Japan will enter into an "official" recession in the next quarter.
There is more to this story.
Since the financial crisis, Japan has been running a massive "quantitative easing" program which, on a relative basis, is more than 3-times the size of that in the U.S.
However, while stock markets have performed well with central bank interventions, economic prosperity is only slightly higher than it was prior to the turn of century.
Furthermore, despite the BOJ's balance sheet consuming 80% of the ETF markets, not to mention a sizable chunk of the corporate and government debt market, Japan has been plagued by rolling recessions, low inflation, and low-interest rates. (Japan's 10-year Treasury rate fell into negative territory for the second time in recent years.)
Why is this important?
Because Japan is a microcosm of what is happening in the U.S.

"The U.S., like Japan, is caught in an ongoing 'liquidity trap' where maintaining ultra-low interest rates are the key to sustaining an economic pulse. The unintended consequence of such actions, as we are witnessing in the U.S. currently, is the battle with deflationary pressures. The lower interest rates go - the less economic return that can be generated. An ultra-low interest rate environment, contrary to mainstream thought, has a negative impact on making productive investments, and risk begins to outweigh the potential return. 
Most importantly, while there are many calling for an end of the 'Great Bond Bull Market,' this is unlikely the case. As shown in the chart below, interest rates are relative globally. Rates can't increase in one country while a majority of economies are pushing negative rates. As has been the case over the last 30 years, so goes Japan, so goes the U.S."
As my colleague Doug Kass recently noted, Japan is a template of the fragility of global economic growth.

"Global growth continues to slow and the negative impact on demand and the broad supply interruptions will likely expose the weakness of the foundation and trajectory of worldwide economic growth. This is particularly dangerous as the monetary ammunition has basically been used up. 
As we have observed, monetary growth (and QE) can mechanically elevate and inflate the equity markets. For example, now in the U.S. market, basic theory is that in practice a side effect is that via the 'repo' market it is turned into leveraged trades into the equity markets. But, again, authorities are running out of bullets and have begun to question the efficacy of monetary largess. 
Bigger picture takeaway is beyond the fact that financial engineering does not help an economy, it probably hurts it. If it helped, after mega-doses of the stuff in every imaginable form, the Japanese economy would be humming. But the Japanese economy is doing the opposite. Japan tried to substitute monetary policy for sound fiscal and economic policy. And the result is terrible. 
While financial engineering clearly props up asset prices, I think Japan is a very good example that financial engineering not only does nothing for an economy over the medium to longer-term, it actually has negative consequences."
This is a key point.

The "Stock Market" Is NOT The "Economy"
Roughly 90% of the population gets little, or no, direct benefit from the rise in stock market prices.
Another way to view this issue is by looking at household net worth growth between the top 10% to everyone else.
Since 2007, the ONLY group that has seen an increase in net worth is the top 10% of the population.

"This is not economic prosperity.
This is a distortion of economics."
From 2009-2016, the Federal Reserve held rates at 0%, and flooded the financial system with 3 consecutive rounds of "Quantitative Easing" or "Q.E." During that period, average real rates of economic growth rates never rose much above 2%.
Yes, asset prices surged as liquidity flooded the markets, but as noted above, "Q.E." programs did not translate into economic activity.
The two 4-panel charts below shows the entirety of the Fed's balance sheet expansion program (as a percentage) and its relative impact on various parts of the real economy. (The orange bar shows now many dollars of increase in the Fed's balance sheet that it took to create an increase in each data point.)

As you can see, it took trillions in "QE" programs, not to mention trillions in a variety of other bailout programs, to create a relatively minimal increase in economic data.
Of course, this explains the growing wealth gap, which currently exists as monetary policy lifted asset prices.
The table above shows that QE1 came immediately following the financial crisis and had an effective ratio of about 1.6:1.
In other words, it took a 1.6% increase in the balance sheet to create a 1% advance in the S&P 500. However, once market participants figured out the transmission system,
QE2 and QE3 had an almost perfect 1:1 ratio of effectiveness.
The ECB's QE program, which was implemented in 2015 to support concerns of an unruly "Brexit," had an effective ratio of 1.5:1.
Not surprisingly, the latest round of QE, which rang "Pavlov's bell," has moved back to a near perfect 1:1 ratio.
Clearly, QE worked well in lifting asset prices, but as shown above, not so much for the economy.
In other words, QE was ultimately a massive "wealth transfer" from the middle class to the rich which has created one of the greatest wealth gaps in the history of the U.S., not to mention an asset bubble of historic proportions.
But Will It Work Next Time?
This is the single most important question for investors.
The current belief is that QE will be implemented at the first hint of a more protracted downturn in the market. However, as suggested by the Fed, QE will likely only be employed when rate reductions aren't enough. This was a point made in 2016 by David Reifschneider, deputy director of the division of research and statistics for the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C., released a staff working paper entitled, "Gauging The Ability Of The FOMC To Respond To Future Recessions."
The conclusion was simply this:
"Simulations of the FRB/US model of a severe recession suggest that large-scale asset purchases and forward guidance about the future path of the federal funds rate should be able to provide enough additional accommodation to fully compensate for a more limited [ability] to cut short-term interest rates in most, but probably not all, circumstances."
In other words, the Federal Reserve is rapidly becoming aware they have become caught in a liquidity trap, keeping them unable to raise interest rates sufficiently to reload that particular policy tool. There are certainly growing indications the U.S. economy may be heading towards the next recession.
Interestingly, David compared three policy approaches to offset the next recession.
  1. Fed funds goes into negative territory but there is no breakdown in the structure of economic relationships.
  2. Fed funds returns to zero and keeps it there long enough for unemployment to return to baseline.
  3. Fed funds returns to zero and the FOMC augments it with additional $2-4 Trillion of QE and forward guidance.
In other words, the Fed is already factoring in a scenario in which a shock to the economy leads to additional QE of either $2 trillion, or in a worst case scenario, $4 trillion, effectively doubling the current size of the Fed's balance sheet.
So, 2 years ago David lays out the plan, and on Wednesday, the Fed reiterates that plan.
Does the Fed see a recession on the horizon? Is this why there are concerns about valuations?

But there is a problem with the entire analysis. The effectiveness of QE, and zero interest rates, is based on the point at which you apply these measures.
In 2008, when the Fed launched into their "accommodative policy" emergency strategy to bail out the financial markets, the Fed's balance sheet was running at $915 billion. The Fed Funds rate was at 4.2%.
If the market fell into a recession tomorrow, the Fed would be starting with a $4.2 trillion balance sheet with interest rates 3% lower than they were in 2009.
In other words, the ability of the Fed to 'bail out' the markets today is much more limited than it was in 2008.
But there is more to the story than just the Fed's balance sheet and funds rate. The entire backdrop is completely reversed. The table below compares a variety of financial and economic factors from 2009 to present.
Importantly, QE, and rate reductions, have the MOST effect when the economy, markets, and investors are extremely negative.
In other words, there is nowhere to go but up.
Such was the case in 2009. Not today.
This suggests that the Fed's ability to stem the decline of the next recession, or offset a financial shock to the economy from falling asset prices, may be much more limited than the Fed, and most investors, currently believe.
It has taken a massive amount of interventions by central banks to keep economies afloat globally over the last decade, and there is rising evidence that growth is beginning to decelerate.

Furthermore, we have much more akin with Japan than many would like to believe.
  • A decline in savings rates
  • An aging demographic
  • A heavily indebted economy
  • A decline in exports
  • Slowing domestic economic growth rates
  • An underemployed younger demographic
  • An inelastic supply-demand curve
  • Weak industrial production
  • Dependence on productivity increases
The lynchpin to Japan, and the U.S., remains demographics and interest rates. As the aging population grows, becoming a net drag on "savings," the dependency on the "social welfare net" will continue to expand. The "pension problem" is only the tip of the iceberg.
While another $2-4 trillion in QE might indeed be successful in keeping the bubble inflated for a while longer, there is a limit to the ability to continue pulling forward future consumption to stimulate economic activity. In other words, there are only so many autos, houses, etc., which can be purchased within a given cycle. There is evidence the cycle peak has been reached.
If the effectiveness of rate reductions and QE are diminished due to the reasons detailed herein, the subsequent destruction to the "wealth effect" will be larger than currently imagined. The Fed's biggest fear is finding themselves powerless to offset the negative impacts of the next recession.
If more "QE" works, great.
But as investors, with our retirement savings at risk, what if it doesn't.

BlackRock trims 30-year Treasuries after rally

Exclusive: Fixed income chief says long-dated bond yields ‘not anywhere close’ to correct

Colby Smith in New York

Rick Rieder for FTFM
BlackRock's Rick Rieder: 'With bad news, everyone goes one way. You want to try to be on the other side of it' ©

BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager, on Friday sold some of its holdings of 30-year US Treasury bonds, after concluding that current low yields were “not anywhere close to fundamentally correct”.

Rick Rieder, BlackRock’s chief investment officer of global fixed income, who oversees the group’s $2.3tn bond portfolio, told the Financial Times that it pared down its exposure to long-dated US Treasuries as the yield fell below 1.9 per cent for the first time ever.

Intensifying concern over the spread of coronavirus outside China sent investors rushing to safe assets on Friday, while weak data on the US economy further stoked the rally in Treasuries.

“[Rates] at these levels are not anywhere close to fundamentally correct,” Mr Rieder told the FT. “With bad news, everyone goes one way. You want to try to be on the other side of it.”

The 30-year Treasury yield has fallen 47 basis points since the start of the year, while the yield on the benchmark 10-year bond has slipped by a similar amount, to below 1.5 per cent.

Yields on longer-dated debt have fallen faster than those on shorter-dated notes, prompting an inversion of the yield curve that investors fear is a signal of impending recession.

Mr Rieder did not predict a dramatic reversal, however, and described BlackRock’s actions as “taking chips off the table” rather than a more dramatic exit from long-term Treasuries.

“Markets can stay fundamentally impure for much longer than people think,” he cautioned.

Line chart of Yield (%) showing US 30-year Treasury yield falls to record low

The Treasury market rally has intensified as signs of the economic fallout from the coronavirus has grown in recent weeks. The virus has claimed more than 2,200 lives, infected over 76,000 and disrupted supply chains across the world.}

Expectations for US monetary policy have shifted as a result, and markets are pricing in at least one quarter-point reduction in US interest rates in the second half of the year, according to futures prices compiled by Bloomberg.

Mr Rieder said he did not agree, since most economic data out of the US remains solid, and the Federal Reserve has signalled its intention to keep rates at current levels throughout 2020. “The Fed wants to stay on hold and see where things go,” he said.

The global fixed income business overseen by Mr Rieder accounts for $2.3tn of BlackRock’s $7.4tn in assets under management.

The largest single fund managed by Mr Rieder, the $35bn BlackRock Strategic Income Opportunities, has returned 1.6 per cent so far this year, outpacing its peers by 0.9 per cent, according to Morningstar.

The Geopolitics of the Novel Coronavirus

By: George Friedman

Geopolitics is a fairly slow-moving process that unfolds in predictable ways. This is usually the case.

There are then moments when a wild card enters the system from the outside, unpredictable yet significant. At the moment, we can’t tell if the new coronavirus is such an event. We don’t know exactly how it is transmitted, how lethal it is, whether it causes long-term illness and so on. We know it has broken out in a Chinese city, Wuhan; that the Chinese government regards it as serious enough to impose significant controls on movement in and out of Wuhan; and that a small number of cases in China, relative to the population, and a smaller number of cases outside of China have been reported. For this we depend on media reports, since our own knowledge of viral medicine is limited.

Geopolitically, communicable disease ranges from the common cold to the Black Death. The former is ever-present but of little consequence; the latter massively disrupted European society and, in some cases, shifted the regional balance of power. There is a trigger point between these two diseases where the political system erects disruptions in everyday life and commerce designed to limit the effect of the disease.

To some extent these actions are effective, and to some extent they can be sufficiently disruptive to cause economic problems. We are at the moment teetering between these points, with the consequence of the disease and the consequence of protecting against the disease uncertain.

The major threat would appear to be travelers carrying the virus. The United States has banned travel to the U.S. for foreigners who have traveled to infected regions, while U.S. citizens may return but are quarantined for two weeks. Major U.S. airlines are starting the process of suspending all flights to and from China, but Chinese airlines and U.S. cargo carriers are still flying to the U.S.

Other countries like Russia have also imposed travel bans. The U.S. government has imposed very limited barriers, through which the disease is likely to pass. Most important, maritime shipments to and from China have not been significantly disrupted. This is vital, because if they were to be suspended, the situation would transform from a problem to a crisis.

China is dependent on exports to maintain its economy. About 20 percent of its gross domestic product derives from exports, and its single largest customer is the United States, despite the trade dispute. Assume for the moment that the new coronavirus were closer to the bubonic plague than the common cold, or assume that the panic that arises from the fear of the unknown compelled the governments of multiple advanced countries to place China under quarantine. It is an unlikely but far from impossible outcome.

The Chinese government has been under intense pressure in three ways. First, the crackdown on Xinjiang province generated a massive negative response from Europe and the United States. Alongside that, the United States imposed significant tariffs on China. The contraction in exports hit a financial system that the Beijing government was already struggling to stabilize.

This led to fear among Chinese authorities of unrest over economic and financial issues. The result was increasing security, from recognition technology to intrusion into the internet and periodic arrests of those considered dissidents. Economic insecurity led to increased security.

This in turn led to Hong Kong. The Hong Kong riots were triggered by a bill that authorized China to extradite Hong Kong residents. This was a desire Beijing did not have before. But as the situation intensified, the desire to assure stability in Hong Kong increased.

With the bill, some in Hong Kong recognized that extradition could be carried out for things legal in Hong Kong and could lead to extreme sentences. It represented an existential threat to many in Hong Kong, and the results were transmitted around the world.

A chief responsibility of the Chinese president is to manage relations with its most important customer, the United States. China has deflected American demands to open its markets and not manipulate its currency since the George W. Bush administration. It was expected that President Xi Jinping could continue this process. He failed to manage U.S. President Donald Trump, and the result was that an exporting nation faced a challenge from a consuming nation.

To put it more simply, there is a rule in business that you should never have a fight with your best customer. Xi violated this rule by winding up in a tariff fight with the United States.

There is no evidence – but then, there wouldn’t be – of a fight in the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party over Xi’s stewardship. The Central Committee is packed with Xi supporters, of course, but a situation like what has developed must cause concern and generate ambitions. The idea that the Central Committee was content with the financial situation, trade war, Hong Kong and Xinjiang is to me the least likely situation.

Now, to the coronavirus. Assume that the fears that are being expressed do not turn out to be exaggerated. Assume that in response to this, massive trade restrictions and embargoes were imposed on China and that freighters were not permitted to dock in Long Beach or Rotterdam, nor would they be permitted in Shanghai. With the Russians already screening China’s northern border, China would be isolated.

China is a nation whose core dynamic is based on international trade. Under pressure from the United States, a dangerous virus would inevitably cripple that trade at best. At this point, the Chinese government, like any government, would be blamed for what went wrong, and it would be blamed for mismanaging the virus and failing to understand the economic consequences. From here you can play out the game.

The reason for this exercise is to point out that the coronavirus is neither a geopolitical nor a political event. Diseases emerge with some frequency. But given the Chinese dynamic and China's current condition, the virus could readily evolve into a geopolitical and political event, in which tension within China might explode, with the coronavirus the last straw and China’s international position transformed.

To emphasize, I have no idea what “2019-nCoV” is or what it will do, but judging from what is being said about it and the level of anxiety, I will assume for the sake of argument that it is more dangerous than not. Then, given the evolution of the past year or two, and given the fear that always follows new, deadly diseases, we could see a fundamental transformation of the international system.

Not all events are geopolitical. They do not arise out of relations between nations. But events that are unconnected to geopolitics can connect themselves to the system and disrupt it. This is meant as an exercise in geopolitical theory. It is not insignificant in the case of China, which has had a difficult period and doesn’t need to be quarantined by the world.

Tweets of Mass Destruction

by Jeff Thomas

World diplomacy is, at present, on rather shaky ground.

Throughout history, whenever major economies are approaching a state of crisis, heads of state typically become chronically irritable.

If we step back a bit, we see that the present state of affairs was long in coming. After World War II, the US led a veritable extravaganza of productivity. Other nations got into the slipstream of this economic advance if they were able to do so and, by the mid- to late-1950s, Canada, Europe, the UK, Japan and others were hanging tightly onto the coattails of the US boom in order to advance their own economies.

But in 1971, the US, finding that their trading partners were solidifying their positions and beginning to demand payment in gold for their exports to the US, decided to take the US dollar off the gold standard, making the dollar a fiat currency.

The trading partners followed suit.

Unfortunately, once a country’s currency has no basis for real value, there’s nothing stopping that country from firing up the printing presses and creating more of the stuff… then more… then more again.

And those countries that rode the coattails of the US through the years of prosperity remained on the bandwagon, except that now, they had committed themselves, like the US, to unpayable levels of debt – a trajectory that would take them irretrievably downhill.

It’s been a wild ride, but it’s nearing its end, as the US and its trading partners are soon to hit bottom all at roughly the same time.

Not surprising then, that nerves are beginning to fray and former allies are beginning to chafe at each other’s acts of desperation to buy a bit more time prior to the inevitable collapse.

But added to this is a host of other countries that were previously considered "second world" – unimportant other entities that weren’t part of the post-1945 prosperity.

As anyone who spends time in these countries can attest, their leaders and indeed their peoples are highly conscious of the fact that the first world countries are heading for a crisis. They see this less from the point of view of comeuppance than the point of view that they themselves have the opportunity to become the main event in years to come.

And indeed, everywhere in the second world, if we choose to spend time there, we witness entire countries preparing themselves for the next age of prosperity – their age.

Meantime, back in the first world, the political sphere has become a pressure cooker and leaders are losing patience with one another, but attempting to "keep the peace."

This same mood was in existence in early twentieth-century Europe. Everyone was fed up with everyone else. Alliances were formed only to fray, with new alliances taking their places.

Then, on 28 June 1914, in Sarajevo, a Bosnian teenager walked out of a café and shot the visiting Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, as he sat in a car.

That was all that was necessary to light the fuse to set off World War I. Within a month, those on the Austrian side issued the July Ultimatum – a series of ten demands that were made intentionally unacceptable, in an effort to provoke a war.

Those on the other side mobilised for a fight and World War I was on.

Little wonder then, that the first rule of diplomacy is to never shame your opponent into a corner, where his only option is to come out swinging. It will end badly.

And so, today, in spite of world tensions, most all countries are attempting to keep the pressure cooker from building up too much steam.

But into this mix we have one Donald Trump. To say that he’s rather inept at diplomacy would be to give him far too much credit. Whilst sixteen years ago, George Bush made the people of the US fearful of "weapons of mass destruction," Mister Trump has introduced "tweets of mass destruction."

A veritable textbook narcissist, he wakes up each morning, eager to send out tweets that describe himself and his country as being above all others and, when he does not receive obeisance in return, increases the vitriol through further tweets.

By afternoon, it would appear that the retinue of Deep State operatives who have been assigned to his Cabinet have once again upbraided him for overstepping his bounds, and he often makes a statement to the press that either soft-soaps his morning’s tweets, or (incredibly) backs entirely away from his morning’s position, taking an entirely new and sometimes opposite position.

But unfortunately, as his behaviour is not based upon isolated indiscretion, but pathology, the pattern repeats on an almost daily basis. And it should be said that this behaviour has not been limited to his tweets, but has been reflected in his speeches and his meetings with the press.

Further, we should remind ourselves that Mister Trump’s comments are not what might be called, "suggestive." They are, in fact, quite direct and highly inflammatory. To wit:

In September 2017, Mr. Trump stated, "We will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea."

In October 2019, he stated, "I will totally obliterate the economy of Turkey."

In January 2020, he stated, "We will charge them [Iraq] sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever.

It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame."
Of course, these comments are not isolated, nor are they directed only at the three countries above.

All those who fail to recognize that Mister Trump wears the king’s crown are subject to his attacks.

And so the world finds itself in 1914. Much like the construction of a bomb, all the components have been brought together. They’ve been assembled and the tension has been building to the point that warfare is being threatened, with each side demanding that the other comply.

All that’s needed is for one political leader or another to decide that his vanity has been insulted beyond his level of tolerance. Or for a legacy-seeking general to decide that he’s been sufficiently provoked to press the button, ensuring his place in history.

Or indeed, for a teenager in a café to stumble upon a random opportunity to pull the trigger of a gun.

With all wars (including world wars), a lead-up is necessary before the war itself is fomented.

This takes months and sometimes even years to build up. But once the pressure has reached the point that the vanity of leaders, both military and political, cannot permit them to reverse without appearing to be weak, all that’s necessary to begin the war is a small event.

We are on the cusp of the most dramatic period of change that we will see in our lifetimes. This will be a period of the greatest relocation of geo-economic power history has yet witnessed, but before that transformation can be completed, the declining powers will attempt to retain their economic power through warfare.

As that is the case, we should be very surprised indeed if all the declining powers and advancing powers are not involved in some way before the conflict is over.

Why Americans Want Socialism

By John Mauldin


As I write this, a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” is leading the race for one of our major parties’ presidential nomination. The fact that so many Americans (especially young Americans) support Bernie Sanders ought to tell us something. A Quinnipiac poll out this week showed Senator Sanders with 54% support among Democrats age 18–34. Meanwhile, 50% of adults under 38 told the Harris Poll last year that they would “prefer living in a socialist country.”

I don’t believe they really want socialism. Few even understand what it is. What they want is change. They see little hope for improvement in their situations, no matter how hard they work and sacrifice. They don’t see anyone in authority trying to help them. So, when someone offers what sound like easy answers, they jump aboard. As Harvard professor Ed Glaeser says (my paraphrase), people think of socialism as “hyperredistribution.” They are not looking to control the means of production per se, just redistributing the fruits of that production.

In one regard, Sanders is similar to Trump in 2016—an outsider whose message activates previously neglected voters. Trump went on to win. If Sanders gets the nomination, it’s easy to imagine scenarios where he wins, too.

That the US could plausibly swing from someone like Trump to someone like Sanders in the space of four years says, to me at least, that something bigger is happening. Until we fix it, desperate people will keep making desperate choices.

This week’s letter will be a little bit different in that I want to focus on why so many of our fellow citizens find socialist ideas attractive. And why, even in the face of that, I am a long-term optimist. For those paying attention, there has never been a time so potentially dangerous but still offering so many incredible opportunities. But first…

Because of the frustrations of so many, both left and right, I think volatile swings between radically different political choices could become de rigeur for at least the next three election cycles, if not longer. The simple fact is that no political solution can deliver economic nirvana. But until something happens (like The Great Reset) to force unwelcome change, the cycle will continue. And that is a reality we as investors have to face.

That theme of “The Decade of Living Dangerously” is my focus for the 16th annual Strategic Investment Conference, May 11–14 in Scottsdale. It is a thinking investor’s conference. We will be looking at the entire investment landscape: technological, political, geo-political, private and public investments, from seemingly prosaic real estate to the latest new inventions, casting our eyes around the globe, looking for what the smartest investors in the world are doing to avoid danger and find opportunity.

Every year for the last 15 years, SIC attendees have walked away saying, “How could you ever top this?” And last year was special, with record-breaking attendance and over-the-top presentations. The closing day was amazing.

The SIC is my art form. I craft the experience to fit the needs of the time. Each SIC is different because we are looking at different overarching questions. I can honestly say it will be simply the best conference of the year for addressing the problems we face, along with the potential. The lineup of speakers, many of whom are provocative thought leaders, is designed to make us evaluate how our current portfolios will meet the challenges of the next few years and indeed the decade.

Among the already-confirmed faculty are investment legends Sam Zell, Leon Cooperman, and Felix Zulauf. Joining them are some of the smartest people I know… in market analytics, in investment strategy, geopolitics, fixed income, hard assets, evolving technologies, and more, including Ben Hunt of Epsilon Theory… political pollster Michael Barone… market analyst Jim Bianco… venture capitalist David Blumberg… Bain’s head of Macro Trends Karen Harris… DC insider Bruce Mehlman… economist Samuel Rines… longtime friend Barry Ritholtz… China expert Jonathan Ward… Technology wizard Cathie Wood plus heavyweight real estate analysts Ivy Zelman and Barry Habib.

Then there are SIC favorites Louis Gave of Gavekal, economist David Rosenberg, bond expert Lacy Hunt, geopolitical expert George Friedman, and the always popular money manager Mark Yusko.

As you may have heard, this year we are reducing the number of attendees by 40%, at the request of long-time attendees. Over half of our attendees have been to five SICs or more. We believe it will make for a more collegial and intimate conference experience, one you will not want to miss.

So please do yourself a favor and join us for one of the most exciting SICs ever. Don’t procrastinate. I am very sure we will sell out and you know you want to be there. So click the link and prepare to experience the most fulfilling three days of your investment life.

And now to our regular program…

What’s the Appeal?

To my generation, “socialism” is the second “S” in USSR. We grew up being taught the Soviet Union was a mortal foe bent on world domination. We didn’t have to wonder if this adversary had nuclear weapons; we knew it could drop them on us any time. Remember “duck and cover” drills?

Thankfully, the threat of imminent nuclear war receded, and attitudes changed in those who didn’t grow up with it. A 1974 poll showed 75% of Americans aged 25 to 34 thought the US had “moved dangerously close to socialism.” Now 50% of young Americans want to embrace what they think of as socialism.

Its meaning isn’t entirely clear to older generations, either. This Mises Institute article does a good job outlining the ideologies we call “socialism.” Broadly speaking, they involve various degrees of collectivizing property and redistributing wealth. Those can sound pretty attractive if you have no property or wealth, and threatening if you do.

This raises a question: If the US economy is performing so well, and the rising tide is lifting all boats, why is socialism getting any traction at all? Public opinion data says this shouldn’t be happening. Polls from Gallup and others find solid majorities saying their financial condition improved in recent years, or at least got no worse.

I see two answers to that. One is in the question itself. Your financial condition can be better than it was but still not where you think it should be. If you are no longer drowning and are instead treading water with no lifeboat in sight, then yes, your condition has “improved.” But you’re still looking for answers.

The broad “better or worse” responses are heavily weighted by political affiliation. Republicans say both their own condition and the economy are better. Democrats say both are worse. They can’t all be right.

Source: Quartz

Polls that ask more specific questions find a considerably less rosy scenario.

For instance, a December 2019 survey found half of US workers didn’t get any kind of pay raise in the last year. Gains in average hourly earnings may have been heavily weighted toward a smaller number of workers who got much larger raises.

Another survey by Salary Finance of 2,700 US adults working at companies with 500+ employees found 32% saying they ran out of money between paychecks. That’s consistent with the Federal Reserve’s annual “SHED” survey, which last year found almost 40% of US adults would need to borrow money to cover a $400 emergency expense. It also found an additional 18% of Americans considered themselves “just getting by” and 7% “finding it difficult to get by.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Fed reported this month that household debt balances hit $14 trillion, an all-time high. This was actually low as a percentage of disposable income, but disposable income is again highly weighted toward the top. Many at the bottom are in debt up to their eyeballs. And we’re not even in recession yet. Hence the dark humor like this.

Source: Twitter

From what I see, it may be true that most Americans are in “better” financial condition. But I think Ray Dalio is right when he divides the country into a bottom 60% and top 40%. More than half the country is in various degrees of trouble, and they are open to anything they think might help them, including what they think of as socialism.

Affordability Crisis

Last week I quoted from an article by Annie Lowrey in The Atlantic, The Great Affordability Crisis Breaking America. We who watch macroeconomics tend to focus on aggregate numbers—unemployment rate, GDP growth, and so on. We can overlook the “micro” world hiding inside those numbers. Let me quote Ms. Lowrey at length because she says this well.

In the 2010s, the national unemployment rate dropped from a high of 9.9 percent to its current rate of just 3.5 percent. The economy expanded each and every year. Wages picked up for high-income workers as soon as the Great Recession ended, and picked up for lower-income workers in the second half of the decade. Americans’ confidence in the economy hit its highest point since 2000, right before the dot-com bubble burst. The headline economic numbers looked good, if not great.

But beyond the headline economic numbers, a multifarious and strangely invisible economic crisis metastasized: Let’s call it the Great Affordability Crisis. This crisis involved not just what families earned but the other half of the ledger, too—how they spent their earnings. In one of the best decades the American economy has ever recorded, families were bled dry by landlords, hospital administrators, university bursars, and child-care centers. For millions, a roaring economy felt precarious or downright terrible.

Viewing the economy through a cost-of-living paradigm helps explain why roughly two in five American adults would struggle to come up with $400 in an emergency so many years after the Great Recession ended. It helps explain why one in five adults is unable to pay the current month’s bills in full. It demonstrates why a surprise furnace-repair bill, parking ticket, court fee, or medical expense remains ruinous for so many American families, despite all the wealth this country has generated. Fully one in three households is classified as “financially fragile.”

Along with the rise of inequality, the slowdown in productivity growth, and the shrinking of the middle class, the spiraling cost of living has become a central facet of American economic life. It is a crisis amenable to policy solutions at the state, local, and federal levels—with all of the 2020 candidates, President Donald Trump included, teasing or pushing sweeping solutions for the problem. But absent those solutions, it looks certain to get worse for the foreseeable future—leaving households fragile, exacerbating the country’s inequality, slowing down growth, smothering productivity, and putting families’ dreams of security out of reach.

For many and maybe most Americans, life is a constant struggle to make ends meet. They see prices rising for the things they need to survive even as the president says there’s no inflation. The central bank that supposedly works for them actually wants more inflation, not less.

This hasn’t always been the case. Not so long ago, you could work your way through college with a part-time job, afford a small home or apartment in a city or suburb where jobs were available, see a doctor if you got sick, and send your kids to decent public schools. Those are now out of reach for millions. And while some certainly made poor choices, it is not entirely or even primarily their fault.

Many people perceive, with some justification, that the economy is rigged against them. Correct or not, that perception opened the door for Trump in 2016. We have seen significant improvement since then, but clearly not enough. The door is still open for anyone who can present a convincing argument their way is better. If “their way” is somewhere on the socialist spectrum, millions will be receptive to trying it.

There is a way to close that door, and it’s pretty simple: solve the problems that are making socialism seem attractive and capitalism seem evil. Unfortunately, I don’t see much interest from the people who would need to do it.

What I do see is a belief, not entirely wrong, that more economic growth will fix everything. The problem is it will take time and people are hurting now. And for reasons I have outlined in previous letters, our debt-burdened society has borrowed growth from the future. That Pied Piper of current growth is getting ready to be repaid.

Take healthcare. It is not the case that everything was fine before Obamacare. There were serious problems. For one, people under 65 with preexisting conditions were effectively uninsurable, unless they had employer coverage. Now health insurance is “available” to all but only at staggering cost.

Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and others keep talking about a “wealth tax” to fund national health care, student loan forgiveness, and other benefits. Others talk about much higher income taxes. Or a return to higher corporate taxes. These are terrible ideas but I get why people want them.

It is gallows humor to note that the impulse to pay for the redistribution of income and wealth with higher taxes seemingly comes from the desire to balance the budget. We can pick death by higher taxes or bigger deficits. There are no other choices.

Humans may be social creatures but today’s societies didn’t come easy. It took millennia of precarious survival-of-the-fittest to arrive at the “social contract” that defines human relations. The norms of how we treat each other, and how the state treats people, are incredibly important. And they are breaking down.

That’s not a pleasant thought but it is growing harder to deny. The McKinsey Global Institute has a new report, The social contract in the 21st century: Outcomes so far for workers, consumers, and savers in advanced economies. It is bleak reading. McKinsey’s findings in summary:

… [W]hile opportunities for work have expanded and employment rates have risen to record levels in many countries, work polarization and income stagnation are real and widespread. The cost of many discretionary goods and services has fallen sharply, but basic necessities such as housing, healthcare, and education are absorbing an ever-larger proportion of incomes. Coupled with wage stagnation effects, this is eroding the welfare of the bottom three quintiles of the population by income level (roughly 500 million people in 22 countries). Public pensions are being scaled back—and roughly the same three quintiles of the population do not or cannot save enough to make up the difference.

These shifts point to an evolution in the “social contract”: the arrangements and expectations, often implicit, that govern the exchanges between individuals and institutions. Broadly, individuals have had to assume greater responsibility for their economic outcomes. While many have benefited from this evolution, for a significant number of individuals the changes are spurring uncertainty, pessimism, and a general loss of trust in institutions.

This isn’t imaginary and it is not solely about individual responsibility.
Society really has changed in important, structural ways. Achieving stability, much less success, is far more difficult for younger generations than it was for me and my Boomer peers.

We can and should discuss how to ease those challenges without causing even greater harm in the process. But pretending they don’t exist, or telling people to pull themselves up by bootstraps they don’t have, isn’t the answer.

Urging people who live paycheck to paycheck to save more is not realistic. They have no money left after those fast-growing expenses. Almost all saving occurs in the top 20% and certainly in the top 40%. The lowest quintiles have negative savings, i.e., are going into debt.

Source: WSJ

If you work for minimum wage, or even $20 an hour with a family to support, and someone comes along and promises you $1000 a month, or to cover your student debt or medical services or child care? That solves a problem you have right now. The fact that giving even 40 million people $1000 a month would be a $480 billion additional tax-and-spend which would significantly impact the economy is just not in your personal equation.

For many, it’s already an easy choice. After a recession? And deeper economic malaise?

Rigged System

The “financialization” of the American economy has led to increasing income and wealth disparity. As much as it pains me to say it, the “system” really is rigged. Whatever the good intentions of the Federal Reserve in particular and the US government in general have been, it has distorted the economic feedback loops that balance a true market-based economic system.

The fact is we already have “socialism” today. It’s not the socialism we feared in 1974. We have socialized the risks of capitalism, to the benefit of a small portion of the country, while a larger portion struggles.

That’s why Bernie Sanders may be on your ballot this November, and why he could win if the economy worsens. And there’s a chance it will. I long ago said Japan was a bug in search of a windshield. Maybe I should have said China. In either case, it’s beginning to look like virus COVID-19 could be the windshield against which the global economy meets its maker.

I am not being gloom-and-doom. I really believe the world is getting better and I see opportunity everywhere. However, if there is a recession, and thus more people in pain… if we haven’t given people better answers, they may choose socialism by default.

Coupled with socialism by central banking and bureaucracy?

It’s late and time to hit the send button. Let me close quickly by saying that these questions will be on the SIC agenda. Have a great week!

Your swear I am an optimist analyst,

John Mauldin
Co-Founder, Mauldin Economics