Last week the Federal Reserve announced to a surprised financial community that there would be no reduction in money printing this month. The markets had priced in a 5 to 10 billion reduction in the Fed’s 85 billion USD a month of QE which has been channelled into mortgage backed securities and US treasuries to support the US housing and government debt markets and thus keep interest rates at abnormally low levels. Since there has been such a strong drum roll of media commentary about the apparently improving prospects for the US economy and Bernanke has been talking about reducing QE for the last few months there was a consensus on wall street that the the Federal Reserve would act to taper in September.
This didn’t happen as Bernanke acknowledged that economic data was not firm enough to suggest the US economy could move forward without its sugar high of 85 billion every month. Bernanke is dead right in his assessment. Without the 85 billion, interest rates would accelerate their move higher – a trend which began as soon as the taper talk began to emanate from the Fed. This would quickly cause cracks and a new more spectacular collapse in the housing sector as mortgages become completely unaffordable for new buyers and house owners with large mortgages are forced to default on their loans. Given the already bad data on loan defaults for homeowners it’s clear that housing is one of the most vulnerable sectors when interest rates start to rise. And rise they will – nothing goes on forever and the lowest rates in history will not continue indefinitely.
More worrying than this is the effect on the US debt market – rates in the bond market started to rise as soon as the taper began to be mentioned. No private buyers want to be in the train wreck that is the US debt market if the biggest buyer in town, the Federal Reserve is trying to pull out – without their monthly purchases keeping bond prices up and rates down the private market will act as all markets should and try to find the correct price for US debt – that means much lower bond prices and much higher yields until private buyers are satisfied they are being adequately compensated for purchasing US debt – which contrary to popular comment, is not risk free. If the US government has to go cap in hand to the private debt markets the US government will quickly be exposed as being insolvent – never mind the US housing market, this is the elephant in the room and Fed needs to keep him hidden as long as possible.
Housing and US government debt alone are two issues enough to make any taper from the Federal Reserve extremely unlikely – once a government or central bank starts down this money printing track they quickly find there is almost no way out. But there are other problems too – the employment situation in the US appears to paint a far too rosy picture, something Bernanke himself admitted when he pointed out that huge numbers of people seem to have dropped out of the workforce entirely in the last year, meaning they are no longer counted in the unemployment numbers thus the 7.4% unemployment percentage is unrealistically low. Even with those jobs which were created the majority were part time service industry jobs (thank you Obamacare!) rather than high quality well paid full time positions in manufacturing etc.
The stock markets have had a great year, but if the Feds actions this month tell us anything, it’s that the general economy, 5 years after the crash of 2008 is still in a precarious position. Without the Federal Reserve’s intervention in the mortgage backed security market there would be no housing recovery and without that who would really consider the US to be on the way back? But if stocks and housing keep going up while nothing else in the economy suggests they should be, it’s evidence that these two sectors are again going into dangerous territory and without ongoing QE from the Fed they would again be heading for burst bubble territory. The debt collector came knocking on the Feds door in 2008 and Bernanke shut the door and told everyone to keep quiet so maybe he’d go away – this week Bernanke risked a peek out side that same door again and found the debt collector was still sitting there waiting for his payment. The spectre of a deflationary depression looms large in the Fed’s thinking even as Bernanke approaches the end of his term – this is the biggest guarantee that we are on the road to endless QE.
Although both gold and silver have been in a correction since September last year and the stock market has moved forward strongly in this last year, the shaky foundation on which the stock market has advanced suggests that when the stock market falters gold and silver could be set for a strong rebound as the investment market realises it has overestimated the strength of the US economy by a wide margin. At the moment everyone, including the Fed, seems to have forgotten that it is not possible to re-inflate old bubbles and keep them inflated. I would expect that everyone is going to get a good dose of economic realism on this same topic. The only way real estate and stocks are going to avoid a nasty pullback at this point is an ever increasing commitment to QE (never mind an actual taper) and an acceleration in inflation – but even in that scenario both real estate and stocks will lose comparative value to other asset classes such as gold and silver. The parallels between this period and the pullback in gold and silver in 1975 and 1976 are illuminating – gold was off 50% in that 2 year period but from the end of 1976 to 1980 it went up a further 500%. History doesn’t necessarily repeat but if often rhymes.