Central bankers are morons: Why bad economic news is treated as good news by stock market


Vivek Kaul

When it comes to investing in the stock market, there used to be two kinds of investors: those who invested on the basis of the fundamentals of a stock and and those who invested on the basis of non fundamentals.
Investors like Warren Buffett specialise in investing on the basis of fundamentals. These investors go through balance sheets, annual reports etc., in great detail, trying to figure out how well a company they want to invest in is doing in terms of sales, expenditure and profits.
On the other hand, the non fundamental investor most of the times is trying to do what John Maynard Keynes described best. John Lanchester writes about this “famous description” in his recent book
How to Speak Money” “He (i.e. the non fundamental investor) is looking at a photo of six girls and trying to pick, not which girl he thinks is the prettiest, and not which he thinks most people will think is the prettiest, but which most people will think most people will think is the prettiest…In other words the non-fundamentals investor isn’t trying to work out what companies he should invest in, or what company most investors will think they should invest in, but which company most investors will think most investors will want to invest in.”
Or as Keynes put it in his magnum opus
The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money “It is not a case of choosing those [faces] that, to the best of one’s judgement, are really the prettiest, nor even those that average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be.”
And this is how the stock market investors were neatly divided with the majority of them trying to figure out “ what average opinion expected the average opinion to be”. This neat division was broken down in the aftermath of the current financial crisis which started in September 2008. The markets are now ruled by the central banks.
As Ben Hunt wrote in the Epsilon Theory investment letter dated August 5, 2014, and titled
Fear and Loathing on the Marketing Trail, 2014 “Today, everyone believes that market price levels are largely driven by monetary policy and that we are all being played by politicians and central bankers using their words for effect rather than direct communication.”
Monetary policy is essentially the process by which a central bank controls the amount of money in the financial system of a country. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, central banks of Western economies started printing money.
Economist John Mauldin in a recent column titled 
The End of Monetary Policy estimates that central banks have printed $7-8 trillion since the start of the financial crisis. It is worth pointing out here that this money is not actually printed, but created digitally, nonetheless “money being printed” is an easier way to talk about the whole thing.
Once this new money is created it is used to buy bonds, both private as well as government. This has been done to pump money into the financial system and ensure that there is enough money going around to keep interest rates low.
At low interest rates the hope was that people would borrow and spend more. This would create some demand and help economic growth. But that did not happen. What happened instead was that this newly created money found its way into financial markets all over the world.
This broke down the link between economic performance of a country and the performance of its stock market. The stock markets rallied anyway. This point was very well made recently by
Claudio Borio, the head of the Bank of International Settlement’s monetary and economic department: “Buoyant financial markets are out of sync with the shaky global economic and geopolitical outlook. Overall, it is hard to avoid the sense of a puzzling disconnect between the markets’ buoyancy and underlying economic developments globally. Financial markets are euphoric, in the grip of an aggressive search for yield, and yet investment in the real economy remains weak while the macro-economic and geopolitical outlook is still highly uncertain.”
This has led to a situation where bad economic news is treated as good news by the stock markets because the investors know that this will lead to central banks printing more money as they try and get economic growth going again.
As Gary Dorsch, Editor, Global Money Trends newsletter, wrote in a recent columnBad economic news is treated as Bullish news for the stock market, because it lead to expectation of more “quantitative easing.” And the easy money flows that are injected by central banks go right past goods and services (ie; the real economy) and are whisked into the financial markets, where it pushes up the prices of stocks and bonds. In simple terms, what matters most to the stock markets are the easy money injections from the central banks, and to a lesser extent, the profits of the companies whose stocks they are buying and selling.”
This single paragraph explains all the stock market rallies that have happened all over the world in the last few years. At the same time the “easy money” created by central banks has also helped boost corporate profits. As Dorsch puts it “The boom in corporate profits has been heavily subsidized by cheap and easy credit, which has allowed big companies to boost returns by paring down interest costs and buying back shares.” And this has also boosted stock market performance. The question is till when can this last? Do investors really believe that central banks will keep coming to their rescue forever? These are not easy questions to answer and on this your guess is as good as mine.
Hunt who writes the Epsilon Theory newsletter believes that “No one requires convincing that market price levels are unsupported by real world economic activity. Everyone believes that this will all end badly, and the only real question is when.”
Albert Edwards of Societe Generale is a little more direct about the issue. As he wrote in recent research note dated October 23, 2014: “The central banks for all their huffing and puffing cannot eliminate the business cycle. And they should have realised after the 2008 Great Recession that the longer they suppress volatility, both economic and market, the greater the subsequent crash. Will these morons ever learn?” He also quotes Guy Debelle, head of the BIS market committee, as saying that “investors had become far too complacent, wrongly believing that central banks can protect them, and many staking bets that are bound to “blow up” at the first sign of stress.”
The Federal Reserve of the United States has gradually been winding down its money printing programme. Currently it prints $15 billion every month. The Federal Open Market Committee is supposed to meet on October 28-29, later this month. The expectation is that the committee will wind up the money printing programme.
The stock market in the US has remained largely flat over the last two months. In case it starts to fall, once the Federal Reserve stops printing money, it is likely that the American central bank will start printing money again. As Christopher Wood wrote in the
Greed and Fear investment newsletter in November last year “The key issue is what might trigger a market correction. The market consensus continues to focus on the tightening in financial conditions triggered by “tapering”. Still such a hypothetical correction is not so big a deal to GREED & fear, since any real equity decline caused by tapering is likely to lead, under a Fed run by Janet Yellen, to renewed easing.”
So what is the real threat then? “The real threat to US equities is when the American economy fails to re-accelerate as forecast,” wrote Wood. And that is something worth worrying about.

The article originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on Oct 26, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)


Money printing is ineffective: Why monetary policy, as we know it, is nearing its death

helicashVivek Kaul

Everything under the sun is in chaos. The situation is excellent.
– Mao Zedong

It has been a little over six years since the start of the current financial crisis in mid September 2008, when the investment bank Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. In the aftermath of the financial crisis the Western central banks went on a money printing binge.
Economist John Mauldin in a recent column titled
The End of Monetary Policy estimates that central banks have printed $7-8 trillion since the start of the financial crisis. It is worth pointing out here that this money is not actually printed, but created digitally.
As John Lanchester writes in his wonderful new book
How to Speak Money “It’s money that simply didn’t exist before. It’s like typing 100,000 at a keyboard and magically having £ 100,000 added to your bank account.”
Hence, this money is not actual printed money. As Tim Harford writes in
The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: “A lot of it is money…not actual printed ‘paper money’ but ‘printing money’ is the simple way to talk about this.”
Once this new money has been created it is used to buy bonds, both private as well as government. This has been done to pump money into the financial system and ensure that there is enough money going around to keep interest rates low.
At low interest rates the hope was that people would borrow and spend more. This would create some demand and help economic growth. But has that really happened? The major creator of new money in the last six years has been the Federal Reserve of United States, the American central bank. It has printed (oops digitally created) around $3.6 trillion of new money since the financial crisis started. And it still continues to do so.
The hope as Henry Hazlitt put it in his book
Economics in One Lesson is that “this increased money [will increase]…everyone’s “purchasing power,” in the sense of everybody to buy more goods than before.”
Nevertheless this hasn’t led to a jump in consumer expenditure. Household consumption forms nearly 70% of the American economy.
As economist Stephen Roach wrote in a recent column “In fact, since early 2008, annualized growth in real consumer expenditure has averaged a mere 1.3% – the most anaemic period of consumption growth on record.”
This is reflected in the growth of the American GDP as well. As Roach points out “Though $3.6 trillion of incremental liquidity has been added to the Fed’s balance sheet since late 2008, nominal GDP was up by just $2.5 trillion from the third quarter of 2008 to the second quarter of this year.”
Hence, what economists call the “multiplier effect” hasn’t really worked.
The other hope was that all this new money would chase the same amount of goods and services, and this, in turn, would lead to some inflation. As prices would start to rise people would buy goods and services in the hope of getting a better deal.
But that hasn’t happened either. As John Mauldin writes “France has inflation of 0.5%; Italy’s is -0.2% (as in deflation); the euro area on the whole has 0.4% inflation; the United Kingdom (which still includes Scotland) is at an amazingly low 1.5% for the latest month, down from 4.5% in 2011; China with its huge debt bubble has 2.2% inflation.” The inflation in the United States is at 1.7%. This is below the Federal Reserve’s stated goal of 2%.
The only developed country which has managed to create some inflation is Japan. The inflation in Japan is at 3.4%. So has the money printing by Japan managed to create some inflation? Not really. As Mauldin explains “What you find is that inflation magically appeared in March of this year when a 3% hike in the consumption tax was introduced. When government decrees that prices will go up 3%, then voilà, like magic, you get 3% inflation. Take out the 3% tax, and inflation is running about 1%.”
Instead of reviving consumer expenditure and creating inflation, all the printed money has been borrowed by institutional investors at very low rates of interest and been invested in financial markets all over the world. Stock markets in various parts of the world have seen huge rallies despite economic growth stagnating. Central banks have hoped that these rallies might lead to a wealth effect. Wealth effect is a situation where the rising value of the financial assets makes people feel richer and hence, spend more money.
But that doesn’t seemed to have worked either. As Roach writes “The operative view in central-banking circles has been that the so-called “wealth effect” – when asset appreciation spurs real economic activity – would square the circle for a lagging post-crisis recovery. The persistently anaemic recovery…belie this assumption.”
This anaemic recovery is visible in the low economic growth rates prevalent through large parts of the developed world. As Mauldin writes “The European Union grew at 0.1% last year and is barely on target to beat that this year. The euro area is flat to down. The United Kingdom and the United States are at 1.7% and 2.2% respectively. Japan is in recession. France is literally at 0% for the year and is likely to enter recession by the end of the year. Italy remains mired in recession. Powerhouse Germany was in recession during the second quarter.”
What all this clearly tells us is that what central banks call “monetary policy” is not working as it is expected to.
Investopedia defines monetary policy as “The actions of a central bank, currency board or other regulatory committee that determine the size and rate of growth of the money supply, which in turn affects interest rate.”
The irony of course is that even though the monetary policy is not working the central banks around the world don’t seem to be in a hurry to get rid of it. The money printing programme in the United States has more or less come to an end. Nevertheless, the Federal Reserve has made it clear that it is no hurry to withdraw all the money that it has printed and pumped into the financial system. Hence, it hopes to keep long term interest rates low for sometime.
Other parts of the developed world though are still going strong on money printing. As Ben Hunt,
Chief Risk Officer, Salient Partners, wrote in a recent newsletter titled Going Gray “The biggest thing happening in the world today is the growing divergence between US monetary policy and everyone else’s monetary policy. There is a schism in the High Church of Bernanke, with His US acolytes ending the quantitative easing [the technical term the economists have given to printing money] experiment in no uncertain terms, and His European and Japanese prelates looking to keep the faith by continued balance sheet expansion.”
Despite its non-effectiveness, central banks still have faith in monetary policy, as it has been practised over the years. And this might lead to monetary policy totally collapsing in the years to come.
To conclude, let me quote Mauldin: “Sometime this decade (which at my age seems to be passing mind-numbingly quickly) we are going to face
a situation where monetary policy no longer works. Optimistically speaking, interest rates may be in the 2% range by the end of 2016, assuming the Fed starts to raise rates the middle of next year and raises by 25 basis points per meeting. If we were to enter a recession with rates already low, what would dropping rates to the zero bound again really do? What kind of confidence would that tactic actually inspire? And gods forbid we find ourselves in a recession or a period of slow growth prior to that time. Will the Fed under Janet Yellen raise interest rates if growth sputters at less than 2%?”
These are questions worth thinking about.

The article originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on Oct 13, 2014 

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

Sonianomics will put India on the path to disaster

Vivek Kaul
Sonia Gandhi must be having the last laugh, at least when it comes to economic reforms and their salability among Indian politicians. “Maine kaha tha, Mamata nahi manegi(I had told you Mamata will not agree),” she must be telling the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh these days. “Par aap zidd par add gaye(But you became rather obstinate about the entire thing),” she must have added.
Whether this government survives or not remains to be seen but economic reforms will now be put on the backburner, that’s for sure. Also, the Congress party led United Progressive Alliance(UPA) will start preparing for elections (early or not that doesn’t really matter). And given that Sonia Gandhi’s form of “giveaway everything for free” economics will come to the forefront again now.
The various Congress led governments, since India attained independence from the British in 1947, have always followed this form of economics. As Sunil Khilnani writes in The Idea of India “The state was enlarged, its ambitions inflated, and it was transformed from a distant, alien object into one that aspired to infiltrate the everyday lives of Indians, proclaiming itself responsible for everything they could desire: jobs, ration cards, educational places, security, cultural recognition.”
When someone is responsible for everything, the way it usually turns out is that he is not responsible for anything.  A major reason for the economic and social mess that India is in today is because of the various Congress led government trying to be responsible for everything.
This is going to increase in the days to come with Sonia Gandhi’s pet projects of the right to food and universal health insurance being initiated. It need not be said that the projects will help spruce up the chances of the Congress party in the next Lok Sabha election.
These are populist giveaways which have existed all through history. As Gurucharan Das writes in his new book India Grows at Night Populist giveaways have always been a great temptation. Roman politicians devised a plan in 140BCE to win votes of the poor by offering cheap food and entertainment – they called it ‘bread and circuses.’”
But even with that, the idea of right to food and health for all, are very noble measures and difficult to oppose for anybody who has his heart in the right place. Nevertheless, the larger question is where will the government get the money to finance these schemes from?  As P J O’Rourke, an American political satirist, writes in Don’t Vote! It Just Encourages the Bastards “We’re giving until it hurts. That is, we’re giving until it hurts other people, since we’re giving more than we’ve got.” 
The fiscal deficit target of Rs 5,13,590 crore or 5.1% of the gross domestic product(GDP), for 2012-2013 will be breached by a huge amount. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what the government earns and what it spends. This will happen primarily because of the subsidy bill going through the roof (as the following table shows).

SubsidesApr-July 2012Apr-July 2011Increase over last yearbudget estimate% of budget estimate


















Source: Controller General of Accounts, Deutsche Bank. In rupees crore

As is clear from the table the subsidies on oil, fertilizer and food for the first four months of this have been much higher than the previous year. Also four months into the year the subsidies are already more than 50% of the amount targeted for the year. Like the food subsidy for the year has been targeted at Rs 75,000 crore. During the first four months subsidies worth Rs 46,400 crore have already been offered. Unless the government controls this, the spending over the remaining eight months of the year will definitely cross the targeted Rs 75,000 crore. This will increase the overall spending of the government and thus the overall fiscal deficit, which is in the process of reaching dangerous proportions.
As I have stated in the past at the current rate the fiscal deficit of the Indian government could easily surpass Rs 700,000 crore or 7% of the GDP. (you can read the complete argument here). Now add the right to food and universal health insurance to it and just imagine where the fiscal deficit will go. And that means the scenario of high interest rates and high inflation will continue in the days to come.
But that’s just one part of the argument. Those in favour of subsidies and a welfare state have often given the example of the greatest western democracies (particularly in Europe) which have run huge welfare states with the government taking care of its citizens from cradle to grave. An extreme example of such a welfare state is Greece.
Greece categorises certain jobs as arduous. For such jobs the retirement age is 55 for men and 50 for women. “As this is also the moment when the state begins to shovel out generous pensions, more than 600 Greek professions somehow managed to get themselves classified as arduous: hairdressers, radio announcers, musicians…” write John Mauldin and Jonathan Tepper write in Endgame – The End of the Debt Supercycle and How it Changes Everything.
But the Western democracies became welfare states only after almost 100 years of economic growth. “Western democracies had taken more than a hundred years of economic growth and capacity building to achieve the welfare state,” writes Das. And given this India is indulging in “premature welfarism”. “A nation with a per capita income of $1500 cannot protect its people from life’s risks as a nation with a per capita income of $15,000 could. It came at a cost of investment in infrastructure, governance and longer-term prosperity,” adds Das.
That’s one part of the argument. In order to finance these programmes the government will have to run huge fiscal deficits. This means that the government will have to borrow. Once it does that it will crowd out borrowing by the private sector and thus bring down the investment in infrastructure and hence longer term prosperity.
There is no example of a premature welfare state in the history of mankind rising its way to economic prosperity. An excellent example of a country that tried and failed is Brazil.  India is making the same mistakes now that Brazil did in the late 1970s.
As Ruchir Sharma writes in Breakout Nations Inspired by the popularity of employment guarantees, the government now plans to spend the same amount extending food subsidies to the poor. If the government continues down this path, India might meet the same fate as Brazil in the late 1970s, when excessive government spending set off hyperinflation and crossed out private investment, ending the country’s economic boom…the hyperinflation that started in the early 1980s and peaked in 1994, at the vertiginous annual rate of 2,100 percent. Prices rose so fast that cheques would lose 30 percent of their value by the time businesses could deposit them, and so inconsistently that at one point a small bottle of sunscreen lotion cost as much as a luxury hotel.”
Inflation in such a scenario happens on two accounts. First it happens because people have more money in their hands. And with this they chase the same number of goods, thus driving up prices. The second level of inflation sets in once the government starts printing money to finance all their fancy welfare schemes.
As far inflation is concerned things have already started heating up in India. As Das writes “The Reserve Bank warned that wages, which were indexed against inflation in the employment scheme (the national rural employment guarantee scheme), had already pushed rural wage inflation by 15 per cent in 2011. As a result, India might not gain manufacturing jobs when China moves up the income ladder.”
Other than inflation, giving away things for free has other kinds of problems as well. With states giving away power for free or rock bottom rates, the state electricity boards are virtually bankrupt. As Abheek Barman wrote in a recent column in the Economic Times Most of the power is bought by state governments, through state electricity boards (SEBs). These boards are bankrupt. In 2007, all SEBs put together made losses of Rs 26,000 crore; by March last year, this jumped to a staggering Rs 93,000 crore. Just two SEBs, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir, account for nearly half this amount. To cover power purchase costs, the SEBs borrow money. Today, the total short-term debt of all the SEBs has soared to a mind-boggling 2,00,000 crore. Many states would buy as little electricity as possible, to avoid going deeper into the red.” (You can read the compete piece here). So the farmer has free electricity but then there is no electricity available most of the time.
Das writes something similar in India Grows at Night. Punjab’s politicians gave away free electricity and water to farmers, and destroyed state’s finances as well as the soil (as farmers overpumped water); hence, Haryana supplanted Punjab as the national’s leader in per capita income.”
Other than this a lot of things given away for free by the government are siphoned off and do not reach those they are intended to. It would be foolish on my part to assume the politicians in this country (including Sonia Gandhi and of course Manmohan Singh) do not understand these things. But as Das writes “But neither the ‘do-gooders’ nor the Congress party was deterred by the massive corruption in the supply of diesel, kerosene, electricity and cooking gas as well as in ‘make work’ schemes and food distribution. Politicians felt there were still plenty of votes there.
But these votes will come at the cost of economic progress. No country in history has got its citizens out of poverty by giving away things for free. Countries have progressed when they have created enough jobs for its citizens. And that has only happened when the right investments have been made over the years to build infrastructure, industry and human skill.
So the votes for the Congress will come at the cost of economic prosperity for the country. In the end let me quote a couplet written by Allama Iqbal: “Na samjhoge to mit jaoge ae hindustan waalo, tumhari daastan bhi na hogi daastano main” ( “If you don’t wake up, O Indians, you will be ruined and razed, Your very name shall vanish from the chroniclers’ page” – Translation by K C Kanda in Masterpieces of Patriotic Urdu Poetry: Text, Translation, and Transliteration).
The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s love for urdu poetry is well known. It is time he went back to this couplet of Allama Iqbal and tried to understand it in the terms of all the problems that will come along with the premature welfare state that his party has created and is now trying to spread it further.
The article originally appeared on September 20, 2012 on www.firstpost.com. http://www.firstpost.com/politics/sonianomics-will-put-india-on-the-path-to-disaster-462163.html
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])