Phorgy Phynance

Archive for January 2008

Speculation: Bernanke’s days are numbered

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In this fun thread, on July 4, 2007, I wrote about one of Bernanke’s speeches:

This latest wind bag empty rant of his is almost laughable

The Financial Accelerator and the Credit Channel
June 15, 2007

He speaks of his model results as if they represent reality without question. It is notable that he only references papers that support his arguments without a nod to the opposing viewpoint. The more I read this guy’s stuff, the more upsetting it gets. I may have only been thinking about credit markets for the past two years, but I’ve been a researcher for a lot longer than that and I’ve developed a nose for BS and Bernanke’s articles reek of it.

Then, in response to doctorwes’ comment, I said (emphasis added in bold):

For example, he suggests that if many homeowners have little equity in their homes, and there is a decline in home prices, there might be a more negative impact on the economy than people would otherwise expect.

More than who expected? Sounds like a lame excuse to me. The proponents of the BIS view certainly saw it coming and several NBER papers are there (including Scwartz’) to prove it, which he conveniently chose to disregard. Sorry, you can’t take one side of a debate and when it turns out you’re wrong, claim to be ignorant of the other side.

In addition to my apocalyptic predictions, I also predict that Bernanke will be removed from his post in the not-so-distant future (say post Nov ’08 ).

We’ll see if he lasts until after the elections. I doubt it.

Written by Eric

January 22, 2008 at 7:14 am

Posted in Federal Reserve

Physical asset inflation and/or financial asset deflation?

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Financial Armageddon points to the Reuters article:

Worried about inflation? Just wait

where he argues that deflation is the next big worry. I have to humbly disagree. Sort of.

I do agree that financial asset prices are due for a massive correction, but the economy is made of more than just financial assets. Financial assets will see deflation, but physical assets will see inflation.

During the “New Economy”, financial assets have soared in value and I believe, like Jeremy Grantham, that financial assets throughout the globe have experienced a bubble.

Like I’ve said in a comment or two on Panzner’s blog, during past corrections in the financial sector, China and India were absorbing inflationary pressures. That structural shift is what will make this time different. Today, China and India are net exporters of inflation and loose monetary policy in the US will create domestic inflationary pressures that have no where to go this time.

This is the rift I saw between physical and financial assets when David Richards asked me what I thought about the markets back in December of 2006. That rift has been partially corrected with the rise in commodity and energy prices since then, but I think there is a long way to go before things are neutral. As usual, things usually will not reach a nice equilibrium and stay there. Inertia will carry it through neutral and beyond. Significantly beyond.

Written by Eric

January 20, 2008 at 9:44 pm

Anna Schwartz, “The new group at the Fed is not equal to the problem that faces it”

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Wow. When I first began voicing my opinion about the Fed and monetary policy in a public phorum, it didn’t take long for me to be drawn to some papers by Anna Schwartz. On July 3, 2007, when I was asked what I would have done if I was in charge of monetary policy, I said:

If I were in charge from 2000-2007, I probably would have surrounded myself by smart people like Anna Schwartz, who wrote this gem (in 2002)

Asset Price Inflation and Monetary Policy


It is crucial that central banks and regulatory authorities be aware of effects of asset price inflation on the stability of the financial system. Lending activity based on asset collateral during the boom is hazardous to the health of lenders when the boom collapses. One way that authorities can curb the distortion of lenders’ portfolios during asset price booms is to have in place capital requirements that increase with the growth of credit extensions collateralized by assets whose prices have escalated. If financial institutions avoid this pitfall, their soundness will not be impaired when assets backing loans fall in value. Rather than trying to gauge the effects of asset prices on core inflation, central banks may be better advised to be alert to the weakening of financial balance sheets in the aftermath of a fall in value of asset collateral backing loans.

Now, she takes both Greenspan and Bernanke to task in this scorching article at the Telegraph:

Anna Schwartz blames Fed for sub-prime crisis

The high priestess of US monetarism – a revered figure at the Fed – says the central bank is itself the chief cause of the credit bubble, and now seems stunned as the consequences of its own actions engulf the financial system. “The new group at the Fed is not equal to the problem that faces it,” she says, daring to utter a thought that fellow critics mostly utter sotto voce.

“They need to speak frankly to the market and acknowledge how bad the problems are, and acknowledge their own failures in letting this happen. This is what is needed to restore confidence,” she told The Sunday Telegraph. “There never would have been a sub-prime mortgage crisis if the Fed had been alert. This is something Alan Greenspan must answer for,” she says.

That is a great article and although I should probably be a little more dignified that proclaiming “Bernanke sucks”, it is good to know that Anna Schwartz is also not a particularly big fan of those at the Fed right now.

Written by Eric

January 16, 2008 at 12:31 pm

FT: Moody’s warns on US sovereign rating

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A while back, I was sitting in a meeting with some bankruptcy attorneys that were helping the investment group understand some new bankruptcy laws. After the meeting, I asked one of the attorneys a pretty open-ended question that tends to get surprisingly honest answers:

In the long term, what is your biggest concern for the US economy?

Her answer was immediate and without hesitation:

I can’t see how the US is going to be able to afford healthcare costs for the coming wave of retiring babyboomers.

Not exactly what I was expecting her to say, but the apparent honesty left an impression on me. That is one of the reasons why, when I began voicing my gloomy opinions for the coming credit crisis (even though I’m an optimist!), I said some fairly radical things.

I’ve quoted part of the discussion here when I first learned of the amount of US debt held outside the US.

Looking out over the horizon, say 10 years or more, it was hard to imagine the US being able to pay its obligations. On July 26, Aaron Brown said:

I’ve never understood the argument that foreign ownership of treasuries is a threat to the US. If everyone who didn’t like me lent me money, I’d be happy. I’d be even happier if I got to pay them back with paper I wrote myself. In the 60’s and 70’s, the US sold a lot of debt to foreigners and inflated its way out of repayment. In the 00’s, the US sold a lot of debt to foreigners and devalued its way out of repayment. But people keep lining up to buy more. I don’t see that changing.

I admire Aaron a LOT. He is super knowledgeable AND super helpful. He has uncanny patience and is willing to walk even thick-skulled people like me through technical explanations. What he is suggesting above is that when the US’ obligation become unmanageable, we can simply inflate our way out of it. Sure. That is one solution, but when your obligations are both internal and external, inflating your way out of an obligation to a retired senior citizen doesn’t seem to be the most politically correct thing to do.

What is an alternative?

I suggested that, since much of the US’ obligation is to its retiring senior citizens as well as foreign debtors, one solution would be for the US to default on its external debt *gasp*

Here is my direct quote on July 26:

I’m not sure I’m so enthusiastic about the idea of inflating your way out of foreign debt obligations. That wouldn’t be so great for the domestic economy. Something like what Russia did, i.e. a flat out default, as crazy as it sounds, is seeming like more of a possibility to me though.

The deep and insightful comment from Skillionaire followed:

Eric, I’ve been disagreeing with your views for the past couple of days in this thread, but I believe with this statement you might’ve officially gone off the deep end with this apocalypse stuff you’ve been pushing.

To which I replied:

The good thing about these phorums is that they have time stamps. Sure, today the idea seems crazy. It’ll probably seem crazy for the next 5 years or more. Ten years? Anything is possible. We’ll see. Care to wager on it? Wink

Wager: Within the next 10 years, i.e. before July 26, 2017, a major news source will carry a headline indicating the US may default on a foreign debt obligation.

No one took me up on it 🙂 It’s only been 5 months, but the first cracks in the long term credit quality of US sovereign debt has surfaced

This is from the Financial Times

Moody’s warns on US sovereign rating

The US is at risk of losing its top-notch triple-A credit rating within a decade unless it takes radical action to curb soaring healthcare and social security spending, Moody’s warned on Thursday. The warning over the future of the triple-A rating – granted to US government debt since it was first assessed in 1917 – reflects growing concerns over the country’s ability to retain its financial and economic supremacy. It could also further pressure candidates from both the Republican and Democratic parties to sharpen their focus on healthcare and pensions in the run-up to November’s presidential elections. Most analysts expect future governments to deal with the costs of healthcare and social security and there is no reflection of any long-term concern about US financial health in the value of its debt.

I’ll repeat, I don’t see any real threat of a US sovereign default in the next 5 years, which is probably beyond the horizon of most investors and so might be considered irrelevant. But 10 years? 15 years? 20 years?

Written by Eric

January 10, 2008 at 10:30 pm