Commentary: Crony capitalism continues
By David Stockman
This is part two of a two-part series by David Stockman. Read part one.
GREENWICH, Conn. (MarketWatch) — The destructive result of the Federal Reserve’s earlier housing and consumer credit bubble became the excuse for embracing a destructive zero interest rate policy which is self-evidently fueling even more destruction.
This destruction is namely, the exploitation of middle class savers; the current severe food and energy squeeze on lower income households; the illusion in Washington that Uncle Sam can comfortably manage $14 trillion in debt because the interest carry is close enough to zero for government purposes; and the next round of bursting bubbles building up among the risk asset classes.
Moreover, the Fed soldiers on with its serial bubble-making, even though it is evident that the hallowed doctrines of modern monetary theory and the inherently dubious math of Taylor rules have failed completely.
Indeed, the evidence that the Fed no longer has any clue about the transmission pathways which connect the base money it is emitting with reckless abandon (e.g. Federal Reserve credit) to the millions of everyday pricing, hiring, investing and financing outcomes on Main Street sits right on its own balance sheet. Specifically, if the Fed actually knew how to thread the needle to the real economy with printing press money it wouldn’t have needed to manufacture $1 trillion in excess bank reserves — indolent entries on its own books for which it is now paying interest.
So in the present circumstances, ZIRP and QE2 amount to a monetary Hail Mary. There is no monetary tradition whatsoever that says the way back to U.S. economic health and sustainable growth is through herding Grandma into junk bonds and speculators into the Russell (RUT 823.92, +1.65, +0.20%) .
Admittedly, the junk-bond financed dividends being currently extracted by the LBO kings from their debt-freighted portfolios may enable them to hire some additional household help and perhaps spur some new jobs at posh restaurants, too. Likewise, the 10% of the population which owns 80% of the financial assets may use their stock market winnings to stimulate some additional hiring at tony shopping malls.
That chairman Bernanke himself has explained in so many words this miracle of speculative GDP levitation, however, does not make it so. The fact is, if transitory wealth effects add to current consumer spending, they can just as readily subtract on the occasion of the next “risk-off” stampede to the downside. Indeed, the proof — if any is needed — that cheap money fueled asset inflations do not bring sustainable prosperity lies in the still smoldering ruins of the U.S. housing boom.
In truth, the Fed’s current money printing spree has no analytical foundation, and amounts to seat-of-the-pants pursuit of a will-o’-wisp — the idea of a perpetual bull market. Like the Bank of Japan, the Fed has made itself hostage to the global speculative classes, and must repeatedly inject new forms of stimulus to keep the bubbles rising.
This is the only possible explanation for its preposterous decision to allow the big banks to resume dissipating their meager capital accounts by paying “normalized” dividends and by resuming large-scale stock buybacks. These are the same financial institutions that allegedly nearly brought the global economy to its knees in September 2008, according to the Fed chairman’s own words.
In what is no longer secret testimony to the FCIC (Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission), Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke claimed that the Wall Street meltdown “was the worst financial crisis in global history” and that “out of maybe 13…..of the most important financial institutions in the United States, 12 were at risk of failure within a period of a week or two”.
That testimony was recorded just 15 months ago, but the financially seismic events it references have apparently already faded into the dustbin of history. Still, even if the dubious proposition that the banking system has fully healed were true, what did the Fed hope to accomplish besides goosing the S&P 500 (SPX 1,314.41, +0.25, +0.02%) via speculative rotation into the bank indices?
Well, there are no other plausible explanations. Certainly the stated theory — namely, that by green lighting disgorgements of capital today the Fed’s action will facilitate bank capital raising and new lending in the future —merits a loud guffaw. The fast money has already priced in whatever dividend increases and share buybacks may occur before the next banking crisis, but the last thing these speculators expects is a new round of dilutive capital issuance by the banks. Stated differently, the bid for bank stocks unleashed by the Fed’s relief action is predicated on speculators’ pocketing any near-term “surplus” capital, not leaving it in harms way.
Moreover, even if the Fed’s action had the effect of bolstering, not depleting, bank capital the larger issue is why does our already massively bloated banking system need more capital in any event? The reflexive answer is that this will help restart the flow of credit to Main Street, but it doesn’t take much digging to see that this is a complete non-starter.
The household sector is still saddled with massive excess debt — unless you believe that the credit bubble of recent years is the sustainable norm. The fact is, prior to the Fed’s easy money induced national LBO, debt-to-income ratios at today’s levels were unthinkable. In 1975, for example, total household debt—including mortgages, credit cards, auto loans and bingo wagers—was about $730 billion or 45% of GDP
During the 1980’s, however, this long-standing household leverage ratio began a parabolic climb, and never looked back. By the bubble peak in Q4 2007, total household debt had reached $13.8 trillion and was 96% of GDP. Yet after 36 months of the Great Recession wring-out, the dial has hardly moved: household debt outstanding in Q4 2010 was still $13.4 trillion, meaning that it has shrunk by the grand sum or 3% (entirely due to defaults) and still remains at 90% of GDP or double the leverage ratio that existed prior to the debt binge of the past three decades.
So the banking system does not need more capital in order to increase credit extensions to the household sector. In fact, the two principal categories of household debt — mortgage loans and revolving credit, continue to decline as American families slowly shed unsupportable debt. The only reason total household debt appears to be stabilizing in recent quarters is that student loan volumes are soaring, but this growth is being funded entirely by the Bank of Uncle Sam now that private bank loan guarantees have been eliminated.
Indeed, the startling fact is that the approximate $1 trillion of student loans outstanding — sub-prime credits by definition — now exceed the $830 billion of total credit card debt by a wide margin. While this latest student loan bubble will end no better than the earlier credit bubbles, the larger fact remains that the household sector is only in the early stages of deleveraging. Not the least of the self-evident motivating forces here is that the leading edge of the household sector — the 78 million strong baby boom generation — appears to be figuring out that it is not 1975 anymore, and that retirement and old age are approaching at a gallop.
This obvious household deleveraging trend remains a mystery to the Fed and to the Wall Street stock peddlers who occasionally moonlight as economists. One recent air ball offered up by the latter is that the ratio of debt to disposable personal income (DPI) has dropped materially, and that this proves the household sector has been healed financially and is ready to borrow again. Specifically, the household debt-to-DPI ratio has fallen to 116% from a peak of 130% in late 2007.
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