Tag Archives: balance sheet

The Japanese Economy: Harikari in Slow Motion

Motivated by three recent articles by Zero Hedge and Mike Shedlock: In Shocking Finding, The Bank Of Japan Is Now A Top 10 Holder In 90% Of Japanese Stocks, Bank of Japan Owns Over Half of Japanese ETFs; Why Stop There?, and Bank of Japan Corners 33% of Bond Market: All Japanese Bonds, 40 Years and Below, Yield 0.3% or Less, we decided to take a closer look at the Bank of Japan (BoJ), particularly its balance sheet.

There is widespread agreement that this will end badly. No one, however, has any idea whether it blows up this month, this year or whenever. In this article, we explain the the nature of the problem and possible signs of the tipping point being reached. When it does blow, the shock waves will cascade through all economies.

Why the Fed Is So Wound Up

There is endless talk about the Fed exiting from the QE-induced asset bubble on its balance sheet. We will show what the Fed can and cannot do to unwind its balance sheet. First some background data from its balance sheet in terms of assets and liabilities. The balance sheet is a wonderful tool for understanding what can happen, what can’t happen, and the corner the Fed has painted itself into.

One Bear at a Time

Fresh from finishing Summa: The Great Myth, we came across a Dec. 13 blog entry by Doug Noland, “The Prudent Bear”, titled Q3 2013 Flow of Funds. In reading his blog we came across a section that we reproduce below adding numbering in square brackets and emphasis. We then discuss the errors in his thinking.

Humour or Pathos or Both?

This item demonstrates the mainstream media’s remarkable diversity of reporting and analysis. It so reinforces our trust and respect for them. Enjoy.

And then …

We think there’s a factory in China that turns out little windup robot media announcers … somewhere.

(count = 25 if you weren’t keeping track)

Summa: The Great Myth

Listening to an interview of Richard Duncan by David McAlvany we were finally motivated to explore an issue that has nagged at us for quite a while. What disturbs us is that we find ourselves alone in disagreement with the prevalent ‘wisdom’ regarding the Fed’s quantitative easing (QE) policies and their effects on liquidity and markets. This essay will explore our position.

Flash Point: Fed Math

Bloomberg has printed a summary of today’s FOMC meeting: Fed Expands Asset Buying, Links Rates to Joblessness, Prices. We will preempt the usual misinterpretations of a summary of the now and future position of the Fed’s balance sheet.

Flash Point: QE3 and the Fed’s Balance Sheet

An article today in Bloomberg, Fed officials laud stimulus, quibble over future plans, reminded us of the new Fed stimulus program, QE3. As the article states:

In September, the Fed announced an open-ended bond buying scheme that began with $40 billion per month in mortgage-backed securities [MBSs].

We should see the impact by now on the Fed’s balance sheet. Consider the graph of Total Assets from FRED®:

In the 3 months since Sept. 5, the balance sheet has only increased by about $30 billion. Admittedly we haven’t done the homework to see when the program actually began, but if it’s operational we don’t see the result. Taking a look at the fed’s purchase of MBSs over the same period we get this graph:

We see the increase in MBSs was about $40 billion accounting for the balance sheet expansion but well short of the $40 billion per month expected. We will monitor this graph in case there is a delay in purchase completion.

Flash Point: Ahhhh … Now We Understand

Out of nowhere this morning it suddenly became crystal clear to us that when public administrators sell assets to balance budgets they are making a grave mistake.

It is a frequent act of economic desperation to use assets to fill budget gaps and meet operating deficits. This may involve financial assets such as money held in capital accounts or the sale of hard assets such as buildings or vehicles. The problem is that while such action may reduce short-term funding issues it does nothing to correct the root causes of the deficit. Moreover, such action damages balance sheets as assets are depleted while liabilities remain unchanged. On an ongoing basis this leads to bankruptcy.

The situation usually arise in the public domain where the authorities are unwilling to take the necessary spending cuts to create a balanced budget. If a balanced budget or a budget surplus can be reached and sustained, then sales of assets to reduce liabilities – debt. This can be a sensible action to reduce debt carrying costs creating a more favourable governance environment going forward.

Because income and spending are never synchronized, a balanced budget recognizes this by internal accounts that accommodate fluctuations in cash flow but net towards zero at year end. If this is done properly, assets do not need to be sold.

For politicians and administrators the rule of thumb is never use assets to reduce a deficit or close a spending gap.

Flash Point: Welcome to Hotel California

Bernanke expressed confidence in his Jackson Hole speech,  Monetary Policy since the Onset of the Crisis, that the Fed can “exit smoothly” when it wants to:

The FOMC has spent considerable effort planning and testing our exit strategy and will act decisively to execute it at the appropriate time.

In The Dilemma of the Impatient Trader, traders wishing to acquire or divest large positions quickly pay a premium for their impatience equal to the spread between average purchase and average sell prices minus the market bid/ask spread. Any exit strategy by the Fed must include the divestiture of their large securities position. This would begin if and when the economy were heating up and needled to be slowed. It might also become necessary if inflation takes off driving interest rates up. These would not necessarily be mutually exclusive scenarios.

From a balance sheet perspective, the cause of the exit is unimportant. What happens is the Fed sells securities to primary dealers (PDs) who pay for them from their excess reserves on deposit. These reserves were created by the Fed’s initial purchases of securities from the PDs. But the PDs are patient traders and the Fed is an impatient trader. The cost to the Fed, as its assets approach zero through sales, is the premium they paid on acquisition plus the premium they pay on sales. This means the PDs have a net balance left equal to this total premium. This is the money given to the PDs for their assistance in implementing Fed policy.

To balance assets and liabilities in true accounting fashion, the Fed’s capital position goes negative and the Fed becomes insolvent. Before this happens, however, by recent arrangement with the Treasury, the Treasury will backstop (bailout) the Fed.

The monetary base is considered the base of the money supply in the economy and is known as money with zero maturity. It is roughly the sum of the reserves on deposit with the Fed plus currency in circulation. Many have argues that if the excess reserves, currently standing at  about $1.5 trillion, enter the economy, large scale inflation will result. The caveat has been that the Fed could unwind its balance sheet. But as we have argued, it can’t entirely. The trading premium incurred will remain as a liability after assets are gone. It will also remain as part of the monetary base and the Fed cannot do anything remotely orthodox to fix this. The result: built in inflation.

So welcome to Hotel California where any central bank can check in but it can’t check out.

Update 20120917

It is always gratifying to get confirmation of our thinking from people much smarter and informed than we are. Today we got this eletter from Bob Eisenbeis, Chief Monetary Economist of Cumberland Advisors: We’ll Know It When We See It! These people understand the Fed, Fed operation and policies, and debt and bond markets as well as anyone and better than most. Bob wrote:

Certainly, the materials provided imply a long period of sustained asset acquisitions and a further substantial increase in the Fed’s balance sheet. This expansion will only exacerbate the Fed’s exit problem, and to the extent that it experiences capital losses on asset sales, those losses will accrue to the taxpayer through reduced remittances to the Treasury, and increase the deficit.

The “capital losses” are what we described as “premium paid” in The Dilemma of the Impatient Trader.

Flash Point: Where Does It End?

We had just finished our latest essay The Hole in Jackson Hole, when we got this article from Bloomberg: Fed Moves Toward Open-Ended Bond Purchases to Satisfy Bernanke. In our essay we presented our arguments that LSAPs (QE) have been ineffective in stimulating the economy. The Bloomberg article, however, suggests some new LSAP will be coming soon (something we agreed with as a result of our analysis of Bernanke’s speech).

LSAPs were introduced to manipulate interest rates because the traditional tool for doing this, the  Effective Federal Funds Rate (EFFR), became ineffective when it reached the zero lower bound. Since the EFFR was designed to manipulate short-term rates and these were effectively at zero, the Fed used LSAPs to affect longer dated maturities, eventually lowering rates across the entire yield curve to the 30-year bond. All have recently touched historic lows.

As we argued, there has been no observable effect of LSAPs on the employment situation. Bloomberg speculates that the Fed will soon introduce an LSAP policy that is open ended. Its goal will not be to acquire a certain class of assets in a specified quantity in a specified period of time as previous LSAPs have done, but to set an economic target for the program rather than an asset target. Jim Rickards suggested they would do this several months ago, targeting a certain level of GDP. Bloomberg suggests they may target a certain level of unemployment – say 7%.

In an economic environment where GDP and employment are in a cyclical downturn one might assume they will return to historic norms. If however, there are structural changes in the economy, this assumption is invalid. In our essay we showed a thirty year downtrend in GDP and employment growth. We argued that this is structural since it it spans four recessions or business cycles.

Bernanke’s bet is the recovery has a cyclical basis. We argue it has a structural basis*. If Bernanke is wrong and sets a policy objective for levels that are no longer relevant due to structural changes, then he will have created an open-ended ticket to money creation at the Fed bounded by a goal that is unattainable. But what is worse, he cannot realize that the failure of his policy is based on a fundamental misreading of the economy. Rather the danger is he will misread the situation as Paul Krugman has done and feel that the problem simply requires more money to be thrown at  it.

*Update: 20120914

We find today, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard arguing in The Telegraph in his essay Era of ‘jobs-targeting’ begins as Fed launches QE3, that the employment situation is due to a structural change. He quotes Bernanke’s concern as:

a grave concern, not only because of the enormous suffering and waste of human talent it entails, but also because high levels of unemployment will wreak structural damage on our economy that could last for many years

Then he quotes Minneapolis Fed chief Narayana Kocherlakota as saying that the lack of jobs skills imply less slack than assumed – known as an upward shift in the “Beveridge Curve”. The problem is “structural”.

In The Hole in Jackson Hole, Figure 4 shows that for the current ‘recovery’, the year-over-year change in GDP is at trend. This we interpret to mean the full recovery has happened and current employment numbers are the ‘new normal’. To support this notion, we note Ambrose’s statement America’s output is now well above its previous peak in late 2007, unlike Japan and most of Europe. If output has fully recovered, there is no room for any significant expansion in employment. Indeed, the larger levels of unemployed – the actual levels, not the official levels – will prove to be a drag on economic expansion as these people will require social service support while remaining unproductive.

The implication then for a QE program that targets a level of employment is that this level will be reached only when sufficient people drop out of the labour force to reduce the numbers and not by job creation. We have  a nagging feeling, not that QE will not be effective since we believe it won’t be, but that it will actually damage the economy at an accelerating rate. We’re thinking about it.


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