When the former Soviet Union collapsed almost 25 years ago, most global strategic forecasters assumed that the U.S. would adapt pragmatically to her new status of sole world superpower. Instead she has pursued a variety of misguided nation-building adventures and has largely shrunk from her primary responsibility of neutralizing the ambitions of petty dictators around the world. From this perspective, America’s multi-generational expenditures on military personnel and equipment has become more of a stealth economic stimulus program rather than an insurance policy for global stability.
The massive failures of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have caused the Western Allies to fear the future deployment of troops. Instead they have resorted to preserving an impression of strength by pressing their agenda with minor nations like Serbia, Libya and Syria through a combination of endless diplomacy and relatively riskless air power. In doing so, they exposed not just a reduced military capability, but also far worse, a lack of will. This vital fact was not lost on America’s potential enemies.
Sensing this weakness, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who is likely the continent’s most aggressive power player since the Second World War, felt free to redraw the map of Europe when political events in Ukraine did not go his way. On the economic front, the crisis has vividly illuminated the differing interests of the European Union (EU) and the U.S. According to Eurostat, the EU imported 212 billion euros ($293 billion USD) worth of goods from Russia in 2012, while the U.S. imported a mere $29 billion. Furthermore, eight of the EU member nations are in trade surplus with Russia and the adverse trade balances of the remaining nineteen EU nations are relatively small. The difference in relative costs between the U.S. and these European nations that would arise from isolating Russia with major sanctions, let alone military action, are clear.
Thus far the Western response to his power grab has been underwhelming in the extreme. The minor financial sanctions placed on Russian oligarchs tied to Putin’s inner circle, and the few guided missile destroyers that have been deployed to the Black Sea will do little to change the trajectory of the Kremlin. It should then come as no surprise that Russian pressure on Ukraine did not stop with its fast motion annexation of Crimea, but has been steadily increasing in the last few weeks. In early April, cities throughout eastern Ukraine experienced the occupation of government buildings and police stations by ‘unidentified’ protestors, whom many suspect are Russian special forces in plain clothes. By mid-April, speculation was rife that Ukraine might be headed for civil war, providing an excuse for Russian intervention to ‘keep the peace’ and, like Hitler in the late 1930’s, to protect his own countrymen living in a bordering nation.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. and its NATO Allies squandered large quantities of blood and treasure in fruitless experiments to alter the political and sociological realities of the Muslim world. However, in the Ukraine, which yearned for western-style democracy, the West offered merely money and rations. In doing so, they eroded drastically the age-old force multiplier of international prestige.
President Putin appears set on a clear strategy to re-colonize Russia’s old ’empire’ by means of so-called salami tactics in which he takes small slices of territory too minor to spark a conflict. But the slices ultimately pile high enough to provide a satisfying meal. If Putin’s victory in the Crimea is followed by success in the Ukraine, his next targets likely will be the so-called ‘Baltics’ of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All of which are NATO countries possessing the guarantee of mutual defense from other NATO members including the U.S., UK, Canada and Germany. The potential for Putin to prove false this myth of guaranteed defense could usher the world into a world of much higher uncertainty.
On the other side of the globe, China is building its military, exerting increasing influence and extending its territorial claims in the eastern Pacific. Worse still, China and Russia appear intent on destroying the U.S. dollar’s privileged role as the international Reserve currency. Any major loss of this role could threaten severe declines for the U.S. dollar and spikes in U.S. interest rates. In short, a loss of U.S. dollar’s Reserve status would create a sudden and massive strategic change in a world to which entire populations have grown accustomed since WWII.
Despite the considerable risks created by the situation in eastern Europe, most western stock, bond and property markets, fed on massive central bank fiat liquidity, continue to flirt with new highs. (See an explanation of this in our latest report Taxed by Debt) This strikes me as an exercise in whistling past the graveyard. In the short term, investors may continue to profit from risk-taking in financial markets. However, as recessionary forces mount, commodity prices can be expected to drop, even exerting some downward pressure on precious metals. In the longer term however, as realization that serious threats exist, including the possibility of armed conflict in continental Europe, precious metals once again may shine as a safe haven asset.
In the larger picture, much of the geopolitical balance of power that has been in place for much of the past 25 years will be tested on the banks of the Black Sea. Investors should take a few minutes from their daily technical chart analysis to consider these major developments.
Most economic observers are predicting that 2014 will be the year in which the United States finally shrugs off the persistent malaise of the Great Recession. As we embark on this sunny new chapter, we may ask what wisdom the five-year trauma has delivered. Some big thinkers have declared that the episode has forever tarnished freewheeling American capitalism and the myth of Wall Street invincibility. In contrast, I believe that the episode has, for the moment, established supreme confidence in the powers of monetary policy to keep the economy afloat and to keep a floor under asset prices, even in the worst of circumstances. This represents a dramatic change from where we were in the beginning of 2008, and unfortunately gives us the false confidence needed to sail blindly into the next crisis.
Although the media likes to forget, there was indeed a strong minority of bearish investors who did not drink the Goldilocks Kool-Aid of the pre-crisis era. As the Dow moved up in 2006 and 2007 so did gold, even though a rising gold price was supposed to be a sign of economic uncertainty. The counter intuitive gold surge in those years resulted from growing concern among a committed minority that an economic crisis was looming. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis in 2009 and 2010, gold shifted into an even higher gear when those investors became doubly convinced that the extraordinary monetary measures devised by the Fed to combat the recession would fail to stop the economic free fall and would instead kick off a new era of inflation and dollar weakness. This caused many who had been gold naysayers and economic cheerleaders to reluctantly jump on the gold band wagon as well.
But three years later, after a period of monetary activism that went far beyond what most bears had predicted, the economy has apparently turned the corner. The Dow has surged to record levels, inflation (at least the way it is currently being measured) and interest rates have stayed relatively low, and the dollar has largely maintained its value. Ironically, many of those former Nervous Nellies, who correctly identified the problems in advance, have thrown in the towel and concluded that their fears of out of control monetary policy were misplaced. While many of those who had always placed their faith in the Fed (but who had failed – as did Fed leadership – from seeing the crisis in advance) are more confident than ever that the Central Bank can save us from the worst.
A primary element of this new faith is that the Fed can sustain any number of asset bubbles if it simply supplies enough air in the form of freshly minted QE cash and zero percent interest. It’s as if the concept of “too big to fail” has evolved into the belief that some bubbles are too big to pop. The warnings delivered by those of us who still understand the negative consequences of such policy have been silenced by the triumphant Dow.
The proof of this shift in sentiment can be seen in the current gold market. If the conditions of 2013 (in which the Federal Government serially failed to control a runaway debt problem, while the Federal Reserve persisted with an $85 billion per month bond buying program and signaled zero interest rates for the foreseeable future)could have been described to a 2007 investor, their conclusions would have most likely been obvious: back up the truck and buy gold. Instead, gold tumbled more than 27% over the course of the year. And despite the fact that 2013 was the first down year for gold in 13 years, one would be hard pressed now to find any mainstream analyst who describes the current three year lows as a buying opportunity. Instead, gold is the redheaded stepchild of the investment world.
This change can only be explained by the growing acceptance of monetary policy as the magic elixir that Keynesians have always claimed it to be. This blind faith has prevented investors from seeing the obvious economic crises that may lay ahead. Over the past five years the economy has become increasingly addicted to low interest rates, which underlies the recent surge in stock prices. Low borrowing costs have inflated corporate profits and have made possible the wave of record stock buybacks. The same is true of the real estate market, which has been buoyed by record low interest rates and a wave of institutional investors using historically easy financing to buy single-family houses in order to rent to average Americans who can no longer afford to buy.
But somehow investors have failed to grasp that the low interest rates are the direct result of the Fed’s Quantitative Easing program, which most assume will be wound down in this year. In order to maintain the current optimism, one must assume that the Fed can exit the bond buying business (where it is currently the largest player) without pushing up rates to the point that these markets are severely impacted. This ascribes almost superhuman powers to the Fed. But that type of faith is now the norm.
Market observers have taken the December Fed statement, in which it announced its long-awaited intention to begin tapering (by $10 billion per month), as proof that the dangers are behind us, rather than ahead. They argue that the QE has now gone away without causing turmoil in the markets or a spike in rates. But this ignores the fact that the taper itself has not even begun, and that the Fed has only committed to a $10 billion reduction later this month. In fact, it is arguable that monetary policy is looser now than it was before the announcement.
Based on nothing but pure optimism, the market believes that the Fed can somehow contract its $4 trillion balance sheet without pushing up rates to the point where asset prices are threatened, or where debt service costs become too big a burden for debtors to bear. Such faith would have been impossible to achieve in the time before the crash, when most assumed that the laws of supply and demand functioned in the market for mortgage and government debt. Now we “know” that the demand is endless. This mistakes temporary geo-political paralysis and financial sleepwalking for a fundamental suspension of reality.
The more likely truth is that this widespread mistake will allow us to drift into the next crisis. Now that the European Union has survived its monetary challenge, (the surging euro was one of the surprise stories of 2013), and the developing Asian economies have no immediate plans to stop their currencies from rising against the dollar, there is little reason to expect that the dollar will rally in the coming years. In fact, there has been little notice taken of the 5% decline in the dollar index since a high in July. Similarly, few have sounded alarm bells about the surge in yields of Treasury debt, with 10-year rates flirting with 3% for the first time in two years.
If interest rates rise much further, to perhaps 4% or 5%, the stock and real estate markets will be placed under pressure, and the Fed and the other “Too Big to Fail” banks will see considerablelosses on their portfolios of Treasury and mortgage-backed bonds. Such developments could trigger widespread economic turmoil, forcing the Fed to expand its QE purchases. Such an embarrassing reversal would add to selling pressure on the dollar, and might potentially trigger an exodus of foreign investment and an increase in import prices. I believe that nothing can prevent these trends from continuing to the point where a crisis will be reached. It’s extremely difficult to construct a logical argument that avoids this outcome, but that hasn’t stopped our best and brightest forecasters from doing just that.
So while the hallelujah chorus is ringing in the New Year with a full-throated crescendo, don’t be surprised by sour notes that will bubble to the top with increasing frequency. Ultimately the power of monetary policy to engineer a real economy will be proven to be just as ridiculous as the claims that housing prices must always go up.
A month ago, I presented the case for why Fed Chairman Bernanke would have strong motivation to launch another round of quantitative easing (QE) before the election. In short, it would save him his job. Now, I didn’t predict with certainty that he would do so – only the few men at the FOMC knew that for sure – but it seemed likely. Shortly thereafter, Bernanke not only announced more stimulus, but promised to keep it flowing to the tune of an additional $40 billion a month until conditions improve. As I had written, this is essentially the election platform of the Obama-Bernanke ticket: we will keep the party going indefinitely.
Unfortunately, though these are two powerful men, they are not above the law of economics. While critics have dubbed this program “QEternity” or “QE-Infinity”, it will end much before that. We are witnessing a massive bubble in US government debt, and we’ve reached the point where no one in charge believes it will ever end – an excellent contra-indicator.
Rather than going on for eternity, this third round of QE is only hastening the day when there is a flight of confidence from the dollar and US Treasuries. This will cause a sharp rise in market interest rates and surging consumer prices across America. If you think $4 a gallon gas is bad, wait till you see it going up by 25¢ or more per week.
At this point, the Fed Chairman will have a choice to make: keep printing, which will push the dollar into uncontrollable hyperinflation, or begin tightening, which will bankrupt the US government and banking system.
I have long written about this Sophie’s choice confronting the Fed, but so far the printing option has been too easy. With the world only slowly abandoning the dollar as the reserve currency and the euro crisis offering a distraction, the Fed has been able to more than double the money supply without US consumers seeing out-of-control price hikes at the store. Not that there hasn’t been inflation – look at housing, gas, or the stock market – but it hasn’t reached crisis proportions. When prices start rising fast enough for the average person to figure out he’s being screwed, then there will be riots in the streets.
The good news for precious metals investors is that either scenario is bullish for gold and silver.
If the Fed pushes this insanity to the point of hyperinflation, precious metals will quickly be seen as a form of money that can purchase the same amount of goods week-after-week, month-after-month.
If there is tightening, prices might stabilize, but the federal government and its banking cartel will likely go bankrupt in tandem. That means no bailout money will be forthcoming, no FDIC insurance can be paid, and banks may go on holiday for lack of reserves. This is what happened in Iceland in 2008, when its big banks had debts 10X the size of the country’s GDP. There was no way for the government to offer a bailout, so the whole edifice came crashing down. While the 320 thousand citizens of Iceland didn’t make a big dent in the currency markets during this transition, you better bet the 320 million citizens of the United States will.
As we’ve seen in cases like Argentina’s in the ’90s and Hungary’s in the ’40s, when the banking system freezes, hard assets trade at a premium. Gold and silver coins may be at a disadvantage in terms of convenience in an era of credit cards and Paypal, but what happens when those funds are no longer available? Already, regulations and lower profit margins have driven banks to add fees to debit card transactions. Not to mention that every digital transaction is traceable by the tax authorities.
If everyone starts to carry rolls of cash everywhere, it’s not a big leap to carry coins. A silver coin the size of a dime is currently worth about $3.50. Two could buy you lunch.
While I believe a tightening and national default would put the US on the road to recovery, the transition period will be messy. Bread lines, rampant foreclosures, and a spike in crime are likely results. In this situation, gold and silver may be the only things people can count on. In fact, they are likely to not only hold their value, but dramatically appreciate as millions of people flood the metals market and the dollar economy deleverages. In plain English: maybe it will only take one of those dime-sized silver coins to buy lunch. Maybe that coin will buy lunch for you and a friend.
Bernanke and his Wall Street supporters see cheap money until the horizon – but that horizon is really a painted brick wall. So it’s not QE-Infinity, it’s QE until the Fed either recognizes the brick wall and slams on the brakes, or doesn’t and crashes into it. Either way, the only way to get off this locomotive is to invest in hard assets.
Where is the gold price today? If you’re like many Americans, you have no idea whether it went up, down, or sideways. Fortunately, I know my readers to be more informed – you likely know that after falling from almost $1900, gold has been trapped around $1600 since early May. But you may still be curious why despite continued money-printing and abysmal US economic reports, gold hasn’t been able to hit new highs.
Here’s the truth: gold is currently priced for collapse. Many investors believe the yellow metal has topped out and are selling into every rally.
Nerves of Tin
Being a gold investor is tough business. The last thing any government or corrupt big bank wants is to have a bunch of people putting their savings into hard assets – and gold is one of the hardest of all. So we’re constantly up against tides of propaganda saying that gold has no value or is the refuge of doomsayers.
The effect of this is that even heavy gold investors are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. When house prices were rising, no one was worried that the market had peaked or prices were unsustainable. No one was asking whether all the thin-walled McMansions going up would actually be worth anything in a generation. But for gold, Wall Street has been shorting it all the way up!
Nowhere is this pessimism more evident that in gold mining stocks. Rising inflation has driven production costs higher, but the mistaken belief that inflation is contained and Treasuries are a safer haven is keeping a lid on gold prices. As such, many of the major producers have missed their earnings projections, and their share prices have been punished. This has placed a cloud over the entire sector. In fact, the P/E ratios of major gold miners are near record lows. Stock prices reflect future earning expectations, and judging by the low P/Es, Wall Street expects future earnings to plummet. This likely reflects their bearish outlook for gold, which is generally viewed as a bubble about to pop.
Chronic Memory Loss
Unfortunately, there is no public validation for those who have proved the gold doubters wrong. A couple of years ago, I predicted gold would cross $1500 and even my own staff thought the call was too risky, too extreme. But I knew then, as I know now, that at the end of the day the gold price is not a mystery – it’s a proxy for dollar weakness.
Since most investors do not truly understand gold’s economic role, they assume the 10-year bull market must be a mania. But manias show parabolic growth detached from any fundamental driver. The definition of a mania is the bidding up of an asset quickly and beyond all long-term justification.
Gold, however, has grown steadily in inverse correlation with real interest rates, as explained by Jeff Clark and Mark Motive in past issues of this newsletter. As a reminder, here’s a chart detailing the correlation:
The Opportunity of the Decade
After spending the previous fall and winter testing new nominal highs above $1800, future investors may come to view spring and summer 2012 as the opportunity of the decade. Gold has shown its strength and retreated. While most investors will take that as a signal that the market has topped, some will take advantage of the general trepidation to add to their positions at hundreds of dollars off the highs.
While I think gold is a bargain at $1900 considering today’s circumstances, the market phobia of a price collapse is allowing us to buy at well under established highs. It’s as if you already wanted to go swimming, but you found out when you got there that the pool was heated.
What Happens Next
I’ve seen markets like this before, and by making some reasonable inferences, I have a good picture of how this could play out. Gold will continue testing the $1600 barrier until it surprises to the upside. This could be spurred by the announcement of QE III, a calming of fears in Europe, or any shock to the Treasury market. Treasuries have temporarily overtaken gold as the primary safe-haven asset. Once that dynamic is broken, I believe the counterflow into gold will be tremendous.
Right now, there is a haze over investors. Frightful news from Europe and a slowdown in Asia have shaken confidence in any asset that doesn’t have the steady track record of US debt. But as I often remind my clients, past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. Any news that wakes investors up to the coming collapse of the Treasury market will likely trigger a rush into the one asset with a track record as long as civilization itself.
Prepare For Collapse
The key to this market is to understand that a price collapse is coming – but not for gold. Instead, the market for US dollars and dollar-denominated debt is headed off a cliff, which will send the price of precious metals soaring.
Now is a time for uncommon confidence. Everyone knows Treasuries to be safe, just as they knew house prices would always rise. Then as now, gold’s value and utility are doubted. But my readers know better.
Gold has been holding steady in the the $1,600-$1,800 band since early October. This could be attributed to consolidation after last summer’s historic run up to $1,895, but I think this wait-and-see attitude reflects current market sentiment toward the US dollar.
In fact, the first few days of April have seen a sharp dollar rally and decline in gold. This is rooted in deflated expectations of a third round of Quantitative Easing (QE3) after the most recent Fed Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting. Once again, the markets are responding to the headlines while losing sight of the fundamentals.
This is especially peculiar because the Fed did not explicitly take QE3 off the table. In fact, according to the minutes, if the recovery falters or if inflation is too low, the Fed is already prepared to launch QE3. While there is not much chance of low inflation, I’ll explain below why the recovery is not only going to falter – it’s going to evaporate like the mirage that it is!
The Obama Administration is touting recent job growth, and while this is a pleasant story to hear in an era of massive unemployment, it disintegrates when put in context. The 227,000 jobs gained – which merely kept the unemployment rate steady at 8.3% – were counterbalanced by a much worse trade deficit tally: $52.4 billion, the highest level since just before ’08 crash.
The trade deficit is a real measure of whether our jobs are producing enough wealth to pay for our consumption. If we were adding productive jobs, I would expect the deficit to be shrinking. A look at the data shows that employment increased by only 16% in the primary and secondary sectors, where we need them the most. The majority of new jobs are still inflated sectors like healthcare (26%), temp work (20%), hospitality (19%), and consulting (16%), which will disappear as fast as they appeared when the bubble collapses. This is what we saw in finance and real estate when the housing bubble burst in ’08.
Imagine the trade deficit is like a corporate balance sheet. You hire a bunch of new employees for your company, but instead of making bigger profits, you find yourself losing even more money than when you started. Are you going to hold on to those people?
While President Obama is focused on jobs, the Fed has been promoting a recent round of “stress tests” that show the financial system to be in good shape. Unfortunately, yet again, the headlines are not what they seem.
The recent tests were designed to measure big banks’ ability to survive another significant drop in housing and stock prices; but those bubbles have already largely popped. What the tests failed to account for is what I consider the most likely scenario: rapidly rising interest rates amidst a dollar crisis.
Interest rates are the real risk. I think the Fed knew the banks would fail this test, so they simply ignored it. It wouldn’t be the first time the Fed has turned a blind eye to a bubble market. For years, Chairman Bernanke and other Fed officials denied the housing bubble existed; and as late as 2008, well after it popped, they assured us the damage would be contained.
Supporters say the Fed knowingly didn’t account for interest rates because the central bank has complete control over them. Many in Washington and on Wall Street honestly believe that the Fed can continue to print money to buy Treasuries without increasing inflation. A scenario in which the Fed is forced to choose between US government bankruptcy and US dollar collapse seems impossible.
In fact, higher interest rates are not only possible, but probable. The stress tests assume long-term Treasury note yields stay under 1.8%; but that figure is the current six-month low on the 10-year, which is already dragging along its historical floor. As I write, yields are already up to 2.2%. The post-war average is about 5.2% – high enough to crater today’s banking system.
Remember, the rate needed to break the back of inflation in 1981 was a whopping 20%. At that level, there wouldn’t be federal tax money left for the military, Medicare, Social Security, or even law enforcement – it would all be going to interest payments.
Even now, interest rates are a complete farce. In 2011, the Fed purchased 61% of new Treasury debt, compared to virtually none before the financial crisis started. This shows that at current rates, demand for US debt is already drying up.
Extended Interest Rates Pledge
It should be no surprise, then, that the Fed has paradoxically celebrated economic recovery while pledging to keep interest rates near zero through 2014.
First, even with an economic recovery, these low rates will continue to drive precious metals higher. Anyone who says this “recovery” will sink the gold market is misunderstanding what drives the gold prices – inflation.
Second, the Fed wouldn’t be keeping rates so low if the recovery were genuine. If I say to you, “Yes, you can now ride a bike,” but I refuse to take off the training wheels, would you believe me?
The truth is that Bernanke knows the recovery is phony and is using inflation to mask it. This bodes doubly well for gold.
Another fever notion is that inflation isn’t really a threat, no matter what the Fed does. This is borne of the belief that “deflationary forces” are so strong that no amount of printing will overcome them. Core CPI figures are cited as proof.
Last quarter, Core CPI was up only .01% in February (the latest figure). This sounds low until you add in food and fuel – then it jumps to .04%, yielding an annualized figure of over 5%. This is well above the Fed’s self-proclaimed target of 2% per annum, yet we hear no explanation or apology.
The reality is even worse, as the true rate of inflation as calculated by independent observers is closer to 10%. This means you can expect gold to rise 10% per year just to maintain your purchasing power.
Consider the price of gas which is almost $4 a gallon. President Obama is pledging to release oil from the strategic reserves to keep the price down – but it’s not a supply problem. Those reserves are for a short-term crisis that disrupts the oil supply, but there is no disruption – oil is flowing. Oil production in the US is the highest it has been since 1993 and consumption is down below ’97 levels due to the recession. After all, there’s no reason to buy gas to commute if you’re unemployed.
The problem is inflation making the money we use to buy gas worthless. Proof? A couple of pre-’65 silver dimes can still buy you a gallon of gas, while a couple of post-’65 base metal dimes won’t even buy you a pack of gum in the convenience store.
The dollar has lost so much value that the government actually loses money on every penny it creates. Not because they’re made of copper, that became too expensive long ago. They’re actually made of zinc – a metal so cheap it’s priced by the metric ton – and they’re still too expensive.
So, where’s the inflation? Everywhere!
Recovery Fever Will Be Broken
It’s becoming very easy for a skeptical observer to poke through the veil of recovery. Unfortunately, most market participants still seem to hang on Uncle Sam’s every word. This is a great danger for our economy and a great opportunity for the wise investor.
When an asset like gold moves sideways for a while, even those with good instincts get complacent. They start to view this as the “price level” rather than an extended dip below true valuation.
Recovery fever will wear off as Washington is forced to release propaganda that is more and more incongruous with facts on the ground. And gold will resume its climb in earnest.
Recently, the stock market has been roaring, with the S&P 500 up a stunning 22% from October 3, 2011, which was the low of last year. In fact, the first month of 2012 has been one of the best Januaries on record for US stocks. On top of that, last Friday’s better-than-expected jobs report seems to provide further evidence that we’re turning a corner.
All this comes as a relief to the financial media, who had little to crow about in 2011. They are quickly making up for lost time. Many are highlighting the fact that major stock indexes are now approaching levels that will overcome all the losses that occurred since the financial crisis erupted in full view in September of 2008. Others are now claiming we’re really three years into a bull market, saying it began in March 2009 when US stocks finally hit bottom after losing more than half their value.
However, there are many reasons to question the bestowal of bona-fide “bull” status on this market. It’s hard to miss the artificial props in place to push up prices. Everyday investors haven’t been blind to these, and are thus highly skeptical of the market. So, both the supply and demand sides of the equation are standing on shaky foundations.
Few investors have forgotten the carnage of 2008 and 2009, when a panic of epic proportions came about with little warning from the experts. Then, as now, most professional economists and analysts predicted clear sailing for months and years ahead.
Even with the modestly better GDP and employment figures, there is now a much wider appreciation for the possibility of a financial meltdown than there was back in 2007. This is especially true given the unresolved problems in Europe and the possibility of debt contagion spreading across the West. These fears weigh down on equities, despite the continuing growth in corporate earnings.
Then again, investors likely regard corporate earnings themselves with increased scrutiny. Given the current low-interest rate environment, many are justifiably suspicious of the longer-term sustainability of those earnings. Indeed, corporate revenues have been enhanced significantly by massive layoffs and lower product quality. Meanwhile, fearing political uncertainty surrounding taxation and regulations, corporations continue to accumulate cash. Some companies have taken advantage of low rates to lock-in long-term debt capital. While these may be wise decisions, such moves do little to set the stage for future growth.
Last week, the ECB decided to fall in line with the Fed in its efforts to avoid recession. It is now more widely accepted that if recession continues to deepen in Europe, money will be created on a massive scale. It will be circulated covertly by the ECB’s distribution network of banks to bail out governments, the banking system itself, and, most likely, major EU corporations.
It is also increasingly likely that problem countries within the eurozone will accept German ‘overseers’ to run their governments along more prudent lines. In Greece, the government finances, the economic budget, and the currency are now under the effective control of Germany.
On the surface at least, these measures render the eurozone’s problems less acute. This has lent support to US stock markets. But the fiscal centralization and torrent of new euros will have a long-term cost.
Meanwhile, in January, the Fed announced that it would keep US interest rates at historic lows until at least the end of 2014. This prospect has added to the enthusiasm for risk. However, by continuing to deny the existence of inflation, despite growing visible evidence, Bernanke is building a gargantuan new bubble that can’t be ignored.
Although stock markets offer the possibility of upside gain and inflation protection, it is hard for investors to shake their fears of economic uncertainty. Many long for the day when stock markets can rise on their own accord without massive support from central bankers, and when the fears of overzealous government regulators do not dominate risk analysis. They want stocks, they just don’t trust these stocks. It is in their interest not to let the present euphoria overcome their justified caution.