The Bronze Swan Arrives: Is The End Of Copper Financing China’s „Lehman Event“?

In all the hoopla over Japan's stock market crash and China's PMI miss last night, the biggest news of the day was largely ignored: copper, and the fact that copper's ubiquitous arbitrage and rehypothecation role in China's economy through the use of Chinese Copper Financing Deals (CCFD) is coming to an end.

Copper, as China pundits may know, is the key shadow interest rate arbitrage tool, through the use of financing deals that use commodities with high value-to-density ratios such as gold, copper, nickel, which in turn are used as collateral against which USD-denominated China-domestic Letters of Credit are pleged, in what can often result in a seemingly infinite rehypothecation loop (see explanation below) between related onshore and offshore entities, allowing loop participants to pick up virtually risk-free arbitrage (i.e., profits), which however boosts China's FX lending and leads to upward pressure on the CNY.

Since the end result of this arbitrage hits China's current account directly, and is the reason for the recent aberrations in Chinese export data that have made a mockery of China's economic data reporting, China's State Administration on Foreign Exchange (SAFE) on May 5 finally passed new regulations which will effectively end such financing deals.

The impact of this development can not be overstated: according to independent observers, as well as firms like Goldman, this will not only impact the copper market (very adversely) as copper will suddenly go from a positive return/carry asset to a negative carry asset leading to wholesale dumping from bonded warehouses, but will likely take out a substantial chunk of synthetic shadow leverage out of the Chinese market and economy.

Naturally, for an economy in which credit creation is of utmost importance, the loss of one such key financing channel will have very unintended consequences at best, and could potentially lead to a significant "credit event" in the world's fastest growing large economy at worst.

But before we get into the nuts and bolts of how such CCF deals operate, and what this means for systemic leverage, we bring you this friendly note released by Goldman's Roger Yuan overnight, in which Goldman not only quietly cut their long Copper trading recommendation established on March 1 (at a substantial loss), but implicitly went short the metal with a 12 month horizon: a huge shift for a bank that has been, on the surface, calling for a global renaissance in the global economy, and in which Dr. Copper is a very leading indicator of overall economic health and end demand.

From Goldman:

Closing: Long LME copper September 2013 contract at $7,482/t, a $236/t (3.1%) loss

 

Following the initial sell-off in copper prices in the second half of February 2013, we established a long copper position at $7,718/t in the September contract (on March 1, 2013). We believed that the fall in copper prices, reflecting in part concerns about Chinese activity, was overdone. We reiterated this view on April 22, post further substantial price declines. Since then, prices have rebounded strongly, with the September contract closing at $7,482/t on May 22, up by 10% from the May 1 low of $6,808/t.

 

The emergence of the risk that CCFDs unwind over the next 3 months – we had assumed that deals would continue indefinitely – has complicated our near-term bullish copper view (from current prices). On the one hand, our fundamental short-term thesis is playing out – copper inventories are drawing, copper’s main end-use markets in China are growing solidly (property sales +39% yoy, completions +7% yoy, auto’s output +14% yoy Jan-April 2013), seasonal factors are currently supportive, Chinese scrap availability is tight, positioning also remains short, and policy risks are, arguably, mildly skewed to the upside.

 

Set against this is the likely near-term unwind in CCFDs and, critically, our view that copper is headed into surplus in 2014 (the window for higher copper prices is shortening). On net, we now see the risks to our 6-mo forecast of $8,000/t as skewed to the downside, and, in this context, we unwind our September long copper position at $7,482/t, a $236/t (3.1%) loss, given the recent strong rally in LME prices to near our 3-mo target of $7,500/t. Additionally, we believe that a further rally in copper prices in the near term would be a good selling opportunity taking a 12-month view [ZH: translated: short it].

 

Consumers: We believe that consumers will have a better opportunity to enter the copper market to buy taking a 12-month view. Following the recent sharp sell-off in zinc we are increasingly bullish on the outlook from current prices and as such believe consumers should take advantage of current low levels.

 

Producers: Our base case of a sharp slowdown in growth of Chinese construction completions in 2014, in the context of above-trend supply growth, presents significant longer-term downside risks to global copper demand growth and prices. Therefore we continue to believe that any further rallies in the copper price in 2013 represent a good opportunity to hedge, and in our view other non-producer market participants should continue to monitor any copper positions in light of the 2014 downside risks.

 

So just what is the significance of CCFDs? As it turns out, it is huge. Goldman explains (get a cup of coffee first: this is now a simple walk-thru):

The combination of Chinese capital controls and a significant positive domestic (CNY) to foreign (USD) interest rate differential has, in recent years, resulted in the development and implementation of large scale ‘financing deals’ which legally arbitrage the interest rate differential via China’s current account. These Chinese ‘financing deals’ typically use commodities with high value-to-density ratios such as gold, copper, nickel and ‘high-tech’ goods, as a tool to enable interest rate arbitrage. With the notional value of the deals far exceeding the export/import value of the commodities used, and likely significantly contributing to the recent run-up in China’s short-term FX lending (and related upward pressure on the CNY), China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) announced new regulations to address these issues (May 5), to be implemented in June.

SAFE’s new policies are, in our view, likely to bring these Chinese ‘financing deals’ to an end over the next 1-3 months. Having said this, some uncertainty remains around the implementation of the new policies by SAFE and Chinese banks, the speed at which the policies impact the market, and the possibility that new financing deals are “invented”. Owing to these uncertainties, a complete unwind of CCFDs is still at this point considered a risk.

In this note we provide a full example of a typical deal and discuss our understanding of the impact of an unwind in Chinese Copper Financing Deals (CCFDs) 1 on the copper market.

 

Our view is that the bulk of copper stored in bonded warehouses in China – at least 510,000t at present, as well as some inbound copper shipments into China – is being used to unlock the CNY-USD interest rate differential. This material has not been entirely unavailable to the market (deals can be broken if costs rise, such as a tightening of LME spreads), but the inventory has been effectively financed by factors exogenous to the copper market for some time.

 

We find that a complete unwind of CCFDs would be bearish for copper prices as the copper used to unlock the differential would shift from being a positive return/carry asset to a negative carry asset for those who currently hold it. As such this inventory will likely become more ‘available’ to the global market. Initially stocks would likely move into the Chinese domestic market to ease the current tightness, until the current SHFE price premium to LME closes.

 

After the SHFE-LME price arbitrage closes sufficiently, the remaining bonded stock (over and above day-to-day working flows) would likely shift from bonded warehouses to the LME. We expect that the ex-China (LME) market would likely see inventory increases as a result, as China draws on bonded stocks instead of importing and as excess bonded stocks are shifted back on to the LME. We estimate that the ex-China market will need to ‘carry’ a minimum of 200-250kt of additional physical copper over the coming months, equivalent to 4%-5% of quarterly global supply. The latter would most likely result in a widening contango, including downward pressure on cash prices.

 

Specifically, the current LME 3-15 month contango is 1.1%, compared to full carry of c.3%-3.5%.

 

The emergence of this bearish risk – we had assumed that deals would continue indefinitely – complicates our near-term bullish copper view. Indeed, our fundamental short-term thesis is unfolding – copper inventories are drawing, copper’s main end-use markets in China are growing solidly (property sales +39% yoy, completions +7% yoy, auto’s output +14% yoy over the Jan-April 2013 period), seasonal factors are currently supportive, and scrap availability in China is reportedly tight. Positioning also remains short, and policy risks may be mildly skewed to the upside (ECB meeting June 6 and FOMC meeting June 18-19).

 

The other factors that have recently supported a rebound in copper prices have been mine supply disruptions at Grasberg in Indonesia (c.480kt for 2013E), and the threat of further strikes in Chile ahead of the Chilean elections and at Grasberg ahead of contract negotiations (the current labour contract ends in September). Our forecast 2013 disruption allowance of 5.8%, or c.900kt is designed to account for these kinds of developments, and so far this year our allowance looks reasonable, meaning that these disruptions are not set to impact our overall balance forecast.

 

Set against this is the likely near-term unwind in CCFDs and, critically, our view that copper is headed into significant surplus in 2014 (the window for higher prices is shortening). On net, we now see the risks to our 6-mo forecast of $8,000/t as skewed to the downside. In this context, we unwind our September long copper recommendation at $7,482/t, a 3% loss.

If you haven't shorted copper after reading the above.... we suggest you re-read it.

Ploughing on: below is the reason for SAFE's new dramatic regulations, and why China decided to go ahead and kill CCFD, unintended consequences be damned:

China’s foreign currency reserves have risen significantly since the start of the year, placing upward pressure on the CNY (Exhibit 1). This development prompted SAFE, China’s regulator of cross-border transactions, to announce a new set of regulations on May 5, to be implemented in June.

 

 

The new regulations can be split into two parts, and broadly summarised as follows:

 

a) The first measure targets Chinese bank balance sheets. This measure aims to:

 

i) Directly reduce the scale of China’s FX loans, thus reducing the scale of letter of credit (LC) financing (bank loans), thereby reducing the volume of funding available for CCFDs (though not specifically targeting CCFDs); and/or

 

ii) Raise banks’ FX net open positions (banks are required to hold a minimum net long FX position at the expense of CNY liabilities), thus raising LC financing costs, thereby increasing the cost of funding CCFDs.

 

Specifically, Exhibit 2 shows that SAFE aims to implement a bank loan to bank deposit ratio of 75%-100% going forward, compared to an existing ratio of  >150%.

 

 

b) The second measure targets exporters and/or importers (‘trade firms’) by identifying any activities that mainly result in FX inflows above normal export/import backed activities (i.e. trades for the purpose of interest rate arbitrage, amongst others). This measure would force entities to curb their balance sheets if they are found to be involved in such activities.

 

Since May10 SAFE has been requesting ‘trade firms’ provide detailed information of their balance sheets and trading records, in order to categorize them as either A-list or B-list firms by June 1, 2013. B-list firms will be required to reduce their balance sheet significantly by cutting any capital inflow related trade activities.

 

To avoid being categorized as a B-list firm by SAFE, ‘trade firms’ may reduce their USD LC liabilities in the near term, with CCFDs likely impacted. It is not yet clear what happens to the B-list firms once they are categorized as such. However, if B-list firms were prohibited from rolling their LC liabilities this could increase the pace of the CCFD unwind, since these trade firms would likely need to sell their liquid assets (copper included) to fund their LC liabilities accumulated through previous CCFDs.

 

These new regulations are likely to impact a number of markets and market participants. In this note we focus on the impact on CCFDs and the copper market. Should a) and b) be enforced, copper financing deals are highly likely to be impacted.

* * *

That explains China's macro thinking. But what does it mean for the actual Copper Financing Deal? The below should explain it:

An example of a typical, simplified, CCFD

 

In this section we present an example of how a typical Chinese Copper Financing Deal (CCFD) works, and then discuss how the various parties involved are affected if the deals are forced to unwind. Exhibit 3 is a ‘simplified’ example of a CCFD, including specific reference to how the process places upward pressure on the RMB/USD. We believe this is the predominant structure of CCFDs, with other forms of Chinese copper financing deals much less profitable and likely only a small proportion of total deal volumes.

 

A typical CCFD involves 4 parties and 4 steps:

  • Party A – Typically an offshore trading house
  • Party B – Typically an onshore trading house, consumers
  • Party C – Typically offshore subsidiary of B
  • Party D – Onshore or offshore banks registered onshore serving B as a client

Step 1) offshore trader A sells warrant of bonded copper (copper in China’s bonded warehouse that is exempted from VAT payment before customs declaration) or inbound copper (i.e. copper on ship in transit to bonded) to onshore party B at price X (i.e. B imports copper from A), and A is paid USD LC, issued by onshore bank D. The LC issuance is a key step that SAFE’s new policies target.


 

Step 2) onshore entity B sells and re-exports the copper by sending the warrant documentation (not the physical copper which stays in bonded warehouse ‘offshore’) to the offshore subsidiary C (N.B. B owns C), and C pays B USD or CNH cash (CNH = offshore CNY). Using the cash from C, B gets bank D to convert the USD or CNH into onshore CNY, and trader B can then use CNY as it sees fit. 

 

The conversion of the USD or CNH into onshore CNY is another key step that SAFE’s new policies target. This conversion was previously allowed by SAFE because it was expected that the re-export process was a trade-related activity through China’s current account. Now that it has become apparent that CCFDs and other similar deals do not involve actual shipments of physical material, SAFE appears to be moving to halt them. 

 

Step 3) Offshore subsidiary C sells the warrant back to A (again, no move in physical copper which stays in bonded warehouse ‘offshore’), and A pays C USD or CNH cash with a price of X minus $10-20/t, i.e. a discount to the price sold by A to B in Step 1. 

 

Step 4) Repeat Step 1-Step 3 as many times as possible, during the period of LC (usually 6 months, with range of 3-12 months). This could be 10-30 times over the course of the 6 month LC, with the limitation being the amount of time it takes to clear the paperwork. In this way, the total notional LCs issued over a particular tonne of bonded or inbound copper over the course of a year would be 10-30 times the value of the physical copper involved, depending on the LC duration. 

 

Copper ownership and hedging: Through the whole process each tonne of copper involved in CCFDs is hedged by selling futures on LME futures curve (deals typically involve a long physical position and short futures position over the life of the CCFDs, unless the owner of the copper wants to speculate on the price).

 

Though typically owned and hedged by Party A, the hedger can be Party A, B, C and D, depending on the ownership of the copper warrant.

As Goldman further explains, the importance of CCFD is "not trivial" - that is an understatement: with the implicit near-infinite rehypothecation in which the number of "circuits" in the deal is only a factor of "the amount of time it takes to clear the paperwork", there may be hundreds of billions, if not more, in leverage resulting from this shadow transaction that has been used in China for years. Now, that loop is about to end. The reality is nobody can predict what the impact will be, but whatever it is - i) it will extract tremendous leverage from the system and ii) it will have adverse impacts on both China's ability to absorb inflation and grow its economy.

How important are CCFDs? They are not trivial!

 

Chinese ‘financing deals’, including CCFDs, are likely to contribute to China’s FX inflows since they involve direct FX inflows through China’s current account. Specifically, for CCFDs, the immediate cross-border conversion of FX to onshore CNY after Party C pays Party B for the copper warrant (Step 2) directly contributes to China’s FX inflows. In terms of outflows, the issuance of LC (FX short-term lending) by Party D to Party A (Step 1) is not associated FX outflow by definition, and when the LCs expire they tend to be rolled forward. Step 3 occurs offshore, so there is no inflow/outflow related to this transaction.

 

In this way, the net Chinese FX inflows/outflows associated with CCFDs are equivalent to the change in the value of the notional LCs. We make some broad estimates of how much of China’s short-term FX lending could be accounted for by CCFDs.

 

Specifically, our best estimate suggests that roughly 10% of China’s short-term FX lending could have been associated with CCFDs since the beginning of 2012 (Exhibit 4). In April 2013, we estimate that CCFDs accounted for $35-40 bn (stock) of China’s total short-term FX lending of $384 bn (stock), making various assumptions. More broadly, Chinese bonded inventories and short-term FX lending has been positively correlated in recent years (Exhibit 5).

 

Two key questions remain: how the upcoming unwind will impact each CCFD participant entity...

How an unwind may impact each CCFD participant

 

As we discussed on pages 4 and 5, SAFE’s new regulations target both banks’ LC issuance (first measure) and ‘trade firms’ trade activities (second measure). Here we discuss how the different entities (A, B, C, D) would likely adjust their portfolios to meet the new regulations (i.e. what happens in a complete unwind scenario).

 

Party A: Party A, without the prospect of $10-20/t profit per Step 1-3 iteration, is likely to find it hard to justify having bonded copper sitting on its balance sheet (the current LME contango is not sufficient to offset the rent and interest costs). As a result, Party A’s physical bonded copper would likely become ‘available’, and Party A would likely unwind its LME short futures hedge.

 

Party B, C: To avoid being categorized as a B-list firm by SAFE, Party B and C may reduce their USD LC liabilities by: 1) selling liquid assets to fund the USD LC liabilities, and/or 2) borrowing USD offshore and rolling LC liabilities to offshore USD liabilities. The broad impact of this is to reduce outstanding LCs, and CCFDs will likely be affected by this. It is not yet clear what happens to the B-list firms in detail once they are categorized as such. However, if B-list firms were prohibited from rolling their LC liabilities this would increase the pace of the CCFDs unwind. In this scenario, these trade firms would have to sell their liquid assets (copper included) to fund their LC liabilities accumulated through previous CCFDs.

 

Party D: To meet SAFE’s regulations, Party D will likely adjust their portfolios by reducing LC issuance and/or increasing FX (mainly USD) net long positions, which would directly reduce the total scale of CCFDs and/or raise the LC financing cost, respectively.

... And what happens to copper prices (hint: GTFO)

Implications for copper - bonded copper moves from a positive carry asset to negative carry asset

Implications for copper - bonded copper moves from a positive carry asset to negative carry asset

 

We expect that a complete unwind of CCFDs, everything else equal, is likely to be bearish for copper prices, LME spreads, and bonded premiums.

 

CCFDs involve a long copper physical positions and a short futures position on the LME. The physical position would be sold if CCFDs unwound and the short futures positions bought back. The newly available physical copper would not be financed by the China and ex-China interest rate differential anymore (not a positive carry asset anymore), and would instead need to be financed by a natural contango (in the interim copper becomes a negative carry asset), everything else equal.

 

Theoretically then, the physical market, over a short period (say, one quarter), may need to absorb as much as c.400kt of copper, equivalent to 8% of quarterly global copper supply.

 

By contrast, the LME futures market would need to absorb buying of c.0.2%-0.3% of quarterly traded LME volumes and c.6% of daily average 2012 open interest. The impact on the physical market is therefore likely to be relatively large, in spite the fact that an unwind of CCFDs does not result in the creation of new copper (i.e. aggregate global copper inventory impact is 0/our inventory chart does not change).

 

What about in practice?

 

Since there are no comparable historical examples to make reference to, what happens when CCFDs unwind in practice is open for debate. We believe that since the downward pressure on the physical market is large, both in absolute terms and relative to the upward pressure on the futures market, near-term prices are likely to come under relatively significant pressure. Further, if the market fears the unwind of CCFDs, physical buyers may hold off on purchases, and futures sellers may bet on lower prices (offsetting either in part or more than offsetting the financing deal related unwind buying). In this way it is likely that in practice the whole copper price curve would be under pressure in the case of a complete CCFD unwind, at least until the contango widens sufficiently to compensate for the cost of carry.

 

We see the following as a likely chain of events in a complete unwind scenario:

  • China would draw on bonded until it is ‘full’. In the current market bonded copper stocks will likely initially flow into the domestic Chinese market, since SHFE prices are above LME prices, with the SHFE curve in backwardation and LME in contango.
  • Chinese imports fall/remain low, placing upward pressure on LME stocks. Since China is drawing bonded inventories to meet its demand, Chinese copper imports are likely to be under downward pressure beyond May, resulting in any excess material ex-China turning up on the LME as well (Exhibit 7). Remaining bonded stocks (ex-stocks in transit), would shift to LME. Once China is ‘full’ (i.e. the import arbitrage closes, bonded physical premia decline, SHFE price and curve softens), the remaining excess bonded inventory will likely make its way on to the LME. Since China is in deficit at present (drawing bonded and SHFE inventories, SHFE in backwardation), due in part to seasonal factors, the inventory numbers noted above, in practice, will likely be smaller but still very large. Our best estimate would be a minimum of 200,000-250,000t of stock could shift/build on the LME over the next 2-3 months, or 4%-5% of quarterly global consumption.
  • LME contango to widen. Higher LME stocks suggest higher LME copper spreads, including downward pressure on the front end. Exhibit 8 illustrates that over the last 6 years, the buildup of LME inventory has been consistently associated with widening LME spreads into contango, and the scale of contango is mostly driven by financing cost and inventory levels. With excess copper flowing into LME warehouses, the spread needs to widen further to finance the carry trade effectively. For reference, LME annual rents are c.$150/t or 2% of copper prices. Assuming an annualized financing cost of 1%-1.5%, full carry is c.3%-3.5%, compared to current LME 3-15 month contango of 1.1%.

 

The main caveat to the above is that a complete unwind in CCFDs is still subject to the implementation of the policy by SAFE, Chinese banks and ‘trade firms’, and the possibility that new financing deals are “invented”. As a result, we will continue to closely monitor implementation of the policy by banks via monitoring bonded physical premiums, SHFE spreads and bonded stock flows.

Finally, what does all this mean for explicit rehypothecation chain leverage (initially just at the CCFD level although a comparable analysis must be done for systemic as well) and CCFD risk exposure:

Leverage in CCFDs

 

Below is a demonstration of the LC issuance process in a typical CCFD. Assuming an LC with a duration of 6 months, and 10 circuit completions (of Step 1-3) during that time (i.e. one CCFD takes 18 days to complete), Party D is able to issue 10 times the copper value equivalent in the form of LCs during the first 6 month LC (as shown from period t1 to t10 in Exhibit 10). In the proceeding 6 months (and beyond), the total notional value of the LCs remains the same, everything else equal, since each new LC issued is offset by the expiration of an old one (as shown from period t11 to t20).

 

In this example, total notional amount of LC during the life of the LC = LC duration / days of one CCFD completion* copper value = 10. In this example, the total notional amount of LC issued by Party D, total FX inflow through Party D from party A, and total CNY assets accumulated by party B (and C) are all 10 times the copper value (per tonne).

 

To raise the total notional value of LCs, participants could:

  • Extend the LC duration (for example, if LC duration in our model is 12 months, the notional LC could be 20 times copper value)
  • Raise the no. of circuits by reducing the amount of time it takes to clear the paperwork
  • Lock in more copper

 

Risk exposures of parties to CCFDs

 

Theoretically, Party B risk exposure > Party D risk exposure > Party A risk exposure

 

  • Party B’s risks are duration mismatch (LC against CNY assets) and credit default of their CNY assets;
  • Party D’s risks are the possibility that party B has severe financial difficulties. (they manage this risk by controlling the total CNY and FX credit quota to individual party B based on party B’s historical revenue, hard assets, margin and government guarantee) (Party D has the right to claim against party B (onshore entity), because party B owes party D short term FX debt (LC)). If party B were to have financial difficulties, party D can liquidate Party B’s assets.
  • Party A’s risk is mainly that party D (China’s banks) have severe financial difficulties (Party A has the right to claim against party D (onshore banks), because Party A (or Party A’s offshore banks) holds an LC issued by party D). In the case of financial difficulties for Party B, and even in case Party D has difficulties, Party A can still get theoretically get paid by party D (assuming Party D can borrow money from China’s PBoC).

In brief (pun intended): a complete, unpredictable clusterfuck accompanied by wholesale liquidations of "liquid assets", deleveraging and potentially a waterfall effect that finally bursts China's bubble, all due to a simple black swan. Although, in reality, nobody knows. Just like nobody knew what would happen when the government decided to let Lehman fail.

So... is this China's Lehman?

The Brent Oil Contract is a Sham!

By EconMatters  

 

 

Oil Benchmark 

 

It is a sad state of affairs that the entire world of energy, and consumer energy prices are all based upon a fraud of an energy contract masquerading as the Industry`s Benchmark, setting the price for all other grades. 

 

Monthly Rollover Ramp

 

Here is an idea of how manipulated the Brent Oil contract that trades mainly on the ICE exchange is we are at rollover time once again in the Brent oil contract and sure enough as day, the contract is moved up substantially right before expiration. 

 

This happens almost every rollover, and is impossible to do in a non-deliverable market without precise market manipulation. 

 

Always Positive Rollover Carry

 

The other common feature of the Brent contract is the expiring month is always higher by a dollar, dollar and a half, than the contract for the next month without fail. Again this happens every single rollover without fail, and again very hard to “naturally occur”. 

 

It might be reasonable in the old days, or in a market that was partly physical deliverable that you would have times that exhibit Contango features that would account for this price differential. 

 

No Physical Delivery 

 

But this happens every time, and the old rules of Contango and Backwardation don`t apply to purely paper markets as there is no need from one month versus the next for “stronger demand” as nobody ever takes delivery of a Brent contract of oil. There is no demand for near term oil contracts due to supply shortages in the oil market.

 

The only reason for this price differential which always occurs and is heavily manipulated is to ensure for a positive rollover effect for the big players in the market.

 

 

No Rollover Risk equals much easier to invest capital in the market

 

Why lose money if in basically an unregulated space you can just move up the front month at expiration so that when you sell to close out the position on the front month at a higher price, and buy the next month to reestablish a position at a lower price you have a positive built in rollover. 

 

Makes the risk of investing in oil with an always positive carry much less. It is a scam of major proportions when you factor in how many years this has been going on in the ICE market.

 

Not fully credentialed to be a Benchmark for anything

 

However, that isn`t the only thing that doesn`t pass the smell test with the Brent contract. The main problem is the Brent contract is illegitimate and should not serve as a founding basis for any price discovery.

 

It trades on essentially an unregulated market with little or no accountability in regards to transparency. And this contract is setting the price of oil for the entire oil supply chain.

 

Represents what Storage Facilities?

 

First of all the Brent contract needs to be tied to actual oil inventories in Europe so that supplies can actually be tracked and evaluated on a historical basis. 

 

For example, WTI is based upon oil inventories at Cushing Oklahoma, which can actually be tracked in a weekly report, and reported by an independent government agency in the EIA, for Brent to become a legitimate Oil contract it needs to do the same. 

 

Needs to be actually Regulated

 

Or frankly regulators need to force the ICE exchange to do so or discontinue the futures contract, as it has become far too important at setting world oil prices to remain in this non-transparency illegitimate status. 

 

Independent Governmental Agency Reporting of Supply Data

 

So once actual inventories of oil supplies are attached to the Brent Contract, there needs to be an independent government agency like the EIA in the US which collects data on an independent basis and provides weekly, quarterly, and annual reports on oil stockpiles.

 

We live in the Information Age

 

We do live in the modern age of increased technology, data collection, and transparency with unprecedented access to all types of information. 

 

ICE exchange has no incentive to change status quo without Regulatory Pressure

 

It is about time that the ICE exchange is forced by regulators to come into this century, especially given the important role that Brent has become as a benchmark for setting price in the oil markets, and thus derivatively gasoline and heating oil markets, by being forced to comply with these aforementioned instrumental changes, or be forced out of the market. 

 

Brent is so much easier to Rig than WTI: This attracts Fund Flows

 

You want to know the real reason that the Brent market has traded at so high a premium to WTI, and became so popular by the major players in the oil trading and investment community? 

 

It is because the contract is based on “nothingness” has no supervision by regulatory authorities, completely non deliverable, represents no actual storage facilities, no data tracking, has no independent weekly status reports, a forever positive carry, no transparency, and very easy to manipulate. 

Fund Inflows Set Price not the Fundamentals Anymore

 

Moreover, since oil prices are not set by the fundamentals of supply and demand, price is solely determined by fund flows, i.e., investment capital goes into a commodity it goes up, investment capital goes out of a commodity it goes down.

 

“Asset Class” Investing has a built-in Long Bias

 

I know theoretically capital inflows could come into a market and price could go down, i.e., they could all go short, but for various reasons these shorting periods are relatively few and far between in the modern era of oil trading. 

 

The same reason investment capital for the S&P 500 has a long bias applies to oil markets as well in the modern era of asset class investing. Funds want exposure, and the modern definition of an “asset class” by investors is inherently long biased. It is just how it actually plays out, theoretically it doesn`t have to, but it just does.

 

The Dirty Little Secret of the Brent Premium to WTI

 

So given this state of affairs, and prices have no real attachment to the fundamentals of supply and demand, fund inflows into the futures market increase price, and consumers all over the world pay for end use products based upon these fund inflows, not the fundamentals. 

 

So the dirty little secret why the Brent Contract is so much higher than WTI is it attracts more fund inflows by the large players who want exposure from an investing standpoint to the commodity, thus increased fund attractiveness equals increased prices, and a much larger premium to WTI than would otherwise be the case.

 

It all has to do with fund inflows, and the deleterious effects for consumers play out in the following: Fund inflows into Brent, Finished Petroleum Products pegged to Brent Price, Consumers pay higher prices with no change in the fundamentals of supply and demand in the marketplace. 

Given the slow growth economy, consumers should be getting a break at the pump!

 

We have gone from a supply and demand market to a funds flow market and this really sucks for consumers. 

 

This is where the regulators are supposed to step in and protect consumers. After all, this is part of what governments can offer citizens for taking substantial pieces of their income via taxes.

 

But the regulators to date have been unwilling to step in and regulate the oil markets, and consumers and businesses will continue to pay more than they should for gasoline and heating oil products in the marketplace. 

 

ZERO-SUM Game in Oil Markets

 

However, what sucks for one group is often great for another constituency, and for large banks, hedge funds, and financial institutions that have been known to rig a market wherever and whenever they can, this ICE exchange traded Brent Oil contract is a dream come true for their needs.

 

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2012 Year In Review – Free Markets, Rule of Law, And Other Urban Legends

Submitted by Dave Collum via Peak Prosperity,

Background

I was just trying to figure it all out.

~ Michael Burry, hedge fund manager

Every December, I write a Year in Review that has now found a home at Chris Martenson’s website PeakProsperity.com.1,2,3 What started as a simple summary intended for a couple dozen people morphed over time into a much more detailed account that accrued over 25,000 clicks last year.4 'Year in Review' is a bit of a misnomer in that it is both a collage of what happened, plus a smattering of issues that are on my radar right now. As to why people care what an organic chemist thinks about investing, economics, monetary policy, and societal moods I can only offer a few thoughts.

For starters, in 33 years of investing with a decidedly undiversified portfolio, I had only one year in which my total wealth decreased in nominal dollars. For the 13 years beginning 01/01/00—the 13 toughest investing years of the new millennium!—I have been able to compound my personal wealth at an 11% annualized rate. This holds up well against the pros. I am also fairly good at distilling complexity down to simplicity and seem to be a congenital contrarian. I also have been a devout follower of Austrian business cycle theory—i.e., free market economics—since the late 1990s.4

Each review begins with a highly personalized analysis of my efforts to get through another year of investing followed by a more holistic overview of what is now a 33-year quest for a ramen-soup-free retirement. These details may be instructive for those interested in my approach to investing. The bulk of the review, however, describes thoughts and observations—the year’s events told as a narrative. The links are copious, albeit not comprehensive. Some are flagged with enthusiasm. Everything can be found here.5

I have tried to avoid themes covered amply in my previous reviews. There is no silver bullet, however, against global crises, credit bubbles, and feckless central bankers. Debt permeates all levels of society, demanding comment every year. Precious metals and natural resources are a personal favorite. This year was particularly distorted by the elections; I offer my opinions as to why. Sections on Baptists, Bankers, The Federal Reserve, and Bootleggers describe the players in Jack Bogle’s Battle for the Soul of Capitalism.6 Special attention is given to a financial crime diaspora fueled by globally overreaching monetary policies. Everything distills down to a relentlessly debated question: What is the role of government? I finish light with the year’s book list that shaped my thinking. I acknowledge individuals who have made pondering capitalism a blast through direct exchanges over the years. They brought wisdom; I brought the chips and dip. You already know who you are. And then there are those characters whose behavior is so erratic, sociopathic, criminal, or just plain inexplicable—you guys are central to the plot. I leapfrog Rome and Titanic metaphors and go straight to the Lusitania.

One last caveat: I subscribe to the Aristotelian notion that one can entertain ideas without necessarily endorsing them, often causing me to color way outside the lines. With trillions of dollars circumnavigating the globe daily, nefarious activities are not only possible but near certainties. If you are prone to denounce conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists to avoid unpleasant thoughts, you should stop reading now. I’m sure there’s another Black Something sale at Walmart. If you are a bull, you should also bail out or buckle up. This is the bear case. I will remain a permabear until some catharsis knocks me off my stance and they find a cure for my market- and politics-induced PTSD.

As this review was being completed, Lauren Lyster and Demetri Kofinas recently uploaded a companion interview on the Year in Review I did with Capital Accounts on RT_America (to be aired on December 21st and posted on Youtube.)7 In this context I offer wisdom from the Master:

If there is ever a medium to display your ignorance, television is it.

~ Jon Stewart

Footnote superscripts appear extensively throughout this review. The actual footnotes and associated hyperlinks can be found here.

Contents

Investing

The elevated prices of financial assets have already eaten the future.

~ John Hussman, CEO of Hussman Funds

With rebalancing achieved only by directing my savings, I have changed almost nothing consequentially in my portfolio year over year. The total portfolio as of 12/15/12 is as follows:

Precious Metals et al.: 52%

Energy: 15%

Cash Equiv (short-term): 30%

Other: 3%

Most asset classes lurched off the starting line in January like Lance Armstrong. My portfolio eventually settled down and spent most of the year snorkeling slightly up or slightly underwater. In a relatively rare instance, an overall return on investment (ROI) of 4% was beat handily by both the S&P 500 (13%) and Berkshire Hathaway (17%), although nearly the entire return of the S&P was p/e expansion.8 A majority of hedge funds struggled to beat the S&P this year as well.9

My precious metals are distributed in approximately three equal portions to the gold-silver holding company Central Fund of Canada (CEF), Fidelity’s precious metal fund (FSAGX), and physical metals (Figure 1). Gains in gold (17%) and silver (8%) were offset by a horrendously lagging performance for the second year in a row by the corresponding precious metal-based equities (-10%). The metal-equity divergence began in January 2011 and continues to baffle the hard-asset crowd (Figure 2). A plot of the ratio of the silver ETF (SLV) versus the world’s largest silver miner, Pan American Silver (PAAS), is striking (Figure 3). In May I emailed a dozen gurus for opinions about arbitraging (swapping) an SLV position for PAAS. Realizing that collectively these folks controlled billions of dollars, I felt I had to move on the idea pronto (my only portfolio change for the year). After a few weeks of an overwhelming sense of superiority, gyrations eventually left the arbitrage at about break-even. I’m guardedly optimistic about the precious-metal equities, but they have been widowmakers for two years.

Figure 1. Precious-metal-based indices (GLD in green, XAU in red, SLV in brown, and XAU in red) versus the S&P 500 (in blue) for 2012.

Figure 2. Relative performance of gold-based equities (XAU in red) vs. gold (GLD in blue).

Figure 3. SLV/PAAS ratio over three years.

A basket of Fidelity-based energy and materials funds afforded 2-16%. They are represented emblematically by the XLE spider (3%) and XNG Amex natural gas index (1%) in Figure 4. I am wildly bullish on natural gas for reasons discussed in detail two years ago.2 Unfortunately, Fidelity’s natural gas fund (FSNGX) foisted upon me by Cornell got crushed in 2009 and subsequent years relative to its peers. Making the right calls is hard enough without that kind of headwind. New management as of 2010 seems to be finally tracking the XNG. I keep adding to an already chunky position. Friends deeply embedded in the energy complex suggest that the fracking glut will take 2-3 years to burn off. (It is also claimed that the derivatives traders are whacking out the price discovery; what else is new?)10 A global shift toward natural gas should reward patience.

Figure 4. Energy-based indices (XLE in red and XNG in green) versus the S&P 500 (in blue) for 2011.

Cash was in a U.S. Treasury-backed money-market bunker returning 0%. I had a $25K money market fund that failed to reach the IRS taxable threshold! I could care less what risky gangplank Bernanke wishes that I walk. Buying ten-year Treasurys returning <2%, with or without your finger quivering over the sell command, is a fool’s game: I’ll take the yield hit. The bond market will eventually become a killing field. Those who are pair trading—long bonds/short brains—will get their organs harvested. This seems like a near certainty.

The most disappointing part of the year was a personal savings equivalent of only 11% of my gross income compared with 29% last year and 20-30% in typical years. Unusual expenses in the form of a year of college education, a serious violin upgrade, and very large landscaping costs don’t excuse the fact that we chose lower savings over lower consumption. This troubles me deeply. Profound austerity is not a cause but an effect, something the Europeans may be just now figuring out.

To understand my lifetime returns, you must understand two unusual premises that have dominated my thoughts and actions. First, you must become wedded to an investment. Did I just say that? Yep. You’ve got to be a true believer to resist being shaken out of good investments or suckered into bad ones. Many say it’s never a bad time to take a profit. Total hooey. Those ten-baggers—the miracles of compounding—will never materialize if you bail after 20%. Just ask the Microsoft investors who exited in 1990 for a handsome profit.

My second premise is that you have to get it right only about once a decade. One of my favorite bloggers and an e-pal, Grant Williams, illustrated how daisy-chaining four secular bull markets—Gold, Nikkei, NASDAQ, and Gold—could have produced a virtual return of 640,000%—a 6400-bagger (Figure 5).11 Admittedly, this kind of luck is only found in Narnia. Statistically, somebody might have done this, although not likely in such a Texas Hold’em all-in fashion.

Figure 5. Sequential investments in secular bull markets starting in 1970.11

My variant of such a sequential trek via imbalanced portfolios changed in decadal rhythms as follows:

1980-88: exclusively bonds (100%)

1988-99: classic 60:40 equities:bonds

1999-2001: cash, precious metals, shorts (minor)

2001-2012: cash, precious metals, energy, tobacco (minor)

My total wealth accumulated through a combination of savings and investment as shown in Figure 6. (I redacted the dollar amounts along the y-axis.) Avoiding 1987 and 2000 equity crashes and capturing the bull market in precious metals proved fortuitous. You can see that 2008 was the only down year. Berkshire has dropped five years since 1991. A 13-year accumulation rate beginning 01/01/00 of 11% annualized compares favorably to an annualized return on the S&P of -0.03% and on Berkshire of 7%.

Figure 6. Total wealth accumulated (ex-housing) versus year of employment. Absolute dollar values have been omitted.

I also monitor overall progress by what I call a salary multiple, which is defined as the total accumulated investable wealth (excluding my house) divided by annual salary (line 22 of the 1099 form excluding capital gains). Over 33 years my salary (actually total income) rose twelve-fold, which I can fairly accurately dissect into a fourfold gain resulting from inflation and a threefold gain (relative to starting salaries of newly minted assistant professors) due to increasing sources of income and merit-based pay raises. My accumulated wealth normalized to the moving benchmark of a rising income is plotted versus time in Figure 7. The fluctuations visible in Figure 7 not apparent in Figure 6 result from income variations.

Figure 7. Total wealth accumulated measured as a multiple of annual salary versus years of investing.

To clarify the origins of a 13-year return of 11% per year I offer Figure 8. By plunging into the precious-metal and energy sector early and avoiding all other forms of investments (S&P in particular), I was able to capture the entire hard-asset bull market. According to Money magazine’s calculator,12 I can spike the ball in the endzone and dance. They are wrong. My ultimate target—a valid target—is to accumulate 20 salary equivalents over the next 12 years (age 70). This will require an inflation-adjusted (real) annual growth of 4-5%. Some of that will come from savings. As you can tell by the Hussman quote and discussions below, however, such gains are not assured.

Figure 8. Plot of Central Fund of Canada (CEF; 1:1 gold:silver by value), XLE, and S&P.

Thinking About Capitalism

When the blind lead the blind get out of the way.

~ First grader

I realize that is what I do—I think about capitalism. It’s not deep stuff; more like taking a weed whacker to a hay field of information. This year, however, there was something askew—something corrupting the information flow. It was the presidential elections. This is a good starting point.

Election Year

No serious person would question the integrity of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These numbers are put together by career employees.

~ Alan Krueger, White House Council of Economic Advisers

To a news and economic data junkie, presidential elections are profoundly distorting. The news feeds are inundated by election analyses that are mundane at best and nauseating on a bad day. It’s a variant of Gresham’s Law—bad information pushes out good. The pundits are either talking about the elections explicitly or couching potentially credible news stories in the context of the election. Terrorist attacks in Benghazi mutate into Obama’s Big Screw Up. The news feeds are further corrupted by billions of campaign dollars spent to deceive us. Frank Rich, award-winning New York Times journalist, estimates that George Bush had 120 “journalists” on payroll. They get overtime and hazard pay during elections. The shenanigans go deeper.

There have been numerous accusations of voter fraud. From my recollection, it was mostly the left accusing the right (the CEO of Diebold in particular). A window opened when the mischievous computer hackers, Anonymous, did a smash-and-grab on Stratfor’s server, obtaining over 5 million emails. Stratfor provides confidential intelligence services to large corporations and government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Marines, and U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. From 971 emails released to date (by Wikileaks), we find that Democrats stuffed the ballot boxes in Pennsylvania in 2008 that went unchallenged by McCain. Jesse Jackson shook down Obama for a six-digit payoff.13 Emails detailing the Bin Laden capture are worth a peek.

The most insidious election year distortion may be the tainting of economic data feeds that the marketplace relies on. Data coming from career statisticians in the federal government are always suspect. The inflation numbers, for example, are widely believed to be cooked beyond recognition using corrections recommended by the Boskin Commission.14,15 This year, however, the data massaging morphed into an all-out rub ‘n’ tug to ensure a happy ending for the Democrats.

The data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) are especially susceptible to corruption. The Birth-Death Model, for example, estimates new jobs being created that nobody can detect.16 Apparently, the absence of data demands that some get fabricated. These embryonic jobs have reached epidemic proportions—hundreds of thousands per month—oftentimes overwhelming the detectable jobs. Curiously, no administration ever fabricates undetectable job losses.

Another trick is a very simple iterative process for reporting statistics: Step 1—Announce inflated economic statistics as good news; Step 2—correct the inflated statistics at some later date to a very deflated number, hope nobody notices, and call it “old news anyway”; Step 3—Report new inflated numbers that are spectacular improvements relative to the recently deflated statistics. Rinse, lather, repeat.17

The fibbing gets serious during an election year. When pre-election unemployment numbers plummeted by 0.4%—a monumental drop—the response was immediate, visceral, and seemingly uncontestable disbelief. David Rosenberg expressed it well:

I don't believe in conspiracy theories, but I don't believe in today's jobs report either.

~ David Rosenberg, Gluskin Sheff and ex-Merrill Lynch

Well, Rosie, apparently you do believe in conspiracy theories. Within minutes of the report Jack Welch, no neophyte to creative bookkeeping, released his now-infamous Tweet:

Unbelievable jobs numbers...these Chicago guys will do anything... can't debate so change numbers.

~ Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric

It was an election year, however, so the goofy employment numbers morphed into a hot-button issue. Right-wing pundits accused the Obama administration of cooking the books. Left-wing pundits fired back with the shrill accusation, “Conspiracy theorists!” Few remembered that the GOP accused the Democrats of cooking the same numbers back in 2003.18

The whole sordid affair took a strange turn when Zero Hedge noted an odd mathematical relationship between the two carefully measured employment statistics:

Measured employment numbers:

fully employed/partially employed = 873,000/582,000 = 1.5000…

Gosh. What are the odds that those numbers were actually measured? I would say about 2.000…%.19

Counting those who no longer receive unemployment benefits as no longer unemployed, an accounting gimmick that became chronic once the crisis began, by no means was invented by Team Obama. None of this is new. LBJ was rumored to send economic statistics back to the kitchen for more cooking. The U-6 unemployment numbers account for that mechanical engineer who is now a part-time “deposit bottle recycling engineer and firewood procurement officer.” U-6 is a more accurate measure of the employment stress and is staying persistently above 14%.20

Election year pandering may contribute to a very odd stock cycle.21,22 If you break the 20th and 21st century into 27 four-year fragments corresponding to the election cycle—2009-2012 being the most recent—and average the returns, you get what is called the Presidential Election Cycle (Figure 9). What causes this cycle? One cannot exclude the role of friendly central bankers (sado-monetarists) juicing the markets. Mitt Romney, when he promised to fire Bernanke, may have sealed his fate.

Figure 9. Four-year election stock cycle throughout the 20th century.21

Maybe the four-year cycle in Figure 9 is a statistical anomaly and, even if real, we may not have a clue why it occurs. Nevertheless, it suggests that “Sell in May and go away” has a longer wavelength variant: “Buy the midterm and sell the Presidential.” Urban legend or not, 2013 is looking dangerous.

Events

Dan, quit embarrassing yourself.

~ Caroline Baum of Bloomberg Tweeting to a money guru who claimed that Hurricane Sandy will be stimulative

Acts of God—force majeure—tantalize market watchers and sophists alike but seem to have little effect on even the intermediate term: Economies and markets just keep marching forward. Katrina took its toll and irreparably altered lives, but it primarily illustrated government doing a heckuva job. Hurricane Sandy also exacted revenge against the civilized world (and New Jersey). It may portend things to come, should global warming live up to its billing. There is no doubt that corporations will use Sandy as an excuse for anything and everything. Q4 and year-end reports will have more Sandy-derived debris (including kitchen sinks) than dumpsters along the Jersey shore. Sandy also ushered in like clockwork the absurd claims that Frédéric Bastiat was wrong and that smashing windows and destroying infrastructure is good for the economy. Sandy will increase the GDP, but that is not economic gain. Sandy will be a bump in the road for the nation at large.

As I write this paragraph, cremnophobia—fear of cliffs—is sweeping the land. I submit that base-jumping the Fiscal Cliff may be exciting but doubt it will be some proximate trigger that causes cascading failure. The move to substantially greater austerity seems inevitable and likely to be painfully protracted—think Japan. The Fiscal Cliff would be a fumble on our own ten-yard line. It is just one down in a very, very long game. Regardless of outcome, this will be a topic for my 2013 Year in Review.

Broken Markets

A strange game. The only winning move is to not play.

~ The W.O.P.R. computer on “Wargames”

Since Cro-Magnon Man began trading flint, furs, and women, there have been nefarious activities in the marketplace. Painting the tape—moving markets at the end of a quarter to dupe customers—is tolerated. The pop icon Jim Cramer spilled his guts describing how players of even modest means can push prices around.23 I bet Jim would like a do-over on that video. Options expiration week is always exciting, as the options dealers purportedly move the equities to minimize payouts on the heavily leveraged options to maximize pain on the plebeians. Insider trading is a death sentence for a nobody, but is a misdemeanor for the big bankers. When caught, the going rate on the punishment of investment banks is a 3-5% surcharge on the profit from the illicit trade. One can only imagine how much it would cost us in punitive rebates if the criminal behavior caused a loss.

In general, however, blaming markets for your losses is a fool's game. Nonetheless, something has changed. The Federal Reserve—the Fed—has explicitly stated a vested interest in both the magnitude and direction that markets move, abandoning all willingness to let markets determine prices. These guys are playing God, taking full possession of our hopes and dreams. In analogy to global warming, their loose monetary policy jacks up prices with markedly increased volatility and enormous social costs. Kevin Phillips’ 2005 American Theocracy is a brilliant account of the demise of Western empires. He notes that the final death rattle is the financialization of the economy. When moving money becomes the primary economic activity, the end is near. Let’s look at some of the symptoms.

The high frequency traders (HFTs a.k.a. “algos” or cheetah traders) have really upped their game. The title of this section stems from Sal Arnuk’s and Joe Saluzzi’s book Broken Markets, which describes the seedy world of supercomputers skimming enormous profits. It is consensus that HFT’s are profitable for the trading platforms but of little merit otherwise. They gum up the system intentionally to garner advantage and dump millions of fake quotes to be cancelled within milliseconds.24 None of this is legal, but all is tolerated. They are now trading for razor-thin profit margins of as little as $0.00001 skim per share but making it up on volume—dangerously large volume. One Berkshire Hathaway trade—a $120,000 per share stock—is rumored to have netted $10 total (0.8 cents per share).25

The markets are now at great risk. We should not expect that profiteers benefit society. We can demand that they don’t bring the entire system to its knees. I got my ten seconds of fame in an article describing the consequences of the legendary Flash Crash on May 6th, 2010:26

Wall Street is a crime syndicate, and I am not speaking metaphorically... The banking system is oligarchic and the political system has metastasized into state capitalism. The most important market in the world—the market in which lenders and borrowers meet to haggle over the cost of capital—is the most manipulated market in the world.

~ David Collum, WSJ

Flash crashes are now daily occurrences, as thoroughly documented by market research firm Nanex, and are not restricted to any one market. India tanked 15% in a few minutes.27 The precious metals appear to be a favorite playground: “At 1:22 p.m. SLV was forced down by rapid-fire machine-generated quotes—more than 75,000 per second.”28 Berkshire Hathaway—Berkshire Hathaway!—dropped from $120,000 a share to $1 for a few milliseconds.29 Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) commissioner Bart Chilton says that the “third largest trader by volume at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) is one of these cheetah traders in Prague."30 (Bart appears to be a supporter of clean markets, though I remain distrustful.) On August 1st, 150 stocks swung wildly. In a heavy dose of irony, the wildest—a 40% swing—was a company called Bunge.31 The monstrous oil market flash crashed when a 50-fold spike in trade volume hit the tape.32 Some fear a flash crash in the unimaginably large U.S. Treasury market.33

Irony reached a fevered pitch when BATS Global Markets (BATS), the third largest trading platform behind NYSE and NASDAQ, listed their own IPO.34 Their primary customers—the cheetah traders—drove the share price from $16 to 1 cent in 900 milliseconds, forcing the cancellation of the IPO. Knight Trading, while beta-testing their own HFT algo, released it to the wild. While the traders snarfed down celebratory mochaccinos, a pesky sign error caused the HFT algo to buy high-sell low for a very long 45 minutes.35 One of the most respected trading firms in the business was shopping itself to potential buyers within 24 hours. The standard excuse for erratic market behavior—Disney-like “fat-fingered traders” hitting the wrong key on a trade—became comical alibis for deep-seated structural flaws in the markets.

We have a huge problem. Don’t take my word for it. Let’s listen to what some of the pros have to say:

All this trading creates nothing, creates no value, in fact, subtracts from value.

~ John Bogle, inventor of the index fund

Essentially, the for-profit exchanges are approving their own rule changes. The lunatics are now running the asylum.

~ Joe Saluzzi, cofounder of Themis Trading

 High-speed trading, if we may get our two cents in, is a dubious activity to label as a technological advance.

~ Alan Abelson, Former Editor of Barrons

Not all IPOs flash-crashed; some simply beat investors like rented mules using more traditional methods. I had an entertaining Twitter exchange with Sal Arnuk, cofounder of Themis Trading and coauthor of Broken Markets, on May 18th just hours before the now-infamous Facebook IPO:

David Collum:

@nanexllc @joesaluzzi @themisSal A Facebook flashcrash to $0.01 would be fun and educational for the whole family.

Sal Arnuk:

@DavidBCollum doubt that....prepping for weeks

The rest is history. Facebook didn’t flash crash, but weeks of prepping were inadequate. Facebook crashed the NASDAQ market for 17 very long seconds, which is a lifetime when measured in algo years.36 The high-profile Facebook IPO—technically a secondary offering—managed to maximize Facebook’s capital by selling shares into the market near its all-time high. Underwriter Morgan Stanley took a beating (possibly billions) defending the opening price of $38 before watching it drop, eventually reaching the teens. Isn’t “defending shares” illegal? While Morgan Stanley was getting hammered, the other underwriters, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, were loaning shares into the market for shorting.37 Despite a huge outcry from those hoping for an IPO opening day bounce, I found this all highly entertaining and a good lesson in risk management. Investors hoping for easy money discovered that IPO stands for “it’s probably overpriced.” Facebook also spawned a cottage industry of Mad Libs (Fraudbook, Faceplant, Farcebook…)

A lesser known IPO failure causing a stir was Ruckus (RKUS), dropping 20% on the opening and blaming it on Hurricane Sandy.38 Splunk’s (SPLK) IPO was halted after it hovered at $32 and then plummeted to $17 on a 500-share trade.39 They eventually dropped 30% in an orderly slide. IPOs from the not-so-distant past that continue to inflict pain include post-IPO losses for ZYNGA (-80%), Groupon (-90%), and Pandora (-60%). Investment-grade Beanie Babies and CPDOs sound good by comparison.

The markets are broken. It’s only a matter of time before the vernacular phrases FUBAR and SNAFU will reassert into our language. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge as a metaphor for instability has been around the web for years, but is well worth a peek.40

Precious Metals

They (gold investors) want everybody to be so scared they run to a cave with gold. Caves might be a better investment than gold. At least they’re not producing new caves all the time.

~ Warren Buffett

Those elements here and abroad who are getting rich from the continued American inflation will oppose a return to sound money.

~ Howard Buffett

Let’s stay on the theme of broken markets as a transition into a discussion of precious metals. Bill Murphy and the folks at the Gold Antitrust Action Committee (GATA) obsess over powerful and dark forces. Declassified documents showing overt attempts to restrain the price of gold provide a few smoking guns.41,42,43,44 The Hunt brothers grotesquely misjudged the silver market and willingness of bankers to trigger margin calls and drive them to bankruptcy.45

By the early 2000s even novice market watchers could see that central bank selling into the open market could have price suppression as a motive. Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown participated in the most famous market timing fiasco by emptying much of Britain’s gold stash below $300 per ounce.46 That got him promoted to Prime Minister.

Then there is the very strange phenomenon of central bank leasing of gold. I surmise that the idea was presented to the populace as a way to make money from the shiny yellow metal that just sits there in vaults. Why not lease it? The gold carry trade commenced, but lease rates are fractions of a percent per annum.47 No profit motive there. Central bank leasing of gold to the large bullion banks—the Too Big to Fail group—at a fraction of a percent interest seems to serve two purposes: (1) provide essentially free capital to the banks, and (2) apply downward pressure on the gold price. Rumor has it they are going to stop publishing the leasing rates.

The game began to falter in 2001 when neither the announcement of British bullion sales nor the actual sales dropped the price, commencing a decade-long run in the metals. That is not to say the central banks have given up. Sudden and repeated margin hikes at the COMEX trapped the levered longs, and affiliated mob-like hits by insiders became commonplace. A rumored huge silver short position by JP Morgan-Chase (JPM) may lurk beneath the London Whale saga. JPM’s commodity guru, Blythe Masters, began denying the silver short as the whale story started to surface, claiming that JPM’s silver positions were simply hedges for their customers.48 Why would silver bulls hedge their investments? Data from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency brought to light by Rob Kirby eventually showed that JPM has a whopping $18 billion naked short position in silver,49,50 corresponding to 50% of the estimated global above-ground silver supply.51 Is it any wonder that silver gets “monkey hammered” with some regularity by the invisible hand? Naked shorting on such a scale is both illegal and reckless.52 To the extent that JPM is at risk, taxpayers are at risk. CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton unabashedly claims that big money with outsized short positions are moving the silver market, although he won’t name names yet and hasn’t done squat.53 Let me help you out Bart: Start with JPM.

I am wildly bullish about the metals going forward. Gold and silver’s returns look like a normal year within a secular bull market [editor's note: this section was written by David  prior to this week's smackdown of the precious metals]. Precious metals investors waited with baited breath as a descending triangle starting in mid-2011—a classic chart pattern recognized in technical analysis (TA)—marched to judgement day (Figure 10). Folklore says when the highs and lows converge, the price will resolve boldly to the upside or downside. OK. That sounds really stupid, but that’s state-of-the-art TA. In any event, it seems like gold took the 50% probability route to the upside thanks to an auspicious goose from more quantitative easing (QEIII). But that’s just T&A (chart porn) for the gold bugs.

Figure 10. Descending triangle and “resolution.”

The future is unknowable, yet $85 billion per month of QE IV is most definitely bullish for tangible assets. Central bankers around the World are printing around the clock. Of course, the usual cast of top callers were braying about a top. Notable gold bears included Warren Buffett hammering gold in the Berkshire Hathaway annual report, quickly followed by a show of support from his poker buddy Bill Gates. Buffett wrote an article entitled “Why Stocks Beat Gold and Bonds” and then promptly bought a gold-mining company.54 Charlie Munger again displayed his tin ear with a decidedly anti-Semitic quote about gold (not worthy of repeating, only criticizing). There are credible arguments against gold, some better than others. An optimist might believe that central bankers will begin to behave themselves…but only in the land of unicorns and Skittles rainbows. Some claim it is a crowded trade. Many argue that gold has been a horrible inflation hedge. To this I note that shovels and bulldozers both move dirt but are very different tools. Equities and gold have similarly differentiated roles as inflation hedges.

Secular (multi-year) bull markets are said to attract investors in three specific phases: (1) first arrivals are wing nuts and whack jobs and precede anybody in their right mind, (2) the smart money arrives once the bull offers evidence there is serious money to be made, and (3) retail investors—the rabble—show up in the final phase. Once group (2) sells to group (3) in what is euphemistically called “distribution,” the invisible hand of the market throws a toaster oven in the pool and the bodies start floating to the surface. This year was dominated by smart-money gold supporters with gravitas and serious bucks. Hedge fund managers supporting gold with dire warnings of monetary chaos included luminaries George Soros, John Paulson, David Einhorn, Jim Rogers, Ray Dalio, and Kyle Bass. Einhorn and Dalio both took special care to condemn Buffett’s gold bash.51,52 Bill Gross, head of PIMCO with almost two trillion dollars under management, noted gold “will be higher than it is today and certainly a better investment than a bond or stock, which will probably return only 3% to 4% over the next 5 to 10 years.”53 Bill has caught the fever. Billionaires Hugo Salinas Price and Eric Sprott are avid precious metal investors and devout believers in organized price suppression.

Central banks became net buyers starting in 2009 after years of selling and have been increasingly aggressive (Figure 11).54 (I call central bankers both “smart money” and “feckless”; I’m still working on resolving that paradox.) Chinese and Korean central bankers have explicitly stated gold is the only safe asset.55 Such reports are picking up in intensity. Other events seemed new to 2012. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has flipped to net buyer.56 South Korea, Paraguay, Turkey, Vietnam, and Russia all increased their gold holdings. Iran swaps oil for gold with China and Turkey.57,58

Figure 11. Central bank gold purchases

What made this year so interesting was the part occurring below the surface. Gold may soon be designated a Tier 1 asset.59 Banks are required to maintain minimum balances of Tier 1 assets to ensure the safety of the system. (They need to work on that.) When the next credit crisis arrives, rather than selling gold to raise Tier 1 assets, banks will be incented to buy gold. It is beginning to act like a currency. The ramifications are multifold.

For the first time, we are beginning to hear discussions of some form of gold standard. It would probably be a variant of the gold-exchange standard of the early 20th century. I would be satisfied if gold was simply allowed to compete for supremacy in the open market. The most important step would be to pass gold legal-tender laws, which are at various stages in a dozen states.60 (This could elicit a states’-rights battle.) Rendering gold’s price change denominated in dollars as a non-taxable event would be the big move. Bernanke tried to take on the push for a gold standard in a series of lectures at George Washington University.61 I found his arguments unpersuasive, exactly what you would expect from a guy who believes that profound monetary injections and inflation are valid monetary tools. The gold standard seems like a distant possibility given the Republicans endorsed the idea in their platform; we know they lied—their lips moved. The counter argument stems from a survey showing 37 prominent economists all opposed a gold standard; 37 economists couldn’t possibly be right.62

One could dismiss discussions of a gold standard if it were not for the second really interesting topic—global gold movements. Let’s be clear, this story is muddled. There are three variants of gold conspiracy theory that may (or may not) lay the foundations:

(1) Thesis 1: Gold exists in the vaults of the Fed and Fort Knox, but we don’t own it anymore. We are told that the gold possession is as simple as a forklift moving a pallet from one wall to the next within the same vaults. Doubts about ownership are exacerbated by the unwillingness of the authorities to independently audit the gold since the 1950s despite calls for it from Congress. This is odd by any standard.63

(2) Thesis 2: The gold in the vaults is of a substandard quality. This idea is way out there but cannot be summarily dismissed. What does low quality actually mean? Supposedly we have delivered sub-standard gold on a number of occasions.64 There were rumors years ago that the gold in the bank of England was reported to be “flaking,” leading one intrepid analyst to declare that it doesn’t matter “provided they don’t try to sell it.”65 Oh, I just wet myself. As a chemist, I can assure you if it flakes it ain’t gold and that analyst-dude is a perma-doofus. Tungsten-impregnated gold surfacing in retail gold markets has fueled speculation that the central banks are hoarding tungsten.66 The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if the occasional fake gold bar would be good for tamping down an incipient gold mania.

(3) Thesis 3: There is no gold.67 The claim that the gold is missing holds a certain logic. If the Fed leased physical gold to the bullion banks and these banks sold it into the open market for beer money, then it’s gone.68 It is very odd that the Fed pools the physical metal and the leased metal on a single line of their self-reported balance sheet (to save space, I guess).69

The status of sovereign gold stashes is unclear. Here’s where it gets really interesting. Sovereign states are starting to repatriate their gold—they want to bring it home. It started in 2011 when our close friend and ally Hugo Chavez requested 100 tons returned to Venezuela, with a correlated spiking of the spot-price of gold and gold backwardation. (Backwardation is a grammatical abomination indicating that short-term demand for a commodity is high and commodity traders flunked English.) Demand began in earnest starting in the Netherlands and spreading to other postage-stamp-size countries Paraguay, Ecuador, Vietnam, Switzerland, and Germany.70,71 Germany? Germany may be growing weary of sharing a fiat currency with the PIIGS—Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain (vide infra).

It seems like gold is coming out of the closet. My concern is that we will quickly move from fear of deflation to disquieting inflation culminating in uncontrolled inflation. If the dollar goes south fast, do you think investors will seek safe-haven in another fiat currency? Those who headed to Swiss Francs got their heads handed to them this year in an instantaneous 10% debasement.72 There must have been some forex traders doing laps around the drain that morning. I cannot rule out a run on fiat currencies—a collapse of the entire Bretton Woods currency system. Mitigating such tail risks would not be completely irrational. Am I saying that this time it’s different? No. I am saying our fiat currency will join the other fiat currencies as historical footnotes.73 As the insane posters at Zero Hedge like to say about gold, BTFD (buy the dips).

Resources and Energy

I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.

~ Thomas Edison (1931)

Eventually the point is reached when all the energy and resources available to a society are required just to maintain its existing level of complexity.

~ Joseph Tainter, author of Collapse of Complex Societies

The resource sector provides me with a potential inflation hedge and represents a bet on a secular change in energy availability, all the while allowing me to pretend to be normal. In previous years I have endorsed Chris Martenson’s Crash Course with unbridled enthusiasm—a must see,74 which emphasized the case for increasingly constrained oil production, and delineated my enthusiasm for natural gas equities.1,2,3 Many of my views have not changed.

Investment giant Jeremy Grantham continues to actively warn of acute resource depletion. He submits that rapidly rising raw material prices are not a bubble but rather a civilization-altering paradigm shift.75 Simply put, we are depleting everything. The CEO of Gulf Oil, in a decidedly ambiguous statement, noted that “oil consumption in the next seven years is not going to grow and could drop off as much as 15%."76

Suggestions of constrained oil supply continue to work their way into the mainstream. Data shows Saudi production has remained remarkably constant. Many doubt they can ramp it or even sustain it. The former vice president of Saudi Aramco warns of unwarranted optimism that price hikes stem from “the reality that the oil sector has been pushed to the limit of its capabilities.”77 There are claims that the Saudis will be net importers by 2030 but from whom?78 David Greely of Goldman Sachs indicated that it is only a matter of time before “OPEC spare capacity become[s] effectively exhausted, requiring higher oil prices to restrain demand.”79

Other Goldmanites suggest that “a disturbing pattern has emerged where each tentative recovery in the world economy sets off an oil price jump that, in turn, aborts the process… Oil has become an increasingly scarce commodity. A tight supply picture means that incremental increases in demand lead to an increase in prices, rather than ramping up production. The price of oil is in effect acting as an automatic stabilizer.”80 A hyperbole-free interview of prominent oil economist James Hamilton sheds light on a world facing tighter supplies.81

A counter-argument to all these gloomy views came in a report via Bloomberg stating that the U.S. will pump “11.1 million barrels of oil a day in 2020 and 10.9 million in 2025.”82 This may be true, but anybody who projects oil production a dozen years from now to three significant figures has credibility issues. That did not stop viral dissemination across the Twittersphere.

Some suggest that natural gas will fuel our economy for hundreds of years. Others say the case is wildly overstated: Bakken wells lose 90% production within five years.83 Still others focus on the environmental catastrophes and legal boondoggles affiliated with fracking. It seems clear that, come hell or high water, we are going to frack, and we are going to witness a secular shift to a natural-gas-dependent economy. It would be great if this works and does so without environmental calamity. I am agnostic on both. The equity valuations are tame, especially given the current razor-thin profit margins that are projected to expand.84 I continue buying the equities betting that powering the globe will be profitable.

Fresh water and, by direct correlation, food face huge supply issues in China, the U.S., and emerging markets around the world. Staying close to home on this one, the Ogallala Aquifer under the Great Plains was reported to be down to one third of its original depth and is projected to “run dry in two to three decades given recent withdrawal rates.”85 Atlanta is in a legal battle with Florida and Alabama over 20% of the flow from Lake Lanier.86 No matter how you cut it, this is foreshadowing trouble ahead. I looked into water-sector investments a decade ago but couldn’t tease out opportunities.

The blogosphere has made the case for highly constrained rare-earth elements crucial to wind turbines and solar cells.87 The bulls note that China controls 95% of the market and suggest that building alternative energy programs based on the rare earths will drive the price to the moon. I had dinner with the CEO of Chemetall, a major dealer in metals and metal catalysts. He assured me that rare earths are not rare, and that China has driven competitors out of the marketplace; higher prices will fix that when needed. I could detect no agenda in his answers.

The Baptists

The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened is…alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent.

~ George Eliot in Silas Marner

We were all worried about these issues in 1927, but you can only worry about things for so long.

~ Anonymous

Prior to any financial dislocations there are many who preach of the coming crisis. In 1924, Roger Babson warned of credit excesses that would lead to catastrophe. Charlie Merrill of Merrill Lynch fame sought psychiatric help due to his inexplicable bearish views; as legend goes, he and his psychiatrist emptied their investment accounts and dodged the carnage. The stock futures speculation in the 1920s was so obvious that Congress held hearings to discuss it well before the crash.88 The crash and subsequent multi-decade global devastation arrived to the total shock of many. Town criers could be heard screaming of a coming tech crash in the late ‘90s by those who listened. We had congressional hearings on derivatives speculation wherein Brooksley Born methodically laid out the plotline for the coming storm in unregulated derivative markets.89 I wrote a 2002 email describing the coming subprime crisis and banking collapse.3,90 Prescient? Not really. I was simply parroting ideas scattered over the Internet. The few who played the housing bust with leverage get the limelight; countless thousands saw the housing excesses in the years leading up to 2007.

This year had its share of preachers of unassailable credibility telling us of more trouble to come. Are they farsighted or fooled? I haven’t a real clue. I can say, however, that their advice demands your attention.

Let’s begin with the most prolific of doomers, David Stockman, former Wall Street insider and Reagan budget genius. Stockman was omnipresent, telling anybody who would listen of a coming mayhem in the bond market and accompanying pension crisis, labeling our current economic status as “the end of a disastrous debt super cycle that has gone on for the last thirty or forty years.”91,92,93

David places blame squarely on the Fed by suggesting “if we don't drive the Bernankes and the Dudleys and the Yellens and the rest of these lunatic money-printers out of the the Fed and get it under the control of people who have at least a modicum of sanity, we are just going to bury everybody deeper.” Somewhat paradoxically, he noted, “if the Fed doesn't keep printing, it's game over.”

John Hussman undermines the very foundations of monetary easing in one of the most cogent arguments that I have read.94 He is a deep-value guy whose analyses have refreshingly long-time horizons and whose portfolios have been bludgeoned in the short term.

George Soros rattled Newsweek readers when he suggested the global credit retrenchment is “about as serious and difficult as I’ve experienced in my career…comparable in many ways to the 1930s. We are facing now a general retrenchment in the developed world, which threatens to put us in a decade of more stagnation, or worse. The best-case scenario is a deflationary environment. The worst-case scenario is a collapse of the financial system.”95 He predicts a collapse of social order, suggesting that “it is about saving the world from a downward economic spiral." George is known for talking his book, but what position is he talking up? This is not a trick question...well maybe it is. (Answer: Gold. Lots and lots of gold.)

Bill Gross suggests that "a 30-50 year virtuous cycle of credit expansion which has produced outsized paranormal returns for financial assets—bonds, stocks, real estate and commodities alike—is now delevering because of excessive ‘risk’ and the ‘price’ of money at the zero-bound.”96 He concludes that “we are witnessing the death of abundance and the borning of austerity, for what may be a long, long time." Detractors like to pick on Bill’s DOW 5000 call years ago. With inflation adjustment—accurate inflation adjustment—that decade-old call is approaching spot on.

Jim Rogers predicted that some of the Ivy League institutions would go bankrupt.97 Harvard had a terrible credit seizure in 2007-09 due to their hedge-fund-like endowment, but Jim’s prediction was made in 2012. Jim doesn’t think we are done yet.

Nomura's Bob Janjuah is always good for brutal assessments.98,99 Bob noted that "markets are so rigged by policy makers that I have no meaningful insights to offer.” Bob goes on to note in a later piece that “central bankers are intentionally mispricing the cost of capital, in an attempt to push the private sector to misallocate capital into consumption and into asset purchases at the wrong time and at the wrong price.” He blames Greenspan and Bernanke explicitly for tens of millions of American citizens who are “either homeless and/or on food stamps.” Bob can really turn a phrase. “Financial anarchy” is always good for a few chuckles. Say what you really think, Bob. The world’s central bankers are reserving their own special place in hell.

Ray Dalio, head of Bridgewater Associates—the largest hedge fund in the world—has been bearish for awhile and is becoming quite the gold bug. In January he noted that he was bearish “through 2028.”100 In subsequent presentations, he seemed to change his tune by referring to our global state of affairs as a “beautiful deleveraging ,” which he defines as some sort of optimal inflation/deflation cross-dresser operating through a combination of defaults and debt monetization.101 I guess beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. One prominent market watcher—me—suspected that Ray had an eye on a Romney-cabinet-level appointment. We’ll never know.

Legendary investor Jeremy Grantham with $150 billion under management, Thomas Brightman of Research Affiliates, and Robert Gordon of NBER lit up the blogosphere late in the year with conclusions that global growth would drop to the 1% zone.102,103,104 Their predicted durations—decades or more—were newsworthy. Grantham suggests that demographics and resource depletion will cause us to never regain our previous growth rates. He had previously amplified a notion first presented by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations by showing that a sustainable 3% compounded growth rate, rather than the “greatest invention of all time,” is total mathematical nonsense.105 A cubic meter of physical wealth expanding at 3% over the Egyptian dynasty—admittedly a long time—would fill ten solar systems—a large volume.

Billionaire Richard Branson joins Grantham in predicting that capitalism is destroying the planet, focusing in particular on the perpetual growth model that will consume everything. The great story about Richard is that he is rumored to have tried to hit up Obama for some weed in a recent trip to the White House.106 We don’t know if Obama’s “Choomwagon”107 was in the shop.

Richard W. Fisher, President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas Texas, was a buzzkill for the fluffers at the Fed, noting that there is “a frightful storm brewing in the form of un-tethered government debt.”108 He says that he chose the phrase "frightful” to “deliberately avoid hyperbole.” Fisher suggests that the long-term fiscal situation of the federal government will be unimaginably more devastating to our economic prosperity than the subprime debacle and the recent debauching of credit markets that we are working so hard right now to correct.

2012 was a big year for taking the bear case to the Halls of Power. Jim Rickards, author of Currency Wars, presented his concerns about currency debasement to Congress.109 James Grant and Robert Wenzel in speeches at the Federal Reserve both hammered the Fed for horrendous monetary policies that are destroying our currency and capitalist system.110,111,112 Jim is a total genius, and he is very attention-worthy.113,114,115

Legendary hedge fund manager and cherished confidant David Einhorn poked at the Fed with his “jelly donut” speech.116 It was Silence of the Lambs at the Buttonwood Conference when he pointed out what they should have known: Artificially low interest rates drive up commodities and reduce income streams to a trickle, forcing consumers to save more and spend less.117 He throws in a little money multiplier logic and—voilà!—stimulus is totally negated.

Einhorn accuses the Fed of “offering some verbal sleight-of-hand worthy of a three-card Monte hustle.” David wonders out loud: “We have just spent 15 years learning that a policy of creating asset bubbles is a bad idea, so it is hard to imagine why the Fed wants to create another one.” I wonder out loud: How much did Fed policy have to degenerate to force the Einhorns of the world to focus on monetary theory rather than investing?

We had several bootleggers-turned-Baptists. The technical term is “tranny.” John Reed confessed his sins while CEO of Citibank, explaining how Citibank and Travelers, with the aid of a very friendly administration, destroyed the Glass-Steagall safeguards that had protected consumers from financial disaster since the ‘30s.118 Sandy Weill, the next CEO of Citigroup, shocked the world by suggesting that big banks “be broken up so that the taxpayer will never be at risk.” What’s gotten into these Citi-boys? Would it be too much to ask for a mea culpa from Robert Rubin? Yes.

William Cohan, former Wall Street investment banker and author of several best sellers including a comprehensive history of Goldman Sachs, pointed out the cracks in the seams—the omerta—at Goldman, flaws in the FINRA arbitration system, the mathematically nonsensical $100 million IRA of Mitt Romney, the SEC’s lack of oversight on nefarious activities at Citigroup, and a striking exposé of Robert Rubin’s deep-seated political power.119,120,121,122

These guys are some of the sharpest knives in the drawer. They view the world through darker lenses than most. Whether they are right or not, you’ve been warned.

The Bankers

It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.

~ Henry Ford

The most newsworthy story about Goldman Sachs may be that they weren’t in the news that much. Of course, there were a few skirmishes. Disgruntled employee Greg Smith took his best shot at the Goldman Death Star, but both his interview and book proved toothless.123 Smith told us that Goldman employees showed scorn as they ripped the faces off their clients called “Muppets.” Anybody who read Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker knows that clients are chum for the brokerages. Goldmanites had to run out the back door without putting their pants on when it was discovered that they were part-owner of a website focusing on the sex-trafficking of underaged girls.124 It also was reported that many Goldman folks were tipping off Rajaratnam, although that story is now passé. Most importantly, however, JPM managed to knock Goldman below the fold.

Problems for JPM began in 2011. As noted in my 2011 summary, MF Global—a reincarnation of the formerly bankrupted and scandal-riddled Refco—had collapsed, segregated funds had been rehypothecated (rehypothecate = used repeatedly; see also, “stolen”), and the money was lost speculating at the track. Remaining funds (including stored gold bars, if they weren’t already rehypothecated) were quickly snarfed up by JPM under the arcane principle of law referred to as “finders keepers, losers weepers.” We finished 2011 knowing that Corzine was a weasel and in a world of trouble and serious money had “vaporized”—not to be confused with “stolen”—to use language from a planted story.125 Vaporized money brings to mind the must-see South Park episode, “And It’s Gone.”126 The authorities were handed a Madoff-quality scandal to finally prove they are the best regulators money can buy. Twitter hound Mark Melin was posting hourly updates on nefarious activities while legal beagle James Koutoulis was gearing up for a big class action suit.

Just as night follows day, 2012 brought us…crickets. Nothing but chirping crickets. The case was dropped. How the hell did this happen? The JPM legal team exploited the chaos and rushed MF Global into bankruptcy. Chris Whalen explains that bankruptcy gave JPM “first dibs” creditor status whereas a fraud charge would have diverted the funds to less worthy folks—the rightful owners.127

To ensure the transition went smoothly, former FBI Director and political hack Louis Freeh was put in charge of overseeing this mess. Freeh promptly asked the bankruptcy court to allow payouts to MF global executives for the long hours spent cleaning up.128 (I'd give them free room, three square meals, and snappy orange jump suits.) Freeh then diverted funds from clients to legal defense funds of MFG execs.129 The other MFG trustee named Giddens—the other MFG trustee?—pressured litigants to release the banks of all liability to receive reimbursement, suggesting that (1) the money didn’t really vaporize, (2) stealing money and then giving it back when caught should not be a crime, and (3) extortion is legal if you are a trustee.130 Within a week it was announced that the Rule of Law had been downgraded to a guideline.

As often used in comedies, we use an epilogue to track the fates of the major players. Jon Corzine bought himself a “Get Out of Jail Free” card by remaining a major fundraiser (a bundler, to be exact) for Team Obama.131 The Department of Justice (DOJ) stood ready to indict Corzine if he missed a payment. Immunity to Corzine’s consigliere would have revealed some serious dirt, but the DOJ declared there was no case and walked.132 Corzine is exiled in the Hamptons sans ankle bracelet on an OJ-esque quest for the lost funds and a new job as a hedge fund manager. Rumors that Corzine’s life insurers put his policy in a risk pool have not been confirmed. Team Obama got a second term in the White House, and nobody in the administration has been indicted for racketeering. The sordid story of MFG has been relegated to case studies in MBA ethics classes. (Evidence aside, they do have such courses.) The main character, Jamie Dimon, landed a leading role in the next scandal and was put on the shortlist for Secretary of the Treasury.

As the replacement regulators and DOJ were playing Pull My Finger, rumors among the blognoscenti surfaced of a big London-based commodity trader who was in trouble.133 The trader was originally referred to as “The Caveman” but soon became “The London Whale.” Mike Mayo, one of the elite banking analysts, downgraded JPM a day or so before the story broke and later attributed the problem to “negative incentives and the revolving door” (corruption from the unholy alliance of banking-government).134 Jamie Dimon initially claimed it was “a tempest in a teapot ,” but then JPM announced burgeoning losses in the billions. Eventually, even CNBC bought a ticket on the London Whale Watching Tour. Those guys are sleuths.

JPM was in very big trouble. (Just kidding; of course they weren’t.) Damage control was swift and effective. JPM liquidated an estimated >$25 billion of assets to both clean up the mess and book enough profits to guarantee that their reported earnings would show that this was not a BFD (big deal).135 The London Whale, aka Bruno Iksil, was labeled a rogue trader, which is a technical term for a “rainmaker turned patsy.” With dripping irony, Bruno’s boss is named Achilles Macris.

Normally, the story would end there, but the Greatest Banker in the Universe—Jamie Dimon—faced a stark choice: Either claim that he screwed the pooch—uniquely so—or admit that the banking system is still hopelessly corrupted. The forthcoming mea culpas were slathered with gobs of sincerity. “We were total idiots. We can’t pour water out of a boot with the directions on the heel.” (paraphrased, of course) Jamie testified to Congress for no apparent reason, getting grilled by Congressman Tim Johnson who, because of a massive stroke in 2006, was not particularly threatening. Spencer Bachus, Chair of the Financial Services Committee, treated Dimon with kid gloves and let him testify not under oath because JPM is his second biggest donor. What’s appalling is that Bachus sold us down the river for a take of $119,000 over the congressman’s career.136 That was money well spent. Supposedly, the entire Financial Services Committee cost a little over $800,000.137 Peter Schweizer’s book, Throw Them All Out (vide infra) documents in lurid detail that congressmen and congresswomen are prostitutes, but cheaper. In an interview in Davos, Dimon was able to put the problems to rest, noting that “most of the bad actors are gone." You betcha.

Of course, other banks wanted a piece of the action. Barclays made a feeble grab for fame by taking the lead in the Libor scandal.138 Libor, the London Interbank Offered Rate, is a compilation of self-reported lending rates that influence interest rates throughout the $500 trillion global credit markets.139 Self reported? Whatever could go wrong? It turns out Barclays was cheesing the numbers. The retribution was swift and severe: Barclays was fined a whopping $200 million,140 which cut into some of their profits on the scam. The British Banking Society, using language right out of Casablanca, said that they were “shocked.”141

Meanwhile, journalists around the globe, scrambling to figure out what Libor meant, spouted scholarly analysis like Milli Vanilli. It soon became evident, however, that all of the banks were fudging their numbers.142 The scandal was promptly downgraded three levels to an embarrassment when 2008-vintage articles by Mark Gilbert and Gillian Tett surfaced that described the rate rigging.143,144 The Fed knew about it in 2008.145 Liborgate could clog the courts for awhile as borrowers lawyer up hoping to identify damages.

The blogosphere thinks Liborgate is “huge.” I find the scandal oddly anticlimactic given that central banks around the globe openly rig rates on a daily basis. James Grant concurs with this minority view. It is galling, however, that the scandal seems to reach the highest levels of the banking cartel—the central banks. For me, it is profoundly disturbing that global capital has been fully sequestered from price discovery.

The British Banking Association was shocked again when Standard Chartered Bank got accused of illegally laundering $350 billion for Iran.146 Rogue New York banking regulator Benjamin Lawsky filed his charges as the Justice Department was on the verge of declaring that Standard Chartered’s trades “complied with the law.”147 Standard Chartered promptly entered settlement talks with everybody. A Deloitte partner involved with the scandal offed himself. For him, the scandal was a big deal.

The hits just kept coming. HSBC got charged with money laundering for terrorists, drug cartels, and organized crime syndicates. It seems that HSBC must have picked up BCCI’s clients after their scandal-induced collapse in the late ‘90s. This ‘affiliation’ with organized crime is silly: Banking is organized crime. Reuters reported that HSBC could be fined over $1.5 billion for money laundering and face criminal charges.148 Of course they could, but they won’t.

US Bancorp got charged $55 million for scamming customers with overdraft fees by illegally maximizing the number of checks put into overdraft.149 In a possible script for the MFG sequel, Cantor Fitzgerald was accused of “undersegregating” funds.150 This is like “kind of pregnant.” The whole thing seems “sort of criminal.”

The more generic thieves and scoundrels returned with an encore when CEO of Peregrine Financial Group (PFG) stole rehypothecated customer funds for several years.151 The CEO of Attain Asset Management (AAM) captured the spirit of the outrage against PFG, noting “This time it’s personal.”152 PFG CEO Wasendorf attempted suicide, presumably hoping to front run the AAM CEO to (paraphrased) “put a cap in his ass.” Jeffries promptly began a Chapter 7 liquidation of PFG positions after a failed margin call. Once again, Chris Whalen explained the nuances.153 Apparently, this time they did it right by sending PFG into receivership to the advantage of the customers; Reuters reported depositors got 30 cents on the dollar.154 I imagine that debt subordination by big money folks somehow played a role.

Whistleblowers took a serious beating this year. FINRA, Wall Street’s self-policing arbitrators, managed to bankrupt a Morgan Stanley broker with a fine of $1.2 million after he accused Morgan Stanley of adding hidden fees to retirement accounts.155 When the case was followed up, nearly half of the 18 hrs of tape, mandated to be saved, “disappeared.” The transcript of an anonymous whistleblower testifying to CFTC was a great read. The CFTC removed it from their website, but a copy was saved.156 A lawsuit by Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) whistleblower David Weber alleges that the SEC is involved in all sorts of nefarious activities, including specifically tracking potential whistleblowers.157 David Einhorn also presents the SEC as profoundly corrupt in his book, Fooling Some of the People All of the Time.

We found out this year that Deutsche Bank had been accused by three independent whistleblowers of hiding $12 billion in losses to avoid a bailout during the bailouts (if that makes any sense).158 This scandal is a dog’s breakfast: (1) the whistleblowers—one of them a risk officer—got fired within days of the complaint; and (2) the current SEC’s chief enforcement officer was in charge of the legal compliance at Deutsche Bank and was its general council during the cover up.

I have painted the banking industry with an ugly brush. I’m sure most bankers are good, honest people. If so, it’s time you guys start cleaning up your profession. When you find yourself saying, “Somebody should do something,” that somebody is you. If you stay silent, it’s just a Sandusky sequel.

The Federal Reserve

I simply do not understand most of the thinking that goes on here at the Fed, and I do not understand how this thinking can go on when in my view it smacks up against reality…Do you believe in supply and demand or not?...Let’s have one good meal here. Let’s make it a feast. Then I ask you, I plead with you, I beg you all, walk out of here with me, never to come back. It’s the moral and ethical thing to do. Nothing good goes on in this place. Let’s lock the doors and leave the building to the spiders, moths, and four-legged rats.

~ Robert Wenzel, in a speech at the NY Federal Reserve

Well that pretty much captured my sentiments. The Fed gets their pick of the litter coming out of PhD programs. They are a politically (in)dependent group with a dual mandate of supporting the banks and maximizing bank profits. The dozen or so members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), by virtue of arrogance and hubris, have become intellectually neutered and are now menaces to society. Why listen to an organic chemist—an academic, to boot? Let’s see what the pros have to say.

A first year investment banking associate knows more about credit creation than the entire FOMC combined…. Our colleagues at the Fed have consistently failed to understand the operations of financial markets and how credit operates in our society. This may surprise some of you, but it doesn't surprise me at all.

~ Chris Whalen, Founder of IRA Risk Analytics

I have to say the monetary policies of the U.S. will destroy the world.

~ Marc Faber, Elite Barrons Round Table Member

The little sliver of remaining hope was officially pronounced dead [with QEIII]….we are witnessing the greatest monetary fiasco ever.

~ Doug Noland, Federated Investors

The Chinese aren't loaning to us anymore. The Russians aren't loaning to us anymore. So who's giving us the trillion? And the answer is we're just making it up. The Federal Reserve is just taking it and saying, ‘Here, we're giving it.' It's just made up money, and this does not augur well for our economic future.

~ Mitt Romney, unemployed

When I read direct quotes and commentary about Bernanke's policy of driving up asset prices in general and equity prices in particular, I almost want to cry over the ludicrousness of this position. The Fed is pursuing the same road to ruin as it did between 2003-2007.

~ Albert Edwards, Societe Generale

Bernanke, and his MIT ilk, has made monetary policy into a laboratory for monetary theoreticians.

~ Kevin Warsh, former Federal Reserve governor

It’s the general global landscape where you have an incredible mispricing of risk that’s being delivered at the hands of academics at the central banks of the world.

~ Wellington Denahan-Norris, CEO of Annaly Capital

I am a little—maybe more than a little bit—worried about the future of central banking. We've constantly felt that there would be light at the end of the tunnel, and there'd be an opportunity to normalize but it’s not really happening so far.

~ James Bullard, President of Saint Louis Federal Reserve

Let’s briefly break away from 2012 condemnations and snag a quote from my favorite book on Austrian economics and the Great Depression:

The end result of what was probably the greatest price-stabilization experiment in history proved to be, simply, the greatest and worst depression.

~ Phillips et al. in Banking and the Business Cycle (1937)

Of course, the big news was the third wave of debt monetization referred to as QE IV, QEtc, QEInfinity, or Cash for Clunkers II. The Fed is jamming over $80 billion of high-powered money per month into the economy. Initial promises to monetize aggressively until 2015 have been extended to infinity and beyond. The Fed pretended it was sterilized—the long-term debt purchases were being offset by short-term debt sales. “Operation Twist” (QE II), however, recycles the short-term debt right back into long-term debt. Problem solved.

There is some room for debate as to why they are pushing monetary policy to the edge of the known universe. They tell us that it is to improve the economy and help the little guy by throwing savers under the bus with repressively low interest rates. Last I looked, the savers are the little guys. It has been estimated that if interest income as a percentage of total personal income had remained at its 2008 level, the total would now be an additional $1.5 trillion.159

To achieve their goal of stabilizing the banks—not all the banks, just the really big ones—the Fed has completely dismissed any notion that the debt markets should be allowed to clear, which is Austrian-speak for establishing market-based pricing. James Grant calls it “waging war on the pricing mechanism.” The Fed does this via purchases of 60-80% of all the newly issued federal debt because our foreign creditors have gone on a buyers’ strike.160 Without the Fed’s unprecedented interventions, bond prices would plummet (sponsored by Red Bull, no doubt), affiliated interest rates would spike, bond holders would get crushed, and the federal government would have to borrow at rates that would completely choke our already auto-asphyxiated federal budget. We’re now homing in on why the Fed is monetizing debt. (Note to readers: When you read an article stating some variant of “low rates show everything is rosey,” that person is an idiot.)

The irony here is that the Fed’s zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) is choking the savers, as noted by David Einhorn (vide supra). Similar cases have been made by Chris Whalen and others.161 William R. White, former Head of the Monetary and Economic Department at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), wrote a must-read paper entitled, Ultra Easy Monetary Policy and the Law of Unintended Consequences.162 The Fed’s policies are Soviet-style stupidity and a short trek to financial perdition. Even worse, Daniel Kahnemann, Nobel Laureate and expert in behavioral psychology, would probably argue that the Fed’s decision making is no more accurate than “monkeys throwing darts.” Milton Friedman indirectly made a similar case against central planners in an interview with macroeconomist Phil Donohue.163

The Bootleggers

Why does the New York Times hate the banks?

~ Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan

It’s not the New York Times, Mr. Dimon. It really isn’t. It’s the country that hates the banks these days.

~ Joe Nocera, New York Times

I have beaten on the bankers hard and will continue to do so until somebody can say their house is clean. I should, however, let these bootleggers and affiliates—the Baghdad Bobs of Finance—speak for themselves. As you read these quotes, ask yourself: Did they really say that? Really?

Low Fed rates didn’t fuel the housing bubble.

~ Alan Greenspan, former Chair of FOMC

This is the United States of America. That's what I remember. Guess what.... It's a free f***ing country.

~ Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPM

Hanging bankers won’t help…Public anger over the financial crisis is wrong.

~ Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of England

Large numbers of people who have ‘lost’ their house through foreclosure have actually realized a profit because they carried out refinancings earlier that gave them cash in excess of their cost. In these cases, the evicted homeowner was the winner, and the victim was the lender.

~ Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway

The evidence that I’ve seen and that we’ve done within the Fed suggests that monetary policy did not play an important role in raising house prices during the upswing.

~ Ben Bernanke, Chair of FOMC

We economists…have reason to be proud of our analyses over the past five years. We understood where we were heading, because we knew where we had been.

~ Brad DeLong, economist at UC Berkeley

Quantitative easing isn’t being imposed on an unwitting populace by financiers and rentiers; it’s being undertaken, to the extent that it is, over howls of protest from the financial industry.

~ Paul Krugman, Princeton University and Nobel Laureate

The demonization of Wall Street and bankers is very much a function of the press and of Washington, and not much more broadly held.

~ John Thain, former CEO of Merrill Lynch

Wage and price controls distort markets…prices are prices…We’re not going to monetize US debt.

~ Ben Bernanke, FOMC

Thank the people of AIG for having the courage to do what they did.

~ Robert Benmosche, CEO of AIG

To claim that it’s effectively a gift you have to claim that the prices the Fed is paying are artificially high, or equivalently that interest rates are being pushed artificially low. And you do in fact see assertions to that effect all the time. But if you think about it for even a minute, that claim is truly bizarre.

~ Paul Krugman, Princeton

There is a German word, backpfeifengesicht, that reputedly translates to “a face badly in need of a fist.” It seems appropriate for some of these characters, which would generate some serious schadenfreude. For these gentlemen, however, I’ll let pop culture respond:

What you have just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

~ The Principal in Billy Madison

Personal Debt

I spent all my money on women and wine, and the rest I wasted.

~ George Best, Irish soccer player

Debt permeates all levels of the global economy. In the U.S., debt is growing much faster than the GDP (Figure 12). A montage of over 50 charts showing all facets of debt is well worth a peek.164 Authorities are convinced that more spending and more debt will be our salvation. Daniel Bell, a Marxist from the turn of the 20th century, took the other side of this bet, suggesting that the consumer would eventually consume themselves. Apparently, I’m a Marxist. In this section I would like to briefly discuss personal debt. (Special aspects of student and mortgage debt are cordoned off into their own sections.)

Figure 12. Accrued debt with annotations showing dollars of debt required per dollar of GDP (source link lost).

The so-called resilient consumer is getting squeezed from every direction. The income of the average family has dropped from $53,000 to $47,000 in only 5 years.165 Deleveraging is evidenced by a dropping debt-to-income ratio in Figure 12, yet two thirds stem from defaulted mortgages.166 The national savings rate has once dropped to zero from historical norms of 10%. Credit card debt is said to be the leading cause of suicide among adult males.167 Trimtabs reports a 40% drop in net median family worth since 2007.168

Should the average family of four earning $47,000 happen to rashly buy everybody iPhones, they just committed 4-5% of their gross income to phone service. I’m not sure even families earning $150,000 should spend that much on phone service. Television and children’s activities used to be largely free; now we pay. Internet, as amazing as it may be, is a necessary expense. Don’t think so? See how your kids do in school without it. Figure 13 shows the ratio of personal consumption versus compensation. That rise stems from a combination of decreased savings and increased debt.

Figure 13. Personal consumption versus compensation.169

In 2010 I discussed an insidious and overlooked contribution to inflation—accelerated depreciation. It is still overlooked by the mainstream so I am going to take one more abbreviated whack at it. For example, in 2009 I broke a 40-year-old blender. The Boskin Commission14 would argue that its replacement is even cheaper than the price tag would indicate because it has more buttons. Government statisticians actually “hedonically” adjust the price down for improved quality. Alas, that really cheap blender died after only two years of dedicated service. Chintzy goods at affordable prices have trapped consumers in a vicious replacement cycle. If Boskin et al. had looked at the per year cost of the blender, they would have corrected for depreciation with a 20-fold price multiplier before comparing the relative prices of old and new. The net domestic product—the gross domestic product with depreciation included—is an antiquated concept that needs resurrection.170 Meanwhile, the consumers are choking on their vomit trying to keep up with depreciation.

Mortgage Debt

There is not a menace in the world today like that of growing public indebtedness and mounting public expenditures.

~ Warren G. Harding, former President of the United States

Harding was considered to be one of the least competent presidents. Could have fooled me. Mortgage debt presents its own unique issues. We are slowly winding down the mortgage bubble that burst in 2007 through a combination of defaults and debt restructurings. To say, however, that a modest uptick in housing activity means that the problem is solved is ridiculous (Figure 14). Is housing recovering? Not really. Maybe sentiment has begun to change but only with the unprecedented force of a central bank behind it.

Figure 14. Home building employment (red) compared with home builder sentiment (blue).

There are still an estimated 11 million homeowners underwater on their mortgages, including more than a million people who have just bought in the past two years.171 Ill-advised efforts to bail them out—foreclosures clear the market—seem to have faltered. Special Inspector General of the TARP Neil Barofsky discovered Geithner never intended to aid homeowners, only to delay foreclosures for a year or two so that they could occur orderly. Writedowns are taxable income,172 which prevents homeowners from accepting them. Distressed real estate purchased by speculators appears to decrease the housing glut. Unfortunately, this shadow inventory still exists if the speculators intend to flip the houses for a quick capital gain. The market won’t clear until demographics and income growth clear it, both of which are going backwards.

There seems to be some resolution of the catastrophe caused by the Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS) in which the ownership of millions of houses are being thrown into legal purgatory by foreclosure. Bank of America supposedly offered to take a deed in lieu of foreclosure, presumably to get the deed legally.173 Legally dubious foreclosures are clearing through the legal expedient of turning a blind eye. Efforts in California to use eminent domain to clear out problematic underwater mortgages are so egregious that I have deferred them to the section on Civil Liberties and the Constitution.

Student Debt

Bart: don’t make fun of grad students. They just made a terrible life choice.

~ Marge Simpson

You’re f*cked.

~ Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, to Class of 2012

Student loans have soared from $200 billion in 2000 to over $1 trillion today (Figure 15),174 surpassing credit card debt. Some say there is a student loan bubble, but the Bush-era legislation ensuring that student debt cannot be discharged even in bankruptcy suggests there is no bursting mechanism. Nevertheless, something will give, because loan delinquencies are going parabolic.175 The paradoxical effect of the full-recourse loans is that banks are happy to provide almost unlimited funding to a slice of society rich in ill-conceived ideas. This debt is also localized in the most financially vulnerable demographic slice during a severe economic downturn. It ain’t just the kids. An estimated $38 billion in student loans are owed by seniors 60 and older, probably stemming from desperate efforts to retool their careers as well as co-signed loans for children and grandchildren.176

As if the debt burden was not enough, potential employers are checking credit reports. High student debt can render you unemployable.177 Seems unfair. The average medical school graduate has $161,000 in student loans.178 The ultimate irony is that those young doctors on the cusp of achieving the American Dream cannot afford a starter house. Ben Bernanke’s son is said to be $400,000 in the hole.179 Bernanke is indeed the father of a gigantic credit bubble. Financial independence for twenty-somethings—a rite of passage only a few years back—has become increasingly out of reach.

Figure 15. Comparison of student loan growth and other consumer debt growth.180

An entire generation has been set up for debt servitude. We are eating our young. The source of the problem is a complex and nuanced confluence of factors. The chronically profligate boomers, stressed by inflationary pressures and dazed by the equity and real estate downturn, are in no position to help their kids pay for college. The cost of a four-year college education has also soared, while earnings after college have stagnated (Figure 16).181 The number of 26-year-olds living with their parents has jumped almost 46 percent since 2007.182

Figure 16. Plot comparing college costs and earnings in early adulthood.183

What is causing the rapidly escalating college costs? As a professor of 33 years, I can offer a few thoughts and opinions.

            (1) College tuition—the cost of running a small city—may be the single best measure of inflation. The tuition growth squares well with the inflation numbers posted by John Williams of Shadowstats.com.

            (2) Rapidly growing federal and state mandates to universities escalate bureaucratic costs. You know all those extra positions you see in secondary schools that didn’t exist when we were kids? Universities have them too.

            (3) Universities are much more complex, interconnected organizations than they were 30-40 years ago.

            (4) The quest to attract the best possible students and faculty has produced something akin to an arms race among the schools, forcing up the costs of chasing the competition.

            (5) Universities are financial enterprises that can approach $1 billion annual operating costs and are managed largely by academics often lacking the requisite training. The Dean of Arts and Sciences at Cornell is a physicist—a smart guy by any measure. What prepared him to run a $100+ million enterprise?

            (6) Guaranteed payers—banks offering unlimited student loans in this instance—are always inflationary.

I have an aversion to debt jubilees, but I suspect we are heading for a federally sponsored bailout of borrowers and those who traffic in student loans. How do we prevent a repeat of this debt problem? First, a warning: Don’t buy into the increasingly common claims that college is a waste of money. Such blanket statements are counterfactual. One rich dude bribed 100 kids not to go to college.184 Some will be fine but others are going to get hit by the cluster truck. There are, however, many circumstances in which a kid should not go to college.

Students must be good consumers. It’s not just a degree; it’s an education. This means choosing paths wisely and working hard. Not all majors or institutions are created equal; enough said. Debt is a bad idea if it is not self-extinguishing—paid off with the net gain in proceeds from the education. If the kids lack direction or need a break, parents need to let them take time off. You read that right— it's the parents, not the kids, who oppose the change. Save your money until it will be used wisely. For their part, schools need to focus on strengths and, in many cases, specialize. Paul Smith's College, a small college in the Adirondack Mountains, is a great example. They educated my older son. His profound success after an inauspicious secondary education stems from the school’s focus—only four, highly pragmatic, majors. What a great model!

How do we fund college educations going forward? I understand the origin of full-recourse loans but find non-dischargeable debt to be anathema to the American system. We’ve got to curb predatory lending; full recourse loans with interest rates and penalties akin to subprime debt is loan sharking. The libertarian in me says caveat emptor, yet this is a vulnerable demographic lacking fully developed frontal cortexes. The best idea may involve creditors purchasing a percentage of the students’ earnings after graduation for a fixed period (10% for ten years, by example). It’s a form of venture capitalism. I would gladly invest in a tranche of loans to MIT students promising a slice of their earnings—at the right price, of course. For those schools in which the bet is a bad one—the loans are too big, attrition is TOO high, or incomes after graduation are on average too low—the resulting market-determined high interest rates would force change or the institution would fail.

The idea of “no child left behind” would take a beating, but I don’t buy the notion that we need more college-educated adults. We need better-educated adults. Whether this means education in a four-year college or a trade school is highly student dependent. Father Guido Sarducci’s “Five Minute University” has an appeal.185 Another very entertaining parody makes a case for Princeton.186 I would also say beware of law schools. They can be great opportunities but can also be exceedingly expensive holding tanks for college graduates still lacking direction.187

By the way, would somebody—anybody—start teaching courses in personal finance at the high school and collegiate levels? That void is what got us into this mess in the first place.

Municipal and State Debt

This is not a boating accident.

~ Richard Dreyfus in Jaws

The balance sheets of municipalities and states are a total mess. Forbes recently noted 11 states flagged for dangerous finances.188 It’s not just the sand states that are in trouble. Syracuse, NY is considering a debt restructuring due to excessive expenditures and pension promises.194 Reuters reported that outstanding bonds, unfunded pension commitments, and budget gaps exceed $4 trillion for the 50 states.195 That’s approximately $40,000 per taxpayer in the country. Illinois is now $150 billion in the hole, yet the voters defeated legislation designed to stem rising pension costs.189

California’s estimated annual deficit rose from $9 billion to a considerably larger $15 billion in a matter of months. California alone owes over $600 billion, with New York coming in a distant second at $300.1 billion.190 These are self-inflicted wounds. Orange County paid lifeguards annualized salaries of $200K.191 Hermosa Beach meter maids racked up an astonishing $300K annual salaries.192 Stockton, San Bernardino, and Mammoth Lakes all filed for bankruptcy protection this summer.193 San Bernardino City officials sped up the filing to preempt legal action by creditors. Under Chapter 9, all court cases and other legal actions are halted until the bankruptcy case is over.

Rock star banking analyst Meredith Whitney predicted serious financial stresses for municipalities, yet she made the fateful mistake of predicting what and when.196 The Mayans taught us that you never predict both. At year end, the criticisms have been mounting. With that said, Moody’s is looking to downgrade some California municipal bonds. Buffett picked up a pile of municipal bonds at deep discount during the crisis, presumably using inside knowledge of the Fed backstop that he helped design, only to dump a bunch of these bonds this year.197 The muni bond story is just getting started.

Corporate Debt

In aggregate, US balance sheets are in very poor shape.

~ Andrew Smithers, CEO of Smithers and Co.

You may have heard recently that…U.S. companies…are sitting on growing piles of cash they are ready to invest in the economy. There's just one problem: It's a crock.

~ Brett Arends, MarketWatch

Andrew Smithers and Brett Arends are the only two guys I know who claim that corporate balance sheets are not in good shape.198,199 Everybody else raves about the robust corporate balance sheets while focusing on only one side. Corporations are flush with cash and chock full of debt (Figure 17).200 They are hoarding cash, presumably in anticipation of more credit constraints. The DOW 30 has a net debt (debt minus cash) of $500 billion despite fortress balance sheets by a minority including Microsoft, Cisco, and, if you believe them, JPM. Only 7 of the DOW 30 have net positive cash positions. Pensions of large-cap companies are also significantly underfunded (vide infra). It is estimated that major corporations globally will be refinancing $45 trillion of debt over the next couple of years.201 None of this suggests strong balance sheets, only generous credit lines.

Figure 17. Non-financial US corporate debt market (billions of dollars) (source: SIFMA).

Sovereign Debt

There are two ways to conquer and enslave a nation. One is by the sword…the other is by debt.

~ John Adams, former President of the United States

There’s always the Federal Government to bail us out, right? Maybe, but we’re in serious trouble. The U.S. debt doubled in only four years (19% annualized). A recent Treasury report indicates that in less than a year we added $2.1 trillion to the national debt. Although it is tempting to point fingers, a screw-up of this magnitude requires a bipartisan effort. The Federal debt and deficit inspired Egan-Jones to downgrade U.S. debt,202 which then inspired the SEC to investigate them (Egan-Jones, that is).203 The spendthrifts declare that we had a financial malaise to deal with. I wonder if history will look favorably on a Keynesian experiment in which we injected $1 million of government stimulus for each newly created job.204

It is estimated that we are collecting only 60 cents of every dollar spent by the Federal government. This is not the beginning of the end of some debt frenzy. It is the end of the end. Who is buying all this debt? Funny you should ask. The Fed is buying 60-80% of it. How do we afford it? Oddly enough, the Fed controls the interest rate on federal debt. Uncle Sam has an unbelievably cushy line of credit thanks to Fed largesse. The whole Fiscal Cliff debate illustrates that austerity is too inconvenient to deal with right now. We can worry about tightening the belt later. But this secular bond bull market is very long in the tooth. At some point rates will rise just like night follows day. Each 1% rise in rates on $16 trillion dollar debt adds an additional $160 billion to our interest rate payments.

What if we just really suck it up? Seriously. What if we go to the extreme by dropping all discretionary spending? No more military, highways, education, parks, etc. and pay only the interest on the debt and other payments mandated by statute. We still fall short of a balanced budget.205

For those confused about the Clinton-era balanced budget, it was a hoax—we had gobs of off-balance-sheet expenses putting us in the red. The reported deficit is the innocuous part. If one looks at unfunded liabilities—promises made to the populace for which we haven’t a clue where the money will come from even after projected tax revenues are included—we are in huge trouble. Years ago, Kotlikoff, Burns, and Smetters estimated $44 trillion of unfunded liabilities. Kotlikoff is now estimating over $200 trillion—40 Krugmans! (1 Krugman = $5 trillion)206 That comes to an IOU of $2 million dollars per viable taxpayer. So let’s not trivialize this issue by suggesting that this will hurt our grandchildren. As far as I am concerned, they are on their own. This is gonna crush you and me.

Pension Crisis

Demography is like a glacier: It doesn't move fast, but it is very predictable...it's inexorable.

~ Neil Howe, author of The Fourth Turning

We have a massive, multi-dimensional pension problem. Let’s begin with a look at the personal pension plans most commonly associated with 401K plans and related IRAs. Optimistic retirement planners at Fidelity recommend socking away 8x annual income by retirement.207 That’s not enough. More conservative estimates reach as high as 20x or even 25x your annual salary in savings.208 Further problems stem from the bond market, which approximates 40% of all retirement portfolios.209 In the downturn, huge gains in principal mitigated the pain of the equity losses. The best-case scenario going forward is that rates stay low forever, resulting in miniscule cash flows and no loss in principal. The more likely scenario is that interest rates rise and prices drop causing significant losses in principal. There is no slack left. Reaching for yield buying sketchy forms of fixed income is likely to be a road to ruin. Bold assumptions of 7-8% annual returns on pension portfolios will require double digit equity gains. Buffett and anybody else actually paying attention, however, will tell you that dropping rates, not low rates, helps equities.210 Only the legalize-marijuana crowd on CNBC believes rising rates will not hurt equity returns.

Let us look at what is nearly a best-case scenario, a family in the top 5th percentile—the 5 percenter. This family is defined as earning $154,000 and a net worth of $1.2 million,211 which, by coincidence, is about an 8-fold ratio of savings to annual earnings. A couple at the demographic heart of this 5 percenter also is likely to be a late stage boomer on the doorstep of retirement. Way to go, Fidelity! Using assumptions based on standard portfolio theory and grounded in legally mandated IRA withdrawal rates, the 5 percenter should withdraw only 4% to ensure the money lasts—$48,000 per year. This is a problem. I’ve got to imagine that a 5 percenter is going to find a 50th percentile cash flow in retirement austere. The average boomer with a net worth of $180,000 spinning off only $7,000 per year is within an error bar of living on Social Security. 40% of the boomers literally will have only Social Security.

What about all those folks with defined benefit plans? First, defined benefit plans are becoming anachronistic, having been abandoned years ago by companies unwilling to shoulder the risk. Nonetheless, 341 of the 500 large caps in the S&P have retained some semblance of a defined benefit plan.212 It is also estimated, however, that the pension plans in 97% of these companies are underfunded.213 A paper by William R. White out of the Dallas Fed estimated that the 1,500 leading companies in the U.S. have a 30% pension deficit of $689 billion.162 Despite the Pension Protection Act passed in 2006 aimed at protecting workers against companies using pension pools as cookie jars to boost earnings, the crisis in 2007 and affiliated lobbying campaigns convinced law makers that such protections were too inconvenient.

The municipal and state pension problems are acute. The Illinois State Pension Fund is currently 40% underfunded; there is no obvious way out of their hole short of a Federal bailout. Some states are topping off their pension plans by borrowing money from…wait for it…their state pension plans! Read that last sentence again.214 Fully funding the state pensions would cost >$30,000 per taxpayer.

There is no guarantee that the defined benefits plans will survive. Chapter 11 corporate debt restructurings and Chapter 7 liquidations will continue to chip away at this liability. The Chapter 7 liquidation of Hostess and ensuing Twinkie riots—at least I rioted—leaves some wondering what kind of union-management stalemate could drive a company into bankruptcy. The 2,500 workers lost it all. Chapter 9 bankruptcies for restructuring municipal debts and negating pension commitments, unheard of only several years ago, are likely to become well known.

Unimaginable ink has been spilled discussing and analyzing the coming Social Security crisis. It’s an off-balance-sheet Ponzi scheme. Social Security also will be increasingly important as the other support mechanisms fail. With cooked inflation numbers and affiliated inadequate inflation adjusted payouts, it’s easy to imagine seniors getting stiffed.

Roth IRA: A Bad Idea

Cost of living now outweighs benefits.

~ Headline from The Onion

Before leaving the world of pensions I’m gonna pick a fight with Roth IRAs. When the Roth IRA was first announced I had a unique—as in only-guy-on-the-planet unique—visceral response. The original IRA was very farsighted: Savers were allowed to compound wealth unfettered by taxes while the government deferred tax revenues to future generations. By contrast, the Roth IRA pulled tax revenues forward, leaving future generations to take a hike. Imagine the truly awesome demographic problems we would have if the Roth had been introduced in the 60s and the entire baby boom generation became entirely tax exempt. Was this an oversight? I don’t think so. The introduction of the Roth and the substantial revenues from regular-to-Roth rollovers coincided with the Clinton administration’s efforts to balance the on-balance-sheet Federal budget for the first time in decades.

That is my minor gripe. To set up my really big gripe we must first dispel a widely held misconception and a common oversight.

(1) In a regular IRA, the money is taxed at the end, whereas in a Roth IRA taxes are levied up front. If the two are taxed at the same rate—this is a critical provision—the outcome is identical. They are not just similar, it’s an identity. Break out your calculator if you must. There is no differential advantage offered by compounding in the Roth over the regular IRA. Simply put:

Any advantage of the Roth IRA relative to a regular IRA necessarily stems from a lower tax rate while working than in retirement. Period/full stop.

(2) The tax rates of the Roth and regular IRAs are fundamentally different:

Roth IRA: Front-end loaded taxes paid at the marginal tax rate (highest tax bracket).

Regular IRA: Back-end loaded taxes paid at the effective tax rate (integrated over all tax brackets).

The distinction of marginal versus effective tax rate is critical and seems to be lacking from most analyses. One can calculate marginal and effective rates for any income online.215 Let’s return to the top-5-percentile family—the 5 percenter. If they had used a regular IRA, they would be paying a 7% effective tax rate incurred on their $48,000 per year withdrawal in retirement. They paid an approximate 32% marginal tax rate—the tax rate at the top bracket—to shelter a few thousand per year in a Roth IRA. The numbers simply do not work.

It is worse than that. Let us consider the lucky soul family—the extraordinarily rare couple—who actually accrued 25 annual salaries in their retirement account. For this family a 4% annual withdrawal will be equal to an annual salary while working, placing them in the same tax bracket (ignoring unknowable tax law changes). Even so, they paid 32% marginal tax on the Roth to avoid a 22% effective tax rate incurred by the regular IRA. The numbers still don’t work. I do not understand why the Roth is being sold so enthusiastically to the public.

Now ponder all those folks who rolled over a lump sum from a regular to a Roth IRA. They not only paid the marginal tax rate on the rollover but caused the marginal rate to spike to a higher level! It’s hard to imagine that will prove to be a smart move. Congress is considering moving all pension funds to what is effectively Roth IRA rules as part of their Fiscal Cliff negotiations.216 You young guys are about to get hosed.

Europe

The ECB is going to buy bonds of bankrupt banks just so the banks can buy more bonds from bankrupt governments. Meanwhile, just to prop this up the ESM will borrow money from bankrupt governments to buy the very bonds of those bankrupt governments.

~ Kyle Bass, CEO of Hayman Capital

Watching Europe is like reading Waiting for Godot—it is unintelligible. This is unfortunate because these folks may determine my fate. The problems begin with the PIIGS—Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain—suffering from insolvency. We were assured that the Maastricht Treaty and Haagen Dazs Accord that spawned the Euro explicitly forbade deficits and bailouts.217 Well that was then and this is now. Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, held a press conference literally flashing a big, black purse suggesting that it needs some serious money, and—Shazam!—a €700 billion bailout was in place before the weekend was over. Soon there were trillion-euro bailouts with fuzzy names such as Long-Term Refinancing Operation (LTRO), European Stabilization Mechanism (ESM), European Financial Stability Facility (EFSM), and Monetary Injection Liquidity Fund (MILF). Spiking interest rates of the PIIGS were driven down to levels that look like AAA-rated debt of Pfizer and General Electric. The European Commission (EC), International Monetary Fund (IMF), and European Central Bank (ECB)—the so-called Troika—are the enforcers. The banks get what the banks want.

A Greek exit—shortened to Grexit by Willem Buiter—would have created a fiscal crisis as well as an acronym crisis—PIIS. We endured an insane discussion about whether or not Greece should suffer austerity.218 Versus what? Rich, prosperous, and productive? The only legitimate employment was hawking gyros to rioters. A photograph of the Greek Ministry of Finance showing total chaos went viral, becoming a metaphor for the nation.219 Nobody got the memo: Austerity is not a choice; it’s a result. Any banker who lends to Greece will be the author of his own (and our) misfortunes. Iran stopped shipping oil to Greece. Just when Greece appeared to be plumbing the bottom, they suffered a locust attack—a real one.220 Greece is the smallest pawn on the chessboard and with little bargaining power. They were asked to sign a bailout agreement with deep-seated sovereignty issues, yet the document was written in a different language with an incomplete translation.221 However, the Greek default could cost the banks trillions, and the Greeks know this.222

The bailouts are coming from Germany because everyone else is on the receiving end. Yet, with an economy 20% the size of the U.S. economy, the Germans are trying to prop up a gaggle of countries that are collectively bigger than the U.S. economy. Europe has $30 trillion unfunded pension liabilities. It’s not going to work. Discussions of why the Americans should bail out Europe—even more than the hundreds of billions of QE II that ended up in European banks—led to a classic Santelli-Liesman love-fest on CNBC.223 The banks get what the banks want.

Soon Spain began to slip into the abyss,224 something I had been waiting for since 2009. [3] Shockingly, Mariano Rajoy, Prime Minister of Spain, declared, “We support a rescue mechanism, the bigger the better."225 It was all part of a shakedown of the EU, and it seemed to work. Money began flowing into Spanish banks. (Bankia actually got a bailout before the bailouts officially began because they couldn’t wait.)226 Spain put a €2500 cap on cash transactions,227 which is emblematic of an end game. Meanwhile, Spain is bidding for the 2020 Olympics. They will be sponsored by Lowenbrau.228

Then came the Italians. Bill Gross noted that "Italian banks are now issuing state guaranteed paper to obtain funds from the European Central Bank (ECB) and then reinvesting the proceeds into Italian bonds, which is QE by any definition and near Ponzi by another." The oldest bank in the world, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena founded in 1472, got bailed out. I wonder how many times that has happened in the last 540 years.229 The wheels of justice in Italy were moving forward; they convicted scientists for failing to predict an earthquake.230 The guys who cause earthquakes are still on the lam.

What happened to the assurances of the Maastricht Treaty that no sovereigns would be bailed out? It seems simple enough to me. Politically disconnected sovereign states are strongly shackled together by a common currency and borderless multinational banks. Why would the politicians in the sovereign states agree to self-destructive austerity deals rather than giving them the Icelandic Salute—a default and the finger? That’s easy, too; the banks own the politicians, probably via Cayman Island subsidiaries. (In the olden days, it would have been the Swiss, but their money-laundering ways are at risk.231) One of the many subplots is a mountain of credit default swaps that would break the banks if they were triggered.232 No problem: The banks refuse to declare the credit event. The banks get what the banks want.

The LTRO is particularly insidious because it subordinates existing debt, inducing a bad case of transurphobia (fear of haircuts). The more LTRO money, the less capital remains backing the existing debt.233 Which legal body gets to make this decision? That’s what the Troika is for—democracy not included. These guys are undermining the debt markets in fundamental ways.

The 2012 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union,234 rumored to be for “keeping their shit together” and for “displaying an unprecedented willingness to not start another world war.” The great part about this wave of absurd Nobel Peace Prizes is that, in theory, I could get one—a dollar and a dream.

A World Economic Forum (WEF) report says we must double global debt by 2020 (to $210 trillion) to keep the global economy growing.235 If that’s the price, shrinkage is sounding pretty rational. The killer phrase was that “most of the growth will come from the government segment.” That ain’t economic growth.

Let us not forget the troubles in the UK. Goldman announced that they were installing one of their boys (Mark Carney) as head of the Bank of England, prompting David Stockman to ask, “Is there any monetary post in the world not run by Goldman Sachs?”236 UK family debts are up by almost 50% in a year. That is serious slippage. The Bank of England cranked $140 billion into the system in one day—equivalent to 177% of the annual global gold production.237

The Brits et al. are eating a lot of "toast sandwiches," otherwise known as the "austerity sandwich"—two slices of bread wrapping a piece of toast (butter/salt optional).238 Irish taxpayers withheld property taxes in protest to the Troika. This smacks of a “peasant rebellion” claiming taxation without representation. With this history ringing in his ears, Sir Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, noted, “I have deep sympathy with those who are totally unconnected with the origins of the financial crisis who suddenly find that the returns on their savings have reached negligible levels. These are consequences of the painful adjustment prompted by the financial crisis and the need to rebalance our economy.”239 We feel your pain too, Sir Mervyn. Can I offer you a toast sandwich?

The whole mess has been summarized and bulleted by countless bloggers. A few are worth reading.240,241,242 Credit Swiss noted that “Portugal cannot rescue Greece, Spain cannot rescue Portugal, Italy cannot rescue Spain, France cannot rescue Italy, but Germany can rescue France.”243 Of course, in February Baghdad Ben Bernanke noted that "the ECB is well capitalized."

Asia

Asia is, by comparison, a relatively serene place. There was a seemingly ominous event when the Bank of Japan was said to be selling its bonds (JGBs) for the first time in years.244 This smelled like the beginning of a large deleveraging. Recent reports suggest that they are back to monetizing debt in a big way.245 Some bears such as Greg Weldon, Simon Johnson, and Kyle Bass view Japan as ground zero for financial carnage.246,247,248 Japan has spent 20 years losing 80% on the Nikkei—the so-called “lost decade” to those who can’t count—and now the carnage begins in earnest? Losing all of their nuclear reactors also seems ominous; I am guessing they were not using them as backup sources.249 Demographically, their population will continue to age for decades. This is not a pretty picture.

There are others who think China will be the source of fireworks. On the bearish side, you have Jim Chanos placing some serious shorts in position.250 You must take this as a serious omen. The average bloke does not understand the thoroughness of analyses by guys like Chanos and Einhorn. (Chanos, for example, was way ahead of all of Hewlett Packard’s auditors in detecting an $8 billion screwup in their purchase of Autonomy.251) Besides a bloated real estate market and terrible bank balance sheets, China is said to have a huge buildup of finished goods—channel stuffing—which will cause trouble at some point.252 This is consistent with often-cited suggestions that the authorities are terrified of unemployment and accompanying social unrest. On the other side, Stephen Roach and Jim Rogers, both highly respected market watchers, are rather enthusiastic about China. Years ago Rogers predicted strife in China would come to a head, and that would be the time to buy. I am quite confident, however, that I have no prayer of understanding China either now or in retrospect.

The Baltic Dry Index253 is a widely followed indicator of global economic activity (Figure 18). As you can see, the global economy is looking a little green around the gills.254

Figure 18. Baltic Dry Index as an indicator of global economic well being.254

I leave this section with an aside that is too curious to ignore. We were told this year that Japan had unwisely dumped $138 billion into Lehman before the company’s collapse and were promptly reimbursed by the Fed.255 Makes you wonder about those two Japanese businessmen caught crossing the Italian border with $134 billion of Treasury bonds.256 The Treasury denounced them as fake, but the Italians thought they were real. Who could launder them? (Silly question: HSBC would gladly do so for a cut.)

Government Corruption

Geithner heard this information and looked the other way. Geithner and other regulators should be held accountable, they should be fired across the board. If they knew about an ongoing fraud, and they didn't do anything about it, they don't deserve to have their jobs. I hope we see people in handcuffs.

~ Neil Barofsky, Special Inspector General of TARP

What we’re showing here is that cronyism is now permeating our justice system.

~ Peter Schweizer, author of Throw Them All Out

2012 witnessed plenty of government corruption. It is my thesis that corruption within government is getting worse for three reasons: (1) government is a larger percentage of our peacetime GDP than in any other time in history, (2) thanks to the Supreme Court, unlimited funds flooding into election cycles drown out all other interests, and (3) profound financialization of the economy—movement of money for the sake of money—due to unprecedented Fed interventions and deficit Federal spending aggregates criminal elements and elicits criminal behavior. To put it simply, the crime syndicates all had IPOs. Almost without fail the punishments for white-collar crime—really substantial graft—are a small percentage of the booty obtained from the crime. Failures to investigate and prosecute men of wealth and power are emblematic of a kakistocracy—government by the most unprincipled.

Attorney General Eric Holder was up to his ears in dirt. Holder’s law firm defended Corzine against prosecution by Holder’s Department of Justice.257 The law firm won that battle. This was the same Eric Holder who was charged with contempt of Congress for not forking up information about the “Fast and Furious” Mexican arms deals.258 This was the putative sting in which Federal agents sold arms to Mexicans to track the arms but somehow forgot to include tracking devices. Congress also appears to have forgotten to follow up on the contempt charge. I asked Peter Dale Scott, a UC Berkeley octogenarian and multi-decade scholar on the politics of drug cartels, if he knew what the real story was behind Fast and Furious. He assured me that “there is something very wrong with the picture and the official explanation for it.” Oddly, the investigation into the arms deals was terminated by...you guessed it, the Obama Department of Justice.259 That would be Eric Holder.

The authorities continue to cauterize the wounds from the mortgage fiasco by out-of-court settlements with banks, allowing no admission of guilt, no criminal prosecutions, and cash settlements representing small fractions of the profits. (I get in more trouble for leaving the seat up.) We thought the authorities finally levied a severe fine on the banks and brokerages with a sizeable $25 billion settlement for fraudulent foreclosures, only to find that most of the money—all but a few billion dollars—came from the bailout money and even their own write-downs of losses on defaulted mortgages.260 Dean Baker notes that Obama gave bankers immunity from prosecution, and in return, bankers agree to accept government money to cut mortgage principle.261 Everything but the reduction in mortgage principal came to pass.

Although this is not easily prosecuted corruption, the racketeering (RICO) laws seem appropriate. To clarify, I am recommending RICO laws be used on the government officials who participated. Even the document that represented the attorneys generals’ settlements with the banks was shown to be fraudulent.262 The New York Times reported that money intended for homeowners in the fraud settlement, as little as it was, got diverted by the states into general operating funds.263

Walmart got caught bribing Mexican politicians to foster their business interests South of the Border.264 Somebody bribed the Mexicans? Shocking indeed. This does not happen in the U.S. because we have registered lobbyists. Those same lobbyists will ensure that Walmart’s transition to redemption is seamless.

The SEC, to evade a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suit, expunged data pertaining to Citigroup as part of their catch-and-release program.265 Citigroup is protected by the Rubin mafia. This is politics Geithner Style. It will be interesting to see where the starting lineup for Team Obama ends up after they finish their first term. The FOIA by Bloomberg showed how the revolving door totally commandeered the Dodd-Frank act to make sure it was banking-friendly.266 The average salary boost on passing through the government-Wall Street revolving door is estimated at 1400%.267 I’m sure that top dogs like Geithner will do considerably better. Don’t let the revolving door hit you guys in the butts.

Another proud moment for the Obama administration’s push for alternative funding energy: Electric car battery maker Ener1, which received more than $100 million in government handouts, has filed for bankruptcy protection.268 I’m beginning to suspect cronyism here! Peter Schweizer’s book Throw Them All Out (vide infra) documented in repulsive detail the shovel-ready cronyism that occurred during the financial crisis.

There were old-school politics going on when Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour left office. On his way out the door he pardoned a number of seedy characters, including eight men convicted of killing their wives or girlfriends.269 The Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the decision. In Mississippi, the Rule of Law is a bad joke, and True Blood is a documentary. We have, however, not plumbed the level of the Thai politicians. A Thai senator shot his secretary with a machine gun in a restaurant and got a $625 fine for it.270 Very Cheney-esque.

If you want some fun, find the Clinton pardons. The original list I saw had over 1,100 and was easily located. The list was laced with drug busts and bank frauds. I can only find partial lists now. Even so, the number who were in prison for drugs or some form of bank fraud is striking.271 This would partially explain how Clinton left office burdened by onerous legal fees and now has an estimated net worth of $80 million.272 That’s a lot of honoraria for rubber chicken dinners. Tony Blair also seems to have laundered serious money into shell companies.273

State Supreme Court judges run for office in 38 states. Jeffrey Toobin warns us that the lobbyists discovered them in the mid-90s and are diverting some of their resources.274 In 1990 candidates for state supreme courts only raised around $3 million…in the races to the high courts, candidates now raise more than $50 million.

The government sold $5 billion worth of AIG stock acquired during the bailouts. AIG bought $2 billion of it, presumably using money from government bailouts. AIG was shockingly profitable owing to $17 billion of tax credits (gifts by the taxpayer).275

Harvard had a publicly embarrassing cheating scandal in which over a hundred kids in one course were accused of plagiarizing. What course would warrant such bad behavior? Introduction to Congress.276 I’m sure the kids will do better in their Introduction to Ethics in their MBA programs.

Recall the must-see Miami Vice episode entitled, “Prodigal Son?”277 Tubbs and Crocket trace the drug money straight to a wrinkly old banker who explains that the drug money ensures payment of South American bank debt. I remember at the it time that made sense, and it seems haunting now. It is rumored that Mr. Burns in the Simpsons was modeled after the Miami Vice banker.

Civil Liberties and the Constitution

There is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning.

~ John F. Kennedy, former President of the United States

There may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless may pose a threat to the security of the United States.

~ Barack Obama, President of the United States

One of my favorite bloggers, Charles Hugh Smith, cogently summarized instances in which incarceration was used to protect democracy and civil liberties.278 How ironic. Doug Casey provided a haunting account of creeping fascism in Germany in the ‘30s and how it occurs incrementally.279 It is an easy case to make that we are in a battle to preserve civil liberties simply because every year is a battle to preserve civil liberties. Civil liberties are forfeited one at a time. The battle lines are being drawn. You should fight every fight, no matter how big or small.

There is an ongoing battle for ultimate control of the Internet. Legislation includes the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the Protect IP Act (PIPA), and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).280,281 Superficially they are designed to achieve the named goals. The notion is that pirating sites can be blocked if they are interfering with trade. Their reach, however, is far greater. An accusation alone is sufficient to block a web site prior to any clear evidence of guilt.282 Authorities could shut down search engines Yahoo, Google, or Bing suspected of enabling these hooligans. SOPA got shelved after there was, ironically, a massive Internet-derived protest. The digital world has taken our lives by storm. The Internet is as profoundly democratic as Gutenberg’s printing press. Keep it wide-open at all costs. Efforts to control information flow will keep appearing like the proverbial camel nose under the tent. And here comes the next one on cue in 3…2…1…enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)!283

The implications of armed drones are staggering. We are not the only country with drones; they are proliferating around the globe. We managed to survive thermonuclear risk for half a century, and yet we find ourselves racing toward a Skynet-like drone war of staggering magnitude. The skies will be littered with drones like aerial minefields. It is terrorism to those on the receiving end, causing blowback to be almost a certainty. Congress passed a law opening U.S. skies to unmanned drones.284 Companies are lining up to launch them—an estimated 30,000 drones within a few years285—forming a nouveau industrial-military complex. As a guy who finds automated speed-monitoring devices irritating and automated ticketing profoundly disturbing, the drones make me crazy. Even if unarmed, is this not Constitutionally prohibited unlawful search? What event will elicit armed variants to protect us from the bad guys? And if all that isn’t spooky enough, the drones are being engineered for autonomous (human-free) response.286

Digital monitoring of “crimes against traffic” frees up police for more hands-on police work. Petty arrests now justify strip searches. The Economist describes increasing predilections toward stop-and-frisk policies within the cities.287 Legal scholar Jonathan Turley estimates that over 700,000 unwarranted stop-and-frisk searches occur each year in NYC alone.288

Jonathan Turley also notes that the Administration claims the right to assassinate a U.S. citizen either here or abroad, and it would seem that we did such a thing.289 Of course, the target deserved it because he undermined America! The FBI has described extremists as those who “may refuse to pay taxes, defy government environmental regulations, and believe the United States went bankrupt by going off the gold standard."290 Y’all should be careful because you never know what is flying 50,000 feet right above your heads. Obama is the only Nobel Peace Prize winner with a kill list. God save the poor soul spotted by drones entering Manhattan with a Big Gulp. Mayor Bloomberg’s war on Big Soda could turn violent.

Sergey Aleynikov was arrested in 2009 for the most egregious of crimes—stealing software from Goldman Sachs. The Goldman Stasi are good at their jobs, getting him into custody within hours. In 2010, he was convicted and sentenced to 8 years in jail for this profitless crime despite the probation office’s recommendation of 2 years.291 The system seemed to correct itself when the United States Court of Appeals threw the case out in 2012, ruling the source code was not a "stolen good.”292 It was a pyrrhic victory for Aleynikov. They arrested him again using a different jurisdiction to avoid double jeopardy.

Joshua Dressler, a criminal law professor at Ohio State University said that “it was highly unlikely that the separate Federal and state prosecutions in the Aleynikov case would violate the Constitution.” I think they just did. At least now Sergey doesn’t have to start his car in fear.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was enacted to protect us against terrorists.294 Of course it was. It provided government authority to incarcerate an American citizen indefinitely without access to legal defense or the courts. Protestors challenging the unlawful incarceration were (you got it) arrested.295 In September, a Federal judge ruled it was not even in the same zip code as the Constitution and put a permanent injunction to protect us.296 Here’s the really troubling part: It had been passed by a large majority in Congress and a 91:9 vote in the Senate, and signed by President Obama. When the outcry began in earnest, Obama assured us that his administration would never act recklessly. I beg to differ: Signing the bill was reckless. I’ll take it a step further: Signing the bill was treason. Read your job description, Mr. President. Watch for that part about upholding the Constitution. And by the way, Team Obama is fighting the injunction.297

There is little doubt that municipalities in the sand states would do almost anything to dig themselves out of the mortgage crisis. The brain trust in San Bernardino, with the legal help of one of my colleagues (Professor Robert Hockett) got the idea to use eminent domain to commandeer underwater mortgages—mortgages that exceed the value of the house.298 The idea is to pay “fair value” (red flag!), bundle them up (red flag!), and sell them to private investors (red flags!). There would be no shortage of cronies willing to buy up these bundles. The subplot might be that this is a veiled attempt to clean up the MERS boondoggle that is causing foreclosures to throw the title of houses into a legal vortex. As preposterous as this sounds, it’s probably Constitutional given the eminent domain case in Connecticut that some believe drove Sandra Day O’Conner to retire from the court.299 It may, however, be illegal in California.300

The Citizens United suit gave Super PACS their unlimited political power by allowing them to spend unlimited money on political campaigns provided they follow a few guidelines.301 Journalist and civil servant Jim Hightower referred to the majority justices as "five traitors to the democratic ideal.” It is indeed odd that support for freedom of speech may have profoundly oppressed free speech. A banking Super PAC overtly promoted by American Banker is blood curdling in its goal to defeat any candidate that is not friendly to banks.302 A suit to ban excessive donations in Montana got nuked.303 According to the Supreme Court, money is speech. As a corollary, if you don’t have money, you will lack a voice.

Corporate civil rights seem to be in the news. An Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protestor carried a sign, "We will know corporations are people when Texas executes one." It seems clear that corporate civil liberties without civil responsibilities is a problem. It is not true, however, that this was a recent or rapid change. Organizations began to accrue Constitutional protections beginning with a case of Dartmouth College versus the State of New Hampshire in 1819. Ted Nace’s Gangs of America tracks through the Supreme Court decisions that incrementally granted civil liberties to corporations. Despite the hyperbolic title, it is a balanced, scholarly analysis.

Why are civil liberties eroding? One notion is that tension between the central planners and free market crowd led to a societal compromise in the 1930s. Capitalism was allowed to flourish, but with safeguards to keep communistic ideals in check. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Block, the proletariat (in the U.S., that is) had no alternative system to keep powerful individuals mindful of their needs. Glass Steagall fell in the late 90s, the banking cartels grew, and wealth disparity—financial apartheid—emerged.

Limits of Government

A sinking economy requires stimulus from two agents, the Federal Reserve and the government.

~ Rich Yamarone, Director of Argus Research

During the time of the Soviet Union the role of the state in economy was made absolute, which eventually led to the total non-competitiveness of the economy…I am sure no one would want history to repeat itself.

~ Vladimir Putin, communist

We have witnessed a seemingly endless battle for the Grand Compromise between those supporting central planning versus market forces. 18th century economist Edmund Burke warned of the role of intellectuals trafficking in snark and trumpeted the Law of Unintended Consequences. Burke also recognized the wealth disparity in 18th-century France and accurately predicted the murderous end result. 19th-century economist Alexi de Tocqueville described the genius of America as not the equality of outcome but rather equality in the eyes of the law. 20th-century economist Joseph Schumpeter also viewed intellectuals with disdain and capitalism not as flawed but fragile. Friedrich Hayek, famous for his opposition to John Maynard Keynes, supported the notion of social safety nets, just not so many and not so invasive. I think Hayek’s stroke of insight was recognizing significant analogies with Darwinian evolution to understand that complex systems arise and persist more by trial and error than by explicit human engineering. Hayek’s Fatal Conceit describes the folly of intellectuals thinking they are smart enough to mess with free markets, hoping to obtain only intended consequences. My reading of Keynes is that he was a profound interventionist—a knob twirler—and was also a radical socialist.

The Yamarone quote illustrates that we have degenerated to a society in which even the big money guys—supposedly the bright bulbs—think that government will solve our problems. While watching a Yale panel discussion on the economy, I was struck by the explicit endorsement of government solutions by the panelists.304 Apparently, we are all Keynesians now. I could buy into a variant of the Keynesian model in which government acts as a financially interested party, buying goods and services when they are cheap and pulling back when they are expensive. It would naturally be counter-cyclical. Unfortunately, there is no chance it will ever work that way. Paraphrasing my dad who was paraphrasing Milton Friedman, government does everything inefficiently, so don’t ask them to do more than you must. It’s not about the morality of what government does; it’s about the low quality and horrendous inefficiency.

Hernando De Soto warns that the U.S. is forfeiting a critical feature that distinguishes it from Third World countries—well-defined property rights. The MERS catastrophe that threw the title of millions of properties into question was an 80-car pile-up on a foggy freeway that will be corrected by legal fiat. By contrast, mutation of the banking system into a cartel, while by no means unprecedented, is a serious problem. Now that this gargantuan organism has control, there is no means to wrestle it back. When you can purchase a politician for $100,000, how can we expect real change? The Citizens United case that opened the political process to unlimited capital is profound because attempts to unring that bell are opposed by unlimited capital. The power of the banking trusts has gone beyond the failsafe point. The Fed—the One Ring that controls them all—is the key. It will be a long trek to the Crack of Doom.

Challenges to our civil liberties, overreach of eminent domain, domestic drone surveillance, and attempts by elected officials to knowingly subvert Constitutional rights all attest to the insidious Orwellian creep of government into our lives. It is not obvious to me that we can negotiate our way out of this one. Some problems do not have solutions if you define a solution as a fix with tolerable pain. I suspect that resolution will occur, but it will be something historic. We are in a barrel speeding down the Niagara River toward the Falls. This is not an episode of Batman or McGyver: all palatable solutions have passed. We will experience the Falls up front and personal. Those in power will claim they did their best when, in fact, they were the root cause. Bernanke, one of the reputed world’s experts on the Great Depression, never mentions loose monetary policy in the 1920s as the cause. It is a lie by omission; a profound one at that.

I close with a simple directive: Watch Ron Paul’s farewell speech to Congress.305 You owe it to yourself. He’s the one that got away. To paraphrase Marlon Brando, “He coulda been a contender.” If you’ve had enough of darkness, try this John Cleese seminar on creativity306—it’s brilliant—or this photo montage of history’s most epic photos.307 Soon I will be off like a prom dress, but first I wish to share the books that I read this year, and the all-important acknowledgements.

Books

Every year I summarize books that I read. I am a slow reader so I try to chose them carefully. I’ve overdosed on crisis books for over a decade (beginning with crisis foreshadowing books) but succumbed to the temptation a few more times. I also slipped back into pop psychology mode.

The Clash of Economic Ideas: The Great Policy Debates and Experiments of the Last Hundred Years by Lawrence H. White

White describes the debates that took place throughout the 20th century, pitting the free market advocates against the central planners. Although White shows his colors as a free marketeer, he does a beautiful job of letting the reader ponder the debate rather than force-feeding the conclusion. The book might not be wonky enough for the pros, but I found it to be very scholarly—a great book for a wide swath of macroeconomic enthusiasts. This is the stuff economists-in-training seem to miss in modern curricula. I took the plunge prompted by an Econtalk interview of the author.308

Broken Markets: How High Frequency Trading and Predatory Practices on Wall Street are Destroying Investor Confidence and Your Portfolio by Sal L. Arnuk and Joseph C. Saluzzi

I don’t really know Sal Arnuk but am a big fan of Joe Saluzzi, occasionally swapping barbs about the horrendous price discovery process in modern markets. Joe and Sal describe in detail how high frequency traders are eroding the foundations of the markets—not just equity markets—through their relentless game of high-frequency Whac-A-Mole. Although Sal’s and Joe’s knowledge of the markets and passion for change is uncontestable, their frustration at times overwhelms the prose. I recommend the book, but some enthusiasm for trading may be required to nudge this book into the five-star group.

Bull by the Horns: Fighting to Save Main Street from Wall Street and Wall Street from Itself by Sheila Bair

I wasn’t going to touch this book if it were not for a personal endorsement from Chris Whalen. Bair, Chair of the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation), describes the incredible turf wars and petty battles below the surface of the bailouts. I previously had sensed Sheila was one of the good guys; the book reinforced it. She describes Bernanke as generally well-meaning, Geithner as a relentlessly pro-Citigroup promoter and Rubin pawn (to the point of racketeering), and a host of others who clearly need severe beatings. It is an antidote to the highly lopsided Sorkin treatise, Too Big to Fail. Here is a Bair interview.309

Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street by Neil Barofsky

Neil entered the crisis plotline as the young, feisty special investigator general to oversee the TARP bailout (SIG-TARP). From his presentation, he was green and naïve, unready for the thugs he would be dealing with. By example, he figured out relatively late in the game that the gaping holes in the bailouts used by the banks to siphon trillions from the Fed were left there by design, not by mistake. The big loser is Geithner, who comes across yet again as a despicable human being. I was disappointed not to get more insight into Elizabeth Warren’s role as Chair of the TARP oversight committee. Barofsky has done many interviews; an Econtalk variant is particularly thorough.310

Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner

This is an excellent and detailed analysis of the financial crisis, deeply probing the mortgage industry’s role (more than simply explaining the basics found in all of the crisis books.) Some may find this old news that they would like to put behind them. My only caveat is that one should read this book or Nocera and McLean’s All the Devils Are Here, but not both.

The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order by Benn Steil

Benn is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) with what I would call an Austrian economic slant. The book will be released in March. In it, Steil describes a fascinating battle between Harry Dexter White and John Maynard Keynes before, at, and after the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference in which the future world currency regime was hammered out. We get deeply insider views of the events in a prose and presentation that I found gripping. Keynes’s role as a diplomat, unknown to many, may have been his most important single contribution. Heads up: Steve Hanke of the Cato Institute and Johns Hopkins University also has a book on the Bretton Woods Conference coming.

Throw Them All Out: How Politicians and Their Friends Get Rich Off Insider Stock Tips, Land Deals, and Cronyism That Would Send the Rest of us to Prison by Peter Schweizer

Many may know Schweizer from a 60 Minutes episode that revealed broadly based, scandalous insider trading by Congress that is legal for them. This is the book upon which the 60 Minutes episode was based. Schweizer tells horror story after horror story of graft that would get normal citizens sent to prison. What is appalling is how often they sell the taxpayer out by billions of dollars so that they can make a few hundred thousand dollars. Obama comes out looking particularly bad as the author describes how shovel-ready projects were really about massive kickbacks for campaign donors. It was not, however, a partisan hatchet job.

Thinking About Capitalism by Jerry Z. Muller and Modern Economic Issues by Robert Whaples

These two trimester-length audio books from The Teaching Company focus on basic principles of economics from a decidedly descriptive slant (as mandated by audio).311 It’s easy listening stuff that is appropriate for those trying to become comfortable with foundational principles. I liked them because they provide these principles in particularly clear and cogent prose. Never pay retail; they go on sale at 80% discount many times during the year.

The Clash of Generations: Saving Ourselves, Our Kids, and Our Economy by Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Scott Burns

This is a follow up to Kotlikoff’s The Coming Generational Storm describing the impending problems from off-balance sheet obligations. The authors, in conjunction with Kent Smetters, did the seminal studies on unfunded liabilities—promises that are unfunded even when projected tax revenues are subtracted. The authors now estimate them at over $200 trillion. I found the The Coming Generational Storm more appropriate for my needs. The clash of generations is part warning and part investment book for those who are not familiar with this issue. I think the authors manifest ‘doomsayer’s fatigue’—the need to be optimistic after years of seeing a dismal future. I am, nonetheless, a huge Kotlikoff fan.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann

Kahnemann is probably the most prominent contributor to behavioral economics, garnering him the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. He works with Nassim Taleb and appears to be Taleb’s mentor. Thinking Fast and Slow presents the constant battle between the instinctive thoughts and more decidedly cognitive reasoning, explaining how we make decisions and how they can go astray. It is more thoughtful than Gladwell’s Blink, sometimes demanding deeper thought.

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

Lehrer’s book came recommended via an Econtalk interview.312 It is yet another Blink-genre book looking into how humans make decisions. I love these books but this treatise is presented at a much lower level than Kahnemann’s and is remarkably similar to a book entitled Sway by Ori and Rom Brafman. Consumers of pop psychology should probably check out Ed Yong’s interview on Econtalk discussing the underlying flaws in this type of social science.313

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

Surowiecki discusses how collections of people with limited individual insights, if acting truly independently, display collective "wisdom" and how that wisdom is lost when they start acting in a correlated fashion. There are many cute snippets describing the results that, at times, become a little too loosely connected. Aficionados of this genre will find it both fun but partially redundant to other works (Taleb; Kahnemann; Gladwell).

My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor

Jill, a Harvard neurophysiologist, wakes up one morning and finds herself having a stroke in the highly rational left brain. Her deductive reasoning goes on- and off-line, throttling her back and forth between euphoria and panic. The story describes the stroke and the long recovery in hysterically funny prose from an especially insightful perspective of a neurophysiologist. I found the audio book to be an excellent medium.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

In case you’ve been living under a rock, this fully sanctioned biography that was in no way edited by Steve or his family is simply the best biography I’ve ever read. You get a bird’s-eye view of the computer revolution from soup to nuts through the detailed stories and words of all of the key players. Steve was a unique personality with a unique ability to translate unimaginable compulsive behavior into profound success rather than total failure. My conclusion: Sell any shares of Apple Computer because it ain’t the same company without Steve.

Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg

Ellsberg describes the events leading up to, during, and following the release of the Pentagon Papers, the media-driven exposé of nefarious activities by a string of administrations. It is not really about the content of the papers. Presidents who lie to the American populace seem rather pedestrian in this era. It was interesting but only in the four-star category.

Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations by Professor Brian M. Fagan

I have listened to dozens of trimester-length courses provided by The Teaching Company as audio books.314 With only one exception, they have been great. In this course, Fagan does a great job of following the lineage from the origins of humans starting about 8 million years ago through to the ancient (pre-historic) civilizations across all continents. It’s both informative and very easy listening. Reminder: Never pay retail for these books: they go on 80% sale routinely, bringing the price down to about $70.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

Bonhoeffer was a cleric and a spy in Nazi Germany who eventually gets executed for his role in a conspiracy to kill Hitler. (That is not a plot spoiler; the author tells you he died right up front.) The biography describes the church-state battle, which was very new to me. In my opinion, however, there was way too much church and not enough state. Despite over 500 bonkers reviews at Amazon I found it to be boring.

Acknowledgements

OK. This ain’t a book; it’s just a friggin’ blog. I’ve got to take this opportunity, however, to thank some folks who have generously shared their time and insights so as to make thinking about capitalism a special experience. You guys have made a difference. Chris Martenson brings gravitas to the debate on resource depletion and, in conjunction with Adam Taggart, graciously publishes my Reviews and invited me for my favorite interview.315 Rick Sherlund of Goldman Sachs/Nomura and friend of 40 years inadvertently and unknowingly triggered a discontinuity in my perception of markets with the most innocuous of statements. Bloomberg reporters are especially accessible. I have exchanged hundreds of emails with Mark Gilbert, head of Bloomberg’s London Office, Caroline Baum, and many other colleagues. Dave Lewis, a former Louis Bacon protégé and scholar of a higher order I call a friend although we meet up only sporadically. I have had dozens of exchanges with an eclectic mix of characters ranging from Elizabeth Warren on the left and Lew Rockwell on the way right. Within that enormous chasm includes multiple and meaningful exchanges with Stephen Roach (Morgan Stanley), James Howard Kunstler, Art Cutten (Jesse’s Café Americain), Byron King (Agora), John Rubino, Bill Fleckenstein, Benn Steil (CFR), Gerard Minack (Morgan Stanley), Doug Noland (Federated Investors), Richard Daughty, Jack Crooks, Grant Williams, and Jim Rickards. I thank Richard Uhlig, former CEO of Morgan Stanley’s banking subsidiary, for giving a two-hour guest lecture on mortgage-backed securities in my honors chemistry class. (The kids loved it!) Meetings and conversations with economists Larry Kotlikoff and Steve Hanke are enormously appreciated. I have especially cherished numerous exchanges with David Einhorn, a truly unique individual and intellect, culminating in a meeting with David and subsequent breakfast with his parents. (Mom is quite the bear.) I was profoundly honored when David Weidner included me in a WSJ article on the flash crash and Demetri Kofinas and Lauren Lyster invited me to do an amazing interview on Capital Account.7 These experiences are special and wholly orthogonal to my exposure in chemistry. Lastly, Bruce Ganem rekindled my interest in markets, politics, and economics. Our colleagues will never forgive you.

David B. Collum

Betty R. Miller Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology

Cornell University

dbc6@cornell.edu

@DavidBCollum

Links

The superscripted links are found here.

 

Full pdf version of this epic review here.

LIBOR-gate Comes To Crude: Total Exposes Price Fixing In The Energy Market

While the recent revelations of multi-year LIBOR manipulation (but, but how was that possible: it involved thousands of people, operating for years, manipulating numbers - all the traditional reasons presented against conspiracy theory crackpots alleging that manipulation may be going on here, or there, or at the BLS, or somewhere), which we had said had been happening for the past 3 years, confirmed that the entire rate-based derivative market was a giant scam, at least one market spared from cartel whistleblower, i.e., insider, humiliation, was the commodities market. No longer. As the FT first reported, a Swiss trading office of Total Oil Trading sent a response letter to IOSCO (the International Organization of Securities Commissions), alleging that the same kinds of market "pricing" shennanigans that have been now exposed to have taken place over bottles of Bollinger, may have been pervasive in the crude market as well.

From the letter which may have set off the same avalanche in the energy markets as the Barclays "settlement" did for rates:

TOTAL is a subscriber to the major PRA services for the energy markets (oil, gas, coal, power, CO2, and biofuels). The work done by the PRAs can generally be considered conscientious and professional. However, the published prices do not always represent those of the market with the same degree of accuracy. This heterogeneity exists both within individual PRAs and between PRAs. As well, the quality of the reporting is not always consistent over time. Finally, while certain PRAs have pricing processes that are reproducible using the underlying data, others do not (the principal difference being the use of “judgement” that may bias prices away rather than toward the market).

Barclays (only one bank for now, soon many others) already showed us in all too criminal (yet neither admitting nor denying guilt) terms what "judgment" means in the context of conflict of "interest rate" price setting. It means precisely the same in the energy market.

And while it was the BBA in the role of ringleader for the Libor scandal, it appears when it comes to commodity price fixing, the entity behind the scenes is Platts:

Very approximately, for all transactions linked to PRA prices, Platts represent 90% to 95% of transactions on crude 85% to 90% of transactions on products, and 85% to 90% of OTC derivative transactions. The remaining share is covered by Argus and other PRAs which are present in niche markets.

 

Traders, buyers, and marketers depend upon the PRA prices as a source of market references for on-going transactions. Oil market players contribute to the price assessment process by reporting their deals (ensuring the assessed prices take them into account). This interdependence between the PRAs and the oil market players defines the price discovery process.

 

Platts (the dominant price reporting agency) imposes a methodology that does not furnish a market price (based on the day’s prices) but rather a price to the market.

 

Sometimes the criteria imposed by PRAs do not assure an accurate representation of the market and consequently deform the real price levels paid at every level of the price chain, including by the consumer. The difference in methodologies between Platts and Argus is the greater integration of the shape of the forward price curve by Platts than by Argus (or ICIS or APPI, etc). Accordingly, when the market is in strong backwardation, Platts spot prices are lower than the rest and in contango they are higher.

 

Inaccurate pricing is not simply an issue regarding the pricing of OTC contracts. Margins for refiners and retailers as well as prices for end-users are directly impacted by erroneous prices.

The conclusion:

Where these margins are particularly narrow (such as in Europe) the volatility and uncertainty in PRA pricing methodologies can be very detrimental to the financial health of the companies concerned.

We doubt we need to get into the nuances of what happens when a cartel marks prices to a central distribution warehouse instead of market (we have done that already for the CDS market and for LIBOR), and what happens when surreality can no longer be sustained and all these market trading vehciles have to reprice to fair market values. Can one spell margin call driven liquidations?

And there you have it: while the commodity cartel had managed to keep quiet in the golden years, when everyone was making money, now that it is time to cull the competition, one by one the cartel members are stepping up and breaching the fundamental rule of the prisoner's dillemma: don't defect.

And just like in the Libor scandal one defection was enough to destroy the entire Libor-based market, so Total likely set the precedent for everyone else to follow suit and expose their competitors for unfair and potentially illlegal practices. Because if they don't do it first, the risk is someone else will do it to them. Finally, remember that in the new normal, a banker is a lawyer's biggest... enemy.

This is the FT's assessment as well, which unsurprisingly exposes the same key cities as have dominated the LIBOR scandal:

The unusually candid public comments by the trading arm of Total have broken the omertà of the energy physical trading industry, a close-knit community in London, Geneva, Singapore and Houston where disputes are usually settled in private.

And for those curious just who the commodity "cartel" consists of, here are some names that would prefer Total never existed (all of which provided response letters to IOSCO praising the pricing mechanism... of course):

  • ISDA
  • CME
  • ICE
  • Saudi Aramco
  • BP
  • ARGUS
  • API
  • GFMA
  • IBGE
  • CEAG
  • IATA
  • ICIS
  • LEBA
  • Platts

Or, in other words, the entire energy market status quo.

Full Total letter (pdf)

 

Central Bank Gold Buying Surges To Over Over 70.3 Tonnes In April

Gold’s London AM fix this morning was USD 1,558.50, EUR 1,239.27, and GBP 993.62 per ounce. Yesterday's AM fix this morning was USD 1,555.00, EUR 1,229.44, and GBP 989.56 per ounce.

Gold fell $5.60 or 0.36% in New York yesterday and closed at $1,561.20/oz. Gold has been trading sideways in Asia and was slightly lower in Europe prior to buying which saw gold rise to about the close in New York yesterday. 

Fears about Greece and the EU after the EU summit came up short on delivering a grand solution to solve the debt crisis are supporting gold at these levels and leading to some safe haven buying.

EU leaders once again failed to agree to plans with regards to the increasing possibility that Greece exits the euro. Instead, Greece was again urged to continue to meet targets and continue the austerity to complete the ‘bailout’ schedule. 

Meanwhile, the crisis is being compounded by the increasing insolvency of Spanish banks and indeed Spain itself. 

Spain announced a 9 billion euro ($11 billion) bailout of Bankia on Wednesday, and endeavoured to find new ways to meet its demanding financing needs which may pull the country deeper into the eurozone crisis.  The Irish NAMA style solution of creative accounting and kicking the can down the road is being looked at rather than the more prudent, but short term painful, winding down of all the ‘bad’ insolvent Spanish banks.

Gold may struggle to make gains over the coming trading session ahead of the expiry of monthly US options. However, sharp gains could be seen after option expiration – as has often been the case in recent years.

Reuters report that traders said that because the underlying June futures price was trading roughly between $1,550 and $1,600, where most at-the-money open interest was clustered, it was not clear which would exert a greater “gravitational pull” on the gold price.

Most open interest, which reflects investor positioning, is located at $1,550 and $1,600, with a firm bias towards the $1,550 level where gold may be guided towards.

Puts, options that give the holder the right, but not the obligation to sell a predetermined amount of an asset at a set price by a certain date, outnumber calls, or buy options, by nearly 2:1.


Gold 1 Year – (Bloomberg)

The massive reversal higher in the gold mining shares yesterday which saw an outside day reversal to the upside and over 4% gains in the XAU and HUI is another sign that we may be close to a bottom.

Central Banks Still Significant Buyers On Gold Dip
Central banks internationally continue to diversify their foreign exchange reserves into gold bullion due to concerns about fiat currencies – including the dollar and especially the euro.

IMF data shows that central banks were again net buyers in April with Turkey and Philippines being the largest buyers of gold.

The Philippines increased their gold holdings significantly by 32.13 tonnes to 194.241 tonnes in March – a 17% increase in their gold reserves in the month. 

It was the single largest addition Philippines has made since September 2008. They have been pretty consistent buyers of gold over the last few years, but the 17% increase in April was another big rise.

Turkey expanded its gold reserves by 29.7 metric tons in April. Turkey’s bullion reserves climbed to 239.3 tons last month meaning that Turkey increased their gold reserves by 14% in April.

The central bank on March 27 doubled the share of lira reserves banks can hold in gold to 20%, saying it would provide 6.1 billion liras ($3.3 billion) of extra liquidity. 

Mexico increased gold holdings by 2.92 tonnes to 125.5 tonnes in April. 

Kazakhstan raised gold holdings by 2.02 tonnes to 98.19 tonnes in April. 

Ukraine upped gold reserves by 1.4 tonnes to 30.607 tonnes in April. 

Sri Lanka raised gold reserves by 2.177 tonnes to 7.807 tonnes in January. There is a delay in Sri Lanakan gold reserve reporting to the IMF.

Central banks added 456.4 tons last year, the most in almost five decades, and will buy as much as 400 tons this year, the London-based World Gold Council estimates. 


Cross Currency Table – (Bloomberg)

While the gold tonnage demand from central banks in recent months has been significant, gold remains a tiny fraction of most central banks, especially emerging market creditor nations such as China, foreign exchange reserves and therefore the trend is sustainable and indeed may accelerate.

Central bank reserve diversification into gold may increase given the Eurozone debt crisis and the risk of debt crisis spreading to Japan, the UK and the U.S.

Indeed, there is the increasing possibility that some G8 debtor nations, such as the UK and Japan, may decide to once again add to their gold reserves in order to protect their currencies and guard against the risk of devaluations of the euro, dollar, yen, pound and a wider international monetary crisis. 

Price is not a determining factor in central bank buying rather they are more likely being guided to secure an allocation of a percentage of their overall foreign exchange reserves into gold bullion.

Sovereign government buying of gold is likely to support gold at these levels and indeed could be the driver to higher prices in the coming weeks and months.

OTHER NEWS
(Bloomberg) -- Gold Is ‘Good Value’ Below $1,600, Outlook Positive
Important hedge against several trends, incl. inflation risk, devaluation and depreciation of major currencies, Coutts investment officers Alan Higgins and Norman Villamin write in client note dated yesterday.

? See elevated risks of sovereign default

? Short- and long-term outlook underpinned by buying from central banks, emerging-market investors, most notably in China.

(Bloomberg) -- Coffee, Cotton Plunge on Demand Concerns: Commodities at Close

The Standard & Poor’s GSCI gauge of 24 commodities fell 1.9 percent to settle at 616.29 at 3:43 p.m. in New York, led by coffee and cotton, sliding on demand concerns.

The UBS Bloomberg CMCI index of 26 raw materials declined 1.6 percent to 1,464.29.

(Bloomberg) -- World’s Largest Platinum Mine Halted as Workers Stay Away 
Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd. said miners stayed away from work at the world’s largest platinum mine, its Rustenburg operation in South Africa, for a third day as two rival labor unions clash for dominance.

“What’s clear is that there won’t be any work today,” Johan Theron, a group executive for personnel at Johannesburg- based Impala, said by mobile phone. Groups of people blocked entrance roads to the mine, preventing some who wanted to work from accessing the site, northwest of the city, he said. Impala is applying for a court order to force employees to return to work, the company said in a statement.

Union rivalry and a pay dispute prompted an illegal strike in January and February, costing more than 120,000 ounces of lost platinum production, according to Bloomberg calculations. The mine produces about 3,000 ounces of platinum a day. The National Union of Mineworkers, the country’s largest miners’ union, has been dominant at Rustenburg for more than a decade.

Miners refused to go underground on May 21 after hearing some of their colleagues had been arrested, Impala said yesterday. Two workers were arrested on charges of attempted murder after one person was shot and wounded at the mine on May 17, according to the South African Police Service website.

“Prolonged production disruption or delays in the ramp-up could increase the production loss and reduce earnings,” Edward Sterck, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets, said in a note.

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, in a legal notice to Impala, stated it recruited more than 10,000 members at the mine, giving it the necessary representation to demand organizational rights under South African labor laws, Theron said yesterday. Impala, which employs about 30,000 people at Rustenburg, is trying to verify the figures, he said. About two-thirds of the workers belong to unions, he said.

Impala fell 3.9 percent to 135.25 rand in Johannesburg by the 5 p.m. close, bringing its losses for the year to 19 percent.

The mine produced 941,200 ounces of platinum in the year to June 30, or more than 10 percent of world supply. While mining has stopped, processing of ore continues, Theron said.

“Grasping for positives, supply shortfalls should ease the expected industry surplus of about 300,000 to 400,000 ounces in 2012,” Liberum Capital wrote in a research report. Platinum declined 19 percent to $1,428 an ounce in the past year.

Labor is “going through a sea change,” Lonmin Plc, the third-largest producer, said May 14. “Rivalry for membership between the unions could be a feature for the foreseeable future with a corresponding increase in the risk of escalation of costs and disruptions to production.” The AMCU has limited organizational rights at the Karee mining division, it said.

(Bloomberg) -- Deutsche Bank Signs Johnson Matthey Deal on Platinum, Palladium
Deutsche Bank AG said it signed an agreement with Johnson Matthey Plc for custody and storage of physical platinum and palladium ingots and plates for the bank and its clients.

The agreement will provide “a platform for further commercial cooperation,” the bank said in an e-mailed statement today.

For breaking news and commentary on financial markets and gold, follow us on Twitter.

NEWS
Gold hovers about $1,560/oz; Greece fear persists - Reuters

Gold Extends Drop as China May Slow Amid Worsening Europe Crisis – Business Week

EU urges Greece to stay in euro, plans for possible exit - Reuters

EU Chiefs Clash On Euro Bonds As Crisis Summit Bogs Down - Bloomberg

COMMENTARY
Printing money is the only thing keeping the UK and US afloat - MoneyWeek

Papademos, Grexit and Catastrophe Blackmail – The Telegraph

US T Bond - Tower of Babel Teeters - GoldSeek

Dollar Backwardation - Inflation and Deflation at the Same Time? -  Zero Hedge

Antal Fekete Responds To Ben Bernanke On The Gold Standard

Yesterday, Ben Bernanke dedicated his entire first propaganda lecture to college student to the bashing of the gold standard. Of course, he has his prerogatives: he has to validate a crumbling monetary system and the legitimacy of the Fed, first to schoolchildrden and then to soon to be college grads encumbered in massive amounts of non-dischargeable student loans. While it is decidedly arguable that the gold standard may or may not have led to the first Great Depression, there is no debate at all that it was sheer modern monetary insanity and bubble blowing that brought us to the verge of collapse in the Second Great Depression in 2008, which had nothing to do with the gold standard. And as usual there is always an other side to the story. Presenting that here today, is Antal Fekete with "The Gold Problem Revisited."

THE GOLD PROBLEM REVISITED (pdf)

Antal E. Fekete

The article The Gold Problem of Ludwig von Mises, published 47 years ago in 1965, just six years before he died (the gold standard died with him in the same year) has some breath-taking thoughts, for example, “the gold standard alone can make the determination of money’s purchasing power independent of the ambitions and machinations of governments, of dictators, of political parties, and of pressure groups”, or: “the gold standard did not fail: governments deliberately sabotaged it, and still go on sabotaging it.” But for all our admiration we would be amiss if we did not point out certain errors in his article. These are all errors of omission, and correcting them would hopefully make the Mises article even more helpful to the discriminating reader.

Mises fails to answer his own question why gold is the best choice to serve as money. Indeed, why not another commodity, or a basket of commodities? The reason is that the marginal utility of gold is unique in that it declines at a rate slower than that of any other substance on Earth. Various assets have various marginal utilities which determine their value. All of them decline, albeit at various rates. In other words, economic actors accumulate assets increasingly reluctantly, up to their satiation point that will be reached sooner or later. For gold, this point is removed farther, so far indeed that for all practical purposes it is beyond reach.

Therefore if you substituted another commodity, or basket of commodities for gold, then you would end up with a unit of value the marginal utility of which was inferior. It would decline at a rate faster than that of gold. It would be akin to substituting a yardstick made of rubber for one made of metal.

1. The futility of inflationary policies

Mises ignores the fact that newly created money can be spent not only on goods and services, but also on financial assets. This is the proverbial fly in the ointment of the inflationary argument. It is also a subtle one, so much so that the government as the would-be perpetrator of inflation often falls victim to it. It may think that it is promoting inflation while, in fact, it acts as quartermaster for deflation.

By restricting the circulation of gold money or by other means, the government can make financial speculation more attractive. In doing so it wants to reduce the amount of money available for buying goods and services. This strategy of the government and its pseudo-economists consists precisely in channeling enough of the newly created money into speculative ventures so that the untoward consequences of price and wage rises will not occur, or they will occur later, so that the causality relation is obscured.

The paramount example is bond speculation. Of course, under the gold standard there is no bond speculation because the variation in the bond price (or, equivalently, in the rate of interest) is minuscule making the opportunity to earn speculative profits negligible. Unless… unless… the central bank makes profits risk free as a bait to speculators by inappropriate monetary and fiscal measures. This is exactly what happened in the early 1920’s when the policy of open market operations, so called, of the Fed were first introduced quite illegally, we might add (the policy was legalized retroactively in 1935).

As the Fed was originally constituted, it was only enabled to be a passive partner in business. Limited by its charter the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, it could enter (or decline to enter) business initiated by others, but it could not initiate business on its own. It could post its rediscount rate, but member banks had step forward to request rediscounting real bills from their portfolio. In and of itself rediscounting was not inflationary as a way to create new money. The new purchasing power so created was backed, dollar for dollar, by salable merchandise arising in production, and it was to be extinguished when the merchandise was sold to the ultimate consumer at the time the bill matured.

This was not the case, however, when the Fed assumed an active role and started purchasing government bonds in the open market at its own initiative in contravention of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. The monetary base was enlarged. This provided a direct incentive for member banks to make loans regardless whether or not new merchandise was simultaneously emerging in production. Using standard Quantity Theory of Money (QTM) reasoning the Fed and everybody else assumed that the effect would be inflationary. Hooray, a subtle and potent new way of inflating the money supply has been invented! The economy can now be micromanaged at will! There was jubilation in the inflationist camp.

The jubilation was premature. The policy of open market operation as an instrument of inflation was an enormous blunder. QTM was inoperative: bond speculators overrode it. They knew when the Fed had to go to the open market to relieve ‘natures urge’ (to purchase its next quota of government bonds). Speculators could make risk-free profits by pre-empting the Fed in buying the bonds first. The ‘tool’ of baiting speculators with risk free profits backfired badly, if only for the reason that speculators were a much smarter lot than central bank agents facing them in the bond pit. They risked their own capital while losses made by central bank agents were covered from public funds. The game plan was upset. What was supposed to be inflation ended up as deflation. Here are the details.

In an unhampered market risk-free profits that may occur from time to time are ephemeral and therefore inconsequential. Hawk-eyed speculators immediately take advantage of them with the result that any further opportunity to make risk-free profits is eliminated on the spot. This is no longer true if the opportunity to make risk-free profit is not an infrequent aberration but the consequence of deliberate and well-advertised official policy as it is in the case of the policy of open market operations. When the central bank relies on open market purchases of government bonds in order to augment the monetary base on a regular, ongoing basis, then speculators can anticipate and pre-empt it. This policy, whole-heartedly supported by Keynesian/Friedmanite economics, is the most ill-conceived monetary policy ever concocted for the purpose of increasing the stock of money. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913, for excellent reasons, disallowed such a policy and imposed stiff and progressive penalties for non-compliance on the Federal Reserve banks if their balance sheet showed that government bonds had been used to cover Federal Reserve note or deposit liabilities. At first the Fed used open market operations illegally. It could get away with it because of the connivance of the Treasury in ‘forgetting’ to collect the penalty. The conspiracy created a fait accompli and, in the end, Congress was forced to legalize the corrosive practice retroactively in 1935 when it amended the Federal Reserve Act.

The newly invented monetary policy of open market operations is responsible for much of the deflationary damage inflicted on the world economy during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. It started an avalanche of falling interest rates that soon went out of control. Falling interest rates destroy capital as they increase the burden of debt contracted earlier at higher rates. Perfectly sound businesses fail if their debt burden, through no fault of theirs, exceeds the profitability of deployed capital. The whole process was most insidious. Entrepreneurs did not know what hit them. From one day to the next they found themselves uncompetitive as competitors financed their business at lower rates. They had to lay off their employees. They went bankrupt in droves. Wanton destruction of capital was the main cause of deflation and the Great Depression in the 1930’s.

Herein lies the incredible failure of the policy of open market operations, missed by Mises. The policy is counterproductive from the point of view of central bank and pseudo-economists acting as its cheer-leaders. It released the genie of risk-free bond speculation from the bottle in the hope that it could always be put back. But it could not. Falling interest rates would run their devastating course.

The same thing repeats itself today. Interest rates have been falling for over thirty years. The Fed is no longer in control. It is lunacy to believe that it can stop the avalanche that it started so easily in the early 1980’s. Today the speculators are the only buyers after China and other exporters to the US bailed out of the US T-bond market. Speculators will keep buying the bonds as long as they can reap risk free profits. It is true that ‘quantitative easing’ cuts into that business, as the Fed is buying bonds directly from the Treasury, bypassing the open market (another illegal practice). Watch for the day when the speculators will start dumping bonds and selling them short. When they transfer their buying from the bond market to the commodity market, the game is up.

Open market operations is a charade that can go on only so long as speculators are allowed to reap risk-free profits at the expense of the producers and the savers. When the latter have been squeezed dry, it’s “après nous le deluge”. That is the true scenario of Great Depression II.

2. The futility of the policy of suppressing interest rates.

The rate of interest is a market phenomenon just like prices. In fact, the definition of the rate of interest must refer to the bond price: it is the rate that amortizes the price of the bond as quoted in the secondary market through the bond’s maturity date. The floor for the range in which the interest rate may move is determined by marginal time preference. (The ceiling, on the other hand, is determined by the marginal productivity of capital.) To understand this, we must consider the arbitrage of the marginal bondholder between the bond market and the gold market. If the rate of interest falls below the rate of marginal time preference, then the marginal bondholder sells his overpriced bond and keeps the proceeds in gold coin. In this way he can force the bond price to come back to earth from outer space. Bank reserves are shrinking and the banks have to call in some of their credits and sell bonds from portfolio. When the bond price falls, the marginal bondholder repurchases his bond at a cheaper price. Time preference has no meaning outside of this context. It will remain a pious wish ? until the marginal bondholder gives it teeth.

Mises (and, before him, Ricardo who was an advocate of the elimination of gold coins from circulation) was wrong when he stated that there is no difference between the gold coin and a promise to pay gold coin as long as the security and maturity of the promise cannot be doubted. The promise can perform all the monetary functions that the gold coin does. Well, it cannot, because there is one very important exception. When the marginal bondholder in protest to low interest rates sells his bond (a future good), he insists on getting gold (a present good). He will not take a promise to pay gold, because it is still a future good, and an inferior one to boot as it pays no interest. Taking it would mean jumping from the frying pan into the fire. This shows that gold hoarding, far from being a deus ex machina, and far from being a curse of the gold standard, is an important market signal. It indicates that the rate of interest is being pushed below the rate of marginal time preference. It had better be heeded before it is too late. Gold hoarding cannot be understood except in the context of its counterpart, gold dishoarding. When the signal is heeded, banks tighten up their loose credit policies and the government reins in expenditures, gold will be dishoarded and the marginal bondholder will replace gold in his portfolio by repurchasing the bond at a profit.

This was the reason for eliminating gold coin circulation first in Europe in 1914, and then in the United States and Canada in the 1930’s. Governments wanted to make sure that they were in full control of the rate of interest, free from any interference from the marginal bondholder. This policy had to fail. It was shipwrecked on the reef of gold hoarding.

All economists, including Mises himself, missed the importance of the nexus of gold hoarding and dishoarding as the manifestation of arbitrage by the marginal bondholder between the bond market and the gold market, explaining the all-important contact between gold and interest.

3. The futility of the policy of boosting wages.

Mises did not subscribe to Adam Smith’s Real Bills Doctrine (RBD). Although he acknowledged the fact that real bills drawn on consumer goods in most urgent demand could circulate as a kind of ephemeral money through endorsing, as they indeed did in Lancashire before the Bank of England opened its branch in Manchester, he did not find this matter worthy of further attention. He coined the word “circulation credit” that financed the movement of commodities from the producer to the consumer through the various phases of production, but he blotted out the important distinction between the discount rate and the rate of interest. He never used the term “self-liquidating credit”, that would have revealed why circulation credit did indeed circulate without any coercion from the government. They did circulate because the credit was liquidated by the sale of merchandise in high demand on which the bill was drawn.

Mises was unimpressed by the fact that bonds and mortgages could not circulate in the same way. He had too great a faith in the Quantity Theory of Money, and was probably disturbed by the fact that real bills, however temporarily, could serve either as money substitutes, or as bank reserves on which sound money could be built. His negative attitude with regard to Adam Smith’s RBD is regrettable. Real Bills are the next best thing to gold into which they mature in 91 days or less. The demand for real bills is virtually unlimited. Not only banks with surplus gold in their tills scramble for them as the best earning asset commercial banks can have, but also those individuals and institutions who have large payments coming up (say, the purchase of a house, or a factory, or the retirement of a bond issue) and they have to assemble cash by the closing or maturity date. They could not put these accumulating funds into stocks, bonds, or mortgages because they were not sufficiently liquid. An increased offering would immediately depress their price. Instead, these people went into the bill market and bought real bills the liquidity of which was second only to gold.

But real bills had another great significance having to do with the labor market. The only author who recognized this fact was the German economist Heinrich Rittershausen (1898-1984), see his book Arbeitslosigkeit und Kapitalbildung, Jena, 1930. A large part of outstanding real bills in circulation represented the wage fund of society. Out of this fund wages for labor producing merchandise that will not be available for sale for up to 91 days could be paid now. Thus real bills represented a real extension of demand for labor. Employers would simply go ahead and hire all the hands needed to produce merchandise in high consumer demand, without worrying who will advance the funds to pay wages before the merchandise could be sold. The wage fund would always be there. The RBD explains why there was no ‘structural unemployment’ in the 19th century, in contrast with the 20th when the wage fund was destroyed never to be rebuilt. 19th century entrepreneurs did not have to assume the burden of financing the payment of wages. The bill market took care of that. Say’s Law was operative: there were employment opportunities as long as prospective employees wanted to eat, get clad, shod, and keep themselves warm in winter.

The point was driven home most forcefully when the wage fund was inadvertently destroyed by the victorious Entente Powers. They decided not to allow the rehabilitation of the bill market after the cessation of hostilities in 1918. This single decision sealed the fate of tens of millions of workers who were to be laid off in the 1930’s for lack of financing the wage bill. It was also the reason for creating the corrosive ‘welfare’ state that paid workers for not working and farmers for not farming. It also caused the demise of the gold standard by removing a vital organ, its clearing house: the bill market. Here are the details.

The victorious Entente Powers were afraid of German competition in the postwar period. They wanted to monitor, if not control, Germany’s exports and imports. As this would not be possible under the system of multilateral trade, that is, trade financed by real bills circulation, they opted for a system of bilateral trade. Never mind that this meant a setback for their own producers and consumers as well. Never mind that much more gold was needed to run a system of bilateral trade than that required by a system of multilateral trade extra gold they did not have. Never mind that this would make the 1925 return of Britain to the gold standard deflationary. The neurotic fear of German competition took precedence over all other concerns. In fact, these concerns were never examined and the decision was made in high secrecy.

This was the end of real-bill financed world trade, the great success story of the 19th century. The bill market was destroyed. We still suffer the consequences. In effect, world trade was reduced to barter. Worse still, along with the destruction of the bill market society’s wage fund was also destroyed. There was no one to advance wages payable to laborers whose products could not be sold for cash up to 91 days. Vast sections of the world’s productive plants were condemned to idleness for the disappearance of the wage fund. As I mentioned, the only economist in the world who saw what was coming was Rittershausen. Economists still owe him recognition for his great insight. The world is still condemning the gold standard as the major cause of the Great Depression of the 1930’s and the horrible unemployment in its wake, when the real cause was the destruction of the wage fund, a misguided unilateral decision of the victors in World War I made in secrecy.

It was most unfortunate for economic science that Mises failed to put the weight of his reputation behind Rittershausen’s charge. Not only had governments put improper and counterproductive measures into effect to boost wage rates, thus fostering unemployment. They were directly responsible for the world-wide leap-tide of unemployment by destroying the bill market and the wage fund.

Once again the world is facing the same dangers as it did four score of years ago. Yet one can see only complacent governments in a self-congratulating mood over their ‘success’ in ‘fending off’ the Great Financial Crisis. But the writing is on the wall: if governments fail to rehabilitate the gold standard and its clearing house, the bill market, together with the wage fund, then a much more devastating leap-tide may soon engulf the world.

4. The futility of the policy of gold valorization.

The world has been witnessing the pathetic attempts of governments and central banks “to keep the gold price in check” since the 1971 fraudulent default of the US government on its international gold obligations. To be sure, a default is always followed by a depreciation of the dishonored paper, so the futility of the policy of gold valorization has always been a foregone conclusion. But what we have is far more than this self-defeating effort to keep gold out forever from the monetary system. What we have is a veritable brain-washing of the whole world about the role of gold in the economy, and blaming gold for results that only keeping gold in the system could have prevented.

It is alleged that gold has disqualified itself from playing the role as the monetary anchor and source of credit in the economy. ‘Gold is far too volatile for that’. This is puerile because it ignores the fact that the so-called volatility of gold is just the mirror image of the volatility of the irredeemable dollar in which the price of gold is quoted.

It is also ignored that the debt crisis is a direct consequence of exiling gold from the international monetary system. Gold is the only ultimate extinguisher of debt. It cannot be replaced by the dollar or any other irredeemable currency. Under the dollar system debt simply cannot be extinguished. Total debt can only grow, never shrink. All the bad debt and “toxic sludge” stays in the system and is merely kicked upstairs into the balance sheet of the US Treasury. There it remains, representing a great threat to the world. Like radioactive material, when its quantity exceeds the threshold, a chain-reaction starts triggering an nuclear explosion. The world needs gold as a safe way to eliminate bad debt.

Through a system of bribes, blackmail and intimidation research on questions relating to gold has been discouraged to the point that it is practically non-existent. The world continues to live in a fool’s paradise. It believes the size of government debt does not matter because it can always be rolled over. Nor would it cause inflation or deflation because competent and honorable gentlemen at the helm can safely navigate our monetary ship through the strait of Scylla and Charybdis. They have a sharp tool, the printing press, and with its judicious application they can fine-tune the quantity of money in circulation as well as the rate of interest for the benefit of all. But the virtual elimination of research on gold will strike back. These ‘competent’ and ‘honorable’ gentlemen at the helm are complete ignoramuses when it comes to gold. They have no notion of the erosion of the gold basis and the irresistible march of the gold futures markets into the death valley of permanent gold backwardation. When disaster strikes, gold will not be available at any price. What this means is that the world is insidiously slipping into barter. But you cannot feed the world’s present population on the basis of a barter economy. Poverty, pestilence, famine threatens society, not to mention the breakdown of law and order. All this, and more, because government leaders have allowed the suppression not only of monetary gold itself, but also the research on monetary gold.

Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board introduced a new phrase into the vocabulary of economics on July 11, 2011, in his testimony at a Congressional hearing. The new phrase is: tail risk. He defined it as the “really, really bad outcomes” in the economy, as if they were completely outside of human control on the pattern of floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.

But ‘tail risk’ in reality is the wholly unnecessary risk taken with human lives by a parasitic, contemptuous, conceited, and yes, ignorant ruling class symbolized by Bernanke, that has hijacked the Constitution, in particular, turning the Constitution’s monetary provisions upside down which define money in terms of gold and silver. They are only interested in their own self-aggrandizement, in perpetuating their power, and in preserving their superstitious faith in irredeemable currency a monetary system that has failed miserably every time foolish leaders in history experimented with it.

Mises was a great warrior fighting these usurpers and monetary hijackers with the sharpest weapon there is: human reason. We must follow his lead even if it sometimes means that we have to add new ideas that go beyond Mises’s opus.

The day of reckoning for monetary insanity is on hand. The Constitution is there for the protection of all. If we fail to preserve and uphold it, and meekly succumb to the monetary hijackers’ and usurpers’ tactics, then we shall have only ourselves to blame for the consequences.

March 20, 2012.

Physical Silver Surges To Record 30% Premium Over Spot, In Backwardation

One of the main reasons why we have been not so focused on paper representations of real currencies (i.e., gold and silver) is that ever since the MF Global debacle, in which it became all too clear that if physical gold can be "hypothecated" via conflicting ownership, then there is no way that paper versions of precious metals are viable and indeed credible. After all, the only real owner at the end of the day is the certificate holder, which as we have explained before, is none other than DTCC's Cede & Co. Good luck collecting when the daisy chain of counterparties starts falling. Which leaves physical. And for a good sense of what the "real" price of the metal is, not one determined by institutions whose interest it is to preserve the hegemony of paper, one can either try to procure gold and silver at a retail merchant, or one can look to the premium of a dedicated physical ETF over spot. Such as Eric Sprott's PSLV which as of today is trading at an all time high premium of 30%! In other words, someone is willing to pay up to 30% over spot for the right to be closer to the physical metal than merely have a paper claim on a paper claim (pre hyper rehypothecation and what not). Incidentally the last NAV premium over spot record was back in April 2011 just as silver went parabolic and the entire commodity complex experienced the infamous May 1 takedown when it collapsed by $8 dollars in milliseconds on glaringly obvious coordinated intervention. Said otherwise, like back then, so now there is an actual shortage, manifesting itself in the premium. And while last time its was the price plunge which eased supply needs, we are not so sure how one will be able to spin a collapse of the current, far lower paper silver price.

But wait, there's more: As Keith Weiner explains below, silver also happens to be in backwardation. While we have covered the topic before, here is Keith with his explanation of what this means, although for those who like the punchline here it is, as above: shortage.

The Arbitrageur: Silver In Backwardation

March silver has been flirting with backwardation since the end of 2011, and today it has moved more firmly into backwardated territory.  This is extremely bullish for silver, and let me explain why.

Backwardation means (and I am oversimplifying a bit here) that a futures contract is cheaper than buying the physical good in the cash market.  To understand the meaning of this, the first question is this: Is it possible to warehouse the good?  If not, then the futures market is simply the market’s opinion of what the price is likely to be on the contract expiration. 

Silver, unlike interest rate futures for example, can be warehoused.  This means it is possible to simultaneously buy physical silver in the spot market and sell a future in the futures market.  One has no net exposure to the price.  One is exposed only to the spread.  This is a simple arbitrage.  One can “carry” a good (buy spot, sell future).

The possibility of this and other arbitrages in a good that can be warehoused changes the whole structure of the futures market.  One cannot look at the price of March silver as a prediction of the March price.  Absent a shortage or other anomaly, the March price should be close to the spot price + the cost of carry (interest rate and storage).  March silver should be at a slight premium to spot silver.  This condition is normal, and it is called “contango“.

But that is not the case for March silver (or Jul 2013 and beyond).  Those contracts are priced too low for anyone to make any money carrying silver. Instead, it would be profitable to de-carry silver.  See the graph for a picture of the basis (the annualized profit one would make to carry) and the cobasis (the profit to de-carry).  The basis is negative and falling; the cobasis is positive and rising.

A de-carry is the inverse of a carry.  One simultaneously sells silver, and buys a future against it.  Silver (and gold) are unlike all other commodities in that the above-ground inventories are massive, compared to annual mine production.  Whereas in wheat, for example, there is a genuine shortage before the harvest.  If one wants to buy wheat two weeks prior, one must pay a large premium compared to the first contract settled after the harvest.

In a normal commodity, backwardation means shortage.  The backwardation develops because no one has any of the physical good.  So they cannot decarry it, and thus the spot-future spread can go deeper and deeper into backwardation.

But in gold and silver it means something else entirely.  People have the metal.  But for whatever reason(s), they choose not to take this free money.  In the silver market right now, trust is in short supply.  In the past (think fall 2010 through spring 2011), this has been resolved by sharply rising prices which coax fresh metal out of hiding.

As Gold Rebounds Over $1600, Some Thoughts On Why The Liquidation Snapback Is Here

Yesterday when gold was trading in the $1570 we suggested that based on the very volatile shifts in the funding environment for gold, whereby the gold lease rate had moved from record negative to borderline flat, the plunge in the yellow metal is likely coming to an end. Less than 24 hours later, gold has just passed $1600 yet again. And as the following note from Sandeep Jaitly of First International Group (whose interview with Max Keiser exposing economics for fraud back in June was quite the hit) observes, by analyzing the continued funding unwind pressure, the recent liquidation move in gold is one that has to be taken advantage of. To wit: "The movements in the bases confirm that the recent downward move in gold against Dollars was as a result of Dollar funding pressures. Gold was lent on the swap against United States Dollars. This swap must be unwound and where a bid for gold was sought to raise Dollar liquidity, an offer of gold will be sought to unwind the swaps. The co-bases for Feb-12 and Apr-12 gold contracts are starting to advance – an exceptionally bullish signal following the selloff and a sign that physical buying is being prompted by these lower prices. It would be very prudent to accumulate gold against United States Dollars aggressively over the next fortnight."

From First International Group, Gold Basis Service

LONDON, Thursday 15th December, 13:43 HRS BST. Spot gold is currently $1,584.25/45, and the gold/silver ratio is currently 54.56/54.63. The conclusion from the last missive sent on 23rd November read:

“The movements in the December gold bases are still pointing to further upside for the gold price in fiat currencies – especially the Dollar, Euro and Pound Sterling (note the drop of just referring to the United States Dollar.) The ratio of the December gold/silver bases is pointing to downside for the gold/silver ratio.”

Gold was $1,687.15 bid at the time. Subsequent to that, it rallied to a high of $1,763.01 on 2nd December, before falling back to its current $1,584. The movements of the basis and co-basis during this time told all.

The chart to the left displays the normalised co-bases for The Dec-11, Feb-12 and Apr-12 COMEX gold contracts (left hand scale), as well as the gold price on the right hand scale.

Point 1 on the chart shows the December contract going into backwardation (a high of +0.7% was reached on 30th November), just as the price of gold began to escalate. Point 2 shows the backwardation in the December contract starting to decrease and fall rapidly – a few days ahead of the contraction in the price from 2nd December’s high. Point 3 shows the co-bases for Feb-12 and Apr-12 advancing higher towards a possible backwardation (likely to occur by the beginning of January by historical standards.)

A lot of reasons have been given for the correction in the gold price – futures liquidation being a prime candidate. However, this is not the case as movements in the bases tell otherwise. There has been continued Dollar-based funding pressure in the money markets of late (witness the escalation in LIBOR which has doubled over the past few months.) The escalation in the gold lease rates – that prompted gold to go into backwardation – was caused by gold being borrowed with the intention of providing Dollar liquidity (by selling the gold in a ‘sale and repurchase’ transaction.) The fall in the gold price being accompanied by a fall in the co-basis points to signs of physical gold being liquidated not futures. Massive futures’ liquidation would see the co-basis rise and basis fall – the complete opposite of what actually occurred.

The salient points to remember here are: that the borrowing of gold caused lease rates to escalate above money market rates and that gold was borrowed ‘on the swap.’ The former point can only be explained by the fact that the physical gold market is very tight (in terms of both supply, and loanable gold.) With the latter point, one must remember that swapped (and sold) gold must be returned (and therefore bought.)

The Feb-12 and Apr-12 COMEX gold contracts are already advancing towards backwardation with the co-bases for each having bottomed on 9th December (Point 3 on the chart above.) This is an exceptionally bullish sign for gold priced against fiat currencies. As the gold price has been correcting, physical interest is dominating the gold market.

The amount of gold stored at COMEX warehouses remained static over the past quarter as can be seen in the chart to the left. However, there was an important mix shift at the end of November into December: around 1m ounces of gold (around 10% of total inventory) was shifted from the ‘eligible’ category to the ‘registered’ category. That is ‘registration’ for sale. This again points to gold on the swap being the cause of the price decline.

The gold/silver ratio has remained range bound, currently at 54.56 bid v. 53.16 bid at the last missive. There is insufficient data for 2012 contracts to provide a change in this stance.

The fourth quarter’s Course of The Exchange will be published soon. As patrons of this service have known since the beginning of the year, the Dollar’s resurgence against other fiat currencies was expected. We will be reiterating the (unchanged) reasons for the continuance of this trend going forward. Issues surrounding the Eurozone will be covered from a multi-century historical perspective. United States equities, bonds or both for 2012? This will be a central issue to be discussed as well.

CONCLUSION…The movements in the bases confirm that the recent downward move in gold against Dollars was as a result of Dollar funding pressures. Gold was lent on the swap against United States Dollars. This swap must be unwound and where a bid for gold was sought to raise Dollar liquidity, an offer of gold will be sought to unwind the swaps. The co-bases for Feb-12 and Apr-12 gold contracts are starting to advance – an exceptionally bullish signal following the selloff and a sign that physical buying is being prompted by these lower prices. It would be very prudent to accumulate gold against United States Dollars aggressively over the next fortnight.

Daily US Opening News And Market Re-Cap: October 25

From RanSquawk

  • Strong European corporate earnings results from the likes of BP and Deutsche Bank supported equities
  • There was market talk of a potential reserve requirement ratio cut by the PBOC, however no action has materialised so far in the session
  • SNB's Hildebrand said that the SNB will defend the CHF floor with full determination and will buy currencies in unlimited quantity if needed
  • Italian transport minister said that a collapse of the Italian government is possible. Also, the Italian Northern League leader, Bossi, said a government crisis is possible
  • According to summit draft conclusions, Eurozone leaders will call on the ECB for it to continue buying distressed countries’ bonds in the secondary market under current exceptional circumstances

Market Re-Cap

European equities traded mixed during the session as growing optimism on progress to tackle the Eurozone debt crisis in tomorrow's EU leaders' summit, together with strong corporate earnings results from the likes of BP and Deutsche Bank boosted appetite for risk. However, some underperformance was observed in French banks' shares as concerns persisted over their sovereign exposure to troubled Eurozone countries, whereas comments from Fitch that a Greek default is inevitable weighed on financials. A lack of transparency over the issue of PSI and haircut on Greek debt holdings, allied with comments from the Italian transport minister that collapse of the Italian government is possible also dented appetite for risk. In the forex market, weakness in the USD-Index rendered support to EUR/USD and GBP/USD. In other news, some weakness was observed in NZD overnight following lower than expected CPI data from New Zealand, whereas CHF came under pressure after SNB's Hildebrand said that the SNB will defend the CHF floor with full determination and will buy currencies in unlimited quantity if needed.

Moving into the North American open, markets look ahead to economic data from the US in the form of consumer confidence, Richmond Fed manufacturing, and API oil inventories report. Markets will keep a close eye on US corporate earnings from the likes of 3M, and Amazon.com among others. In fixed income, BoE's Gilt purchase operation in the maturity range of 2038-2060, together with another Fed's Outright Treasury Coupon Purchase operation in the maturity range of Oct'17-Aug'19, with a purchase target of USD 4.25-5bln are due for later.

Asian Headlines:

BoJ will lower its FY 2011/12 GDP growth forecast to 0.2% from 0.4% and also lower its FY 2012/13 GDP growth forecast to 2%-2.5% from 2.9%, according to Asahi newspaper. (Asahi)

US Headlines:

Fed's Dudley said it is possible the Fed could pursue a QE3 policy and the Fed has not run out of options to aid the economy. Also, The Fed’s latest monetary easing program will have about the same impact on the US central banks’ second round of asset purchases according to NY Fed’s Sack. (RTRS)

EU and UK Headlines:

German vice chancellor, Roesler, said both proposed EFSF leverage models would fulfil his party’s core criteria; however a final evaluation of the schemes will depend on details. He added that option of excluding members from the Eurozone is currently not under consideration, adding that he is not convinced that financial transaction tax is the best way of regulating financial markets. Roesler further said that he is confident Merkel’s coalition will get its own majority in Wednesday’s Bundestag vote on EFSF leverage. (RTRS)

•    Spain sells EUR 1.38bln in 3-month T-Bill auction, bid/cover 3.10 vs. Prev. 2.47 (yield 2.292% vs. Prev. 1.692%)
•    Spain sells EUR 2.09bln in 6-month T-Bill auction, bid/cover 2.60 vs. Prev. 3.95 (yield 3.302% vs. Prev. 2.665%) (RTRS)

EQUITIES

European equities traded mixed during the session as growing optimism on progress to tackle the Eurozone debt crisis in tomorrow's EU leaders' summit, together with strong corporate earnings results from the likes of BP and Deutsche Bank boosted appetite for risk. However, some underperformance was observed in French banks' shares as concerns persisted over their sovereign exposure to troubled Eurozone countries, whereas comments from Fitch that a Greek default is inevitable weighed on financials. A lack of transparency over the issue of PSI and haircut on Greek debt holdings, allied with comments from the Italian transport minister that collapse of the Italian government is possible also dented appetite for risk. Moving into the North American open, equities continue to trade higher, with oil & gas and basic materials as the best performing sectors.

**Note: For US equities news in detail, kindly refer to the RANsquawk Daily US Equity Opening News report.

FX

Weakness in the USD-Index rendered support to EUR/USD and GBP/USD. In other news, some weakness was observed in NZD overnight following lower than expected CPI data from New Zealand, whereas CHF came under pressure after SNB's Hildebrand said that the SNB will defend the CHF floor with full determination and will buy currencies in unlimited quantity if needed.

Elsewhere, RBA’s Deputy Governor Battellino said there could be scope for monetary policy to support demand if looming figures on inflation proved benign adding that RBA is less concerned about inflation outlook. (RTRS)

•    New Zealand Consumer Prices (Q3) Q/Q 0.4% vs. Exp. 0.7% (Prev. 1.0%)
•    New Zealand Consumer Prices (Q3) Y/Y 4.6% vs. Exp. 4.9% (Prev. 5.3%) (RTRS)

COMMMODITIES

WTI and Brent crude futures came off their best levels of the session as uncertainty reflected cautious trade heading into the EU summit on Wednesday.

Oil & Gas News:

•    Standard Chartered cut its forecasts for Asian gasoil, jet fuel and naphtha refining cracks for 2011 and 2012 citing slower growth in China and India.
•    Sri Lanka has received bids from China and the Czech Republic for plans to spend USD 2bln to expand its refining capacity.
•    BoFA said US WTI oil may rally to USD 105 as supply shrinks with WTI going back into backwardation signalling prices to rally. However, they warned that the rally may be short-lived due to logistics.

Geopolitical News:

•    North Korean leader Kim Jong Il expressed his hope to resume six-party talks in the nuclear arms issue as early as possible. (Xinhua)

Corporate News:

•    BP in its earnings release reported Q3 net income at USD 4.91bln vs. Prev. USD 1.79bln a year earlier, Q3 profit USD 4.9bln, and Q3 replacement cost profit USD 5.14bln. Co. said it will pay a quarterly dividend of USD 0.07 per share, and will increase divestments to USD 45bln. In other news, TNK-BP CFO declined to comment on minority shareholder litigation against BP.

**Note: For commodities news in detail, kindly refer to the RANsquawk Daily Energy Commentary report.

Gold Special Report: Erste Group Says Foundation Of A Return To Sound Money Has Been Laid, Expects Gold To Hit $2,300


Erste Group's Ronald Stoeferle has released another must read report on gold, recapping all the recent developments in the space, and more importantly putting the recent price moves in context. While there are numerous key observations which we leave to readers to uncover on their own, arguably the key fact is the following: "The possession of gold is tantamount to pure ownership without liabilities. This also explains why it does not pay any ongoing interest: it does not contain any counterpart risk. Along with the International Exchange and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, JPMorgan now also accepts gold as collateral. The European Commission for Economic and Monetary Affairs has also decided to accept the gold reserves of its member states as additionally lodged collateral. We also regard the most recent initiatives in Utah and in numerous other States as well as in Malaysia, and the planned remonaterisation of silver in Mexico as a clear sign of the times. The foundation of a return to “sound money” seems to have been laid." And as the currency basket vs gold since 1999 chart below demonstrates, the key feature of fiat money is that is most certainly has liabilities, paradoxically in the form of central bank assets which collateralize it. The more worthless "assets" that are taken up by central banks to match the balance sheet expansion, the more worthless the actual currency in the form of actual circulating paper and reserves. As such it is not so much the actual dilution of fiat paper that devalues it: it is the increasingly less valuable available collateral that supports it. As for the future: one of Erste's scarier hypotheticals is that should the US lose control of its monetary base, leading to a 1000% jump in said monetary metric, the shadow price of gold assuming 40% backing of gold, would be $99,419. Frankly we have yet to hear even some of the most undaunted gold bulls throw this number around.

Probably the most important chart which each and every report on modern monetary analysis should include is the following: the one showing the relative value of gold versus a basket of currencies. While it is true that within the closed system of fiat currencies, where the devaluation of one leads explicitly to the revaluation of another (or others), the ceaseless dilution of all ultimately leads to an absolute loss in credibility and value relative to hard assets. Per Erste:

The following chart also shows the clearly intact downward trend of most currencies vis-à-vis gold. The equally weighted currency basket consists of US dollar, euro, Swiss franc, yuan, Indian rupee, British pound, and Australian dollar. The downward trend is intact and is at the moment only marginally above the trend line. We have little reason to believe that the downward trend should subside in the foreseeable future, which is why we stick to our positive assessment of the future gold price development.

And some more observations on the central bank-FX-gold interplay:

We underestimated the supply of “digital printing ink” by the Fed and the relentless deficit spending. In June 2010 we had not expected the US central bank to attach as little importance to monetary stability as it ended up doing. We believe that the “Bernanke put” is the main reason for the rising prices in the commodity segment. The Fed has repeatedly referred to the positive effects of higher share prices. Gold also benefits from the decrease in risk aversion, as the following chart clearly illustrates. The higher correlation between the equity market and many commodities can hardly be explained by traditional supply/demand structures; in fact, the monetary policy seems to have turned into the most important determinant of the financial markets.

Other key highlights in the report focus on why excessive structural debt suggest much more future appreciation in the price of gold, why negative real eates have been a boon to gold price increase, the dead end of debt saturation which means that soon baseless currency destruction will be the only outcome of further monetary and fiscal easing, on gold and silver as official means of payment versus Gresham's law, on why money is now gold according to the regression theorem, and much more.

Probably one of the most curious observations in the report goes to the gold stock-to-flow ratio.

The most important feature of gold is definitely its extremely high stock-to-flow ratio. The aggregate volume of all the gold ever produced comes to about 170,000 tonnes. This is the stock. Annual production was 2,586 tonnes in 2010 according to the World Gold Council. That is the flow. Dividing the former by the latter, we receive the stock-to-flow ratio of 65 years.

Stock-to-flow as most important reason for the monetary relevance of gold and silver Paradoxically, gold is not scarce – the opposite is the case: it is one of the most widely dispersed goods in the world. Given that its industrial use is limited, the majority of all gold ever produced is still available. The recycling of existing gold accounts for a much larger share of supply than for other commodities. This is also why any significant production expansions or disruptions can be absorbed more easily. We therefore believe that gold is not that precious because it is extremely scarce, but because the opposite is true: gold is considered that precious because the annual production is so low relative to the stock. This feature has been acquired in the course of centuries and cannot be undone anymore.

Global gold reserves grow by an annual 1.5% and thus at a much slower rate than all the other money supply aggregates around the globe. The growth rate is vaguely in line with population growth. The trust in the current and future purchase power of money or any means of payment not only depends on how much is available now, but also on how the quantity will change over time. If mining production were to increase by 50% (which is highly unlikely), this would only translate into an annual increase of 3%. This fact creates a sense of security as far as the availability is concerned and prevents natural inflation. If production were down for a year, this would also have little effect on the overall situation. On the other hand, if the copper production were to be disrupted for an extended period of time, the stocks would be exhausted after about 30 days. For example, if a huge new mine were to come online and supply doubled, this would come with huge repercussions for the copper price, but with hardly any for gold. This stability and safety is a crucial prerequisite for the creation of trust. And it is what differentiates gold and silver as monetary metals clearly from commodities and the other precious metals. Commodities are consumed, whereas gold is hoarded. This also explains why traditional supply/demand models are only of limited use for the gold market.

Due to the high stock-to-flow ratio gold tends to be traded in contango. This means that the futures price is above the spot price. The last backwardation in gold dates back to2008, while silver was traded in backwardation in January 2011. In the case of backwardation, the market sends a signal as a result of which demand all of a sudden increases, and it makes no sense anymore from an economic point of view to bet on a later delivery date, given that the costs of storage, financing, and insurance would be higher. Backwardation is a clear sign of supply shortages.

What are the implications - enter the Shadow Gold Price:

In 2008 we set our long-term price target of USD 2,300 for the first time. We continue to expect the gold price to rise at least to the inflation-adjusted all-time-high of USD 2,300/ounce (dating from 1980) at the end of the bull market. Some historical comparisons suggest even higher spheres. When we compare the pinnacle of the previous gold bull market with the closing prices of 2010, we find that gold had increased only marginally in relation to the S&P index, the money supply, debt, or even the US dollar reserves.



QB Asset Management calculates the so-called "Shadow Gold Price” (“SGP”). It divides the US Monetary Base by U.S. official gold holdings, the same formula actually used during the Bretton Woods regime to fix the exchange value of the dollar at USD 35.00/ounce. It would be the theoretical price of gold today were the Fed to depreciate the USD to a level that would cover systemic bank liabilities (transform a debt-based into a asset backed currency). The current Shadow Gold Price would be just under USD 10,000. This figure illustrates the magnitude of monetary inflation already embedded into the system, sitting latent and threatening to increase the general price level.

The following table shows the theoretical Shadow Gold Price in different base-money supply scenarios. If the money supply were to fall by 25%, then the SGP would still be USD 7,456, if the monetary base were to rise by another 50%, then it would be at USD 16,634.

This calculation is by no means a pure mind game but rather the way the exchange rate between paper and money was calculated during the Bretton Woods Agreement. After the Federal Reserve Act of 1914 coverage was set to at least 40%. Therefore we have also based our calculations on a 40% coverage ratio.

At the moment less than 2.6% of US government debt is covered by gold, which is clearly below the long-term median of 5%. Should the gold price therefore double, the coverage would only rise to the long-term median. But this would also require stable government debt, which is less than likely. The highs of the ratio dating from the 1980s would only be reached at a price of about USD 15,000.

If one were to fully cover the current debt with gold, the price would have to increase to USD 57,000/ounce. That said, a full coverage is extremely unlikely; at its highs the ratio was at 55% in 1915 and at slightly less than 25% in 1980.

All this and much more in the full report below.

Special Report GOLD - In GOLD We TRUST - July 2011

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