Monday, 13 September 2010

The Hurt Locker

Definition: noun. a period of immense, inescapable physical or emotional pain.

The Hurt Locker and the problem of the liquidity trap.

Paul Krugman's definition of the liquidity trap, the Keynesian view:

[a] liquidity trap may be defined as a situation in which conventional monetary policies have become impotent, because nominal interest rates are at or near zero: injecting monetary base into the economy has no effect, because base and bonds are viewed by the private sector as perfect substitutes. By this definition, a liquidity trap could occur in a flexible price, full-employment economy; and although any reasonable model of the United States in the 1930s or Japan in the 1990s must invoke some form of price stickiness, one can think of the unemployment and output slump that occurs under such circumstances as what happens when an economy is trying to have deflation — a deflationary tendency that monetary expansion is powerless to prevent.[29]

Excellent comment this week by R. Glenn Hubbard, dean of the Columbia Business School and former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, and Peter Navarro, a professor of economics at the Merage School of Business at the University of California-Irvine:

"The fundamental flaw in Washington’s stimulus logic is the incorrect assumption that America’s current economic woes began with the 2007 recession. In fact, the roots of our slow-growth problem date back at least a full decade.

From 1946 to 1999, GDP grew annually at 3.2 percent, but since then, we’ve only averaged about 2.5%. On a cumulative basis, this seemingly small difference adds up to about 10 million jobs we failed to create.

What these statistics add up to is not a short term cyclical downturn, but rather longer-term trouble driven by four major structural imbalances in America’s GDP “growth driver equation.”


From 1946 to 1999, consumption averaged 64 percent of GDP but over the last decade, that share jumped to 70 percent. This increase was fueled not by rising wages, but rather by a housing bubble and a mortgage refinancing wave that turned American homes into ATM machines. This overconsumption has been mirrored in a low saving rate and a second major structural imbalance – underinvestment.


Business investment in research and development, technological innovation, and the new productive capacity required for the job creation process has been the single most important missing ingredient in our economic recovery – and for renewed long-term prosperity. Yet the current administration seeks only to raise the regulatory and tax burdens of business.

Chronic trade deficits:

These have been equally destructive. During the 2000s, our current account deficit more than doubled and likely reduced our annual GDP growth rate by a half a percent or more.

Excessive government spending:

This spending has provided some short-term stimulus. However, an overfed Uncle Sam represents the ultimate seed of destruction through upward pressure on taxes and interest rates and a stark future of sharp cuts in defense, education, and infrastructure spending."

"Over the long — and short — term, in implementing any stimulus, we should favor tax cuts to stimulate business investment as the best way to stimulate job creation. Reducing the fiscal burden of entitlement programs is also essential to restoring prosperity."

Federal Government Debt: Total Public Debt

In relation to the raging inflation/deflation debate, Bill Gross at PIMCO has decided to put a wager on it. A 8.1 billion USD wager...quite meaningful (notional value of derivatives position tied to the Consumer Price Index).
They bought inflation floors in size...

"Inflation floors, structured as options on the consumer price index for all urban consumers, are similar to insurance. The buyer of the contract pays a premium at the outset in return for the right to receive a payment after 10 years should the CPI decline during this period."

The bet is that the USA will not be like Japan and are not on a verge of entering a similar lost decade as Japan did.

As I previously discussed in relation to the heated deflation/inflation debate, we are going through a deleveraging period, which meant deflation in some asset prices (real estate, etc.) but inflation in other items, such as food items (up 16% since 2009). In a previous post I argued you could have both deflation and inflation at the same time as currency values are being debased. The latest new record of Gold is of no suprise and the trend is up and up, given we can expect a second round of QE in November in the US.

The rise in food prices are strong inflationary forces at play which is probably creating a lot of headaches for the Bank of England given its inflation target of 2%. You can therefore expect the UK to rise interest rates sooner than expected which will coud increase the risk for a double-dip recession due to the current constraints in household balance sheets. I hope Mervyn King still has plenty of ink in his pen, as he will definitely have more letters to write to the chancellor in the coming months...

We think the possibility that the U.S. goes 10 years with stagnant or falling prices is remote,” Mihir Worah, the head of Pimco’s real return portfolio management team, said in an e- mailed response to questions. “The options were priced at rich levels to the underlying” risk, added Worah, whose funds invest in Treasury inflation protected securities."

"Pimco Chief Executive Officer Mohamed El-Erian said last month the chance of deflation in the U.S. is around 25 percent."

Deflation then inflation is still the ongoing theme, which might lead us to Stagflation 70s style.

The latest inflation figure in the UK is of no surprise: August's consumer price inflation came in at 3.1 %. QE is working just fine...I kept saying the results of QE would be more inflation down the line, in April, in March...

"Inflation has been above the central bank's 2pc target since December 2009 although policymakers have argued that it is largely down to one-off factors and should subside over time."

Can the policymakers please specify the time frame? They won't...

High UK inflation no conspiracy:
By James Mackintosh

Jacques Rueff, a great French economist clearly saw the strategy behind Keynes General Theory of Employment which is currently being used in the UK with QE:

"Keynes came up with a subterfuge. The central bank should cause price inflation during a slump, he proposed. Rising prices for 'things' meant that salaries - in real terms - would go down. That was the greasy scam behind Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money: inflation robbed the working class of their wages without them realizing it. The poor schmucks even thank the politicians for picking their pockets: "salary cuts without tears," Rueff called them."

Bill Bonner also adds in his hommage to Jacques Rueff the following:

"Rueff died in 1978. Had he lived, he probably would have been as surprised as we have been by the stamina of the monetary horses. Except for a brief rest while Paul Volcker was managing the stables, they have run from bubble to bubble... delivering more liquidity wherever it would do the most damage. All the while, inflation continued to cut the price of labour. Between 1974 and 1984, real wages fell as much as 30%. Then, more moderate levels of inflation held them down for the next 24 years.

But Rueff’s insight comes with a warning. The faith-based, dollar-dependent monetary system is like a loaded pistol in front of a depressed man. It is too easy for the US to end its financial troubles, Rueff pointed out, just by printing more dollars. Eventually, this “exorbitant privilege” will be “suicidal” for Western economies, he predicted."

Bill Bonner concludes:
"Paul Volcker put the pistol in the drawer. Ben Bernanke has found it. And Jacques Rueff must look on in amusement to see what happens next."

"Until the 1970s, classic Keynesian economists seem to have believed that it was impossible to have a stagnant economy along with an aggressive monetary stimulus program. In slumps, central banks should print money, and more money, to stimulate via government spending and bank lending. Of course, while such Keynesian solutions may not stimulate the economy much (not with real jobs anyway), they do lead to inflation, and then price inflation, especially in severe slumps. Hence, stagflation..."

"Krugman's monetary solution to a liquidity trap is sustained inflation, where the central bank reverses fears of future deflation by instead causing an increase in the price level through massive monetary pumping (Krugman estimates this to be in the area of $10 trillion, borrowing the figure from a prior study conducted by Goldman Sachs)."

Housing in the US is still in the hurt locker:

More pain to come unfortunately. There is a huge shadow inventory that needs to be worked through. Banks reposession runs unabated. Housing starts at rock bottom still.

"RealtyTrac, an online foreclosure sale site, will release its monthly numbers on Thursday, but sources there confirm the number of repossessions will come in just shy of 100,000 for the month.
That is the highest since the site began tracking in 2005. July's repossession number was the second highest on record. The last highest was 93,777 in May of 2010."

U.S. Home Prices Face Three-Year Drop as Supply Gains:

“Whether it’s the sidelined, shadow or current inventory, the issue is there’s more supply than demand,” said Oliver Chang, a U.S. housing strategist with Morgan Stanley in San Francisco. “Once you reach a bottom, it will take three or four years for prices to begin to rise 1 or 2 percent a year.”

Gains Versus Inflation

"If the market doesn’t fall to its natural bottom, price gains in the next five to 10 years won’t keep pace with inflation as the difference is made up “on the backend,” said Barry Ritholtz, chief executive officer of FusionIQ, a New York research company. Price increases that fail to at least match inflation are the same as reductions in value, Ritholtz said."

"The Obama administration’s effort to help mortgage holders, the Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, is another source of future inventory as owners with new loan terms re- default, Ritholtz said. About half of the modifications done in 2009 were behind in payments by the first quarter of 2010, according to the Treasury Department."

‘Day of Reckoning’

The belief has been: if we stimulate sales with a tax credit and delay foreclosures with modifications, the market would stabilize,” said Ritholtz, author of “Bailout Nation.” “We’re just putting off the day of reckoning and drawing out the pain by not letting the housing market hit its bottom.”

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Albert Einstein.

Just the facts on housing in the US:

"Owners of about 11 million homes, or 23 percent of households with a mortgage, owed more than their property was worth as of June 30, according to CoreLogic. Another 2.4 million borrowers had less than 5 percent equity in their houses and probably would lose money on a sale after paying broker fees and closing costs, CoreLogic said Aug 25."

Deep sea fishing: Housing starts still at rock bottom

From the excellent Calculated Risk blog:

"The excess supply is keeping pressure on residential investment, and therefore on employment and economic growth. As new households are formed, the excess supply will be absorbed - but this is happening very slowly."

"It takes jobs to create households, and usually housing is the key driver for employment growth in the early stages of a recovery. So this is a trap: the excess supply means weak employment growth, leading to few new households, so the excess supply is absorbed slowly - putting off more robust employment growth.

The excess supply is also pushing down house prices (prices are just starting to fall again). Lower prices will eventually help clear the market, however lower prices will push more homeowners into negative equity."

"Negative equity frequently leads to distressed sales (short sales or foreclosures), and losses for lenders."

It will take a long time to clear the mess in US housing. A long, painful process to clear the excesses of the housing bubble.

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