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Desperate Central Bankers

October 12, 2016

I have been pounding the table over the mistakes made by central banks all around the world for some time now. When I started I was almost alone because markets were still going up and are no there were obvious market overvaluations. My argument back during QE3 was that over time an uber-dovish monetary policy would lead to excesses. We have now come to that point and I am no longer alone in my criticism. There is a growing concern from many corners of the globe that monetary policy, far from being benign, is actually quite malignant.

The problem is that the people who are in control of monetary policy, the central bankers, are in complete denial about the issues. They see the response of financial markets, and when they talk to investors they see the smiles on their faces. Which tells you the crowd these people run with. If they were talking to average savers and investors, retirees and those on pensions, they would be hearing a different story.

I have been bringing this issue up more and more because it is the single most important thing happening, with regard to our economic future. I think the shape of monetary policy in the US is actually more important than who we elect president – unless the new president actually changes the people who shape our monetary policy. Then, in terms of the economy, that is important!

(I get that there are a dozen issues surrounding the presidential election that have nothing, or at least very little, to do with the economy. And for many of you those issues take a higher priority. My role in this letter is to talk about the economy and the investment outlook, and I generally talk about politics only when it has an impact on those issues.)

This week for your Outside the Box I want to offer a short essay from somebody whom I have followed and admired for many years, Stephen Roach. He is the former chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia and the firm’s chief economist but is now ensconced as a senior fellow at Yale. In the piece that follows he highlights some of my own concerns but comes at the issue from a somewhat different perspective that I find useful. Let me offer one quote:

While financial markets love any form of monetary accommodation, there can be no mistaking its dark side. Asset prices are being manipulated across the board – stocks and bonds, long- and short-duration assets, as well as currencies. As a result, savers are being punished, the cost of capital is repressed, and reckless risk taking is being encouraged in an income-constrained climate. This is especially treacherous terrain for economies desperately in need of productivity-enhancing investment. And it is not dissimilar to the environment of asset-based excess that incubated the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.

It is a balmy Indian summer day here in Dallas. Temperatures are in the mid-80s and are projected to climb into the 90s next week. So much for fall weather. But anytime you can walk to a restaurant and sit outside in shirtsleeves in Texas is a good day.

This week I am doing pretty much nothing but sitting in front of my computer and going to the gym, but next week is going to get really busy. I just got a note from Chris Wood of CLSA (based in Hong Kong) that he is going to be in town next week and staying just a few blocks from me, and we are working out a time to get together. Chris is one of the most knowledgeable people on Asian markets, and he truly gets to meet with the Who’s Who of Asia. I will be interested in his insights.

Then starting Wednesday night next week I will be meeting with friends who are attending MoneyShow Dallas. Good friend Jeff Saut from Raymond James will be here, and I look forward to catching up with him, as well as with Steve Moore (now at Heritage but formerly at the Wall Street Journal). Steve Forbes will be around, and I’m sure we’ll talk. I will host a reception for Kim Githler, who founded and runs the MoneyShows, and her invited guests before we walk to dinner at the new Italian restaurant close by. I think I first met Kim in the mid-’80s when I attended my first MoneyShow conferences. I am looking forward to renewing our acquaintance.

Have a great week.

Your worried about the damaging effects of central bank policy analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box

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Desperate Central Bankers

By Stephen S. Roach
Originally published at Project Syndicate, Sept. 26, 2016

NEW HAVEN – The final day of the summer marked the start of yet another season of futile policymaking by two of the world’s major central banks – the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan. The Fed did nothing, which is precisely the problem. And the alchemists at the BOJ unveiled yet another feeble unconventional policy gambit.

Both the Fed and the BOJ are pursuing strategies that are woefully disconnected from the economies they have been entrusted to manage. Moreover, their latest actions reinforce a deepening commitment to an increasingly insidious transmission mechanism between monetary policy, financial markets, and asset-dependent economies. This approach led to the meltdown of 2008-2009, and it could well sow the seeds of another crisis in the years ahead.

Lost in the debate over the efficacy of the new and powerful tools that central bankers have added to their arsenal is the harsh reality of anemic economic growth. Japan is an obvious case in point. Stuck in what has been essentially a 1% growth trajectory for the last quarter-century, its economy has failed to respond to repeated efforts at extraordinary monetary stimulus.

Whatever the acronym – first, ZIRP (the zero interest-rate policy of the late 1990s), then QQE (the qualitative and quantitative easing launched by BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda in 2013), and now NIRP (the recent move to a negative interest-rate policy) – the BOJ has over-promised and under-delivered. In fact, with Japan’s real annual GDP growth slipping to 0.6% since Shinzo Abe was elected Prime Minister in late 2012 – one-third slower than the sluggish 0.9% average annual rate over the preceding 22 lost years (1991 to 2012) – the so-called maximum stimulus of “Abenomics” has been an abject failure.

The Fed hasn’t fared much better. Real GDP growth in the US has averaged only 2.1% in the 28 quarters since the Great Recession ended in the third quarter of 2009 – barely half the 4% average pace in comparable periods of earlier upturns.

As in Japan, America’s subpar recovery has been largely unresponsive to the Fed’s aggressive strain of unconventional stimulus – zero interest rates, three doses of balance-sheet expansion (QE1, QE2, and QE3), and a yield curve twist operation that seems to be the antecedent of the BOJ’s latest move. (The BOJ has just announced that it is targeting zero interest rates for ten-year Japanese government bonds.)

Notwithstanding the persistent growth shortfall, central bankers remain steadfast that their approach is working, by delivering what they call “mandate-compliant” outcomes. The Fed points to the sharp reduction of the US unemployment rate – from 10% in October 2009 to 4.9% today – as prima facie evidence of an economy that is nearing one of the targets of the Fed’s so-called dual mandate.

But when seemingly solid employment growth is juxtaposed against weak output, the story unravels, revealing a major productivity slowdown that raises serious questions about America’s long-term growth potential and an eventual buildup of cost and inflationary pressures. The Fed can’t be faulted for trying, argue the counter-factualists who insist that only unconventional monetary policies stood between the Great Recession and another Great Depression. That, however, is more an assertion than a verifiable conclusion.

While policy traction has been notably absent in the real economies of both Japan and the US, asset markets are a different story. Equities and bonds have soared on the back of monetary policies that have led to rock-bottom interest rates and massive liquidity injections.

The new unconventional monetary policies in both countries are obviously missing the disconnect between asset markets and real economic activity. This reflects the aftermath of wrenching balance-sheet recessions, in which aggregate demand, artificially propped up by asset-price bubbles, collapsed when the bubbles burst, leading to chronic impairment of overleveraged, asset-dependent consumers (America) and businesses (Japan). Under such circumstances, the lack of response at the zero bound of policy interest rates is hardly surprising. In fact, it is strikingly reminiscent of the so-called liquidity trap of the 1930s, when central banks were also “pushing on a string.”

What is particularly disconcerting is that central bankers remain largely in denial in the face of this painful reality check. As the BOJ’s latest actions indicate, the penchant for financial engineering remains unabated. And as the Fed has shown once again, the ever-elusive normalization of policy interest rates continues to be put off for yet another day. Having depleted their traditional arsenal long ago, central bankers remain myopically focused on devising new tools, rather than owning up to the destructive role their old tools played in sparking the crisis.

While financial markets love any form of monetary accommodation, there can be no mistaking its dark side. Asset prices are being manipulated across the board – stocks and bonds, long- and short-duration assets, as well as currencies. As a result, savers are being punished, the cost of capital is repressed, and reckless risk taking is being encouraged in an income-constrained climate. This is especially treacherous terrain for economies desperately in need of productivity-enhancing investment. And it is not dissimilar to the environment of asset-based excess that incubated the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.

Moreover, frothy asset markets in an era of extreme monetary accommodation take the pressure off fiscal authorities to act. Failing to heed one of the most powerful (yes, Keynesian) lessons of the 1930s – that fiscal policy is the only way out of a liquidity trap – could be the greatest tragedy of all. Central bankers desperately want the public to believe that they know what they are doing. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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Dallas Kennedy

Oct. 13, 2016, 7:32 a.m.

A fine piece, although some of us would dispute the notion that central banks are supposed to “manage” economies. They don’t and can’t.

What they have become is de facto central planning boards for the financial sector. What they create the illusion of strong growth by manipulating asset prices. Unemployment looks strong only because so many workers have dropped out of the labor force.

What’s really going on is that central banks are trying to achieve by monetary means what is really a function of the real economy—growth of the labor force, and improving productivity of labor, capital, and resources. Monetary means—apart from simple, rules-based policy like the Taylor rule or Friedman’s money supply rule—can’t accomplish this.

jack goldman

Oct. 12, 2016, 6:15 p.m.

Central bankers represent the money powers, who are counterfeiting currency to buy up all the world for free. It’s pure genius. The currencies are a theft from savers. The Dow was 995 silver dollars and 995 paper debt dollars in 1966. In 2016, Dow is 995 silver dollars and 18,000. Brilliant central bankers. You have done what I would do. If I could spend on a credit card and someone else paid, I would spend big, forever. It’s a counterfeiting currency bubble. Sadly, savers and middle class workers suffer, the elite 1% get fabulously rich, and the poor are kept from rioting with welfare. When welfare stops, the poor will burn down the cities. This could have been predicted in 1971. The script has played out EXACTLY as expected. Paper dollar down 95%. Silver dollar, no loss at all. Gasoline was three silver dimes in 1960’s and two silver dimes in 2016. Brilliant. I have to protect myself and my family by owning assets, real estate, gold bullion, real assets. Good luck to us all. A Clinton presidency will double debt from $20 Trillion to $40 Trillion and destroy the nation.

DAVID MCCULLAM

Oct. 12, 2016, 4:33 p.m.

Misrepresentation requires continuing cover up, frequently into the realm of Alice.  US News issued an article quoting US Labor stats that 2.98 million Americans quit their jobs voluntarily in August to look for new employment.  Supposedly these departures are based on the recent monthly “good news” that 156,000 new jobs were added to the economy.  Somehow their math and “logic” escapes us deplorable ones.