Posts Tagged 'bubbles'

Government Debt: The Final Bubble

Could this be the beginning of the end for our markets’ last great bubble?

An auction yesterday of $34 billion in 5-year U.S. government bonds didn’t go over so well, fetching prices well under what analysts were expecting.

Ruh-roh.

Oh I know, it may not seem like that big of a deal. The debt still got sold, unlike an unsuccessful auction for 40-year bonds in the UK. The fact that our auction resulted in yields (which move in the opposite direction of the price of bonds) of 1.849% versus the expected 1.801% seems like rather unimportant, inside-baseball type of stuff.

And if it’s just one bad auction, then it may not be important (Edit: Demand for an auction of $40 billion in two-year U.S. notes Tuesday was quite strong). But if this weak demand is a signal of things to come, then we are in for a world of hurt.

In the past ten years, we have had a dot-com bubble, a housing bubble, a credit bubble and an oil bubble, but I have contended they will all pale in comparison to the government debt bubble we are now experiencing.

Think about it: The U.S. government, despite owing $10 trillion in debt, despite incurring an additional $1.3 trillion deficit in 2008 (a number which will certainly be crushed this year and likely for years to come if the Obama plan even gets partly realized), has been up until now able to sell almost as much of the debt as it wishes to at extremely low interest rates.

The Pollyannas will say that there’s a good reason for the low cost of our debt, and why that situation won’t change anytime soon. The big concern right now is deflation, not inflation. Other countries have at least as many problems as we do, and too much savings to boot. They need to put their money somewhere, and the U.S. markets are still the world’s best, safest place to invest money. They own too much of our debt to start selling now – it would only lead to mutually assured destruction.

“This time it’s different.” To me, there are no four more dangerous words. It defies the laws of economics and of logic to expect that a nation awash in debt with miles and miles of higher and higher deficits on the horizon will be able to lend more money at virtually zero interest for an extended period of time.

The only question is when do the floodgates open? We’ve heard rumblings of complaints – notably, on the record and not anonymous – from Chinese officials about our country’s economic situation and increasingly high levels of debt. We’ve seen budget deficit estimates from the CBO which far exceed the optimistic ones put together by the Obama team. And now we had a disappointing auction.

Of course, to a certain extent, debasing our currency is what the government wants. If we could control the pace of the move, some inflation would be a good thing since we’re so heavily in debt (as the value of the dollar falls, that means debtors owe less in ‘real’ terms). But it is highly likely that the transition would come too fast and too quick for our economy and our policies to adjust without experiencing significant dislocations and subsequent pain.

I can almost guarantee you that if government debt is a bubble and it does pop, you won’t see our foreign lenders gently exiting the market. It will be a stampede.

And what will be the implications of such a scenario? Believe it or not, they are likely far worse than anything we have seen so far. Interest rates will soar, as will inflation. Savers will be crushed. Investment will grind to a halt. An already weak economy on its knees would get weaker. We will be forced to renegotiate our obligations with foreign lenders, most notably the Chinese.

The end result could be no less than the end of U.S. hegemony.

What goes up, must go down …

I believe in balance. In yin and yang. I believe in cycles. In symmetry. I believe big wild parties end with big, nasty hangovers. I believe that what goes up, must come down.

Unfortunately, our government does not agree.

I have railed time and time again on this blog about the scattershot and shortsighted nature of our economic response so far to the current financial crisis. In short, and with few exceptions, said strategy has consisted of spending as much money as possible to bailout and stimulate every sick, depressed segment of our economy, with a particular focus on those segments that cater to the rich and connected.

The policies of the incoming Obama team will only accelerate this process, albeit with a more tilted and welcomed focus on some of the not-as-rich-or-connected folks. There is talk of a new $1 trillion stimulus package being created early in the Obama presidency.

The Fed is fully aboard the stimulus party as well, yesterday slashing the fed funds target rate to basically zero and committing to buying mortgage assets to ensure long-term borrowing rates move lower in an attempt to stabilize and boost the housing market. There is even talk that the government will FIX interest rates at a certain level to ensure they accomplish that goal, though for now it appears the mortgage market is responding to the unprecedented stimuli.

Look, no one likes to see suffering. People out of work, going bankrupt. Home prices falling. Factories closing. Cities failing. It’s nasty, nasty stuff. For politicians, it tends to lead their own unemployment. And for economists, it’s a scary scenario as well, because it almost always results in deflation, a pernicious problem that tends to have long, strong roots once it sets in.

But did the Fed or government do anything when times were so good, when the price of housing was soaring to the moon and consumers were levering up to the hilt and taking on dangerous levels of debt???? Aside from nominal increases in interest rates, I don’t remember any concerted effort, and certainly nothing approaching the desperation we’ve seen recently, to try and tame the animal spirits and gently guide the economy into a soft landing.

In my opinion, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t have bubbles without crash landings. We have stemmed the worst of the credit crunch and liquidity crisis – interest rates have fallen, banks are lending a bit again (at least to each other). It is now time to let the market work its way through this mess and find its equilibrium level. Yes, it will likely overshoot on the downside, just like it did on the way up. Yes, it may take longer to find that equilibrium level than we’d like. But you gotta take the yin with the yang.

I’m not saying we should sit on our hands and watch helplessly as the economy craters. By all means, spend money to reinvest in our roads and infrastructure; on new technologies, including alternative energy; on education, including the retraining of displaced workers; on strengthening the country’s safety net to ensure that those hit hardest from the economic collateral damage don’t suffer unduly.

But realize that all this profligacy will have consequences down the road. We are already staring down the barrel of the worst demographic situation in decades – as the baby boomer generation is getting ready to retire en masse, placing a huge burden on this country’s resources as they move from being net producers to net consumers.

When times were better and tax revenues were flush, our government did nothing to reduce our budget deficit in any meaningful way or address long-term systemic issues threatening the economic health of our nation, like Social Security and Medicare. Yet it now has no problem dramatically increasing our country’s burdens and obligations in order to try and avoid the bad end of the business cycle.

The only thing all this spending will do is take away the oomph from any subsequent recovery. We’ll see a weaker dollar, higher inflation, bigger deficits, and higher taxes down the road. At least some, and maybe a lot of this money will be misplaced, leading to bubbles and wasted investments in other unforeseen areas.

But frankly, the prospect that most of this stimulus will be wasted, a misguided attempt to set an artificial floor on the economy, is actually not the worst-case scenario (though it is the most likely). My biggest concern is that the stimulus works too well and our animal spirits are revived before they’ve had a sufficient chance to reset. If that happens, we’d only be setting ourselves up for a bigger, more painful crash down the road.

How The American Dream created this American nightmare …

You hear a lot of conservatives nowadays wanting to place blame for the country’s current economic crisis on the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which encouraged commercial banks to lend money to borrowers in low-income areas.

The implication is that the CRA, enacted and significantly expanded under two different Democratic administrations, led to the creation and proliferation of the risky subprime mortgages that have brought the U.S. banking system to the brink of collapse.

Never mind the fact that CRA-regulated commercial banks originated less than half the total subprime mortgages or that at least as much share of the blame for how things got out of hand has to be placed on the Republican-led repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which allowed investment banks and other less regulated institutions to engage in similarly risky lending (and to do so without the leverage restrictions placed on commercial banks).

But conservatives do have a point (even if it’s not the one they really intend to make): This country’s myopic focus on home ownership as the be-all and end-all of The American Dream did indeed help spawn the housing and credit bubble, and the CRA is just another in a long list of government policies that have encouraged home ownership as an important component of economic development and societal stability.

OK, maybe I’m just a bitter renter who’s trying to justify his lifestyle and puny net worth, but I do wonder … is home ownership really that important?

The National Association of Realtors certainly thinks so, and some of their rationale makes sense. For society as a whole, home ownership may in fact offer some advantages, as people who buy their homes are more likely to be invested in their communities and neighborhoods than renters. However, I would think these benefits have diminished over time as the nation has developed and become more settled.

Encouraging broad home ownership probably also acts as an alternative means of reducing income inequality in a capitalist economy, and at the same time instills in citizens the importance of private property rights, both of which lead to increased stability in our society. Given that our national savings rate is negative, home ownership also encourages people to invest and save funds they might otherwise not.

But that capital comes at a cost, an opportunity cost. Homes are static entities, non-productive investments. By themselves, homes don’t create anything of tangible value.

And homes are not particularly good investments, either. Robert Shiller did a hundred-year study and found that homes increased in value about 3% a year on average, not much more than the rate of inflation, with only a couple of temporary periods of dramatic outperformance.

Another study by two professors, Roger Ibbotson and Jack Clark Francis, found that housing increased in value about 8.6% a year from 1978 to 2004. Not bad, but not as good as commercial real estate at 9.5% and well behind stocks at 13.4%. (Granted, you can’t live in a stock).

The math gets a bit better when you account for the substitution costs of renting, but a lot worse when you include the other costs associated with home ownership – and there are plenty of them, such as mortgage interest, insurance, upkeep, refurbishing and property taxes. The WSJ estimated that a $300,000 house could end up costing an owner more than $1 million over 30 years. And that excludes the costs of buying and selling a home, which can add up to as much as 10% of the transaction value and make moving to a location that better suits one’s needs or skills a much more expensive prospect than it’d otherwise be.

A good trader friend of mine, who used to live in a rented NYC apartment, described his St. Louis home as a ‘money pit’ and usually wishes he was still renting.

Unlike with stocks, where diversification is possible and laudable, owning a home often requires a person putting almost of his or her eggs in one basket. And if you bought a home in the last couple of years, that’s a much smaller basket now.

Bottom line: Obviously, every locality is a bit different, but I think owning a home can make sense for people who plan on staying in the same place for about 5-10 years, or who enjoy the responsibilities of upkeep and maintenance (I, however, recoil at the prospect of lawn mowing and do-it-yourself repair projects).

But even in the best of scenarios, home ownership is rarely the best path to getting rich. And as we’ve found out in recent months, making it a key goal for a society – at the expense of other worthwhile goals and values – can lead to a rather unwise deployment of capital and some really nasty unintended consequences.

Bubbling Black Revisited …

Time for a short self-congratulatory post (For if I don’t do it, who will?).

Right before the Fourth of July, I wrote that the price of oil was a bubble waiting to be pricked and nearing a short-term top. In the past three weeks, the price of oil has fallen by about $20 bucks a barrel, or almost 15 percent, a huge move by any standard. In terms of daily closing prices, July 3rd ended up being the exact top.

I also correctly pointed out the main reason usually cited for the fall-off: Decreased demand due to a weakening economic picture, particularly in the U.S. and Europe. I also believe the fact U.S. government officials have been speaking out against an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear production facilities has helped. I do not think any of George W’s jawboning about offshore drilling, nor Congress’ subsequent investigations into oil market speculation, had any real impact.

However, I wouldn’t start planning to buy that new SUV just yet. I am a bit concerned that we didn’t get that last parabolic move in the price of oil that I thought we’d get. Bubbles don’t typically fizzle out; they tend to pop in dramatic fashion. So I still believe another big move higher, one that potentially busts through July’s high of $147, could be forthcoming.

In other words, this is one hot-button election issue that won’t be going away anytime soon.

Bubbling Black … Pop Goes the Diesel

OK, I know nothing about the oil market, but considering I distinctly remembering the then-CEO of Exxon-Mobil saying on CNBC that oil was way overpriced based on the fundamentals some 2-plus years and $100/barrel ago, I don’t see why my lack of knowledge on the subject should keep me from commenting.

Plus, being involved in the tech blowup earlier this decade, I do know something about market bubbles, and I believe we are getting close to at least a short-term top in the price of oil. Wall Street brokers are calling for oil prices reaching as high as $500/barrel in the coming months and years (reminiscent of a $1000 target price set by one analyst for the now-bankrupt CommerceOne Internet software company); speculators as well as regular Joes and Janes are pouring money into oil and gas investments (not a surprise given it’s the only thing on the Street that’s working); and perhaps most tellingly, CNBC just aired a one-hour special ‘America’s Oil Crisis’ replete with the necessary disturbing intro music and computer graphic (U.S. map drowning in oil).

Timing the exact end of a speculative blowoff move higher is always tricky, but darn it if the similarities between the oil price chart and the Nasdaq circa March 2000 don’t look rather compelling. The dot-com party lasted far longer than many people imagined, so there’s likely to be another run higher, and if so, it’s gonna be explosive, but the end is near.

What’s the news event that triggers the sell-off? Maybe it’s a new law that supports offshore drilling, or limits speculation. More likely, and more distressing, the fall could just come as high oil prices bring the world’s economies – and thus rising oil consumption – to a screeching halt.

Even if oil sells off, I do not think we’re going back to $50 a barrel anytime soon. I’m not sure I buy the ‘peak oil’ theory, but we are talking about a limited and much-needed resource, after all, not dot-com stock that can be issued until the funny dog handpuppets come home.

High oil prices will present problems for a lot of people and economies, but in the end, those prices will cause their own demise as good-old human ingenuity provides the technological means to sever our dependence on oil … giving the Earth a much-needed break and hopefully making it less likely American troops are sent into harm’s way to sate our energy addiction.

So, here’s my fearless prediction: We top out in oil sometime within the next month and we hit double-digit oil sometime by this time next year. Of course, if Israel attacks Iran, all bets are off ;-)

P.S. For another (mostly balanced, well-reasoned) take on why oil is as high is it is, read this article.

P.P.S. (Man, I gotta work on this ‘very short’ blog post thing!)


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