The Unintended Consequences Brewing Thanks to the Federal Reserve


We’re just back from a few days break in sunny NSW with the family. In the time we’ve been gone, the market soared, then waited, then tanked, then retreated again. All this happened despite the Federal Reserve not really doing anything.

Oh wait, it did do something. It communicated. Badly. As our mate Dan Denning likes to point out, communication is the last policy tool of a badly constrained Federal Reserve. And it’s not communicating all that well.

The analogy that comes to mind is such a simple one we don’t know why we haven’t come up with it before. But after more ‘Fedspeak’ overnight, it became blindingly obvious. That is, the Federal Reserve is like a bunch of kids with a garden hose. The hose is easy enough to handle when the pressure is low and the amount of liquid coming out of the hose is manageable.

But when you turn the tap up to full bore (say US$85 billion a month in liquidity flow) then the hose becomes a little harder to hold onto. Ever since Bernanke started the taper talk back in May, it feels like he has lost his grip on the hose. Now it’s flying around everywhere. All the Fed kids are racing around the yard trying to get the hose under control, but it’s flicking around like a cut snake. Water is going everywhere.

The biggest kid, New York Fed President William Dudley, reckons there’s no need to taper. In a speech overnight he said the economy was still too weak to think about turning the liquidity tap down yet. But his Dallas counterpart, Richard Fisher, at the same time said he urged his Fed colleagues to turn the tap down to the tune of about US$10 billion a month.

So there are clearly some divergent views at the world’s biggest central bank about which way to go from here. Or maybe Chairman Bernanke is happy to let the divergent views play out in public. Maybe the communications strategy and Bernanke’s famed policy of ‘transparency’ is intended to be so transparent it confuses the bejesus out of everyone. They probably think confusion acts as a bit of a handbrake on speculation. The Fed’s Holy Grail is clearly to leave the tap turned on while discouraging speculation, but is it working?

No. Like most things that come out of the Federal Reserve, it’s wishful thinking, ignorant of unintended consequences. Our old mate Doug Noland destroyed the notion that confusion over the future direction of QE might lead to less speculation in his latest Credit Bubble Bulletin. Not surprisingly when you get US$85 billion per month of liquidity flow in a non-crisis economy, Noland points out that you get very loose financial conditions, despite what the Fed might try and ‘communicate’:

Stock prices have surged to all-time record highs. The S&P500 has gained 7.7% in three months, with Nasdaq up 12.4%. The small cap Russell 2000 has surged 11.3% in three months. The Nasdaq Biotech index has jumped 24.8%, increasing its 2013 gain to 53.3% (2-yr gain of 116%). Internet stocks enjoy a three-month gain of 12.6%. The average stock (Value Line Arithmetic) is up 11.2% in three months. Stock prices indicate the opposite of tightening.

Last week set an all-time weekly record for corporate debt issuance. The year is on track for record junk bond issuance and on near-record pace for overall corporate debt issuance. At 350 bps, junk bond spreads are near 5-year lows (5-yr avg. 655bps). At about 70 bps, investment grade Credit spreads closed Thursday at the lowest level since 2007 (5-yr avg. 114bps). It’s a huge year for M&A. And with the return of "cov-lite" and abundant cheap finance for leveraged lending generally, U.S. corporate debt markets are screaming the opposite of tightening.

August existing home sales were the strongest since February 2007. National home prices are now rising at double-digit rates. An increasing number of local markets -certainly including many in California – are showing signs of overheating. Prices at the upper-end in many markets are back to all-time highs. And despite a backup in mortgage borrowing costs from record lows, housing markets have yet to indicate a tightening of Financial Conditions. Clearly benefiting from loose lending conditions, August auto sales were the strongest since 2006.

Yes that’s right. There is no tightening of financial conditions in the world’s largest capital market. It’s bubbling away as hot as ever. The policy of ‘jawboning’ is not really working at all.

These monetary experimenters – these modern day John Laws – are just setting us up for a bust that will make the Mississippi Bubble look quaint. And then they’ll retire back to Academia and advise us all on how to clean up the mess. 

What about China? Won’t it save us all? Well, the latest gauge of manufacturing activity shows continued improvement, with the index expanding to a 6-month high of 51.2 (above 50 denotes expansion). The China improving story has boosted the Aussie dollar and the resources sector.

But if you look at the performance of the commodities sector, it’s not really buying it. The chart below shows the CRB Commodities index. It bottomed soon after the People’s Bank of China started pumping additional liquidity into the economy following its credit crunch scare in June. But it peaked in late August and has sold off since then. And the index certainty didn’t respond to the ‘good news’ about China’s recovering manufacturing sector. 

Commodities – Not Believing the China Recovery Story?

click to enlarge
Source: StockCharts

Perhaps commodities can see the huge amount of overcapacity in the country. This Forbes article tells us that the steel industry ‘has run up $490 billion of debt in building mills that now account for 66% of global production…the country currently has about 300 million metric tons of excess capacity, almost twice the output of the European Union.’

Just have a think about that before you go long Rio or Fortescue. Almost twice the output of the European Union – no slouch when it comes to steel production – is simply ‘excess capacity’ in China. We’re not sure what the definition of excess capacity is, but if there’s excess steel production there’s obviously excess iron ore production.

We’ve been warning about this for a while and still the excess and imbalances remain. Just because the market hasn’t succumbed to the forces of supply and demand yet doesn’t mean it won’t. So if you’re in playing in the casino we suggest thinking about casually taking your chips off the iron ore table and wandering off to see what else is happening.

Right now, with stock prices elevated and speculation still rampant, we’d prefer to sit in the bar, maybe with a Long Island Iced Tea, and observe the action from a distance. ‘Cause it’s going to be good viewing if you’re away from the tables.


Greg Canavan+
for The Daily Reckoning Australia

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From the Archives…

How Long Can the Government Charade Continue?
20-09-2013 – Vern Gowdie

The End of Australia’s Boom Economy
19-09-2013 – Satyajit Das

Super… Who’s Going to Buy Your Shares When You Retire?
18-09-2013 – Nick Hubble

Australian Banks in the Firing Line
17-09-2013 – Nick Hubble

Yellen at Stocks to go Up
16-09-2013 – Nick Hubble

Greg Canavan
Greg Canavan is the Managing Editor of The Daily Reckoning and is the foremost authority for retail investors on value investing in Australia. He is a former head of Australasian Research for an Australian asset-management group and has been a regular guest on CNBC, Sky Business’s The Perrett Report and Lateline Business. Greg is also the editor of Crisis & Opportunity, an investment publication designed to help investors profit from companies and stocks that are undervalued on the market. To follow Greg's financial world view more closely you can subscribe to The Daily Reckoning for free here. If you’re already a Daily Reckoning subscriber, then we recommend you also join him on Google+. It's where he shares investment research, commentary and ideas that he can't always fit into his regular Daily Reckoning emails. For more on Greg go here.

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3 Comments on "The Unintended Consequences Brewing Thanks to the Federal Reserve"

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3 years 28 days ago
Sensible economic policy is to juice the lending market a bit, tax the rich quite a bit more, write off a lot of bad debts, take losses where the risk was, let prices of assets ease, balance gov’t budgets and reduce the bracket creep income tax on the middle class and small business. Above all control money supply and inflation. Somebody has done the opposite job here, probably to help their bribing, lying, scheming, criminal, (sorry, carried away there) masters. So now we’re going to suffer a depression instead. Thanks politicians and regulators for nothing, you useless bast (whoops, there… Read more »
3 years 28 days ago
Your brave Rod, all those anti-social outpourings, you’ll have the thought police banging on your door next. You are also right of course, we have a lot of useless, lying, spineless, toadies here to. A case in point. I was looking at a certain house which ticked all the boxes, then this above mentioned corrupt bunch of pollies introduced another housing scheme which three days later sent the price up another £20,000. about $34,000. As you can imagine I was not pleased. Still, there’s a election in just over a year, although voting is not compulsory here, I shall on… Read more »
slewie the pi-rat
slewie the pi-rat
3 years 28 days ago
how on earth did Oracle beat the Kiwis? weekend before last, listening to the Giants of the radio, the announcers could not stop talking about the number of boats in McCovey Cove. Oracle was there. so, between telling us what was going on over the fence in Rt. Field and on the Bay, we got the score and a few other baseball details. who was pitching, maybe… then Oracle takes off and the play-by-play goes ‘grand salami’: “there goes Oracle!” “look at that boat go!” “just shooting out of Willie McCovey Cove!” “flying!” “we’ve never seen a boat go THAT… Read more »
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