Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Are the Arsonists Running the Fire Brigade?

By John Mauldin

The true measure of a career is to be able to be content, even proud, that you succeeded through your own endeavors without leaving a trail of casualties in your wake.
– Alan Greenspan
If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists, that would be splendid.
– John Maynard Keynes
And He spoke a parable to them: "Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into the ditch?"
– Luke 6:39-40

Six years ago I hosted my first Thanksgiving in a Dallas high rise, and my then 90 year old mother came to celebrate, along with about 25 other family members and friends. We were ensconced in the 21st floor penthouse, carousing merrily, when the fire alarms went off and fire trucks began to descend on the building. There was indeed a fire, and we had to carry my poor mother down 21 flights of stairs through smoke and chaos as the firemen rushed to put out the fire. So much for the advanced fire sprinkler system, which failed to work correctly.

I wrote one of my better letters that week, called "The Financial Fire Trucks Are Gathering." You can read all about it here, if you like. I led off by forming an analogy to my Thanksgiving Day experience:

I rather think the stock market is acting like we did at dinner. When the alarms go off, we note that we have heard them several times over the past few months, and there has never been a real fire. Sure, we had a credit crisis in August, but the Fed came to the rescue. Yes, the subprime market is nonexistent. And the housing market is in free-fall. But the economy is weathering the various crises quite well. Wasn't GDP at an almost inexplicably high 4.9% last quarter, when we were in the middle of the credit crisis? And Abu Dhabi injects $7.5 billion in capital into Citigroup, setting the market's mind at ease. All is well. So party on like it's 1999.

However, I think when we look out the window from the lofty market heights, we see a few fire trucks starting to gather, and those sirens are telling us that more are on the way. There is smoke coming from the building. Attention must be paid.

I was wrong when I took the (decidedly contrarian) position that we were in for a mild recession. It turned out to be much worse than even I thought it would be, though I had the direction right. Sadly, it usually turns out that I have been overly optimistic.

This year we again brought my now-96-year-old mother to my new, not-quite-finished high-rise apartment to share Thanksgiving with 60 people; only this time we had to contract with a private ambulance, as she is, sadly, bedridden, although mentally still with us. And I couldn't help pondering, do we now have an economy and a market that must be totally taken care of by an ever-watchful central bank, which can no longer move on its own?

I am becoming increasingly exercised that the new direction of the US Federal Reserve, which is shaping up as "extended forward rate guidance" of a zero-interest-rate policy (ZIRP) through 2017, is going to have significant unintended consequences. My London partner, Niels Jensen, reminded me in his November client letter that,

In his masterpiece The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, John Maynard Keynes referred to what he called the "euthanasia of the rentier". Keynes argued that interest rates should be lowered to the point where it secures full employment (through an increase in investments). At the same time he recognized that such a policy would probably destroy the livelihoods of those who lived off of their investment income, hence the expression. Published in 1936, little did he know that his book referred to the implications of a policy which, three quarters of a century later, would be on everybody's lips. Welcome to QE.

It is this neo-Keynesian fetish that low interest rates can somehow spur consumer spending and increase employment and should thus be promoted even at the expense of savers and retirees that is at the heart of today's central banking policies. The counterproductive fact that savers and retirees have less to spend and therefore less propensity to consume seems to be lost in the equation. It is financial repression of the most serious variety, done in the name of the greater good; and it is hurting those who played by the rules, working and saving all their lives, only to see the goal posts moved as the game nears its end.

Central banks around the world have engineered multiple bubbles over the last few decades, only to protest innocence and ask for further regulatory authority and more freedom to perform untested operations on our economic body without benefit of anesthesia. Their justifications are theoretical in nature, derived from limited variable models that are supposed to somehow predict the behavior of a massively variable economy. The fact that their models have been stunningly wrong for decades seems to not diminish the vigor with which central bankers attempt to micromanage the economy.

The destruction of future returns of pension funds is evident and will require massive restructuring by both beneficiaries and taxpayers. People who have made retirement plans based on past return assumptions will not be happy. Does anyone truly understand the implications of making the world's reserve currency a carry-trade currency for an extended period of time? I can see how this is good for bankers and the financial industry, and any intelligent investor will try to take advantage of it; but dear gods, the distortions in the economic landscape are mind-boggling. We can only hope there will be a net benefit, but we have no true way of knowing, and the track records of those in the driver's seats are decidedly discouraging.

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – Please Click Here.

© 2013 Mauldin Economics. All Rights Reserved.

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