By John Williams, Shadowstats
Nothing is normal: not the economy, not the financial system, not the financial markets and not the political system. The financial system still remains in the throes and aftershocks of the 2008 panic. A number of underlying problems of that time, tied to the risks of a near-systemic collapse and the related, extreme economic downturn, were pushed into the future—not resolved—by the extraordinary liquidity and systemic-intervention actions taken by the Federal Reserve and federal government. Further panic is possible, and severe US dollar debasement and inflation remain inevitable.
Nonetheless, several major misperceptions appear to have developed in the last month or two concerning an end to the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing, the level of crisis posed by US fiscal imbalances, and an unfolding recovery in the US economy.
Contrary to currently hyped expectations in the popular financial media, chances are negligible for any serious, near-term reduction in the Federal Reserve’s purchases of US Treasury securities. The Fed has locked itself into ongoing quantitative easing, with fair prospects of expanded, not reduced accommodation in the year ahead. Separately, the long-term solvency issues of the United States should return to the center of attention for the global financial markets by early September 2013. At present, prospects of the US government meaningfully addressing its extreme fiscal imbalances are nonexistent.
Exacerbating financial-system solvency concerns for the Fed and intensifying US fiscal instabilities, the US economy never recovered from its 2008 plunge, and now it is slowing anew. Increasing recognition of these factors, complicated by the potential of a domestic political scandal taking on Watergate-style status, promise difficult times ahead for the US dollar, with resulting domestic inflation problems and significant upside pressure on the prices of gold and silver.
Federal Reserve’s Primary Function Is to Preserve Banking-System Solvency
Despite a Congressional mandate that the Federal Reserve pursue policies to foster sustainable US economic growth in an environment of contained inflation, those issues are secondary to the Federal Reserve’s primary mission, which is to preserve the stability of the banking system. While Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has acknowledged that there is little the Fed can do at present to boost economic activity, the weak economy remains the foil for banking-system difficulties, serving as justification for more easing by the Fed.
Accordingly, since the breaking of 2008 crisis, the Fed’s accommodation, liquidity actions, and direct systemic interventions have been aimed at maintaining the stability and liquidity of the banking and financial-market systems. As bank bailouts became politically unpopular, the Fed increasingly used the weakness in the economy as political cover for its systemic-liquidity actions.
In response to critics of excessive accommodation, the US central bank recently put forth several rounds of jawboning on exiting quantitative easing, in an effort to quell inflation fears. Those efforts have been a factor in recent gold selling.
Comments from the June 19 Federal Open Market Committee meeting and Mr. Bernanke’s subsequent press conference were clear but largely ignored by the markets. The shutdown of quantitative easing—specifically the bond buying of QE3—would not happen until such time as the economy had recovered in line with the relatively rosy economic projections of the Fed. As the stock market began to sell off in response to the Fed chairman’s initial press-conference comments, he sputtered something along the lines of, “No, you don’t understand me. If the economy is weaker, we’ll have to increase the easing.” The economy is going to be weaker; banking problems will persist, and the Fed will continue to ease.
Nonetheless, the consensus perception appears to be that QE3 will be gone by the middle of 2014, despite the stated economic preconditions. As will be discussed, though, intensifying economic deterioration should become obvious to the markets in the next several months, and that should help to shift perceptions. The harsh reality remains that the Fed is locked into its extraordinary easing by ongoing solvency issues in the banking system (only hinted at in Bernanke’s post-FOMC press conference), and by the political cover provided by a weakening economy.
In the latest version of quantitative easing (QE3), the Fed has been buying US Treasury securities at a pace that is suggestive of fears that the US government otherwise might have some trouble in selling its debt. Through July 3, 2013 and since the expansion of QE3 at the beginning of 2013, the Fed’s net purchases of Treasury securities has absorbed 90.5% of the coincident net issuance of gross federal debt. That circumstance is exacerbated somewhat by gross federal debt currently being contained at its official debt ceiling.
Still, in the pre-crisis environment of 2008, the St. Louis Fed’s measure of the monetary base (bank reserves plus cash in circulation) was holding around $850 billion, with roughly $40 billion in bank reserves. As a result of intervening Fed actions, today’s monetary base is around $3.2 trillion, with more than $2.0 trillion in bank reserves (primarily excess reserves). Under normal conditions, the money supply would expand based on the increase in bank reserves, but banks have not been lending normally into the regular flow of commerce, due largely to their impaired balance sheets.
While there has been no significant flow-through to the broad money supply from the expanded monetary base, there still appears to have been impact. As shown in the accompanying graph, there is some correlation between annual growth in the St. Louis Fed’s monetary base estimate and annual growth in M3, as measured by the ShadowStats-Ongoing M3 Estimate. The correlations between the growth rates are 58.1% for M3, 39.9% for M2, and 36.7% for M1, all on a coincident basis versus growth in the monetary base. The June 2013 annual growth estimates are based on four weeks of data.
The ShadowStats contention, again, remains that the Fed’s easing activity has been aimed primarily at supporting banking-system solvency and liquidity, not at propping the economy. When the Fed boosts its easing but money growth slows, as seen at present, there is a suggestion of mounting financial stress within the banking system.
Further, underlying US economic reality is weak enough to challenge domestic banking stress tests. In this environment, the Fed most likely will have to continue to provide banking-system liquidity, while again, still taking political cover for its accommodation activity from the weakening economy.
Renewed Fiscal Crisis by Early September
At present, the US Treasury is playing daily accounting games in order keep its borrowings—subject to the debt ceiling—from exceeding the ceiling. The July 3, 2013 Daily Treasury Statement showed those borrowings to be just $25 million shy of the roughly $16,999.421 billion ceiling. The US Treasury estimates that the ability to play games will end, and the debt limit will have to be raised, sometime early in September 2013.
The long-postponed and unresolved budget-deficit conflicts within the Congress and with the White House are likely to surface anew at that time. What is being played out here is still part of the fiscal-crisis confrontation of July and August 2011, which almost collapsed the US dollar and brought about a downgrade in the sovereign credit rating of the United States. The issues never were resolved. They were put off until after the 2012 election, and other than for minimal sequestration, they remain in play, going into a post-Labor Day 2013 showdown.
The global markets, which broke into brief but extreme turmoil with the unresolved crisis in 2011, await a resolution. The markets have been patient with the US dollar through the ensuing sequestration, and continued postponements of serious negotiations that have accompanied successive displays of the political inability of the US government to address its long-range solvency issues. Further efforts at delay and/or obfuscation not only should invite an intensifying crisis of global confidence in the US dollar, but also will invite a further downgrade to the sovereign credit rating of the United States.
The crux of the dollar-debasement and ultimate, severe-inflation/hyperinflation issues indeed is this political inability of the United States to cover its long-range obligations, other than by printing the money it needs. Based on the US Treasury’s financial accounting of the federal government using generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), the GAAP-based federal budget deficit was $6.6 trillion in fiscal-year 2012 (year ended September 30). Well beyond the simple cash-based deficit of $1.1 trillion in fiscal 2012, the GAAP-based annual deficits have been in the range of $4 to $5 trillion for the six years leading up to 2012. The largest difference here is that the GAAP numbers include annual deterioration in the net present value of unfunded liabilities for programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
Those GAAP levels are not sustainable or containable. Beyond the likelihood that the economy is at the tipping point on taxes, where higher taxes actually would increase the deficit due to resulting slower economic growth, the government cannot raise taxes enough to cover the actual deficit in any given year. The annual shortfalls also are so large that every penny of government spending (including defense) could be cut to zero except for the social programs, and the fiscal circumstance still would be in deficit.
The options open to those running the government are limited in terms of new taxes and have to include significant spending cuts and restructurings of Social Security, Medicare, etc., so that those programs are solvent over the long haul. Such actions are a political impossibility at the moment. Given continued political contentiousness and the use of overly optimistic economic assumptions to help ten-year budget projections along, little but gimmicked numbers and further smoke and mirrors are likely to come out of pending negotiations or confrontations.
Economic Plunge and Recovery versus Plunge and Stagnation
The official version of recent economy activity is that a deep recession began in December 2007, hit bottom in June 2009, and that business activity has been in recovery since. That pattern is reflected in the accompany graph of headline, real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP). The economy regained its pre-recession high in fourth-quarter 2011 and has been expanding ever since. Unfortunately, no other major economic series has shown the full and expanded recovery suggested by GDP reporting. Those “errant” series include payroll employment, industrial production, consumer confidence, and housing starts, among others.
Closer to common experience, there never was a recovery following the economic downturn that began in 2006 and collapsed into 2008 and 2009. What followed was a protracted period of business stagnation that began to turn down anew in second- and third-quarter 2012. The “recovery” seen in headline GDP reporting was a statistical illusion generated by the use of understated inflation in calculating the inflation-adjusted series.
During the last three decades, a number of methodological changes were made to inflation-estimation techniques that have had the effect of artificially reducing annual inflation rates. Of particular relevance to GDP estimation has been the introduction of hedonic quality adjustments, which adjust inflation rates for the effects of nebulous quality changes. These changes—ranging from new features with computers and washing machines to the use of colored pictures in college textbooks—cannot be measured directly, only estimated by econometric models, with the usual effect of reducing related inflation.
The lower the inflation rate that is used in adjusting a series, such as GDP, for inflation impact, the stronger will be the resulting inflation-adjusted growth. When the US first used this process in its GDP reporting, countries such as Japan and Germany did not follow. Hence, stronger relative US versus Japanese GDP growth at the time reflected the difference of use in inflation gimmicks, more so than actual differences in economic activity. The hedonic changes used in US GDP estimates never have been applied consistently and do not reflect common experience.
The following graph of corrected real GDP is adjusted for the removal of roughly two percentage points of aggregate, hedonically understated annual inflation. It shows a pattern of economic plunge and stagnation, as opposed to the official pattern of plunge and recovery.
Not only do a number of large, consumer-oriented companies find that the “corrected” pattern of activity more closely resembles their business activity, but this same pattern also is reflected in underlying fundamentals that drive broad activity, such as household income.
The primary issues facing the economy are structural liquidity problems for the consumer, who generates more than 70% of GDP activity. Without real income growth, the consumer cannot sustain growth in real consumption, except for the possible use of short-lived credit expansion. Yet, credit availability has been limited. Without credit expansion (all growth in post-debt-crisis consumer credit outstanding remains in federally owned student loans), the consumer is unable to borrow in order to cover the shortfall in living standards.
The next graph shows median household income through May 2013, deflated by the CPI-U (data courtesy of Sentier Research). Monthly median household income plunged as the economy purportedly began its strong recovery in June 2009. Further, in the last two years, income has been bottom-bouncing near its cycle low, consistent with the “corrected” GDP series. The numbers here are based on monthly surveying by the US Census Bureau.
So long as consumer liquidity remains constrained, the economy has not and cannot recover. Accordingly, any near-term hype from an occasional “good” economic statistic most likely is no more than hype. Economic reality will continue to surprise on the downside, and that is a negative for the US dollar, as well as for budget-deficit and Treasury-funding projections. The US economic weakness is long-term and structural, and increasing global recognition of that in the months ahead will contribute to eventual pummeling of the US dollar in the global markets.
Other Factors Impacting the US Dollar, Inflation, and Precious Metals
Highlighted here have been several issues where recent shifts in market sentiment have neutralized or reversed the impact or otherwise had been significant, negative elements for the outlook of the US dollar, and supportive elements of the outlook for domestic inflation and the prices of gold and silver. Market sentiments should shift again, both as the economy shows an intensifying downturn and as the clock runs out on fiscal-crisis delaying tactics.
A new factor—not yet widely anticipated in the markets—is that still-developing political scandals tied to the Obama administration could threaten global perceptions of political stability in the United States, placing significant downside pressure on the value of the US currency. The popular press generally has been highly sympathetic to the political needs of the administration, so increasingly negative press in these areas suggests that recognition of the “scandals” has gained some momentum.
In the event that a Watergate-type circumstance evolves from the current hubbub of touted misdeeds, it could become a seriously negative factor for the US dollar. After Nixon floated the US dollar in March 1973, the Watergate scandal began to break open with Congressional hearings. Despite other turmoil of the time, including an Arab-Israeli war and an Arab oil embargo, the day-to-day developments in the Watergate scandal dominated day-to-day trading in the US currency.
When the US dollar again comes under heavy selling pressure, oil prices will spike anew, separate from the effects of political crises in the Middle East. The inflation, so driven, should reflect dollar weakness from Federal Reserve policies that Mr. Bernanke will find he cannot escape, and from dollar weakness reflecting the inability of the US government to address its long-term sovereign-solvency issues. Ongoing economic weakness will exacerbate the dollar-negative circumstances, intensifying the problems with Fed easing and US fiscal deterioration. The inflation will be driven by US dollar weakness, not by strong domestic demand for goods and services.
As fundamental dollar selling kicks in, full-fledged dollar dumping along with heavy sales of dollar-denominated paper assets are likely to unfold. Preceding, or coincident with that, the global reserve status of the US dollar should be challenged. As the rest of the world moves out of the dollar, domestic confidence in the US currency will falter as well, eventually fueling severe domestic inflation, and setting the early base of a likely hyperinflation. Such an environment is one for which physical gold and silver would serve as primary hedges against the ultimate debasement of, and loss of purchasing power in the US dollar.
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Economist Walter J. “John” Williams publishes www.shadowstats.com. ShadowStats specializes in assessing the reliability of government economic data and in looking at alternative economic measures from the standpoint of common experience, net of heavily politicized methodological changes of recent decades (inflation, unemployment and GDP). Other analyses include estimates of ongoing money supply M3, which the Fed ceased publication in 2006, or less-commonly followed series such as the federal government’s GAAP-based financial statements. Articles related to the accompanying comments on the understatement of official inflation and federal-deficit reality, and an article outlining risks of a US hyperinflation, are available to the public in the upper right-hand column of the ShadowStats home page.