Monday, April 11, 2011

Hussman Weekly Market Comment: Charles Plosser and the 50% Contraction in the Fed's Balance Sheet

Especially good/important commentary from John Hussman this week.

In my view, this is a major problem for the Fed, but is the inevitable result of pushing monetary policy to what I've called its "unstable limits." High levels of monetary base, per dollar of nominal GDP, require extremely low interest rates in order to avoid inflation. Conversely, raising interest rates anywhere above zero requires a massive contraction in the monetary base in order to avoid inflation. Ben Bernanke has left the Fed with no graceful way to exit the situation.

As a side note, it's probably worth noting that the Federal Reserve has already pushed its balance sheet to a point where it is leveraged 50-to-1 against its capital ($2.65 trillion / $52.6 billion in capital as reported the Fed's consolidated balance sheet ). This is a greater leverage ratio than Bear Stearns or Fannie Mae, with similar interest rate risk but less default risk. The Fed holds roughly $1.3 trillion in Treasury debt, $937 billion in mortgage securities by Fannie and Freddie, $132 billion of direct obligations of Fannie, Freddie and the FHLB, and nearly $80 billion in TIPS and T-bills. The maturity distribution of these assets works out to an average duration of about 6 years, which implies that the Fed would lose roughly 6% in value for every 100 basis points higher in long-term interest rates. Given that the Fed only holds 2% in capital against these assets, a 35-basis point increase in long-term yields would effectively wipe out the Fed's capital.

Still, the Fed also earns an interest spread between its assets and its liabilities, providing about 3% annually (as a percentage of assets) in excess interest to eat through, which would allow a further 50 basis point rise in interest rates over a 12-month period without wiping out that additional cushion. Even so, it is clear that if the Federal Reserve was an ordinary bank, regulators would quickly shut it down. To avoid the potentially untidy embarrassment of being insolvent on paper, the Fed quietly made an accounting change several weeks ago that will allow any losses to be reported as a new line item - a "negative liability" to the Treasury - rather than being deducted from its capital. Now, technically, a negative liability to the Treasury would mean that the Treasury owes the Fed money, which would be, well, a fraudulent claim, and certainly not a budget item approved by Congress, but we've established in recent quarters that nobody cares about misleading balance sheets, Constitutional prerogative, or the rule of law as long as speculators can get a rally going, so I'll leave it at that.


There are a few possible outcomes as we move forward. One is that the economy weakens, and the Fed decides to leave interest rates unchanged, or even to initiate an additional round of quantitative easing. In this event, it's quite possible that we still would not observe much inflation, provided that interest rates are held down far enough. Unfortunately, the larger the monetary base, the lower the interest rate required for a non-inflationary outcome. T-bills are already at less than 4 basis points. In the event of even another $200 billion in quantitative easing, the liquidity preference curve suggests that Treasury bill yields would have to be held at literally a single basis point in order to avoid inflationary pressures.

A second possibility is that we observe any sort of external pressure on short-term interest rates, independent of Fed policy. In that event, the Fed would have to rapidly contract its balance sheet in order to avoid an inflationary outcome. As noted above, even a quarter-percent increase in short-term interest rates would require a full-scale reversal of QE2. Alternatively, the Fed could leave the monetary base alone, and allow prices to restore the balance between base money and nominal GDP. In order to accommodate short-term interest rates of just 0.25% in steady-state, leaving the monetary base unchanged at present levels, a 40% increase in the CPI would be required. I doubt that we'll observe this outcome, but it provides some sense of what I mean when I talk about the Fed pushing monetary policy to its "unstable limits."

In case the foregoing comment seems preposterous, it's helpful to remember that the U.S. economy has never held even 10 cents of monetary base per dollar of nominal GDP except when short-term interest rates have been below 2%. We are presently approaching 17 cents. So you can think of the situation this way. Short-term interest rates of 2% are consistent with money demand of about 10 cents of base money per dollar of GDP. To get there, with the monetary base unchanged, you would have to increase nominal GDP (mostly through price increases) by 70%. Again, because the relationship is non-linear, this impact would be front-loaded. Significant inflation pressure would emerge in response to an increase of even 0.25% - 0.50% in short-term interest rates. Historically, it has taken about 6-8 months for such pressures to translate into observed inflation.

A third possibility is that the Fed intentionally reduces the monetary base, gradually moving interest rates higher as Plosser suggests. This is undoubtedly the best course, in my view, but it's important to recognize that there are already substantial risks baked in the cake as a result of the Fed's recklessness up to this point. The first 25 basis points will require an enormous contraction of the Fed's balance sheet. Risky assets have already been pushed to price levels that now provide very weak prospective returns. Our 10-year annual total return projection for the S&P 500 remains in the 3.4% area. Expected returns for shorter horizons are near zero or negative, but are associated with greater potential variability. Commodity prices have been predictably driven higher by the hoarding that results from negative short-term interest rates (if you expect inflation, but interest rates don't compensate, you have an incentive to buy storable goods now, and this process stops when commodity prices are so high that they are actually expected to depreciate relative to a broad basket of goods and services, to the same extent that money is expected to depreciate).

In short, the outcome of the present situation need not be rapid inflation, and need not be steep market losses. Rather, the predictable outcome is instability. If you put a brick on a flagpole, and keep raising the flagpole and adding more bricks, you don't have the luxury of predicting when the bricks will fall, or in what direction. What you do know, however, is that the situation is not stable. People may briefly be rewarded for standing directly below, cheering, while branding anyone who keeps their distance as fools or worse. But if you look closely, those cheerleaders are typically hiding enormous welts, scars and gashes from being repeatedly smacked over the head - if you look even closer, you'll find that they have typically thrived no better for it over the long-term. While it's possible to continue without unpleasant events, the Fed has already placed the course of the economy, inflation, and the financial markets beyond a comfortable scope of control should surprises emerge.