John Mauldin, April 3, 2015
We live in a time of unprecedented financial repression. As I have continued writing about this, I have become increasingly angry about the fact that central banks almost everywhere have decided to address the economic woes of the world by driving down the returns on the savings of those who can least afford it – retirees and pensioners.
This week’s Outside the Box, from my good friend Chris Whalen of Kroll Bond Rating Agency, goes farther and outlines how a low-interest-rate and massive QE environment is also destructive of other parts of the economy. Counterintuitively, the policies pursued by central banks are actually driving the deflationary environment rather than fighting it.
This is a short but very powerful Outside the Box. And to further Chris’s point I want to share with you a graph that he sent me, from a later essay he wrote. It shows that the cost of funds for US banks has dropped over $100 billion since the financial crisis, but their net interest income is almost exactly the same. What changed? Banks are now paying you and me and businesses $100 billion less. The Fed’s interest-rate policy has meant a great deal less income for US savers.
It is of the highest irony that Keynesians wanted to launch a QE policy that would increase the value of financial assets (like stocks), which they claimed would produce a wealth effect. I made fun of this policy some five years ago by calling it “trickle-down monetary policy.” Subsequent research has verified that there is no wealth effect from QE. Well, it did make our stocks go up, on the backs of savers. We’ve transferred interest income from savers into the stock market. We’ve made retirement far riskier for our older pensioners than it should be.
As Chris writes:
Indeed, in the present interest rate environment, to paraphrase John Dizard of the Financial Times, it has become mathematically impossible for fiduciaries [brokers, investment advisors and managers of pension funds and annuities] to meet the beneficiaries’ future investment return target needs through the prudent buying of securities.
Everywhere I go I talk with investment advisors and brokers who are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to create retirement portfolios that provide sufficient income without significantly moving out the risk curve at precisely the wrong time in their client’s lives. It is a conundrum that has been made for more difficult by Federal Reserve policy.
Economics Professor Larry Kotlikoff (Boston University) and our mutual friend syndicated financial columnist Scott Burns came by to visit me last week. I have talked with Larry on and off over the last few years, and Scott and I go back literally decades. A few years ago, Scott and Larry wrote a very good book called The Clash of Generations. Now, Larry has branched off on his own and written a really powerful manual on Social Security called Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.
I will admit I have not paid much attention to Social Security. I just assumed I should start mine when I’m 70, as so many columns I have read suggested. Larry and I recently spent an hour discussing the Social Security system (or perhaps it would be better to call it the Social Security Maze). Three thousand pages of law and tens of thousands of regulations and so many nuances and “gotchas” that it is really difficult to understand what might be best in your particular circumstances. Larry asked me questions for about two minutes and then proceeded to make me $40,000 over the next five years. It turns out I qualify for an obscure (at least to me) regulation that allows me to get some Social Security income for four years prior to turning 70 without affecting my post-70 benefits. There are scores of such obscure rules.
Larry says it is more often the case than not that he can sit down with somebody and make them more money than they thought they were going to get. As one reviewer says:
This book is necessary for three reasons: Social Security is not intuitive, and sometimes makes no sense at all. Two, Americans act against their best interests, leaving all kinds of money on the table. Three, there is usually a “however” with Social Security rules. Worse, Social Security is now up to three million requests every week, but Congress keeps cutting back budget, staff, hours and whole offices. Combine that with the complexity factor, and the authors conclude you cannot trust what Social Security advises. Great.
If you or your parents are on Social Security or you are approaching “that age,” you really should get this book. Did you know that if you are divorced you can get a check for half of your former spouse’s Social Security income without affecting their income at all? But you can’t know whether this is a good strategy unless you look at other options.
How many retirees or those nearing retirement know about such Social Security options as file and suspend (apply for benefits and then don’t take them)? Or start stop start (start benefits, stop them, then restart them)? Or– just as important – when and how to use these techniques? Get What’s Yours covers the most frequent benefit scenarios faced by married retired couples, by divorced retirees, by widows and widowers, among others. It explains what to do if you’re a retired parent of dependent children, disabled, or an eligible beneficiary who continues to work, and how to plan wisely before retirement. It addresses the tax consequences of your choices, as well as the financial implications for other investments.
The book is written in Larry’s usual easy-to-read style, and you can jump to the sections that might be most relevant to you. The book is $11 on Kindle and under $15 at Amazon. This might be some of the better financial advice that you get from reading my letter: go get a copy of Get What’s Yours.
I can’t guarantee it will make you $40,000 in five minutes, but it can show you how to navigate the system. Larry also has a website with some inexpensive software to help you maximize your own Social Security. Seeing as how Social Security is the largest source of income for most US retirees, this is something everyone should pay attention to.
It is time to hit the send button. Quickly, we finalized the agenda for the 2015 Strategic Investment Conference. You can see it by clicking on the link. Then go ahead and register before the price goes up. This really is the best economic conference that I know of anywhere this year.
Your wondering how long they’ll pay me Social Security analyst,
John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
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Central Banks, Credit Expansion, and the Importance of Being Impatient
This research note is based on the presentation given by Christopher Whalen, Kroll Bond Rating Agency (KBRA) Senior Managing Director and Head of Research, at the Banque de France on Monday, March 23, 2015, for an event organized by the Global Interdependence Center (GIC) entitled “New Policies for the Post Crisis Era.” KBRA is pleased to be a sponsor of the GIC.
Investors are keenly focused on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to see whether the U.S. central bank is prepared to raise interest rates later this year – or next. The attention of the markets has been focused on a single word, “patience,” which has been a key indicator of whether the Fed is going to shift policy after nearly 15 years of maintaining extraordinarily low interest rates. This week, the Fed dropped the word “patience” from its written policy guidance, but KBRA does not believe that the rhetorical change will be meaningful to fixed income investors. We do not expect that the Fed will attempt to raise interest rates for the balance of 2015.
This long anticipated shift in policy guidance by the Fed comes even as interest rates in the EU are negative and the European Central Bank has begun to buy securities in open market operations mimicking those conducted by the FOMC over the past several years. Investors and markets need to appreciate that, regardless of what the FOMC decides this month or next, the global economy continues to suffer from the effects of the financial excesses of the 2000s.
The decision by the ECB to finally begin U.S. style “quantitative easing” (QE) almost eight years after the start of the subprime financial crisis in 2007 speaks directly to the failure of policy to address both the causes and the terrible effects of the financial crisis. Consider several points:
QE by the ECB must be seen in the context of a decade long period of abnormally low interest rates. U.S. interest rate policy has been essentially unchanged since 2001, when interest rates were cut following the 9/11 attack. The addition of QE 1-3 was an effort at further monetary stimulus beyond zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) meant to boost asset prices and thereby change investor tolerance for risk.
QE makes sense only from a Keynesian/socialist perspective, however, and ignores the long-term cost of low interest rate policies to individual investors and financial institutions. Indeed, in the present interest rate environment, to paraphrase John Dizard of the Financial Times, it has become mathematically impossible for fiduciaries to meet the beneficiaries’ future investment return target needs through the prudent buying of securities. (See John Dizard, “Embrace the contradictions of QE and sell all the good stuff,” Financial Times, March 14, 2015.)
The downside of QE in the U.S. and EU is that it does not address the core problems of hidden off- balance sheet debt that caused the massive “run on liquidity” in 2008. That is, banks and markets in the U.S. globally face tens of trillions of dollars in “off-balance sheet” debt that has not been resolved. The bad debt which is visible on the books of U.S. and EU banks is also a burden in the sense that bank managers know that it must eventually be resolved. Whether we talk of loans by German banks to Greece or home equity loans in the U.S. for homes that are underwater on the first mortgage, bad debt is a drag on economic growth.
Despite the fact that many of these debts are uncollectible, governments in the U.S. and EU refuse to restructure because doing so implies capital losses for banks and further expenses for cash- strapped governments. In effect, the Fed and ECB have decided to address the issue of debt by slowly confiscating value from investors via negative rates, this because the fiscal authorities in the respective industrial nations cannot or will not address the problem directly.
ZIRP and QE as practiced by the Fed and ECB are not boosting, but instead depressing, private sector economic activity. By using bank reserves to acquire government and agency securities, the FOMC has actually been retarding private economic growth, even while pushing up the prices of financial assets around the world.
ZIRP has reduced the cost of funds for the $15 trillion asset U.S. banking system from roughly half a trillion dollars annually to less than $50 billion in 2014. This decrease in the interest expense for banks comes directly out of the pockets of savers and financial institutions. While the Fed pays banks 25bp for their reserve deposits, the remaining spread earned on the Fed’s massive securities portfolio is transferred to the U.S. Treasury – a policy that does nothing to support credit creation or growth. The income taken from bond investors due to ZIRP and QE is far larger.
No matter how low interest rates go and how much debt central banks buy, the fact of financial repression where savers are penalized to advantage debtors has an overall deflationary impact on the global economy. Without a commensurate increase in national income, the elevated asset prices resulting from ZIRP and QE cannot be validated and sustained. Thus with the end of QE in the U.S. and the possibility of higher interest rates, global investors face the decline of valuations for both debt and equity securities.
In opposition to the intended goal of low interest rate and QE policies, we also have a regressive framework of regulations and higher bank capital requirements via Basel III and other policies that are actually limiting the leverage of the global financial system. The fact that banks cannot or will not lend to many parts of society because of harsh new financial regulations only exacerbates the impact of financial repression. Thus we take income from savers to advantage debtors, while limiting credit to society as a whole. Only large private corporations and government sponsored enterprises with access to equally large banks and global capital markets are able to function and grow in this environment.
So what is to be done? KBRA believes that the FOMC and policy makers in the U.S. and EU need to refocus their efforts on first addressing the issue of excessive debt and secondly rebalancing fiscal policies so as to boost private sector economic activity. Low or even negative interest rate policies which punish savers in order to pretend that bad debts are actually good are only making things worse and accelerate global deflation. Around the globe, nations from China to Brazil and Greece are all feeling the adverse effects of excessive debt and the related decline in commodity prices and overall economic activity. This decline, in turn, is being felt via lower prices for both commodities and traded goods – that is, deflation.
In the U.S., sectors such as housing and energy, the effects of weak consumer activity and oversupply are combining into a perfect storm of deflation. For example, The Atlanta Fed forecast for real GDP has been falling steadily as the underlying Blue Chip economic forecasts have also declined. The drop in capital expenditures related to oil and gas have resulted in a sharp decline in related economic activity and employment. Falling prices for oil and other key industrial commodities, weak private sector credit creation, falling transaction volumes in the U.S. housing sector, and other macroeconomic indicators all suggest that economic growth remains quite fragile.
To deal with this dangerous situation, the FOMC should move to gradually increase interest rates to restore cash flow to the financial system, following the famous dictum of Adam Smith that the “Great Wheel” of circulation is the means by which the flow of goods and services moves through the economy:
“The great wheel of circulation is altogether different from the goods which are circulated by means of it. The revenue of the society consists altogether in those goods, and not in the wheel which circulates them” (Smith 1811: 202).
Increased regulation and a decrease in the effective leverage in many sectors of banking and commerce have contributed to a slowing of credit creation and economic activity overall. And most importantly, the issue of unresolved debt, on and off balance sheet, remains a dead weight retarding economic growth. For this reason, KBRA believes that investors ought to become impatient with policy makers and encourage new approaches to boosting economic growth.