Monday, October 22, 2018

The Coming Inflation Threat

Falling asset inflation plus rising cost inflation equals stagflation.
Inflation is a funny thing: we feel it virtually every day, but we’re told it doesn’t exist—the official inflation rate is around 2.5% over the past few years, a little higher when energy prices are going up and a little lower when energy prices are going down.
Historically, 2.5% is about as low as inflation gets in a mass-consumption economy like the U.S. that depends on the constant expansion of credit.
But even 2.5% annually can add up if wages are stagnant. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), what cost $1 in January 2009 now costs $1.19. https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm
That 19% decline in the purchasing power of dollars is tolerable as long as wages go up by 20% over the same period, but for many American households, wages haven’t kept pace with official inflation. 
While the nominal hourly wages keep rising, adjusted for inflation, wages have stagnated for decades.  Here’s a chart based on BLS data that shows median weekly earnings adjusted for official inflation rose $6 a week after five years of decline:
But stagnant wages are only part of the inflation picture: official inflation under-represents real-world inflation on several counts.
First, the weightings of the components in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) are suspect.  Many commentators have explored this issue, but the main point is the severe underweighting of expenses such as healthcare, which is only 8.67% of the CPI but over 18% of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Second, the “big ticket” components—rent/housing, healthcare and higher education—are under-reported for those who have to pay the unsubsidized cost.  The CPI reflects minor cost decreases in tradable commodity goods such as TVs and clothing that are small parts of the family budget, while minimizing enormous expenses such as college tuition and healthcare that can cost $20,000 annually or more.
Third, by lumping the entire nation into one basket, the CPI ignores the reality that the inflation rate experienced by the protected class whose big-ticket expenses are subsidized by the government or employers is far lower than the rate experienced by the unprotected class that pays full freight. While the protected class complains about healthcare visit co-pays rising from $20 to $40, the unprotected class is getting hit with monthly increases of hundreds of dollars or co-pays in the thousands of dollars.
Fourth, there are significant regional differences which the CPI doesn’t reflect: inflation in coastal areas is running white-hot compared to lower-cost regions.
The Chapwood Index attempts to measure apples-to-apples real-world expenses, and as you can see, the Index estimates real inflation is above 10% for many American households.
It’s hard to believe 2.5% inflation includes the soaring costs of goods such as insulin:
Or student loan payments:
Then there’s the mystery of how the Federal Reserve can create trillions of dollars of new currency and governments and banks can issue trillions of dollars in newly borrowed money—private, corporate and sovereign—can flood into the economy without generating higher official inflation.
Here’s a chart of all credit outstanding in the U.S.: $70 trillion, up $40 trillion since 2000 and up $15 trillion since 2009:
The answer of course is most of that new money has flowed into assets, pushing the valuations of assets such as stocks, high-yield (junk) bonds and real estate to the moon.
This vast inflation of asset prices has pushed household net worth to the moon, too, but...
..the problem is, the wealth isn’t distributed very evenly. The gains have flowed mostly to the top .1% and to a lesser degree to the top 5%:
Unsurprisingly, this asset inflation has greatly enriched those who were already rich, i.e. the owners of the assets which have soared in value.
The fly in the ointment is the real economy hasn’t expanded at the same rate as debt; the ratio of debt to GDP now far exceeds the extremes of the Roaring 20s that set up the collapse of both debt and the asset prices that depended on new debt to fuel demand for overpriced assets.
The enormous expansion of debt and the resulting asset inflation are global phenomena:
Three secular trends have driven asset inflation and moderate deflation of commoditized goods and services:
  1. Globalization, a.k.a. global capital moving around the globe, reaping the gains of labor, credit, environmental and tax arbitrage: move from high-cost, high-tax, environmentally regulated locales to low-tax, low-labor costs and environmentally lax locales and skim all the profits.
  2. Declining interest rates.  Increasing production overseas and stock buybacks have been encouraged by central banks’ maintaining super-low interest rates and easy lending liquidity. Both have pushed corporate profits much higher.
  3. Financialization, i.e. low interest rates, ample liquidity, expanding leverage, the commoditization of previously low-risk financial instruments such as home mortgages, expansion of credit-default swaps and other derivatives and the generalized belief that risk can be eliminated by counterparty contracts.
All three of these secular trends are reversing: globalization is under assault on multiple fronts, as people are starting to question globalization’s role in increasing inequality, environment damage and the hollowing out of domestic economies and the middle class.
A decade of financial repression to keep interest rates near zero is slowly being “normalized” by central banks, enabling rates to rise.  As the overhang of bad debt and the rising risk of defaults start being priced into the bond and debt markets, the pressure on rates will only increase as higher risks demand higher compensation via higher yields.
Furthermore, all the trillions in existing debt will be rolled over at much higher rates going forward, squeezing the revenues of all borrowers, governments, corporations and households alike.
Financialization is following an S-Curve of diminishing returns: all the speculative games that have boosted assets to the moon are running out of steam or faltering.
This is visible in the divergence of GDP (the real-world economy) and household net worth (speculative debt-fueled asset bubbles) mentioned above:
So what happens to inflation as the trends that kept real-world inflation officially low and boosted asset inflation to unprecedented heights all reverse?
The obvious conclusion is asset valuations re-correlate to the trend line of the real-world economy, which is another way saying they drop a lot in a global repricing of risk and the impact of secularly rising interest rates.
That will put the kibosh on the much-vaunted wealth effect that supposedly boosted the animal spirits of borrowing and spending (and speculating) that has fueled the “recovery” of the past decade.
As the global economy spirals into recession, central banks will panic (as usual) and attempt to spark flagging consumption by lowering interest rates and governments will increase deficit spending (i.e. government borrowing) to boost household incomes and corporate revenues.
But unlike last time, these policies may not reflate asset bubbles that have popped, or suppress real-world inflation. Rather, they may fail to boost asset inflation and succeed in boosting real-world inflation while wages continue stagnating and household net worth craters.
Simply put, the world has changed, and the unintended consequences of the past decade’s policies cannot be stuffed back in the bottle. The easy years of watching index funds and other assets rise like clockwork because central banks willed it are over.
In Part 2: Get Ready For "QE For The People" we detail the likeliest next steps in this story in which, under the guise of "progressive fairness", the next phase of money printing will transmit free money directly into the populace's pockets.
What's not to like about that? Well, for starters, it won't create any true prosperity, it will send cost inflation skyrocketing, and it will further subjugate the populace to the cartels running our economy and political system. But the masses will cheer for it anyways. So get ready.
Click here to read Part 2 of this report (free executive summary, enrollment required for full access
This essay was first published on peakprosperity.com.


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Sunday, October 21, 2018

Mutiny, Class, Authority and Respect

Humiliation and fear of a catastrophic decline in status foment mutiny and rebellion.
I recently finished The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, a painstakingly researched history of the mutiny, but with a focus on how the story was shaped by influential families after the fact to save the life of one mutineer, Peter Haywood, and salvage the reputation of the leader, Fletcher Christian, via a carefully orchestrated character assassination of Captain Bligh.
The author, Caroline Alexander, summarized the ambiguous incitement of mutiny by Christian thusly: "What caused the mutiny on the Bounty? The seductions of Tahiti, Bligh’s harsh tongue – perhaps. But more compellingly, a night of drinking and a proud man’s pride, a low moment on one grey dawn, a momentary and fatal slip in a gentleman’s code of discipline – and then the rush of consequences to be lived out for a lifetime." (p. 407).
The full tale is a fascinating reflection of the dynamics of class, authority and respect, and thus to some degree humiliation and fear of loss of status. Though the mutiny illustrates the particulars of British society and naval culture in the 18th century (the mutiny occurred in 1789), it also offers lessons to us in the 21st century.
Until recent scholarship suggested otherwise, William Bligh has been remembered as a cruel tyrant whose excesses triggered a righteous mutiny. The truth is Bligh went to great pains to minimize punishment on board his ship, and was hoping to avoid any severe punishments over the 3 year year voyage. He also went the extra mile in keeping the ship clean and well-provisioned, foregoing the profit most captains made by procuring the lowest quality provisions for the crew and pocketing the difference.
Bligh had served as a junior officer (sailing master) on Captain Cook's fatal voyage to Hawaii, and made every effort to apply what he'd learned on his own long voyage from England to Tahiti and back. He was if anything a perfectionist about navigation, shipboard preparation and the care of his crew.
His one flaw was an explosive temper, of the sort that arose quickly and receded just as quickly, leaving no ill-will on his part. (Captain Cook was also given to explosive fits of rage, a trait that appeared to strengthen on his 3rd and last voyage to the point that his junior officers felt he was "no longer himself." This may explain his rash action in Hawaii that cost him his life.)
Bligh was neither high-born nor low-born, but solidly in the middle; his father was a customs official, and he entered the Navy as a "young gentleman," soon becoming a midshipman, the entry rank of all future officers (as opposed to enlisted men, i.e. commoners, who could only rise to the rank of mate).
There were and are many gradients of class in Britain that may be unfamiliar to Americans, who tend to view social class as a permeable reflection of wealth (those who get rich also acquire "class"), under-estimating the lifelong impact of upper-class values and inherited wealth.
Bligh's family was respectable but not wealthy, and he had to be careful with his meager income to support his family. He was well-educated and took copious notes on the cultures and ecosystems he visited.
The British Navy had a strict hierarchy, of course; the captain's orders could not be questioned. The book does an excellent job revealing the difficulty of maintaining this authority and order on a small, crowded ship thousands of miles from home. There were limits on Bligh's powers, even as captain; the ship's doctor was a hopeless alcoholic who died mid-voyage, and Bligh, who avoided harsh punishment of his crew, was forced by a junior officer to order a flogging he himself would have avoided.
As befits a professional Navy officer, Bligh took a keen interest in mentoring two promising junior officers: Fletcher Christian and Peter Heywood, both from old, semi-aristocratic families that had fallen on hard financial times due to the profligacy and incompetence of their fathers/grandfathers.
Bligh's interest was both professional--a worthy desire to aid the careers of promising young gentlemen--and political: as a powerful branch of government, the Navy attracted the "interest" of the wealthy and well-connected. Indeed, the entire voyage of the Bounty was the result of lobbying by West Indies planters and the wealthy naturalist Joseph Banks.
The wealthy/well-connected were critically important to Bligh's career, and the "interest" expressed by powerful patrons in Fletcher Christian and Peter Heywood, coming as they did from prominent if impecunious families, explicitly motivated Bligh to mentor them and treat them more favorably than the other junior officers who were not high-born.
Serving in the Navy was a respectable profession for impoverished high-born males, as was the clergy, and so it was not unusual that the families of Christian and Heywood would use their influence to lobby for their sons being posted on what promised to be a career-boosting cruise.
Bligh befriended Christian, as they'd served together on merchant-marine vessels, and this personal bond complicates the mutiny. The other complication was the lack of Royal Marines on board the Bounty to enforce the captain's will. Every capital ship in the Navy had a small contingent of Marines who acted as the ultimate source of authority on board. The Bounty's small size and the minimal budget allotted by the Admiralty meant there were no Marines on board to protect the captain from insubordination. There is no doubt the mutiny would have failed had there been a half-dozen Marines on board.
If we boil all this down, we find a by-the-book, tactless perfectionist with an acid temper --Bligh--who made great efforts to be an ideal captain but who had a tin ear for his own impaired empathy and political skills.
It's clear from first-hand accounts that Bligh would lash out at Christian despite their friendship, and then expect Christian to forget the abuse in the same way Bligh forgot his own temper tantrums.
Unfortunately for Bligh, Christian, being a gentleman of a higher class than Bligh, took his abuse personally, and felt it disrespectful of his person and class. This is of course implied rather than stated, but if read between the lines of the testimony of observes, this becomes clear.
One of the most interesting and largely unexplored dynamics of the mutiny revolves around the extremely significant class differences between the sailors (commoners), the middle-class junior officers, middle-class Bligh and the two high-born junior officers, Christian and Heywood.
In the initial confused moments of the mutiny, Bligh implored Christian to give up the mutiny and promised that he would forget the whole affair, on his sacred word as a gentleman. Christian replied that it had gone too far to turn back, but one can't help wonder if he was more conflicted than he let on.
During the court-martial, the Admirals who acted as judges expressed astonishment that no loyal members of the crew resisted what was obviously a ragtag, impromptu mutiny of a handful of the small crew. It is clear that the slightest resistance, however poorly organized, might well have countered the mutiny, as many of the officers and men were hesitant and undecided about which side to join.
The key that seems to be missing in the conventional narrative is that the commoner sailors were fully cognizant of the high social status of Heywood and Christian, and the inferior social status of Bligh. In terms of social authority, it was natural for them to look up to Christian and follow his leadership over the leadership of the lower-status Bligh--even though by the strict authority of the Navy, they should have followed Bligh without any hesitation.
No doubt some sailors longed to return to their girlfriends (and in some cases, wives) on Tahiti, and this desire overrode the always-tenuous authority of the captain of a small ship thousands of miles from home. But if we seek an answer to why there was no active resistance to the mutiny, the answer lies not in the supposed cruelty of Bligh or the appeal of returning to Tahiti, but to the conflicting authority of class, which put Christian as the natural leader, and the naval hierarchy, which put Bligh as the leader.
There is little doubt that had Bligh been able to hold his tongue, or been sensitive to the damage he was wreaking on Christian's sense of self-respect, and just as importantly, on what he viewed as his birthright in terms of deferential, respectful treatment by another officer of a lower class, even an officer who was his ranking superior, then the mutinous spark would never have ignited.
Humiliation and fear of a catastrophic decline in status foment mutiny and rebellion.
This essay was drawn from Musings Report 38. The Musings Reports are emailed weekly to subscribers and major contributors.


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Friday, October 19, 2018

China's Next Revolution Is on the Horizon

The Mandate of Heaven will be withdrawn, and the autocratic regime overthrown.
The absolute confidence that China's political structure is permanent and forever is reminiscent of the absolute confidence in the 1980s that the USSR's political structure was permanent and forever. But the social contract that undergirds the Communist Party's absolute power in China is fast-eroding, and those who understand Chinese history sense the winds of change have shifted and the next revolution in China is already darkening the horizon.
The story starts in the Song Dynasty, which reached its zenith in the mid-1200s.
I've been pondering the excellent 1964 history of the Southern Song Dynasty's capital of Hangzhou, Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276 by Jacques Gernet, in light of the Chinese government's unprecedented "Social Credit Score" system, which I wrote about in May 2018: Kafka's Nightmare Emerges: China's "Social Credit Score".
The scope of this surveillance is so broad and pervasive that it borders on science fiction: Inside China’s Dystopian Dreams (NY Times)
In the Song Dynasty, arguably China's high water mark in many ways (before the Mongol conquest changed China's trajectory), social control required very little force. The power of social control rested in the cultural hierarchy of Confucian values: one obeyed the family's patriarch, one's local rulers and ultimately, the Emperor.
Author Edward Luttwak made the distinction between force and power in his fascinating book The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century CE to the Third: power is persuading people to cooperate, force is making them obey.
Power is people choosing of their own accord to comply, for reasons they find sound and that serves their self-interest; there is little need for the application of force.
Power is highly leveraged; a relatively small police/military and judiciary is all that's needed. Force, in contrast, doesn't scale: it's enormously costly in capital and labor to monitor an entire populace and impose control and obedience.
While the Song Dynasty had a police force, a judiciary and an army, the populace generally managed itself via an internalized secular religion that placed the father, civil authorities and the Imperial state at the top of a natural order that enabled the harmony of Heaven and Earth. To disobey would be to threaten the harmony that served everyone.
In the early days of the Communist revolution (1949 to 1965), the majority of China's populace embraced the values and authority of the Communist regime, despite the hardships and setbacks of the Great Leap Forward (millions dying needlessly of starvation) and other centralized incompetencies.
But the Cultural Revolution that was launched with Mao's blessing in 1966 was only embraced by the youthful Red Guards. The rest of the society had to be monitored and forced to comply with the mercurial injustices and arbitrary nature of the Cultural Revolution, which imprisoned millions of China's most accomplished citizens in various forms of forced deprivation: house arrest (the most mild); forced relocation to rural labor, re-education (i.e. torture) and imprisonment. Many were killed without even the semblance of a judicial process.
In broad brush, the Cultural Revolution broke the power of the Communist Party and the government. Thereafter, the Party and the state only had force at their disposal.
The rise of broadly distributed prosperity (Deng's "to get rich is glorious") replaced the failed power of Communist ideology with a new social contract: obey the party and the state and you'll become prosperous.
If this new contract was rock-solid, why would China's government need the vast surveillance system they're putting in place for fine-grained control of the populace? Clearly, the leadership (Xi and his cabal) are aware that the prosperity is not permanent, nor is it being distributed evenly enough to harmonize Heaven and Earth.
Sensing their lack of social power, they are turning to technology to create a vast system of coercion (force).
Force is not a substitute for power. For this reason, the "Social Credit Score" system smacks of desperation. Xi et al. see the storm clouds on the horizon and are moving quickly to install an autocratic system of Total Information Awareness and Control.
But China's history is clear: the culture and the people prefer a system in which power is maintained through social norms, not force. With Communist ideology a dead force, and prosperity about to wither, what's left? A system of autocratic obedience backed by Orwellian technology and gulags.
The Mandate of Heaven will be withdrawn, and the autocratic regime overthrown. Perhaps the replacement social contract and political structure will still be called "Communist," but it will be a very different social contract and political structure than the current version.
Of related interest:



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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Is the Greatest Bull Market Ever Finally Ending? (Hint: Follow the Money)

The key here is the gains generated by owning US-denominated assets as the USD appreciates.
Is the Greatest Bull Market Ever finally ending? One straightforward approach to is to follow the money, i.e. global capital flows: assets that attract positive global capital flows will continue rising if demand for the assets exceeds supply, and assets that are being liquidated as capital flees the asset class (i.e. negative capital flows) will decline in price.
Global capital flows are difficult to track for a number of reasons. A significant percentage of global mobile capital is held in secretive offshore tax havens and "shadow banking," and tracking global corporate capital flows is not easy. Capital held in precious metals may not be reported, and assets such as enterprises and collectible art may be grossly undervalued for tax purposes.
Toss in shadow holding companies, LLCs with obscure trails of ownership, etc. and a definitive account of global capital flows is ultimately a guesstimate.
Despite the limitations of tracking global wealth, Credit Suisse Research Institute's (CSRI) issued Global Wealth Report 2017 gives us some clues about where capital is flowing in and where it's leaving for safer, higher-yield climes.
The first step in measuring global capital flows is to note that conventional capital is denominated in currencies which fluctuate in relative value. Of the roughly $300 trillion in global assets (Credit Suisse pegs the total in 2017 at $280 trillion, but other estimates range well above $300 trillion), about $8 trillion or so is in precious metals, and a tiny sliver is in cryptocurrencies. (Bitcoin's total market capitalization is currently around $112 billion and Ethereum's market cap is around $21 billion--signal noise in the $300 trillion sloshing around the world seeking safety, low/zero taxes, capital gains and high yields.)
Foreign exchange matters. Say a money manager moves $1 billion out of U.S. Treasuries (denominated in the US dollar, USD) into bonds paying a hefty 15% in annual yield denominated in an emerging market currency.
If that currency loses 20% of its value vis a vis the USD annually, the capital loses 5% of its value / purchasing power despite the hefty yield.
The trick is to arbitrage yields and currencies so borrow in cheap currencies that are declining and buy higher-yielding assets denominated in currencies that are rising in value. For example, if a manager moved $1 billion out of a bond paying 4% in a currency that subsequently lost 30% of its value vis a vis the USD into a US high-yield bond paying 6%, the manager picked up 30% gains in FX and 2% in yield for a total gain of 32%.
For a variety of reasons, yields are rising in the US and the USD is gaining value relative to other currencies. Combine higher yields, relatively predictable safety and an appreciating currency, and the US has been attracting global capital.
These charts from Credit Suisse reflect this capital flow into the US and out of other nations. The phenomenal expansion of wealth in China is put into a different perspective here:with 4 times the population of the US and an economy roughly comparable in size, China's wealth has registered only 20% of the gains accrued by the US.
If global capital was buying empty flats in China, etc., and selling US-based assets, these numbers would be reversed. This suggests mobile capital is leaving China and other nations and moving into US-denominated assets.
Most of the gains in global wealth have accrued to the US and to the top 1%.The wealthier the entity / individual, the greater the rewards and opportunities for moving wealth into tax havens and safe havens such as Switzerland and the US, which is a massive tax haven in its own right.
Here's another snapshot of the global wealth pyramid: since the Pareto Distribution applies to wealth and income, we can guesstimate that roughly 40% of all global wealth is held by the top .2% or so. The top 8% (350 million people) own 85% of all global wealth.
Where is all this money coming from? Largely from debt which has expanded by over $100 trillion since 2001:
Corporations have poured earnings into stock buybacks at a torrid pace:
The net result is a gargantuan inflation in assets while real-economy wages and GDP have stagnated.
As long as US yields and the USD are ticking higher while the US economy continues expanding opportunities for capital to earn relatively safe yields and capital gains, capital will continue to flow into US assets, despite the nose-bleed valuations of assets such as stocks and left / right coast housing.
The key here is the gains generated by owning US-denominated assets as the USD appreciates. A 3% yield in US Treasuries isn't all that great, but add in 10% annual FX gains and you're netting a very healthy 13% annual return in relatively safe and liquid assets.
The greater the sums at risk, the more compelling these attributes become. If you need to protect $25 billion, and you want a liquid market you can exit without crashing the bid and exposure to FX capital gains, then USD-denominated bonds and stocks are an attractive option at this juncture.
Empty flats in China with zero yield and the potential downside of yuan devaluation--not so much.
In summary: follow the money. Smart money is mobile, opaque and constantly on the move seeking safety, tax shelters, yield and capital gains. If mobile capital continues flowing into US assets such that demand exceeds supply, the Bull Market will continue sloshing higher. Once supply exceeds demand and capital starts liquidating US assets, the Bull Market will end, perhaps with a whimper (stagnation) or with a bang (crash). Capital flows will dictate the outcome.


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